Saturday, April 17, 2004

Hot Stove, Cool Music, Great Cause by Steve Reynolds

One side of Major League Baseball usually gets overlooked in the all the chatter about high salaries, performance-enhancing drug use and where the Expos may end up—many organizations head up great charitable efforts. Major League Baseball itself has provided funding for Boys and Girls Clubs around the country for almost a decade and runs Baseball Tomorrow, which provides equipment and uniforms to youth baseball leagues. The Mets, lead by players like Al Leiter and John Franco, are involved with 22 community-outreach programs throughout the metropolitan area. And both the Mets and the Yankees were tremendous supporters of post-9/11 needs.

But the longest-running and best-known baseball charity is Boston’s Jimmy Fund. Anyone that grew up in (or in my case, near) New England will remember ushers in their local movie theater collecting for the fund each summer. The Jimmy Fund was started in 1948 by the Variety Club of New England. The club organized a radio broadcast from the bedside of a young cancer patient dubbed Jimmy as he was visited by members of the Boston Braves baseball team. Contributions poured in to buy Jimmy a television set so he could watch the Braves play. The fund truly got off the ground the next year with the theater collection program.

When the Braves moved to Milwaukee, the owners of the Red Sox took on the major support of the fund by naming it the team’s official charity. Ever since then the team has raised money for the fund, which has helped numerous young people battle cancer for more than 50 years. And the Red Sox players throughout the years have always been big supporters—the 1967 Boston Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team voted to give the Jimmy Fund a share of its winnings from making it to the World Series. (And back then post-season money actually meant something).

In 2000 a new Jimmy Fund benefit came on the scene in Boston—Hot Stove Cool Music. The project was hatched by Boston Herald sportswriter Jeff Horrigan and ESPN baseball guru Peter Gammons. The duo had long talked about putting together a benefit. (Gammons—well known for musical references in his columns—says, “I always joke that some people do golf tournaments while I do rock concerts.”) Horrigan was inspired one night after seeing a show where one opening act was named for the late Yankee catcher Thurman Munson. Horrigan knew another band called Carlton Fisk, and thought a benefit with both bands and other baseball-themed acts would be a great idea. Horrigan called Gammons the next day, and he suggested an auction of baseball memorabilia to fill out the evening.

The first Hot Stove Cool Music concert took place in December 2000 at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club. The night was headlined by ex-Letters to Cleo singer (and big baseball fan) Kay Hanley. Gammons served as the evening’s MC, and Hanley’s bassist Ed Valausakas (also from the Boston band The Gentlemen) recalls that, “People came out in droves just to hear [Gammons] talk baseball between the bands.” The night was a great success. Valauskas adds, “The end of the evening culminated with an ‘all-star jam’ (in other words, a train wreck) on ‘Surrender’ by Cheap Trick featuring Kay and Nina Gordon (ex-Veruca Salt) on vocals, with neither of them remembering the words to the first verse. It was kinda funny.”

Three more Hot Stove Cool Music benefits have happened since 2000, with the last one this past January selling out in no time. “Each year its just grown a little bit more,” Gammons says. “And this year it’s sort of taken on a bit more of a life.” That life Gammons is referring to is Hot Stove Cool Music: Volume One, an album filled with a diverse roster of acts with baseball connections. Pearl Jam contributes a live version of “Bu$hleaguer,” which takes on the former Texas Rangers owner-turned politician. Gammons says singer Eddie Vedder has always has a baseball and music connection. “He wrote some of his first songs in a little donut shop right across from Wrigley Field.” Hot Stove stalwart Hanley contributes “Your Summer Baby,” which is a perfect theme for the boys of summer, while Valauskas and The Gentlemen contribute the appropriately titled “Hit That.”

The disc also features baseball players and employees. Trauser, led by Red Sox general manger Theo Epstein on guitar, tackles Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Sandfrog, the band led by former Angel and current Mariner Scott Speizio, and Stickfigure, led by ex-pitcher Jack McDowell, each contribute original material. Gammons is especially impressed with McDowell’s development after his career ended a few years ago. “I think he’s evolved into an outstanding musician, and he’s evolved into himself. Which is true of a lot of musicians. You start out sort of copying the people that you idolize, and then you eventually grow into your own personality.”

