Monday, March 31, 2014


For some of the folks inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals (which we like to call "the Hall of Fame for the rest of us"), otherness produces extremity which leads to adversity. Two players featured in the Reliquary's ongoing exhibition (through April 29 at the Arcadia Public Library) of fifty-four painting from Ben Sakoguchi's phantasmagorical Unauthorized History of Baseball, Mark Fidrych and Steve Dalkowski, represent two key variations of that movement through "the three forces of self-identity" that, in one way or another, flow through all of the Reliquary's inductees.

The poles of fame are, if you will, adulation and notoreity. The former rarely comes to anyone who goes out and seeks it, while the latter is often sought but seldom shed no matter how it becomes attached to that person. For Mark (the Bird) Fidrych, otherness (in the form of a gangly kookiness that brought out the variations of teenhood in everyone who encountered him or read about his exploits) was bolstered by sudden success. He became a national phenomenon in 1976, a year in which the USA was looking to put two national nightmares--Vietnam and Watergate--behind them and looked for something or someone that could restore some sense of innocence to their perception of things. (The previous year, the world of music re-embraced the Beach Boys more for their ability to embody the nostalgia that so many desperately sought: Fidrych, from Worcester, Massachusetts, was an East Coast update of that oddly articulated obliviousness that translated into white middle-class "cool.")

After his galvanic 1976 season, the Bird proved to be someone that things happened to, and that made the masses more sympathetic to his darkening plight. A knee injury did not prevent a triumphant return in June 1977, but a change in his pitching motion coupled with premature workhouse usage brought on arm woes that could not be overcome.

Fidrych displayed no change in ego or personality at any point in his career; perhaps he was as surprised as the rest of us (including, perhaps, the insider baseball world) about his success and knew not to make too much of it. That trait endeared him to fans and more casual observers; they remembered that as much as the astonishing, improbable feats of 1976. An inaugural ballot candidate for the Shrine in 1999, the Bird received a healthy 24% of the vote in that first election and was inducted in his fourth year.

IN the case of Steve Dalkowski, extremity is almost too tame a term to describe what an outlier he was--a man whose exploits were so bizarre as to become instant fodder for the notoriety reserved for tall tales. A relatively small (5'10", 170 lb.) lefty, Dalkowski is notorious for three extreme things: speed, wildness, and a penchant for alcohol.

It's that last item that adds the darkness to his tale, of course. But his wildness was so extreme that it defies belief: think of our old friend Tommy Byrne and multiply by any number larger than two and you will understand. Byrne represented the absolute limit for a pitcher to be teeth-chatterlingly wild and still achieve success in the major leagues. (The "Power Precipice" region on our QMAX chart should be named for Tommy, just as its opposite region is named for his opposite number, Tommy John.)

Dalkowski walked a good bit more than a batter an inning during his nine-year minor league career, but he came tantalizingly close to the majors thanks to Earl Weaver, who while managing at Elmira in the Eastern League found a way to impart coaching advice that brought his skills more in line with the realities of the game. A freak elbow injury during a spring training game in 1963 proved fatal to Dalkowski's chances, and he fell back into obscurity.

But not for long. In 1970, Pat Jordan wrote the first of what became an avalanche of articles (that by now must number close to a thousand) about the strange, logic-defying exploits of Dalkowksi. Filmmaker Ron Shelton, who played in the Orioles' system a few years later and became entranced by the word-of-mouth he encountered about the  fastest-but-wildest pitcher of all time, would begin the process that would culminate in Steve's enshrinement in the Eternals when he created a character for his 1988 film Bull Durham--Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins)--who embodied many of Dalkowski's more legendary attributes.

This was quickly followed by David S. Ward's more overtly parodic Major League (1989), a massive box-office hit, which among its colorful roster of fictional Cleveland Indians featured a pitcher named Rick Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen, who'd pitched in high school and purportedly used steroids to pump up his fastball) whose similar control issues earned him the nickname of "Wild Thing."

And so the Dalkowski legend passed into the great swirling swamp of mass culture, where it continues to produce ripples in the gurgling gasses that sweep through our collective semi-consciousness. In 1999, however, when the Reliquary began its Eternals project, Steve seemed to have slipped below the surface, gathering just 8% of the vote. But the following years were kind to Dalkowski, both in real life and in terms of his legend: his personal issues with alcoholism peaked and were resolved, resulting in "feel good" publicity and a re-visiting of his legendary on-field exploits. Reliquary voters took note, and in 2009 they ratified Steve's unique standing in baseball history.

As is often the case with Shrine of the Eternals inductees, Ben Sakoguchi puts a little extra zip on his airbrush when it comes to pictorializing their exploits. For Fidrych, Ben plays with the fact that his nickname ("Bird") came from a coach who though Mark's wild blonde tresses were reminiscent of Sesame Street's Big Bird. (That same head of hair was instrumental in vaulting Fidrych into Rolling Stone as the embodiment of arena rock, which was just reaching its hysterical, excess-ridden apogee at the time.)

For Dalkowski, Ben balances his lack of big-league success with the more upbeat tale of Rick Vaughn, who features indelibly in the Cleveland Indians' rags-to-riches arc in Major League. He does a fine job of adding a tinge of anxiety in Steve's expression, and he captures the eyewear linkage that director Ward had cleverly copped.

Ironically, Fidrych's life ended more tragically than Dalkowski (he was killed in a freak dump truck accident in 2009). Those are the vagaries of extremity and the unpredictability inherent in adversity, which can strike at any time. Otherness, however, knows no limits, and someone as caught up in its thrall as Ben Sakoguchi could not resist its siren-like call--as manifested by these two unique, but very different legends.

Friday, March 28, 2014


In our various musings about the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals, we discuss three primary traits that tend to cluster in varying forms within the individuals who are inducted. These traits, or characteristics, are linked to a powerful but mostly unspoken set of historical forces that the voting membership of the Reliquary have grasped as they sift through the serial "nudges" that the Reliquary brain trust (Terry Cannon and Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty) provide when they select the Shrine's potential inductees.

There are many other descriptive terms that can be applied to those who've been inducted; we could speak of "pioneers," for example, as an attribute that casts a long shadow over the individuals in the Shrine. But such a term is more strictly historical than psycho-cultural, and it doesn't have the force or the depth that's necessary to capture what this particular Reliquary project is mining.

Those traits, or characteristics, or forces, are: adversity, extremity and otherness. We will sometimes find that they combine in individuals; on very rare occasions, all three are present. Somehow these traits, as will o'the wisp as they might at first seem, manage to dominate and mold the selection process and have done so now for fifteen years.

The two traits that combine most often, as you might expect, are adversity and otherness. Those who are out-caste in some manner or form will often find their path blocked by institutional or individual prejudice. It isn't surprising that the vast majority of Shrine inductees possess one or both of these traits.

And it's not surprising that the inductees who are primarily defined by their otherness are the ones that Ben Sakoguchi is most interested in depicting. Certainly our first example from Display Case #3 in the Reliquary's exhibition of fifty-four paintings from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball series, Bill (Spaceman) Lee, demonstrates otherness in his defiance of institutional PC (though Bill's secondary trait is, interestingly enough, extremity--the outrageousness he channels in how he expresses such defiance).

Our next two inductees, both of whom have superbly intricate "orange crate art" paintings, are examples of adversity caused by otherness. The induction of Ila Borders (first female player in otherwise men's-only organized baseball) and Pam Postema (first female umpire in organized baseball) represents a recognition of the perils of otherness, and a sympathetic appreciation of those who strive to overcome the adversity of institutional bias.

