Hot Stove #14 – Shea Stadium Nights and a Jack Buck Story

The National League had eight teams until 1962 when the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s became the NL’s first expansion teams. The Mets played their first two seasons at the old Polo Grounds where the Giants had played until they left for San Francisco in 1958. In 1964, the Mets moved to the new Shea Stadium located in Queens next to the fairgrounds of the 1964-64 New York World’s Fair. The Mets left Shea after the 2008 season to play in the new Citi Field.

Three Nights at Shea Stadium: In Hot Stove #8, you heard about Bill James’ displeasure with the Gold Glove voting process. This was after the 1999 award for first base had gone to Rafael Palmeiro who played only 28 games at the position. James said that if such a voting system applied to politics, even someone like Donald Trump might be elected President. James wrote that 15 years ago. Stay tuned. The New York primary is next week.

Now for a real baseball story about Trump. NY Mets owner Fred Wilpon was caught up in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme that blew up in 2008. Wilpon had used Madoff investments within the Mets organization, including funds set aside for players’ deferred compensation. The costs and risks of litigation among various Madoff investors prompted Wilpon to seek capital in 2011 by offering a partial ownership in the Mets. Donald Trump rode toward the rescue. But Wilpon only wanted to sell 25%, and Trump wanted (surprise) a majority. There was also the problem that no baseball owner is supposed to be a part of any gambling enterprises (like Trump’s casinos). No business deal was reached, so Trump’s Mets memory will be his Kiss Cam encounter at a 2006 playoff game at Shea Stadium. Trump, “egged on by fans, eventually kissed his wife, Melania,” or as the New York Times said, Trump hit an obligatory single.

The Trumps at Shea – 2006 Playoffs

And this is where Rita and I have our connection to The Donald. Just a few months after the Trumps were on Kiss Cam, Rita and I were seated in the front row at Shea Stadium on a chilly April night. As is her wont, Rita was sporting a cool hat and this prompted the Kiss Cam crew to feature us on the big scoreboard screen. Unlike Trump, I had no hesitation in complying with the custom. Just sorry we did not get a photo of the act on the scoreboard screen (but we do have the one below; photo credit: Marc Kwestel of my NY client Extell). The hitter getting ready to bat (#15 alongside Rita’s hat) is former Royal Carlos Beltran [Trivia Bonus – Beltran is the cousin of Reymond Fuentes, our current Royals right fielder who has played his way into the starting lineup]


Lonnie and Rita at Shea – April 2007

The Kiss Cam moments described above were both night games at Shea. Now for some real trivia about Shea from over 50 years ago. What rookie for the Mets pitched his first major league start in what was also the first-ever night game at Shea Stadium (5/6/64)? Hint: he was from Kansas City. Second hint: He is one of the rookies on the baseball card shown below. No more hints – the answer is Bill Wakefield. “Wake” is a fellow Pem Day alumnus of my partner Irv Blond who has lured Wake into Hot Stove readership. Wake first worked in major league baseball while in high school as part of George Toma’s grounds crew for the KC A’s in the late 50’s. Wake’s pitching career progressed from Ban Johnson ball in KC to Stanford to the Cardinals farm system to the Mets. He led the 1964 Mets with 62 games pitched, mostly in relief. In that inaugural night game against Cincinnati, Wake got the start and hurled shutout ball for three innings. In the fourth inning, he walked Tommy Harper and Frank Robinson followed with a 2-run homer. In the fifth, after a lead-off walk, Pete Rose doubled, Harper singled, and manager Casey Stengel brought in a relief pitcher.

Shea Stadium – First Night Game – May 6, 1964

[Trivia Bonus – The first night game in baseball history was on May 24, 1935, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The losing pitcher in that game was Joe Bowman of the Phillies. Bowman was born in KCK and in the 50’s and 60’s worked for the Kansas City A’s as a scout. Wakefield and Bowman lived in the same Leawood neighborhood and became friends. Bowman took Wake to several A’s games where they sat in the owner’s box with General Manager Parke Carroll. When his old boss George Toma saw Wake sitting in the box, he came over to joke “Oh, so now you’re a big shot, huh?” Bowman tried to sign Wake for the A’s, but the Cardinals offered a much better deal.]

Funny how things turn out. Wake may have lost that first night game at Shea, but it led to him being called back in 2009 to throw out the first pitch at a night game in the Mets first season at Citi Field. The opposing team was again Cincinnati. Before agreeing to throw out the pitch, he joked that he wanted to be sure that Frank Robinson would not be up at the plate. Here is a video of #43 making that pitch (3 minutes).

Just two months ago, venerable NY Times sportswriter George Vecsey posted a nice story about Wake, including a photo with Casey Stengel and an explanation of why Wake switched from baseball to business (some upcoming kids named Seaver, Ryan, Koosman, etc.).

