Saturday, March 7, 2015

Belated Farewell to Billy McCool

I just found out that former Reds’ pitcher Bill McCool died last summer. He was only 69. Apparently his passing did not make much news outside of his home town. It should have. He was once one of the best young pitchers on the Reds.

When I learned that he had died, my first thought was, “Damn, another nice guy that I interviewed has died.” Bill McCool will always hold a special place in my heart. He was one of the first former major league players I interviewed when I was working on my first book in March of 2009. Had he been rude or uncooperative, I might have tucked my tail and given up on writing books. Instead, he was very accommodating and enjoyed talking about his playing days--and I am waiting for my fourth book to be released this fall.

Bill McCool was a star athlete at Lawrenceburg High School in Indiana, a small border town on the Ohio River only 20 miles from Cincinnati. He signed with the Reds, essentially his hometown team, upon graduation from high school in 1963 and blazed a quick trail through the minors that summer, compiling a 2.01 ERA in 148 innings at Class A Tampa and then going 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA at AAA San Diego in four games.

Bill was barely 19 years old and less than a year out of high school when he unexpectedly (to some) made the Reds coming out of spring training in 1964. Although young, he did not lack for confidence. “I had a pretty good idea I would make the team that year,” he said. “I had a good year in the minors the year before. I knew what I could do.” McCool was a 6’2 lefty with a silky-smooth delivery and a live arm. He had excellent control for a youngster and a classic sneaky-fast heater that developed the reputation of being one of the best fastballs in the league as it tended to tail in on hitters and shatter their bats. 

McCool appreciated the fact that his first manager, Fred Hutchinson, recognized his talent and had a plan to bring him along. “I thought the world of Fred," he said. "He could look mean and gruff and when he said to do something, you didn't bother to ask questions. But he was really a good man to play for. He was fair and you knew where you stood. He was just a no nonsense guy who was well respected by everyone who ever played for him. He knew how to handle people." It didn't take McCool long to find out why Hutch was nicknamed the Bear. "If you lost a close game and he was upset, you didn’t laugh, you didn’t smile, as a matter of fact, you didn’t even want to be in the clubhouse. When he told you to get out of the shower and get out of the clubhouse and on the bus, you didn’t waste time, you did it.”

The Reds of that year were a fairly close team, which helped the rookies fit in. Although the front office leaked to the press that future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson was trouble and had attitude problems (feelings that led to the infamous Pappas-for-Robinson trade in 1966 that made world champs of the Orioles), McCool said Robinson was the undisputed leader of the team and a great competitor. “Frank Robinson was just a great guy. He took a lot of us young guys under his wing. When we went into San Francisco, I didn’t know anything, being from a small town in Indiana. Frank called us and said, ‘Come up to my room.’ Me and Sammy Ellis and Mel Queen and a few other guys went in and Frank had called room service and had about 24 hamburgers sent up to the room. We sat in there and talked baseball for four or five hours. Frank was a great guy. He was the team leader.”

Popular veteran lefty Joe Nuxhall was another teammate who made an early impression on the rookie. "Nuxie was another great guy. But you never met a bigger competitor, he hated to lose. Once we walked into the San Francisco clubhouse after a game--he had gotten beat. I think McCovey hit one out late. Joe came in and you could tell he was mad and about to blow. Nobody said anything. He spotted the spread of food in the clubhouse and went to kick the table. He still had his spikes on and his back spike slipped on the concrete and he went flying on his keester. Food went everywhere. I'm at my locker hiding my face, doing everything I can to keep from laughing because he was still so mad."
McCool’s first major league appearance came against the Giants. When asked if he was nervous, staring down sluggers like Cepeda, McCovey and Mays as a 19 year old, he replied, “I was never intimidated by anyone. I just went right at them.”

 Recalling this line, I had to laugh when I later read the Cincinnati Post account of McCool’s first major league victory, which came in Milwaukee June 2, 1964. In the clubhouse after the game, Joe Nuxhall laughingly told anyone who would listen that when the peach-fuzzed McCool first came off the field he said, “Boy that Joe Torre scared the hell out of me when he came to the plate. I’ll bet he hasn’t shaved in two weeks.”

