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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Harmon Killebrew 3-D Baseball Card



                                                           

        In 1970 Kelloggs became my all-time favorite cereal company--even today I feel a special allegiance to them and only rarely purchase the cereal of rival companies. The reason they hold that place of honor is because that year they came out with a product that immediately worked its way into my pre-adolescent heart, an undeniable sign that they not only understood kids and nutrition, but they were experts at it. They came out with a series of 3-D baseball cards.
         These weren't just any baseball cards, mind you. They had some sort of space-aged technology that appeared plastic (little brothers and sisters became notorious for scratching the surface with their annoying little finger nails), and when you rotated them from side to side, the background seemed to move, making the players appear to stand out. At the time, I had no idea what 3-D was (I never even knew what the first 2 Ds were), I only knew that I wanted them. When I watched a Saturday Baseball Game of the Week on television and none other than Willie Mays appeared, extolling the cards (and Kelloggs cereal) in a commercial, assuring me that one card was free in every specially-marked box and encouraging me to collect them all, I was sold. "Mom, when are you going to the store?" I yelled. "We need some cereal!"

         The cards came in boxes of Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran. I had long been a fan of Raisin Bran, but Corn Flakes were a different matter. Corn Flakes had one critical weakness and every kid knew it: from the moment milk touched the first flake, you had exactly 30 seconds to hork the entire bowl down before it turned into an unrecognizable pile of mush. Eating them demanded total concentration and absolutely no interruptions--it was hard to deal with that much pressure so early in the morning.
        Alas, when we went to the store that week, they were sold out of Raisin Bran--the other kids must have believed Willie also. I tried to convince my mother that Corn Flakes had always been one of my favorites and, what the heck, why don't we get five or six boxes as long as we're here. Probably wise to my ruse (she always seemed to know), she only bought one box. That immediately presented another problem. You see, I had an older brother; an older brother who also liked baseball cards and did whatever Willie Mays told him to. With only one box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes (and one 3-D baseball card), my mother faced the classic mother-sibling conundrum.
        She proved to be wiser than Soloman when, instead of offering to cut the card in half, she announced that each week, if the previous box was completely eaten, she would buy a new box and we would alternate who got the cards. I don't remember how my brother was selected to get the first one--maybe they went by age, maybe by drawing straws--but I reluctantly agreed. I figured I could wait one week for mine.

         All I really wanted was a Harmon Killebrew. He was my favorite player and the reigning American League MVP. That spring and summer, I made a beeline for the newspaper each morning, immediately turned to the sports page and searched the HR section of the Twins boxscore, looking for the last name of my hero. Harmon was having a good year and would reward my efforts 41 times that season. To get a Harmon Killebrew 3-D card was suddenly the most desirable thing my nine-year-old mind could conceive.
        I watched with horror as my brother opened that first box and pulled out a, you guessed it, Harmon Killebrew! I was shocked. How could life be so cruel? It became apparent to me that this was no random accident. With 75 cards in the set, the odds were just too great. No, I had obviously been targeted. This was one of those Job-things they talked about at church. But why? I went to Sunday School each week and tried to live a good life. Then it hit me: the well-worn copy of Ball Four, hidden in the closet under a stack of comics; the copy with all the dirty words underlined and the passages about female fans that I laughed at even though I didn't understand them. Dang it! Busted again.

          Of course, my brother immediately recognized what a fortuitous position he had unwittingly fallen into--the chance to torture his little brother like that doesn't come along every day. With the fiendish fervor of a master criminal he took great pleasure in making the most of it. Whenever I was present, the card seemed to materialize in his grubby hands as he studied the stats on the back and seemed mesmerized by the floating 3-D image on the front--all the while making me drool in a green-eyed rage. For a week he parried my attempts to trade virtually everything I owned, including promises of my first two or three future millions.

       I was horrified when, a week later, he announced that he had traded the card to another kid. And it wasn't just any other kid, it was Carl Cowart. Carl was a nerdy little guy in my class who always seemed, in the words of Foghorn Leghorn, to be just a little bit eeEEEEeeeh. I didn't even know Carl liked baseball--he never joined in our daily games of hotbox on the playground--but, willing to deal with the devil himself if need be, I made diplomatic overtures at school the next day in an effort to soften him up.
       The next Saturday morning, I picked out all of my tradeable baseball cards, carefully put them in a shoebox and peddled my bike over to Carl's house in a noble attempt to repatriate the Harmon Killebrew. To my dismay, I learned that it would not be an easy task. With a gravity that would have put Henry Kessinger and the Russians to shame, we went at our talks all morning. I finally got him to agree to a 10-for-1 swap, but then he pulled a wild card. He announced that the deal seemed good to him, but he wanted to check with his dad first. He went into the next room and I heard his father loudly exclaim, "Ten cards for Harmon Killebrew? Heck no, he's worth at least forty!" While I later recognized this as the old good car-salesman/bad car-salesman routine, at the time I was so surprised and outraged that all I could do was sadly pack up my cards and begin the longest bike ride back home of my life. The name Carl Cowart would forever hold a place of honor on my list of arch enemies.

       We regularly ate Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran the rest of the summer and I ended up with a stack of great players: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Al Kaline--but neither of us ever again pulled a Harmon Killebrew out of a box of cereal. A few years later Harmon Killebrew, old and injured, retired and somehow my childhood slipped away.

