Friday, December 22, 2017

My Pen Pal, George Avakian

I've written before about my favorite thing to do when I worked at the Hall of Fame library: helping fans find the box score of the first major league game they remembered attending. Most such requests came with several details--score, date, teams, stars--that would be close but not necessarily correct. So each request became a search, a puzzle to be solved through semi-clues. Thanks to retrosheet.org, I was almost always able to find that baseball grail.

Of the dozens of box score requests I fielded, one stood out for the highest percentage of correctly remembered details. It was all the remarkable because the game occurred a ridiculously long time before its details were recounted to me. It crossed my mind at the time that this fellow must be quite sharp. I hadn't heard of him until our phone conversation in March 2007.

That thought occurred to me again a few weeks again when the gentleman died. He was indeed quite a sharp fellow. He was George Avakian, the man who put Columbia Records on the map starting in the 1940s. He introduced Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and a generation of jazz greats to the world and preserved the work of many earlier musicians. He did much more than that (he discovered Bob Newhart, for instance). This giant of the recording industry was honored often, including by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010, 70 years after he went to work at Columbia.

George Avakian was 98 years old when he died. Born in Russian in 1919 of Armenian parents who moved shortly thereafter to New York City, he didn't see baseball played until he was ten. This he detailed to me in an e-mail written on March 30, 2007, two weeks after he turned 88. He had called the Hall of Fame with his query, and I had the pleasure of handling it. Over the next month, we talked several times and exchanged a flurry of e-mails, some of which I copied and saved.

Avakian initially asked me about two games he remembered, both played at Yankee Stadium. In one, which he didn't attend but which he saw heralded in a newspaper headline, Babe Ruth hit two home runs (that didn't narrow it down much!). In the other, which he remembered much more vividly as his first ballpark memory, Willie Kamm of the White Sox hit a ninth-inning home run off Waite Hoyt but the Yankees won, 5-3. He described the home run, its trajectory, the reaction of the fielder, and numerous other details of the game. Kamm hit just 29 home runs in his career, so it wasn't tough to track down the date. Every detail he told me was right on the money except one. He thought it happened in 1929, but in fact it was 1930. He was 100% correct in small details of a game played nearly 77 years earlier! No wonder he was able to write to me with amusement about being introduced thusly at an international conference: "If anyone asks you for a definition of a 'pop standard,' tell them they're the songs George Avakian remembered in high school."

I want to share some excerpts from George Avakian's e-mails to me, for three reasons:
  1. They illustrate the process of reconciling baseball memories with actual events. It's a tricky business when a long-held memory turns out to be flawed simply because we've seen so many games in our lives that isolated events merge in memory. One of the best things about the process is all the side-trails explored along the way. 
  2. They show why this kind of question was my favorite thing to tackle at the Hall of Fame. I relished making connections with people through baseball. Through these e-mails, you'll learn about Avakian and what it was like for him to discover baseball in New York City in the 1920s.
  3. They demonstrate that George Avakian was indeed quite a fellow. Think about the effort he put into this puzzle and exchange at age 88 regarding what he called a hobby, and you can picture why he was such a moving force in his prime, in his own field, for so long.
Here goes, from March 30, 2007:
   
Dear Mr. Schechter:

I should have sent this to you yesterday, but I wanted to finish coordinating my two earliest baseball memories with the information you so kindly looked up for me.

I'm enormously eager to see the report of the Yankee-White Sox game of May 3, 1930. My memory of Kamm's homer, which just cleared the railing near the foul line, is crystal clear. So are the Sox road uniforms (navy blue, from head to the bottom of the knee cap) with, of course, white stockings. What surprised me was that the year turns out to be 1930, but as you will see, it all fits together with the 2-homer newspaper headline and intervening memories. Here is what I believe is an accurate melding of your information and my memories:

Ruth's "May 3 homer" (which now merits either quotation marks around it or an Avakian asterisk) was never as clear in my mind's eye as Kamm's, so I am now certain that as time passed my memory of seeing Ruth and then reading about his actual homer on May 4, compressed both into the 5-3 game [on May 3]. 

About the two Ruth homers in one game, this is how I have finally decided that it must have happened on June 22, 1927, despite the fact that in our conversations I said that my summer vacations began around the first week of June, which does not fit in with walking home from school--but I had forgotten that I had changed schools in September 1929. 

When I checked the four dates you gave me against a perpetual calendar, I ruled out June 10, 1928 (it was a Sunday) and June 23, 1928 (Saturday). The memory of the headline and passing a newsstand with two classmates was as clear as Kamm's homer, so it had to be on a school day. June 22, 1927 was a Wednesday, and although September 28, 1925 was a Monday, so both were possibilities. I ruled out the latter--it was only when I reviewed the chronology of when I learned enough about baseball to start remembering specific games (even though I had not seen any yet), I realized that 1925 was too early (age 6), and it had to be June 22, 1927. The 23rd and 24th homers also fit in with my recollection of the headline. 

I don't recall when I learned what the game itself was like; certainly I did not even see kids playing while we lived at 129 East 76th Street, and the first time I remember anything about the nature of the game was when we had moved to Washington Heights (summer of 1929, age 10). This also meant that unlike the cheek-to-jowl geography of downtown, I could play in an empty lot behind our apartment building, where my mother could call to me from the sixth floor window that dinner would be on in ten minutes. That was the year my father bought me my first glove (an oversized puffy pillow which did not separate the pinky and the finger next to it). 

And so my next very clear memory was what I believe is the first time that regular-season games were broadcast in New York: a series between the Cubs and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The games were broadcast because in late August 1929 the Cubs were in a pennant race with the Giants and the Cardinals. In the two invening years I had learned enough about the game so that I could envision the action as I listened. 

Hack Wilson was an intriguing Ruthian figure, so I followed the Cubs into the World Series against the Athletics. The 10-run seventh made me an instant A's fan. They became the first team I followed, albeit only via the pages of the morning Times or Tribune box scores. I remember vividly Lefty Grove losing the last game of the season to finish 31-4 in 1931, and George Earnshaw getting 4 hits in 5 at bats in consecutive games (the following summer?). But the curtain started to drop when in 1933 I saw a rookie shortstop named Ed Cihocki drop a pop fly at the Stadium, and then Mr. Mack sold off the heart of the team. (It was a thrill years later to share an elevator with the old gentleman in a St. Louis hotel.)

Of course, like so many of your phone and email contacts, I could go on and on, but as Frenchy Bordegaray possibly said to the waitress who brought him two eggs for breakfast, "Un oeuf is enough."

Thank you.
George
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I had mailed him the box score and a New York Times account of the Kamm game. The description of Kamm's home run matched Avakian's mental image. In response to his comment about Grove, I sent him a chapter from my book Unhittable! about Grove's 1931 season, when he could have gone unbeaten with just a few small alterations in his karma. Avakian's response: "I am saddened to learn that he could have gone unbeaten." Our discussion moved on to other mysteries.

On April 6, I received this e-mail:

Dear Gabriel:

This morning's NY Times has a front page story on Pat Venditte, a pitcher at Creighton College, who pitches effectively both right- and left-handed. It is a fascinating story, but I think it errs in stating that "the major leagues have had only one [switch-pitcher] since the 19th century: Greg Harris, primarily a right-handed reliever for many clubs from 1981 through 1995, pitched one inning using both arms for the Montreal Expos in his final season. That outing was considered more stunt than strategy."

