Today is a rare day when enough baseball birthdays happen to warrant a special edition of this column. First, I’ll start with a fellow blind man-well, at least the managers told him he was a blind man and even tried to lend him their glasses from time to time.
John Bertrand “Jocko” Conlan was born today in 1899 and passed away in 1989. He played only a year with the White Sox as a 35-year-old rookie. He then unpired in the National League from 1941 to 1965. He umpired 5 World Series, 6 All-Star games and 3 National League playoff series. He’s one of the few umpires to be enshrined at Cooperstown.
Jose Contreras is 44 today. He came to the Yankees amid great fanfare as a rookie at age 32 in 2003. He wasn’t in the class of his fellow Cuban defector Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and didn’t last in the Bronx. He was a World Series winner with the 2005 White Sox and an All-Star a year later. He stayed with them until mid-2009, then had a brief stint in Colorado and 3 seasons with the Phillies. He’s still active with the Brother Elephants of the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Lance Blankenship is my age, 52 today. I wouldn’t mention a .222 career hitter with 9 home runs in a 5-year career if there wasn’t something special involved. The special element here is Chris “Boomer” Berman. Berman was known for giving players goofy nicknames and using them liberally when he was a host on ESPN’s Sports Center program. This player, Lance Robert Blankenship of Portland, Oregon had maybe the best Boomer nickname of all time. Lance “Oh Darn, They Sunk My” Blankenship.
How do you top that? Lance played in the 1989 and 1990 World Series with Oakland.
Larry Bowa is 70 today. The always colorful Bowa played the game at shortstop from 1970 to 1985 and has coached, done TV and radio or managed ever since. He was an All-star 5 times and was Manager of the Year with the Phillies in 2001. He is their bench coach now. His fiery temper has been known to get him into trouble, and I’m guessing ESPN and other TV outlets kept him on a short leash where language was concerned. His book, actually entitled “Bleep,” gives you a glimpse into his nature.
Stan Hack was born on this day in 1909 and died in 1979. He played for the Cubs for his entire career with a .301 lifetime average. He drove in the winning run in game 6 of the 1945 World Series, the last World Series game a Cubs team has won. Broadcaster Bill Slater used his full name Stanley Camfield Hack seconds before the rbi single that won the game in the 12th inning. He was an All-Star at third base 5 times including the epic 1941 All-star game which Ted Williams won with a walkoff home run in the 9th. Hack was a manager in both the major and minor leagues until 1966.
Our final birthday is also one for the fans of the real old timers. Tony Lazzeri was born on this day in 1903 and died of either a heart attack (the official version) or an epileptic seizure in 1946. He is in the Hall of Fame thanks to the Veterans’ Committee but only made it in 1991. He was part of 5 Yankee World Series. He, Frankie Crosetti and Joe DiMaggio, so baseball legend says took a drive from San Francisco to St. Petersburg for Yankee spring training. With no superhighways this trip took a lot longer than it would today. All 3 men were silent by nature. The legend says one of them asked Joe DiMaggio to take a stint behind the wheel. He said “I can’t drive,” and supposedly said nothing for the rest of the trip. Lazzeri was only an All-Star once, in 1933. This is because 1933 was the first year the All-Star game had been played. Most teams wouldn’t touch Lazzeri because of his epilepsy, but the Yankees took a chance and it paid off. His unofficial nickname was “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony,” given to him by Italian-American fans wanting him to hit a home run. To my knowledge, only Tigers’ broadcaster Ty Tyson dared to use the nickname. New York had no broadcasters until 1939, so radio broadcasts of Lazzeri’s games are rare.