Saturday, April 2, 2016

Talking to Ernie Johnson, former Negro League All-Star

I had the opportunity and good fortune to interview former Negro League All-Star Ernie Johnson a few years ago. Ernie was one of those guys who was perhaps just a few years ahead of his time.

Johnson signed with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in 1949 as a 20-year-old pitcher. His salary was $200 a month with about 3 bucks a day for meal money. He switched to the outfield in 1950 and became known as a powerful hitter. It was a time of change for the Negro Leagues--several teams had folded and the others were doing anything they could to stay afloat. "The league was dying by 1953," he said. "The Black community had accepted that with Jackie and those guys moving to organized baseball, the Negro League wasn't as important as before. Looking back, I didn't get too excited when Jackie signed with the Dodgers. I didn't have the knowledge of what might be coming or what that might mean for me."

Johnson's manager with the Monarchs was the inimitable Buck O'Neil. O'Neil would eventually become the foremost sweet-talking ambassador for baseball and the Negro Leagues and, after his performance in Ken Burns' Baseball in 1994, become a rock star. In 1953, O'Neil was simply the most respected man in the Negro League. In addition to possessing a great baseball mind, O'Neil knew how to manage men. "Buck O'Neil was a wonderful person," said Johnson. "If you played the game the way he thought, he was OK with you. If you didn't, he had a problem." O'Neil knew which players needed a carrot on a stick in front of their nose and which ones needed the stick turned around and used on their backsides. "He was a good teacher, but he didn't have any coaches." O'Neil had to do it all--manage the team on the field, organize the road trips and, if the bus broke down, round up cars to get the team to the next game. In spring training Dizzy Dismukes might work with the pitchers, but otherwise O'Neil was on his own.

 Buck O'Neil

As a youngster, Johnson quickly realized, along with the other players, that a new guy was there for one reason--to take someone else's job. "The older players didn''t help me. I had to pick up most things by myself." Once a new guy proved himself to be a solid member of the team, the other guys came around. "We really got to be good friends. We spent so much time together. I enjoyed the guys we were traveling with. If you didn't get along, you would have been gone. Buck would have gotten rid of any troublemakers. But we never really had any."

"We didn't spend much time in Kansas City, maybe a few weekends, then we'd be on the road most of the time. We played every day and in a different town every day. Often we traveled with the [Indianapolis] Clowns. I didn't think about anything but playing baseball. I didn't mind the conditions or the travel. It wasn't a bother to me. We didn't really sleep on the bus as much as people think. We almost always had hotel accommodations. I loved to play baseball. I was happy to get to play every day. I was able to see a lot of the country; parts I would have never seen. Parts most people never get to see. So we learned a lot about the country."

The 1953 Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson is second from the right. Far right is O'Neil. Ernie Banks is the sixth from the right

The Monarchs were unchallenged in those years. "We had the best team in the league," said Johnson. "I really believe we could have beaten any team in the minor leagues at the time." The Monarchs had winning streaks of 14 and 16 games and finished the 1953 season in front by 20 and a half games.

Johnson hit .296 with a league-leading 11 home runs for the Monarchs in 1953. His 22-year-old teammate, Ernie Banks, was third in the league with a .347 batting average. By mid-season, Banks, who had missed the previous two years while in the Army, was the talk of the league. "I thought Ernie Banks was a good ballplayer," said Johnson, "but I never visualized him becoming the great player he became. He was good, but I don't remember him being that much better than everyone else. Of course, I never idolized any of the guys I played with or against. I just thought I was as good as any of them." Johnson wasn't just being arrogant. Buck O'Neil once told a reporter he thought Johnson was the best hitter on that team.

"I played in the East-West game in 1953 in Comiskey Park. We didn't call it the All-Star game, we called it the East-West game. I grew up in Chicago and I remembered the game from growing up when it was a really big deal. So it was a great experience to get to play in one."

Played annually in Comiskey Park since 1933 (with a few exceptions in the early years when it was played elsewhere) the East-West game was the pinnacle of any Negro League season and had once been a major social event in Black America. With attendance swelling to more than 50,000 in the mid-40s, they outdrew the major league All-Star game several times. Players were chosen for the East-West game by fans voting in the nation's two largest Black newspapers, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. As stated by Buck O'Neil in I Was Right On Time: "Our game meant a lot more than a big-league game. Theirs was, and is, more or less an exhibition. But for black folks, the East-West Game was a matter of racial pride. Black people came from all over to Chicago every year." The Illinois Central Railroad would put on a special coach from New Orleans to Chicago to pick people up all through the south and bring them in for the game.

While the East-West game had once boasted talent as rich as any major league game, by 1953 most of the premier names had been sold to the majors and major league teams were beginning to bypass the Negro League altogether and sign their own young Black players. Johnson's 1953 East-West teammate Ernie Banks would be the last player to appear in a Negro League All-Star game and later play in a major league All-Star game. Attendance at the 1953 game was a mere 10,000. Banks made several flashy plays at short stop and Johnson had a big two-run single to help the West, managed by O'Neil, to a 5-1 victory.

All the players at the time were hoping to be the next player from the Negro Leagues signed to the majors. "When Ernie Banks was first spotted, the scout, Tom Gordon, came to Columbus [Georgia] to see me," said Johnson. "He saw Ernie Banks at short stop and forgot all about Ernie Johnson." Banks was signed by the Cubs and went straight to Wrigley Field in September, 1953.

Johnson was sold to the St. Louis Browns in 1954, but his opportunity in organized ball never gained traction. He was injured and released later in the year, but the Cubs signed him and he was sent to Thetford in the Provincial League where he hit .288. The next year he was sent to Macon, Georgia and landed in a difficult situation. Macon had never had an African-American player before. Johnson and teammate Sammy Drake were the pioneers that year. While the local Black community was supportive, Jim Crow was alive and well. The two endured taunts, on the road and at home, along with the indignities of having to stay in separate facilities and eat their meals on the bus. Competing in professional baseball is difficult enough without the added stress of breaking social ground in a place that doesn't want change. After a month in Macon, Johnson was sent out to Des Moines.

Johnson enjoyed several good years in Des Moines and Souix City, hitting .320, .300 and .308. Despite the numbers, he was never given a chance to move much higher. He ended his career in 1959 with Charleston.

Johnson allows no regrets for what might have been. As far as the segregation of the time, he said, "To me, that's just the way life was. We didn't know any better. It never occurred to me that things could be different. I never had any anger about things, that's just the way it had always been. And like I said, we just didn't know any better. But we lived a pretty good life as ballplayers; better than the average Black person. We were doing a job we enjoyed, we stayed in some of the better hotels that were owned by Blacks. I got to play baseball and got to travel all over this country and got paid to do it."

No regrets. Ernie Johnson, professional baseball player. Just a few years ahead of his time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Plans Unveiled For XLB--New Baseball League Based on Fun

Hey gang, this is your intrepid sports reporter Jacques Niffer back from Vegas where I managed to get an exclusive one on one with noted sports entertainment magnet Dense McMayhem about his new professional baseball league.