But I am sure that I remember an American League pitcher who pitched effectively a few times from both sides in the late thirties. Could it have been Mike Ryba? I seem to recall that Ryba, who like Ruffing and Wes Ferrell occasionally pinch-hit, once played all nine positions in a game. . . .Jimmie Foxx did the same, and somebody else did it again about 15 years ago. . .

In 1937, my senior year at the high school (Horace Mann School for Boys, right here in Riverdale), we had an unbeaten baseball season. Johnny Metz was both a left-handed pitcher and occasional catcher. In my freshman year, we lost a game to Peddie, whose pitcher hit two doubles and a home run. His middle name was Washington, which he did not use when he went on to play the outfield for the Senators. (You guessed it--George Case.) He was the second pre-major leaguer I saw play in high school--the first was Hank Greenberg, shortstop for James Madison vs. George Washington (four blocks from our apartment in Washington Heights). Both, especially Greenberg, towered over everybody else on the field.

Greenberg played without a cap--now there's one the Hall of Fame never knew about, I'll bet!

End of Memory Lane for today.

George
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The last e-mail I still have from George Avakian arrived four days later. In it, typically, we cleared up one mystery and moved to another like two true fans:

One thing I have learned in our recent exchanges is that my memories are not always as accurate as I have believed them to be. I see now that something I once read about Mike Ryba (playing all positions in the minors) got interpolated in my head as a report of a major league feat. But where did I get the idea about his being ambidextrous? Similarly, the Jimmie Foxx bit puzzles me. I can still see a newspaper report in my mind's eye, with a box score that had an asterisk next to his name. Thank goodness I have you to clear up my memory!

After we discussed Lefty Grove, I tried to find the uniform numbers of the 1929 Athletics, but apparently they did not wear numbers until 1931, at which time they used scorecard designations (omitting 1, but using 2 for Cochrane through 9 for Bing Miller). I have always been intrigued by players' numbers. The NY Giants upset me when they changed to a system of single digits for catchers (Ray Noble, 5), teens for infielder (Hank Thompson, 16), twenties for outfielders (Bobby Thomson, 23) and over thirties for pitchers. 

Speaking of traditional number blocks for positions, I saw Ray Scarborough pitch for Washington at the Stadium in a late season game--possible the last day of one season--wearing 7, instead of his usual 10. Did many other pitchers wear a single digit in a game?

George
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There you go. We started with Babe Ruth and Willie Kamm, and ten days later drifted off in search of Mike Ryba and uniform numbers. To answer his queries, I sent him the following:

Dear George:

Don't worry about imprecise memories. When you think about how many games you've seen, the remarkable thing is that you remember so much.

The AL required all teams to wear numbers on their ROAD uniforms starting in 1931. The Athletics were the last team to add numbers to their home uniforms, not doing so until 1937. The original numbers were determined by batting order (back then, as you know, teams rarely platooned, and the regular lineup was pretty regular). That's why Ruth wore #3, Gehrig #4, and so on. The number system you describe for the Giants the norm at least in the NL in the 1950s and was still used at least through the 1960s. I grew up as a Reds fan, with outfielders Frank Robinson (#20) and Vada Pinson (#28), infielder Pete Rose (#14), and pitchers starting in the 30s. I haven't been able to find out whether this was a league rule at some point; I think it must have been, if all teams went to such a system. It wasn't changed until the 1970s, when players began having some say in their numbers.

As for Ray Scarborough, our book on uniform numbers doesn't list him wearing #7. . .Scarborough wore #10 for the Senators during 1948-49, and on September 10, 1949, he beat Vic Raschi at the Stadium, 4-3, in the first game of a doubleheader. Maybe that's the game you saw. No, it is very rare for a pitcher to wear a single-digit number.

Gabriel
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I do wish I had kept in touch with George Avakian, but I treasure the correspondence I saved and I vividly recall the youthful enthusiasm in his voice when we discussed baseball memories. That's what baseball does best--take any combination and origins, generations, and affinities, and a connection can always be found through baseball. You get a pretty good picture of George Avakian just from a handful of e-mails about events from his childhood, memories of youth still cherished by a man hurtling happily toward one hundred. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The All-Waugh Hall of Fame Team

Writing is seldom out-and-out fun, especially writing for publication, and doubly especially writing fiction. It is many wonderful things, a constant challenge that brings moments of exhilaration and a lingering, deep satisfaction, but not fun.

There's one well-known baseball novel that strikes me as an exception to this rule: Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Published in 1968, it concerns an accountant, Henry Waugh, who becomes so obsessed with a dice baseball game he has created that chronicling the history of the league becomes more important than the game itself. It gets worse after that for Henry Waugh. Why do I choose to think that Coover actually had fun writing it? One of the reasons is the characters' names. Clearly, Coover found joy in matching names to the characters' qualities as players and people.

Early in the book, he tells us why:

Henry was always careful about names, for they were what gave
the league its sense of fulfillment and failure, its emotion. . .Names
 had to be chosen, therefore, that could bear the whole weight of
perpetuity. . .Now, it was funny about names. All right, you bring a
player up from the minors, call him A. . .You roll [the dice], 
Player A gets a hit or he doesn't, gets his man out or doesn't. 
Sounds simple. But call Player A "Sycamore Flynn" or
"Melbourne Trench" and something starts to happen. He shrinks
or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to
all fields or belts them over the wall. Throws mostly fast balls
like Swanee Law or curves like Mickey Halifax. Choleric like
Rag Rooney or slow and smooth like his old first-base rival
Mose Stanford. 

You get the idea. Coover assembled a rich roster of characters including: Hatrack Hines, Grammercy Locke, Witness York, Scat Batkin, Old Fennimore McCaffree, Goodman James, McAllister Weeks, Toothbrush Terrigan, and more. Many, many dozens more. Coover preferred quirky nicknames and alliteration when possible, but they were all euphonious and made the characters come alive.

I'm trying to get in on the fun not by reading the novel for the fourth or fifth time, but by putting together a roster of players who would pass muster with their names and fit easily in Henry Waugh's league. The players are Hall of Famers, who tend to have dramatic names and vivid nicknames. As Coover put it, their names can "bear the whole weight of perpetuity," as they do in the plaque gallery at the HOF museum. Believe me, I had to narrow it down quite a bit to come up with a 25-man roster of two immortals at each position plus nine pitchers. Here they are:

C: Yogi Berra and Gabby Hartnett
1B: Harmon "Killer" Killebrew and Frank Chance
2B: Nellie Fox and Bid McPhee
SS: Pee Wee Reese and Rabbit Maranville
3B: Pie Traynor and Wade Boggs
RF: Babe Ruth and Kiki Cuyler
CF: Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell
LF: Goose Goslin and Zack Wheat
P: Three Finger Brown, Dazzy Vance, Dizzy Dean, Waite Hoyt, Satchel Paige, Early Wynn, Red Ruffing, Burleigh Grimes, and Rollie Fingers

Honorable mention goes to Jimmie Foxx, Judy Johnson, Enos Slaughter, Elmer Flick, Mule Suttles, and Harry Hooper. I could also add non-players like Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Cumberland Posey, Effa Manley, Branch Rickey, and Hank O'Day.

You can see how many of those names evoke personal traits and baseball talents. Some are simply suggestive of other vocations--I see Wade Boggs as a cranberry farmer, Pie Traynor as a dedicated baker, and Burleigh Grimes as a truck mechanic. I've been crazy about one pitcher's name since I was a kid; it was still the 1950s when I imagined a sentence that didn't come to fruition until 1999, when the baseball world mourned the loss of the late Early Wynn, who I imagined pitched best in day games and first games of doubleheaders.

