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Archive for January, 2011


“There have been only two geniuses in the world”, actress Tallulah Bankhead said, “Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare”. A trifle exaggerated perhaps (is Shakespeare THAT good?), but the former Giant was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.

William Howard “Willie” Mays Jnr. was born on 6th May 1931 in Westfield, Alabama of talented sports playing parents. He came to prominence through playing for Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League and, having been declined by the Brooklyn Dodgers, was signed by the New York Giants on the day he graduated from high school in 1950.

After an impressive early season spell with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association at the beginning of the following season he was called up for his Major League debut on 25th May 1951. Despite career lows in batting average, RBIs and HRs that year he was still voted Rookie of the Year.  His speed and agility in centre field were gaining notice, and in one game against Pittsburgh, he stopped a 475 foot drive with his bare hand.

Missing most of the 1952, and all of the 1953, seasons through Army service, he returned to the Giants in 1954, helping them to win their last World Series before 2010 and being voted National League MVP.  His phenomenal over the shoulder running catch in deep center field off Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds, which is still regarded as one of the most spectacular pieces of fielding in baseball history, was instrumental in securing a first game win against the Cleveland Indians, leading to a four game sweep of the series.

In 1957, the last season of the Giants’ tenure in New York, he won the first of his 12 consecutive Golden Glove awards. There were few more exhilarating sights than Mays in full sail, chasing a long fly ball, oversize cap flying off his head as the ball sunk into his enormous, wide-palmen hands.  He perfected the “basket” catch in which the glove was held waist-high and face up like a basket.   Along with Joe diMaggio he is also reputed to have had the greatest throwing arm in the game.

His reception in San Francisco, following the Giants’ relocation in 1958, was not a particularly welcoming one – he was booed whilst the locals took rookies like Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey to their hearts and he and his wife experienced racial prejudice in their attempts to find a home in the city.   His wholehearted, stylish performances won over the fans and in 1961 he hit 4 home runs against the Milwaukee Braves in County Stadium and was on deck when the Giants’ final innings closed.  He is the only Major League player to have a 4 home runs and a 3 triple game.

His final World Series for the Giants was in 1962 when, having beaten the Dodgers in a three game play-off, they lost in seven to the Yankees.  He won his second league MVP with a career high 52 home runs.  He played in 150 games for 13 consecutive years between 1954 and 1966, another Major League record.  Despite hitting his 600th home run in 1969 he had an injury hit season, but returned to his best form and helped the Giants win the  National League West in the following year.  He was named “Player of the Decade” for the sixties by The Sporting News in 1970. 

In May 1972, unable to guarantee him a retirement income, the Giants  traded the 41 year old Mays to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50 ,000.  He made his debut on the 14th against the Giants, hitting a home run.  His final home run, number 660, was made against the Reds on 17th August the following year.  He also made 3,283 hits and ran in 1,903 batters in his career.

For his two seasons in New York he was the oldest regular position player in baseball and the oldest to figure in a World Series Game during the series that the Mets lost to the A’s.  He stayed with the club until the end of the 1979 season as hitting instructor.

 

On 23rd January 1979 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, colecting 95% of the ballots.  But the period after his retirement was a difficult one, culminating in his being banned from baseball for working, along with Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, as a meeter and greeter for Bally’s Casinos in Atlantic City.  Although the ban was eventually rescinded, the decision affected Mays badly, inducing him to shun many public appearances, including All-Star games.  

In 1999 he was included in the Major League All-Century team in a popular vote by fans.

There is no doubting the affection in which he is held, not only by Giants’ fans but the citizens of San Francisco.  Since 1986 he has served as Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants, a lifetime appointment.  The address of AT & T Park is 24 Willie Mays Plaza and a larger than life statue of Mays in full slugging mode stands proudly in front of the main entrance. 

Although his #24 shirt had been formally retired, and even when Mays offered it to his godson Barry Bonds, who had visited him in his locker room in search of bubble gum when just five years old.  Such was the esteem in which he is held, however, that Bonds refused and opted to wear the #25 jersey instead.  

At former mayor Willie Brown’s instigation, and with the subsequent endorsement of mayor Gavin Newsom, he is now commemorated every 24th May in San Francisco which has been designated Willie Mays Day.  On his 79th birthday in 2010 the California Senate proclaimed Willie Mays Day in the state, and three years before, he had been inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Arnold. Schwarzenegger.