The 1964 season became one of drama and tragedy as the Reds battled for the pennant while watching manager Fred Hutchinson fade due to the ravages of lung cancer. The Reds won 10 of 12 late in the season and had a chance to win the pennant on the last day, but lost. McCool was instrumental in the Reds' success that season as he and fellow first-year pitcher Sammy Ellis continually displayed cold-blooded relief pitching in late innings. They formed one of the best righty-lefty bullpen combos in the league. At one point, McCool went ten appearances in July without giving up a run. He finished the season at 6-5 with a 2.42 ERA and 7 saves and was named the National League’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year by the Sporting News. 

In 1965, McCool again pitched great, winning 9 games with 21 saves and finished in second place, by one point, for the league’s Fireman Award (an award given by the Sporting News in which saves and wins in relief were added).

In 1966, he made the All-Star team with 8 wins, a 2.48 ERA and 18 saves. He was only 21 years old and his future seemed to hold greatness. But late in 1966, he hurt his knee. “I caught my spikes in the rubber in Pittsburgh and tore some cartilage in my knee,” he said. “Back then, they didn’t want to operate. They tried to medicate it, tried to drain fluid off the knee. I came back, but it totally changed my motion. I'm lefthanded and that was my left knee, my push-off leg. You’re not pitching the way you always have your whole life and you get wild. It started to affect my arm and calcium deposits formed. That was my demise. If it happened today, I would have been back within a month, good as new. But that is just the fortunes of the game. Things happen.”

After struggling for two years, he was left unprotected in the October, 1968 expansion draft and was nabbed by the San Diego Padres. After playing for the miserable expansion team one season, he tried to make it with the Red Sox and Royals but was essentially done at 25 years of age.

After baseball, McCool worked as sports director for a television station in nearby Dayton for two years, then went into the steel business for 31 years until retiring to Florida in 2005. He and his wife had three children and were married 47 years at the time of his death, which was due to long-standing heart problems.

Interestingly, he met his future wife on a blind double date set up by teammate Pete Rose. The Reds were in Milwaukee to play the Braves in 1965 and the future Mrs. McCool was a Marquette coed whose friend had a date for the night with Rose. McCool was drafted as an accomplice. Mrs. McCool later stated that the big-spending Rose (flush with cash as a third-year player making around $20,000) impressed the girls by dropping a 50 cent tip on the table at the end of dinner.

I enjoyed talking to Bill McCool. He was very free with his stories and memories. Before hanging up, however, he made a request which I have not heard since. He asked that I be careful and not write anything that he might have said that might make any teammate look bad. “These guys were all my friends,” he said. “I enjoyed those years on the Reds. We were all friends and had a good time together. We didn't make much money. We played for the love of the game.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Alex Johnson: A Complicated Baseball Player

Alex Johnson was one of the most enigmatic players in baseball history. He was a supremely gifted athlete when he showed up in major league camp of the Phillies in 1964. He was built like a fullback, at a time when NFL fullbacks carried the ball 250 times a season (his younger brother Ron later became one of Michigan’s greatest running backs and rushed for over 1,000 yards with the New York Giants in 1970 and 1972). Johnson had great speed to go with his size. His Reds manager Dave Bristol swore Johnson was the fastest from home to first of any righthanded batter he had ever seen. And with a bat in his hands, Johnson could absolutely rake.

Managers and GMs couldn’t help but feel that Johnson could do anything on a baseball field he wanted—but therein lay the problem. Sometimes, for some reason, he just didn’t seem to want to do anything. Despite his physical gifts, he was a horrible defensive player, very much earning the nickname “Iron hands.” Not that it bothered him enough to do anything about it. He often skipped or gave less than half-effort in fielding practice. He would end up leading his leagues’ outfielders in errors six times—including a horrific 18 in 1969.

Johnson quickly developed a reputation as moody, unapproachable and aloof. He was labeled as uncoachable. Suggestions from coaches or criticism of his lack of hustle only made matters worse. He would simply shut down.

Johnson also had trouble with teammates. Dick Allen, in his 1989 autobiography had this to say about his former teammate with the Phillies and why he had trouble getting along: he “called everybody ‘dickhead.’ To Alex Johnson, baseball was a whole world of dickheads. Teammates, managers, general managers, owners. Alex would say, ‘How ya doing dickhead?’ Just like that. The front office types would take it personally.” Imagine that.