        Twenty years later as I walked through a mall, I came upon a card show and found myself looking at a 1970 3-D Harmon Killebrew. It brought back such a flood of long-suppressed memories that before I realized what I was doing, I pulled out my wallet and bought it. It only cost two dollars--two lousy bucks seemed like such an insult to both Harmon and the anguish I had lived through that summer so long ago. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel a type of perverse satisfaction as I drove home, hoping that somehow this was actually THE Harmon Killebrew card and wondering if I should try to contact Carl Cowart, whereever he may be lurking, and tell him that, finally, forces of good had triumphed over evil.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Remembering Jim Brosnan: The Father of Modern Sports Literature

Quick, who invented the techno-military fiction genre? What about the legal thriller? Who perfected the schmaltzy middle-aged chick novel? How about the modern sports book? Chances are you easily guessed Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Debbie Macomber for the first three. If you guessed Jim Brosnan for number four, congratulations—you’re either a knowledgeable sports fan or you read the title to this post. Unfortunately, the literary contribution of Jim Brosnan, who died at 84 earlier this year, is often forgotten nowadays, but he is easily as important as the first three in terms of being ahead of his time and influencing an entire genre of literature. He certainly deserves the credit—and our thanks.

Jim Brosnan was a right-handed pitcher of moderate talent. A couple of great games in the national American Legion tournament in 1946 (in which he played on a team from Cincinnati with Don Zimmer that reached the finals) earned him a professional contract. After some mediocre years with the Cubs and Cardinals, Brosnan met up with manager Fred Hutchinson who converted him to full-time reliever. Brosnan then became one of the top relief pitchers in the league in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had his best season in 1961, helping the Reds to the pennant with a 10-4 record and 16 saves.

While he was a quality pitcher, it was his off-field activities for which he will always be known. Right from the start, it was obvious that Jim Brosnan was a very unique baseball player. A genuine intellectual, his tastes ran to classical music, martinis and literature with more words than pictures. He spoke a language never before heard in a major league clubhouse. With his round wire-rimmed glasses and ability to be conversant with writers on an endless array of  highbrow topics, it was inevitable that he acquired the clubhouse moniker “The Professor.” It soon became apparent that Brosnan not only knew a lot of big words, but he could also write them down with considerable talent.

In the Pre-Brosnan era, most sports books “written” by athletes were ghost-written formula jobs in which the prevailing sentiment was “gee whiz, we would play this game for nothing.” These sugar-coated books were directed mostly at pre-adolescents and never, ever peeked into an athlete’s private life or true feelings. Other than some great fiction, such as The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly trilogy, other sports books followed the same bubble gum formula. Judging from these, baseball was inhabited by a bunch of refugees from 1950s black and white family television shows. They made it to the major leagues only because of clean living and hard work and spent their free time drinking malts and visiting sick children in hospitals.
          
             For fans, true life inside a major league baseball clubhouse was a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in horsehide. With his diary of the 1959 season, The Long Season, Brosnan became the first athlete to dare to pull back the flannel curtain [my accountant said I needed to use up all my Cold War metaphors by the end of the year]. He wrote about what players really did in their free time and what they talked about and did in the bullpen and clubhouse--an honest view of baseball and the men who played it. He provided the first real look into the psyche of players, a rare insight into how difficult it was to play the game of baseball successfully; the stress of a relief pitcher knowing that one bad pitch could double his ERA and wipe out an entire month of good work in an instant; the psychological strain of  knowing that the next phone call could change his city of employment—or life; the recognition that his professional career was up to the whims of the manager, often a man in position only because of his relationships and membership in the old boy network, and a man who may lose affection or, even worse, trust in key situations, for reasons that may be as simple as what the pitcher did in his last outing.
Contrary to prevailing literary notions, Brosnan wrote that baseball players possessed egos and material needs that made monetary reimbursement not only necessary, but desirable. He also clued the public in to the scandalous notion that baseball players sometimes had thoughts regarding young ladies in the stands that were not entirely wholesome.
What Brosnan revealed about players was totally unexpected. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca when describing Captain Renault: “Baseball players were men, just like any other men, only moreso.” Who knew? This was radical, stop-the-presses sort of stuff.
  
Brosnan’s portrayal of his wife, Anne, was equally groundbreaking. Not just a vacuous-headed pretty face like good 1950s females were supposed to be, she came across as an intelligent and witty woman who even enjoyed engaging in suggestive banter—the ideal wife in many ways, too  good to be true; supportive and interested in her husband’s career, yet confident and intelligent in her own right.
Brosnan showed the taste (and respect for 1950s mores) to keep his writing essentially PG-13. He left dirty parts entirely to the reader’s imagination, but left little doubt about what he was speaking. He also treated his teammates and opponents fairly--there was little needless airing of dirty laundry or throwing anyone under the bus.

By writing about the game and its players realistically, Brosnan essentially invented the athlete-diary genre. In 1962, he followed with Pennant Race, which detailed the Reds surprising pennant-winning season of 1961. Both books hit the best seller list. They laid the groundwork for the later much more celebrated Instant Replay and Ball Four and forever changed the landscape of sports literature.

 And he did it all with unmistakable literary style. Whereas almost all athlete-written books since have been made with the help of a co-author, Brosnan, even though he had no formal training, wrote and edited his books entirely by himself. While he was a better-than-average pitcher, it doesn’t take long while reading the books to discover that he was a great writer. His writing showed candor and wit with insights and observations that bordered on brilliant. He wrote with an obvious love for the game and a humor that was refreshing. The guy could write a good sentence. He was not just a jock telling some ghost-writer stories, he was a legitimate writer, probably the best in baseball history.

