Frank Gutch Jr: Can’t You Smell That Smell; Meet Bob Blackburn (and Bob Blackburn); the Annual John Rocker Report; and Notes… It’s All About Baseball, Sports Fans

Frank Gutch young

That’s right, sports fans, I smell baseball.  When I was a kid, sports were seasonal.  When the seasons changed, so did the sport.  It’s hard for me to relate to sports these days.  Football goes all the way into February.  God knows when basketball ends (seems like it goes on forever— in the Pros, at least).  And baseball ends about when the snow flies.  But it always begins in Spring and  it’s Spring now.  Almost.

oregonrainWhen I was a kid, Spring was mostly Summer.  The rain usually didn’t stop until late May, if then, and the town couldn’t have kids playing in mud, could they?  I wish they had had that attitude when I played high school ball.  I played more than one game in cold, drenching rain— well, I sat on the bench, which was even more miserable.  No, Sweet Home, Oregon was not the ideal place to live if you loved baseball.  And yet it was.

My first memory of an actual baseball game was my father walking me uptown to the high school field to watch the town team play.  See, they had this kid, Al Bagley, who Dad loved to watch and when Bagley pitched, Dad was there if he could  be.  He was Native American— that town called him “that Indian kid”— and threw what Dad called a “roundhouse curve” that kept batters off-balance and every time he threw it, Dad chuckled, usually at otherwise good hitters twisting into pretzels to hit the damn thing.

I learned to love that field, even though the cinder track interfered with right and right-center field.  It was unkempt and had a dirt infield famous for the jagged rocks which surfaced on a constant basis.  Indeed, my first years of Little league were spent policing those damn rocks before the first game of the day.  It was a chore, but it was better than the strawberries I used to get sliding into bases.

In the early days, there was a little hut behind home plate covered with chicken wire to stopped the foul balls from clobbering patrons (it was later replaced by bleachers and the chicken wire replaced by cyclone fence wire between poles a good twenty or so feet high).  All games were played during the day until they erected lights, coin-operated, of course.  More than one game was interrupted by lights clicking off, the supervisor heading down to the right field pole to drop a few more quarters in so the game could be finished.

joecunninghamI was a fair-to-middling player but outside Little League, I only had one good year.  I was fourteen and playing for Junior State on a team which also included the best guy I ever played ball with— Dennis Smith, known to most of us as Smitty.  The guy could have played Junior Legion, but he turned down the offer because he said he said he wanted to play and not sit the bench.  I always thought it was because he and I had played on so many teams together that it wouldn’t seem right.  That year, Smitty and I batted third and cleanup, alternatingly.  For some reason, the ball looked like a basketball to me and I was clobbering the ball like I never had.  Midway through the season I was hitting close to .500 and Smitty about .375.  We swept the first half of the season and then…  Then I broke my bat.  I had found this Joe Cunningham model with a slim handle and a meaty sweet spot and it felt so good when I connected.  On a night I went four-for-four, I shoved a single through the right side and it didn’t feel all that sweet.  I’m standing on first when Smitty, who was up next, held the bat up and yelled, “You broke it!”  I ended my season barely over .300.  I couldn’t find a bat to replace it.  For years I told people it was a Tony Conigliaro model, but I came home from the Army and found it stashed in the back of my closet.  Burnt into the wood was “Joe Cunningham,” big as day.  That was the day I became a big Cunningham fan.

Besides playing the game, Smitty and I had one other thing in common:  baseball cards.  I could smell Topps gum a mile away so whenever a new shipment came in, I bought some.  I was a big Dodger fan, see, and hated the Yankees with a passion.  Smitty, he was Yankee through and through.  We used to open our packs together and every time Smitty saw a Yankees card, he jumped.  “You keeping that one?” he would ask.  “Whatcha got?” I would respond, and the dealing was on.  Smitty had an advantage, see.  I hated the Yankees much more than he loved them so he would put together two or three Dodgers cards and hold them until I caved.  I was a huge Wally Moon fan and thought that Sal “The Barber” Maglie was going to be a Dodger forever and there was Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges and…  I’m sure you can see where this was going.  In the end, I gave up every Mickey Mantle “rookie” card I had for whatever Dodger he had.  Better Clem Labine than Mantle.  Oh, I’m not even sure who was on the teams back then but until the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, I bled Dodger blue.  The year they left I picked the Phillies as my team of choice.  From Reese and Gilliam to Roberts and Ashburn.  Quite a drop.  Then again, I would rather have lost than followed the traitorous Dodgers to L.A.  And lose, I did.

