Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Vook" ... He Completes Us

To those who may be "non-believers," there's this:

The two individuals who were most responsible for derailing the Boston Red Sox' world championship dreams in 1975 have now died within six weeks of one another.
And, oddly enough, both of them served as Philadelphia Phillie coaches on the staff of Larry Bowa during the '01 and '02 seasons -- Bowa being the one who replaced Terry Francona, the manager who would eventually lead Bosox Nation to its first world title in 87 years.

With the passing of John Vukovich -- Philly's beloved "Vook" -- on Thursday morning, the baseball world lost the second of the co-conspirators in "The Great Anti-Bosox Scandal of '75."
Vook's passing comes six weeks after Vern Ruhle's death (Jan. 20 -- five days shy of his 56th birthday) and has brought closure to one of baseball's least-known conspiracies.

The lab boys here at Haystack Headquarters have been sittin' on their lab results for years -- and now, it's time to go public with their findings re: Vook and Vern.

Lest we forget, Vukovich was picked by Sparky Anderson as the Big Red Machine's starting third baseman for the '75 season (nobody remembers what was wrong with Dan Driessen, the Reds' starter at the hot corner for almost all of '74. Was he injured early in '75? Or was he drunk and disinterested? Nobody remembers ... and nobody cares ...).

What prompted Sparky to select Vook (likley his nickname from his sandlot days in Sacramental) is a matter of conjecture, given that, despite his reputation as a dazzling fielder, Vook had never shown as much as even moderate success as a hitter on the big-league level.
Sure ... he'd had 22 HRs and 96 ribbies at Eugene in '70, but he'd done next to nothing offensively for the Milwaukee Brewers in '73 and '74.

Regardless, Sparky was going to make Vook the everyday third baseman.
That didn't last long, however.

Vook got off to a hot start through the first week (5 for 13), but then slumped. Before long, he was out of the starting lineup.
After that first week, Vook went 3 for 25. He was the defensive replacement in each of the Reds' three games in that mid-May series in Montreal's old Jarry Park ... and then he was "sent down," as the expression goes.
Vook never played for the Reds again -- and, by August, he was traded to the Phillies, the organization which selected him in the regular phase of the Jan. '66 draft.

So, yes ... it can be argued that Vook (indirectly) helped Cincinnati to that World Series triumph over Boston.
By struggling so mightily as the starting third baseman, Vook forced Sparky's hand -- meaning that the Reds skipper had to move Pete Rose from LF to 3B while giving George Foster (who hadn't done much in his previous four seasons in Cincy) the starting LF job while youngster Ken Griffey manned RF.

Vern Ruhle completes the second half of the co-conspirator equation.
As a young pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in '75, he was the one who threw the pitch which broke the wrist of Boston's rookie slugger, Jim Rice, with a little more than a week remaining until the opening of the playoffs.

With Rice on the shelf, Boston manager Darrell Johnson had to re-shuffle his lineup, moving Carl Yastrzemski from 1B to LF while giving more playing time to youngster Cecil Cooper.
When Yaz was playing first base, LF was often patroled by Bernie Carbo -- however, Rice's injury meant that Boston would have to make do w/o a formidable right-handed batter/.300 hitter/100-RBI presence in the lineup.

While Cooper did hit .311 and provide adequate power for the '75 Sox (before moving on to Milwaukee where he would establish himself as one of the A.L.'s top first basemen), he went 1 for 19 against the Reds pitching staff in the World Series.

Alas, this story's not about Coop.

It's supposed to be about Vook.

He probably had dozens of stories about his lifetime .161 batting average stretched out over 10 MLB seasons (only 559 ABs in those 10 seasons), but there's many people who can vouch for Vook's upstanding nature as a person during his four stages as a Phillie -- first, as a prospect (1966 thru 1972), then as a journeyman infielder hanging on (1976 thru 1981), then as a coach (1988 thru 2004) and an executive (2005 thru 2006).

That's 32 of his 41 years in professional baseball spent in some capacity as a Phillie.

And, if you're looking for more "six-degrees-of-separation" motifs, well ... more exist.

One in particular is that time in the summer of '01 when Vook was first diagnosed as having a benign brain tumor and the third-base coach's box was not occupied by the familiar #18 for a few weeks.

When the Phillies played an interleague game at Fenway, the national FOX broadcast showed glimpses of Bowa sitting in the dugout with Vook's #18 shirt on a hanger in the background.

