Category Archives: Vintage Athletes

Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Joe Cronin

A model of consistency at the plate, in the field and in the dugout, Joe Cronin represented both the good and bad in the Boston Red Sox in the period just before and after World War II.

A model of consistency at the plate, in the field and in the dugout, Joe Cronin represented both the good and bad in the Boston Red Sox in the period just before and after World War II.

The start of baseball season and another year at Fenway Park is around the corner. St. Patrick’s Day is at hand. To celebrate both rites of spring, BST&N pays tribute to one of the great Irish baseball heroes of Boston lore and honors Joe Cronin as March’s Vintage Athlete of the Month.

Cronin was born and raised in San Francisco. A good athlete, his interest level in school was not particularly high, but the local baseball team came up with a promotion that saved him—the Seals, a minor league franchise that would one day be home to Joe DiMaggio, started giving away free tickets to students with good grades and attendance records. That was enough to motivate Cronin to get through school, and eventually he started playing semipro baseball himself.

It was as he played in Kansas City that Cronin’s big break came. He was spotted by a scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 1926, at the age of 19, made his first appearance in the major leagues. Cronin only got a handful of big-league at-bats over the next couple years and was traded to the Washington Senators. It was here he began to make the mark that would eventually lead him to Boston.

Cronin solidified the shortstop position for the Senators and over the next seven years was a model of consistency at the plate. He hit over .300 four consecutive seasons, drove in 100-plus runs five times, led the league in triples in 1932 and doubles in 1933.

He would have fared even better—at least in terms of public esteem—in today’s world, where statistics have evolved to give credit for more than simply batting average and home runs. Cronin finished with a career on-base percentage of .390, a full 89 points higher than his .301 batting average. That’s good by today’s standards, and outstanding by the pre-Moneyball era where taking a walk was foolishly seen as a sign of weakness. Cronin’s consistent hitting for extra bases would have won him points in slugging percentage and driven his value even higher.

As it was, he still finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting three times during his tenure in Washington, including a second-place finish in 1933 when the Senators won the American League pennant. Even though they lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games, Cronin hit .318 in the Fall Classic.

What makes all this even more impressive is that Cronin was doing all this while managing the team. His ability to teach the game of baseball had not gone unnoticed, and the pennant year of ’33 was Cronin’s first as player-manager. He continued in that role for the next two seasons in the nation’s capital and when he was traded to Boston for the 1935 season, it was understood he would both play shortstop and manage in Fenway.

Cronin continued to be a model of consistency at the plate. His productive years as a player ran through 1941 and he hit between .281 and .325 each of those years. The 100-RBI campaigns kept coming, with three more seasons over the century mark and two others that just missed. And the Green Monster was good to Cronin—after never hitting more than 13 home runs in a season with Washington, the manager/shortstop exceeded that number five times in Boston, topping out a 24-home run campaign in 1940.

When his productive playing days ended, Cronin could still manage and in 1946, he led the Red Sox to their first American League pennant since Babe Ruth had been on the team. His knowledge of the game was so widely regarded, that Cronin would later serve as president of the American League after his retirement.

We’ve celebrated Cronin’s achievements, but an honest reading of history requires that we hone in on three warts, escalating in importance from a debate managerial decision to that which is simply indefensible.

*Prior to the 1946 World Series, Cronin staged a practice game under live conditions. Ted Williams was hit in the elbow and lost his power for the Series, getting only five singles in a World Series the Red Sox lost by one run in the seventh game. Cronin’s decision to play this scrimmage can be defended, although I personally prefer teams to just get everyone to the real games healthy. One can only imagine the heat would come down today in the age of social media.

*Cronin let his ego get in the way of the long-term good of the club when he was sent by owner Tom Yawkey to scout Pee Wee Reese, then playing in Louisville. Cronin realized that Reese would be the one to replace him at short, so Cronin sandbagged the player and got him traded to Brooklyn. Although in the bigger picture, maybe it was for the best, since Reese would be in Brooklyn when Jackie Robinson arrived and the shortstop would have the courage to publicly put his arm around the game’s first African-American player in a time of crisis.