To be truthful, besides following the Dodgers, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Pacific Coast League fan.  I loved the Portland Beavers more than life itself (on the good days) and only slightly less on the bad ones.  Radio was the ticket back then and whenever the radio signal co-operated (the signal was always iffy where I lived) I would listen to the Beavers of they were in town (not Sweet Home, but Portland).  On Saturdays, Dad would be there sitting in his chair, smoking and drinking beer and I would lay on the floor with my ball and glove, tossing and catching the ball between innings.  If the Beavers were on, Dad would take an extra puff and chuckle as the game went on.  If they weren’t, he would take an extra puff and growl.  No cigarettes for me but I echoed the chuckles and grunts.  Fathers and sons.  Huh.

I remember waking up one day to rumors that the Beavers had traded Sam McDowell to Cleveland, for some insane reason.  Us kids were pissed until our folks (and Portland sportswriters) explained that he was not traded but “called up.”  Hell, we thought he was already up.  The PCL was a major league, wasn’t it?  Turned out it wasn’t.  What the hell did we know?

Meet Bob Blackburn (and Bob Blackburn)

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For a few years now I have noticed messages and posts by one Bob Blackburn but just thought it coincidence.  There have to be more than a few Bob Blackburns out there, wouldn’t you think?  It certainly could not be the Bob Blackburn who used to broadcast sports in the Pac Northwest in Portland and Seattle, right?  It isn’t, I found out, but the fact is that this Bob (to be referred to from here on out as “And Bob Blackburn”) is the sportscaster’s son.  The cool thing about that is that And Bob and I share the period, though he is a little younger.  I found out when he made a reference to his father and I asked about him.  My mother in her later years had made the mention that when I was a baby, she and Dad had spent more than one night or afternoon listening to Beavers games broadcast by, you guessed it— Bob Blackburn.  But wait— I am getting ahead of myself.  Maybe you should watch this first:

God, but the Beavers were a force, whether they were winning or losing.  I mean, they were local (or, in my case, regional) and young kids in my day took to the locals like a duck to water.  Win or lose, you didn’t badmouth our guys, Beavers or Seals or Angels, depending upon where you lived.  If you did, it was toe-to-toe time.  Got it?

behind-the-mic-in-the-boothMost people in Seattle remember Blackburn as the Voice of the Supersonics.  I knew him as the voice of The Beavers, both Portland and Oregon State.  I also knew him as cohort of Barnie Keep, one of the early rock ‘n’ roll jocks in Portland at KEX radio.  Here is a really cool video put together by one of And Bob’s sisters.  Note the play-by-play of the game still known as The Day of the Giant Killers, in which Oregon State shut down then super-powerful USC (with the now-infamous O.J. Simpson), 3-0.  My thanks to Bonnie Hart for the use of the video.  Man, I wish I could have been there for Bob Blackburn Night.

And Bob was there for most of his dad’s career.  After a short run in sports radio, he grabbed onto a position as a color commentator for Portland Beavers radio in 1950, teaming up with Rollie Truitt, who had been there for some time.  Originally, the games had been broadcast on KWJJ but later switched to KEX, where Bob picked up regular DJ duties and whatever jobs he could find outside the station.  As And Bob points out, no one got into radio for the money and Bob was on his way to a large family.  The Beavers were part of The Pacific Coast League with teams ranging from Seattle to San Diego and ran a full season operation.  Like I said earlier, us kids thought that the PCL was major league.  Originally housed at the Vaughn Street facility, the team moved into Multnomah Stadium as soon as it was completed.  That was in 1956 and the next year, Elvis Presley played his first ever Portland show there.

