This is a fascinating post which will make you consider a new definition for “free agent.” It looks at a group of pro baseball players who locked horns with California state prison inmates called “the Midgets.”
Unfortunately, not many details could be released about who these prisoners were. But we do know prisoners No. 27784 and No. 26130 had some serious skills…
One opposing SEC coach called Andrew Benintendi the nation’s best college baseball player. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
In the early 1990s, Arkansas joined the SEC and the conference began awarding a baseball player of the year award to complement already established football and basketball MVP titles. Since then, the conference has soared to lofty heights, becoming arguably the NCAA’s most powerful organization. Much of that has to do with stretches of dominance by Alabama, LSU and Florida in football; Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida in basketball and the likes of LSU (five national titles 1993-2009) and South Carolina in baseball.
Many of these programs have produced multiple players of the years in various sports, yet no one school has yet been able to hit a POY trifecta by having a male player win the ultimate individual honor in each major team sport in one calendar year.
That may soon change.
In 2015, the Razorbacks athletic department has a chance make SEC history by sweeping these honors. The push started earlier this spring with sophomore Bobby Portis winning basketball SEC Player of the Year. Then, on Monday, sophomore Andrew Benintendi was announced as SEC baseball’s player of the year. Benintendi, of course, has helped spearhead the Hogs’ surge from a 1-5 start in SEC play to 18-7 finish including two wins so far in the SEC Tournament. The outfielder from Cincinnati, Ohio leads the nation in slugging percentage (.760) and ranks first in home runs. “He’s probably the best player in college baseball right now,” Tennessee coach Dave Serrano told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt.
I write more about this unique record in the context of SEC sports and the Razorbacks’ upcoming football season for Sporting Life Arkansas, but here I want to look beyond the SEC.
Specifically, how many times has a school pulled off this one-year POY trifecta among all major conferences?
Three times – sort of.
Here they are:
In basketball, Grant Hill secured ACC player of the year and first team All-American honors. But thanks to the Razorbacks, “national champion” was one honor he didn’t grab for the third straight year. Ryan Jackson took home ACC POY honors after setting a single-season school record with 22 home runs. In football, bruising back Robert Baldwin won it after helping lead Duke to its highest national ranking in 23 years.
Baldwin was the last Duke player to win ACC player of the year honors in football, but was the 10th such POY in school history (which is a surprisingly high number to my 33-year-old self. It reflects how un-dominant Florida State once was).
A film production company has optioned the rights to a screenplay about Mose J. YellowHorse, a star on the Arkansas Travelers’ first championship team and the first full-blooded Native American in the MLB. Enid, Okla.-based River Rock Entertainment will work with screenwriters Todd Fuller and his wife on developing the script after their first draft is finished, according to Fuller.
YellowHorse was not the first Native American in the big leagues, nor the best, but was certainly one of the most colorful. As a child growing up Pawnee, Okla., he performed as a child in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and, according to the story of his relative, Albin LeadingFox, learned how to throw a baseball by hunting rabbits and birds with rocks. His fastball became elite.
In 1920, he led the Arkansas Travelers, then in the Southern Association, to their first league championship. The team went 21-7 and included included Joe Guyon, who in football had starred in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s backfield with Jim Thorpe and Bing Miller, who went on to post a .316 lifetime batting average in sixteen major league seasons, according to Fuller’s “60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home: The (Baseball) Life of Mose YellowHorse.” The screenplay will be an adaption of this book.
YellowHorse then spent a couple of seasons in Pittsburgh, where his roaring fastball and gregarious personality made him a kind of cult figure for decades afterward. His final career tally was eight wins, four losses and 3.93 ERA in 126 innings, but his most memorable stat might have been a purposefully mis-hurled foul thrown at Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players of the early 20th century.
“Ty Cobb was crowding the plate anyway, he always did. And Mose wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Cobb was up there yelling all kinds of Indian prejudice, real mean slurs at Mose, just making him mad anyway. So he shakes off four pitches until the catcher gives him the fast ball sign, and Mose nods his head. I mean everyone in Detroit was whooping and all that silliness. So he winds up and fires the ball as hard as he could, and he knocked Cobb right in the head, right between the eyes. Mose knocked him cold. And a fight nearly broke out at home plate. All the Tigers’ players came rushing off the bench. The Pirate players started running toward Mose. But no punches were thrown. They just carried Ty Cobb off the field. And all three of the Pirates’ outfielders just stood together in center and laughed. Said they wished they could see it again.”