            Since The Long Season was the first book to speak honestly about baseball, not surprisingly Brosnan caught fire from the establishment. Although certainly very tame by modern standards, his comments upset several players and particularly his former manager Solly Hemus, who objected to being portrayed as a dullard. Brosnan’s literary talent immediately drew the ire of baseball commissioner Ford Frick (the man who put the ass in asterick). Frick was a former writer and had perpetrated much of the previous baseball myth on the American public—he had even served as Babe Ruth’s ghost writer in some of the pre-adolescent tales. Frick was determined to protect the public from the truth and protect the game of baseball from prying eyes. He called Brosnan into his office for an official butt-chewing.
            In addition to the content he felt that was inappropriate, Frick objected to a passage in which Brosnan joked with another pitcher about giving each other fat pitches. Everyone knows that sort of thing never, ever happened in baseball (see McLain vs. Mantle, 1968).
           
Although Brosnan proceeded to have the best seasons of his career, his pitching was not enough to save his job. He was traded to the White Sox in May of 1963 for Don Zanni--a 31-year-old who had spent exactly one full season in the majors and had an ERA of 8.31 at the time--essentially dumped. Brosnan believed the trade was due to the desire of Reds owner Bill DeWitt to rid the team of his salary, which at $30,000 was one of the biggest on the team. When all facts are viewed, however, it smells like DeWitt (not a fan of literacy among his players) jumped at the chance to rid himself of what he viewed as a troubling distraction.

            In 1964 Brosnan was a 34-year-old, 9-year major league veteran coming off a season in which he had 14 saves and an ERA of 2.84 ERA in 73 innings (certainly a desirable quantity for any team). That spring, White Sox general manager Ed Short sent him a contract which called for a pay cut to $24,000 and contained a clause forbidding Brosnan from writing or publishing anything during the season. Whereas Brosnan had agreed to a similar clause for the Reds in the previous two years, his writing career was picking up and he felt it was time to make a stand for principle. He sent the contract back unsigned.

Still unsigned a month later, Brosnan wrote an article for Sports Illustrated discussing the contract talks and his stance entitled “This Pitcher May Need Relief.” “Why should I give up writing, a means of making a living, to satisfy a whim on his part?” Brosnan asked.
Short had told him, “Ballplayers are paid well enough that they shouldn’t be doing things on the side.”
“Ballplayers eat all year round,” Brosnan responded. “Aren’t they entitled to a choice of jobs off season?” But with no players’ union, Brosnan was effectively screwed.
Short told him that he was free to make a deal with any other club, pending the White Sox’ approval, as long as the team got any loot from the deal. “Cattle selling themselves as long as they turn the proceeds over to the rancher,” is how Brosnan termed the proposal.
Short later told Brosnan that he had contacted all 19 other major league teams and all refused to want him if he insisted on writing. When informed of Short’s response, Brosnan’s wife Anne said, “Now you’ve had it. What are you going to do; get a job?”
“I’ve got a job,” Brosnan replied. “I’m a writer.”

Still trying to keep his baseball career, Brosnan took out an ad in Sporting News that spring under the category of “situation sought,” trying to sell a pitching arm. He got no takers. He was essentially black-balled from baseball.

            He thus became a full-time writer.  He wrote several articles for Sports Illustrated in the ensuing years as well as keeping a regular gig with Boys’ Life for 20 years along with publishing several baseball books, mostly for kids. He remained accessible to other writers and was always a good interview, providing candid responses and honest opinions. He lived the next half-century in the same house in the Chicago suberb of Morton Grove, Illinois.

I considered myself lucky to be able to speak with Jim Brosnan for the Fred Huchinson book in 2009. I couldn't help but feel honored to be talking to someone I considered to be a living legend and a giant of the literary world. I knew he respected Fred Hutchinson and had valuable insights into his personality and managing style and he didn't disappoint. I was pleased to find out that he and Anne, the woman he had so painstakingly portrayed as the ideal sports wife, had remained married for almost 60 years. Before hanging up, in addition to thanking him for his time, I tried to convey my appreciation for his talent as a writer and his place in the history of the game. I only hoped that my words were a tenth as meaningful to him as those he had put to paper so many years earlier.







Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great Moments in Baseball History: Talking Horse Tries out for Dodgers/Hits Home Run Off Sandy Koufax


        The decade of the 1960s was a magical time to grow up. You got the feeling that anything could happen; from men walking on the moon to arch-conservative Richard Nixon saying "Sock it to me" on Laugh-In, anything was possible. The only thing that seemed impossible was for the Dodgers to score runs. The old joke about Don Drysdale, in another city for an event, hearing that Sandy Koufax had thrown a no-hitter that night and asking, "Did we win?" says it all about their anemic offense.

         And so few fans blinked twice when the team invited a four-legged power-hitter to Dodger Stadium for a tryout in 1963. To find out if he really had the goods and was not just another of those guys who puts up big numbers in the minors but can't hit major league pitching, they had their ace throw to him.

        When the horse ripped a Sandy Koufax-fastball off the wall and legged out an inside-the-parker everyone, even notoriously hard-to-please coach Leo Durocher, was impressed (a little bit of base-running coaching could easily take care of his only fault).



