Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Prime 9" Is No Judge of Character

Although I ripped the MLB Network's "Prime 9" countdown of great pitching seasons because of the omission of Lefty Grove's incomparable 1931 season, I didn't have a quarrel with the presence of most of their choices on a top-9 list. It wasn't the worst list I've ever seen, or even the worst on this new network's new series. That negative nod has to go to their show about "Baseball's Greatest Characters," which more accurately would have been titled "The Nine Oddest Baseball People We Have Video Footage Of." There is no other way of accounting for how far they missed the boat in their list. Even if you exclude 19th-century baseball (which sported two of the game's all-time most colorful figures, Mike "King" Kelly and "Orator Jim" O'Rourke), even if you confine the list to post-1900 baseball figures (excluding owners, a choice of theirs I agree with), only half the people on their nine-man roster deserve any legitimate consideration.

Here is the "Prime 9" list:

  1. Casey Stengel

  2. Yogi Berra

  3. Tommy Lasorda

  4. Mark Fidrych

  5. Bill Lee

  6. Manny Ramirez

  7. Larry Andersen

  8. Dizzy Dean

  9. Kevin Millar

Give us a break. I have issues with most of these choices, starting with Kevin Millar, whose cheerful sense of humor in this agent-spokesman age makes him fun to listen to, but not one of the "greatest characters" in baseball history? That's a bigger joke than he's ever told. Larry Andersen gave forth a lot of clever quotes, but in the "Prime 9" show the main Andersen footage had him playing a practical joke that wasn't even his own idea. On my list, I'll give you the most original and distinctive practical joker in baseball history. Manny Ramirez? He got "Prime 9" points for going to the bathroom during a pitching change and for high-fiving a fan after a great catch. Being an enigma does not qualify as greatness. Just because Manny doesn't talk, let's not pump him up as the new Harpo Marx. Mark Fidrych was eccentric, original, and entertaining, but sadly for everyone, his major league career consisted of 58 games. He was a great distraction for a brief time, but that hardly qualifies him for all-time greatness. As for Tommy Lasorda, he'd be near the top of anybody list of "Baseball's Loudest Characters," but I see him as a cheerleader for "Dodger blue" and not much else. Finally, I was amazed to see Yogi Berra in the #2 spot. Yes, he said half of the quotes attributed to him, but he exhibited little personality on the playing field and has always been essentially a quiet, shy, humble person whose fame was spread mainly by other people (like his pal Joe Garagiola) quoting him.

I'll give you my own entirely different "Prime 9" list, and even leaving out their legitimately great characters like Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean, I defy you to tell me mine isn't better.

  1. Babe Ruth

  2. Satchel Paige

  3. Rube Waddell

  4. John McGraw

  5. Jimmy Piersall

  6. Moe Drabowsky

  7. Bob Uecker

  8. Germany Schaefer

  9. Ron Luciano/Emmett Ashford/Tim Hurst

Has baseball ever had a more charismatic, larger-than-life character than Babe Ruth? He played to the crowd on the field, and off the field blazed a trail of fast living that has never been equaled. He would do anything for publicity, embraced a generation of children, and came to represent the irrepressible spirit of his country. During World War II, Japanese soldiers trying to talk tough would yell "To hell with Babe Ruth!" Have you heard of any Iraqis yelling "To hell with Manny Ramirez!"? Shame on the MLB Network for dethroning "The Sultan of Swat."

Satchel Paige was probably the greatest showman in baseball history, a prima donna who earned that status by leading barnstorming tours which drew big crowds of people just to see him pitch. In addition to his vastly entertaining pitching style, Paige was a grass-roots philosopher who was just as quotable as Yogi Berra. Here are a few of my favorites, starting with a semi-Yogi-ism: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" Or try this: "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." Finally, perhaps his most-quoted line: "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

No baseball player has ever been stranger than Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell. The hurling half-wit had a rambunctious personality, erratic habits, and an undisciplined life. Opposing coaches could distract him with wind-up toys, and more than once he abandoned the pitching mound to chase after a passing fire engine. A fierce competitor with the sensibilites of a six-year-old, he was unpredictable, eccentric, and entertaining every minute of his life.