These inductions also embody the principle of hope in that they project a belief in the possibility that women will someday find their way onto the actual playing fields of major league baseball, a prospect that still seems remote.

For Ben, it provides an opportunity to create several of his most elaborate and lurid works. We are still puzzled over Postema's "alter-ego" in Miss Call Brand, but we suspect that Bob Uecker would have enjoyed the prospect of the particular apparel choice if, for example, it had been showcased in Major League--proving that there's a quite a distance between the words salacious and sagacious.

For Ben, it provides him with a chance to work with hot pink (something that seems irresistible to him) and to work with a range of color textures (note the highly magnified detail on those oranges--we're surprised that he was able to refrain from plastering his "Full O'Juice" slogan on this one...but see our word distinction above to see how Ben is expert at going right to the limits of "good taste").

For Ila Borders Brand, Ben just takes the plein air conceits that can be found in the original orange crate art and takes it to a breathtaking level of detail. (Note, again, the color and detail on those oranges.)

Now it could be that Ben just likes to show off for the ladies. But we think that the subject of otherness is one that fires up his creative juices (no pun intended).

Thursday, March 27, 2014


With the next two display cases in the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch" exhibition, showcasing what we've earlier described as their symbiotic simpatico with Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi, we reach the portion of works that commemorate the Reliquary's singular incursion into the metaphysics of meritocracy--their unique recasting of the Hall of Fame which is otherwise known as "The Shrine of the Eternals."

We've written about this at length elsewhere, so we're not going to retrace our steps at the moment; this series is meant to showcase Ben's art. Not all of the individuals elected to the Shrine have corresponding portraits in Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball, but many do, and most of these are among the most inspired and whimiscal creations in the entire series.

And what better place to start than with Bill "Spaceman" Lee, the ultimate incarnation of an enduring baseball archetype: the surreal southpaw. Lee's powers of articulation clearly, er, rocketed him past the previous terminology used to describe the unbuttoned lefty: while he is occasionally dizzy and quite intentionally daffy, the range of quotes attributed to him both during and after his playing days indicate that he is only a distant relation to his more mentally challenged antecedents.

Lee was a natural for the Shrine of the Eternals; he was one of the first 50 candidates for induction in 1999, and was elected in 2000 with 53% of the vote, a percentage that remains tied for the highest mandate ever among Reliquary voters (Buck O'Neil matched that percentage when he was elected in 2008).

And, as is clearly visible, Lee is a subject tailor-made for Ben Sakoguchi. Clearly inspired by the early whimsy of the Reliquary in its young, coltish days, Ben lays out some carefully choreographed astral anarchy, embodying two types of separate but equal saturnalia as what might best be termed as "orbital matter" (not quite to scale, of course) and provides us with a cameo appearance from a beamed-up Eddie Gaedel, who is almost certain to take as big a cut at Bill's "spaceball" as he can, with no earthbound coaching staff to constrain him.

More facts about Bill Lee can be found at his Wikipedia entry. He's managed to make a solid cottage industry out of his doubled left-leaning, and while he's grown older (and who hasn't?) he's been able to retain a unique zest for life that will continue to sustain him as he continues his asynchronous orbit around the windmills of our minds.

Place name check: Ben's love for California's unincorporated areas continues: Leesville is a dust speck about forty miles northeast of Clear Lake, situated on ridgeland adjacent to the upper Sacramento River valley. It last had a post office during the tail end of the Woodrow Wilson administration.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


It is not yet spring in New York, as we can attest from personal experience; our schlepping all over Manhattan during the past two days has indicated that the calendar can often be misleading.

Meanwhile, we reach the last item in Display Case #2, one where the Baseball Reliquary's Terry Cannon has selected one of the  more celebrated events in Giants-Dodgers lore (and one with a suitable twist ending). It's exactly the type of story that would appeal to Ben Sakoguchi.

Bat Buds Brand commemorates August 22, 1965, a date that will live in...well, if not infamy, then something akin to eye-twitching bafflement. It was the day that San Francisco ace Juan Marichal precipitated one of the great donnybrooks in Giants-Dodgers history by attacking Los Angeles' veteran catcher John Roseboro.

What made this different was that instead of using his fists, Marichal used his bat to brain Roseboro.

While Marichal opened up several cuts on the top of Roseboro's head, the actual crime was assault and battery (no pun intended), not attempted murder.

The bewildered look on Sandy Koufax's face (it was a matchup of the two top teams' two top aces, something that almost never happens anymore) was no affectation.

When the dust settled, the Giants were able to take advantage of the fact that Koufax had pretty much seen the inside right half of the plate taken from him. The umpires were not in a forgiving mood, having witnessed a fifteen-minute donnybrook. Koufax suggested in his autobiography that this was one of the key reasons why he surrendered what proved to be the winning home run, a three-run shot by Willie Mays in the 3rd. The Giants went on to win the game, 4-3.

Marichal was suspended for nine games, which may have been enough to cost the Giants their shot at the pennant. He missed two starts; the Giants finished two games out.

The twist to the story--and one that clearly appeals to Ben Sakoguchi--is that some years after the "bean-bat" incident, Marichal and Roseboro  were reacquainted--and wound up becoming close friends.

It's like the Maltese Falcon--the stuff that dreams are made of. We'd call it "Damon Runyon on steroids," but we suspect that you'd get the wrong idea.

At any rate, Ben celebrates the art of healing and the inspiration that comes from the most improbable turn of events.

Monday, March 24, 2014


While it's virtually certain that there have been others, only Glenn Burke revealed his homosexual orientation while active as a major league baseball player.

The world did not come to an end when that happened, but Burke's association with the Los Angeles Dodgers did shortly afterward.

Ben Sakoguchi's commemoration of Burke takes a darker turn, focusing on Glenn's tragically short life. (Burke died of AIDS complications in 1995; he was only 42).

Ben is in basic, bold poster design mode with Red Bow Brand, focusing on the shape affinities between squares and diamonds.

About the only thing that could improve this in-your-face design would be an inset depicting Glenn's involvement in the creation of the "high five." We've provided it just so you can get a sense of that moment of stylistic singularity.

For a more detailed historical perspective on Glenn Burke, Diane Pucin's 2013 Los Angeles Times article is an excellent place to start.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Ben Sakoguchi is highly cognizant that there has been a great deal of pain in Orange County.

And that is not just because it is the most populous county in California that has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1940. (That's eighteen consecutive elections...)

It's also because the Angels moved to Orange County in 1965, and while they did manage to win a World Series in 2002 (while a Republican was in the White House, as you might expect...), they have mostly been a franchise fraught with more than a passing sense of dread.

Fallen Angels Brand, the sixteenth of fifty-four paintings selected by the Baseball Reliquary from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball series (more than 200 paintings in all), is a dark glimpse into the events that have haunted the Angels franchise. They have had more than their share of tragedy. (The most recent: the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the promising young righthander who was killed in a car accident in 2009.)

Donnie Moore and Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagner are two of the most jaw-clenching tragedies in Angels history. Moore became increasingly despondent when his career took a turn to the south after a highly visible failure on the mound, one that cost the Angels a berth in the 1986 series. Wagner just slowly saw his life spiral out of control; the tragedy was that there was no one around to help him in his hour of greatest need.