Since I was having a little trouble typing this morning, I had my secretary transcribe the whole recorded interview:

JN: Mr. McMayhem, thanks for sitting down with me today.


JN: You don't have to scream, I'm sitting right here.

DM: Sorry, I'm just so excited. That's how we're going to start every game--you know, instead of having the umpire just mumble, "Play ball." Everything about this new league is going to be fresh and fun. There's been so much criticism from the younger generation about baseball being a tired game. So we've come up with a great idea. It's based on a previously very successful, just ahead of it's time, football venture: the XFL. We're going to call this the XLB.

JN: Sounds great. Do you have any players signed up yet?

DM: Only one so far, but fans will love him. He's a five-tool outfielder with an attitude who played with the Red Sox and Cubs and Dodgers and, hell, probably everybody else too, for one year. He just had his name legally changed to He Don't Like Me.

JN: So what's going to be different about the XLB?

DM: Everything. We threw out all the boring stuff everybody hates. Like uniforms. And batting gloves. We're going with one-piece leotards. That way there's nothing for batters to grab and scratch and adjust and waste time before getting in the batter's box. Anybody bunts, both benches get to dogpile them. And we're getting rid of the balk rule. Holding runners on base is boring. We're going to allow our first basement to REALLY hold runners on base; or off base--we call that the Herbie rule.

JN: What about talent, how good are the players going to be?

DM: Right, right. Where was I? Relief pitchers. When a pitcher is going bad, the manager will come out of the dugout and stand next to a giant gong. If the fans boo loud enough, he'll hit the gong and a new pitcher comes in. Also all relief pitchers will wear a mask, so nobody knows who they are and they'll warm up with both hands--that'll get rid of all that righty-lefty crap that everybody hates.

Pinch hitters can't enter the game until they've been tagged by the batter, but the pitcher and catcher can tackle the batter to keep him from tagging him.

And bat flips. All our players will be shown the video of Bert Campaneris in the 1972 playoffs. We'll show fans some damn bat flips, allright.

And we're doing away with those new pansy base running rules. If one of our guys is going into second or home plate on a close play and he just happens to have a hidden chain or is carrying a folding chair--well, hey, it's a man's game.

JN: Will fans get to see good baseball?

DM: We'll have all the stuff the new generation wants. We'll even incorporate the walk up music for batters--anybody plays Manilow or Bieber, it's an automatic two-strike count. Did I mention kids yet? You know with all the trouble about having players' kids on the field recently, we thought we would encourage that. I'm envisioning players' kids, wearing leather jackets and smoking, lined up down the foul lines, snapping their fingers. First high-and-tight pitch, they all rush in. Of course, they won't get hurt. Their switch blades will be made of rubber. We want a family atmosphere, you know.

JN: But what about talent?

DM: You want talent? Get a load of these. These are going to be our cheerleaders. They were all recruited right here in Vegas. You might even say they're professionals already, heh, heh. We're going to move the foul poles and have them put on top of the dugouts so our lovely cheerleaders can use them to, uh, perform.

JN: Are you sure these ladies are all natural? You know baseball fans are still a little wary of performance enhancers.

DM: Whaddaya trying to say?

JN: It's just that, I mean, I didn't know they could stand up like that on someone with a face that looks 60. I think they are fake?

DM: FAKE? Why you little . . . I'll show you fake.

JN: Hey, what are you doing . . . . OW, that hurts . . .  put me down, I'm afraid of heights . . . HEY . . . HELP . . . . (barely audible whimper).

DM: And that concludes our interview today folks. Remember, baseball is all about fun.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Talking to Nancy Finley, Charlie's niece and author of Finley Ball

Imagine you're a kid with a rich uncle who just bought a major league franchise. And then that uncle calls your dad and asks him to help run the team. And the dad accepts, brings you along and you get to witness baseball history from the backrooms and clubhouse for the next two decades as they build one of the most visible, and controversial, dynasties in baseball history. That's Nancy Finley's story. Now, after decades of watching the media misrepresent her uncle, wanting to set the record straight and make sure the contributions of her family are not lost to history, she has written a book.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Nancy Finley about the book, Finley Ball. Not just relying on her own memory, Nancy did voluminous research in old magazines and newspapers and is able to compare what was written with what she saw and heard first hand.

When Charlie Finley bought the Kansas City A's in December, 1960, the team had been a perennial joke whose owners regularly provided quality players to the Yankees in scandalously one-sided deals. That immediately changed. "Charlie never bought the team as an investment," Nancy says. "Charlie's dream had always been to own a sports team, preferably a baseball team. Once Charlie had the money, he bought his dream." Rather than being the cheapskate he came to be portrayed by the media, Finely actually subsidized the team until they started improving. He put about $500,000 of his own money into improvements for the stadium that he didn't even own.

After a very bad experience with Trader Frank Lane as his general manager (he was hired on the advice of a local sports editor), Charlie called on Nancy's father, Carl. Charlie and Carl were first cousins and had grown up together, as close as brothers. At the time, Carl was a high school principal in Dallas. Soon Carl was Charlie's right-hand man. "Dad really understood Charlie. He acted as a go-between for employees. Dad was more level-headed and helped run things from the background. He often gave Charlie advice about how to handle the media, when to keep his mouth shut. But Charlie had a hard time with that and it got him into trouble sometimes."

Together over the next decade, the two transformed the miserable A's into a powerhouse. And, although neither had any experience, they did it with home-grown talent--making some of the most astute draft picks and signings in baseball in the sixties. 

Nancy, a young girl at the time, had the run of the clubhouse and the players, especially the early guys like Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Dick Green, Bert Campaneris, Rick Monday and Blue Moon Odom, were like family.

Charlie Finley proved to be an innovator and an iconoclast among baseball owners. He was committed to bringing fun to the ball park. In 1964 he arranged for the Beatles to play in Kansas City at the stadium--a real coup because the group had not originally planned a stop there. "We were hoping MLB would adopt entertainment like the Super Bowl has now," says Nancy.

Nancy has the inside story to some of baseball's most famous controversies. Like the 1967 flight that resulted in the firing of manager Al Dark and the defection of Ken Harrelson, who called Finley "a menace to baseball." She got the real scoop from her teenage cousin, who was traveling with the team. Opposed to some media reports that downplayed the players' drinking and rowdiness, Nancy says her cousin had a front row seat to the shenanigans. "One of the stewardesses actually came up and sat down next to him and said, 'This is the only place that's safe,' because those guys were really getting out of hand with grabbing and groping and stuff."

She also has an extended explanation, including court documents and medical reports, of the Mike Andrews incident in the 1973 World Series. Nancy says this will surprise a lot of people because the media got it wrong. "I want the reader to decide for himself/herself after reading about what I know factually occurred."