Another tidbit: Everybody knows that Bowa and Vook were raised on the sandlots of Sacramental, CA (before those sandlots were all turned into mini-malls) ... but what people might've forgotten is that when Hollywood director William Friedkin ("The French Connection," "The Exorcist") was directing "To Live And Die In L.A.," the lead actors were William Petersen (the original "CSI" star) as "Richard Chance," Willem Dafoe as "Rick Masters" and John Pankow cast as Chance's partner ... JOHN VUKOVICH.

For those of us who were actually born and raised in L.A., we were unimpressed by this 1985 throw-away flick with sub-par character development -- but, we, the people who called ourselves Phillie fans, always admired what John Vukovich stood for in that movie.

It makes ya chuckle ... "John Vukovich" in a movie. It's kinda like TV's "The Office" wherein B.J. Novak stars as "Ryan Howard."

Speaking of Ryan Howard, we all know that he was the Phillies' 5th-round draft choice back in '01 -- but, what some of us lose sight of is that in the 8th round of that '01 draft, the Phils selected pitcher Taft Cable of UNC Greensboro in the 8th round and then pitcher Rocky Cherry of the University of Oklahoma in the 10th round.

In the 20th round, the Phillies drafted an outfielder from the University of Delaware -- Vince Vukovich, one of the fightingest of the Fighting Blue Hens ... and son of John Vukovich.

Four picks later, the Pirates spent their 20th-round selection on pitcher Zach Duke, who was marvelous for the Buccos as a rookie in '05 (8-2/1.81), kinda shaky last season (10-15/4.47 for a pile-o'-crap team) -- and the only reason this matters is because the Phillies coulda had Duke, not Vook.

Makes ya wonder how often Taft Cable phones up Rocky Cherry and asks if it was wise for the Phils to go with Son of Vook over Duke in the 20th round.

Rocky Cherry probably then answers a question with a question by asking Taft Cable if the Phils blew it by making Gavin Floyd the overall #4 selection when Mark Teixeira was available.

Then, Taft Cable asks Rocky Cherry if he knows that Gavin Floyd and Mark Teixeira went to the same high school (Mount St. Joseph in greater-Baltimore) ... and if he realizes that the Phillies spent their 22nd-round pick in '01 on Gavin Floyd's little brother, Michael, two rounds after picking John Vukovich's son ... or if he'd like to rent "To Live And Die In L.A." just so he can see how it all works out in the end for John Vukovich when it comes time to pull his gun ...

Obviously, the common thread between the Phillies' drafts of '66 and '01 is John Vukovich (the Phillies' prospect/coach/executive, not the character in a motion picture). What was interesting about the Phillies' '66 draft, vis-a-vis the draft of '01, is that Vook was taken in January's "regular phase" while his teammate at American River CC in Sacto, Lowell Palmer, was drafted in January's "secondary phase."

For those who do not own the 1970 and 1971 Topps trading cards of Lowell Palmer as a Phillie pitcher, well ... those people are missing out on one (well, "two," actually) of life's simple pleasures.

On that '70 card (#252), Lowell Palmer is poised in the traditional pitching pose (Shea Stadium, naturally, serving as the backdrop) -- yet, nobody can resist laughing out loud when they see Lowell's distinct sunglasses with the dark-black lenses and the thick, black frames (a la Roy Orbison).

It would seem as though those sunglasses were drawn on Lowell Palmer's face (the way that kids sometimes did with their baseball cards back in the day) ... it really is THAT amusing.

Still, there's nothing silly about the caption for the accompanying cartoon on the back of that card (a Topps staple back in the day), where we learn that "Lowell's hobby is raising pigeons." -- as a cartoon baseball player releases a bird from his grasp.

Now, the front of Lowell Palmer's '71 card (#554) differed in the sense that he was pictured wearing the new Phillie uniform of the era (w/ piping along the sleeves and down the pantleg and w/ a big "P" on the left breast replacing the script "Phillies" across the front and the uniform # -- in Lowell Palmer's case, a #40 -- fashioned on the right breast) ... togs which, as we all know, the Phils wore from the beginning of that final season at Connie Mack Stadium (1970) thru the 1991 season.

The front of the cards in Topps' '71 series featured an autograph from the player, however ... there was no cartoon on the back of the cards, merely a few sentences to provide a thumbnail sketch which accompanied a lifeless mugshot.