For all the adulation and honours accorded him in California, it should not be forgotten that he is no less idolised on the East Coast for his services  to New York at the beginning and end of his career.  This was evident when he  joined the Giants organisation on 21st January 2011 in parading the newly won World Series trophy, visiting the grade school built on the site of the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, answering the students’ questions and distributing memorabilia.  

Willie Mays visits PS 46 in Harlem, next to the site of the former Polo Grounds, where the new York Giants played before moving to San Francisco in 1958, on Jan. 21, 2011 in New York City.  The Giants hadn't won the World Series since 1954.

I can’t finish this piece without reference to more of Mays’s remarkable playing achievements:

  • selected for the All-Star Game a (tied) record 24 times, including 20 consecutive years between 1954 and 1973;
  • MVP in the All-Star Game twice (1963, 1968);
  • the only player to have hit a home run in every innings from 1 to 16;
  • a record 22 extra innings home runs;
  • only one of five National League players to have hit at least 100 RBIs in eight successive seasons;
  • stole 338 bases; and
  • 7,095 outfield fielding putouts – Major League record

But the statistics and records do scant justice to his genius – constantly on the move, athletically and mentally, whether at the plate, on base or in the outfield, he was a menace to the opposition from start to finish.

I started with a quotation and I shall end with one.  Mays, who, in all modesty, believed himself to be the best baseball player ever, summed it up in these simple words: “If you can do that – if you run, hit, run the bases, hit with power, field, throw and do all other things that are part of the game – then you’re a good ballplayer”.  Well, he could do all of those things with a level of skill, style and, above all joy, unparalleled in the game’s history.

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New Year’s Resolutions – I think most of us make them in the guilty aftermath of Christmas excess; though we may keep the detail to ourselves, ensuring that there is only one person to admonish us when we sink into a pit of drinking, eating and smoking on 5th January.

I’ll confess that I always make them – most of the usual suspects such as losing weight, getting/keeping fit, drinking less and being nicer to people.  Sadly, the last one is always the most difficult because it is so rarely reciprocated in this country. Quit smoking?  I accomplished that one thirty seven years ago.

So here’s a brief report on my performance so far, with my personal rating (1-5) of how I’m doing – which I think is rather well.

Lose weight – almost eight pounds in the three weeks since I adopted the latest Weight Watchers diet.  I hoped to lose at least a stone before our holiday in March, so I am comfortably on course to exceed that goal.  4

Keep fit – been to gym three times a week, which has had the added benefit of making our membership better value for money that it has sometimes been.  Plenty of walking too, not just everyday but regular countryside rambles at the weekend.  The latter have been thwarted so far by the weather but we plan to tread the fields and woods on Sunday this week.  Doubtless, it will finish miraculously adjacent to a warm , inviting pub, which will place unbearable pressure on the first resolution above.  But still, doing well.  4   

Write, write, write – the first objective was to setup the blog and then to post on it regularly, which has been achieved.  The specific aim of launching the San Francisco related series is also coming along well.  Much work to do on the quality, and preparations for the vacation diary need to be stepped up, but otherwise, quite pleasing.  4

So all three (principal) resolutions firmly intact after the first, crucial, month.   

And finally, in the immortal words of Joey, the Matt LeBlanc character in Friends, “how you doin”?.

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I couldn’t resist the temptation.  The incessant drizzle and the seductive charms of Arsenal v. Ipswich on live TV could not compete with fifty years of sweet pain, not to mention that I was not prepared to squander the £20 on the ticket I had purchased for the original fixture.

And what was my sacrifice in comparison to the hundred doughty Derbyshire souls who had made the 300 mile round trip on a wet January night?  That said, the joyously performed conga in the rain by four young, bare-chested fans shortly after Chesterfield’s first goal was going a little too far.  The more sensible of their congregation huddled under large umbrellas, only showing signs of life when Chesterfield scored the two goals by which they won the game.

The atmosphere was curiously flat, given the elevated league position of both teams.  Whilst moaning was rife and one home player was inevitably made the scapegoat for everyone’s mistakes, I only heard the occasional swear word, and the boos that greeted defeat were pleasingly muted.  After all, the team played very well, particularly in the first half, inducing the Chesterfield manager to acknowledge that Gillingham was the best side they had played all season.

I enjoyed the game but did not always feel fully engaged with it, something to do with that lack of atmosphere.  Perhaps some of the gloss has really gone. 

So will I go again some time soon?  I don’t think I will be rushing to buy another ticket, though I will remain as anxious to know how the team is doing, and crave the best for them, for a long time yet.