 













           Legend has it that after the impressive tryout, the horse signed with an agent who promptly presented the Dodgers with a list of outrageous demands including having the trainer groom him and pick his hooves before and after every game, adding hay and alfalfa to the postgame clubhouse spread and his choice of fillies for between-game recreation (a demand that made the ballplayers from Philadelphia particularly nervous).
         Alas, the Dodgers refused to bow to such draconian measures and after a long holdout the horse returned to his former job in show business. But you've gotta think about the possibilities for the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series if they could have only gotten him to the plate in a few key situations.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Diamond Jim Gentile: A Baseball Player Who Knew How to Wait




          If patience is a virtue, Jim Gentile may have been the most pious man in baseball history. Despite averaging 30 home runs a season in the minors, he waited 8 years for his shot at the major leagues. He later waited 49 years to learn that he had led the American League in RBIs during one of the most storied hitters’ seasons in the annals of baseball.
          Listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Gentile was considered a behemoth in the days before weight training and PEDs. Signed out of high school by the Dodgers in 1952, he was stranded in the farm system with no chance of advancement, having the misfortune of being stuck at first base behind perennial All-Star Gil Hodges, one of the most respected men in baseball. At the time, certain teams, particularly the Yankees and Dodgers, stockpiled massive talent on their minor league teams, reasoning that it was better to bury the players than to let other teams have them and have to compete against them. And so Gentile had to content himself with bludgeoning minor league pitchers. He was given the nickname Diamond Jim by Roy Campanella (who said he was a diamond in the rough) after he led the team in hitting during a Dodgers’ postseason tour of Japan in 1956.

          Gentile’s fortunes changed drastically when Paul Richards of the Orioles was able to pry him loose from the Dodgers in 1960. Actually, by this time, the Dodgers felt so little of the 26-year-old and his chances that they offered him to Richards with the understanding that they would take him back for a refund if Richards didn’t like him, no receipt required. I got a chance to talk to Diamond Jim from his Edmond, Oklahoma home in 2012. He spoke about how close he came to missing out on the major leagues altogether. “The Orioles took me on a trial basis in the spring of 1960,” he said. “The understanding was if they didn’t like me they could send me back. There were 5 first basemen in camp that year and I had a terrible spring, just terrible. Everything you could do wrong, I did.  I knew they were going to send me back. The night before we broke camp I had dinner with Sparky Anderson. He was going to be managing Toronto that year for the Dodgers and he said he was told to expect to get a hard-hitting first baseman. I told him, ‘That’s me.’ I told my wife to be ready to go back to the minors. I was planning on trying one more year and then giving it up.”

          Even though Gentile had been was less than impressive in Florida, Richards decided to keep him. “Richards called me in and said, ‘Son, you can’t be as bad as you look. I need power. You hit 210 homers in the minors, so you must be able to hit. I’m gonna give you 150 at bats here to see what you can do.’” It turned out to be a wise decision. Gentile hit 21 home runs with 98 RBIs in 1960. The next year, he turned in a monster season: a .302 batting average, 46 home runs and 141 RBIs. That was the year of the great Maris-Mantle home run chase, of course, and the M & M boys took most of the headlines. Gentile finished third in the home run derby (and in MVP votes). Maris, with 61 home runs and 142 RBIs, won the MVP award.

     
            The last name was one of the great misnomers of baseball. An intense competitor, he was anything but genteel on the field. Wearing his emotions on his sleeves, he was known for his volatile temper; he was given to splintering bats, flinging helmets and storming umpires. Jim Gentile never got cheated on a swing in his life--his cuts were so violent that he occasionally bruised his own back by hitting it with the bat on his follow-through. The threat of fines, by the league and his own managers, did little to curb his enthusiasm. Once after being fined $50 by the American League for a dispute with an umpire after being thrown out on the bases, he promptly hung a donation box on the bulletin board in the clubhouse. Oriole players, perhaps afraid to walk past the hulking first baseman without at least making a show of digging in their pockets, dutifully contributed. Gentile happily informed reporters that he had collected $1.48 from his buddies to help pay the fine.

          Gentile found a home in Baltimore. Fans, who can sense indifference in players and detest it, loved Diamond Jim for his obvious competitive fire and also for his friendliness around town. At the time, Baltimore had a small-town atmosphere in which fans and players freely mixed as equals—many players lived close to Memorial Stadium and often walked to the games, chatting with fans along the way. The power hitting got him some national exposure also. “I got a Vitalis commercial and one for Grape Nuts with my two sons,” he said. “Also, there was a one-shot commercial for Marlboro that was just terrible. I didn’t even smoke.”




          
          Gentile made the All-Star team in 1960, 1961 and 1962. The first one was a thrill, even though he was somewhat overshadowed by the bigger names in the dugout. “[All-Star manager Casey] Stengel didn’t even know my name. He pointed when he wanted me to go in and said, ‘Get me that guy from Baltimore who swings so hard.’”


           May 9, 1961 Gentile entered the record books when he hit two grand slams in consecutive innings (the first and second) in Minnesota. The outburst even impressed his notoriously hard-to-impress manager. “Richards normally didn’t say anything, but when I came back to the dugout after the second one, he looked at me and said, ‘Son, I don’t think that’s ever been done.’” He finished the game with 9 RBIs and the Orioles won 13-5.

            Shortly after I talked to Gentile, I spoke to former Oriole pitchers Wes Stock and Chuck Estrada. Stock never got over the injustice of Gentile’s grand slam onslaught coming while Estrada was on the mound and not himself. “I roomed with Chuck Estrada,” Stock said. “I never let him forget that. How lucky can you get? He was up 9-0 after two innings. I told Gentile, ‘I could win 20 games if you hit two grand slams a game for me.’ But he never did. I hope Estrada sends Gentile a case of beer every year on the anniversary of that game to thank him.”