I'm a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, a congenital syndrome inherited from my father, a Cincinnati native. After I compiled that Hall of Famers roster, I thought today about his tales of the champion 1919 Reds; he said he attended that World Series (at age 12), and I believe him. Two of his favorites from that team were Waugh-worthy: Ivey Wingo and Slim Sallee. So I spent a little time putting together a 25-man roster of Cooverish names from franchise history, sorted only generally by position. Here they are:

Catchers: Ivey Wingo, Bubbles Hargrave

Infielders: Bid McPhee, Deacon White, Dave Concepcion, Heinie Groh, Wally Pipp, Woody Woodward, and Virgil Stallcup

Outfielders: Cesar Geronimo, Greasy Neale, Jim Greengrass, Wily Mo Pena, Estel Crabtree, and Angel Bravo

Pitchers: Slim Sallee, Noodles Hahn, Orval Overall, Billy McCool, Icebox Chamberlain, Elmer Riddle, Ewell Blackwell, Rawley Eastwick, Eppa Rixey, and Bubba Church

Manager: Birdie Tebbetts

I included only those who played in at least two seasons for Cincinnati, knocking out cups of coffee and brief stops on the way elsewhere. Drawing that line eliminated some players with wonderful names: Cannonball Crane, Earl Yingling, Steve Christmas, Marcus McBeth, Homer Smoot, Twink Twining, Rebel Oakes, Huck Betts, Jim Bluejacket, Ezra Midkiff, and so many more.

I invite you to contribute such a squad from your favorite franchise. Revel in their splendor. You can't make up names like these, folks. Only God and Robert Coover could. 





Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ron Darling's Biggest Game

I was a big fan of Ron Darling the pitcher, but something about his style always bothered me. He had terrific stuff but didn't seem to trust it. He was a nibbler, the kind of pitcher who fusses on the mound as if gathering the nerve just to throw the ball, then directs his pitches a bit off the strike zone, hoping the hitter will go fishing and give him an easy out. He walked way more batters than he should have (nearly 3.5 per nine innings for his career, leading the league in 1985), got in trouble too often, and seemed to lack the aggressiveness to overpower the opposition. As he puts it, "I fretted instead of fumed."

I have much the same feeling about Darling's new book, Game 7 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life (St. Martin's Press, written with Daniel Paisner). There's a lot of good stuff, plenty of candor and analysis, but his writing nibbles around the edges of his subject while only occasionally digging his heels in and facing things head-on. The result resembles his pitching career--the work is solid, it makes you root for the guy, but it isn't nearly as good as it could have been.

I'll start with the best things about Darling's account of his personal failure and his team's triumph in the final game of the 1986 World Series. At the top of the list is his unflinching view of how poorly he pitched that night at Shea Stadium, getting rocked for back-to-back home runs by Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman in the second inning and getting yanked by Davey Johnson with two outs in the fourth, trailing 3-0.

It took him nearly 30 years to watch film of that game, in order to analyze his performance pitch by pitch. The reader learns a ton from this analysis, and not just about Darling, who despite completing his third full season in the majors with a 15-6 record and a 2.81 ERA, lacked a deep confidence in his ability. Most vivid is his sharing of the emotional roller-coaster of the starting pitcher--how one missed call in the first inning can topple his game plan, how a lucky bounce or a great defensive play can restore his resolve. The pitcher--the loneliest figure in a team sport--can talk himself onto and off the ledge and back and forth, and we feel Darling's anguish as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity falls apart early.

The measure of Darling's sense of aloneness was his admitted estrangement from his team's success. It began in an odd way during Game 6, when pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told him to go home in the ninth inning. Stottlemyre, confident the Mets would win, wanted Darling to avoid the post-game traffic jam, get home early, and get sufficient rest before Game 7. Darling started homeward in his 1966 Mercedes, which had no radio, but he soon sensed that something was going on back at Shea Stadium. He hurried back to the ballpark, sneaked into the clubhouse, heard the television going in clubhouse attendant Charles Samuels' office, and watched on the tiny screen as the Mets rallied to win. While the packed stadium went nuts during the rally, he remained glued to his seat, following the player's tradition of not moving as long as things are going well.

Of course, if Stottlemyre had known that rain would delay Game 7 for a day, he wouldn't have sent Darling anywhere, and that sense of estrangement would not have been triggered. By the time Game 7 rolled around two nights later, Darling was deep in his "game-day" mode, the insular, surly mood a starting pitcher has to get himself into after waiting around and doing little between starts. His routine disrupted by family members staying at his home and by sharing the drive to Shea with reporter Ira Berkow, Darling felt his delicate self-image out of kilter before he even took the mound.

Once he was derricked, Darling remained in a remote corner of the dugout, stewing in his sense of failure and letting down his teammates. When the Mets, still down 3-0, rallied in the sixth inning, Darling tells us, "This was my one thought just then, to get back to even. To get me off the hook. The thought of actually winning the game was still paramount, but I was prioritizing here. The one would follow from the other, so as the crowd went crazy I offered up a silent prayer: give me one more run--please, please, please." He got the run and no longer could be the losing pitcher.

Still, he was unable to join in his teammates' excitement at taking the lead in the seventh inning. "Oh, how I wished I could have turned my cap in on itself and joined in the rally cap silliness, in the jumping around. . .but I was still yoked to those dismal early innings and ever-mindful that it was me who'd made these late-inning runs so damn meaningful. It wouldn't do for me to be whooping it up and celebrating at these twists and turns." Thirty years later, and he still feels guilty about that performance. It has taken him this long to accept his temporary insanity on that historic night.

I wish that Darling had been able to avoid overusing cliches in this otherwise gripping account. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the sustained erudition of a Yale man--certainly his capsule portraits of his teammate are vivid and shrewd--but there are too many sentences and paragraphs with strings of cliches, baseball and otherwise. It's like a "waste pitch" on an 0-2 count, when the pitcher feels obligated to throw the ball so far from the heart of the matter that no batter would pay attention.

Even with the portraits of teammates, Darling nibbles around the edges of the truth. Several times he assures us that he's not going to throw his teammates "under the bus" even when they have gone public with their own accounts of their excesses and addictions. Only once, when discussing Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, does he offer what he calls a "mini-swipe" at Strawberry, explaining why Strawberry wasn't a good teammate while Gooden remained popular: "The further away I am from my playing days, the more I resent how they squandered their gifts--but hey, they were their gifts to squander, not mine; their choices to make, not mine. At the time, I suppose I resented it a little more in Darryl, because Doc had that sweetness about him. Doc was like a lost kid. Darryl, at times, didn't seem to give a shit."

Although Darling is candid about drinking and gives a lively account of punching out a policeman in Texas, he dances around the subject of cocaine and steroids and gives the impression that he has never seen them. He's more forthcoming about amphetamines; though he doesn't tell us  who used them, he provides plenty of details about how they were used. Still, he's reluctant to come in with the high hard one, assuring us that "if you weren't 'in the jar' [taking amphetamines], some of the language and some of the routines were elusive."

The most perplexing thing about Darling's account of Game 7 is that even though he admits overthinking things, his thinking did not go deep enough. Mainly, he says, he decided that even though he hadn't allowed the Red Sox an earned run in his first two starts in the Series, he needed to do something different in Game 7. He assumed that the Red Sox would be expected the same stuff that had stymied them twice. But he didn't take that logic one step further by realizing that Boston's Bruce Hurst, having won two Series games already, would face the same over-exposure in Game 7. He conceded that the Mets would continue to have trouble with Hurst, while assuming that the Red Sox would see through him. That's how he accounts for getting rocked early, while it took the Mets six innings to get to Hurst.