All baseball franchises have such moments in their past, but the Angels have lapped the field. It was one reason why we used to refer to their home park as "Halo Hell." Those smoky purple plumes that Ben suspends in the air around Donnie and Daddy Wags represent the lingering, foggy curse that seems to keep the Angels forever earthbound.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Say what you will about Ben Sakoguchi and the Baseball Reliquary...they do not sugar-coat. "Purpose Pitch," an exhibition featuring fifty-four of Ben's paintings from his Unauthorized History of Baseball series (hand-picked by Reliquary Executive Director Terry Cannon), does not blink from the tragedies in baseball history.

One of those tragedies occurred thirty-five years ago and is now little more than a footnote in baseball history. Late in September 1978, the California Angels' trip to Chicago proved fateful when outfielder Lyman Bostock, whom they'd signed as a free agent over the previous off-season, kept a family rendezvous in nearby Gary, Indiana.

Bostock, riding in the back of his relatives' car, was shot and killed by his cousin's jealous husband, whose aim was as bad as his judgment.

In a cruel twist of fate, Bostock's murderer, a man named Leonard Smith, was set free a few years later after a mistrial and a highly controversial subsequent ruling that deemed him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Bostock's story has not lacked for those who would give voice to it. Jeff Pearlman gave it a patently overwrought narration at ESPN, marring a sure-fire tearjerker by interjecting himself into the story; SABR's Tim Connaughton takes a much more prosaic approach, focusing on Bostock's baseball exploits; Tom Hoffarth, beat writer for the L.A. Daily News, reviewing's slightly undercooked 2013 feature, keeps the journalism tucked-in and admirably astringent.

Two documentaries have been assembled about Bostock and his senseless demise; while they are both competently done, neither of them quite manages to capture the shock of the moment as it played out on that late September morning in 1978, when the news reached disbelieving baseball fans.

Dick Enberg, then the Angels' announcer, had the thankless task of broadcasting the news to fans of the team--and this was a team that had been through hard times in the 70s, and had embarked on a free agent buying spree (Bobby Grich, Joe Rudi and Don Baylor prior to the 1977 season; Bostock prior to '78) and that was still coming up short in the standings. Remembering that day, Enberg's words are plain and heartfelt:

"We are not trained to handle a tragedy like that, are we? You think back over all of baseball history...just how many times has something like this happened? It's staggering just to contemplate the idea of a ballplayer playing one day, and then the next day comes when you expect to see him again, but you don't. And you never do, because he's gone."

Friday, March 21, 2014


The legacy of major league baseball in Los Angeles reaches a pinnacle with the exploits of two flame-throwing pitchers whose careers barely crossed. Between them they threw eleven no-hitters; they continue to hold the league records for the most strikeouts in a season.

So even an Unauthorized History of Baseball such as the one created by Ben Sakoguchi (and commemorated in "Purpose Pitch," the Baseball Reliquary's exhibition exploring its cultural and aesthetic bond with the singular Japanese-American artist) needs to include the power pitching achievements of Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.

Both pitchers left behind checkered early careers in New York (Koufax with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ryan with the New York Mets) before blossoming into dominant performers in Southern California.

And that is precisely where the similarity between the two men comes to an end. Koufax, quiet and reclusive, has stayed out of the limelight for most of his post-career; Ryan came back into baseball with a splash when he became president of the Texas Rangers.

Ben doesn't mess around with anything fancy in this composition, though he clearly had fun focusing on the radar gun. For the most part, the presentation here is as simple and bold and straightforward as a searing fast ball.

And this time Ben isn't being coy with his place name: Furnace Creek, CA is found in one of the hottest places on earth--Death Valley.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Further adventures in Display Case #2 of the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch" exhibition of selected works from Ben Sakoguchi's Unauthorized History of Baseball (Arcadia Public Library, through April 29)...

What is it with some baseball folk and short pants? Someone needs to write a definitive history of this strange obsession. Hollywood Fashion Plate Brand documents one manifestation of this, while also paying tribute to L.A.'s eternally alluring lost franchise of yore, the Hollywood Stars.

Even more significant, however, is the highlighting of singular first baseman Chuck Stevens, a fixture at Hollywood's Gilmore Field from 1948-54. The Stars won three PCL pennants during Stevens' tenure in Hollywood. One of Chuck's claims to fame is that he was the first man to face Satchel Paige when the legendary Negro League star made his major-league debut. Stevens, nearing the end of his brief big league career, stroked a single to left on Satch's second pitch.

Ben's painting, however, immortalizes Stevens for something a bit more frivolous. In 1950, the Stars decided that the team should alter its uniforms to T-shirts and shorts. (Branch Rickey, sometimes cited as the father of sabermetrics, was especially keen on this idea, apparently attracted to the arcane aerodynamic benefits that the lighter garb would provide.) Mark Armour (in his fine SABR biography of Stevens) picks up the tale:

Stevens was the first man to bat in the new uniforms, leading off the first inning of an April contests with an infield single. Fred Haney, coaching at first base, yelled to the crowd: "He wouldn't have made it with the old unis!"

While Bill Veeck (always a maverick) brought the look to the big leagues briefly in the late 70s during his second tenure with the White Sox, it's safe to say that the Hollywood Stars did not pioneer anything remotely resembling a frenzied fashion trend. That's precisely the point that Ben makes in Hollywood Fashion Plate, clearly overlaying his third-person omniscient perspective on the matter. This is clearly one area where Sakoguchi sides with the traditionalists!

After retiring as a ballplayer, Chuck Stevens would become secretary of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America (APBPA), a charitable assistance organization. He would serve in that capacity for thirty-eight years (1960-98). Still with us today at age 95, Stevens remains one of the most beloved figures in insider circles for his tireless work on behalf of the lesser-known members of the baseball community.

Place name update: Ben's notation of "Short, California" is more than his usual obscure puzzler...there is actually no place with that name. The place he may be referring to, however, is "Short Place, CA," yet another unincorporated community located near a pizza joint along Highway 50 between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. (Perhaps Ben will see fit to create a new series of "orange crate" landscapes commemorating all of the "infinitesimal communities" that he references in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series. )

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


We're cruising through Display Case #2 of the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch," an exhibition at the Arcadia Public Library (through April 29th) that examines their inextricable intertwinement (you know, we're amazed that the spell check let that one through...) with the very singular Ben Sakoguchi.

This display builds on the theme of Los Angeles baseball history, focusing on the two major league teams that have represented the SoCal basin for over fifty years. It will come as no surprise that a group of Ben's "orange crate art" paintings will focus on the 1960s, some of the most notable "glory years" for the Dodgers.

"Righty Tighty Lefty Loosey," as you can see, celebrates the immortal duo of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, who combined for a 209-104 record during the Dodgers' first five years in Dodger Stadium (1962-66). Despite abbreviated careers due to workload issues, Koufax and Drysdale were both promptly inducted into the Hall of Fame, and their fame is such that they probably will be forever bypassed for the more recondite Shrine of the Eternals.

Perhaps Ben's painting takes up the slack for that; it's one of his most whimsical and freewheeling designs, bringing us back to another pulsating background of orange trees rolling out into the distance. Ben has fun with directional symbols, choosing West and East to not only configure the differing handedness of the two aces, but to remind those of us who are paying attention that one was from California (Drysdale), while the other (Koufax) was a Brooklyn boy.

And the hands definitely have it in this pictorial configuration, outsized to the point of surrealistic exaggeration, reminding us via a kind of visual parlor trick that these guys were giants at their trade (even if they played for the Dodgers). Ben also makes certain that we note the double allegiance of Sandy and Don to Brooklyn and Los Angeles: both men played for both incarnations of the Dodgers, and only for the Dodgers.