          Whereas in 2014 a major leaguer hitting .288 with 37 home runs and 105 RBIs is rewarded with a 13-year, $325 million contract, Gentile was a bit more modestly compensated for his 1961 season of .302-47-141: he was given a $10,000 raise to $30,000. Oriole general manager Lee MacPhail generously told Gentile that he would have given him a $5,000 bonus if he had led the league in RBIs.

          In 2010, during a SABR check, it was discovered that Roger Maris had been wrongfully credited with an RBI in a game on July 5, 1961 when a run scored on an error. Maris had finished with 142 RBIs. When they officially changed it, Gentile became tied with Maris for the league lead with 141.  After the mistake was corrected, the story of the promised bonus resurfaced. In August of 2010, Gentile was invited to throw out the first pitch and participate in a ceremony before a game at Camden Yards. Andy MacPhail, Orioles President of baseball operations and grandson of Lee, presented the 76-year-old Gentile with an oversized check for $5,000 (Gentile was so excited to get the check that he forgot to throw out the first pitch). And so Jim Gentile became the first 76 year old to celebrate a major league RBI championship. It had been a long time in coming. But then, Jim Gentile was a man who knew how to wait.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who's on first?

Here we are almost a year into the new health care era. While I’m all for anything that can combine affordability and care, I have to admit that sometimes it gets a little confusing trying to plow through the plethora of plans. Take last Monday for example.

Me: Who is the insurance company for this first patient?
Secretary Kim: Who.
Me: The first patient’s insurance.
K: Who.
M: The guy’s insurance plan.
K: Who.
M: What are you asking me for? I’m asking you.
K: And I’m telling you. Who.
M: What’s their name?
K: No, what’s the name of the insurance company for our second patient.
M: I don’t know.
K: That’s for our third patient.
M: I didn’t ask about the third patient; I’m still trying to find out about the first one.
K: Who.
M: What’s their name.
K: No, what’s the name for the second patient.
M: I don’t know.
K: I told you, that’s the third patient’s plan.

Me (Trying very hard to remain calm): OK, let’s work through this logically. We see this first patient. He seems like a nice man. He has an infection. We treat him and he leaves happy. Now at the end of the day, we send the bill to who?
K: Now that’s the first thing you’ve said right yet.
Me (nearly choking on my coffee): I don’t even know what I said! (Regaining composure): We send it to who?
K: Of course. We wouldn’t be in business very long if we didn’t.
M: To who?
K: Why wouldn’t we? He’s paid his premiums.
M: But what’s their name?
K: No. What’s the name for our second patient.
M: I don’t know.
Both of us at the same time: THIRD PATIENT.

Realizing I was getting nowhere fast, I tried to change the subject: Have you sent in the application for us to be on the new Medicaid plan?
K: Tomorrow?
M: You’re too busy now? We need to do it right away. I’ve already forgotten their name.
K: Tomorrow.
M: Why not today?
K: Today is the new Anthem-based plan. We’re already on their provider list.
M: Why did you bring up Anthem?
K: Did you say Why? Why is the new Humana-Medicare supplement. We’re not talking about them.
M: Why?
K: Yes, Why.
M (Not knowing what else to say): Just because?
K: Oh, no. Because is the St. Francis plan. We can’t participate in that one. The hospital is out of network.
Me (trying to salvage what was left of my sanity): Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Our first patient’s bill goes to Who. What is for the second patient. I don’t know—that’s for the third. We have signed up for Today and Tomorrow, and also Why, but not Because, for as everyone knows, it is a St. Francis plan and so we cannot participate. And you know what (throwing my chart down)? I don’t give a damn.
My wife, walking into the room: What did you say?
Me: I said, ‘I don’t give a damn.’
Wife: Oh, that’s the new state insurance plan I signed us up for last week.





Monday, November 10, 2014

A Veteran's Day Salute to Baseball's Servicemen


On the occasion of Veteran’s Day, we should remember and honor the many who have served in our military over the years.  Whereas modern players never have to worry about military service interfering with their career progression, it was not that way for previous generations. It’s interesting, and sometimes awe-inspiring, to look back at some of the things former baseball players went through—and even volunteered for.

 Most able-bodied men provided some service to their country during World War II and baseball players were no exception. While some big-name players, such as Joe DiMaggio, did little more than play baseball throughout the entire war, Ted Williams spent a large part of his time as an instructor pilot, based on his ability to fly and not his ability to hit a baseball. Established stars usually were kept out of too much danger, but the nameless low-level minor league guys had a much more harrowing military experience.


Fred Hutchinson bats in an exhibition vs. the Boston Red Sox at Hampton Roads Naval Station, 1943



Fred Hutchinson was a talented young pitcher who had bounced up and down with the Tigers for several years. He enlisted in the Navy late in 1941 and, as part of former boxer Gene Tunney’s physical education/morale program (the Tunney Fish), spent time as a shooting instructor as well as playing a lot of baseball to entertain the troops. Early in the war, he was part of a powerful baseball team at Norfolk Naval Station that compiled a 92-8 record. The team included, at various times, fellow major league All-Stars Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and Eddie Robinson. 
Team picture, Norfolk Naval Station. Bob Feller's picture has been cut out


I interviewed Eddie Robinson for Brooks (he was a Baltimore coach in the late ‘50s and also joined young Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson in the restaurant business). While talking about Brooks, he told me a story from Fred Hutchinson’s Navy baseball days. Hutch was famous for his competitiveness and temper and, apparently, it was the same whether the Tigers were paying him to play in the World Series or Uncle Sam was paying him to play in exhibitions. The base commander, Captain McClure, was very proud of his baseball team and was intent on making sure the facilities were first rate in every way. At the time in major league parks, a bell rang to signal when teams could take infield and batting practice and when their time was up. Captain McClure searched far and wide for a bell--which was very hard to come by during the war--and finally procured one. In one of the first games, Hutch struck out in a key situation and, stomping back to the bench with his bat in his hand, angrily kicked at the dirt. His spikes slipped and he landed on the first step of the dugout on his butt. Breathing fire, the first thing he spied when getting up was the Captain’s prized bell and he proceeded to beat the bell into a mangled mess with his bat. That was it for bells for the team for the duration of the war.