She also has the real reason the team moved from Kansas City to Oakland. "Why we 'had to' leave Kansas City has never been written. I am so tired of reading how we wanted to leave KC. That is absolutely not how it happened. We never wanted to leave Kansas City. We loved it there. We were forced out." A poisoned-penned influential sports editor for the Kansas City Star, Ernie Mehl (who was jilted in his efforts at leading a group to buy the team in 1960), eventually swayed public opinion and soured the city for the Finleys. "Then the city council, some of whom were influenced by Mehl, voted to more than double the stadium lease, to over a million dollars, while the chiefs were playing for a dollar a year. We financially couldn't stay in Kansas City."

She also relates the story of the team mascot, a mule named Charlie O. "Charlie O was a gift from Missouri's governor at the beginning of 1965," she says. "The mule was named Charlie O as a joke by Charlie himself. Charlie O traveled with the team. Only the White Sox refused Charlie O admission. Charlie O drank at bars, rode escalators, had his own New York City hotel suite (a swanky room at the Americana Hotel complete with hay on the floor), was groomed in a barbershop, and was a witness for a bank note signing."

When Charlie O died in 1976, he was cremated and his remains were kept at the Oakland SPCA, since Charlie O had been a frequent attendee for SPCA charity events. A commemorative plaque on the wall was placed so fans could pay their respects. When the A's were rumored to be moving in 2008 and Nancy got wind that another group was planning on taking possession of Charlie O's remains, Nancy decided she needed to act. "I contacted the SPCA and provided confirmation of who I am. I was given Charlie O's remains." And she proudly keeps them today.

While Nancy doesn't deny her uncle's well-known personality traits, she does think he has not gotten a fair shake in books and histories. "Even recently in Sports Illustrated, I saw where Joe Posnanski wrote something and it was completely wrong. Everyone accepts some things that have been written before without actually checking the facts."

Along with lots of baseball, Nancy witnessed other bay area history up close as well during the tumultuous times of Patty Hearst, the Zodiac killer, Berkeley and the Black Panthers. She actually shared an elevator ride, alone, with Black Panther leader Huey Newton and two of his body guards as a young girl. She had taken a dog for a walk and was returning to their top-floor apartment in Oakland when the three stepped in. "They were very nice. They even asked what type of dog I had." Unknown to the girl, or anyone else, Newton was staying in their building incognito while on the lam from the FBI. "I recognized them when they showed them on TV later and told dad. He wasn't very happy." 

The book is scheduled for release next week, March 30. 

  Here's a link to the Amazon page for the book.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Last Ride of Baseball's Dalton Gang

According to history books, the outlaw Dalton Gang terrorized the old west for several years in the 1890s. Baseball had its own version of the Dalton Gang in the 1950s and early 1960s and--at least according to the oral legend passed down in dugouts, clubhouses and team buses--they were only slightly less terrorizing in their assault on bartenders, waitresses, maids, hotel rooms and team rules.

The gang's hideout was the clubhouse of the Philadelphia Phillies and it was made up of Dick (Turk) Farrell, Jim (The Bear) Owens and Jack (The Bird) Meyer. Others, such as Seth Morehead and Don Cardwell, occasionally rode with the gang as well. If none of them seem to be household names, there's a reason: most of their best work was done at night, away from the lights of the ball field.

The Daltons were all pitchers, big and rough, and most of them had talent; enough talent to keep them on a major league roster while they were driving management crazy. The name for the gang was handed down in 1959 by the Phillies pitching coach Tom Ferrick, the poor soul charged with corralling them long enough to make it to the mound.

They were a particularly fun-loving bunch who enjoyed nothing more than hoisting a few and taking liberties, with the rules of both the team and civilized society. They knew the best nightspots in every town in the National League and, for most of them, they knew what the joints looked like at closing time--not that they could always remember. A teammate later said of them, "They were homicidally notorious. They would go into bars and beat up people, they'd tear clubhouses apart with their practical jokes, they would do anything anytime." They were described in print as "pitchers who threw fast and lived fast and who were swept up in the excitement of being young and playing baseball for a living . . . outlaws who rode by night."

Since most postgame activities were sanitized at the time by journalists who wanted to maintain their place in line at the team's free press buffet, it's difficult to say with certainty whether the Dalton Gang had more fun, or was any more destructive, than Mickey-Whitey-Billy or any number of other famously hard-living players of the era, but two things seem certain: few others tried harder and few others created a comparable legend. The singular aspect that made them notorious was the fact that, to a man, they tended to become very disagreeable when drunk. They often ended their evenings trying to inflict physical injury on: a) strangers, b) each other or, c) any offending nearby inanimate object. When they drank, violence was close behind. And they drank often. They left a wide path of destruction in barrooms and hotels.

The most talented of the bunch, on the baseball field, was Dick Farrell. He was also the unofficial leader of the gang. He pitched exclusively in relief for the Phillies and went 10-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 1957 as a rookie and made the All-Star team in 1958. Farrell loved pranks and was noted for pouring buckets of ice on teammates on the toilet, setting off firecrackers in the clubhouse, and slipping an alligator (presumably a small one) into the whirlpool in spring training. Once he got into the official game balls before a game against the Braves and wrote unmentionable messages on them to rival pitcher Lew Burdette. During the game Burdette would look at a ball and then yell into the Phillies dugout, "Same to you, Farrell."

While he loved a good laugh, Farrell had a temper and could turn dark quickly. The 6-4, 225-pounder threw hard and was one of the most intimidating men in baseball. He would knock down a hitter for merely taking an excessively aggressive swing. He also firmly believed in the baseball version of an eye for an eye--call it Homer-abi's Code--plus one. When Joe Morgan, a future teammate in Houston, was routinely getting brushed back as part of the trial all good rookies had to go through at the time, Farrell watched a few weeks, then decided he had seen enough. He approached Morgan in the dugout: "We're gonna put a stop to that shit. Who do you want?" After that every time Morgan was brushed back Farrell would retaliate. "I''ll get one for you--and one for me. The pitcher's mine."

When opposing hitters objected to being targeted and glared out at him, Farrell would scream at them and dare them to come to the mound. Once after he plunked Willie Mays, he was verbally assaulted by the entire Giants dugout. He yelled back at them, "I'll take any one of you guys--or any two--right now." No one took him up on the offer.

Farrell claimed to always carry a .45 pistol and later famously shot rattlesnakes near the field when the Colt 45s/Astros trained in Arizona. Philadelphia first baseman Ed Bouchee later said that when they were teammates in the minors in Miami, he was in the shared bathroom between his and Farrell's hotel rooms when Farrell started shooting through the door. Between ice and bullets, teammates learned to never relax too much to relieve nature's calls when Farrell was around.

Like Farrell, the other two main marauders, Meyer and Owens, were hard-throwing relievers. But after initially showing potential, neither improved, leaving observers to conclude that perhaps they couldn't cash the checks Farrell was writing at night and that the group's training regimen derailed their careers. Meyer came up to the Phillies first and led the National League in saves with 16 as a rookie in 1955. He added 97 strikeouts in 101 innings and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He never lived up to the promise of his rookie season, however, and ended his major league career after five years with a record of 24-34.