Finally, Ben gives us yet another evocative but completely arcane California place name: Twin Oaks. It fits K & D beautifully...but the reality is that Twin Oaks, CA is little more than a road sign in the high desert east of Bakersfield, a land where even the tumbleweeds find it difficult to tumble. He never gets tired of sending the viewer on a geographical wild goose chase.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Here we have an unusual departure from the imagery utilized by Ben Sakoguchi in his "orange crate art" series depicting The Unauthorized History of Baseball (of which fifty-four paintings are on display in the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch" exhibition at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29).

What's unusual? The depiction of an actual moment occurring in an actual game. Ben's photo source for "When In Rome" remains elusive, but the scene is clearly the result of an actual plate appearance on October 5, 1959 in Game Four of the World Series, which featured the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox. (It also happens to be a day game, which is something you never see anymore.)

It's the bottom of the second, with the score tied, 0-0, and the Dodgers' long-time star first baseman Gil Hodges has just lifted an Early Wynn pitch high into the air. What the viewer will never know from looking at the painting is that this is no "dramatic moment" in the game: Hodges's fly ball stayed in the ballpark.

Are we meant, then, to merely enjoy the play on words ("Rome"--"Coliseum") while soaking in the replicated colonnade? Are we supposed to revel in the ground-level perspective of the shot--one which Ben has taken liberties with, as the aerial shot of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum reveals, where the intrusive outfield fence that we see there makes it clear that there is no such unimpeded view to the impossibly distant stands?

A little license is to be expected, of course. But Ben doesn't take license with the principal players in this important contest. (The Dodgers were leading the Series, two games to one, and this was the game around which the entire shebang was likely to pivot.)

And it turns out that Gil Hodges and White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar (whose signatures you see in the lower regions of the frame) were the key players for their teams that day. Hodges would be squarely in the middle of the Dodgers' four-run third, his two-out single driving in Norm Larker, making the score 2-0--the third of five two-out hits that would drive Wynn from the game.

And it was Lollar who hit a three-run homer in the top of the seventh off Dodgers starter Roger Craig that knotted the game at 4-4. was Hodges who led off the bottom of the eighth with a high drive over the net in the Coliseum's left field short porch that lifted L.A. to a 5-4 win and a three games to one Series advantage.   Relief hero Larry Sherry get his first of two wins in the Series (his second would clinch the first west coast World Championship for the Dodgers in Game Six).

While we didn't find the photo source for Ben's painting, we did find one that shows Hodges just before he makes contact with the ball in the bottom of the eighth. What you see here is what the insiders mean when they use the phrase "locked in."

Monday, March 17, 2014


We have made it into the second display case in the Baseball Reliquary's landmark display of their symbiotic simpatico with Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi, where roughly one-fourth of the "orange crate art" canvases in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series are on display (Arcadia Public Library, from March 4 through April 29).

Here, with "Sgt. Bilko Brand", Ben finds more traction with two simultaneous popular culture references that literally landed on top of one another. Comedian Phil Silvers began a television comedy in the fall of 1955 about a lovable military con man; when hunting around for a name, it didn't take him (and show creator Nat Hiken) long to realize that hulking strongman Steve Bilko was the man with the magic moniker.

The entendre was unavoidable: Bilko was a local sensation for the Los Angeles Angels, one of two L.A.-based teams in the Pacific Coast League, hitting 37 HRs to lead the league.

Silvers' TV show became a national hit, and his baseball namesake upped the ante over the 1956-57 seasons by slugging 111 HRs over that time span. In '56, Bilko made a virtually complete sweep of the PCL's batting categories, leading in HRs (55), RBI (164), BA (.360), OBP (.453), SLG (.687), runs scored (163), hits (215) and total bases (410). The Angels won 107 games, finishing 16 games ahead of the second-place Seattle Rainiers.

Silvers met his namesake during that season, when Mickey Mantle was on a similar quest for the Triple Crown in the big leagues. A waggish Los Angeles writer suggested that a Mantle-Bilko presidential ticket was at least as patriotic as a vote for either of the actual candidates. (Mantle and Bilko, of course, were not eligible to run--they were too young, despite their prodigious ability to hit the long ball.)

After three stellar seasons in L.A., Bilko found himself purchased by the Cincinnati Reds (still calling themselves the "Redlegs" despite the demise of Joe McCarthy). Steve just wasn't the same hitter in the big leagues, but he did get back to L.A. that summer, when the Dodgers traded for him, eyeing Steve's potential for reaching the Memorial Coliseum's short porch. Bilko hit just .208, while Phil Silvers fretted about his declining TV ratings.

Bilko would finally return to the scene of his success, L.A.'s version of Wrigley Field, built to emulate the Chicago landmark when the PCL franchise was owned by the Cubs. He had a fine half-season for the AL expansion Angels in '61, hitting 20 HRs, including the last one hit in the quaint little park he'd starred in so spectacularly just a few years before.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bilko had been off the air for more than two years.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


It was definitely that brief, upward turn of the eyes that made Fernando Valenzuela into such a singular phenomenon.

Yes, of course, it would never have become what it became without the spectacular early success that he achieved in 1981--topped off by a World Series win, an achievement denied to Dodgers fans since the heyday of another special southpaw, Sandy Koufax.

But what kept "Fernandomania" in play was the cumulative details of his own humanity.

He was not a cool, efficient robot who mowed down opposing batters with overpowering stuff.

He was not a glib, handsome, matinee idol of an athlete with either all-American good looks or a crooked, bad-boy smile.

He was a portly, persistent, crafty left-handed pitcher from an impossibly small town in Mexico who seemed to be someone you could be sitting next to on a bus and never notice.

As a result, he became one of baseball's most enduring crossover heroes.

The voting membership of the Baseball Reliquary made no mistake when they inducted Fernando into their Shrine of the Eternals. Even though his career was derailed and curtailed by the ultra-heavy usage he received at the hands of the Dodgers, Fernando continued to find a way to pitch, staging a surprising (albeit short-lived) comeback with the San Diego Padres--the only team closer to the border region he'd always inhabited.

As always, Ben Sakoguchi captures the salient details. The aforementioned upward glance--reinforced in the center of the painting, just to make sure you don't miss it. The dual nationalities. The slow spring in his first step on the mound. It is a busy design, but Ben blends and clashes color and shape, figure and ground in ways that make this one of his greatest and most deeply felt works in the entire series.

In the end, it's the blend that matters. And no one blended two cultures with more matter-of-fact grace than Fernando.


Fernando Valenzuela became a household word in 1981 by beginning that strike-shadowed season with eight straight wins. His portly frame and his off-beat "out" pitch (the screwball) made him a sensation in Los Angeles.

But what's often forgotten is that "Fernandomania" has an interesting pre-history. Valenzuela's 8-0 run in the early part of 1981 was not his first encounter with the major league limelight. During the last weeks of the 1980 pennant race, when the Dodgers were struggling to stay within striking distance of the Houston Astros (remember, no "wild card" in those primordial days...), they turned to a 19-year-old lefthander who had been called up from their San Antonio farm club.

That teenager, of course, was Fernando--but he didn't begin his Dodger career in the starting rotation. He started in the bullpen (if that phrase makes any sense), where his first three appearances were mop-up roles in games that the Dodgers lost. In his first appearance, on September 15, 1980, vs. the Atlanta Braves, Valenzuela gave up two unearned runs in the seventh inning due to errors committed by Derrel Thomas and Ron Cey.

