Thursday, January 15, 2015

The (Big) Boys of Summer: Baseball's All-Time All-Eating Team

          We all know that professional baseball is played by highly skilled athletes who possess world-class reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But one of the great things about the game is that, perhaps more than any other sport, it lends itself to players of all shapes and sizes. Some players have been famously plus-sized. As these men have become part of our heritage, I thought it would be interesting to pick a team of the very best--the All-Time, All-Eating team.
          I should say from the start that inclusion on this team should in no way be considered insulting. The guys listed here were great players. Most of them were very popular in their towns as well. There are a number of reasons for the popularity, but in addition to personality and performance on the field, I think it is always comforting to fans when we see guys who are shaped more like we are. It gives us hope--if not on the field, at least at the table.
         So here is my team of baseball's Barons of Bulk; the Princes of Paunch, the Kings of Corpulence, the game's abdominal snowmen. When these guys sat around the clubhouse, they sat AROUND the clubhouse. The salad days of their youth actually contained very little salad at all. According to insurance actuarial tables of body mass index, these guys should have all had coronaries before their 25th birthday. But they didn't. They were productive major league baseball players and that's why we loved them.
          For the guys who came close, but didn't quite make the team, remember the words of Winston Churchill: "Never, never give in." (He was talking about the urge to stop with just two or three servings of mutton).

First Base: Boog Powell
          There is stiff competition for the first base slot on this team, mainly because first base seems to be the traditional place teams try to hide their weighty issues. There are a number of very worthy candidates, particularly Willie Stargell, Cecil and Prince Fielder, but for my money, I like Boog Powell. Boog was an enormous specimen right from the time he first showed up in the Orioles training camp as a 19-year-old with an 18 3/4-inch neck. Over the next few years he proceeded to fill out the rest of his body; and then he kept growing.
          Powell waged monumental battles with manager Earl Weaver over his weight until Weaver finally accepted that he seemed to hit better when he didn't worry about what he ate. Thereafter, his weight grew faster than the national deficit. Boog was an imposing, and sometimes peculiar, sight on the baseball field; Dan Epstein wrote in Big Hair and Plastic Grass that the Orioles abruptly dumped an all-orange uniform in the early 70s because Powell objected to looking like the world's biggest pumpkin.
          Boog was a very good player and had some great seasons. But recurrent physical ailments dramatically curtailed his production. Seasons of 30+ home runs were interspersed in his prime with years of only 12 or 13 and he was essentially done by 33 years old.
          I always felt that if he had been in better shape, Powell could have ended up with numbers that would have made a strong case for the Hall of Fame; he probably left 100 home runs on the table when he retired--probably the only things he ever left on a table.

Second base: Carlos Baerga

          Second base is not a position that lends itself to overweight players. Second basemen have to move quickly to run down hot grounders and jump out of the way of guys who want to kill them while they are turning double plays. Second basemen who put on weight quickly become either outfielders, coaches or unemployed.
          Carlos Baerga was one of the best-hitting second basemen in the majors for several years for the Indians in the 1990s. When weight trouble put him in the manager's doghouse, rumor has it that he proceeded to eat the dog. He was finished as an everyday-player before he turned 30.

Third base: George Scott

          With apologies to Pablo Sandoval, I'm going with George Scott at third base. Scott was a surprisingly nimble-footed, slick fielding first and third baseman, but since first base is so crowded on our team, we will put him at third. He burst on the major league scene with a great rookie season in 1967, helping the Red Sox to their Impossible Dream pennant. It was apparent very early that Scott had trouble curbing his appetite and  Manager Dick Williams, not particularly known for his sensitivity, made Scott's weight his personal mission the next year. Williams continually harangued Scott and loudly complained to the press that talking to Scott was like talking to a brick wall. Not one to respond to tough love, under constant duress, Scott proceeded to have one of the worst sophomore slumps in history. Once Williams departed, Scott had some great years and continued to pack on the pounds.
          It's not as though Scott didn't try. To the contrary, as he aged, he became so obsessed with keeping his weight down, that his efforts actually hurt his play. In 1978, with the Red Sox, he worked so hard before games, staggering around the field while wrapped tightly in a rubber suit, that he was often exhausted by game time. More proof that sometimes it's better just to relax and eat.