Jim Owens was 12-12 in his first full season in 1959 but went 11-28 over the next three years while his ERA climbed north of 5.00. Farrell frequently defended his roomie's talent, saying Owens only needed management to leave him alone and let him pitch and he would do well. Although Owens told the press that he was the kind of pitcher who could stay out drinking all night and then throw a shutout, it eventually became evident that he was only correct about the first part. A teammate later said, "He really could have been a good pitcher if he had stuck to the straight and narrow."

But straight and narrow wasn't their style.

Their reputation was soon known to players across the National League. John Callison, who joined the team in a trade in December, 1959, later said that when the trade was announced he was cautioned by a veteran player, "You're a kid with a promising future. Don't get hooked up with that Dalton Gang."

"Everybody in baseball knew about the Dalton Gang," Callison explained. "Other teams would come into the city and ask me where the Dalton Gang was headed after the game. . . There was a little bar near Connie Mack Stadium. The Dalton Gang used to sneak out or send somebody out to buy brews for them during the game."

Baseball, by nature of its slower pace and large amount of down time during the six month season, lends itself to storytelling more than other sports; and for years, former teammates of the Dalton Gang enjoyed propagating their tales. As they say, "History became legend. Legend became myth." What is fact and what is fiction is hard to tell at this stage.

They were said to have broken every mirror in a plush San Francisco bar one night and to have damaged more than one hotel room with fire.

An unnamed gang member, referred to in print years later only as a "boozed up flame thrower," broke the wrist of one of the Phillie's better hitters during an alcohol-fueled disagreement.

A fringe gang member once disrobed a waitress (against her will) in a Clearwater, Florida parking lot during spring training. The Phillies reportedly paid $250 for a new dress and the whole deal was forgotten (by most).

After a game in Milwaukee, the gang was frolicking in a bar called Fazio's when Farrell picked up the juke box and began dancing with it. After the owner told him to put it down or he'd called the cops, Farrell put it down, went to the washroom and ripped all the mirrors and towel holders off the bathroom walls. The Phillies got a bill for that one as well.

In order to recoup some of the team's money being paid out for the destruction wrought by the gang, as well as in an attempt to slow them down, the team began slapping them with fines.

After a couple of Daltons busted up a bartender, general manager Quinn fined them for "being unsober."

In 1959 Farrell had another fight with a barroom mirror in Milwaukee after a loss. He later said, "I looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw so I threw a punch." He was fined $250 for "Conduct unbecoming a major league ballplayer."

Future Phillies general manager Paul Owens was a minor league manager for the Phillies during the Dalton's rule and roomed with future Phillies manager Frank Lucchessi, also a minor league manager at the time, during spring camp. He later told a reporter, "We'd go to bed about midnight. Frank was a sound sleeper. I thought I was, but in the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of Christmas Carols. . . I get up and go down the hall . . .There are Turk Farrell, Jim Owens and a young catcher from Syracuse. They're singing to this guy they have hung up by the back of his jacket on a wall hook. The poor guy's feet were off the ground. Turns out he's the night clerk who came upstairs to quiet them down." Farrell was fined $500 and Owens $200 and sent the catcher was sent home.

When fines didn't work, the team tried positive reinforcement. Owens' conduct was explicitly discussed prior to his 1960 contract and he was promised a $500 bonus if he could stay out of trouble. The lure of extra cash provided great incentive for Owens to rehabilitate his behavior--for about a week; he didn't make it through spring training. He got into a barroom brawl in Florida, lost his $500 bonus and was hit with an extra $100 fine.

The gang burned through managers the way they went through bars--rapidly and with much collateral damage. The Phillies were a bad team, having gradually shed most of their stars from the Whiz Kids days and were in the process of sinking to the bottom of the National League. Manager Mayo Smith, a guy who had trouble controlling his players everywhere (see McLain, Denny) was no match for the gang. Neither was Eddie Sawyer, who resigned after an opening day loss in 1960, leaving with this famous statement: "I'm 49 years old and want to live to be 50."

When the team hired tough guy Gene Mauch to replace Sawyer, it appeared that a new sheriff was in town and Philadelphia might not be big enough for all of them. Mauch initially told reporters he would be able to deal with the gang, whose arms were sorely needed by the talent-poor Phils: "You have to find 'em, fine 'em, and play 'em." But Mauch ultimately proved to have no more luck keeping the Dalton Gang focused than he would later have with Dick Allen.

Mauch initially tried to use intellectual strategy: he split up the roomies Farrell and Owens and paired them with assistant coaches Ken Slivestri and Peanuts Lowrey. It didn't work. Farrell later said, "Silvestri would go to bed at ten o'clock. I'd order a few beers and keep the TV set on until four. Owens would do the same thing with Lowrey. We kept this up for ten nights." After that the coaches went to Mauch and begged him to make a change. "I can't room with this guy, Gene," Silvestri said. "He never sleeps."

By the criteria of any easily-googled checklist the guys obviously had a serious problem. But it would be decades before the baseball establishment and sportswriters--led by the courageous efforts of guys like Ryne Duren, Don Newcombe and Sam McDowell--would be ready to confront alcohol abuse in its ranks with anything other than a wink and a euphemism.

The beginning of the end for the Dalton Gang's reign of terror came in early June, 1960. It started in a nightspot in Pittsburgh, just up the street from the Phillies' hotel. After much lubrication, Meyer became involved in a heated shouting match with a local sports writer, reportedly over a trivial matter involving horse racing. When Meyer appeared to be losing control, he was soothed by Farrell and other Daltons and led back to his hotel room and put to bed.

As the night was still relatively young, Farrell quickly had a change of heart and decided it would be great fun to pour ice water on Meyer. Meyer came up screaming and fighting. After once more being subdued, he reportedly received a phone call that sent him over the edge. He trashed the room, ripping down blinds and destroying a radio, then fought uncontrollably with several teammates who tried to prevent further carnage.

In the process of all the commotion, Meyer hurt his back. And in the next few days it became apparent that the back injury was severe. Meyer was placed on the disabled list and sent back to Philadelphia by Mauch. Phillie general manager John Quinn then fined Meyer $1,200--an enormous amount for the time. It was said to be the largest fine, in proportion to salary, in baseball history (9 % of Meyer's $14,000 salary).

When Meyer learned the amount of the fine, he was incensed, "What do they think I am, a millionaire?" he asked reporters. "I've got four kids to support." He threatened to quit baseball, then demanded to be traded. Mauch told reporters, "Meyer is a problem. Do you think any manager wants to take a problem off my hands?"

After the damaged was cleaned, fines handed out, and the usual suspects rounded up, all was back to business as usual. And then the gang was immortalized in an article by Walter Bingham in the June 13, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article, titled, "The Dalton Gang Rides Again," began "When the game is over, a trio of fun-loving Philadelpia Phillies prowl the night in search of adventure." Bingham called the boys "throwbacks to the raucous old days," and "wild-living, fun'loving, hell-raising players."