John McGraw's colorful personality dominated an entire era of baseball. Can that be said of anyone else besides Babe Ruth? Irascible, profane, and outrageous, he frequently managed games from the third-base coaching box so he could harass the opposition and the umpires at close range. He was the darling of New York show-biz society and baseball's most rabble-rousing personality for three decades, with a style only faintly echoed decades later by Tommy Lasorda. His greatest protege was Casey Stengel, who in turn mentored Billy Martin, who in turn paved the way for Lou Piniella--all colorful guys who trailed after McGraw's legacy.

Few people have displayed more color on the field than Jimmy Piersall. Maybe he had an unfair advantage because he spent time in a mental hospital before arriving in the major leagues, and didn't have to work at being zany. He continued his career as a loose cannon in the broadcast booth, outraging listeners with his uncensored commentary. His greatest on-field stunt was running around the bases backward after his 100th career home run, which even Casey Stengel found so ridiculous that he soon jettisoned Piersall from the Mets.

Step aside, Larry Andersen, for the legitimate title-holder as the most colorful relief pitcher ever, Moe Drabowsky. This legendary prankster was a virtuoso on the bullpen telephone, ordering takeout food FROM CHINA and getting the opposing bullpen coach to start warming up relievers even though the starter was pitching a no-hitter. "Drabbo" was anything but drab, sprinkling the usual pranks like giving teammates hot-foots with original pranks that haven't been matched before or since.

Bob Uecker is, pound for pound, probably the funniest person in baseball history. His words have spoken much louder than his action, from his playing career as a third-string catcher (he credited himself with winning the 1964 pennant for the Cardinals by missing the last two months with hepatitis) to his long broadcasting career as the toast of Milwaukee. Throw in dozens of appearances on the "Tonight Show," several gut-bustingly funny books, the lead role on a successful sitcom, and his speech in Cooperstown while accepting the Ford Frick Award for broadcaster which left a podium full of Hall of Famers falling off their chairs, and few people in the public eye have been as consisting entertaining.

Germany Schaefer, like Rube Waddell, played a century ago and was regarded at the time as one of the game's wildest characters. Largely forgotten today, he was immortalized in print in the 1960s classic oral history "The Glory of Their Times," in which more than one player told the tale of Schaefer stealing FIRST base. That's right. He was on first, called for the hit-and-run, and stole second when the batter didn't hit the ball. But he really wanted to work the hit-and-run, so he raced back to first base on the next pitch to give the batter another chance. This stunt resulted in the rule change specifying that the bases must be run in only one direction. Case closed.

I'm splitting my ninth spot between the game's three wildest umpires. Ron Luciano was the biggest showboat of them all, giving a machine-gun motion to call runners out, making other calls with grandiose gestures, keeping up a steady stream of chatter, arguing with gusto, and generally violating every rule of proper umpire decorum. He also wrote very entertaining books like "The Fall of the Roman Umpire." Ashford, the first African-American umpire in the majors, shocked many observers with his exuberant hustle and grandstanding style which often overshadowed the action on the field. Hurst, a pioneering umpire from a century ago, combined wit and combativeness to handle the toughest generation of players ever, and wasn't above using his fists to make his point with recalcitrant competitors.

There you go--a solid list of bona fide characters. Now it's time to combine the lists into one definitive lineup of character who would leave you wondering just what they'd come up with next. Come on, "Prime 9" "pundits"--get a clue!

  1. Babe Ruth
  2. Casey Stengel
  3. Satchel Paige
  4. Dizzy Dean
  5. Rube Waddell
  6. John McGraw
  7. Jimmy Piersall
  8. Bill Lee
  9. Moe Drabowsky


Sgt. Schultz the Ewok said...

No Iraqi may have yelled "to hell with Manny Ramirez", but if an Iraqi read this list, I'm sure they'd say "Who the hell is Kevin Millar"...

MIke Piazzi said...

I have watch a couple of other "Prime 9" segments, and found them lacking. Like you, I think they are looking for relatively recent personalities of which they have color footage. I guess most people would not find a slide show of black and white photos of McGraw and Schaefer interesting, so the list is comprised of items the average fan would find interesting or can relate to.

My favorite Germany Schaefer story is the time he was asked to pinch hit, hit a homerun (which was rare for him), and he slid into each base as he made his way around the diamond!

Indeterminacy said...

What a great baseball blog this is. I'm going to keep track of it, and read around a bit.

Enjoyed your list of baseball personalities. I think you will find the spirit of all these players in any one story by Ring Lardner.

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