          Shortstop is a tough one. The shortstops of my youth were guys like Mark Belanger and Eddie Brinkman--they always came to the ballpark looking like they had just been rescued off a raft. They were so skinny, they didn't make a shadow during day games; they couldn't have worn a double digit number because their backs were only big enough for one number. More than any other position in baseball, there is very little tolerance for even the slightest amount of excess flesh at shortstop. For this reason, a fat shortstop is seen about as often as a skinny sumo wrestler.
          I've given this a lot of thought and I'm going to have to take the easy way out. The only man I can remember looking even slightly unfit at shortstop was Luke Appling. Appling was a Hall of Fame shortstop with the White Sox in the '30s and '40s. His selection to this team comes with a caveat: when I saw him play he was 75 years old, competing in an old-timers game at RFK Stadium in Washington. So he deserved to be carrying around a few extra pounds. The extra weight didn't seem to hurt him though, as he hit a home run off Warren Spahn.

           Teams sometimes try to stick a large man in the outfield, hoping that the hard-hitting will produce more runs that the defensive liabilities let in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it leads to both sad and hilarious sights and occasionally can be perilous to teammates or fences that get damaged by the lumbering behemoths once they get up a head of steam while chasing flies.

Greg Luzinski

          Luzinski was just a big guy. He had a massive chest and thighs that belonged on a triceratops--and that was when he was young and in shape. He had some great hitting years with the Phillies for a decade, but by 1981, they gave up on him after two straight subpar, injury-plagued seasons when it was apparent that he was unfit for defensive duty. The American League White Sox snapped him up, placed him at DH and enjoyed a couple of very productive seasons.
          When he helped the White Sox to the playoffs in 1983, driving in over 100 RBIs, there was intense speculation on where they would put his productive bat if they made the World Series. His wife was even quoted as fearing for his safety if he was placed anywhere on the field with a glove on his hand. Alas, the White Sox lost in the playoffs and he was spared.

Babe Ruth

          First of all, I love Babe Ruth. No baseball list on anything is complete without the Babe. He hit home runs farther and more frequently, generated more publicity, "dated" more women, passed gas louder and, yes, ate more hot dogs than anyone else in baseball history. Everything about him was, well, Ruthian.
          Contrary to popular myth--especially perpetuated by the ridiculous John Goodman movie--the Babe wasn't really fat until his later years. Even into the mid-1920s, he was a big guy with a huge barrel chest, but certainly did not have a belly, in spite of every attempt to eat himself into the size of a small third world country.

          Neither the weight nor the lifestyle ever really slowed the Babe down. As late as age 38, in 1933, he hit 34 home runs with 103 RBIs and batted .301. But that's why he was Babe Ruth and we're not.

Bob Fothergill

          Fothergill is the wild-card of this team; not a commonly-known name nowadays. A very good hitter for Detroit in the 1920s, who batted over .350 several times and had a lifetime average of .325, he was one of baseball's all-timers, for a number of reasons. First, the nickname. In those less-than-politically correct days, he was known to one and all, as "Fatty." Fatty Fothergill. Nice.
          The 5-10, 230 pound Fothergill had the reputation as one of the game's top, if not the top, eater and drinker. His dietary exploits were legendary.
          In Leo Durocher's book, Nice Guys Finish Last, he writes about an encounter with Fothergill in the late '20s, when Leo the Lip was a young, obnoxious shortstop on the Yankees, bent on doing anything he could to help his team win. In the last of the ninth of a close game in Detroit, the Tigers had the potential tying and winning runs on base with the dangerous Fothergill at the plate. Leo loudly called time out and walked toward the middle of the infield. He then peered in at the plate and apologized to the umpire: "I was going to protest. From where I was standing it looked like there were two men up there. But now I see that it's only Fatty."
          In a blind rage, Fothergill, who detested his nickname, whiffed at strike three and then chase the laughing Durocher all over the field with his bat.


