Thursday, December 16, 2010

R.I.P. Rapid Robert Feller

Like the rest of the baseball world, I was saddened by the news of Bob Feller’s passing yesterday at age 92. He truly was an American original, a one-of-a-kind character.

An Iowa farm boy blessed with a blazing fastball that made him a Hall of Fame pitcher, Feller also was a hero in a field much more significant. The day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rapid Robert became the first major league baseball player to enlist in the military. He spent four years in the Navy and earned several combat medals and commendations as a gun captain on the USS Alabama.

He was just 23 when he joined the Navy, about to enter the prime of his baseball career. Conservatively, the war years cost Feller at least 80 wins, but when I asked him about this in an interview in the early 1990s, the always opinionated pitcher quickly stopped me and reminded me how lucky he was to have returned from the war safe and sound. “There are thousands of young men who never came back,’’ he said. “They are the true heroes.”

He threw three no-hitters and won 20 games seven times, but when I inquired about his greatest victory, he replied without hesitation: “Beating Germany and Japan in World War II. None of the 261 games I won in baseball would have mattered without that one.”

Rapid Robert provided me with one of my favorite baseball-playing moments back in the summer of '77 (that's 1977, not 1877 for all you smart alecks out there. ;-)

I was a 22-year-old sportswriter covering the Mets' Class A, New York-Penn League affiliate in Little Falls, N.Y. for the Little Falls Evening Times, and Feller came to town to sign autographs at the ballpark.

Before the game, he took the mound, resplendent in his old Cleveland Indians uniform, and threw four pitches apiece to a handful of local 'celebrities.' I put that word in single quotes because yours truly was one of the designated celebs.

As a sold-out crowd of 3,000 looked on, I dug in. Feller went into his trademark, high-kicking windup and delivered a batting practice offering straight down the pike. I was so excited to be batting against one of the most dominant pitchers of all-time that I almost cork-screwed myself into the ground while fouling the pitch off my right foot.

The crowd roared with laughter.

"Now, we see why you write about sports rather than play them,'' bellowed one of the leather-lunged spectators, who sounded as if he had already imbibed a few too many Utica Clubs.

I turned as red as a St. Louis Cardinal.

Feller's second serving was every bit as good, and I lined a base hit to right field.

I stroked the third pitch to center and the final offering to left.

Three hits in four at-bats vs. the immortal Bob Feller.

I could now tell my children and grandchildren, and anyone else who would listen that I once had my way with a Hall-of-Fame hurler; that I owned Bob Feller. Well, sort of.

Years later, before interviewing him at an oldtimer's game in Buffalo, I mentioned that night in Little Falls to him.

Feller grew defensive.

"Geez,'' he said. "I was 58 at the time and I wasn't throwing hard because I didn't want to embarrass anyone.''

I told him I understood that and that I didn't bring it up to be disrespectful. I just wanted to thank him for taking it easy on me and giving me the thrill of a lifetime.

I wasn't bothered by his response. In a way, it was kind of cool, hearing that kind of fire from a guy in his 60s.

And I thought it was even cooler when I read that he had taken the mound as a 90-year-old a few years ago at the Hall of Fame game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.

Once a competitor, always a competitor.

That’s how I’ll remember Bob Feller.


If you still haven't figured out what to get that sports fan in your life, may I suggest an autographed copy of one of the 13 books I've published. Here's my upcoming schedule:

* Friday, Dec. 17, 6-8 p.m. - Henrietta Borders (across from Marketplace Mall)

* Saturday, Dec. 18, 2-4 p.m. - Pittsford Barnes & Noble.

* Saturday, Dec. 18, 6-8 p.m. - Eastview Mall, The Bills Team Store, with special appearances by the Buffalo Jills and mascot Billy Buffalo.

On another positive note, we've received confirmation that Wegmans will be selling my latest release, Jewel of the Sports World: The Hickok Belt Award Story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Today's menu: Syracuse hoops revival, Derek Jeter's anger, John Lennon's passing

After eight lackluster performances in which the Syracuse Orange men barely survived the likes of basketball powerhouses Detroit and William & Mary and looked like the most suspect ranked-team in the land, they finally snapped out of it, crushing a very, very good Michigan State squad, 72-58, at their home-away-from Dome, Madison Square Garden. SU still has many flaws it must work on (perimeter shooting is concern No. 1), but this game showed that the Cuse is very talented and very tenacious on defense. (For more on Orange hoops, please check out my weekly Syracuse basketball column at Channel 8’s website: )


Derek Jeter said he was angry at being portrayed as greedy. Sorry, Derek but, with nearly 10 percent of the country unemployed and many others worried about joining those the ranks of the jobless, few people are going to feel your pain. Especially after the Yankees just rewarded you with a three-year extension for $51 million despite the fact that your work performance declined dramatically this past week. Take a moment to study your Yankees history, and you'll learn how shabbily they treated Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle during contract negotiations after seasons far superior to yours. Just be grateful and keep your trap shut.


I see where Sylvester Stallone is going to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota next summer for his portrayals of the fictional, rags-to-riches boxer, Rocky Balboa. Does that mean Robert Redford and Kevin Costner will soon be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame?