From that point on, over the next 15 2/3 innings, Fernando would not be scored upon. In his fourth game out of the pen, Valenzuela began to appear in situations where the game was on the line. On September 27th, when the Dodgers' two erratic closers (Steve Howe and Don Stanhouse) both floundered operatically, threatening to blow a five-run lead against the lowly San Diego Padres, Fernando was brought in to stem the tide. After walking Barry Evans to load the bases, Valenzuela induced a force-out grounder from Paul Dade to quash the Padres' rally, then worked his way through the top of San Diego batting order in the ninth to record his first-ever save.

Three days later, the Dodgers were in desperate need of a victory against the Giants in San Francisco. (They were two games behind the Astros, and had to win in order to not lose any more ground.) RBI singles from Pedro Guerrero and Steve Garvey got the game tied, 3-3, and Tommy Lasorda brought in Fernando instead of the struggling Howe.

After getting the first out, "Freddy" (as some of us were already calling him at the time) walked Will Clark and Max (not Will) Venable, putting the winning run in scoring position. He then proceed to fan the next two batters, sending the game into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Guerrero (just beginning to emerge as a hitting star in the midst of an aging Dodger starting lineup) slammed a three-run homer to give LA a 6-3 lead. Valenzuela struck out two more in the bottom of the tenth and was credited with his first big-league win.

Fernandomania would eventually get so crazy
in early 1981 that even Johnny Carson would
get into the act...
Three days later (October 3) the Dodgers came home needing to sweep their season-ending series with the Astros to force a playoff. Trailing 2-1 in the top of the ninth, Lasorda again gave the ball to Fernando, who allowed two two-out singles (Enos Cabell and Terry Puhl) but stranded them. In the bottom of the ninth, Cey singled in the tying run, forcing extra innings.

Fernando fanned two in the top of the tenth, and Joe Ferguson greeting Astros' starter Ken Forsch (who, today, would never be in the game at such a point) with a leadoff homer to give the Dodgers a 3-2 victory--and Valenzuela's second relief win.

The Dodgers would force the playoff game by winning the next two games, with Valenzuela making another scoreless two-inning appearance in the season-tying contest on October 5. He'd also appear in the anti-climactic one-game playoff the next day, where fizzling free agent starter Dave Goltz got polished off by the Astros as they cruised to a 7-1 win.

By the end of the 1980 campaign, Valenzuela had thrown 15 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and had an ERA of zero (that's 0.00). He'd set the stage for what would become a nationwide sensation in the early months of 1981.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Finding the individual within the mass of humanity, without losing the heritage of place or the points of social connection: that is among the most daunting tasks facing us. Celebrating what is both unique and common: that is the job of the artist, in whatever medium they may choose to work.

And that's what unites the efforts of the Baseball Reliquary with the artistic vision of Ben Sakoguchi. That symbiosis is solid and complete: when visitors to the Arcadia Public Library witness the "Purpose Pitch" installation (on display from March 4-April 29), they will be presented with a pure distillation of that meeting of the minds.

In "Brown Blue Brand," the individuals comprise the collective. Taking a boy's game to a higher, more complicated level, the six Hispanic Americans depicted here place faith in the not-yet-moribund idea of America as a "melting pot." They dare to "reach for the brass ring," to succeed at the highest level, to honor their cultural heritage by embodying it in a world where achievement strips away the specifics of ethnicity.

Ben makes sure that the color blue permeates but does not dominate the overall design in "Brown Blue Brand." While it is specific to Los Angeles and the Dodgers (note that all of the pitchers are shown in home uniforms), it stands in for the same "pride of place" that the nation began to embrace as a common goal during the time that Phil Ortega (the first Latin player to pitch for the Dodgers) struggled to make his dream come true. By the time that Jesse Orosco set the record for the most games appeared in as a pitcher, the Latin presence in modern American culture was not merely important, it had become pivotal to the nation's future.

There is unequal success here, just as is the case in life as a whole. But Ben treats each of these men with equanimity; each is depicted as being just as important as the other. As we would wish for all others, if we knew that our wishes could (and would) come true.

Not all heroes are equal in the popular imagination. It's up to the artist to remind us that all heroes are equally important in what they convey to us about ourselves. Sometimes a presentation that seems more prosaic is, in its own way, actually more profound.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Ye Olde Blogger Software™ is on record as indicating that this is our four hundredth post since being put into the witness protection program, which is certainly a shockingly higher number than anyone in the original betting pool wrote down when this little "BBB" thang reappeared.

Four hundred is one of those nice "round numbers" that doesn't mean much save for the fact that they're round numbers...while it's not quite in the high-rent district of round numbers (that would be presumably reserved for 10, 100, 1000, 10,000--you know, all that exponential schtuff...), it's certainly worthy enough for us to dally about with in an essay on the occurrences of round numbers in baseball statistics.

Unlike Bill James's old "Leaders, Lasters and Lists" mega-essay from his pre-Internet newsletter, this excursion will tell us virtually nothing about anything remotely analytical; it's pure numerical topography, so those of you who demand meaning with their numbers will probably want to push on to the next striation of the ozone layer...we'll shoot up a flare when we're done.

So let's get goofy, shall we? First up are the "round numbers" associated with hitters.

When you play exactly 2000 major league games in your career,
you get a little...giddy.
The basic measure in any baseball compendium, whether it's Forman et fils, Phangrafs, Total Baseball, Big Mac (the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia), or even the old, primordial Baseball Cyclopedia, which makes many modern day folks more than a little nauseous when they come across it, is games played.

So who has the highest "round number" of games played? That would be Ellis Burks, who participated in exactly 2000 major league games in his career.

Other round numberers in games played include:

1500--Les Mann, Eddie Foster, Juan Beniquez
1000--Brian Hunter (the speedy outfielder, not the first baseman)
500--Gene Nelson, Mike McNally, Rob Gilbreath, Whitey Ford (!), Doc Crandall, Archi Cianfrocco

This is not Matt Williams's 7001st at-bat. In fact, it's
not Matt Wiliams at all: its Washington GM Mike Rizzo
(Williams' doppelganger...) with a strange juggling act.
Next after games is at-bats. (Today we sometimes see plate appearances listed on web sites, and with respect for that innovation, we'll follow this with that.)

Top "round number" at-bat man is Matt Williams, with exactly 7000 lifetime at-bats.

Others at lesser levels of round-number ABs:

4500--Casey Blake
3500--Howie Kendrick*

[The asterisk(*) indicates that the player is still active, and will almost certainly move off this milestone.]

For plate appearances, the biggest round number belongs to Mike Lowell, with 6500. We have to drop down to 3000 before another player "round numbers" it...that player is Dan Pasqua.

Next comes run scored. Now, we'd love to find a guy who scored exactly 2000 runs in his career, but that hasn't happened. Nor is there anyone at 1500, or 1000. The top "round number" guy in baseball for runs scored is: Chone Figgins, with 700. And he might make the Dodgers this season, which would mean by-by to his "round number" record.

Other round number run scorers:

600--Felipe Lopez, Jeff King, Marlon Byrd*, Zeke Bonura
500--Brad Wilkerson, Rennie Stennett, Ollie Pickering, Brian Hunter (yep, same Brian Hunter)

On to hits. We have a gold standard in "round number" hit totals, but it was achieved due to tragedy. The top total: 3000 hits. The owner of that total: Roberto Clemente, who certainly would have exceeded it had he not gotten on that ill-fated cargo plane on December 31, 1972.

Other round number hit folk include Manny Sanguillen and Mike Bordick, 1500; Birdie Tebbetts, Orator Shaffer, Dee Fondy and Jamie Carroll*, 1000.