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Bob, Elvis and a contest winner from one of Bob’s radio shows.

Bob was eventually moved into the play-by-play seat due to Truitt’s health issues.  That included re-creation of away games in the studio at the radio station.  They would receive teletype play-by-play sheets and as ballpark sounds played in the background, Bob would emulate the game by hitting a miniature bat against as full-size bat for hits and fouls and slap his thighs, making the sound of a catcher’s mitt.

“One of the earliest tapes I have of my dad & Rollie is from a spring training game in Glendale AZ from 1954,” And Bob told me. “They traveled with the team and called back reports every day. It was fun to hear the excitement in the voices of not only the players and staff they interviewed, but in their own voices as they looked forward to the new season.

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“Being the son of the broadcaster had it’s perks, I could go to the games for free but had to scrounge for a place to sit, but I really enjoyed spending time roaming all corners of the park, chasing the ultimate prize, a foul ball. I also remember the publicity stunts they would do to amuse the crowd, before or during the games between innings.  My favorite was Max Patkin, the ‘clown prince of baseball,’ who appeared a couple of times a season. He was hilarious with his cap on sideways and a huge question mark instead of a number on the back of his oversized, baggie uniform.  And I got to see the great Satchel Paige during the 1961 season (Paige was then 54).  My dad said he got thrown a high inside pitch by Paige during a charity game between the media and the Beavers.  Dad had gotten a hit off of Paige his first time up and that wasn’t going to happen a second time. And I recall an act where a guy blew himself up in a small box on the pitchers mound.

“ Some of the players I remember best actually went on to play in the Majors— guys like Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, catcher Duke Sims, and some guy named Pinella… also some who were more local legends than big name players, like Eddie Basinski, Jose Vidal, Bubba Morton, Gordy Lund & others, as well as a few opposing players such as Matty Alou and some pitcher by the name of Juan Marichal, then playing for the Tacoma Giants.  Special mention should be made regarding Rocky Benevento, the groundskeeper both at Vaughn Street & Multnomah Stadium.  He was always in his white overalls with rake in hand, general-marshaling his helpers to keep the grounds not only playable bu as pristine as possible, dragging the infield by hand between innings and rolling out the tarps during the inevitable summer rain storms.

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“Dad, Rollie Truitt, and Willie Mays”

“Another perk of being the son of the announcer was getting the chance as a 14-year old to be the ball boy for the ’65 season. There were two bat boys, one for each team, and a ball boy, whose job was to chase down foul balls, supply the home plate umpire with new balls when summoned, and to go and grab a bunch of hot dogs and drinks for the umps between games for a double-header.  Double-headers have gone by the wayside now, a first game usually 7-innings followed by a 9-inning contest with an hour or so between games. Not only did  the ball boy get paid and get a front row seat, he got to wear a Beavers uniforms, AND share a locker in the clubhouse.  Mine that year happened to be next to outfielder Lou Piniella’s, how cool is that.  He taught us how to swear in Spanish.  We could hardly understand him but he was very funny and a really nice guy.

“The next two years I became what was called the press box boy, basically the go-fer for the guys in the press box.  It was directly behind home plate in two side-by-side sections, a door in between, a low building with high backed chairs, and a counter.  The right side housed the radio broadcaster (back then there were very few TV broadcasts, if any, so it was my dad and whomever was his broadcasting partner at the time.  I remember Frank Bonnama and Russ Conrad would be set up with mics and the engineer was to their right and on the far right, Rollie Truitt, who was by then the P.A. announcer. Through the door on the other side were the various sportswriters and the official scorer. I was tagged with getting food and drinks every couple of innings and running whatever errands they needed including bringing scores to my dad.  I had this job in ’66 and ’67.  For a young kid, it was a dream job.

beavers-1950-schedule

“In 1967, my dad beat out over 100 applicants for the job of sportscaster for the new NBA team in the Pacific NW, the Seattle Supersonics, We moved to Seattle that fall but Dad still had to broadcast the Oregon State football games that year, which became the greatest year in OSU football history.  They earned the name The Giant Killers, upsetting then #2 Purdue, then #1 USC with OJ. Simpson, and the following week tieing then #2 UCLA.  Both the Giant Killers and my dad were inducted into the state of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

