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In one of the New York Times’ admirable and stylish customs, they devote an entire weekly magazine in December to the profiling of a representative cross section of folks who have passed on over the course of the given year. It’s called, “The Lives they led,” and it’s a fetching window on the times.
I thought of it while taking note of the fact it’s been a rough winter for baseball’s Old Guard. Successively we’ve lost Johnny Sain, Hank Bauer, Lew Burdette, Billy Klaus, Sam Chapman, Clem Labine, Cecil Travis (and I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone.) Now you can add Bowie Kuhn to that list of distinguished baseball elders -- all formed and shaped in the Greatest Generation -- who’ve lately drifted off to their appointment in Samara. These were representative men.
Sain, whose passing has already been properly noted on this page, remains ‘‘sui generis’’ as long as a flicker of memory of the long gone and sainted Boston Braves persists.
We got the sly Burdette, the swinger from Nitro, straight up for Big Jawn. Sain went on to nail three more championships for the Yankees. But if they’d hung on to Lew -- the only 200 game winner they ever discarded -- they might have rolled completely unblemished from ’49 through ’64, a frightening thought. More to the point, the fact that Lew’s finest works graced Milwaukee rather than Boston remains tragic.
You’ll find the name “Bauer” at the top of the game’s short list of genuine war heroes. The Yankees of that era had lots of iron, but the soul of their post-war dynasty was defined by this prototypical, ex-marine. “Hank has a face like a clenched fist,” a salty New York scribe once observed. But he also had a heart as big as the Bronx. His pal, Mickey Mantle, said it was Hank who taught him about “life.” You can read into that what you will.
Klaus should be remembered as the scrappiest kid on a string of otherwise flat and laid-back Red Sox teams that sleepwalked their way through the mid-fifties. Billy would run through a wall to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, his teammates of the time much preferred to walk.
Clem Labine was an early master of the bullpen. The Dodgers regarded him as “their secret weapon,” the crucial importance of the closer being then vastly under-estimated by other, less enlightened, NL teams. Appearing in 60 games for the ’55 champs he hurled 145 innings, which is more than most starters are obliged to toil nowadays and about three times what was required of a Dennis Eckersley. A smart and classy gentleman from Lincoln, R.I., he had a distinguished career as a clothes-maker after his glorious bullpen days most notably spent in the pristine baseball burgh of Brooklyn.
Then there are Sam Chapman and Cecil Travis; two fine examples of “the WWII factor” in the evaluation of greatness. Had the Great War (both served four full years) not hugely impacted their careers they’d probably now be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Chapman was an All-America halfback for the University of California’s 1937 Rose Bowl champs, jumping straight from Berkeley to Schibe Park. A flashy center fielder, he hit .322 with 25 homers and 106 RBI for Connie Mack’s A’s in ’41. Only 25 and with four seasons already in the books he’d arrived at stardom. By Christmas he was in the Air Force, gone until ’46. Sam played six more seasons after the war while hitting over .260 only once. Like other established players who did hard time, military service simply eroded his skills.
But it’s Travis who was the most brilliant example of the “war factor.” He’s “exhibit A” in the argument that more slack should be cut for the great ones whose careers were effectively wiped out by war service. In the 1941 season, only one chap in all of baseball had a better batting average than Cecil’s .359 and that was, of course, a certain willowy lad named Williams who was hitting .406 that summer in Boston. On the eve of the war, Ted, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg and Bobby Feller were the AL’s foremost luminaries. But hard on their heels was the Washington Senator’s lanky and graceful shortstop, Cecil Travis.
And it’s important to keep in mind that he was not an outfielder or first baseman, but a shortstop who was superb in the field. Only 28, he’d already logged eight seasons, garnering 1,370 base hits while hitting .327 lifetime. No shortstop in the game’s history -- save for the mythical Honus Wagner -- had ever posted such impressive statistics. Mere weeks after Pearl Harbor, Travis was in the Army where he did NOT play baseball while lying out stateside. He was that rare genuine star who did really hard time. By the winter of ’44-45, he was surviving The Bulge while slogging through Europe on the final drive and along the way he got a terrible dose of frostbite in both feet. He came home barely able to walk. He played two more seasons quite poorly before retiring at 34.
Mindful that some of his buddies got their heads shot off, Travis never complained about his hard luck which he properly regarded as relatively minor. Over the years, he got stray Cooperstown support but he was dismissive and actually asserted -- more than once -- that he did not consider himself worthy. You don’t hear that every day.
And now -- as Paul Harvey would say -- comes the rest of the story.
Over the last decade or so the self-appointed chairman of the ad hoc “elect Cecil Travis to the Hall of Fame” Committee has been no less than Bowie Kuhn, the Princeton bred lawyer, beleaguered baseball czar, droll lecturer on baseball manners and morals, and alleged “stuffed-shirt” who died the other day just weeks after Travis, his beau ideal, had crossed the bar.
Seems Bowie grew up in D.C. being utterly in awe of Travis. He lobbied mightily for his election and almost succeeded around the turn of the century when he’s said to have convinced near enough Veterans’ Committee voters including Williams and Stan Musial. Travis came close. His election would have infuriated HOF purists now in control of the process but it would have been exquisitely fair; something Kuhn, much to his credit, fully appreciated.
Since his death last week, baseball pundits have been fiercely debating Bowie’s performance as commissioner and place in baseball history. Opinion seems roughly divided. That’s hardly surprising given that the key issues he struggled with -- mainly having to do with how best to divide the immense spoils this great game generates -- remain essentially unresolved.
Kuhn’s tenure was terribly complex. He faced problems that had no precedent. In Marvin Miller he had a brilliant and implacable foe who dueled him every minute of those 15 years (1969-1984) that he spent on the bridge. He was burdened with a rough stable of owners including world-class loose cannons Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, Gussie Busch and the young and reckless George Steinbrenner. He’d inherited a mess thanks to a decade of drift under Ford Frick followed by a term of incompetence under Gen. Bill Eckert. He had to make baseball understand that being the national pastime was no longer a birthright while presiding over more change in a decade than the game had experienced in a full century.
Bowie Kuhn never whined. He was a good guy. And he was no bloody “stuffed-shirt.” To know him was to realize that if he sort of looked and sounded like a Princeton lawyer straight from central casting it was just a cover for a genuine, old-fashioned baseball fan who could carry a lifelong affection for Cecil Travis right to his grave.
In my book, Bowie belonged in the Hall of Fame. He deserved the honor more than the present commissioner, who will doubtless cakewalk into Cooperstown, and infinitely more than that legendary fraud and redoubtable cad, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. No man would have appreciated the honor more.