Managers Ralph Houk and Fred Hutchinson in Yankee Stadium before the 1961 World Series


Ralph Houk was a 22-year-old catcher working his way up the Yankee farm system when the war broke out. He joined the Army on February 2, 1942 and made it into the Army Rangers.  He landed at Omaha Beach not long after D-Day and fought his way across Europe. Once he was sent out alone in a jeep to scout enemy positions and failed to return. After being officially listed as Missing in Action for 3 days, he made his way back from behind enemy lines. It was during this time that his commander noticed a hole in his helmet. Apparently a German bullet had gone completely through the side of his helmet and out the back, only grazing his head. Houk reportedly replied, “I could have swore I heard a richocet.” He would later save the helmet and keep it as a reminder of his good luck the rest of his life.

Houk spent a cold December near a small Belgium town called Bastogne in 1944. There, during the Battle of the Bulge, he distinguished himself. When two other officers were killed in action, he became the senior officer as a 2nd lieutenant and he led his men to hold a key town.  He earned a battlefield promotion and eventually left the Army as a major with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
After the war, Houk was able to resume his baseball career. Blocked by Yogi Berra as a player, he became a manager and won World Championships in his first two seasons as the Yankee manager in 1961 and 1962.


 No one in baseball ever doubted that Hank Bauer was a tough man. As a 19-year-old with one year of Class D ball (Oshkosh in 1941) under his belt, Bauer joined the Marines a month after Pearl Harbor. He told the story of how he ended up in a crack troop of Marines in an interview in Time magazine in 1964: “One morning this sergeant came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you volunteer for the Raiders Battalion.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ But the first thing they told me was, ‘You’ve got to swim a mile with a full pack on your back.’ I said, ‘Hell, I can’t even swim,’ and they turned me down. I told the sergeant what happened. He said, ‘You gutless SOB, go back down there.’ So I told them I knew how to swim. They took me.”
Soon after arriving in the Pacific, Bauer contracted malaria on Guadalcanal and lost 30 pounds. He recovered and ended up serving in nearly every major Pacific invasion, including Okinawa, Guadalcanal and Guam. He earned 11 campaign ribbons, 2 bronze stars and 2 purple hearts in 32 months of combat. As a sergeant, he commanded a platoon of 64 marines landing on Okinawa in which only 6 survived. It was on Okinawa that Bauer was wounded by shrapnel that tore through his thigh, essentially ending the war for him. Looking at his leg after being wounded, he was heard to utter, “Well, there goes my baseball career.”
After returning to his home of St. Louis, looking for a factory job, he was spotted by a scout who remembered him and got him back in baseball. He recovered from his injuries enough to have a 14-year career in the majors, the majority of which was spent as a vital cog of 7 World Series championships with the Yankees. He later managed for a decade, leading the Orioles to the Series title in a sweep over the Dodgers in 1966. When a routine x-ray during a team physical in the mid-sixties found metal fragments in Bauer’s back, he shrugged and casually said he thought all the stuff had been removed in surgery after the war. 



While Houk and Bauer were able to resume their careers after the war, many were not as fortunate. John Grodzicki had been one of the top minor league pitching prospects in the Cardinal system. He had been 19-5 in Class AA in 1941 and earned a late season call up. Like many of his countrymen, he joined the Army within two months of Pearl Harbor. As a paratrooper in the 17th Airborne Division, he landed in France in December, 1944 and marched through snow to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. In late March, 1945, he participated in the first airborne drop over the Rhine into Germany. Five days later a shell exploded near him sending shrapnel through his right leg, damaging the sciatic nerve.
After the war, he tried to resume his baseball career, pitching with a leg brace but was clearly never the same. He became a longtime coach, for years serving as roving instructor in the Tigers system and was instrumental in the development of a young phenom, Mark Fidrych, in the early-seventies. Grod never expressed public regret about his war injuries. When asked about it years later, he always shrugged it off: “A lot of guys came out of the war in worse shape than I did.”

            By the Vietnam era, baseball teams were adept at keeping their players out of dangerous service. Most clubs were able to advise and provide help in getting even their minor leaguers into the Reserves and National Guard. Big-name guys never saw combat, except as part of a morale-building goodwill trip, such as this one in late 1966 with Joe Torre, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Stan Musial (five Hall of Famers, not a bad group).  




            Low-level Baltimore farmhand catcher Calvin Fisk was not so lucky. Fisk, who was three years older than his Hall of Fame-bound brother, Carlton, was an exceptional athlete. Many of their high school friends believe he was at least as good as his brother. He starred in baseball, basketball and soccer (their school was too small for football) in high school and later captained both the baseball and soccer teams at the University of New Hampshire—playing well enough to be inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame later. When the major league draft was instituted in 1965, Calvin became the first person from New Hampshire to be selected in the draft. After graduating from New Hampshire, Calvin got off to a promising start in the minor leagues but, an ROTC grad, he was soon called to active duty. He served as a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam. Below is a picture of him taken in Vietnam, swinging a weighted bat he brought with him to try to keep his swing in shape.