After hits comes singles (now, in a singles bar, the order is reversed; but we've made a vow to stay out of those places--and so should you, particularly if you're single). The record for most "round number" of singles is not singular--it's held by a troika. With 1000 singles apiece are: Jorge Posada, Bucky Harris, and Kid Elberfeld.

We added 750 as a "round number" here just to get Possum Whitted's name into this column. (Whitted was a reasonably nondescript left-handed hitting outfielder with exquisite timing--he was a member of the 1914 "miracle" Boston Braves.) Dan Ford and John Hummel also amassed 750 singles.

Doubles. Top "round number" doubles guys--John Olerud and Goose Goslin are tied with exactly 500 career doubles. After them, we have truly strange bedfellows: at exactly 350 doubles, we have Dale Murphy and Willie McGee.

Triples. Ah, yes, the dying hit type. And it's reflected in relatively low "round number" totals for 3Bs: the two hitters with exactly 100 triples are Hi Myers and Dan McGann.

Home runs, any one? The top "round number" HR man is Chili Davis, with 350. At exactly 300 dingers, we have Chuck Klein and Raul Ibanez. At 200, Don Mincher, Oscar Gamble, and Bill Freehan.

Where there are homers, there are RBI. #1 "round number" guy for RBI is Eddie Collins, with exactly 1300. #2 on the list is someone who should have had far more RBI in his career than "just" 1000: Darryl Strawberry.

Bill Lange, who would have had
far more than 400 SBs but less than
a .400 OPB had he not retired at 28.
Hey, stolen bases! Their "round number" champ is Cesar Cedeño, with 550. Next, with 400, is colorful 1890s center fielder Bill Lange.

We move on to batting average. Four players had a lifetime "round number" BA of .325: Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Earle Combs, and Bob Fothergill. .300 even? Not quite as many of 'em as you might think at first: Michael Young*, Roberto Alomar, John Kruk, Pedro Guerrero, Billy Goodman, Enos Slaughter, Wally Berger, Earl Sheely, and Oyster Burns. (We often think that this is the greatest name in baseball history, BTW.)

For on-base percentage, the "round number" leaders are all found at .400: Jason Giambi*, Brian Giles, Larry Walker, George Selkirk, and Bill Lange (again!)

Highest "round number" slugging average is currently Mark Teixeira at .525. (That's going to fall off, probably this season.) That will leave all the guys at .500: Jeff Kent, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Goose Goslin, Jim Bottomley, and Tris Speaker.

Man, that last one is a really good list. That's a good place to stop--for now. We'll leave you with a big ol' table that summarizes what we've covered. (You may have to click on it to read it.)

There's more to come--much more, in fact, but we're going to save the rest of it for another "round number" post.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


We'll let Terry Cannon, the Executive Director of The Baseball Reliquary, weigh in on the history of Chavez Ravine (a key incident from which is featured in one of Ben Sakoguchi's best "orange crate art" renderings--a moment that truly lives up to the project's "in yo face" title: The Unauthorized Histoy of Baseball. Here's Terry:

Chavez Ravine, home of the Dodgers, is a landmark in the contentious political and cultural history of Los Angeles. In 1949, the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a public housing project for the Ravine, long coveted by public and private interests for the land's proximity to downtown Los Angeles. Residents of the Mexican-American community that lived in Chavez Ravine were sent eviction notices and the city began to buy land, condemn houses, and, where needed, take possession of property by right of "eminent domain."

With Cold War hysteria and rampant fears that public housing was a form of "creeping socialism," the Chavez Ravine project was eventually canceled. By the mid-1950s, when L.A. city officials discovered that Walter O'Malley was looking for a new home for the Brooklyn Dodgers, they began a courting process which resulted in the City Council granting O'Malley 300 acres in Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium.

Although the Dodgers would soon become a centerpiece of regional popular culture in southern California, the transfer of public property into private hands aroused the vehement opposition of community activists, who deplored the dubious manipulations of downtown L.A.'s propertied elite in displacing the residents of Chavez Ravine.

And thus a new era in the business history of baseball was cemented into place, wherein wealthy owners were given a preferential form of welfare in order to secure a major league franchise. This practice would become widespread and encompass many creative (and dubious) variations over the next fifty years.

The scene depicted by Ben in Chavez Ravine Brand is a slightly punched-up version of the photographs taken when the last family holding out in Chavez Ravine, the Arechigas, were forcibly removed from their homes in May 1959. The appearance of the lone orange tree in the right-hand background is a testament to something else that disappeared from the southern California landscape.

For an evocative view of Chavez Ravine before the arrival of the Dodgers, take a look at the video (below) and peruse Don Normark's superb pictorial record in Chavez Ravine, 1949.

A fine on-line overview of the eviction process can be found in Linda Christenson's Stealing Home, at the Rethinking Schools web site.

Ironically, the on-line version of Hector Becerra's retrospective article about "the battle of Chavez Ravine" and the bitterness of the lingering memories created by the destruction of the communities located there is accompanied by an ad offering discounts on tickets to Dodgers games.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Now with a title like that, more than a few of you will suspect the worst (but, then, you do that anyway:  consider it the "conditioned reflex of post-modernism", or post-neo sabe serial sanctimony, or whatevah). Fear not, we are not taking this stuff all that seriously: we recognize that the data below is still strictly in the pocket with the maxim "clutch hitting exists but there are no clutch hitters."

And yet, it's still fun to fulminate with small samples, if only for their tendency to transit toward two types of extremity--numerical (unsustainably high or low performance levels) and sociological (the range of reaction to the numbers, from naive awe to sophisticated disdain).

So let's push a "clutch gods" chart right "in yo face," as the quaint old ghetto parlance used to prescribe. In today's new, abbreviable lingo, this rates at least half a WTF?, now don't it...there are a few big names on this list, which is ordered by...WTF? TOPS+?? WTF is TOPS+???

This is a list of the twenty-five hitters who had the highest performance gain relative to their season-level performance while batting in "late and close" situations. (We know that there are many quibbles with this stat: we would like to see "early and close" and "middle innings and close" added to the breakouts used at Forman et fils--who, coincidentally, were the ones who coined "TOPS+" to measure this performance differential.)

[Note that we're using 100 PAs as the minimum for being on this list.] about that Bob Aspromonte, anyhow? For the year of 1967, the man with the unprintable (and that's saying something for this here blog...) nickname (coined by Brock J. Hanke, who would do it again in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself...) was a holy terror in "late and close" situations.

The top three guys on this list are clearly not household names (unless you are an avid reader of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, where Wayne Comer's clubhouse exploits are colorful enough to keep him on the periphery of semi-consciousness). It's interesting that as we travel down the list, getting closer to the more expected match between "late and close" and the full-season stat line, we see more and more familiar names, more starts and superstars, sometimes in lesser seasons, sometimes not.

Perhaps now we can see the flukish glory that turned 1970 into such a stellar one-shot season for the Dodger's Billy Grabarkewitz (whatever else one wants to say about Billy, you've gotta hand it to someone who can hit .440 with a 1.222 OPS in a season's worth of "late and close" situations).

But how far away from the norm are the very best "late and close" performances? Which of the ones in the above list would appear on that list?

Well, hell, that's what the next table is supposed to tell ya, pod'ner.

The average gain for the players with the best OPS in "late and close" situations is about 50% as measured by TOPS+ (it works out to 151 for the top 25 here; that figure drops in every group of 25 as you move away from the top--it's 148 for guys who are 26-50 on the list, 136 for those ranked 51-75, 134 for the 76-100 group, and 123 for the folk in the second hundred).