*Which leads us to the biggest wart on Cronin’s legacy and it’s his refusal to integrate the Red Sox roster after he became general manager. This includes passing on the opportunity sign Willie Mays and letting the Red Sox lag to the very end, along with the Yankees, in racial integration. There is much to laud in the career of Joe Cronin, and no human being should ever be judged by their worst act. But this was Cronin’s worst act.

Cronin was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. According the website Baseball Reference, his career statistics, adjusted for factors like era and park effects, compare favorably with other shortstops in Barry Larkin (a Hall of Famer), Alan Trammell (who deserves to be one) and Jimmy Rollins (who will have an outside shot after he retires).

The legacy of Joe Cronin lives on in Boston today. His number was retired by the Red Sox in 1984, and there is a player named Joe Cronin on the Boston College baseball team—a good sophomore infielder who plays second, third and short and usually bats near the top of the order. I can’t confirm if he’s a direct descendant of the Red Sox legend, but we can say this—he’s got the right name for success.

 

Vintage Athletes Of The Month: Mike Eruzione & Jim Craig (VIDEO)

Mike Eruzione (top left) and Jim Craig (bottom left) were the captain and goaltender respectively on 1980 Team USA hockey, and both recent grads of Boston University.

Mike Eruzione (top left) and Jim Craig (bottom left) were the captain and goaltender respectively on 1980 Team USA hockey, and both recent grads of Boston University.

Team USA is making a run at gold medal glory in the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. When you talk about U.S. Olympic hockey—especially when it’s being played in Russia—it inevitably leads us back to one of the great Olympic moments of all time, when Team USA won the 1980 gold medal with a massive upset of the then-Soviet Union as the lynchpin victory.

The state of Massachusetts did not lack for participants on the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Mike Eruzione was the team captain and Jim Craig was the goalie. Both were born and bred in the Bay State, and went on to play college hockey at Boston University. That’s why they’re fitting choices for a salute as BST&N’s Vintage Athletes Of The Month.

Mike Eruzione grew up in a blue-collar Italian-American family, the son of a bartender, where a large portion of the extended family lived under the same roof. In that environment, you learn to be a competitor and Eruzione was certainly that.

The legendary BU head coach Jack Parker, just recently retired after a forty-year head coaching career, called Eruzione “Pete Rose on skates.” Note that Parker said this in the mid-1970s when the listener would presume it meant Eruzione was an intense hardworking player, rather than one who had action on the game.

Eruzione averaged 20 goals a year in four seasons as a Terrier, but this blue-collar player would continue to have to fight for everything he had—no NHL opportunity was forthcoming, in spite of Eruzione playing on Team USA at the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1975-76, so he settled for starting his career in the International Hockey League. Eruzione promptly won Rookie of the Year in 1978 and helped his team win the Turner Cup, before duty beckoned him back to Team USA.

Jim Craig was a little younger than Eruzione, not finishing school at BU until the spring of 1979. Craig also had more of a pedigree. The goaltender was the key to a national championship run for Parker in ’78 and then made All-American a year later. Craig was a natural choice to be in net for Team USA when the Olympics began in Lake Placid, NY.

The Soviet Union was the dominant force in international hockey at this time, and by a lot. Simply playing the Russians respectably was often seen as a moral victory. But there was more the U.S. had to overcome than just the Soviets. The Scandinavian countries all played good hockey, and of course you could never overlook Canada. To even predict a medal for Team USA—much less the gold—would have required a high degree optimism.

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Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Rodney Harrison (VIDEO)

In the annals of Boston's clutch postseason performers, Rodney Harrison's role in the Patriot Dynasty years, deserves more attention.

In the annals of Boston’s clutch postseason performers, Rodney Harrison’s role in the Patriot Dynasty years, deserves more attention.

The New England Patriots start what they hope will be a drive for the seventh AFC title and fourth Super Bowl championship in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era (and ninth AFC crown in franchise history). When the Patriots won Super Bowls, from 2001-04, they were a well-balanced team that played some serious defense, in addition to having Brady behind center.

Therefore, it’s appropriate that in choosing January’s Vintage Athlete of the Month, we look at a defender from that era. How about one who delivered his best performances in the playoff spotlight, and remains relevant to today’s NFL audiences? I refer to Rodney Harrison, the strong safety for the 2003-04 championship teams, and today a studio analyst every Sunday night for NBC.

