Plenty of nekkid women. No idea who any of them are.
But there are plenty of obscure sub-plots for sports geeks.
First, there’s the tale of Leon (Lee) Riley, father of the ultra-successful Lakers coach, Pat Riley. Lee’s story was really emblematic of an era in American sports that no longer exists. From the 19th century until about the 1960s, it was possible to be a career minor league ballplayer, thrilling small-town fans in the summer and working pedestrian jobs in the off-season. Lee Riley was such a man. His career got off to a promising start at age 20, when he found himself in single-A ball in his first year as a professional, by-passing all the lower levels except for a very brief stint (23 games) in class D. In his first full season in the tough Western League, he tore it up at the plate, batting .370 with tons of extra base hits. He was the league’s best hitter for several seasons, but developed a reputation as an inept glove man with a weak arm. As one observer put it, “He batted .375 but his fielding average was just about the same. He couldn’t field pumpkins if they were tied in a sack.” So he worked and worked on his fielding until he earned a well-deserved promotion to the Rochester Red Wings, the top farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals, with his major league dream seeming within his grasp.
And then he ran smack into the Peter Principle, which suggests that each person rises until he reaches his level of incompetence. For Lee Riley that level was the International League. He batted only .276 with no power at Rochester, in an age when just about every major league outfielder batted .300 or better against actual major league pitching. It was especially difficult to break into the St. Louis Cardinals’ line-up. In 1930 the St. Louis Cardinals were the highest-scoring NL team of the 20th century. They had 13 players with 100 at bats or more, and twelve of them batted in the .300s. When Leon Riley went to Rochester, the Cardinals were the defending World Series champions, and it was soon obvious that Lee could not fit into their major league plans.
How did his performance drop so dramatically from class-A ball to AA? Lee himself said that it was because he couldn’t hit lefties at that level. That formed the basis for one of Tommy Lasorda’s best stories, as recounted in the L.A. Times, July 13, 1988:
When Tom Lasorda was pitching for Schenectady of the Canadian-American League in 1948, the manager was Lee Riley, father of Laker Coach Pat Riley.
“We were playing Gloversville, and I’ve got ‘em beat, 2-1, and it’s in the top of the ninth inning. As I go out to pitch, Riley, who was coaching third, came to the mound, picked up the ball to hand it to me and he says to me, ‘You’re in good shape. You’ve got three left-handed hitters in a row.’ And I was a left-handed pitcher, which meant things should be easy.
First left-hander doubles. Next left-hander triples. Next left-hander doubles. And now they’re winning, 3-2. And he comes to take me out, and as he starts to take the ball from my hand, he looks at me and he says, ‘Know why I couldn’t hit in the major leagues?’ I thought that was a very unusual question, but I said, ‘No, Skip. No, why?’ And he said, ‘Because I couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers. But if you’d been there, I’d have been a star.'”
But an equally cogent explanation was given by sportswriter Whitney Martin. Lee could not hit the curve at that level.
Whatever the explanation for Lee’s failure, the Cards would soon assemble the famed Gas House Gang win another championship – without Lee Riley, who would by then be playing in a C league.
That’s how his life went. He’d have a couple of good years, earn another promotion, then find himself back at a lower level than when he started. By the time 1938 rolled around, he was a 31-year-old veteran of 12 minor league seasons, but was in D ball with the 19 year olds, playing full-time while also acting as the team’s manager. He once again tore it up at the low levels, batting .365 and .372 in those two years in class D. That superlative performance temporarily stalled his managerial career, since his hot bat earned him yet another promotion to the International League as a player, this time with a Dodgers farm club. The result was even more disappointing than his first trip through that league. In 38 games he batted .212 with one homer. By then he must have understood that the majors were only a dream, but baseball was his job and he was no quitter, so he accepted another demotion and resolved in earnest to seek a managerial job. He found himself as a player/manager in a C league, where he had his best season to date, batting .391 with a league-leading 32 homers in the obscure Canadian-American League.
Given his track record, a solid performance at such a low level would not normally have led him back on a path to the majors, but fate intervened, in the form of Adolph Hitler. America needed able-bodied young men to fight in WW2, including young ballplayers. While the best and youngest major leaguers went to bat for Uncle Sam, the desperate major league teams were looking for bodies to fill out their depleted squads. This opened spots for older guys who would otherwise have retired, for a one-armed outfielder, for a 15-year-old pitcher, and especially for career minor leaguers desperate for a chance at the big show. That was Leon Riley’s cue. He was too old, and had a family to support, so he could not be drafted, and the Philadelphia Phillies eventually offered him a spot on the roster in 1944. He was a 37-year-old major league rookie.