Few things are more infuriating to coaches than an immensely talented player who appears to waste the talent. Dick Sisler, the Cardinals hitting coach (whose dad George knew a thing or two about hitting), said, “He easily could have become a great Cardinal player, but he showed no interest, even at clubhouse meetings. He doesn’t seem to want to improve. . . We tried everything to bring out his potential.” Both the Phillies and the Cardinals quickly gave up on him.

When Johnson was asked in early 1968, what the Cardinals had tried to change about his hitting, he replied, “You’ll have to ask them. I didn’t pay any attention to what they told me.” That was actually one of his longer quotes. Johnson usually showed an open disdain for reporters. He was not the least bit communicative and frequently gave them the impression that he might snap at any time and commit mayhem with his bare hands. When he was traded to the Reds, a St. Louis writer warned his Cincinnati colleague, “When Alex Johnson says, ‘Mother,’ he has exhausted half of his vocabulary.”

Reds long-time beat reporter Earl Lawson (who was punched out by Reds players Johnny Temple and Vada Pinson in two separate incidents in his early years) later said that Johnson was the only ballplayer he was ever actually scared of. Lawson, on assignment from Sport, asked Johnson in 1968 what Bristol was doing different that helped Johnson have a better year, hoping for at least some compliment for the manager. The reply (“Basically all those mother******s are the same") did not make the article.

As a player, Johnson lucked out when he arrived in Cincinnati before the 1968 season. The Reds’ manager, Dave Bristol, was a classic players’ manager. He figured out that the best way to manage Johnson was to just put him in the lineup and leave him alone. Under Bristol, Johnson flourished. He still led the league’s outfielders in errors in both 1968 and 1969, but he hit .312 in 1968 (one of only six major leaguers to hit .300 in the notorious pitcher's year) and .315 in 1969.

The improvement at the plate led to one of Johnson’s quotes which went down in history, although it may or may not have been as intended. A writer noted early in 1969 that he already had 7 home runs, whereas in 1968 he had hit only two. “What’s the difference?” he was asked.
“Five,” Johnson replied straightfaced and walked off.

Although Johnson enjoyed good production at the plate and had few reported problems with Reds teammates, he was traded to the Angels after the 1969 season. The errors played a role, but also the Reds had outfielders Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan, with minor league hotshots Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae coming up, so Johnson was the obvious choice to use as bait for much-needed pitching help. He was traded to the Angels for pitchers Pedro Borbon and Jim McGlothlin.

Johnson proceeded to lead the American League in hitting in 1970 with a .329 average. Things went south in midseason, however, when he was fined by manager Lefty Phillips for loafing. He became worse, and was a serial offender for failing to even make a show of jogging out infield grounders (which, given his great speed, some could have been beaten out). His career rapidly unraveled. He became increasingly erratic, frequently screaming at teammates and media. It was reported that he was despised by virtually all his teammates. He stopped taking outfield practice all together, was benched five times and fined 29 more times before finally being suspended without pay June 26, 1971.

Union boss Marvin Miller had two psychiatrists testify that Johnson had emotional problems in a hearing before an arbitrator. The arbitrator bought Miller’s reasoning and ruled in Johnson’s favor, reinstating $29,000 in back pay and stating that a mental illness should have been treated like a physical illness.

It was never recorded whether or not the players association helped get Johnson psychiatric help after it helped him get back the money. But apparently they did not. He was bounced from the Indians to the Rangers to the Yankees to the Tigers over the next four years, always the same story—periods of great hitting intermingled with exasperating periods of disruption and lack of effort. He never again was the impact player he had been from 1968-70. His major league odyssey included 8 teams in 13 years.

After baseball, Alex Johnson returned to his hometown of Detroit and took over his father’s trucking business. He was apparently a good citizen—there were no reports of run-ins with the police and in the 1990s he gave a very thoughtful and cooperative interview looking back at his career.

By all accounts, Alex Johnson was a complicated man. Few teammates ever really knew him. Maybe it was his fault; his own behavior certainly contributed to his reputation. Maybe he had demons that no one could understand. He was an easy player for teammates, fans and the media to dislike.