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Tonight at 7.45pm at Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham play Chesterfield in an npower League Two association football game.  “So what?”, you may ask.  “Who cares? Big deal!” 

Well, it is an important game for me, though I may not actually attend.  Which is the rub. 

My father took me to the ground when I was still ankle high to a grasshopper in the late fifties and the club has stayed in my heart ever since.  As a small boy I was lifted to the front of the crowd, and as a  teenager I stood in the covered, “Kop” (aka Rainham), End singing local variations of then chart hits such as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Yellow Submarine”.  As a young adult I spent a number of years away from home, but still traipsed around the north of England supporting “The Gills” at such exotic outposts as Bury, Mansfield, Rotherham and Bradford.  And finally, as a man in his middle years, I have enjoyed the comfort of a modern stand with good catering facilities and toilets that work (usually).

I have experienced feast and famine over that half century, though hunger has generally prevailed over sufficiency.  That said, for a decade from the mid nineties Gillingham Football Club enjoyed an unprecedented and wholly unexpected period of success, playing in Wembley Play-Off finals in successive years and reaching the second tier of the English football pyramid, maintaining their place there for five years, achievements most long suffering fans would barely have dreamt of. 

The past half dozen years, with one notable exception, have witnessed decline and dispiritedness.  The club has returned to the bottom rung of the Football League ladder, where they were when that little boy was first bounced over the heads of dour men in hats to get a close-up of his heroes.  But, after a pitiful start to the campaign, the team has soared to the brink of the promotion pack with an impressive run of results, especially away from home where, for a year and a half, they had, until recently, failed to win a single game.

Tonight they have the opportunity not only to to rise to fourth in the table but in the process to keep the league leaders in their sights by beating them.  The game has been rearranged following postponement due to a frozen pitch on the Saturday before Christmas.  So the tickets are already paid for – so what’s the problem (if you’re still with me, that is)?

In 2007  I fell out of love with going to football.  Now, I have had a love-hate relationship with football at the highest level in this country – overpaid, remote players, too much money concentrated in the hands of a small handful of clubs, blood-sucking agents, cheating – I could go on.  But the spectacle of the games, many of which are shown live on TV, is compelling.

But why should I suddenly find it a chore to go and see my beloved Gillingham team, especially when I lived just ten minutes’ walk from the ground?

I’ll gladly confess that the downturn in their fortunes on the pitch at that time must have played a part.  Failure always bends loyalty and faith, but it should not break them.  My wife and I had put our house on the market and were hoping to move around thirty miles away.  It was a financial decision in part, therefore, representing a saving of around £800 for two season tickets, money that could be spent in meeting higher accommodation and increased travel to work costs. 

But there were other reasons.  I just no longer enjoyed the atmosphere in the ground.  Constant moaning from the first minute, booing the team off the pitch at half and full time if things were not going well, and irrespective of their form going into that match, picking on individual players, foul language, not only in the largely moronic chanting but from respectable looking adults, accompanied, amazingly, by children, many of whom had become so indoctrinated by their parents that they saw nothing wrong in that behaviour –  all of this soiled my enjoyment of the actual game. 

Why should my wife and I pay £50 a game to put ourselves through such an unpleasant experience?  We could have a nice pub lunch somewhere instead with the money. “Ok”, people will tell me “well, that’s what it is like nowadays, it’s just something you have to put up with”.  Well I don’t.

So I plead guilty to the charge of being an over-sensitive wimp.  What I will not accept, however, is any claim, and they have been made – by people who don’t understand the nature of faith or fanaticism – that, by no longer paying my dues and attending the games, irrespective of the damage I might do by my behaviour during it, I am no longer a true fan.   

Well, if by listening to away games live on the radio or, if I’m not able to, ringing my father several times during the game to find out the latest score, is not being a true fan, then I don’t know what is.

If by following home games on live text on the BBC Football website, Sky Sports News and Twitter, and listening out for the roar of the crowd, is not being a true fan, then I don’t know what is. 

My dedication only falls short in respect of no longer handing over my money to the club, something I, and others in my family, including my father, have done in spades over the last six decades.  And, up to a point, I do feel guilty about that.  But, occasional away games aside, which my wife and I still enjoy –  now that’s what sets out the true fan – attendance at home games holds no appeal.  

The gentlemen “doth protest too much, methinks” I hear you cry.  Well, perhaps – but I alone know what place the club has still in my heart.

Which brings me back to tonight.  Rain is forecast, another demotivator.  And both Arsenal and Manchester Unites have key games that are live on TV.  Shall I stay or shall I go?