          More than any other position, pitching lends itself to a diverse assortment of bodies. Pitchers can wear prodigious amounts of weight quite well. There have been numerous pitchers over the years who would be worthy additions to this team. C.C. Sabathia, David Wells and Rick Reuschel come to mind. Surprisingly, Kent Tekulve and Ewell Blackwell did not make it. I should note that many people felt that Gaylord Perry was rather rotund in his later years. This was a misconception caused by the fact that he routinely took the mound with enough lubricants, oils and jellies to stock a complete pharmacy--and they were all hidden under his shirt.

Mickey Lolich

           If anyone ever inspired an alliteration-loving hack to refer to him as a portly portsider from Portland (Oregon), it was Mickey Lolich. Lolich is another of those guys whose stats grew along with his waistline. He was a good pitcher in the 1960s, although overshadowed by the charisma and antics (and 31 wins) of Denny McLain. He gained eternal fame for winning three games in the 1968 World Series. Then, in the early '70s, shaped like a walrus, he was simply one of the best pitchers in the league.
           For Lolich, the flab around his midsection became like hair for Samson--his strength and endurance grew in perfect proportion with his gut. He ate innings the way he ate cheeseburgers--in great quantities and with gusto. In 1971 he threw the astounding total of 376 innings while winning 25 games. Modern pitching-count gurus should note that the work hurt his arm so much that in 1972 he was only able to throw 327 innings and win 22 games.
          Totally unrepentent in his lack of dietary discretion, Lolich revelled in his girthiness and liked to refer to himself as "the drinking man's idol."
          After retiring from baseball, he devoted time to his great love, spending several years running a Detroit-area doughnut shop. The rumor that he ate up all the profits is greatly exaggerated.

LaMarr Hoyt

          LaMarr Hoyt had a few great seasons with the White Sox in the early 1980s. In 1983, he won the Cy Young Award while going 24-10 and was unbeatable the second half of the year--the White Sox won all of his last 15 starts and he got the decision in 14 of them. In addition to an ample waist line, he had impeccable control, rarely walking more than one batter per nine innings.
          His catcher, Carlton Fisk, said about Hoyt after a great playoff performance: "He did a big favor for everybody that doesn't work out, because they'll take a look at his body and go eat anything they want."
          Another time, spotting Hoyt walking out of the showers wearing only a grossly inadequate towel, Fisk remarked to reporters, "You have to admit LaMarr has a lot of stomach--I mean guts."

Catcher: Smokey Burgess

          Although every Little League coach mistakenly sticks the fat kid behind the plate, major league catchers are not usually overweight--they just look like it because of the funny way they walk. It's not really their fault--you try squatting a hundred times a night all summer and see how you look walking. Most catchers were great athletes originally and they often lose large amounts of weight during the season from all that squating. That being said, there have been many catchers who possessed funny looking, oddly shaped bodies, like Yogi Berra, and there have been a number who could be accused of approaching obesity.
          Smokey Burgess was a pretty good catcher in the 1950s, but he seemed to grow larger each year. Surprisingly, the larger he grew, the better he hit. When he could no longer squat with the assurance of being able to get back up without the help of a wench, he became a pinchhitter and would have continued pinchhitting forever except that he finally decided to give up baseball to collect his social security check. He was actually still an active player when this picture below was taken, but he was not, as he looks, 85 years old. He was only 39.      

          I'm going with Burgess for this team mainly because of the great quotes his pot-bellied appearance inspired. In the early 1970s book, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, they wrote, "Smokey Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat, like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn, but FAT fat, like the mailman or Uncle Dwight. Putsy fat. Slobby fat. Just plain fat."
          He was described in print at other times as looking like a "walking clothes bag" and "not even fit enough to play Moose Lodge softball." With testimonials like that, who am I to argue.