Yet in his final analysis of his failure, he declares, "In the first two games, I probably got them out on a lot of balls down in the strike zone, a lot of fastballs, and I stupidly, haughtily assumed I could do the same in this Game 7." Well, which was it, Ronnie? That revelation comes on Page 139, after we've spent more than half the book listening to him assert that his lack of confidence made him believe he had to do something different. Now I don't know what he did wrong. I know it was something awful because he's still indulging in self-laceration three decades later, admitting that he couldn't even enjoy the post-Series celebrations because he hadn't contributed enough to the victory. But he has left me back where he started with his analysis. Either he tried to do things differently from what had worked, or he didn't get away with doing things the same way. Take your pick.

It might be unfair of me, but my biggest disappointment concerns something that isn't in the book. Experience is the best teacher, and certainly an intelligent man like Darling must have learned something from this flawed approach to the biggest game of his life. He had a chance to apply that lesson just two years later, when he got the call to pitch Game 7 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium. He had pitched well in Game 3, facing super-hot Orel Hershiser and battling him to a 3-3 tie before leaving after six innings. Now they squared off again in Game 7.

Darling's final chapter here is a general summation of his post-1986 career, but he doesn't say a word about how he fared in nearly the same situation two years later. It wouldn't have taken much space, since it lasted just ten batters. The first two Dodgers smacked a single and a double, and Kirk Gibson's sacrifice fly scored a run. Darling struck out the next two batters, and that was the end of the good news. His second inning went: single, single, single (on a bunt to Darling), error, single. That was it; the inherited runners scored, Darling was saddled with six runs (four earned) in one-plus innings, and this time his teammates didn't get him off the hook.

I witnessed that debacle first-hand. It's still painful to me, and it's surely painful to Darling. If it took him thirty years to write about the time the team bailed him out, will he live long enough to tell us how he screwed up that one? I hope he does tell us; I look forward to reading all about it. I enjoy his analysis on television, and for the most part I enjoy his writing voice, especially when he's willing to zoom in on the truths underlying what we fans see only on the surface.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everything You Never Imagined You'd Know About the Hidden-Ball Trick

I met Bill Deane at the Baseball Hall of Fame library in 1991, when he was the Senior Researcher there, and I've been marveling at his research expertise ever since. He's in the handful of top researchers (by that I mean dogged, tireless, and ingenious) I've ever watched in action, along with Tom Shieber, Peter Morris, and Herman Krabbenhoft. So when Deane comes out with a book that reflects searches over a three-decade period, I pay attention.

Finding the Hidden-Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball's Oldest Ruse (published by Rowman & Littlefield, available at www.rowman.com) began as one of a legion of odd-incident lists Deane compiled while poring over microfilm game accounts and box scores. For instance, a list published in the Home Run Encyclopedia covered incidents when a player's final career at-bat was a home run. As the compilation of hidden-ball tricks grew, in part thanks to the arrival of retrosheet.org and a greater availability of batter-by-batter game accounts, even more possible successful ruses cropped up. Enlisting the aid of SABR brethren who tracked down documentation of this or that possibility, Deane found enough published coverage confirming 264 of them to create a whole book about this unique and controversial sports stratagem. I for one am very glad he did.

One of the delightful things about reading this book is the discovery that the hidden-ball trick (HBT henceforth, following Deane's example) has always been controversial. It involves a degree of deception that preys on the unwary. Like a three-card-monte artist, the perpetrator of the HBT uses both visual and verbal distractions; Deane titles the chapter about 1950s HBTs "Step Off the Base a Minute, Will Ya?" The ball has to be hidden somewhere, and the cooperation of the pitcher is vital, as he must stall in the vicinity of the mound until the runner can be induced to leave the safety of his base. Rules have been enacted to charge a balk to a pitcher who takes the mound with a ball, which means that to execute the HBT, the man without the ball often works harder than the man who has it. In addition, the umpire has to call it! We also learn that in recent decades, more of the blame for being caught has fallen on base coaches than on the runners.

Because it can be seen as crossing the lines of sportsmanship, the HBT has faced opposition, notably from Ban Johnson, who tried to outlaw from his precious American League. The Sporting News editorialized against the play as late as 1945. The National League took the longer view that if a runner is stupid enough to get caught, that's his lookout. Despite all the arguments, ejections, and even fights resulting from HBTs, that view has prevailed. The earliest HBT documented by Deane occurred in 1872--in the major leagues. It occurred many times in baseball's even more primitive days, which is why it was first called "an old trick" as early as 1876. It has been an old trick ever since, but one that spikes excitement in the ballpark. It still endures, though only five successful attempts have been made since 2000.

We learn about the controversies and the excitement mainly through Deane's decision to include nearly every newspaper account of the 264 successes as well as chapter about near-misses. This is a double-edged sword. The good news is that it allows us to hear over 125 years' worth of reporters' voices. As anyone knows who has read newspapers of a century ago, the styles were highly entertaining, and they are all of that here. As a sample, here is I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune in 1910: "J. Evers was made the victim of the moth-ball-scented trick by none other than Fred 'Bone' Merkle. . . .Merkle stabbed him, and the umpire saw it. There was great joy among the bugs who love the Trojan, we don't think so."

The bad news is that we get less of Deane's own voice. Apart from the introductory chapters and brief comments before the decade-by-decade discussions, Deane is satisfied most of the time to provide the "according to" for the next HBT account and to add a smidgen or two of color to summarize the event. I miss the authoritative, wryly humorous narratives and patient, judicious explanations of his previous book, Baseball Myths. Not that this tone is absent from the parade of HBTs--it just isn't there often enough.

As always, Deane is meticulous about presenting his research. He has identified the greatest perpetrators of the HBT--Bill Coughlin, a third baseman with Washington and Detroit in the early years of the American League, was the leader with nine and likely the target of Ban Johnson's indignant abhorrence of the play. He also pulled off the only HBT in the World Series, playing for the 1907 Tigers when he tagged out Jimmy Slagle of the Cubs in a play labeled by the Spalding Guide  as "ancient and decrepit."

Second all-time was the wily Miller Huggins, a Cardinals second baseman whose brain power propelled him to a Hall of Fame managing career. The only other Hall of Famer to turn the trick at least three times was 19th-century first baseman Dan Brouthers. On the other hand, plenty of Hall of Famers have been victimized by the HBT, 32 to be exact. Notable names on the roster of dunderheads include the quick-witted trio of Tinker, Evers and Chance, Willie Mays (though, regrettably, no details are provided), John Montgomery Ward (twice in one season), Jimmie Foxx, Orlando Cepeda, Gary Carter and, most recently, Rickey Henderson (victimized by first baseman Rafael Palmeiro in 1998).

This treasure-trove of baseball tales makes for a fast, entertaining read. My own reading of it was somewhat marred by alarms going off in several Pet Peeves areas of my baseball-editor antennae. It grates on me to read about "a Cub victory" or a "Brown shortstop," but it grates more when an author is inconsistent in usage, as when Deane, in the space of half a page, refers to a "Robin rookie," a "Reds first baseman," and "the Giants' Jim Hamby." They can't all be right; two of them are, which is why the third grates on me. Deane is also inconsistent about verb tenses. Though his own text is in present tense, applying the present tense to quoted passages written a hundred years ago can get tricky. When a present-tense quote is followed by Deane informing us that someone else "recalled" it years later, I find it disconcerting. Finally, he keeps telling us that The Sporting News or another publication "writes" the quote that follows. Newspapers do a lot of things that people do; they report, note, declare, assert, explain, suggest, and even say things, but the one thing the papers do not do is write. Only people write.