The incident is notable as a reversal of the common narrative often framing the relations of Indians and Anglo-Americans in this era. Here, it is a full-blooded Pawnee “who holds the weapon (a ninety-five mile-an-hour fastball) and inflicts harm,” Fuller writes. It’s also significant YellowHorse’s teammates eagerly enter a fracas to protect him, suggesting a loyalty and camaraderie that would prove so instrumental in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ success with Jackie Robinson a quarter century later.
When reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities here between YellowHorses’ actions and those of one of the “Jackie Robinsons of the NBA” – Arkansas native Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. In the early 1950s. Clifton had no quibbles about flattening those who would spew racist vile at him. Instead of throwing baseballs, though, the 6-7 center threw enormous fists at the faces of offenders.
The rest of YellowHorse’s life is one of sadness (alcohol addiction) but ultimate redemption found in his homeland. His story, like those of other minority baseball pioneers, is an important one. Godspeed to those who would make a movie about it.
I’ll leave with the following poem intro. The scene is Pittsburgh, 1921, in the moments before Moses’ major league debut:
What it Means to Wear #50 (for the Pittsburgh Pirates)
This moment begins in the dim light
Of a locker room, and Mose Yellow-
Horse struggling against his uniform
Buttons. It’s just y’r nerves the boys
Tell him, but he knows it’s butterflies
And the sparkle of Opening Day.
Soon enough he’ll take in the field,
The crowd of twenty-five thousand,
See mustard dripping from the chins
Of enchanted fathers.
This will be the first time they’ve seen
An Indian in Pittsburgh. And some
Whoop and holler; mumble & inquire.
Some will cheer. They watch the Reds
And Pirates battle deep into the tussle;
Nip and tuck from the start.
It’s April 21, and Mose YellowHorse
Doesn’t know that kids are peeking
Through cracks in the outfield wall…
Chances are the University of Arkansas baseball team’s most recent recruiting class is better than your most recent recruiting class.
Want proof? The class, which consists of 20 players (14 true freshmen and six junior college transfers) has now been nationally ranked at No. 2 by Perfect Game, No. 4 by Baseball America and No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball.
“We held our class together maybe the best since I’ve been here,” head coach Dave Van Horn told the UA Sports Information department. “We have a lot of talent coming in and plenty of returners who can help them gain some experience and they can push each other a little bit.”
Four players in the class were selected in the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and put their pro careers on hold to attend the University of Arkansas and become Razorbacks. Outfielder Luke Bonfield (Skillman, N.J.) was selected in the 21st round by the New York Mets, first baseman and right-handed pitcher Keaton McKinney (Ankeny, Iowa) was taken in the 28th round by the New York Mets, infielder and catcher Blake Wiggins (Little Rock, Ark.) was a 36th round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies and Nathan Rodriguez (Yorda Linda, Calif.) was taken in the 39th round by the Colorado Rockies.
In addition to the drafted newcomers, Arkansas welcomes outfielder Jack Benninghoff (Overland Park, Kan.), infielder Matt Campbell (Chesapeake, Va.), right-handed pitcher Cannon Chadwick (Paris, Texas), left-handed pitcher Ryan Fant (Texarkana, Texas), infielder Cullen Gassaway (Bedford, Texas), infielder Keith Grieshaber (St. Louis, Mo.), right-handed pitcher Mark Hammel (Cypress, Texas), infielder Max Hogan (Belton, Texas), infielder Rick Nomura (Waipahu, Hawaii), left-handed pitcher Kyle Pate (Fayetteville, Ark.), right-handed pitcher Jonah Patten (Indianapolis, Ind.), catcher Tucker Pennell (Georgetown, Texas), left-handed pitcher Sean Reardon (Smithville, Mo.), infielder Kevin Silky (Dublin, Calif.), outfielder Darien Simms (Spring, Texas) and catcher/first baseman Chad Spanberger (Granite City, Ill.).