Lowell Palmer's, Topps '71 rap sheet was highlighted by "threw a 2-0 shutout vs. Expos, 6-29-69" -- which, actually, doesn't explain much about the pitcher when you consider how terrible the expansion Expos were in '69.

Also, that 2-0 shutout vs. Montreal contains no context -- such as how, 10 days following that 2-0 victory, Lowell Palmer and his Roy Orbison glasses were staked to a 3-0 lead against the two-time, defending N.L. champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Palmer took a 3-2 lead into the top of the 9th, having yielded only solo homers to Joe Torre (leading off the 4th) and to Vada Pinson (leading off the 8th).

Yet, with one out in the 9th, Lowell Palmer and his Roy Orbison glasses yielded a pinch-hit single to Dave Ricketts. After Boots Day was inserted as a pinch-runner for Ricketts, Lowell Palmer and his Roy Orbison glasses surrendered a go-ahead, 2-run homer to Lou Brock (the Cards got an insurance run when third baseman Rick Joseph committed an error on a grounder by Tim McCarver).

What made this game fascinating (aside from the fact that God's-gift-to-baseball -- -- allowed us to re-live it) is that we came to learn that Lowell Palmer's inability to close out the Redbirds made a winner out of Cards pitcher Nellie Briles (while Joe Hoerner earned the save with a 1-2-3 ninth).

Where it gets a little eerie is when we sit back and reflect that Nelson Briles was an excellent pitcher in his day -- and probably died too young two years ago at age 62.

Joe Hoerner, meanwhile, was an outstanding-yet-unheralded reliever for the Cards in the '60s and for two awful Phillie teams in the early '70s -- and he definitely died an unglorious death (three weeks before his 60th birthday in '96) when he was clearing debris on his Missouri farm and got run over by his own tractor.

Dave Ricketts, on the other hand, was your typical journeyman catcher -- however, his 6-foot-7 brother, Dick, was one helluva basketball player at Duquesne before he focused on his baseball career, eventually reaching the bigs and appearing in 12 games for the '59 Cards (he was awful, by the way).

Dick Ricketts was only 54 when he died of cancer in March '88.

And, Rick Joseph? Well, for those old enough to remember, Rick Joseph was the Phillies' '60s version of Marlon Anderson.

Rick Joseph, however, was only 40 when he died in his native Dominican Republic in Sept. '79.

The untimely deaths of Briles, Hoerner, Ricketts and Joseph have nothing at all to do with the fact that when Lowell Palmer posed for his 1972 Topps card (#746), he was decked out in a White Sox uniform and his glasses were far more stylish (less tint w/ wire frames).

The thing is, after the Phillies cut Palmer loose following the '71 season, Palmer did sign with the White Sox -- but, he never actually got into a game with the Chisox and was subsequently released in mid-May (he was picked up by St. Louis on the same day).

All that we get from the Topps cartoon on the back of Lowell Palmer's 1972 card is a riddle: "Q: What is Lowell Palmer's off-season occupation? A: A private detective."

Not a word is mentioned re: his pigeon-raising hobby ... or his favorite food ... or whether he was, or is currently in, an abusive relationship ... or whether he, or any member of his immediate family has been diagnosed as a "schizophrenic" ...

Well, since this is supposed to be The John Vukovich Entertainment Hour, it makes more sense to spend less time digging into Lowell Palmer's past (such as his final big-league stops in Cleveland, New York and San Diego) and, instead, focus more on Vook.

Most of us will never forget how John Vukovich got a chance to start at third base on the final day of the 1980 regular season -- and he was batting 7th in a Phillies lineup which featured Orlando Isales in the No. 3 spot, GEORGE Vukovich (no relation) battin' cleanup and catcher Ozzie Virgil batting 5th in his MLB debut.

Never mind that the Fightin' Phils had clinched the N.L. East the previous night (when Schmidty jacked HR #48 off of Stan Bahnsen in the top of the 10th) ... this was for pride against an angy Expos team.

Anybody who listened to that game on Armed Forces Radio can tell ya about how George Vukovich's RBI single tied the game, 2-2, in the 3rd ... and about how rookie pitcher Mark Davis kept a rally alive with a single which preceded a 2-run double by Tim McCarver to put the Phils up, 5-2, in the 4th ... and about how, after pinch-runner Ron LeFlore stole second and third base against Virgil before scoring the tying run in the bottom of the 8th, the rookie catcher exacted some payback in the top of the 10th when he got his first major-league hit (a double) to spark a Phils rally.