Interestingly, in his final season of 1976, playing for his hometown Tigers, he was befriended by an enthusiastic rookie pitcher named Mark Fidrych. The Bird later credited his daily pregame sessions of pepper with Johnson for helping his fielding and helping him go through the entire 1976 season without an error. Johnson also loaned Fidrych some tools and helped him work on his car. Fidrych, who had a unique ability to find the good in everyone and a unique way of expressing his opinion, later said, "You goof around with each player differently. . . I look at him [Johnson] as a baseball player . . . he helped me out . . . I look at the reporters that used to go at him. I'd say, 'Why don't you just leave the guy alone, man?' I don't care what they think. I think he's a good guy. . . If you really sit down with Alex Johnson, Alex is an intelligent man. . . .But he ain't a bad ballplayer at all. That's what's weird, y'know. He hits, when he wants to."

The story of Alex Johnson raises questions. Is a mental health problem the same as a physical health problem for a player, and if so, is the league or team obligated to get the player help? Also is uncoachability or the failure to put forth an effort or get along with teammates (something in which there is unfortunately a long line of offenders) a sign of a mental health problem? Are personality disorders, such as antisocial disorder or oppositional-defiant disorder  considered mental health diseases and are teams responsible? Many questions. One can only look at Alex Johnson's batting ability and wonder what if?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Little League Founder Sounds Off About Latest Scandal

"Fixed the World Series?"

The idea staggered me. . . It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
"How did he happen to do that?"
"He just saw the opportunity."
--The Great Gatsby

With the news of the disqualification of the 2014 U.S. Little League champs due to using illegal players, once again last year’s feel-good story is this year’s ethics-challenging scandal. As the Chicago team churned toward the Little League World Series, apparently their leaders saw an opportunity and took it. And played with the faith of fifty million people. Hearing this, I wondered what Carl Stotz, who founded Little League in 1938, would think of it all. Since Stotz died in 1992, getting his opinion appeared to be a challenge, but fortunately my last cell phone update came with the Friends and Angels plan and I was able to get in touch with him:

DW: Mr Stotz, thanks for taking your time to talk to me.
CS: No problem. Call me Carl. I’m just glad someone down there actually remembers me.
DW: How are things going?
CS: Great, great. You know the weather is always perfect. Never have a rainout. And we just got Ernie Banks last week. Can’t get that big smile off his face. I bet he’s already said, “Let’s play two” a thousand times. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that I would actually bet. That’s not allowed up here you know.
DW: The reason I called is to get your opinion of the Little League scandal.
CS: Terrible. Just terrible. You know, I never wanted this when we started. I envisioned a program for local competition for all kids. I wanted adults to teach kids about fair play and sportsmanship.
DW: That reminds me. I’ve got bad news for you later about the Easter Bunny. But back to the scandal.
CS: I actually started worrying about the influence of too much commercial enterprise taking away from the kids and our real goals back in the fifties. The Little League World Series was great, but I started getting a bad feeling.
DW: Didn’t Howard Cosell do the play-by-play for the first telecast of the Little League World Series in 1953.
CS: Yeah, I can’t understand how it got so over-hyped. And that reminds me—Brian Williams did NOT pitch a no-hitter and win the World Series that year like he claims.
DW: Maybe he just mis-remembered.
CS: Anyway, did you hear that they kicked me out of my own organization in 1955?
DW: No.
CS: It’s true. I complained too much about the money and potential for corruption. They didn’t want to hear it. I said they were “making the boys pawns in the managers’ dreams.” That’s a quote from fifty years ago. You could look it up. Was I wrong? Now look at it. They have a $10 million dollar annual budget, the TV contract is better than some major league teams had 10 years ago, the tournament lasts through football season, keeping kids out of school. And they have the managers miked during the games so they all try to be Knute Rockne between every pitch. It’s ridiculous. And they wonder why there’s the incentive to cheat. But still, overall it’s a great organization. I’m glad I started it. Just sorry a lot of adults ruin it. You wouldn’t believe how many guys we get every week who say they wish they’d taken the time to teach their kids what was really important when they had a chance, instead of just trying to win every game.
DW: That’s sad.
CS: I know. They learn too late that the most important thing in a kids’ life is not how he does in a game when he is 12 years old. Listen, it’s been great talking to you, but I gotta go. The kids have practice in a few minutes. Big tournament in Hades this weekend.
DW: Good luck.
CS: Are you kidding? We’ll need  more than luck against those guys. Talk about cheating. Every one of their coaches sold their kids’ immortal soul for 10 more miles per hour on their fastball when they were eleven. And I know for a fact that three of their better players don’t live in their district—they play travel ball year ‘round for a team out of Purgatory. But there’s one more reason why we can never beat them.
DW: What’s that?
CS: They’ve got all the umpires.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gene Baker: First African-American Major League Manager