"Whenever one of their nocturnal escapades lands them in trouble and makes the papers, someone around the National League invariably says, 'I see where the Dalton Boys were out riding again last night." The article accused the gang of  "hard-drinking, frequent fighting, late hours and casual relationships." This kind of behavior from baseball players? Written about in a national magazine? Scandalous!

The article, exceedingly innocent by modern standards, was met with much indignation and threats of reprisals from inside the baseball establishment--not for the offenses of the guilty parties, understand, but because the writer and the magazine had broken the Wall of Silence of the clubhouse. At the time, the general public was only supposed to learn of baseball player's conduct between the lines and the only off-field activities deemed appropriate for print usually involved photo ops with small children in hospitals.

Soon after the SI issue hit the racks, the very pro-establishment Sporting News stated, "The bid for sensationalism in journalism has entered the field of sports via the weekly magazines. Sports Illustrated came along with an article on the 'Dalton Gang' of the Phillies in which three players were branded as playboys constantly violating training rules. . . .Does that sort of vilification belong in sports?"

This incident represents an important watershed moment in the history of sports journalism. Sports Illustrated had printed an excerpt of Jim Brosnan's The Long Season that spring. When the complete book was released in July it was roundly denounced for telling the public that ballplayers occasionally bent an elbow and looked at women (things ordinary people were not supposed to know). Unfortunately for Commissioner Frick and the poobahs of the game who sought to protect the innocent public from scandalous information about baseball heroes, readers tended to like this sort of stuff. Along with a wave of new-breed sportswriters who came to be known as "the Chipmunks," Brosnan's book and this article helped usher in a new era of sports journalism--no longer would fans be content with sports stars who merely sipped malts, politely signed autographs for little kids and frequently said, "Gee, whiz, fellas, we love this game so much we would play it for nothing." Fans wanted more.They wanted the truth. Who knew?

Farrell, Owens and Meyer filed separate lawsuits against SI's parent company, Time, Inc., because of the article. Meyer's suit asked for damages of $5,000 or more for "defamatory statements" that "hurt him as a salesman in the off season, damaged his employment and jeopardized the possibility of his earning a living." In Ball Four, Owens, by 1969 a Houston pitching coach, tells Jim Bouton about the lawsuit: "We'd have gotten a helluva lot more money if one of the guys hadn't attacked a maid a week before the trial."

The Dalton Gang was never quite the same after the Pittsburgh affair. Considering the amount of negative press and the amount of damage, along with the fact that the team was losing miserably, it was inevitable that the gang would be broken up. One by one, they were let go. Meyer missed the rest of the 1960 season with the back injury. He pitched in one game in 1961 before leaving baseball for good. Farrell was traded to the Dodgers in May, 1961 and Owens to the Reds in November, 1962.

Expansion teams are often left with the unpleasant task of taking on other team's problems in order to field a team of major leaguers. And so it was that in 1964 Owens and Farrell were reunited in Houston. Together again, they both enjoyed several productive seasons on the mound. Although they were a little older, perhaps wiser, and Houston general manager Paul Richards (a no-nonsense tough guy in anybody's book) warned them about their behavior, they did not change their lifestyle too much; they only used more discretion.

The pair left a lasting impression on young Joe Morgan. He later wrote: "Those desperadoes were genuinely, dangerously crazy." Morgan noticed that they carried nice briefcases through airports on road trips, looking very much like serious businessmen. He soon discovered that their "business" included flasks of booze, which they liberally delved into--getting around a regulation prohibiting alcohol on flights. And while their exploits were not as heralded as in the Philly days, they still had their moments, such as the time a lubricated Owens attacked a writer on the team bus after an unflattering article about Farrell. Owens held the writer by his neck with his feet dangling and only the intervention of Farrell ("Let him go, Jim, he's not worth it") and a couple of teammates saved the red-faced reporter from serious injury.

Farrell was converted to a starter for a time and became one of Houston's best pitchers during their early years, becoming a fan and media favorite due to his openness and quick wit. He was a hit on the team's winter caravan and sold season tickets in the off-season. He was not above pulling the occasional hidden ball trick or loading one up in a key situation. Once after Stan Musial singled sharply to right field on a particularly nasty two-strike spitter that broke a foot at the plate, Farrell tipped his cap toward first and said, "You, sir, have to be the greatest hitter I've ever seen to have hit that ball with as much as I loaded on it." Stan the Man smiled and replied, "I thought it looked a little wet coming up there."

 Also as he aged, Farrell realized that his arm wasn't what it had been and he only wanted to pitch at night, not trusting his fastball in the light of day anymore, knowing that the poor vision in the gloomy lights of old Colt Stadium added five years to his heater. Once his regular turn in the rotation fell on a day game. After arguing with a coach to no avail, the next day Farrell didn't show up. He walked into the clubhouse after the game with an innocent expression on his face and told everyone he thought the game started at night. After much yelling by the coaches and righteous indignation by Farrell for having his honesty questioned, he started the next night and won. He made the All-Star team in 1962, 1964 and 1965. He played for the Colts from 1962 to 1967, before finishing with an encore in Philadelphia from 1967-69.

While Owens later tried to downplay the reputation of their old days, Farrell reveled in it. He once stopped at the real Dalton Gang Hideout and Museum in Meade, Kansas and wrote back to a sportswriter friend, "Stopped off at the old hideout . . . brought back memories. Takes a while to raise a new gang, but will start soon."

Once when asked by a young Houston reporter if he had been a member of the infamous Dalton Gang when he had been in Philadelphia, Farrell replied with pride, "I wasn't just a member. I was the leader."

The years were not kind to most of the Dalton Gang. Meyer died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 35. Farrell, the most talented of the gang, lasted the longest in baseball. He had a 14-year major league career and ended with a lifetime record of 106-111. He moved to Great Britain where he worked on an oil rig off the coast but died in a car accident in 1977. He was only 43.

Owens became the Astros pitching coach after his playing days were finished and helped forge a staff that included Mike Cuellar, Larry Dierker and Don Wilson. He still lives in Texas.

Even though they were together only a short time, the Dalton Gang remains part of baseball lore; a reminder of a much different era.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Top Ten Lines in Baseball Movie History

Although the weather has started to warm up some places and baseball teams have gathered in camps across Florida and Arizona, we are still awaiting the start of baseball games for 2016. While we wait, baseball movies provide a reasonable alternative. With that in mind, I decided to offer my list of best lines from baseball movies.

I should apologize in advance to some excellent movies, like Rookie of the Year, Eight Men Out, Moneyball and  It Happens Every Spring that didn't have any signature lines that stuck out in my mind enough to make my list. And if some movies seem over-represented here, it's just because they were that good.

Honorable Mention:

Bad News Bears (1976):

Ne'er do well Coach Buttermaker gives scrawny benchwarmer Lupus a classic bit of warm-and-fuzzy Little League coaching advice:

"Listen, Lupus, you didn't come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can."