Interestingly, the two greatest raw OPS seasons in "late and close" are held by guys who don't have all that much performance gain at all--Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. As vilified as these guys have become for their purported "exploits," the fact is that they performed spectacularly in all situations during their record-setting HR seasons--and the "late and close" snapshot is no exception.

Forty percent of our first list makes an appearance here, or ten out of the top 25 (they are shown in red). Most noteworthy, however, is the fact that Willie McCovey makes this list three times, for "late and close" supremacy in 1966, 1969 and 1970. Now it's true that we don't (and may never) have PBP data for seasons earlier than the 1950s, so we don't know how the great hitters of the more distant past would rank on these lists, but it's still damned impressive to see Willie Mac occupying slots #3, #6, and #14 on all-time "late and close" seasonal breakouts. (Barry Bonds and Harmon Killebrew are the only other hitters to make this list twice.)

Staying with that "great hitters of the more distant past" conceit as we wrap things up, here's a final table that might just put everything into its proper perspective. We added up the "late and close" numbers for the Top 100 players on the list and came up with their aggregate performance:

That aggregate is represented in the top line above. Those of you who have spent more than a little time looking at baseball statistics may instantly figure out what the numbers in the bottom line represent; in fact, we suspect that "714" will prove to be a dead giveaway.

Interesting to see that the top 100 "late and close" performances by our "Clutch Gods" are not all that different from the career stats of--that's right--Babe Ruth. All of which proves that there should very likely be one Hall of Fame for the Babe, and another for everyone else.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Deeply affected by the narratives produced by the Latino Baseball History Project, Ben Sakoguchi created an "orange crate art triptych" honoring the communitarian exploits of the Carmelita Chorizeros, East Los Angeles' baseball dynasty.

Chorizeros Brand and Carmelita Brand round out the trilogy; each painting partakes in closely related design patterns--the color-varied border striping, the mascot logo, the absence of the otherwise ubiquitous orange groves.

What's clear is that these people, these stories, this history simply but profoundly resonates for Ben, who is drawn to what's special in the everyday, in the community created by otherness. (And you will be reminded, perhaps, that this is one of the key themes or forces informing how the voters in the Baseball Reliquary determine who belongs--and who doesn't--in their Shrine of the Eternals.)

A terrific overview of the Carmelita Chorizo company and its long legacy in East Los Angeles can be found in Kamren Curiel's feature from the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Monday, March 10, 2014


More evidence below, in Ben Sakoguchi's "Banda de Hermanos Brand" painting (one of fifty-four displayed in The Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch" at the Arcadia Public Library from March 4 through April 29) that history is the bedrock element in this series.

The influence of the Latino Baseball History Project, which from its inception in 2004 opened up new and startling vistas in terms of the Southern California Mexican-American community's engagement with baseball, can be seen here (and in the next several paintings).

The focus here is on one exceptional Mexican-American baseball family, the Peñas, who at one time in the late 1940s were able to field an entire nine-man squad for a team called the Carmelita Chorizeros, who are sometimes referred to as the New York Yankees of East Los Angeles. (David Wharton's 2006 Los Angeles Times article about them fills in some salient details.)

Much of the backdrop for these "baseball organizing activities" came from what we might call "assimilation by exclusion." Relegated to otherness by a series of policies virtually identical to the discrimination against African-Americans, the Mexican-American community used baseball as a rallying point for their own vision of future inclusiveness within American culture.

A valuable overview of these cultural conditions can be found in Richard Santillan and Francisco E. Baldarrama's article (which also appeared in the Los Angeles SABR convention edition of The National Pastime in 2011).

The Peña Brothers ended up in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, but it was a little birdie (Buzzy the fly is on vacation this week...) that dug up the batting order information for the team when they made a special exhibition appearance in 1951:

Eddie Peña, 2b
Victor Peña, cf
Richie Peña, p
Pedro (Pete) Peña, lf
Jorge (George) Peña, 1b
Ray Peña, 3b
Albert Peña, rf
Gabriel Peña, c
John Peña, ss

Clearly, you don't want to mess with these guys. And Ben plays this one a bit straighter than usual, dispensing with the orange grove backdrop to more forcefully commemorate the sense of place--Fresno Park in East Los Angeles--where this singular baseball-playing family made its indelible mark.

[Place name check: Peñasquito Creek is really Peñasquitos Creek, located about 110 miles south of East Los Angeles in the northern part of San Diego County.]

Sunday, March 9, 2014


The first two display cases in the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch," a celebration of its symbiosis with artist Ben Sakoguchi, depict key scenes from Southern California baseball history. One third of Sakoguchi's "orange crate art" paintings selected for the show (which runs through April 29 at the Arcadia Public Library) are devoted to this theme.

Today's image begins our look at Ben's fascination with the indelible figure of baseball's integration, Jackie Robinson. A total of five paintings in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series feature Robinson, with this one reminding us of his roots in Pasadena (the home town that he happens to share with the Reliquary).

It depicts Jackie during his days at Pasadena Junior College (1937-39), as he continued his string of athletic accomplishments after reaching local prominence while attending Muir High School. As is often the case, Ben appropriates a portion of a team photo and gives it the requisite "orange crate" spin.

We should take this moment to remind you that Jackie was a shortstop at this time, a position he continued to play until 1946, when during his first spring training with the Dodgers he was shifted to second base.

Jackie would go on to UCLA in 1939, where he would become the school's first athlete to earn varsity letter in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and track). As we know, this would not be the last "first" for him as he moved inexorably toward a celebrated place in history.

Ben's image here is somewhat more unadorned that is often the case, a kind of "enforced primitivism" that lends the image an unusual immediacy. Though we see no instance of animosity or tension between the races here (the two white players flanking Jackie seem relaxed and accepting), Ben has retained the shadows found in the original snapshot that extend over the faces of the white players even though there is no light source similar to that which causes the shadows in the photo.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


As the second installment in our "Purpose Pitch" presentation makes clear, there was more to baseball on the west coast of America in the early twentieth century than the Pacific Coast League.

The sport became a key component in the cultural assimilation of immigrant groups. One of the most prominent of these--and, due to the events and ramifications of World War II, the most forgotten--was the Japanese-American community.

Ben Sakoguchi here pays homage to his own baseball-player forebears in "Nipponese-American Brand," where he continues to display his pronounced penchant for team pictures as compositional devices. We also see an example of Ben's "split-screen" technique, which is a frequent motif, allowing for historical and thematic contrasts.

The Baseball Reliquary became fascinated with baseball's function in cultural assimilation, and it would  affiliate itself with a team of historians and researchers who've explored the history of baseball in various West Coast immigrant groups. In the realm of Japanese-American baseball history, one of the most prominent and energetic chroniclers has been Kerry Yo Nakagawa, whose work in this area was recognized as early as 1998, when a traveling exhibition entitled "Diamonds in the Rough" toured across the United States.

You can read more about this exhibition in Hans Greimel's Los Angeles Times article from October 1998.

Ben Sakoguchi also shows his penchant for verbal puns, locating them quite often (as he does here) in an ironic California place name, usually (but not always) referring to a location where oranges (after all, this is still "orange crate art") might be able to grow.

Then again, they might not...

Friday, March 7, 2014


For the next fifty-four days, we'll be doing our best to tag along with two of baseball's most ardent admirers and drollest critics--the Baseball Reliquary and Ben Sakoguchi.