The disc also features the Hot Stove All Stars (Valauskas, Gentlemen drummer Pete Caldes and ex-Letters to Cleo guitarist, and Hanley’s husband, Mike Eistenstein) backing up Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, ex-J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman Dickey Barrett and several Red Sox players singing on a cover of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part One.” “Part Two,” which has no lyrics except for the “hey” chant, is the one that gets played at parks around the country. Valauskas says, “I thought it would be interesting to do the version with lyrics mostly because it is just weird and that not very many people know it.”

Gammons, who played in a band in college, turned from MC to performer at the 2003 benefit. He jokes that his first concert appearance in almost 40 years was made easier by the “great safety net” onstage of The Gentlemen with Janovitz and Eisenstein. That led to Gammons and the Hot Stove All Stars covering Chuck Berry’s “Carol” for the album. “Peter was great in the studio,” comments Valauskas. “I was a little surprised only on that he hadn’t recorded since 1964. His singing on that track is really good and it didn’t take him very long to nail it. Initially it was a little strange backing him up because of the famous person aspect, but that went away pretty quickly. It is a pretty natural fit with the Gentlemen because of the old school rock n’ roll thing. Gammons is such a music fan and rock n’ roll historian—it is not only a good time playing with the guy but you actually get a music history lesson (as well as some baseball insider info) playing with him.” As for his studio experience, Gammons adds, “I was amazed at how it turned out. I said to Ed at one point, ‘That isn’t exactly what I thought I sounded like.’”

For Gammons and company, the goal now is to keep raising money for the Jimmy Fund. A DVD of the 2003 show is in the works for later this year. And a second album is also in the planning stages, with even more baseball and rock connections. “In addition to the Gammons track and the Gary Glitter cover,” Valauskas reveals, “We cut a version of ‘Simple Man’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd that we were hoping to get Tim Wakefield to come down and sing on but unfortunately, scheduling never allowed it to happen. Maybe we’ll get him for the next one.”

Gammons adds that Boston is the perfect place to keep doing this benefit series. “One of the reasons this works so well in Boston is that Boston is America’s biggest college town. And it’s essentially two things—baseball and rock n’ roll. Those are the two biggest things in town. Maybe that’s why I love it here so much.”
(To order the album, go to

Postscript: I couldn’t let a chance to speak with Peter Gammons go by without asking a couple of regular baseball related questions.

Zisk: Who do you think improved the most in the off-season?

Gammons: The Phillies. Getting Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell and Eric Milton—they had pretty good starting pitching. Now they have great starting pitching and a great bullpen. They could be really, really good.

Zisk: If Larry Bowa has slow start with this team, does that put him in jeopardy after the end of last year.

Gammons: Yes, I think they’ll be a great deal of pressure because everybody expects him to win.

Zisk: What do you think of how the Mets approached the off-season?

Gammons: I think that Jim Duquette has instituted a philosophy, a philosophy I thought they should have had a long time ago. And that is, “We’re not going to go around and get slugging name stars that will please the back pages of the papers. We’re going to go out and get players that can adapt to Shea Stadium.” Shea Stadium is one of the worse places to play and hit in baseball. So his idea is to go out and get good defensive players, get pitching and make life miserable for people when they come there. And I think that’s the way to be successful, and I think that he’s got a plan that has a chance to be really successful. In my mind, you can have Andruw Jones and Tori Hunter and all the rest of them. In my mind, Mike Cameron’s the best centerfielder in the game. They got a great defensive shortstop in Matsui, and Reyes will be a great second basemen. They started out by really improving the defense in the middle. They’re not going to go to first place in one year, but for once they have a plan, which is something they haven’t really had in the past, you may have noticed.

Zisk: Yes, yes I have. (Laughs)

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