*  *  *

The Natural (1984)

Good-natured manager Pops wants nothing more from life than to win a pennant before his time is finished. Roy Hobb (Robert Redford)  shows up after his illness and tells Pops he's ready to take the field for the big game with the pennant on the line.

Pops: "You know, my mama wanted me to be a farmer."
Roy Hobbs: "My dad wanted me to be a baseball player."
Pops: "Well, you're better than any player I ever had. And you're the best goddamn hitter I ever saw. Suit up."

*  *  *

Bull Durham (1988)

Minor League lifer Crash Davis has his hands full trying to teach talented young pitching phenom Nuke Laloosh how to both play and repect the game.

"Lesson number one: don't think; it can only hurt the ball club."
*  *  *
After Laloosh shakes off his signs and insists on throwing a fastball, Crash tells the batter what's coming, resulting in a monster home run.

Nuke: "That sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball."
Crash: "He did know."
Nuke: "How?"
Crash: "I told him."

In a later game, when Laloosh shakes off his signs, insisting on throwing a curve, Crash (to batter) "This SOB is throwing a two-hit shutout. He's shaking me off. You believe that shit? Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well."

Crash, to Laloosh on the mound after the home run: "Man that ball got outta here in a hurry. I mean anything travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it."

*  *  *

"Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strike outs are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls, it's more democratic."

*  *  *

 Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

For guys afraid to show their sensitive side, it's time to make a run for the kitchen when the New York Mammoth's left-handed twenty-game winner and author Henry Wiggen offers this eulogy for his recently departed teammate Bruce Pearson (played by a young Robert DeNiro):

"He wasn't a bad fella, no worse than most and probably better than some. And not a bad ballplayer neither, when they gave him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in, I rag on nobody."

*  *  *

 Major League (1989):

Everything Bob Uecker as announcer Harry Doyle says is a classic. It's hard to choose one.

"Juuust a bit outside. . . . . [after 12 straight balls]  How can those guys lay off pitches that close?"

"Haywood leads the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair. When this guy sneezes he looks like a party favor."

"Rickie Vaughn gets the starting call today. We're told he matured a lot over the winter. Apparently he's bathing now."

"Obviously Taylor's thiniking . . .  I don't know WHAT the hell he's thinking."

"One hit? That's all we got, one goddamn hit? . . . .  Don't worry, nobody's listening anyway."

*  *  *

 Bad News Bears (1976)

The irrepressible Tanner, who earlier fought the entire seventh grade after a loss, speaks for anyone who was ever sickened by hypocritical arrogant winning Little League teams when he tells them "Hey Yankees. You can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass."

*  *  *

 Field of Dreams (1989)

As Moonlight Graham, now a doctor for all time, walks off the baseball field, Shoeless Joe shouts, "Hey rookie, you were good."

                                                                          *  *  *

 Pride of the Yankees (1942):

Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig: "Today (ay, ay) I consider myself (elf, elf), the luckiest man on the face of the earth." What more needs to be said.

*  *  *

10) A League of Their Own (1992)

All the way Mae (played, appropriately, by Madonna) discussing ways to increase attendance at their games, offers:  "What if at a key moment in the game, my uniform burst open and, uh, oops, my bosoms come flying out?"

To which Rosie O'Donnell's character replies: "You think there are men in this country who ain't seen your bosoms?"

*  *  *

9) The Sandlot (1993):

Appearing in a dream, Babe Ruth gives Bennie the Jet Rodriguez this timeless advice, "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die."

*  *  *

8) Field of Dreams (1989):

As he prepares to pitch to Shoeless Joe, Kevin Costner asks, "Do we need a catcher?"
Joe replies, "Not if you get it near the plate we don't."

*  *  *

7) Bull Durham

The manager sends the coach out to break up a gathering on the mound that involves the entire infield. When the dutiful coach arrives, he finds out there's a long list of problems being discussed. The result is the greatest pitching mound conference in history:

"Well, Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here. We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. We're dealing with a lot of shit."

The coach nods thoughtfully and then suggests, "Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or a nice silverware pattern. Okay, let's get two. Go get 'em."

*  *  *

6) Field of Dreams (1989)

 Young Moonlight Graham, annoyed after being brushed back by two straight pitches, turns and asks, "Hey ump, how about a warning?"

The umpire answers, "Sure kid, watch out you don't get killed."

*  *  *

5) Bull Durham (1988)

The manager, after being told by Crash to try to scare the kids on the team, delivers this harangue:

 "You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!"

Assistant coach, Larry: "Lollygaggers!"

*  *  *

4) Major League (1989)

The uber-confident Willie Mays Hayes introduced himself as "I run like Hayes and hit like Mays."

After watching him flail helplessly in the batting cage, manager Lou Brown croaks, "You might run like Hayes, but you hit like shit."

*  *  *

3) The Sandlot (1993)

Ham, exasperated by Smalls' continually nerdish ways, utters the immortal line:

"You're killing me Smalls."

*  *  *

2) Little Boy Boo (1954)

In the less-than-politically-correct 1950s, before soccer moms were even a glint in Bill Clinton's eye, a real man's man like Foghorn Leghorn could plainly state what every male at the time knew deep in his heart:

"There's something, I say, there's something kind of eeeeyeeee about a kid that's never played baseball."

*  *  *

1)   A League of Their Own (1992)

Tom Hanks is less than sympathetic when one of his players starts crying during a game.

"There's no crying in baseball. . . Rogers Hornsby was my manager and he called me a talking pile of pigshit. And that was when my parents drove all the way down from Michigan to see me play the game. And did I cry? No. And you know why? Because there's no crying in baseball."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Bobby Tolan Basketball Injury Revisited: Literary Foreshadowing and Managers Know Best

Two innocent articles appeared on the pages of the Sporting News in November of 1970 which would be related to events that would have a profound effect on the Cincinnati Reds franchise. The articles appeared November 21 and November 28 and were both written by the Cincinnati Post's Earl Lawson, who also moonlighted as the Sporting News' columnist for the Reds. The first article was entitled "Sparky Turns Off Ignition On Big Red Cage Machine." The next weeks' headline was "Basketball Touchy Subject to N.L. Champ Reds," and is accompanied by a picture of Pete Rose in a warmup suit toweling himself off, presumably after playing basketball. At first glance, they appear to be the usual postseason space-filler--something to eat up copy between the World Series and the hot-stove league. A reader who knows the rest of the story, however, is struck by a sense of irony and foreshadowing, as well as--if the reader is a Reds fan--foreboding.

In the old days--before year-round select travel programs for kids in every sport starting at 6 years old--the best athletes played every sport. So it should not be surprising how many great baseball players were also stand-out basketball stars.

Johnny Bench was an All-State high school basketball player in Oklahoma and led his team to the state semifinals in 1965. Brooks Robinson made All-State and was mentioned in a national publication for his efforts for Little Rock Central High School in 1954 and 1955. Frank Robinson, in Oakland, led his team to the state championship, although he had a bit of help from a talented teammate named Bill Russell. Future Red Sox teammates Carl Yastrzemski (in Long Island) and Rico Petrocelli (in Brooklyn) regularly dropped 30 or more points a game on opponents.