Virgil scored the go-ahead run -- and then the Phillies got an insurance run when .161-career hitter, John Vukovich singled home rookie Bob Dernier for a 7-5 lead, so suck on that, Taft Cable and Rocky Cherry!

After Warren Brusstar retired future A's manager Ken Macha and pinch-hitter Tommy Hutton (the ex-Phil), singles by Chris Speier and Willie Montanez (the ex-Phil) set the stage for a 3-run, game-ending HR by Jerry White.

Nobody called it a "walk-off homer" at the time.

When Brusstar was working as a Phillie scout for all those years (for all we know, he still is a Phillie scout), how many times do ya 'spose Vook phoned up Broos and gave him crap about ruining a .161-career hitter's hopes n' dreams?

Vook probably took it all in stride.

Then again, on the George Vukovich page in, the sponsor (Bill Franklin) described Georgie Vook as the "backbone of of the mid-'80s Indians lineup. Every team needs a couple of George Vukovichs."

And, why is that, Bill Franklin? (if that's your real name) Why were you seduced by Georgie Vook? Was it the porn-stache? The prematue gray hair? The penchant for hitting in the mid-.240s with very limited power?

If it makes Bill Franklin feel any better, he didn't build that shrine to George Vukovich all by himself. A lot of us helped, using Craftsman tools to complete the intricate detailing on the altar.

When Georgie Vook batted .311 at Peninsula in '78 ... or when he ripped those 10 triples at Reading in '79 ... or when he hit that pinch-hit, walk-off homer against Jeff Reardon in Game 4 of the '81 NLDS (nobody called it a "walk-off homer" at the time) ... or when he went 4 for 5 w/ 5 RBI vs. the Padres on May 6, 1982, we thought, "This is it ... George Vukovich is here to stay. He'll be a Phillie for most of the years of his Hall of Fame career."

Some of us went so far as to pattern our style of play after him, yet, what we often produced was a mixed bag of both John Vukovich and George Vukovich, probably w/o the best traits of either (provided that Geroge actually had any ... that is, besides tying for 8th place among NL'ers in '82 with 14 intentional walks).

Both of the Vooks were on the roster for that '80 postseason, although George had a few pinch-hitting appearances against the Astros (and did nuthin') and John did not get a whiff of gettin' his .161 average anywhere near the batter's box.

Georgie Vook? He was definitely an "outsider" when it came to Phillie rookies -- among them, Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland, Bob Walk and Marty Bystrom -- who made the team click in '80.

The Vook and Georgie Vook connections are powerful forces in our lives. For example, when the Reds traded Vook back to where he broke in (Philly) in Aug. '75, what they got in return was outfielder Dave Schneck.

Schneck never had an AB for the Phils -- however, he was part of the deal in which the Phillies sent Unser, John Stearns and Guerrant McCurdy Scarce to the Mets in exchange for two banjo-hitting outfielders (Schneck and Don Hahn) and a relief pitcher who seemed washed-up during '74 after leading the Mets to the World Series in '73.

As we all know, Guerrant McCurdy Scarce came to be known in baseball circles as "Mac" -- while the reliever acquired form the Mets -- Frank Edwin McGraw -- allowed us all to call him "Tug" or "Tugger."

Another blood-chiller: Vook, like Tug, died of brain cancer in the winter prior to the the summer in which he would've celebrated his 60th birthday.

If the cosmic connection there isn't enough, consider that when the Phillies first traded John Vukovich (a few weeks after the '72 season), Vook was part of the 7-player deal in which he, Don Money and Billy Champion went to Milwaukee in exchange for Jim Lonborg, Ken Brett, Ken Sanders and Earl Stephenson.

Isn't this bizarre?

Ken Brett died of brain cancer in Nov. '03 -- six weeks before brain cancer claimed Tugger.

It's not our duty to climb baseball's death tree, though it didn't take much effort to connect all of these players and their early demises.

Vook's gonna be missed in Philly -- although the symbolic patch that the Phillies will wear this year will read "Vuk."

It'll be a little like the first year of The Cit when the players had the shamrock patch to remember Tugger and the ribbon-shaped patch to remember The Pope.

It's important to remember that #18 was far more than a .161 career hitter, even though that is a really crappy stat to take to heaven ...

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