The symbiosis between the Reliquary, with its reverent anti-institutionalism, and Sakoguchi, with his critical phanstamagoria, has been palpable for years, but the ongoing exhibition entitled "Purpose Pitch," which runs at the Arcadia Public Library from March 4-April 29, clarifies and crystallizes that association while demonstrating how history can be the springboard for an aesthetic assignation with the true nature of things.

We'll be examining each of the fifty-four paintings from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball that were chosen by Reliquary executive director Terry Cannon, and offering some brief commentary on each of the works as we go.

First up, from Display Case #1, is the exhilarating "Fly Ball Brand" (you'll remember that Ben has couched all of this work in the form of "orange crate art," a blend between the plein air movement in early twentieth-century California and the commercial art that adorned the packaging of what used to be the Golden State's most voluminous export).

Some of you may have seen this image previously; it adorned the cover of the 2011 convention edition of The National Pastime, the SABR publication devoted to baseball in Southern California that appeared in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based convention of that year. (The publication was valiantly edited by Jean Hastings Ardell, who risked more than a little by defiantly placing our essay on the Reliquary into its pages, an act of genuine courage for which we remain extremely grateful.)

As with virtually all of Ben's paintings, there's more history behind the image than initially meets the eye. (But what a wonderful, incongruous image: a hot air balloon defying the laws of gravity by carrying an entire squad of baseball players!)

Those players, taken from a contemporary photograph, are the member of the 1902 Los Angeles Angels, playing in the primordial California League. The signature of one of those players, as is usually the case with Ben's work, is displayed as part of the painting. In this instance, it's the signature of the legendary, wayward Rube Waddell, the greatest (and wackiest) left-handed pitcher in the Deadball Era.

1902 proved to be the pivotal year in Waddell's wild odyssey, transforming him from a promising young pitcher into major league baseball's greatest gate attraction during the first decade of the twentieth century. The great historian/analyst Pete Palmer researched Waddell's 1902 season in detail and shows how Rube almost single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the Philadelphia A's when he left Los Angeles in late June, going on to win 24 games in barely more than three months of elapsed time (the most wins in the least games since the 1893 rule change setting the pitcher's mound distance at 60'6").

So, in one sense, Sakoguchi celebrates the aerial achievements of Waddell even as he depicts him in what we might term his "waiting to fly" location. A free spirit with more than a trace of "arrested development" in his makeup, Waddell would spend six tempestuous years under the bemused care and guidance of Connie Mack, who built a championship team around him.

Note also how Ben slyly insinuates the diamond shape of the infield into the rows of the orange groves below. As we'll see on many occasions as we proceed, he's a tricky fellow, capable of chiding and celebrating at the same time.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Tomorrow we begin an ongoing series about the Baseball Reliquary's remarkable symbiosis with Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi (Tuesday, March 4th marked the opening of their "Purpose Pitch" exhibition, which features 54 of Sakoguchi's colorfully provocative works), but today we pause to  say farewell to a man who had as much impact on baseball as Babe Ruth.

Tommy John and Dr. Frank Jobe, at the edges of baseball innovation.
Who is that man? It's Dr. Frank Jobe, who invented ulnar collateral ligament surgery in 1974 (the fortieth anniversary of this landmark in baseball history will occur on September 25th), which, as even casual fans know, is referred to as "Tommy John surgery" in honor of the first pitcher to undergo the procedure.

As has been widely reported, Dr. Jobe gave John just a 1% chance of playing baseball again  after the surgery; John's startling success paved the way for the procedure to become ubiquitous over the next four decades.

Placed on the Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals Ballot in 2003, Dr. Jobe would be inducted in 2012--giving a gracious, doctorly acceptance speech to a warm, appreciative audience in Pasadena after having been introduced by John, the man who'd made him a household word.

Dr. Jobe, who passed away earlier today at age 88, wanted to prevent the injuries that his surgical procedure proved so adept at fixing. He felt that most pitchers who reached the major leagues were pitching with at least an incipient injury, usually due to poor mechanics and overuse while pitching as teenagers. While these ideas have yet to fully take hold in the secondary schools and American Legion leagues across America, Jobe's efforts and insights have inspired ongoing programs and research, providing hope that, over time, a series of preventive measures can take hold to reduce the rate of injury.

While Ben Sakoguchi has been reluctant to take commissions, we wonder if he might consider making an exception for Dr. Jobe, who remains a man for all seasons.

Monday, March 3, 2014


We are now one-third of the way through the ectoplasmic ecliptic, and cases of eczema have spiked more spectacularly than that supernova we saw back in 1975, when we looked up from some "peeping Tom" activity with the daughter of the next-door neighbors. (Hey, she never closed her curtains!!)

I think she was a Pisces, but that may have been a rumor. Anyway, we are at present firmly fixed in that watery world, and it's time to clean up our act (yes, yes, long overdue--and you ain't the first to bring it up...) in planetary conjunction with the list of ballplayers, not Wall Street, but the conjoined series of dates that range from February 19 to March 20.

What you're going to see here is a team with bulk in Hall of Famers (17 hitters), but it's for the most part a collection of "soft" HOFers, as you'll see below. The two best players on the Pisces master roster are Honus Wagner and Mel Ott; after that, there is a semi-considerable distance to Willie Stargell, Arky Vaughan, Eddie Murray, Home Run BakerRon Santo.

The "A" team lineup is not bad, however, and the pitching--well, that is a sweet group of starting pitchers that they can bring to bear on the opposition.

No one can quibble with the Fish-boys' six-man rotation: Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove, Joe McGinnity, Kevin Brown, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. That's probably the best six-man ERA+ to be found on any team in the Zodiac League, and we expect that rotation to cover (unlike the babe of yore at the window...) a multitude of sins.

The "B" team has some fun names to toss onto the mound--it has two Cooper boys, Mort and Wilbur, followed by high-flying but terminally injured Johan Santana and J.R. Richard, plus two Jeffs (Tesreau and Pfeffer) to handle the swing shift. They will probably come in at about 10 games under .500 in the lower Zodiac, with the bullpen shape-shifting the squad down to about 70 wins.

We neglected to mention that our old pal Dick Allen is on the master roster. It's a toss-up as to whether he or Will Clark will be the first baseman on the "B" team. We'd love to stick Dick on the "A" team, but in a world that worships Hall of Fame longevity, we're forced to ensconce Eddie Murray in that slot. Dick would be a hell of a lot more interesting.

Here are the rosters for the "A" and "B" squads as we see them, without benefit of the binoculars that used to come in so handy back in the randy days of old:

"A squad" lineup
Puckett, cf; Baker, 3b; Wagner, ss; Ott, rf; Stargell, lf; Murray, 1b; Kent, 2b; Howard, c

"A squad" rotation
Alexander, Grove, McGinnity, Brown, Verlander, Kershaw

"A squad" bullpen
Roy Face, Tim Burke, Steve Mingori, Scott Radinsky, Wayne Granger, Bob Locker

"B squad" lineup
Ashburn, cf; Myer, 2b; Vaughan, ss; Allen or Clark, 1b; Thompson, rf; Santo, 3b; J. Rice, lf: Crandall, c

"B squad" rotation
Cooper, Cooper, Santana, Richard, Tesreau, Pfeffer

"B squad" bullpen
Reb Russell, Nixey Callahan, Clyde Shoun, Steve Howe, Steve Reed

We'd definitely re-requisition those binoculars to get a look at the Pisces A-squad's starting rotation. And they've got a passable batting order, too. They could be a sleeper team, fo' sho'. The "B" squad looks to be something of a snooze, however.

We now return control of the vertical and horizontal to you...but the binoculars cost extra.