          
   After getting out of the Army, Calvin tried to resume his baseball career. While he hit well at camp, he was told that, at 25, he was too old to start back in the low minors. He went back to school, got his PhD in Anatomy, and became a professor at Indiana University.
            So here’s a salute to all who served, no matter in what capacity. The next time a modern baseball player is worrying about how to cover up the results of his next PED test and trying to decide if a $20 million dollar offer is acceptable, here’s hoping he pauses a moment to be thankful for the sacrifices that made it all possible.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Baseball's Pranksters, you gotta love 'em



A key component of every good team is chemistry. The baseball season lasts more than six months--a long time for a collection of 25 guys to spend in close proximity, traveling, playing and hanging out together; 25 competitive, uber-testosteroned guys in various stages of arrested development, struggling to play a difficult game in front of millions, with their results not only printed the next day, but analyzed endlessly on talk shows. In talking with former baseball players, certain names come up frequently when the topic of clubhouse personalities is broached. You can hear the tone change and a genuine chuckle as they recall the antics and pranks. Everyone loves baseball’s pranksters. As fans, we realize that it’s just cool because they can get away with it and we can’t. Imagine a guy getting up to make a presentation in a tense board room and suddenly his suit jacket falls off in shreds, or a surgeon ready to cut open a patient and feeling his foot burning because a nurse crawled over and gave him a hot foot. It’s just not the same.
It’s all about timing, the appropriate marriage of personalities, opportunity and atmosphere. Being on a winning team is a must. The ancient Romans clearly understood this and had a saying, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which roughly translated means:  if you give Caesar a hot foot after a victory, you’re regarded as a fun-loving guy who keeps everyone loose, but if you do it after a defeat, you’re lion food.
A lot of guys pull the occasional prank, but it takes more than just a sense of humor and imagination to be considered one of the masters. It takes patience, feckless nerves of steel, the diabolical cunning of an evil genius, the audacity of a cat burglar, and a total lack of fear of the inevitable reprisal--no good prank ever goes unrewarded; retribution is swift and brutal. It helps to have a great poker face, the ability to innocently throw up the hands and, with righteous indignation, disavow any knowledge of the dastardly dead, all while the entire room knows exactly who the perp is. It also helps, perhaps, to have a lack of social decorum and inhibition.   
  
    

By all accounts, one of the greatest clubhouse pranksters was relief pitcher Moe Drabowsky. His exploits became legendary. He was known to put goldfish in the water cooler of the opposing team’s bullpen and reportedly once put sneezing powder in the air conditioning system of an opponent’s locker room. Possessing a great ability to mimic familiar voices, one spring while he was on the A’s Moe called several teammates and, imitating owner Charlie Finley’s voice, made contract offers to them. He was a master of the hot foot, elevating it to an art form.
He hit top form after being picked up by the Baltimore Orioles before their 1966 championship season. While doing research for Brooks, I spoke with Vic Roznovsky. As a backup catcher for the Orioles in 1966 and 1967, Roz spent a lot of time in the bullpen which gave him a closeup view of the master at work. He recalled the game in Kansas City on May 27, 1966 in which Moe officially entered the prankster Hall of Fame. “Moe had remembered the number of the A’s bullpen phone from when he played with them,” said Roznovsky. “Moe could imitate anybody. He called over to their bullpen and, imitating [A’s manager Al] Dark’s voice, he ordered Lew Krausse to get warm. It was only about the third inning and the A’s starter had a shutout going. They thought Dark was crazy, but suddenly you saw guys scramble up and Krausse started throwing.”
The real Dark, surprised to see his reliever warming up so early in the game, called his bullpen and yelled, “Sit back down. What’s the matter with you?”
“Moe called back two more times,” said Roznovsky, “each time he got Krausse up and then Dark would call back and yell at him to quit throwing. Poor Krausse didn’t know what was going on. We were sitting in our bullpen just cracking up laughing.” After a newspaper article exposed the hoax, the next week Moe called the A’s clubhouse and, pretending to be Charlie Finley, demanded an explanation for the players having been fooled so easily.
Moe was infamous for sliding lit firecrackers under the stall door in the clubhouse restroom.  “Once in Cleveland, Moe threw a firecracker in the teepee where the Indian was,” said Roznovsky. “You never saw anyone move as fast as when the Indian came running out of there.”
For weeks late in the 1966 season, Moe terrorized teammates, especially shortstop Luis Aparicio, with appropriately placed rubber snakes. Then he went for the kill. “We rode together to the stadium and one day he pulled over into a strip mall and ran into a pet store,” said Roznovsky. “He came out and had a snake in a box, it was about two feet long. When we got to the clubhouse, he put it in Aparicio’s shoe and stuffed a sanitary sock in so it wouldn’t get out. I was out on the field warming up and here comes Aparicio flying out of the clubhouse. He was only wearing his underwear. He told [manager Hank] Bauer he wasn’t playing unless he got the snake out of the clubhouse. Bauer had to get somebody to bring Aparicio’s uniform out into the dugout and he dressed there.”           
No one was safe from Drabowsky, regardless of stature. During the 1970 World Series, he ran a trail of lighter fluid from the trainer’s room to a match slipped into the sole of baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s shoe as he sat in the clubhouse before a game. The trick went off perfectly and a delighted Drabowsky watched the commissioner leap up, dance around and rip his shoe off.
       