Pinch Hitter: Gates Brown
          The Gator was a classic guy. Signed by the Tigers after a stent in the Ohio State Reformatory, he never dodged questions about his mis-spent youth, telling reporters that in high school, he "took a little English, a little Math, some Science, a few hub caps and some wheel covers." With his infectious personality and blue-collar traits, Brown was beloved in Detroit. Like a lot of the guys on this team, Brown was a phenomenal hitter who couldn't play in the field. It's a shame he came along before the designated hitter rule. As it was, he became one of the most consistent pinchhitters in baseball history.
            Once, Gator was sneaking a hot dog in the dugout when the call came for him to pinch hit. Rather than lay the ketchup-laden dog down (you can't trust anyone in a dugout), he stuffed it in the front of his pants. He proceeded to rap a base hit and belly-flopped into second base. The umpire, worried at seeing red all over the front of his pants, told him, "Stay down Gator, you're bleeding," earning him a place in the eating Hall of Fame.


John Kruk wasn't in as bad of shape as a player as he's had the good sense to joke about on television, but he makes this team, if nothing else, for his immortal line: "I ain't an athlete, I'm a baseball player."

Rusty Staub, like most guys on this team, could flat out hit. And like most guys on this team, he loved to eat. Unlike the others, however, he was a great cook. And I don't just mean that he could heat up a leftover deep-dish pizza in the oven. He was an accomplished gourmet chef; so good that he opened his own restaurant in New York which stood on the quality of its food more than the quality as a player of its owner--no small feat.


          Every team needs a manager and this one is no different, if for no other reason than to be the guy to pick out where to eat after every game. There have been many mangers over the years who have made us question why baseball insists on that ridiculous tradition of having the old guys squeeze into those uniforms and be thankful that other sports didn't pick it up--no one would have wanted to see John Madden, for example, prancing along the football sidelines in tight polyester. For sheer love of eating, I have to go with Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda may indeed have bled Dodger blue, as he often liked to say, but you can be sure that, along with that blue, there was plenty of garlic, butter and oregano coursing through his veins. Lasorda's career is a testament to the power of optimism and pasta. He once said, "When we win, I'm so happy I eat a lot. When we lose, I'm so depressed I eat a lot. When we're rained out, I'm so disappointed I eat a lot." What more needs to be said.

          So there you have it. Baseball's All-Time All-Eating team. These guys were the best. Just don't get between any of them and the post-game spread.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Baseball Economics 1971 Style

When writing about former professional baseball players, there is one topic that is unavoidable: money. It is a profession after all. The contrast between modern baseball economics and that of the past is stark. From Brooks Robinson making $10,000 in 1960 when he almost led the Orioles to a surprise pennant and finished 3rd in the MVP voting that year (as the third most valuable player in the entire league, according to voters, he was rewarded with a raise to $20,000), to Carlton Fisk making $12,000 in 1972 and then inciting criticism from writers when he had the audacity to ask for $30,000 after winning the Rookie of the Year Award, to Mark Fidrych drawing almost a million fans to ballparks in his 29 starts in 1976 while making $16,000, the numbers former players toiled for is at the same time pitiful and quaint.

Of course, it all changed in 1976 with the advent of free agency.

I recently came across the above issue of Baseball Digest (May, 1971) which listed the highest paid players in baseball at the time. I clearly remember when this issue arrived at our house. My father was a five-striper in the Air Force and we had recently celebrated a pay raise that put him at $800 a month—I used my 4th grade math skills to work that out neatly to $9,600 a year. My brother assured me that in the not-too-distant future we would be a family making 5 digits a year! We would be ten thousand-aires (while not having the charming ring of ‘millionaires,’ the phrase still made me feel important and proud).

And then I got a look at what guys made playing baseball. I guess I had probably always suspected that these men were well-compensated for their great feats on the baseball field, but I had never seen it laid out in such plain terms: Willie Mays made $150,000 a year! For playing baseball? Unbelievable. I immediately decided that I didn’t need to worry too much about homework anymore because, as a future professional baseball player, I would make enough money that trivial things like an education would not be important.

The article is illuminating about the feelings of baseball executives and writers at the time. One executive is quoted as saying that “if you put an actual value on a good player’s physical performance, it would be about $25,000. What you pay him above that is what he does for you at the gate.” And that was for the "good" players.