Carlton Fisk led his high school team to an undefeated New Hampshire state championship in 1963 as a sophomore and, in his final high school game, in the semifinals in 1965 he set a still-standing state record for most field goals (18) in a state tournament game while scoring 40 points and pulling down 36 rebounds. Jim Palmer led the state of Arizona in scoring as a senior in the early 1960s and was recruited by UCLA's John Wooden. Had he not pursued baseball, he could have won three NCAA championships.

Although no high school star himself, Pete Rose regularly played basketball throughout the off-season in his early years with the Reds. Being a hometown Cincinnati guy, he stayed in the area in the winter and used his contacts to get on a bunch of teams. Some years he was on as many as four different amateur teams, regularly playing in AAU leagues and tournaments throughout the Cincinnati area.

Rose, of course, was the point guard who told everyone what to do; good at driving and dishing. He was also not above a little elbow-throwing or butt-pinching under the basket if needed. Soon after Johnny Bench joined the Reds at the end of the 1967 season, Rose recruited him for several of his teams. Bench, who had been able to palm a basketball with his massive paws since junior high and could dunk in high school, still had a deft jump shot. And if the wide-shouldered, cat-quick Bench wanted a rebound, no one else had a chance.

After the 1968 baseball season the Reds front office decided it would be safer for them to sponsor a basketball team and play exhibitions rather than have some of their best stars risk injury in rough and tumble amateur games. General manager Bob Howsam not only gave his approval for the official Reds basketball team, but paid for snazzy new uniforms and warmups. They played local teams for charity all around the area, as well as in Kentucky and Indiana; playing collections of teachers, firemen, policemen, local celebrities and the like. Sometimes the gate was split, allowing the players to pick up some extra cash--not an unimportant enticement in those reserve clause days.

But often these were no laid-back affairs. Once on the floor, with the natural competitive juices flowing, the games sometimes became hard fought, with neither team conceding anything. It would obviously be a great feather in the cap of any team to be able to later brag that they had once defeated the mighty Big Red Machine--even if it wasn't in their natural game of baseball.

 After the 1969 season, the Reds basketball team played a schedule of more than 30 games. In addition to Bench and Rose, Lee May, Jim Maloney and infielder Jimmy Stewart were regulars, along with a couple of Rose's local friends for fillers. Jim McGlothlin and Bobby Tolan were picked up for 1970. Although his numbers were overshadowed by the teams' slugging stars, everyone in baseball recognized that centerfielder Tolan was obviously a budding star. He was coming off two terrific seasons. In 1970 he had hit .316 with 16 home runs, 80 RBIs and swiped 57 bases. At 25, he figured to only get better. More importantly, along with the slower Rose and the shortstop de jour, Tolan provided the only semblance of speed in the Reds lineup.

Manager Sparky Anderson had seen the basketball team play only once in the previous winter. "Unfortuntely, it was the roughest game we played all season," Rose told Lawson. "I even got into a brawl. We played a small school and the guys on the other team got mad."

In November of 1970, fresh off a great season in which the Reds dominated the National League but came up short in the World Series, Sparky Anderson, fearing injury to a key player, wanted to rule out the formation of a "Reds" basketball team. He had no trouble convincing his boss Bob Howsam to back the decision.

Rose was quoted as saying, "Some guys can keep in shape by exercising and running around a gym track. I have to do something that's competitive. You do that and you're always thinking about winning. And that's a spirit a guy should develop."

"We realize players must keep active during the off-season to remain in shape," Howsam's assistant Sheldon Bender countered. "But basketball presents too much of a risk." As an alternative to basketball, the Reds purchased a new universal weight machine for their clubhouse and set up an organized conditioning program for the first time. Perhaps indicative of the prevailing opinions of weight training for baseball at the time, when backup shortstop Darrell Chaney asked one of the coaches if lifting weights would improve his batting average, the coach replied, "No, but you'll look better sitting on the bench."

While the players reluctantly agreed to Anderson's edict, they did convince him to allow them to play four or five games which had already been set up with numerous advanced tickets purchased. And in general, a good time was had by all, such as the game in Connorsville, Indiana November 14, 1970 when a crowd of 3,500, paying $1.50 each, crammed into the high school gym to watch. The players signed autographs during half time and tossed 72 autographed baseballs into the crowd. Rose termed it "Great public relations for the Reds."

Another game that had been heavily pre-sold was in Frankfort, Kentucky in January. During that game, Bobby Tolan stopped suddenly to retrieve a loose ball. Although no one was within five feet of him, he collapsed and couldn't get up. The back of his foot felt as though he had been kicked by a steel-toed boot. He had completely torn his Achilles tendon. He would miss the entire 1971 season.

It was the first, and possibly most important, in a series of unfortunate events that would completely derail the early version of the Big Red Machine, leading to a disappointing 79-83 record and a fourth place finish for the young team predicted to be a dynasty.

Although Tolan made a fine comeback for the 1972 pennant-winning Reds, hitting .283 and he played in the majors through 1979, he was never again the same version of the near-dominant player of 1969 and 1970. And after the accident, Bob Howsam put his foot down--there would be no more Cincinnati Red basketball after 1971.

And so, looking at the two seemingly innocent articles from 46 years ago, one can only wonder what would have happened to the Big Red Machine, and Bobby Tolan, if the players had heeded Sparky's warning in November of 1970 to stop playing basketball. Would a healthy Bobby Tolan have been enough to offset the injuries to the pitching staff and slumps of Bench, Carbo and Perez? If not enough to win a pennant, would it have been enough to have the decent finish, say second place, that would have prevented Howsam from feeling that he needed to overhaul the team with The Deal that brought Morgan, Billingham, Geronimo et al and led to future greatness?

Questions such as these keep fans and ex-managers awake on long winter nights.

Friday, January 22, 2016

And Then Pudge Said to Spaceman: Conversations From Major League Mounds

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Bull Durham occurs on the pitcher's mound. The manager sends the coach out to break up an abnormally long conference involving the entire infield. When the dutiful coach arrives, he finds out that the long list of problems being discussed includes the fact that the pitcher is "scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here." Also, they need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and "nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. . . .we're dealing with a lot of shit."

The coach nods thoughtfully and then suggests, "Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or a nice silverware pattern.Okay, let's get two. Go get 'em."

Surprisingly, a lot of major league pitching mound conferences are not that different.

Carlton Fisk was known as a steely commander behind the plate. Part of his job description included being a psychologist to struggling pitchers as well as occasionally kicking some butt. He received a quick lesson on what veteran pitchers expected during a late-season call up in 1971. Tough lefty Gary Peters was on the mound for the Sox and appeared to be struggling. The rookie catcher thought, "Well, I'm supposed to take charge here," and walked out to talk to his pitcher.