Despite those fleeting annoyances, I recommend Deane's book for many reasons: the sheer wealth of lore he excavated; the shrewd way he organized it; his compelling quest for documentation, and the sometimes glowing, sometimes grumbling accounts by generations of reporters.









Sunday, April 5, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Everything You Know Is Wrong: Pedro Martinez Edition

There are many fine baseball discussion groups on Facebook, and naturally I keep an eye on the Hall of Fame group. With the BBWAA election of new Hall of Fame members coming up tomorrow, the discussion has been hot and heavy. Today, I found myself in a strenuous debate with one of my closest baseball friends, Bill Deane. During our separate tenures as researchers at the Hall of Fame library, Bill and I were often besieged by people lobbying for against this or that player's rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Usually we're on the same page, but not this time.

Bill's contention was that Pedro Martinez was a "thug" on the mound, based primarily on his high frequency of hitting batters with pitchers. I disputed this contention, and the debate took off from there. Bill came up with a wonderful statistic. He cited Martinez's career ratio of HBP to walks as empirical evidence that when a pitcher with pinpoint control like Martinez--the only pitcher with more than 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks--hits a batter, it isn't merely a pitch that "got away" from the hurler. There must have been something purposeful about it, and if Martinez chose to hit that many batters, it must be because he is, at heart, a thug.

Here's the exact stat that Bill cited: Martinez has a HBP:W ratio of .185, or nearly one hit batter for every five walked batters. Bill also noted that Bob Gibson, probably the most mean-spirited pitcher of our time, had a far lower ratio of .076 and said "see if you can find someone higher. I got on baseball-reference.com, checked the all-time HBP list, and within a few minutes found that Joe McGinnity had a ratio of .220, quite a bit higher than Martinez. Eddie Plank was not far behind Martinez at .177. When I posted this response to Bill's challenge, he answered, "If you had to go back to Joe McGinnity, I rest my case."

I have no idea why he thought that my finding someone higher proved his case, but there you go. I tried a different tack I pointed out that Greg Maddux's ratio was .137, or 80 percent higher. By Bill's logic, that would mean that Maddux was nearly twice the "thug" that Bob Gibson was, which is ridiculous, as anybody who watched them pitch knows. Any stat that makes Maddux look so much thuggier than Gibson cannot have any significance.

At this point, I googled Martinez and HBP and found several references to a remarkable 2013 article in the New York Daily News, in which Martinez declared that "probably 90 percent" of the batters he hit were on purpose. “You have to actually make (batters) feel uncomfortable all the time if you want to have success," he said, echoing a basic truth of major league baseball.

The article included a dandy story by Martinez's former Boston teammate, Kevin Millar, about a game Martinez pitched against Roger Clemens. After Clemens drilled Millar with a pitch, Martinez asked Millar whom he wanted to be drilled in retaliation. As Millar told it, “First pitch to (Alfonso) Soriano — wham! Up near the neck. Next batter, (Derek) Jeter — wham! Up near the neck. Pedro later told me, ‘You tell Clemens, he hits one of mine, I take two of his.’”

That does sound like the Pedro Martinez we know, taking his retaliatory responsibilities quite seriously. Does that kind of action constitute thuggery? Perhaps. I decided to take a closer look at all those hit batters. Retrosheet.org has an entry for each player titled "Top Performances," which lists the games on which a player compiled the highest stats in an array of categories.

For Martinez and HBP, 16 games are listed, one in which he hit three batters and 15 in which he hit two batters--including Game 5 of the ALCS, in which he plunked two Yankees--Miguel Cairo and Alex Rodriguez. Clemens did not pitch that day, and no Red Sox were hit by pitches. So Millar wasn't referring to that game. I determined to find out when this happened.

The 3-HBP game came in 2006 when he pitched for the Mets against the Nationals, plunking Jose Guillen twice and former Yankee Nick Johnson once. Later that season, he got two Phillies in a game he left after one inning with a leg injury. Four of the other instances occurred when he pitched for the Expos. So that left ten games with the Red Sox in which he hit two batters.

Although I went through all ten of those before taking the next step, I'm going to jump ahead here and note that while Martinez pitched for Boston from 1998-2004, Kevin Millar played for Boston from 2003-2006. So the Clemens game would have had to take place in 2003 or 2004. Martinez hit two batters in a game three times in those two seasons, including the 2004 ALCS game mentioned earlier. That left the games of March 31, 2003 and August 28, 2004.

On August 28, 2004, they played Detroit, and the HBPs occurred three innings apart. No Red Sox were hit in that game. On March 31, 2003, the Red Sox played Tampa Bay. Kevin Millar was hit by a pitch in that game, so maybe that was the event that got confused in his memory. But no. Martinez hit Al Martin in the fourth inning, Millar was hit by Joe Kennedy in the following inning, and the last HBP came in the seventh inning. So that wasn't it either.

I still hoped to track down the game Millar might have referred to, having seen enough tales based on faulty memories to suspect that was the case here. In 2003, he was hit by five pitches, including once by Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium. It happened in the second inning, and it's true that Alfonso Soriano was also hit by a pitch in that game. However, it was Ramiro Mendoza who nailed him, and it happened three innings later. Jeter followed the HBP with a single. That doesn't fit Millar's story either.

In 2004, Millar led the American League by getting hit with a pitch 17 times. In late April,. he was hit at Yankee Stadium in back-to-back games. The first time it was by Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning, and Martinez didn't pitch that day. The next day, Javier Vazquez got him in the second inning. Pedro was the pitcher--maybe this was it! But no. Not only did Pedro not hit anybody, Soriano had been trading away to Texas. That disqualified Millar's 2004 season, though it was fun to see that he was hit three more times by Yankees pitchers that season. Even Mariano Rivera found him. But Martinez didn't pitch in any of those games.

I had one more thing to check. Both Soriano and Jeter were hit exactly once in their careers by Martinez. This took more digging, but maybe I'd find that they happened back-to-back and that Millar was only hoping it was because Martinez came to his defense. In 2002, Martinez hit two Yankees in a game twice, and both times it was same player--Jason Giambi the first time and Robin Ventura the second.

On July 7, 2003, at Yankee Stadium, Martinez plunked Jeter for the only time in his career. It happened in the bottom of the first inning. The Retrosheet box score tells us that Soriano led off by striking out, but he left the game after that inning. Perhaps Martinez didn't hit him, but merely brushed him in a way that caused Soriano to pull a muscle ducking out of the way. Jeter also left the game after two innings, possibly with a sore neck if that's where he was hit. On the other hand, Millar did not bat in the top of that inning, and the Yankees' pitcher that day was Mike Mussina, who didn't hit anybody.

Well, maybe Millar was hit the previous day by Clemens and Martinez was exacting justice the first chance he got. That theory went out the window when I saw that Andy Pettitte pitched the previous day and did not hit Millar or anybody else. Jeter, however, was hit by John Burkett.What was Millar thinking about when he told that story a decade after it supposedly happened? I have no idea.

So where does that leave me? Bill Deane did get around to answering my point about Greg Maddux, saying, "Maybe hitters didn't mind getting hit by Maddux's 85 mph stuff, as it seemed the only way they could get on base." That might have some validity. Over the course of Maddux's career, opposing batters had a .250 lifetime average and a .291 on-base percentage. So taking a cutter off the elbow pad would seem to be an acceptable way to get on base against the winningest pitcher of his generation.