It’s hard to fathom that John Lennon’s been gone for 30 years. Seems like only yesterday, I was watching Monday Night Football when, in a truly surreal moment, Howard Cosell told us that the famous Beatle had been gunned down outside his New York City apartment. Mark David Chapman may have killed this genius, but, thankfully, Lennon’s music lives on. Sadly, though, Chapman did rob us of even more brilliant music by Lennon and the cataclysmic Beatles reunion that eventually would have taken place.


Speaking of Monday Night Football, I was saddened by the passing of Don Meredith the other day. Football broadcasts were never as entertaining as they were in the 1970s and ‘80s with Frank Gifford, Cosell and Dandy Don in the ABC booth. Meredith, of course, was famous for singing Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over” during the final quarters of routs and he was especially good at putting the megalomaniacal Cosell in his place. I’ll never forget watching the waning moments of a Monday night game when the camera zoomed in on a drunken fan who had passed out in the empty seats of the upper deck of a stadium during a lopsided contest. At the last second, the drunk regained consciousness and upon seeing the camera, stuck out his middle finger. Without missing a beat, Dandy Don told the viewers who had bothered to stick with the telecast: “Folks, he’s just telling us we are No. 1.”


Some personal business: My condolences to longtime friend and colleague Frank Bilovsky, who recently lost his mom a month shy of her 100th birthday. Imagine all the extraordinary events and changes she witnessed in her lifetime. On a happier note, my congratulations to my niece, Laura O’Brien, who just got engaged to Donnie Smith, a former Rochester Americans player and all-around good guy, and to my longtime friend Matt Michael, who was engaged during Thanksgiving. To Laura & Donnie and Matt and robin, may your marriages be filled with incredible happiness and love.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Author looks forward to busy signing season

‘Tis the season to . . . do booksignings.

If you are looking for that perfect holiday book for that sports lover, please consider one of the 13 books I’ve published, including my three most recent offerings – Buffalo Bills Football Vault, Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt or Silver Seasons: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings.I have a bunch of signings scheduled, so please stop by at one of the following establishments if you are out and about and say ‘Hi.”:

Saturday, Dec. 4 – Greece Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 10 – Victor Borders, 6-8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 11 – Webster Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 12 – Bills Store, Ralph Wilson Stadium, 10-noon

Tuesday, Dec. 14 – Bills Store, Ralph Wilson Stadium, 6-7 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 17 – Henrietta Borders, 6-8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 18 – Pittsford Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 18 – Bills Store, Eastview Mall, 6-8 p.m.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Opining on SU in the Bronx, Boeheim's deserved crankiness and the passing of two sports figures

As hoped for in this cyberspace recently, the Syracuse University football team will be going bowling in the Bronx. The Orange men officially accepted the invitation to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at the new Yankee Stadium on Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. This will be a homecoming for coach Doug Marrone, who went to Herbert H. Lehman High School about 10 minutes from the old Yankee Stadium. And it’s even more meaningful because Marrone grew up a rabid Yankees fan – a family tradition begun by his grandfather who worked as an usher at The House That Ruth Built.

This is a good next step for the program that overachieved in going 7-5 this season. It will help SU reestablish its recruiting foothold in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. And it will afford the thousands of Syracuse alumni in the metropolitan area an opportunity to see their alma mater play in the Big Apple. The Orange men clearly aren’t ready for a BCS bowl, which they were in the running for up until two weeks ago. They’ll have a much better shot against their likely opponent, Kansas State.

Everybody in the Big East sounds giddy about landing current college football powerhouse, TCU, but don’t look for any cartwheels from me. Yes, I understand that it’s all about money and protecting yourself against the carnivorous, money-grubbing conferences that are raiding one another. But it makes no sense geographically, just like it made no sense for Boston College to join the ACC. The Big Ten, which really was the Big Eleven, is now the Big Twelve, with the addition of Nebraska. And the Big East is now the Really Big East, adding a 17th school for basketball. Where does the lunacy end in the avaricious world of big-time college sports?

I’m sure God is happy to know that Stevie Johnson wasn’t really mad at him.

My Bills pick this week (I’m 8-3 for the season): Vikings 23, Bills 20. And Stevie will catch a touchdown pass.

I don’t recall ever seeing Jim Boeheim this cranky about one of his teams this early in the season. As Mike Waters, the superb basketball beat reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard, wrote in his lead after SU’s victory against Cornell the other night: “Unbeaten and Unhappy.” But given the inconsistency of every Orange man but Rick Jackson, who’s been averaging a double-double so far, I can’t say as I blame Boeheim. They better play two halves of good basketball in upcoming games against North Carolina State and Michigan State or they won’t be unbeaten any more.

Speaking of SU hoops, please check out my column about my picks for an all-time Orange team at Channel 8’s web site,

I’m saddened by the recent passing of my friend Dave Martens, the long-time Fairport High School athletic director. He was a true giant in his field, initiating several national programs, including his efforts to combat teenage alcohol and drug abuse. Dave liked to come across as gruff, but he was more Teddy Bear than grizzly, and he had a great, dry sense of humor.

I also was saddened by the death of Jim Kelley, a legendary hockey writer who spent most of his distinguished career with The Buffalo News. I’ll never forget Jim’s booming voice and laugh, his silver Kenny Rogers beard and hair, and, most of all, his kindness to fellow journalists, yours truly included. I got to know Jim back in 1991, when he spent a season covering the Bills. Great guy and great reporter.