Few things are more annoying than bad baseball trivia—especially when its picked up and repeated by popular media. Since February is Black History Month, I wanted to take this opportunity to correct a misconception and ensure that proper credit is given where its due. Everyone knows that Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage a major league baseball team full time in 1975. It has been stated erroneously numerous times, however, that Ernie Banks was the first to ever serve in that capacity during a game. Indeed, Ernie Banks, who was a coach for the Cubs, did take over as manager in the 11th inning of a game May 8, 1973 after manager Whitey Lockman was thrown out.

The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1974 even stated, “Ernie Banks became the major league’s first black manager, but only for a day.” An article in Sport magazine in 1988 congratulated Banks regarding the feat and several websites have mentioned it, one in 2013 even interviewed Banks and he admitted that he felt proud of the achievement. This was repeated several times after Banks passed away last month. This is all good, and Banks certainly deserves praise for his optimistic personality and accomplishments during his Hall of Fame career—except that when it comes to this particular achievement, it is completely false.
Ten years before an umpire’s thumb forced Banks into the managerial role for the Cubs, a similar event occurred. The date was September 21, 1963. The Pittsburgh Pirates were facing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In the 8th inning with the score 2-2, Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were tossed by umpire Doug Harvey and the reins were passed to coach Gene Baker. Earlier that summer Baker had become the second African-American to coach at the major league level, trailing the Cubs’ Buck O’Neil by a few months. As Baker led the Pirates, they took a 3-2 lead, then lost on a ninth-inning home run by Willie Davis.

A small article in that weeks’ Sporting News was titled, “Baker First Negro at Major ‘Helm.’” It stated, “Coach Gene Baker of the Pirates is believed to be the first Negro to ‘manage’ a big league team. He led the Bucs against the Dodgers, September 21, at Los Angeles for the last 2 innings.”

As Buck O’Neil was the only other African-American to have preceded Baker as a major league coach and special “precautions” had been taken by Chicago management to ensure that the circumstances could not have occurred that forced Baker to the role as manager, it can be said with certainty that the title belongs to Baker.

It is perhaps ironic that Banks was remembered for the feat at the expense of Baker. It was not the first time that Banks unwittingly upstaged Baker.
Gene Baker was born in 1925 in Davenport, Iowa. After starring at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 and 1949 (playing the same position for them that Jackie Robinson had a few years earlier), Baker was signed by the Cubs’ organization in 1950, becoming the first African-American signed by the Cubs. Baker was then assigned to the minor leagues where he quickly established himself as a first-rate shortstop. The Cubs, who had the much-maligned Roy Smalley at short, had to defend themselves repeatedly over calls for Baker’s promotion. Smalley's arm was so erratic that the chant at Wrigley Field for double play ground balls hit to second baseman Eddie Miksis (in the manner of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance) was Miksis-to-Smalley-to-Addison Avenue. Wendell Smith (who figured prominently in the recent Jackie Robinson movie) of the Chicago Herald-American and writers for the African-American paper, the Chicago Defender, led the chorus all through the 1953 season as Baker led the AAA Los Angeles Angels with a .282 average, 20 home runs and 99 RBIs while being clearly felt to be the best fielding shortstop in the Pacific Coast League.

At the time, African-Americans were usually called up to the majors two at a time, for companionship and for rooming purposes, since they could not stay at the same hotel as their teammates in some cities and they certainly could not room with a white teammate. The Cubs solved the Baker problem when they latched on to a promising kid who played shortstop for Buck O’Neil’s Monarchs, Ernie Banks. Banks and Baker arrived in Chicago together in September of 1953.

Since they both played shortstop, this presented another dilemma. It was felt that Baker, the older and more polished of the two, would handle a position switch easier than Banks, who had a stronger arm but had never worked the pivot from the second base side. Baker reported with a slight injury sustained in his final game in LA and so Banks started first, making his debut September 17, 1953. Baker’s first game came on September 20.