The Razorbacks are one of just seven teams in the country to advance to each of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments as they look to make it 14 straight during the 2015 season. Arkansas has appeared in seven College World Series, five Super Regionals and 27 NCAA Tournaments in program history.
Arkansas opens the season at home on Feb. 13 against North Dakota, one of 35 games at Baum Stadium during the 2015 season. The Razorbacks will play 22 games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams, including eight opponents that appeared in NCAA Regional finals in 2014, three that played in NCAA Super Regionals and two that advanced to the College World Series.
Click on 53:44 mark of below podcast now. Ask questions later.
On Saturday, Brandon Allen completed 18 of 31 attempts for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In helping his unranked Hogs hang with No. 6 Auburn through the third quarter, the Arkansas quarterback played an even stronger game his numbers indicate. His receivers dropped a few easy ones, including a touchdown, and the interception came after his arm was hit as a result of a breakdown in protection, not bad decision making.
Overall, despite the Razorbacks’ defensive breakdowns in the second half of a 45-21 road loss, Hog fans can be excited about the progress Allen has shown bouncing back from an injury-riddled stretch in the middle of last season. His confidence was at an all-time high, his footwork and accuracy demonstrably improved.
Some of the credit here can go to Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy award winner who tutored Allen over the course of a few days earlier this summer in Florida. “I had a lot of problems with my balance in the pocket,” Allen told Razorback Nation. “Making a lot of off balanced throws and things that were hurting my accuracy. So we did a lot of balance work. A lot of bag work. A lot of foot drills.”
Weinke should also receive some credit for his name’s part in the one of the funniest sports skits you will hear in the latter part of this summer. The aural glory starts below, at the 53:19 mark of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast. The skit’s premise exhibits solid humor fundamentals by matching the normally humdrum world of sports award show introductions with an unexpectedly Seussian-cum-Clockwork-Orange type twist.
The outcome: the most imaginative concatenations of the names “Mookie Wilson,” “Melky Cabrera,” ” “Zack Greinke, “Mark Lemke,” and “Pokey Reese” I’ve heard.
But the “key” to making the conceit really work was balance. It was too baseball-heavy, and needed a well-known name from America’s most popular sport injected into this particular Greinke/Mookie/Melky/Lemke/Pokey milieu to push it to the next level.
So, thank you, Chris Weinke. From lovers of Hog football and comedic consonance everywhere.
Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).
Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.
This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).
In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.
A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.
Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.
`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘
Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.
The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad. It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.
Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).
In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.
Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.
My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.
It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.
More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.
There have been quite a few famous faces affiliated with the Arkansas Travelers since the minor league baseball franchise was formed in 1901. Hall of Famers Tris Speaker, Travis Jackson, Bill Dickey, Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins – along with Angels superstar Mike Trout – top the list.
No roster addition, however, has caused as big a stir as the Travelers’ latest – Otey the Swamp Possum. The new mascot, designed by a California-based company and introduced this week, is meant to pay homage to one of the best second basemen in Traveler history* while appealing to children. So far, though, it has primarily sparked a firestorm of criticism.
One fan on social media sarcastically asked why a “toothless meth head” wasn’t used instead, since “were [sic] stereotyping Arkansas.” Others asked if the possum has to look as if it was “straight out of Deliverance” and wondered the possum was used only because “negotiations to get Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard fell through.”
Other fans are cool with the choice.
There’s more than new mascots and brand new logos to be excited/enraged about heading into the season. Here’s a preview, courtesy of Tiffany White:
In April this year, the Travelers – under an all-new coaching staff – will enter their 14th season as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels and 48th in the Texas League. The schedule for the 2014 season includes the Texas League All-Star Game, one of the highlights of the season, to be played at Dickey-Stephens Park on Tuesday, June 24. It is the first time that it is played at the team’s new field – the Dickey-Stephens Field, in North Little Rock – which opened in 2007 replacing the former Ray Winder Field (named after Ray Winder who worked as ticket taker in 1915 before rising to general manager) which had served the Travelers since 1932.