“My love for baseball comes from those years in Portland listening to my dad announce the games, as well as being at the stadium, smelling fresh cut grass and the infield dirt the aroma of the concessions stands, beer & hot dogs, hearing the sounds of the organ and the vendors selling peanuts and soft drinks and the lady with the cowbell.  All a part of a young lad’s memories of spring and summer. Oh, by the way, after a 25 season career with the Sonics and over 50 years in radio, my dad retired in 1992.  He continued working in the Seattle area, being a tour guide host as well as a celebrity auctioneer and giving of his time back to the community he so loved.  He passed away on Jan. 8th, 2010… Elvis Presley’s birthday.”

And Bob lived my dream.  He got to not only go to the park, he worked there.  Color me envious.  And if you remember any of my columns in which I talked about radio disc jockeys, you know that us kids considered them parts of our families.  Bob Blackburn was one of them.  He was legend.

So was John Rocker, not that he wanted to be… Time for a retread.

BIGOTRY AND BASEBALL: From the Mouth of John Rocker (and the Musical Mind of Keith Morris)…..

John Rocker?  Who the hell was John Rocker?  I had just finished listening to an album by Charlottesville’s Keith Morris, an album which contained a song about baseball— Cross-eyed John.  I emailed Keith right away.  Who is this Cross-eyed John guy, I asked.  John Rocker, he said. You don’t know about John Rocker?  I said I didn’t.  Keith started telling me and as he talked, both the happening and the song came into focus.  Yeah, I heard about some guy who was benched for being a bigot.  He was the guy?  Yep, Keith said.  That was him.  And that is who the song is about.  I listened again.  I laughed.  Yeah, now it made sense.  So I wrote this piece.  Keith Morris, for those who don’t know, is one of the funniest and most creative people I know.  He fronts a band called The Crooked Numbers out of Charlottesville and writes some of the damnedest songs I’ve heard.  Of course, I had to ask him about some of them to find out what they were about.  Just like I did for Cross-eyed John.  No one ever told me writing about music was supposed to be easy.

KEITH MORRIS: Out of Left Field…..

keithmorriscrookednumbers-1

Jay-sus! Here we go again. Every summer, with the heat and onslaught of baseball we get blasted with John Fogerty’s supposed classic homage to the game, Centerfield. Nothing against Mr. Fogerty, who in all probability wrote the song with a semblance of heartfelt sincerity, but if that is the best we can do, let’s kill baseball. Hell, let’s kill rock music while we’re at it and throw in classical and reggae, to boot.

You see, you want to glorify the game or a player in the game these days, you need to go for the throat (or the crotch for those more into the violent permutations of the real world). You want a real baseball song, go for Cross-Eyed John. A literate look at baseball-as-life rather than the major league sanctioned baseball-as-Hollywood, it is no Centerfield and certainly no Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It is Taxi Driver to MLB’s Peter Pan and it kicks Centerfield’s ass.

When Keith Morris sat down to write Cross-Eyed John, it was tribute, though doubtful the kind of tribute the game sanctions. “It’s about race,” Morris says. “It’s about celebrating the Negro Leagues.” Play the song for Bud Selig and more than likely he would disagree (though being the diplomat he supposedly is, he would not admit it). Morris doesn’t care. The song had to be written.

“It started out as Appalachian gospel,” he related, “based as it was on an old Appalachian gospel song. I was watching snake-handling videos and got way into them and went for that ‘trance’ feeling.”

Okay…..

“The song makes sense on a number of different levels,” he went on. “it’s not about baseball (ed. note: WHAT?) but about people who are fucked in the head and backwards (ed. note: Ah, so it is about baseball…). But it is about something that really happened in baseball.”

Okay, now I’m confused.

“It’s about John Rocker, who insulted all sorts of minorities in an article in Sports Illustrated. In fact, ‘Mr. Schuerholz’ is a reference to the John Shuerholz who was general manager of the Atlanta Braves who had to deal with that ridiculous situation. Rocker was such a cartoon of a person anyway that you couldn’t take a stand on that situation without looking ridiculous yourself.