Harrison grew up in the Chicago era and played his college football away from the national spotlight, at Western Illinois. He set school records for tackles, and made All-American each of his last two years, before being drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers in 1994.

San Diego and Harrison made a good match, and the strong safety had a good run in SoCal. He played nine seasons for the Chargers, and made two Pro Bowls. At the age of 32, when a lot of players are settling into decline, the Bolts decided to release him. Belichick moved in, and offered Harrison a six-year deal to come to Foxboro.

The contract given to Harrison played a part in one of the more bizarre subplots of the Belichick era, one of the few times the Patriots had soap opera drama going on. Contract negotiations with free safety Lawyer Milloy were ongoing, and as the Patriots committed years and dollars to Harrison, they asked Milloy to take a pay cut. When he declined, the team released him just prior to the season opener in 2003.

New England then lost their first two games, prompting ESPN studio analyst Tom Jackson, on the then-highly rated NFL Primetime Show every Sunday evening (it’s since given way to ESPN’s Monday Night coverage), to declare “they hate their coach”, referring to Belichick’s hard line against Milloy.

Winning stops all soap operas though, and the Patriots never lost again in 2003. Harrison vindicated the head coach’s decision with his performance in two tough, physical playoff games.

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Vintage Athlete Of The Month: John Hannah

John Hannah

The New England Patriots have not only been the most successful NFL franchise of the early 21st century, but they’ve become synonymous over the past several years with a finesse-style offense that places all the pressure on the quarterback. It wasn’t always that way though–the franchise was the only NFL home of the man who tops most career lists as the greatest offensive lineman to ever play the game.

We refer, of course, to John Hannah, and as we get set for this coldest of NFL months, when physical play is at a premium, it seems appropriate to honor “Hog Hannah” as BST&N’s Vintage Athlete Of The Month.

Hannah comes from a terrific football bloodline, with his father and brother both playing in the NFL trenches.  His father, Herb, played a year in the NFL for the New York Giants and younger brother Charley had a 12-year career in Tampa Bay and Oakland.

The signs that John would be an excellent football player were there from the outset in high school, where he was also a national champion wrestler, and participated in track, in the shot put and discus throw. He followed in his father’s footsteps and played college football at Alabama, a path his younger brother would also follow.

Hannah was All-American in his junior and senior year, and Alabama legend Bear Bryant called him the best offensive lineman he’d ever coached. Considering that Bryant won five national championships, is on the short list of the best college coaches in history and built that success around bruising offensive lines, that’s quite a statement.

Even though Hannah was considered a little short by NFL standards, his lower body strength and agility won over scouts and the Patriots took him fourth overall in the 1973 NFL draft. It was a draft that built New England’s running game for the next decade, because seven spots later the Pats grabbed USC running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham to run through the holes Hannah would be creating.

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BST&N Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Terry O’Reilly (VIDEO)

Terry-OReilly

 

In the rough-and-tumble world of Irish Boston, no trait is valued more than loyalty and nothing respected more than the ability to take care of oneself. Translated to the world of hockey, that means a tough enforcer who can handle things when they get the rough.

Today’s fans might identify Shawn Thornton as that kind of player for the 2013-14 Boston Bruins. But back in the day there was another enforcer on hand, and that was Terry O’Reilly, whom BST&N salutes as our Vintage Athlete Of The Month.

O’Reilly was drafted at the height of the Bruins’ glory years in the early 1970s. He played his first NHL game at the age 20 in the 1972 season when the franchise won its second Stanley Cup in three years. O’Reilly got his first taste of hockey at the highest level playing with Phil Esposito, Johnny Orr, John Bucyk and Derek Sanderson, among others.

As internship programs go, that’s pretty good, and though O’Reilly only played in one game, he scored a goal and got his feet wet learning from some of the game’s all-time greats. One year later he played in 72 games and his career was underway.

The forward got the nickname “Bloody O’Reilly” for his willingness to mix it up and battle on behalf of his teammates. As a result, he never generated huge point totals, but he did have his best offensive years in 1977 & 1978,  delivering 51 assists in ’77 and 61 assists a year later. The 1978 showing put him in the top ten of the NHL in passing, and in both of the years the Bruins made the Finals.