Peters, greatly annoyed at having given up a couple of weak ground ball hits, was in no mood to be bothered. He turned his back and stood behind the mound. Fisk, not knowing what else to do in front of fans and teammates, patiently waited. Finally, Peters turned around and was not happy to find the rookie still there. "What the F*** do you want?" he snapped.

Fisk, surprised at the assault, just shrugged. "The next time you come out here, you better have a pretty good idea how we're going to get out of this situation," snarled Peters. "Get your ass back behind the plate." It was Fisk's Welcome to the Big Leagues moment. He dutifully walked back behind the plate, but it was the last time a pitcher would ever chase Carlton Fisk off a mound.

Fisk and outspoken teammate Bill Lee had some memorable confrontations on the mound. Temporary roommates in their first stop in the minors, in Waterloo, Iowa in low A ball in 1968, they were friends and each held respect for the competitiveness and ability of the other. This friendship and respect vanished completely, however, when Fisk began one of his slow, studied walks to the mound during an inning.

Lee liked to work fast and often threw pitch sequences which defied any explanation other than by his own convoluted thought process that few human beings could follow. Even though these pitches were successful more often than not, they drove the conservative catcher absolutely nuts. And Fisk drove Lee nuts by taking his time during the game. Confrontations were inevitable.

Lee later said that he immediately became irritated by the slow, deliberate way Fisk called a game. "He was . . .slow at putting down signs. I used to think, 'Jesus, what's taking him so long? I've only got two pitches.'

Lee wrote, "Fisk demanded your total concentration during a game. If you shook him off and then threw a bad pitch that got hit out, he had a very obvious way of expressing his displeasure. After receiving a new ball from the umpire, he would bring it out to you . . . There would be an expression on his face that said, 'If you throw another half-ass pitch like that, I'm going to stuff this ball down your throat.'"

By the mid-70s Lee and Fisk provided public entertainment on the mound. They were known to have shouting matches in the middle of the infield. Lee would shake him off just for the fun of it. Sometimes when Fisk would start out to the mound, Lee would turn and walk toward second base, making Fisk follow him.

One game Lee shook Fisk off six consecutive times. Fisk came out to the mound and yelled, "How the hell can you shake me off six times! I've only got five fingers!"
Lee: "My point exactly."

Lee: "Who knows better than I do what kind of stuff I have."
Fisk "Your catcher."

Lee, admittedly sometimes excitable on the mound, said Fisk would help by calming him down--"By screaming at me. 'Cut the shit, bear down, and we'll get two.'"

Bill Lee was far from the only pitcher who enjoyed Fisk's brand of motherly love. Sometimes Fisk would come out and fire, "What the hell are you doing out here?" Often, he would purposely goad the pitcher, like when he used to ask Marty Pattin, "When are you going to put the ball over the plate, Martha?" Sometimes Pattin would respond as planned, sometimes not. Once when Fisk stalked to the mound after Pattin gave up a couple of long fouls to a hitter, Pattin shouted, "You do the catching and I'll do the pitching," and the pitching coach had to rush to the mound to separate them.

Once, young pitcher Don Aase was laboring and told Fisk he was tired. The catcher snapped, "Bear down, you've got all winter to rest."

Pitcher Jim Wright, a rookie in 1978, said in a spring training game, after he gave up a monstrous line-drive home run to Johnny Bench, Fisk strolled out to give him a new ball and said, "Don't worry, that wouldn't have gone over the Green Monster. It might have gone through it . . ."

But it wasn't all sarcasm and growls. Wright said, "He was different with everybody. Some guys he really got on, others he was more of a cheerleader. He learned what worked best with each pitcher. . .  One game I had given up a few runs and my curveball was hanging. He came out and told me, 'You don't have your curveball today, it's getting you in trouble. So we're going to do it with your fastball. We'll show them a few sliders, but it's going to be the fastball mostly. The rest of the game that's what we did. I just threw wherever he put his glove and I made it into the ninth inning."

Turk Farrell was a hard-throwing, hard-living pitcher for Philadelphia and Houston in the late-fifties and early-sixties. A manager or pitching coach never knew what would happen when he went out to visit the Turk. Once as a coach neared the mound in the middle of an inning, Farrell growled "Get the hell outta here! We're trying to pull the hidden ball trick."

Another time when Farrell was getting bombed by the Reds early in a game, when the manager finally went out to get him, Farrell yelled, "What took you so long? I could've gotten killed out here."

The Orioles Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, both of whom felt they needed no help whatsoever with anything, had some memorable mound exhibitions. Palmer, who frequently said that the only thing Weaver knew about pitching was that he couldn't hit it, would purposely stand on the very top of the mound, taking the high ground, to further emphasize the difference in their heights and to force the diminutive Weaver to look up at him.

Weaver frequently resorted to reverse psychology. Once when a spent Palmer asked him to take him out in the ninth inning of a close game, Weaver said, "Look down there at the bullpen. Do you think we've got anybody down there who's as good as you?"

Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson, known as Captain Hook for his proclivity to yank pitchers, by rule brooked no conversation with a pitcher on the mound. He simply held out his hand and expected the ball to be placed there. Once when a rookie, Pat Darcy, in the excitement of the moment, asked to stay in the game, and told him, "I feel good, Skip." Anderson didn't miss a beat. He answered, "Yeah, but you'll feel a lot better in the shower."

With no outs and a man on third in the ninth inning of a tied Game Six of the 1975 World Series, young reliever Will McEnaney, a left-hander in every sense of the word, crossed up catcher Johnny Bench on a two-strike pitch to dangerous Fred Lynn, throwing a fastball instead of a breaking pitch. Lynn lifted a fly ball down the left field line that was caught by George Foster, whose throw home to get the tagging runner was in time but took a high hop off the grass. Bench made a great play to hold his position, blocking the plate while reaching up to get the ball and then making the tag--narrowly avoiding disaster. After the play, an angry Bench went to the mound to confront McEnaney, "Will, what the hell? You crossed me up. I gave you the slider sign. You know the sequence."

Bench was surprised to find the pitcher ecstatic and unapologetic. "Yeah, I guess I did. But heck, John, those things work out, don't they?" For one of the only times in his career, Bench was speechless.

When the umpire walked out to keep the game moving and asked, "What's going on?" Bench could only shake his head. "You wouldn't believe it if I told you."

John McNamara was obviously feeling a little nervous about the start of the 1979 season as the new manager of the Reds. After all, the man he was replacing, Sparky Anderson, had only won five division titles, four pennants and two World Series in the past nine years. He felt a little better on Opening Day with his ace Tom Seaver on the mound, giving the Reds the top Hall of Fame vote-getting battery in baseball history (Seaver was elected in 1992 with 98.84% and Bench in 1989 with 98.4% , the first and eleventh highest in history before this year). Seaver wasn't sharp, however, and the Reds were quickly trailing. When the dyspeptic manager went to the mound in the fourth inning, already trailing by five runs in the new season, a smiling Bench greeted him with, "Enjoying your new job so far, John?"

So the next time you see players and coaches congregating on the mound just remember, they might be seriously discussing very important issues--or they might be talking about the game.