“Fans don’t resent the lofty salaries being paid to players who have earned them through long and meritorious service,” the article states. But the service must indeed be both long and meritorious. For example, Brooks Robinson worked for 16 years (and had ten Gold Gloves, one MVP, and one World Series MVP) before cracking the $100,000 barrier; Harmon Killebrew toiled 17 seasons (and hit 40 or more home runs 8 times).

The article acknowledges that 24-year-old Johnny Bench deserved a raise from his 1970 total of $42,500, but criticized him for asking for “too much too soon.” You see, although in 1970 Bench hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs while winning a Gold Glove as a catcher, he had been a regular with the Reds for “only three seasons.” So he had to settle for $85,000.

Here's the list of the big-ticket players for 1971:

It's amazing to look at the names of the guys making the money back then. Virtually everyone making $100,000 or more was a certain Hall of Famer: Mays, Yaz, Gibson, Frank Robinson, Aaron, Marichal, Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Killebrew, Billy Williams. Not a slacker in the bunch. The only two men making $100,000 in 1971 who did not end up in the Hall of Fame were Pete Rose (who by virtue of his on-field play certainly should have been) and Frank Howard. In 1971, Howard was coming off three seasons of 44, 48 and 44 home runs.

Even the guys in the $60,000 to $80,000 category made the All-Star team regularly. There were absolutely no men making the big bucks who didn’t deserve it—a far cry from now, when one season slightly above mediocrity is outlandishly rewarded (check out Homer Bailey’s current contract with the Reds sometime). Probably the two weakest players from the list are Joe Pepitone, who was admittedly a big boxoffice draw, and Wes Parker, who had four Gold Gloves as a first baseman for the Dodgers and was coming off a .319 season with 111 RBIs. 

I think this article represents an important watershed moment in the history of baseball economics. Changes were brewing and all hell would break loose the next year with the first player strike, but in 1971, baseball players were, for the most part, like any other blue collar workers. They worried about paying bills and taking care of their families. Most of them had to work off-season jobs to make ends meet. The guys on the high end--the top 48 lucky guys making $60,000 or more--still were much closer to normal people than jet-set Fortune 500 CEOs. The 1970 World Series winners pocketed $18,000 and the losers $13,000. This, along with the car given to the Series MVP, was something special.

In 1971, baseball had never experienced a labor-related work stoppage which cancelled games. The players union, which had taken the ponderous step of hiring labor lawyer Marvin Miller in 1965, was beginning to rattle their sabers, however. Miller had negotiated his first Collective Bargaining Agreement for players in 1968. It achieved a raise in the minimum salary from $6,000 a year (a level it had been stuck at for almost two decades) to $10,000.

Owners still managed on a plantation-style philosophy. Players at the time had basically two rights: the right to come to the ball park each day and the right to get paid for it. These two rights were entirely contingent on a) the player signing the contract the owner offered him and b) the whim of management. A player with, say, twelve years of service to a team, could be traded somewhere he did not want to go, say Philadelphia, and his only recourse was to give up baseball.

Curt Flood had filed a lawsuit in January of 1970 over the above trade, but the Supreme Court would not issue the final say on the matter until June of 1972 (they would side with ownership). In the mean time, baseball owners did agree to the "10/5 Rule," a major break for players in which a player with ten years major league service, the last five with the same team, could veto a trade if he desired.

 In 1971, at the time of this article, the major league minimum salary had risen to $12,000--only slightly more than an Air Force Tech Sargent with 15 years service. There were few hints at the time that by 2012, the major league minimum salary would be $480,000 (as compared with the Air Force salary for a similar 15-year, five-striper which had risen to around $40,000).

Yes, changes were coming. But, in the spring of 1971, nobody knew it. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gus Triandos: Slowest Man in Baseball or Record-Holding Base Stealer?

One of the fun things about researching a player's history is coming across interesting teammates who unfortunately have been forgotten by modern fans. Such a man is Gus Triandos. He was one of the
best power-hitting catchers in the American League in the late 50s and early 60s. If newspapers and magazines of the era are to believed, he also laid claim to the title "slowest man in baseball."