But what about Pedro Martinez? In his career, opposing batters had a .214 average and a .276 on-base percentage. That shows that Martinez was a much tougher pitcher to hit than Maddux, and even though his fastball measured 5-8mph more than Maddux's, it still seems like a better percentage for them to take that heater off the elbow pad. Just because I ducked a high-inside heater from Bill Deane and scratched out an infield single, it doesn't follow that a major league hitter would be above taking a free base from the hardest-to-hit pitcher since Nolan Ryan took his total of 158 hit batters and retired.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Get Your Tickets Now for the "Good Riddance" Tour

This past week, the entertainment world witnessed the conclusion of the most massive odyssey of over-the-hill talent since the Eagles staged their "Hell Freezes Over" tour. By all accounts, the finale of Derek Jeter's career was a success. Shortly after Jeter singled in the game-winning run in the ninth inning of his last game at Yankee Stadium, Pope Francis announced that this feat qualified as one of three miracles needed for official canonization of the fading shortstop as "Saint Derek."

It is anticipated that Jeter's feat of playing more than 2,700 major league games without being ejected will soon be recognized as a second miracle, leaving him only one shy of the sainthood already conferred upon him by the media, social media, and normally reticent fans of the New York Yankees. The year-long deification of one baseball player was carefully orchestrated by the team, which sacrificed its chances for customary post-season success by keeping Jeter in the everyday lineup and the vital #2 position in the batting order despite a level of performance which qualified him for the major league title in WBR (wins below replacement player).

The Jeter tour involved ostentatious ceremonies in every ballpark he visited for the last time. He was showered with praise and presents, and extolled for his manly virtues in addition to his former talents on the field. Pundits posed the premise that he was (A) the greatest shortstop ever; (B) the greatest Yankee ever; and/or (C) the greatest human being ever. This continuous adoration had been denied previous Bronx Bombers greats such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, who both announced their retirement after final subpar seasons; Babe Ruth, who was unceremoniously dumped after hitting just 22 home runs in 1934; and Lou Gehrig, who quit abruptly when stricken by a fatal disease.

A modest dress rehearsal for the Jeter tour was held the previous season, when Mariano Rivera experienced a similar succession of farewell ceremonies. The glorification was ramped up in 2014 for Jeter, and many media observers have been wondering how the Yankees could possibly build on the momentum of the back-to-back baseball bacchanals.

Thus there was little surprise last night when the Yankees announced plans for a third consecutive season-long opportunity for fans across the country to express their deeply felt feelings for a long-time Yankees celebrity. While Jeter was taking his final at-bat at Fenway Park, where he has often been forced to swallow his pride, Yankees vice-president Yogi Steinbrenner addressed the two New York newspaper men who lost a bet and were unable to make the trip to Boston.

"In 2015 we will be bringing back Alex Rodriguez to play shortstop," the announcement began. "It will be his final season in the majors, so we'll be putting together what we're calling the 'Good Riddance' tour. It will be our version of the popular show 'Let's Make a Deal.' Alex is all about making deals, whether it's with general managers, agents, commissioners, or steroids suppliers. As you know, we've made every effort to avoid going through with the rest of that ridiculous deal he made when he came here. Well, this is the deal we've made with him, if he wants to come back for one more year.

"Remember how on that show, you might win a car but you might also get stuck with a 'zonk'? Well, in each city Alex visits for the last time, he'll get zonked. Teams are invited to give him the tackiest, most worthless gifts they can concoct. The more offensive, the better. We're already working on plans for his Yankee Stadium finale. Our head groundskeeper is busy mapping out a 'GOOD RIDDANCE' design to be mowed into the outfield grass behind shortstop. I don't want to give away too much now, but we've begun negotiations with some guys over in Jersey on a 'contract' you'll have to see in person to believe.

"Each final stop on the road will begin with a press conference during which Alex will be bound and gagged and forced to every local smart-ass reporter tell him off. He'll be confined to the clubhouse during pre-game practice, so he can make a grand entrance during the ceremonies. We think the fans will enjoy those tremendously as each team tries to unveil the most offensive tribute of the tour. For instance, we've heard that the teams in Texas, where they like to 'do things bigger,' will be giving him a 20-foot-long syringe. We also expect that he'll be presented with bags and bags full of hate mail from fans in each city. We're urging fans to get their tickets now--they won't want to miss this unique event in baseball history."

Yogi Steinbrenner shared one more item with the snickering reporters. "In honor of Jeter's retirement," he said, "and in anticipation of A-Rod's return to the middle infield, we are giving the shortstop position from Yankee Stadium to Jeter. Henceforth, that part of the infield will be a 10'x15' hole in the ground, which we hope and anticipate A-Rod will be able to fill perfectly."

Reached around 3 AM en route from one girlfriend's Manhattan apartment to another's, Rodriguez acknowledged his legal obligations according to the latest revision of his latest deal. He promised to perform at a higher level than Jeter did in his swan song. "I'm guaranteeing at least six home runs and a .630 OPS, and I pledge to reach at least four ground balls hit to my left," he said, then laughed. "I'm kidding. It doesn't matter how I play. Just give me my money and I'll go away forever. Good riddance to you, too, Baseball."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Fine Book about a Forgotten Ballplayer

For four years, I was privileged to serve on SABR's Deadball Era Committee's "Larry Ritter Award" subcommittee, three of them as the chairman. The Committee's award honors Lawrence Ritter, whose magnificent The Glory of Their Times introduced most of us to the rich period from 1900-1930.

There are plenty of books published every year on Deadball Era topics, and we had ten to twelve to choose from each year, many of them first-rate. The book I just finished reading is the 2014 winner of the Ritter Award: Mike Lackey's Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing ($19,99, by Orange Frazer Press). It would have been a solid contender for the award in any of the years when I was on the panel.

Bob Ewing had about as unpretentious a major league career as any biographical baseball subject. The right-handed pitcher grew up not far from where Lackey spent several decades as a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, in central Ohio. The farmer's son was 24 years old by the time he got around to playing professional ball, mainly in nearby Toledo. Five years later, he made it all the way to Cincinnati, and he won 108 games for the Reds over the next eight seasons.

Apart from their place of origin, Ewing appealed to Lackey for his average qualities. As he puts it in his Introduction: "While the feats of a few have been immortalized, cast in bronze and enshrined in Cooperstown, the struggles and triumphs of hundreds were written on water. Their was but the fleeting and uncertain celebrity of the sports pages, apportioned and reapportioned from one day to the next by [Ren] Mulford and the other chroniclers who served as the Greek chorus to the great drama of baseball in its early days."

Like everybody who writes well about the Deadball Era, Lackey is a meticulous and dogged researcher. What sets him apart is his writing and his organization of material. The style isn't flashy and doesn't sound like anything you'd read in a newspaper. Its strengths are precision, clarity, and perspective. The inevitable side-trips are navigated smoothly, and once the point is made the narrative returns to its central subject.

While many baseball biographies suffer from repetitiousness and/or excessive game-by-game recaps, Lackey neatly ducks these pitfalls. Relying on the accounts of Cincinnati sportswriter Ren Mulford and others, he presents as much solid evidence as he can. The rest is made up of thoughtful discussion of significances and possibilities. Lackey takes us inside the baseball world of 1900-1910, and I found the exploration full of one revelation after another.