Jack Buck and an Ozzie Smith Baseball: In Hot Stove #9, I wrote about how Pat Titterington “lost” his baseball signed by Ozzie Smith. I now have a second story about an Ozzie baseball courtesy of my St. Louis partner Jim Fredericks. Jim sent me an article about Jack Buck, the long-time sportscaster for the Cardinals (not to be confused with his broadcaster son Joe who you have heard, disliked and liked the last two years as the Royals played in the World Series). I will briefly describe what is in Dan O’Neill’s Post-Dispatch article, but the full article is well worth reading.

In 1987, 9-year-old John O’Leary suffered major burns over almost his entire body. Jack Buck heard about it from a friend and visited the boy in the hospital. Buck was told by a nurse that there was no hope of survival. Buck spoke to the boy who instantly recognized the voice , as any St. Louis boy would from listening to Cardinals games. Buck told him he would survive and that they would celebrate with ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the ballpark. Buck continued to visit and had players drop by. O’Leary kept fighting, and seven months after the accident, Buck hosted O’Leary and his family in the broadcast booth on ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the stadium. Soon after that, a baseball signed by Ozzie Smith showed up in the mail with a note from Buck: “Kid, if you want a second baseball, all you have to do is write a ‘Thank You’ letter to the man who signed the first one.” Not an easy task – O’Leary had little muscle mass and the fingers of both of his hands had been amputated. But his parents helped their son scribble a note to Ozzie, and soon after that, a ball from another player arrived with a similar note about how to get a third. This went on for the 1987 season and O’Leary ended up with 60 baseballs and had learned to write the thank you letters all by himself.

Buck and O’Leary stayed in contact over the years, and in 1999, O’Leary graduated from St. Louis University. Jack Buck was there and presented a very special gift – the crystal baseball given to Buck when he was inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. His note to O’Leary with the gift: “It’s yours now. Don’t drop it.” O’Leary went on to success in family and business and is now a popular motivational speaker. He just released his book “On Fire.” The Post-Dispatch article concludes: “Jack Buck was 77 when he passed away in June 2002. John O’Leary is 38 now, making a difference, inspiring others. He has never dropped the ball.”

[Trivia Bonus – On October 14, 1985, switch hitter Ozzie Smith came to the plate to bat left-handed for his 3,010th time in the major leagues. He had never hit a home run from the left side. Maybe he was just waiting for the right moment. With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Ozzie hit a walk-off home run to defeat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS. The Cardinals went on to win the pennant in Game 6 and meet the Royals in the World Series. Almost as famous to many Cards’ fans is the Jack Buck call on the broadcast: “Go crazy, folks, go crazy,” and here it is.

Spring Training/Opening Night Recap: Rita and I went to four Royals games in four different spring training stadiums. We were joined by a series of friends: Bill and Robin Carr, Larry and Diana Brewer and Jack and Marsha Campbell. The neat thing about Phoenix compared to Florida is that all games are within a half hour to see any of the 15 teams. In Florida, the 15 teams are spread over the state and so it is not as fan (or player) friendly for travel time. We also got to the baseball card exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum and saw the $2.8 million Honus Wagner card plus 15 other of the top 20 sports trading cards.

The Cuba visit by President Obama and the Cuban League nostalgia prompted Rita to check on travel to Cuba. She did good, and we are booked for an August cruise out of Miami that stops at three ports in Cuba. We will be celebrating my 75th birthday in Havana.

“Team Shalton” took part in Relay the Way, providing 10 of the 2,500 fans who lined the streets for over nine miles from Union Station to Kauffman Stadium. We took up our position at Linwood and Chelsea and joined in the chain of tosses of the ball that was then used for the ceremonial first pitch for that night’s opening game. The weather was perfect and helped make it a festive day. Photos below: Team Shalton; lined up along the blue line for the toss; Miyo (16) tossing to Ian (10); and Emersyn (13) with The Ball.

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And the Royals topped it off with a win on opening night.

As for what to expect from the Royals this year, Carl DiMaria sent me Eric Hosmer’s recent post on The Players’ Tribune: “Still No Fluke.”

Vintage Hot Stove Readers: For some years, I have joined with fellow “young” lawyers Irv Blond and Jack Kilroy to take Bert Bates to lunch around the date of his birthday – that occurred this week as Bert turned 90. Bert likes to say that his birthdate of April 14 is not too good in history – Lincoln was shot, the Titanic went down and Bert was born.  Bert preempted us this year and took us to lunch. As always, we listened with pleasure as Bert the raconteur held court with great stories on Missouri lawyers, politics and history.

Not that Bert is the oldest Hot Stove reader. That would be 96-year-old Joe Reres in Virginia. Joe was born in 1919, the year of the Versailles Treaty and the start of Prohibition. A few years ago, Joe self-published his very entertaining autobiography. He is currently working on a novel. Rita and I will be visiting Barbara and Joe in June for their 27th anniversary.

Coming Soon in Hot Stove: All-time 2nd baseman (Hornsby, Morgan, Jackie??).

Coming Soon at the Republican Convention: Don’t tell Melania.