Bill Conlin: Lee and Lefty bear a striking resemblance

Posted: September 01, 2009

WHEN I'M KING of the World . . .

Cliff Lee can keep that replica of Steve Carlton's Superman cape - despite getting hammered by the Braves Saturday night . . . It's not hard to find an analog for Lee's first six games here. Cliff is only the second lefthander in Phillies history acquired after a 20-victory season. Baseball economics have caused the shuffle of aces, but when owners held all the cards, 20-game winners were rarely moved. But Lefty shook Cardinals owner Gussie Busch's lager into a lather with his contract demand after a 20-9 season in 1971. At the same time, Phillies ace Rick Wise, author of a '71 two-homer no-hitter against the Reds, gave salary rigor mortis to GM John Quinn's starched collar after going 17-14 for a team that finished 67-95.

So the Cards and Phils swapped problems and, ironically, each pitcher got close to his number, underlining the element of, "Well, I'll show that bleep" involved, particularly at Busch's end. Let's see how the big weirdo likes pitching for that team in that town.

After his first six starts, the big weirdo was 5-1, despite the lineups that doomed manager Frank Lucchesi rolled out there behind Carlton. His second and third starts were shutouts, the first a 1-0, in-your-face blanking of the Cardinals, the second an epic one-hitter in San Francisco, where Chris Speier led off with a single. Lefty retired 27 of the next 28 and struck out 14. It was the best performance of his HOF career.

After six starts, Carlton was 5-1 with a 1.73 ERA. Sound familiar? Despite the Braves whipping, Lee is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA - 37 years after the first instance of the Phillies trading for a 20-game winner. And Cliff, who wasn't exactly pitching in Yellowstone Park with the Indians, has been forcefully reminded that in Ranger Rick's snazzy playpen, location isn't everything - it's the only thing. Thanks, Vince.

When I'm King of the World . . .

Now that a variation of the venerable single wing has emerged from history's cocoon in the form of the Wildcat, proper homage will be paid to the superstars of a bygone era: the Triple Threat Tailbacks . . . Before Sen. Ted Kennedy was expelled from Harvard, the Crimson end scored the only touchdown in a trouncing by Yale. It was a flashback to a distant time when Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League played big-time football. Penn drew 75,000 fervent fans to Franklin Field at a time when the Eagles were an afterthought. The Birds remained a football second banana until the Ivy League banned spring practice and the eight presidents de-emphasized everything, guaranteeing there would never be another Chuck Bednarik. The last great Ivy League triple threat - run, pass and punt - was 1951 Princeton Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award winner Dick Kazmaier. He epitomized the single wing era, where the best all-around athlete on the football team often lined up in what is now called the shotgun and did the bulk of the running and almost all of the passing. And because of the limited substitution rules, it helped if the tailback could also punt. Many of the game's best tailbacks were actually quadruple threats. After punting the ball, they would turn around and play safety.

I ran across a few fading sheets of single wing plays, circa 1952, tucked away in an old scrapbook. It was a reminder of the unbalanced line formation - end, guard, center, guard, tackle, tackle and end up front; tailback behind center just a step deeper than the fullback, the blocking back (a glorified guard) behind a strong side guard or inside tackle, a wingback just outside the strong side end . . . All of them packed together tighter than sardines in a can. It was a power formation with little deception other than an occasional reverse or the ubiquitous buck-lateral play (fullback hands to the blocking back, who laterals to the wingback, or keeps and runs a Stone Age draw and similar variations). Pop Warner scrapped the blocking back and added a second wingback to his double wing. That was the offense Joe Paterno ran at Brooklyn Prep in 1944 and there were lots of reverses and double reverses. The only difference in that formation and what Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick will unleash when Andy Reid takes off the wraps is the wingbacks have spread out and are now called wideouts and a third wide receiver often replaces the weakside end. Looking at it through the fuzzy prism of 65 years, McNabb will play Joe Paterno and Vick will play brother George. Both future coaches passed and both ran. Just don't look for Don to do a lot of running - unless it is for his life. It will be fun until the defenses catch up. They always do.

Just wondering: Was a team with as much power 1 through 8 ever backed by a more feeble bench than the current Phillies extra men? . . . Has any Phils player aged more rapidly than Raul Ibanez since his DL stay? . . . Good to see Brad Lidge in man-on-a-mission mode. What took him so long? . . . Point of order: Some readers got the false impression that I consider Shane Victorino the No. 1 centerfielder in Phillies history. The column I wrote involved defense only - including throwing arm. To suggest I would rank a Hall of Famer behind a player with less than two full seasons under his belt in centerfield is insulting to both Rich Ashburn and to me.

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