Monthly Archives: August 2013

Digging Up Some Dirt on Richie Hebner

RIchie Hebner's primary job when not digging up dirt.

RIchie Hebner’s primary job when not digging up dirt.

There was a time when the gap between a baseball player’s salary and the earnings of the average American worker was not as wide as it is today. Prior to free agency, it was not uncommon for baseball players to work in the off-season.

Richie Hebner had arguably the strangest off-season job in baseball history. He worked as a grave digger.

Hebner hit 203 career home runs over an 18-year career for five teams. He also won a World Series championship with the Pirates in 1971.

When the baseball season ended, Hebner was a grave digger for the family owned cemetery in his hometown of Norwood, Mass. He earned $35 for each grave dug. According to Hebner, he dug graves for 35 years with a simple pick and shovel. As you may have guessed, his nickname was “The Grave Digger.”

According to baseball-reference.com, Hebner earned $67,500 with the Phillies in 1976. If you convert that to today’s dollars, it’s $276,908. That’s well-below today’s major league baseball minimum salary of $490,000.

Imagine Andrew McCutcheon, Mike Trout or any other major leaguer digging graves or working in a warehouse. That wouldn’t happen today, but it was the norm into the 1970s, even for All-Stars and big name players.

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Don Zimmer: Taking Three for the Team

Don ZimmerDon Zimmer may be best remembered by being thrown to the ground by Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox.

But as a player, Zimmer suffered a pair of beanings that ended his season in both cases.

The first incident occurred in the minor leagues on July 7, 1953. While playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers Triple-A affiliate St. Paul Saints, Zimmer faced Columbus (Ohio) pitcher Jim Kirk. At the time, Zimmer was leading the American Association in home runs and RBI.

An errant pitch from Kirk hit Zimmer in the head which knocked him unconscious. The effects of the beaning were terrifying. Zimmer remained unconscious for two weeks, lost his speech for six weeks and dropped 44 pounds.

Doctors drilled four holes in Zimmer’s skull in order to reduce pressure on his brain. The holes were later filled with plugs made of tantalum, a metal used in light bulb filaments and nuclear reactors.

Zimmer eventually recovered and reached the Dodgers in 1954. However, he suffered another beaning that ended his 1956 season. On June 23, Zimmer batted against Cincinnati pitcher Hal Jeffcoat. His cheekbone was broken after Jeffcoat’s pitch beaned him in the face. The injury ended Zimmer’s season, but he rebounded with career highs of 17 home runs and 60 RBI in 1958, the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles. He continued to play in the majors until 1965.

Don Zimmer displaying his military head gear in 1999.

Don Zimmer displaying his military head gear in 1999.

Unfortunately, the ball once again found Zimmer when he was Yankees manager Joe Torre’s bench coach. During the Game 1 of the 1999 ALDS, Zimmer’s ear and left jaw were cut by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball into the Yankees dugout. He made light of the incident by sitting in the dugout the next day wearing a military helmet with the Yankees logo.

Zimmer may have had the bad luck of suffering head and facial injuries. But the man nicknamed “Popeye” always bounced back either as a player or coach.

Family Matters Part I

Baseball is known as a game that can be shared by families. Some sons choose to follow in their father’s footsteps while sports genes are passed from parent to children. Other events and achievements can involve family members.

Listed below are some family matters and connections with the national pastime. This is the first of several posts that look into how some families have baseball connections.

Baseball, field hockey and ice hockey have been part of the Matheny family.

Baseball, field hockey and ice hockey have been part of the Matheny family.

Mike Matheny – Even though he grew up only about 20 minutes from The Ohio State University campus, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was a co-captain for the University of Michigan baseball team. His wife, Kristin, played field hockey for the Wolverines. In addition, the Matheny’s son, Tate, plays baseball for Missouri State. Their daughter, Katie, will begin playing collegiate ice hockey this winter for, ironically, Ohio State.

Doug Henry – While pitching in the minors, he decided to quit baseball. However, Henry’s wife Monique purchased a non-refundable plane ticket to watch him pitch in Beloit, Wisc. She successful talked her husband into continuing baseball. He pitched 11 seasons for Milwaukee, New York Mets, San Francisco, Houston and Kansas City from 1991 to 2001. Henry was a career 34-42 with 82 saves.

Mark Knudson – He was only 1-6 combined with Houston and Milwaukee in 1986. Knudson’s only win and first major league victory came on July 10 in an 11-4 victory over Philadelphia. Could this have been a present for his parents? They were celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary that same day.