Which is worse, never to get a chance to prove what you can do, like Moonlight Graham, or to get a chance after two decades of trying, only to prove that you really couldn’t do it, like Leon Riley? Facing only the diluted wartime pitching of 1944, he batted an embarrassing .083 before the Phils demoted him to the Utica Blue Sox, roughly the American equivalent of being sent to Siberia. The next year he found himself back in D ball yet again, playing against kids who could be his children, starting from the lowest player-manager level for the third time in his career, hoping once again to move up the managerial ladder. He was not a man who gave up easily, so he stubbornly lasted five more years in the low minors as a player/manager in the Phillies’ farm system. As a player, he would never again reach as high as single-A, the level where he had played in his very first year, nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
When he finally stopped playing, he stayed in the Phillies’ organization as a full-time minor league manager, and was awarded some promotions until he was finally back in class A, as manager of the Phillies’ Eastern League teams in 1950 and 1951. The Phillies did a bit of manager-swapping in 1952, and Riley found himself managing the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who posed a respectable 72-66 record in the Interstate League. Unfortunately, the economics of baseball were changing. The Wilmington Blue Rocks went belly up. The entire Interstate League collapsed. Facing a dwindling bottom line, the Phillies announced after the 1952 season that they were trimming their farm system from 12 teams to 9. Along with many others, Leon Riley lost his job that day, his baseball odyssey complete after 11 years as a manager, and a playing career that spanned 22 summers. He had accumulated more than 2,400 hits in pro baseball, including about 900 for extra bases, in the process of compiling a .314 lifetime average. At various times he had led minor leagues in doubles, triples, home runs, walks, RBI and batting average. He had once managed a team to a pennant. He had always done what was asked of him, having played D ball at age 20, then again at age 30, and finally at age 39. Despite his loyalty and hard work, he found himself unemployed at 46, with no non-baseball job skills. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, he went up to his attic and discarded all of his memorabilia dating back to the mid-20s, symbolically casting baseball out of his life, as documented by the eyewitness testimony of his son, the future Lakers coach.
This explains why the Pat Riley character in Winning Time walks around with his dad’s fire-damaged bat. The implication is that the dad tried to burn it and the son rescued it from the fire.
The second obscure tale involves another fella, name o’ Jack McKinney. You may not remember him, but he was once the Lakers head coach – for a grand total of 14 games! Obviously, he did not achieve the level of fame of Pat Riley, Jerry West or Phil Jackson, but he was important to the franchise. Through 1978-79, the Lakers had been playing a very slow, very traditional type of ball, using the usual man-to-man defense, and an offense that consisted of getting it to Kareem and letting the big man do his thing. When McKinney took over from the disgruntled West in 1979-80, he found himself working with a new owner open to change, and a slick rookie named Magic Johnson, who would prove to be one of the greatest players in history. McKinney decided to institute a running offense and a controversial zone defense, technically illegal at the time, that would remake the Lakers, bring them an immediate championship, and became the hallmark of their play in the subsequent years.
So why don’t you remember him? Those 14 games were his entire Lakers career. Shortly after the season began, he went out to ride his bike one day and took a near-fatal spill. A head injury resulted in a coma. By the time McKinney was ready to return, the Lakers owner no longer wanted him back, and he ended up coaching the Indiana Pacers. He did get picked as coach of the year in his first year with the Pacers, when he took the team to the NBA playoffs for the first time, but it was all downhill from there. The head injury had taken its toll on him. His players told the local media that McKinney had had memory lapses while coaching.
His Wikipedia entry sums up his contribution to the Lakers: “Pat Riley won four titles with the team and became the coach most synonymous with the Showtime Lakers. However, Norm Nixon credited McKinney with creating Showtime. ‘That should never be forgotten,’ said Nixon. According to Riley, McKinney ‘might have won five or six titles for the Lakers in the ’80s’ were it not for his accident. McKinney was deferential. ‘I just put in some ideas that were accepted, and the rest was up to Paul and Pat and some great players.'”