The opening of the new season might be the right opportunity to place your bets on the baseball teams playing in the League. If you need some assistance when shopping for the right place and safest website, you might as well check the Internet for bettingsports.com sportsbook comparison. During this new season, you will have plenty of games to choose from, as the format of the Texas League season remains unchanged with the Travs playing mainly against their North Division opponents.
Their most familiar ones are The Springfield Cardinals and Tulsa Drillers (Colorado Rockies), while there are 28 games scheduled with the in-state Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Moreover, the Travs will play all South Division teams (Midland, defending champion San Antonio, Frisco and Corpus Christi) 12 times each.
They will host their eighth Home Opener at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 10th against the Midland RockHounds (Oakland Athletics). During Memorial Day weekend, the Travs will host San Antonio for a 5:30 pm game that will coincide with the Riverfest Fireworks show afterwards, while on the Fourth of July the team is hosting the Frisco RoughRiders (Texas Rangers) at 5:30 pm with the Independence Day downtown fireworks show after the game.
If you are a Travelers fan, an inveterate swamp possum mascot aficionado, and/or simply want to enjoy a good game, remember that tickets and smart packs for the 2014 season are now on sale.
* The original Otey was R.C. Otey, who died at age 88 in 2011. A graduate of North Little Rock High School, Otey broke into pro baseball in 1942 with Amarillo, but was quickly nabbed for military service. “After three years in the Navy, including eight months on Okinawa, he met and married the love of his life, Ida Maxine Morton, who eventually was the director over the Arkansas State Board of Nursing and Superintendent of Missouri Pacific Hospital,” according to his obituary. “In 1949, the Arkansas Travelers bought Infielder Otey off the Pampa Club of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League. He was the only player who had been with one Southern club for 10 consecutive seasons. He held many records in his tenure, including the most double plays by a second baseman. In 1958, Otey retired from playing baseball and became the Ray Winder Park Superintendent, a position he held for almost 30 years.” – via arkbaseball.com
The year before Otey retired, the Little Rock Travelers were named after the entire state and became the Arkansas Travelers. Throughout the years, they have been part of eight Major League farm Systems. After going through a dry decade for league titles, when Arkansas never climbed higher than second but still attracted 250,000 fans annually, they started to win again in 2001, when the new millennium and a new Major League affiliation with the Angels brought another Texas League title.
When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.
That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake. The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.
Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are all-timers. Here are eight more:
10. Hawaii (college football)
1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)
1999: 9-4 (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)
Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.
When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.
“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor. “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”
9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)
1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)
2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)
In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.
*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.
8. New England Patriots (pro football)
2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)
2001: 11-5 (23.2 points per game / 17.0 points against per game)
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
On June 8, 1963, Sheridan native Earl “Oil” Smith, a three-time World Series champion catcher, died. Smith played for minor league teams in Waxachachie (Texas), Fort Smith, Tulsa and Rochester (N.Y.) before breaking into the National League with the New York Giants in 1919. In 1921-22, Smith helped the Giants beat the Yankees in consecutive World Series and then headed to Pittsburgh where he help the Pirates win the 1925 World Series and batted a career-high .346 the next year. Four seasons in the majors, he batted over .300.
All the while, Smith developed a reputation as an extremely temperamental player.
“Smith probably was involved in as many fights as any player in the game,” according to a 1963 obituary in the Pine Bluff Commercial. Unfortunately, no reasons are provided as why, exactly, Msr. Smith was so angry but here’s a guess: He was frustrated as hell. You would be, too, if the people you were around all the time COULDN”T PRONOUNCE YOUR VERY EASY-TO-PRONOUNCE AND NOT-AT-ALL-COMPLICATED NAME.
According to the Commercial, Midwest sports columnist Westbrook Pegler nicknamed Smith Oil “because, Pegler said, easterners had a hard time saying Earl.”
Fortunately for Smith, he returned to friendlier phonetic climes when he went to St. Louis in 1928 and there played in another World Series.
After his playing career ended in 1930, Smith showed Easterners it wasn’t anything personal against them by choosing to start work as a minor league manager in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He then retired to Hot Springs, Ark. with one brief exception: a one-year turn as coach of the Hot Springs Bathers in the Cotton States League.
Smith, who died at age 66 from a lengthy illness not specified in his obituary, is buried at Little Rock National Cemetery.