Banks quickly proved to be much better than advertised, but Baker was also recognized as a very good player himself. Baker was the consummate professional baseball player. He was smooth and heady in the field. On offense, he rarely struck out, was a good hit-and-run man, a great bunter and was adept at hitting to the right side to move runners. And he could steal a base. Banks and Baker became the first African-American keystone combo and, referred to as Bingo and Bango, over the next three years together were recognized as one of the best in the majors. They both made the All-Star team in 1955.

Whereas the young Ernie Banks was almost quiet to a fault, the older and more mature Baker was outgoing and quickly mixed with all teammates. He was universally respected for his talent and knowledge of the game. Baker became an invaluable companion and mentor to Banks.

Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and suffered a horrific leg injury soon thereafter that ended his time as an everyday player. As a tribute to his knowledge of the game and reputation, he was made a coach in the Pirate system. In 1961 he became the first African-American manager in “organized” baseball, taking over the Batavia team in the New York-Penn League. He was promoted to AAA Columbus as a coach in 1962 and became a coach for the Pirates in 1963.

Baker later became a long time scout and continued to manage in the Dominican League during the winters and most observers felt that he would have had a long Major League managerial career had the situation been different. He died at 74 in 1999. Gene Baker was a man who was always just a little before his time. But he should not be forgotten.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Forget Deflate-Gate; Baseball's Con Men and Rule-benders

          All the recent hoopla over football’s deflate-gate got me to thinking about the long and distinguished history of “bending the rules” in baseball. Anytime you have a group of highly aggressive athletes playing a difficult game, you can expect to see all manner of ruses to get an edge. While football's rulers, perhaps to illustrate their rigid control over the violent game, always appear shocked—shocked—at any discovery of perceived fraud and intrigue, baseball has longed winked at rule-bending. In fact, many of the rogues who regularly perpetrated dastardly deeds—both expressly and implicitly unlawful--have come to be considered loveable rascals who are a priceless part of the lore of the game. The distinction between exactly what is a misdemeanor and what is a felony is blurred. One man’s cheater is another man’s gritty competitor just trying to win. But, as with all things, there are limits--there has to be some way of preventing total chaos. The discussion over which is which helps time pass on those slow days when the only alternative is to talk about the weather or listen to endless, mindless questions about the Super Bowl being asked to people who are only there so they won’t get fined.

          As far as hijinks and scams go in baseball, perhaps the only absolutes that are prohibited (other than the appearance of consorting with gamblers) are to physically alter equipment or to use banned chemicals to physically alter bodies. There’s not much defense for a doctored bat. While everyone talks about it, only a handful of players have been caught red-handed; usually when their bats shattered in mid-game, notably Graig Nettles in 1974 (superballs) and Sammy Sosa (cork) in 2003. Albert Belle and Norm Cash were other famous corked-bat busts. Interestingly, a 2007 episode of Mythbusters concluded that corking a bat actually resulted in less distance on a hit, but what do nerds know about baseball?

          When it comes to steroids and other performance enhancers, as far as I can tell, the commissioner and owners didn’t really have a problem with them when the users grew cartoonish heads and biceps and were hitting preposterous numbers of home runs.

          The only problem came when they realized that the use of these substances seemed to have a curious affect on the players’ personalities—mainly it turned them into pathetically inept, pathologic liars. And they also sometimes caused the total loss of the ability to speak English. This was bad for the image the game was trying to project to the public, and to congress.

          There are many things guys do which are not necessarily cheating per se, but are just attempts at deception and deceit; what a bad football announcer would refer to as trickeration. Among these are the old hidden ball trick (always referred to as “old” as if to distinguish it from the “new” hidden ball trick). Savvy second basemen and shortstops have long pantomimed turning a ground ball double play to decoy a runner from first, running on the pitch, into sliding into second to break up a faux double play when the ball has really been popped up—thereby being easy fodder to be doubled off first with a casual flip with the real ball.

          Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw, a member of the game’s Mount Rushmore of early icons, was known as a wily competitor who was not above using guile and chicanery if it would help him win games. This is a polite way of paraphrasing the sentiments of the great Babe Ruth, who succinctly said of McGraw, “He’s nothing but a son of a bitch.”