“The Rocker thing was a good jumping-off point to address race and how it is still a problem. Not just in the South, but certainly in the South. It’s stupid at this point, but it is still present, so I contrasted the Rocker nonsense with the Negro Leagues at the end of the song. You have this great story of the Negro Leagues and the great people who were involved with it back then. When I started reading about it, I found this whole world which was incredibly triumphant in the face of all sorts of oppression. THAT is the story, man. THAT is the story that we as a culture should have gotten— the triumph over our ignorance and hatred— but we’re such a stupid culture, we never seem to really get it.”

john-rockerIndeed, we don’t. But Morris did. The song is track two on an album (Songs from Candyapolis) which has nothing else whatsoever to do with the game. Musically, it is a gem, feeding from the trough of Leon Russell (Morris claims he has never heard Russell) and feeling church-born-and-raised. “I said, he ain’ got a brain, oh no no/He ain’t got no brain…” it begins and Morris is off and running through the elysian fields, strewing wildflowers everywhere. No slow motion fantasy run here. It’s a shot from the Needle of Truth.

Selig and his horde of corpulent corporate heads will not worry their heads about it. They have legal departments and PR people to handle the flack (already we are forgetting the steroid mess thanks partially to the sleight of head of those ‘experts’) and have bigger and better fish to fry. And they’re frying them, Centerfield blasting away in the background. Morris, in the meantime, will be frying up fish of his own (probably in a Weber) and is currently working on putting together a second album. He says he has written enough for four and, no, there are no plans for sports-related cross-promotion. The major leagues have a thousand rebuttals to every Cross-Eyed John and Morris can barely afford the fish he’s frying.

In the meantime, we might as well all resign ourselves to another long, hot summer of Centerfield blasting away between short shots of the theme from Jeopardy. While it is doubtful that Morris will be there, if he is, he will be the guy in the Homestead Grays baseball jersey. The pretty lady to his side, wearing Kansas City Monarchs gear, will be Jennifer, his wife. She’s the real hero here. She has to live with the guy, although dollars to donuts she doesn’t have to hear Centerfield. Well, not all the time.

Since this article was written, Keith Morris & The Crooked Numbers have added a new album to their repertoire, Love Wounds & Mars, which makes no reference to baseball— or John Rocker— whatsoever.  Keith still has that Homestead Grays jersey, though, and Jennifer that Kansas City Monarchs jacket.  Of course, Rocker didn’t play for those teams.  Probably wouldn’t have been good enough anyway.

This piece, by the way, is reprinted from a column from February of 2015.

Not a lot this week, but what say we get to the…..

NotesNotes…..  Found out this weekend that Jerry Dennon passed away recently.  Dennon, for those who don’t know, was a major player in the record business back when rock was making its move.  The first time I heard of him, he headed up his own company, Jerden Records, under which three labels lived— Jerden, Burdette, and Piccadilly.  I found later that he had been responsible for breaking The Little DippersForever in the Pac Northwest, promoting it as a “newsbreak” track.  Newsbreak tracks were usually short and instrumental as the disc jockey could either slip them into the time left before the news and even play as much as was needed before fading it out.

Those three labels mentioned above housed many of my favorite regional rock tracks, including The Live Five‘s Hunose and Yes You’re Mine, Little John & The MonksBlack Winds, The Kingsmen‘s Louie Louie, Don & The GoodtimesTurn On, and more.  In the Northwest, he was a giant on the teen scene.  RIP, Jerry.  And thank you.

At one point, I must have listened to The Abramson Singers a few thousand times, especially this track.  A worm in the brain.  The hook.  Shortly after the album, Late Riser, was released, Leah told me that the song would not have made the album without her friends talking her into it.  Where is Leah Abramson today?  Wish I knew.  She wrote some of my favorite tunes.

Will James down Houston way has been mentioning Elise Davis quite a bit lately so I took a listen and damned if I don’t agree with him that she is really worth hearing.  Take a listen, and thanks, Will!

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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