Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Seattle Baseball's Cleveland Indian World Series Championship Connection

I was watching the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians Tuesday night on the FOX channel. The Tribe won the game 7 to 3 to go up 3 games to 1 in the best of seven series. Cleveland now is just one win away from clinching the right to play in the 2007 World Series.

Joe Buck, the annoying FOX play by play guy who talks way to much about stuff that isn’t happening on the field when he calls the games, happens to mention that the Indians last World Series title was in 1948. Nearly sixty years ago.

So “State the obvious” Buck and Tim Mc Carver, the Cardinal ex catcher, who does the color commentary, are both driving me nuts. Mc Carver keeps saying things like “that’s a good hit” when someone gets a hit. I have to ask myself what constitutes a bad hit Tim? Buck just talks too damn much period. He talking about stuff the likes of A-Rod’s (New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez) divorce proceedings while Boston is hitting its third consecutive home run in their half of the sixth inning. He’s often never centers in on what’s going on in the present time during the game.

Yap, Yap, Yap. We can see the game on TV Joe; so just shut the hell up once in a while so we can pick up on the subtleties of the game for crying out loud. Well it is the FOX Network so I guess that explains it. FOX sports broadcast have that sort of video game simulated production value to them aimed directly at 20 to 30 something males in puberty. Lots of graphics, sound effects, T&A and live game interrupting tape delayed dugout interviews with the managers that are always dumb and where the managers seem bothered but are forced to make small talk and state the obvious.

But to get back to what Joe Buck said about the last Cleveland Indians World Series Championship being in 1948. It made me think about an old family friend and a weird Northwest connection to the Indian’s passed successes and a possible World Series Championship this year.

It’s a story about a Seattle raised major league ballplayer by the name of John Jeffrey Heath. "Jeff" Heath was born April 1st 1915 at Fort William, Ontario Canada and eventually migrated to Seattle with his family and graduated from Garfield High in 1934. He was an all around star athlete 6 feet tall and weighing in at around 200lb in his prime. He broke into the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1936. He played for the Indians, Washington Senators, St Louis Browns, and finally the old National League Boston Braves while in the majors. His last year in the majors was 1949 as a Boston Brave.

I met Heath in the late sixties when I was this full blown hippie who happened to like baseball and about twenty years after he had retired from baseball in 1950 after a truly remarkable major league career. He was a dear friend of my step dad John Francis Buckley at that time. They met as young men and had known each other by reputation during high school and during Heath’s budding major league career and later in their extensive travels in Seattle Baseball circles. My step dad was a star baseball player for O’Dea during high school in the forties. He was a bona fide major league prospect in his own right until a severely broken leg caused by a outfield collision while trying to catch a fly ball pretty much ended his dreams. I don’t think he every really got over it. But this story is mainly suppose to be about Heath.

Jeff Heath was a pure slugger and mainly a left fielder during the dead ball era of baseball. I remember Jeff as an extremely playful gregarious sort of fellow. He had a great sense of humor a big laugh and loved practical jokes. Sure, some say he could be temperamental at times but he was mainly a carefree Seattle sports celebrity to me. He also liked to bend his elbow a little as did my step dad and they often could be found making stops at a number of popular sports crowd watering holes around town. They’d end up at my folks place on Queen Anne Hill and if I happened to be there I’d hang around when they were there just to pick up on the funny stories and imitations of Babe Ruth eating a hotdog or running the bases Heath would do when he was feeling his oats. Plus it was absolutely fascinating to talk about baseball with the man if given the chance. God he actually knew the Babe.

He once showed me his enormous scrapbook when I dropped by his house one day that was literally shaped like a giant baseball and chucked full of clippings and photos of him alongside all the great players of that era including Ted Williams, Warren Spann, Stan “the man” Musial, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Bill Veech (the GM), Johnny Sain, Al Dark, and Lou Boudreau to name only a few. I was flabbergasted as it all sank in and I realized what an amazing baseball player he really had been in his day.

Over his 14-year career Heath had a batting average of .293. He appeared in 1383 games had 103 triples and 194 home runs. He made two all-star game appearances in 1941 and 1943 as an Indian. He was the runner up to the Red Sox legend Jimmy Fox for the batting title in 1938 and led the league in triples that year and in 1941. He averaged 104 RBI per season during his career. One remarkable stat he will forever own is being the FIRST major league player to hit at least one home run in every existing National League park and every American League Park, a feat completed in 1948 while playing for the NL Braves.

There's a story about Heath causing a near riot at Wrigley Field in Chicago during a game in 1948 between the Braves and Cubs. Seems he lost a ball in the famous ivy covered walls of Wrigley Field, it turns out it was really at his feet. The umpire rules the hit a double instead of a in the park homer for the Cubs. Fans go nuts and shower the field with debris causing a twenty minute delay and eventual police intervention to control the Cubs bleacher bums.

Heath played in 115 games as a Boston Braves in 1948 and the team went on to clinched the National League Pennant with a 3 to 2 win over the New York Giants on September 26th, 1948 with six games remaining in the season. Jeff ended up hitting .319 for the year with 20 homers.

It must have been a thrill for him to think he could soon be facing the eventual American League Champion Indians in the upcoming World Series. A team he broke in with in 1936 and for whom he played for 10 seasons. At the age of 33 Heath was in the twilight of his career and he’d finally be playing in a World Series in just a few days. But fate was to dictate a different outcome and Heath would never get the chance to play in a World Series.

On September 29th 1948 just two days before the end of the regular season in a meaningless game against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Brooklyn Heath snaps a bone 2 inches above his ankle while sliding home in a game eventually won by the Braves 4 to 3. It’s Brave pitcher Johnny Sain’s 23rd victory of the year.

Heath’s season, his destiny to finally play in a World Series, and career would effectively be finished that day.

When the news reached Fenway Park in Boston of the season ending injury to Heath the Red Sox will find themselves embroiled in a game against the Washington Senators and the ongoing American League pennant race with the Indians. Red Sox fans cheered because Heath had previously said in a radio interview he rather face the Indians in the World Series instead of the cross town Red Sox because Municipal Stadium in Cleveland could hold more fans and it would mean a bigger World Series money split for the players. The American League Red Sox would eventually lose a one game playoff to the Indians and a trip to the 1948 World Series.

The National League Champion Boston Braves went on to face the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 World Series. Cleveland won World Series Championship in six games, a fact that long-winded Joe Buck was trying to point out last night on TV.

Heath returned to the Braves in 1949 but because of the effects of the injury to his ankle the previous season he played in only 36 games in 1949 and would never achieve the level of play he had enjoyed in previous years. He was release by the Braves on October 13th 1949. He played briefly for the Seattle Rainier’s in 1950 and then retired from professional baseball. Jeff died on December 9, 1975 after suffering a heart attack at his home on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle he was 60 years old.

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