Dave Clark – His family probably spent a lot of time at live sporting events or watching them on TV throughout the entire year. Clark spent 13 seasons for seven teams from 1986 to 1998. Meanwhile, his brother, Louis, had a six-year career from 1987 to 1992 as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.

Alex Rodriguez: Hall of Shame

When he first came up to the majors in the mid-1990s, Alex Rodriguez was destined for stardom. Now, he is baseball’s public enemy No. 1

Even though they never won a World Series, the Seattle Mariners had some great teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I enjoyed watching Ken Griffey, Jr., even though he had some great games against my Yankees. While I didn’t hate A-Rod, I was never as impressed with his game than Griffey.

I laughed when Rodriguez signed that ridiculous $252 million contract with Texas prior to the 2001 season. Even though he put up great numbers, the Rangers had no pitching and his offensive talents went to waste.

Some people forgot that A-Rod was initially traded to the Red Sox after the 2003 season. However, the trade was vetoed by the Major League Baseball Players Union. Thanks to third baseman Aaron Boone’s off-season injury during a pickup basketball game, A-Rod was instead traded to the Yankees.

Unlike some Yankee fans, I wasn’t too excited about Rodriguez’s acquisition. I cheered for him, but not like I did for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and others.

My lack of respect for A-Rod began when he swatted the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. It was a bush league play that I couldn’t believe a Yankee, much less a major league player, would do.

The Yankees gave him a 10-year, $275 contract in 2007. Since they would still have A-Rod when he turned 42 in 2017, I thought it was a waste of money. I know the Yankees had the money to afford him, but his skills and production would steadily decline.

It’s hard for me to see Rodriguez in pinstripes now. If I was at Yankee Stadium for his first home game Friday, I wouldn’t have cheered. I don’t think I would have booed either, rather just sat in confusion.

While I will always be a Yankees fan, I’ve had a hard time cheering for A-Rod. He’s a liar, a cheat and delusional. I don’t think anyone on the planet believes A-Rod didn’t use performance enhancing drugs, even those carrying signs of support for his first plate appearance Friday night against Detroit.

I’ll never understand why someone as naturally gifted and talented like A-Rod used PED’s. It reminds me of a scene from the 1992 Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” which was about the inaugural Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Winter Olympics. When one of the bobsleders asks his coach why he cheated years earlier when he had already won two gold medals as a participant, the coach replied that although he won, he had to keep on winning.

I think this helps explain why A-Rod and countless others used PED’s. It’s unfortunate that all of his stats and records will be tainted. But he has no one else to blame but himself. Otherwise, he had a clear path to the Hall of Fame. That path has now been blocked permanently.

RIP Frank Castillo

I was shocked to learn of the death of former major league pitcher Frank Castillo this past Sunday. The 44-year old drowned while swimming in Bartlett Lake, Ariz.

Unless you’re a diehard baseball history nut like myself, you may not remember Castillo. In his 13-year major league career with the Cubs, Colorado, Detroit, Toronto, Boston and Florida, Castillo tallied a fairly ordinary 82-104 record. But I have two specific memories of the pitcher who I first saw on a 1991 Upper Deck baseball card.

Frank CastilloCastillo made his major league debut with the Cubs against Pittsburgh on June 27, 1991. For eight innings, Castillo out pitched former NL Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek. The Cubs rookie limited the Pirates to only three hits over eight innings and took a 3-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth inning at Three Rivers Stadium.

Attempting to earn a complete game shutout, Castillo allowed a pair of singles to open the bottom of the ninth. He left the game still in line to earn the victory, but watched in dismay as the Cubs bullpen let him down. Paul Assenmacher and Heathcliff Slocumb allowed four runs to cross the plate as the Pirates rallied for a 4-3 win.

For as well as Castillo pitched in his major league debut, the game was remembered more for the Pirates remarkable comeback than Castillo’s impressive performance. He finished the 1991 season with a 6-7 record.

If Castillo saw a no decision snatched from victory in his debut, he suffered another disappointing fate on Sept. 25, 1995. Facing arch-rival St. Louis at Wrigley Field, Castillo only allowed two walks through the first eight innings. In the top of the ninth, Castillo struck out pinch-hitters Terry Bradshaw and Mark Sweeney to put himself one out away from a no-hitter.

Only Bernard Gilkey stood between Castillo and history. Gilkey fell behind 0-2 but then took the next two pitches to even the count at 2-2. But then Gilkey tripled to center field to end the no-hit bid. Castillo rebounded to get Tripp Cromer to fly out to right field as the Cubs earned a 7-0 win.

Castillo may have had an ordinary career, but he suffered two near misses that may have made him more prominent.

Rest in Peace, Frank Castillo.