Ewing, after making a name for himself at Toledo, struggled in his early years at Cincinnati, and his whole tenure there was marked by mediocre support from a team that struggled to sneak into the first division. Late in 1904, he unveiled a spitball, and from 1905-1908 he averaged 307 innings pitched, 28 complete games, and 17 wins, with an aggregate E.R.A. of 2.20. A gangly 6', 1 1/2" tall, "Long Bob" became the first National League purveyor of a pitch that caused reactions of awe mixed with disgust. Lackey takes us through the whole spitball controversy in general and how it affected Ewing in particular.

A good measure of a writer's talent is our willingness to follow him/her along on wherever the narrative might lead us. I felt more than willing to take Lackey's "Grand Tour of Long Bob Ewing." It is both thorough and thoroughly readable, with extensive notes and a fine collection of photos (in the one on page 140, Ewing bears an eerie resemblance to Lon Chaney Sr. in "The Phantom of the Opera"). It tells a worthy story solidly, with little extraneous material.

Though not overly colorful as a player, Ewing found a second career as an earlier version of Barney Fife. Elected sheriff of his home county in Ohio, he moved into the jail, where his wife cooked for the prisoners. While they were there. Within a month, he was taking a prisoner to New Hampshire, stopped along the way,  and left the prisoner on his own honor, so the prisoner escaped. Soon after, Ewing's car was stolen almost right in front of him. A year later, his office let a murder suspect escape, and that was followed by another homicide. The last section of this book is the icing on the cake with its account of Ewing's misadventures in office.

I knew very little about Bob Ewing before I read this book. I know a lot about him now, and I learned even more about the era in which he lived, struggled, thrived for a while, and experienced baseball's growing pains.If you want to read a baseball book which helps you to see what it was like long before we were born, and to learn from it, get your mitts on Mike Lackey's book. Larry Ritter certainly would've loved it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Roger Angell, Then and Now

At a party last weekend attended by a number of savvy baseball historians, I managed to wow them with a little artifact I didn't remember I had until a few weeks ago. Going through one of several cartons of old correspondence, I found the letter reproduced below, sent to me in 1980 by Roger Angell.

Only a few hours before I passed the letter around, Angell received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding contributions to baseball journalism. He was the first non-member of the BBWAA to win the award, and it was long overdue. After all, he's been writing about baseball in the "New Yorker" since the Spink Award was created in 1962. For decades, the consensus has been that he is the best baseball writer of the past two generations. Only the absence of beat reporting in his resume gave the BBWAA an excuse to snub him all these years. Finally, at age 93, he received the award this year.

I wish I had also found the letter I wrote to Angell that prompted this fine response. I do know that I wrote to him after reading a "New Yorker" piece titled "Sunshine Semester," written in April 1980, after his annual trek to spring training. It later served as Chapter 10 in the Angell collection titled Late Innings.The content of my letter can be gleaned from his response. Here it is, followed by my discussion of the events which prompted his original essay as well as his comments to me:
                                                                                                                                                     May 27
Dear Gabriel Schecter:                                                                                                  
Please forgive my long delay in responding to your lively and generous letter about my recent baseball piece. It's extremely gratifying to hear from a fan who really cares about the game and who has gone to to [sic] the great trouble of writing back. I am feeling very cheerful about the old game, now that the strike has been averted, or at least postponed. For a while there, I really thought the owners were going to make it happen; their vengeful masochism knows no bounds--or almost no bounds. From what I hear, we should all be grateful to Edward Bennett Williams and the new Houston owner, whose name is McMullen, I think, who saved the game from the hard-liners. Every year, I tell myself that I won't underestimate the stupidity and greed of the owners, and then I go right ahead and underestimate it.

Yes, I noticed that Garcia threw in Singleton as a young AL player, but he said it, so I kept it in. And yes, I guess I should have mentioned Yount, but of course the Brewers have so many good young players that it's hard to get them all in. Now I see that Bamberger will be back in the dugout in a couple of weeks--good news for us all, because he is a fine fellow. I'd like to see the Brewers win, but this new Yankee club looks very tough. The new Yankees are also a pleasant bunch to visit--an amazing contrast to their clubhouse in recent years.

Thanks again for writing.

Sincerely,
Roger Angell

*************************************

I'm glad that Angell was feeling cheerful enough about the game to write to a total stranger (and I don't mind that he misspelled my name, joining the always-expanding list of people who have done so). In "Sunshine Semester," he had expressed doubts about his obsession:

"Each year, just before spring comes, I begin to wonder if I shouldn't give up this game. Surely it must be time for me to cut short my abiding, summer-consuming preoccupation with scores and standings and averages, and to put an end to all those evening and weekend hours given to the tube and morning hours given to the sports pages. Is there no cure for this second-hand passion, which makes me a partner, however unwilling, in the blather of publicity, the demeaning emptiness of hero worship, and the inconceivably wasteful outpourings of money and energy that we give to professional sports now?. . . .Every year, I think about such things, often in the middle of the night, and I groan and say to myself, 'Yes, all right, this is the last year for me, no more baseball after this.' But then, a few days or weeks later, back in the sun in Arizona or Florida in March, I change my mind."

In his Spink Award acceptance speech, a mere 34 years after he wrote the above, Angell still lamented being an unwilling partner in the crasser aspects of baseball. As so often happens with the things we love, their essence captivates us at the same time that the business of it manages only to appall us. So it was with Angell in 1980, when a strike by the Players Association cancelled the final week of spring training. The players also voted to strike again on May 23 if their dispute with owners was not resolved (hence Angell's relief four days after the deadline). In April, he despaired of the prospects for a resolution:

"I cannot pretend to any mild neutrality about the issues involved; it has been perfectly plain to me from the start that the twenty-six owners and the league presidents and their advisers have determined that the basic structure of free-agency, which has governed the movement of senior players (players with six years' service in the majors), must be radically altered or they will close down the game. They are serious about this."

Angell devoted the next five pages to listing the owners' arguments and debunking them--the eternal hand-wringing about rising salaries, the claim that owners were losing money even while the value of their franchises was multiplying, the pleas of poverty in an industry that was booming, and their insistence on controlling the movement of every employee in their business, even if it meant shipping a happy and productive employee to another city where he had no desire to be. (Yes, employees. To this day, I've only heard one player express this truth; Greg Maddux, after the Braves declined to renew his contract in 2003, stated bluntly that he had been "fired". Here is Angell's final point:

"Finally, it should be understood that in the opinion of a great many baseball people--including this sideline expert--the owners' idea of allowing a club that loses a free agent to tap the middle levels of the buying team's roster will effectively put an end to the entire free-agent process. Very few clubs--perhaps none--would risk adding a free-agent star if this meant losing a solid current player or a coming star. . . .The owners' offer does stipulate that only an owner who has lost a 'prime' player--that is, a player for whom at least eight other clubs have said they intend to bid--can pick from the signing team's roster, but there is nothing in the proposal to prevent every club from making a token bid for each free agent from now on. The owners, it is plain, wish to turn back the clock. The players, for obvious reasons, refuse to give up the rights they have earned."

Hence the comments in Angell's letter about the close call that spring. A couple of maverick owners slowed down the hard-liners who wanted to undo the victory gained in the courts by the players in 1975-1976. The strike, as he noted, was "averted, or at least postponed." One year later, it struck with the force of a hurricane, shutting down the major leagues for two months. But in May 1980, we baseball fans--and Angell, above all, is the consummate fan, relishing and describing every aspect of the game on the field with the appreciation and discernment of an art lover at a great museum--could breathe easy, sit back, and enjoy the summer-long distraction of games, games, games.