In the Red Sox clubhouse of the 1970s, Luis Tiant was king. With a big cigar (which somehow managed to stay fully lit even in the shower) and a constant running commentary in his high-pitched Cuban accent, he was impossible to ignore. While I talked to utility infielder Buddy Hunter, Rico Petrocelli and Fred Lynn for Pudge they laughed remembering Tiant’s clubhouse act. Tiant’s fertile mind was constantly on the prowl for mischief. He frequently slithered along the ground like a snake to give unsuspecting teammates hot foots while they talked to reporters. No article of clothing was safe in the Red Sox locker room—suits would be shredded, ties cut in half, legs cut off pants, shoes nailed to lockers--everything was fair game.  Teammates learned not to savor the hot water in the showers without first checking on the whereabouts of Tiant—they never knew when a bucket of ice water might appear in mid-shower.
No one could take themselves too seriously around Tiant. Reggie Smith, who liked to impress with his groovy threads, was a frequent target. “We were in Oakland and Reggie Smith came in with a solid orange polyester jump suit [this was the seventies],” said Hunter. “During batting practice, Luis went in and put it on. It was extremely tight on his body, he had a funny-shaped body anyway, and he had to squeeze to get it zipped up. He put two benches together and walked sideways down the benches; then he put a ball bag around each arm, like a parachute, and jumped off and yelled ‘Geronimo!’ I laughed so hard it brought tears to my eyes.”
Outfielder Tommie Harper, who had played with Tiant in Cleveland, joined the Red Sox in the offseason before 1972 in a trade from Milwaukee and was his closest friend. As such, Harper frequently bore the brunt of Tiant’s practical jokes. Once Carl Yastrzemski brought in a prized fish he had caught to show off in the clubhouse. Tiant borrowed the fish, put tongue depressors in its mouth to make it smile, got into Harper’s dressing area and dressed it in Harper’s cap and uniform. When Harper came off the field, the whole clubhouse was waiting see his reaction to a smiling fish wearing his uniform.
“LT was just the funniest guy I ever met,” said Lynn. “There’s no way you could sulk or hang your head in that clubhouse, no matter what happened in the game. He could crack you up with just a look.”
Yaz enjoyed the pranks more than anyone else. Shortstop Luis Aparicio was famous for his tailor-made suits—a regal, dapper, classy guy. As such, he made an irresistible target. Once Yaz came up behind Aparicio in a bar and tore the whole suit behind the back. “Once during a game, Yaz went back in the clubhouse and took a pair of scissors to Luis Aparicio’s suit,” says Petrocelli. “Aparicio was a great dresser, shark skin suits and all that. And Yaz cut off a sleave of the jacket and taped it on the other side and put it back in his locker. Aparicio comes in, puts on the jacket and the sleave falls off. We were all dying. Aparicio yells, ‘I’ll get you, you son of a bitch.’ Then he did it to Yaz a few days later. But Yaz didn’t care because he wore such bad clothes on the road anyway. He had an old trench coat he wore that must have been 15 years old. We called it the Columbo coat. You couldn’t make his clothes look any worse.”




The Chicago White Sox of the early 1980s had one of the masters in Marc (aka Booter) Hill. Hill had been a starting catcher for the Cardinals and Giants before becoming a backup to Carlton Fisk in Chicago. The time on the bench behind Fisk gave Hill time to perfect his craft.  After hearing of his prowess from several teammates, I got the chance to talk to Hill for Pudge.
Hill’s signature caper was the old shaving-cream-in-the-phone-earpiece trick: “Hey, there’s a phone call for you in the clubhouse,” the unwitting victim picks up the phone and holds it to his ear, and gets an ear full of shaving cream. According to legend, he once got President Jimmy Carter who was visiting the clubhouse. I asked Hill if the story was true, after first assuring him that since the statute of limitations for pranking the leader of the free world had now run out he could come clean. “That’s true,” he said laughing. “He was coming through the clubhouse with a bunch of secret service guys around and I said, ‘Phone for you Mr. President.’ He picked it up. It was funny because he didn’t realize that he had shaving cream in his ear and the secret service guys were dying trying to keep from laughing.”
In the dugout between innings, Hill once pilfered third baseman Vance Law’s hat out of his glove, which was sitting on the bench, and replaced it with that of Tom Seaver. Seaver had one of the biggest heads on the team and Law had a very small one (he was referred to in the sensitive vernacular of the clubhouse as a pinner—short for pinhead). The whole team watched the next inning as Law tried to continually pull the hat up and out of his eyes between pitches as it sagged over his ears.
On the road, Hill prowled novelty shops and he was especially enamored with little devices that could be stuck into the ends of cigarettes to make them explode. He would find an unguarded pack of cigarettes in the clubhouse, pop one of the babies in and wait for nature to take it’s course. Whenever chain-smoking third base coach Jim Leyland would nervously come off the field between innings and head back down the tunnel for a quick smoke, the entire dugout would go quiet, waiting for the inevitable bang. “Leyland was easy because he would go through a whole pack each game,” said Hill. “You knew it was just a matter of time before he got to the right one. Everybody would listen. Then BANG and you’d hear him yelling down the tunnel, ‘Dammit Booter.’”
So here’s a tip of the cap to the great pranksters of days gone by. Some people think that baseball clubhouse pranks don’t seem the same now. Maybe it’s the money, or maybe the game’s more serious. I think they probably still have fun though. There’s always a place for a good prankster. As a little kid wrote in a letter to Moe Drabowsky in 1966 after reading about his gems in the Sporting News, “Baseball needs more nuts like you.” More nuts indeed.