Signed out of high school by the Yankees in 1948, Triandos labored years in their farm system. Despite good hitting numbers in the minors and a strong arm, Casey Stengel held very little regard for him. In addition to the Yankees having Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, there was little place on Stengel's team for a man who couldn't run, bunt or hit the ball the other way.

After seven years with only a handful of major league games to show for his efforts, Triandos was liberated in 1955 when new Oriole manager and general manager Paul Richards, eager to get some decent talent on the field for his team, engineered the biggest two-team trade in baseball history, a nine-for-eight swap. The major players involved were young pitchers Don Larsen and Bullet Bob Turley going to the Yankees and Triandos, Gene Woodling and slick-fielding shortstop Willie Miranda going to Baltimore. In addition to making real estate agents happy with the sudden influx of customers, the trade allowed the Yankees to add to their formidable pitching staff and the Orioles to put several legitimate major league players on the field.

Triandos was the Orioles’ regular catcher for the next seven years and he flourished. He had seasons of 21, 30 and 25 home runs, and made the All-Star team in 1957, 1958 and 1959. His home run total was particularly impressive for a righthanded hitter in view of the voluminous left field at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium at the time which was only slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon. Triandos often supplied the only power for the perennially weak Orioles offense in those years.

Triandos had the misfortune of being a catcher in Baltimore at the same time Hoyt Wilhelm was a pitcher. Wilhelm had perfected the most baffling knuckleball in history—a hard-thrown ball that danced and dove in unpredictable fashion—making it nearly impossible to either hit or catch. Even with the pizza-plate-sized catchers mitt that Richards invented, Triandos spent a large part of his time lumbering around behind home plate waiting for Wilhelm’s pitches to stop rolling so he could pick them up.

Triandos’ slowness afoot became legendary and spawned many stories, some of which were even true. Others, while not standing up to sleuth work in old hitting logs and box scores, certainly are worth repeating because they are part of the lore of the game. I confirmed one of the stories I had heard with Fred Valentine. Valentine was a speedy young outfielder who was brought up to the Orioles late in the 1959 season. “One of my first games, Triandos was hitting in front of me,” Valentine said. “He was on first and I hit one in the gap. Anxious to show off my speed, I flew around the bases and pulled into third with a triple. I expected the third base coach to be happy, but he was just looking at me kind of funny. Then I looked back and Triandos was just trotting in to second.” Watching the ball rolling in the outfield while looking over his shoulder as he raced around the bases, Valentine had apparently passed the lead-footed catcher somewhere between first and second. “After the game Richards told me he learned something. He would never bat me behind Triandos again.”

Since Triandos was one of the Orioles' stars when Brooks Robinson broke into the majors, I was eager to speak with him for Brooks. I had an address but not a phone number. I wrote him a letter explaining the book and soon received a nice note with his phone number, saying that he would be happy to talk to me. I later learned that he had been battling several heart ailments during this time and the fact that he took the time to return my letter and talk to me illustrates the affection he had for his old teammate and perhaps his love of the game. I spoke to Triandos for Brooks in August of 2012. I enjoyed talking to him and the 81-year-old former player apologized that his memory wasn’t what it used to be (the things we were talking about had only happened 60 years earlier).  

While Triandos joked about his reputation for foot-speed, he mentioned that he held one major league baserunning record. “I never got thrown out stealing in my career," he said. "Not many guys can say that. I only tried once and I made it.” Indeed, on September 28, 1958, in the last inning of the last game of the year, with the sixth place Orioles (17 games back), playing the first place Yankees, Triandos reached first base with a single with no outs and his team trailing 6-3. He promptly (promptly is perhaps a stretch) stole second base off catcher Darrell Johnson, a journeyman who was giving the regulars a rest. Johnson, who would later manage the Red Sox to the 1975 pennant, apparently was caught off-guard by the stealth of Triandos. “I think he was laughing so hard, he couldn’t throw. He never made a throw to second.”

Look up Gus Triandos’ career stats on-line and it lists: 1206 games, 1 stolen base, 0 caught stealing. “That’s a record nobody can ever break,” he said proudly. “They might tie it, but nobody can break it.” Gus Triandos, ever-maligned for his slowness, had the last laugh.

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.