The bulk of "Sunshine Semester" reviewed doings in spring training in 1980. In addition to my two nitpicky points to which Angell responded in his letter, I'm sure I mentioned some of the wonderful writing and insights which prompted me to contact him. Here is an assortment of gems from that essay:
  • [after detailing the lengthy manual for young players prepared by the Milwaukee Brewers, which included 18 reminders about taking a lead off first base, 23 cutoff plays for first basemen, and 34 hitting tips] "One of the wonders of baseball is that every aspect of the game is visible, but another wonder, I know now, is how much of it we can watch, summer after summer, and never see at all."
  • [describing the unique batting stance of John Wockenfuss] "Wockenfuss waits up there in a righty stance, with bat held high, and with his lead, or left, foot placed on the ground a bare inch or so in front of his right foot, heel to toe. He opens up with the pitch, of course, but until then he looks exactly like a man trying to play ball while balancing on top of a back-yard fence."
  • [on Mets general manager Frank Cashen] "He is a rounding, Cagney-size man, with sandy gray hair, a pleasant, Galway-touched face, and a businesslike manner. Here, out in the hot morning sunshine, he was wearing gray pants, a blue oxford button-down Brooks Brothers shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a green golf visor, and a tan knitted tie--the only necktie I observed anywhere during spring training."
  • "Clubhouse churlishness, in any case, is not a new phenomenon, and these recent outbreaks bring to mind the bad-tempered Jerry Grote, an excellent catcher with the Mets for many years, who habitually sneered at and foully reviled members of the New York press who had written less than rave notices of his work in a given game. Then, early in a season near the end of his tenure, it was observed that Grote was trying to be a tad more lovable and sweetly forgiving in his demeanor toward the same writers, at least to the point of no longer addressing them with homosexual or incestuous epithets. One columnist, making note of this unexpected sociability wrote, 'Why is Jerry Grote saying hello when it's time to say goodbye?'--a line first coined, about another player in another time, by the late Frank Graham."
  • [on Billy Martin, newly managing the A's after leaving the Yankees] "Billy, in his office, looked unchanged--the same cold eyes, hollow cheeks, and thin, apache-dancer's mustache. He is fifty-one years old, but he still has an infielder's body; his hands are large, with long fingers. He often bites the corners of his fingernails as he talks. He speaks in a quiet, low voice, almost a monotone."
  • "Young teams are fun to watch, but no one on the Mariners is more entertaining than Willie Horton, the club's designated hitter and senior statesman. Horton is thirty-six now, and his increasingly senatorial embonpoint, when viewed--as I have viewed it--at widely spaced intervals, gives the curious impression that his head is shrinking. Lately, he has adopted a unique, forward-topping, Leaning Tower of Pisa batting stance, which he checks, just short of demolition, as the pitch is delivered."
  • "Earl Weaver, a Torquemada-like persecutor of the arbiters. . ."
I could read such musings all day long and endlessly marvel at his ability to see how one thing resembles something quite unrelated, like John Wockenfuss balanced atop a fence or Willie Horton's head seeming to shrink as he put on middle-age weight (yes, I had to look it up--"embonpoint" means stoutness). The other thing that sets Angell's essays apart are the quotes. Perhaps no writer has ever been a better listener than Angell, whose quotes get to the heart of the matter and the spirit of his subjects. I'll finish off here with three dandy quotes from "Sunshine Semester":
  • Earl Weaver: "I don't go in so much for that strategy. You have a man on second base and one out, and the batter hits a ground ball to the right side and he's out at first, and everybody says 'How pretty! How nice!' But that makes two out, and then the next man comes up and swings from his ass to score the run from third and he strikes out, and everybody says 'Look at that stupid son of a bitch!' If you're always givin' yourself up, the way the book says, they'll say nice things about you, but what you're really doing is passing the blame along to the next man."
  • Billy Martin: "Each club you go to, you change your style. Here I'm molding. When I managed at Detroit, there was a lot of ability and some good older players, and I had to break up cliques. In Minnesota, they had great talent, so it was more a question of working on finesse. Texas was like this club, with a lot of young arms and inexperience. When I went to the Yankees, I had to throw the freeloaders out of the clubhouse and stop the country-club atmosphere."
  • Dave Garcia [on attending an NFL game with Don Zimmer]: "Zim loves football. . . .I said, 'Zim, I'll tell you what. I got this piece of paper here, and I'm going to keep score.' He said, 'Hell, Dave, there ain't no way to keep score in football,' and I said, 'Well, if a wide receiver is out in the open on the field, and the passer hits him on the hands with the ball and he drops it, isn't that an error?' Zim said yes, he guessed so, and I said, 'All right, now it's the same thing, only this time the passer throws the ball five yards over his head. Isn't that an error?' And Zim said sure it was. So I said, 'What about missed open-field tackles, and what about the blockers opening a big hole in the line and the runner running someplace else and getting nailed for a loss?' And Zim said, 'Hell, yes--all errors.' Well, sir, I watched the kept score, and when the game was over I counted up, and there was twenty-eight clear errors on my piece of paper. I showed it to Zim, and he said, 'God damn! And that doesn't even count all the errors they made there in the line, where you can't see what's happening.' So don't anybody try to tell me which is the harder game to play."
I'll leave you with that. Do yourself a favor. Pick up the nearest Roger Angell volume and start reading. Anywhere. It doesn't matter whether you've read him before or never at all. You'll want to follow him wherever he travels on the baseball landscape, and you'll wish he could live forever and keep writing more. As we baseball folk like to say, he's on a pace to. 




Thursday, July 10, 2014

My Favorite Whatever

In the blog I posted the other day, I carped about the all-too-common practice of referring to teams in the singular even when it is clear that the speaker or writer is referring to the entire team. Part of my tirade consisted of my response to the question: "Are you a Yankee fan?" My response: "Yes. I like Ichiro. Which one do you like?"

A couple of people have responded to this sarcasm by saying (more or less), "Fine, your favorite Yankee is Ichiro. Since your main team is Cincinnati, if I committed the hideous sin of asking 'Are you a Red fan?' what would be your answer? Would you just name one guy or would you admit that you like the whole team?"

My reply: "Yes." Of course I would.

Upon further review, I wondered what smart-ass response I could come up with if asked "Who's your favorite. . ." for each franchise. Here you go:

Red: Erik the
Astro: the Jetsons' dog
Ray: Charles
Ranger: Aragorn
Cardinal: Richelieu
Twin: Danny DeVito
Angel: Gabriel, of course
Royal: Grace Kelly
Cub: Jimmy Olsen
Tiger: Tony the
Mariner: Coleridge's ancient one
Brave: Huxley's new world
Dodger: Jack Dawkins (see Dickens)
A: 11th-grade English
Marlin: the one that got away from Ted Williams
Brewer: Gerard Adriaan Heineken
Giant: Gargantua
Indian: Crazy Horse
Rocky: Raccoon
Pirate: Jean Lafitte
Philly: cheesesteak
Blue Jay: Stellar's
Oriole: Bullock's
Diamondback: crotalus atrox
Padre: Father Flanagan
Yankee: Hank Morgan (see Twain)
Met: the one where Pavarotti sang
National: League [Senator: Alan Simpson] [Expo: 1964 NY World's Fair]
White Sock: what I wore to play on my high school tennis team [plus one gray one]
Red Sock: Schilling's bloody one

There you have it. Any more questions?