One year later came the incident that O’Reilly is most remembered for. It was two days before Christmas of 1979 in Madison Square Garden. Boston had just won a hard-fought 4-3 game over the New York Rangers, and players were milling around the ice in the brief aftermath of the win. Some trouble started with a few of the Ranger players around the boards.

A New York fan got over the boards and got the stick of Boston player Stan Jonathan and hit him on the head with the stick. Furious, O’Reilly went barreling into the stands to get the stick back and before anyone knew it, several other Boston players went in with them.

I understand that you can’t condone a player going into the stands no matter the circumstances, and O’Reilly’s eight-game suspension–stiff by the standards of the time–was deserved. That doesn’t mean one can’t think the fan might have had it coming, and to admire the loyalty of the player who went in to take care of business on behalf of his teammate.

It’s taking care of business on behalf of the team that marked Terry O’Reilly’s career as a player and he went on to enjoy more success after his playing days. He was named the Bruins’ head coach midway through the 1987 season and one year later he got them to the Finals.

O’Reilly never won a Stanley Cup as a coach, nor as a regular, contributing member as a player. But he made the Finals three times in those combined roles and played in two All-Star Games. On October 24, 2002, he officially entered the Bruins’ pantheon, when his number was retired.

No finer compliment could be paid to Terry O’Reilly than that given by his legendary teammate Ray Borque on the night O’Reilly’s jersey elevated to the rafters. “I’m glad his is hanging right next to mine,” Borque said. “Protecting me again.”

No one protected his own like Terry O’Reilly and that’s why BST&N is honored to do our part in protecting his legacy.

Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Mike Greenwell

Mike Greenwell was a key part of a 1995 Red Sox team whose comeback season was a lot like 2013.

Mike Greenwell was a key part of a 1995 Red Sox team whose comeback season was a lot like 2013.


The 1995 Boston Red Sox were a team similar to the one we’re enjoying in 2013. The ’95 Sox had come off a bad year in 1994, with only the strike that cancelled the season saving the Red Sox from their third straight sub-.500 campaign. When deciding whom to honor for our Vintage Athlete of the Month, it seemed appropriate to look to 1995, as Boston launches a push for what would be just its second AL East title since the ’95 season.

There were two good candidates—but we’ve already honored Mo Vaughn previously. And when Tim Wakefield retired, we paid tribute to his fine career. Another notable contributor was Roger Clemens, but he’s deader to us than Fredo Corleone was to brother Michael after betraying him in Godfather II. When you looked at the candidates, there was really one logical person to step forward and claim the honor on behalf of the 1995 Red Sox and that was left fielder Mike Greenwell.

Honoring Greenwell’s contributions to the Red Sox and respecting his place in baseball lore is long overdue anyway. He tipped his toe into the major league waters in 1985 and 1986, and got a handful of postseason at-bats in ’86. But in neither year did he play enough to qualify for Rookie of the Year.

1987 was Greenwell’s first full season, and he took full advantage of his opportunity. He hit. .328, popped 19 home runs and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting that Mark McGwire won. But Greenwell had established that the unbroken chain of excellence in Fenway Park’s leftfield—from Williams to Yaz to Rice—had a worthy heir.

The team had a down year in ’87, but came back in 1988 and no one was a bigger part of the resurgence than Greenwell. At age 24, he posted a .416 on-base percentage and slugged .513. He drove in 119 runs and finished second in the MVP voting, won by Jose Canseco.

It’s here that we should stop and point something out—playing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Greenwell was around as PED use was becoming mainstream. There was never any evidence—including circumstantial—to tie him to PEDs. He never became a physical specimen, and as we’re about to see, the injury problems he had, means he never turned to PEDs as a healing salve.

This become even more noteworthy when you consider that the two awards Greenwell came closest to—the ’87 ROY and the ’88 MVP—were won by two of the biggest cheaters of the era. Greenwell never won a major award, but he left the game with his integrity in place. He goes down as a prime example of the players who lost out while their brethren trashed the game.

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