Well, it’s three hours to kick off and I am still undecided.  The rain might be the clincher, though it has not arrived yet.  I think I shall just have to let you know tomorrow whether I succumbed to the temptation or not.

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As this series develops I hope to be able, where the events of the day allow, to present a “main feature” i.e. a story in some detail supported by a list of “lesser” happenings that are worthy of note.  But I am at the mercy of history and this may not always be possible.  

The following events occurred on this day in history:

1848: Gold is discovered by James W. Marshall, a foreman working at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in Coloma, 130 miles to the north east of San Francisco, triggering the influx of 300,000 prospectors seeking their fortune and transforming the city from a small town into a booming, bawdy metropolis. 

Doubts persisted for some time whether the small, golden nugget that had made Marshall’s “heart thump” as it was more the colour of brass than the customary reddish-tinged gold found elsewhere.  A few tests revived his confidence that he had struck gold, though it was not until March before the rumours were confirmed for all in San Francisco to hear.  That story will be  be recounted on the relevant day.

1980: Just before 11am a powerful, rolling earthquake centred ten miles to the north west of Livermore and measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale, hit, destroying the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, a major storage depot for nuclear materials.  Forty four people were injured and the estimated property damage was $11.5 million. 

It was felt over a large area of central California and parts of western Nevada and was followed by 59 aftershocks in the next six days and a second principal earthquake on 27th of the month.  

1982: The San Francisco 49ers won Superbowl XVI by defeating the Cincinnati  Bengals 26-21 in cold, snowy conditions at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.  The treacherous roads leading to the stadium caused the 49ers motorcade to be delayed, though the team arrived in time for the kick off. 

Joe Montana, in only his third season, was named the Super Bowl MVP, completing 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown, and also rushing for 18 yards and a touchdown on the ground.  The Bengals were the first team in Super Bowl history to lose the game whilst accumulating the most yards and touchdowns.

Nearly thirty years on the game remains one of the most watched broadcasts in American TV history, pulling in 85 million viewers.

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I had a Latin teacher at school called Mr Beattie, though the poor, unfortunate man was more affectionately known as “Bogroll Beattie” by the ungrateful rabble that passed for his pupils.

Now, at this point, I feel I may have to explain to my American readers why the word “bogroll” should be considered at all amusing and clever by successive classes of pre-pubescent boys.  Well, simply, “bog” is a slang term for “toilet” which, in turn, is called “washroom” in the U.S.  And “bogroll” is a roll of toilet paper.  Which, before we move on, leads me to ask why that is not, therefore, called “washroom paper”?  

Anyway, I digress.  And I’m afraid that I don’t have any juicy toilet – or washroom – based stories to recount that would justify his nickname.  We were 12 years old and it was the early sixties after all, and in that much more innocent age our scatalogical dictionary was a much slimmer volume than that available to our counterparts today. 

It is clear testament, however, to how much my brain has matured since then that my first thought when encountering, for the first time, the word “blogroll”  on this site is of that brave man who strove to inflict a language “as dead as dead can be” on me at a time when the Beatles, Eagle and Hornet magazines and Gillingham Football Club alone inhabited my cultural landscape. 

When I started this post it was not meant to be an analysis of that common language by which we are separated from our American friends, but rather about the “blogroll” which lurks down the right hand column of this site.  And all I wanted to do was to draw your attention to it, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the blogging world, and advise that you can link into a number of my favourite websites from there, for example the San Francisco Chronicle, Heavenly Ski Resort or the Kent (England) tourism site.  You can even book a highly recommended apartment in San Francisco, indeed the one my wife and I will be staying at in the Spring.

So if you are interested in any of those subjects, be aware that you can access them from this blog with just one click.  I will probably add to them over time, though I will keep them to a manageable minimum for fear of over-cluttering the screen and rendering navigation exhausting.

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Well, I’m slowly coming to terms with the blogging lifestyle and even more slowly with the technical elements.  Unless you’re a first time visitor you may observe that I have changed the design of the site.  I was reliably informed i.e. by my wife that the previous version was “too in your face”, so I have adopted a simpler, cleaner theme. I’d welcome your thoughts on whether you feel that the new style is better.

I’m hoping to step up the pace in the coming weeks, starting this week with more features in both the “San Francisco: On this Day” and “Great San Franciscan Characters” categories.  And I might throw in the odd meditation on life in general.

Oh, in case you’re thinking, that is NOT the Golden Gate Bridge in the heading!

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