           While many of McGraw’s ploys were considered to be innovations, became accepted practice and influenced the way the game was played for the next century, many were felt to be so egregious that they led to specific rule changes. McGraw was notorious for taking advantage of the early practice of having only one umpire work a game. While on offense, McGraw and his cohorts were known to cut across the infield while running bases, avoiding the second base area all together at times, and arrive at third with surprising (to the unknowing umpire) alacrity. On defense, while the umpire would be watching the flight of a ball, McGraw would block, grab the belt, trip or otherwise commit felonious assault on an opposing base runner. Honus Wagner was quoted as saying that he once hit a triple against the Orioles which should have been a home run, but he was bumped by the first baseman, tripped by the second baseman, the shortstop gave him a couple of shots when he went by, and when he got to third, “John McGraw pulled out a shotgun.” McGraw’s orneriness led to Major League baseball adding more umpires to better watch for shenanigans.  

          One of the best con men in baseball history was Eddie Stanky. Appropriately nicknamed “The Brat,” Stanky was immortalized by the words of Leo Durocher: “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field. He’s no nice guy. All the little SOB can do is win.”

          Stanky played second base in the ‘40s and ‘50s for the Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Giants and Cardinals—surprisingly never lasting more than 4 years anywhere. Although all Stanky did was win, sometimes he needed a little creative misconduct in order to ensure that he won. One of his favorite tricks was to jump up and down and wave his arms behind the pitcher to distract the batter. This became known as the “Stanky Manuever” and was summarily outlawed.
          When Stanky was on third base with less than two outs and a teammate hit a fly ball, he would back down the left field line, sometimes 10 or 20 steps, to get a running head start, timing it so that he hit third at the same time the outfielder caught the ball—thereby being virtually impossible to throw out at home on a sacrifice fly. Unfortunately the annoying rule-makers, obviously Stanky-haters with little sense of humor, outlawed this as well.
          When running the bases, Stanky frequently carried a handful of sand to throw into a fielder’s eyes on a close play and he was an expert at kicking the ball out of gloves, most famously pulling this on Phil Rizzuto during Game Three of the 1951 World Series, keeping a game-winning rally going.

            Groundskeepers have long been involved in baseball’s skullduggery with ploys like angling the dirt along foul lines to allow line-hugging bunts to either stay fair or roll foul, depending on the home team’s inclination. When Maury Wills was terrorizing opponents stealing bases in the sixties, it was not uncommon for some teams to dig up and overwater the baselines when he visited their cities--preventing him from getting a good jump. Here is the typical view Wills had of second base while standing on first:

           In the late sixties, Oriole manager Earl Weaver gamed the infield at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Realizing that his guys Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson were quicker and better than anyone else’s infielders, he endeavored to make the infield harder and faster—thereby allowing Oriole hitter’s balls to scoot through, while the Oriole's superlative defense would still smother balls hit by opponents.

          The most nefarious bit of baseball field-skullduggery was perpetrated by the Chicago White Sox in the mid-sixties. Not surprisingly, their manager by that time was none other than Eddie Stanky. For years, the White Sox regularly had 2 or 3 of the top five American League ERA leaders, while their own hitters struggled to top .230. Although their sinkerballing pitchers like Joel Horlen, Gary Peters and Tommie John were good, they certainly had help. The groundskeepers kept the infield grass roughly the consistency of the African savanna—making it impossible to get even a cannon shot through the mess. They also mushed up the area in front of home plate, so that a chopped ball would die into a nice soft play for the pitcher, rather than hop high enough to allow the batter to beat it out. In the most ethics-stretching maneuver, it was widely rumored (and confirmed by some sources) that game balls were kept in a humidifier hidden in the bowels of Comiskey Park, greatly decreasing the distance a well-struck ball would fly—turning home runs into harmless cans of corn.

          Pitchers have been accused of deception and impropriety ever since the first person noticed that applying certain substances to the ball would cause it to behave in peculiar ways, making it especially difficult to hit with a round bat. Whitey Ford was a magician who could do wonders with a small scuff or smear on a ball. Yogi Berra and Elston Howard used to secretly rub a ball on their shin guards before returning it, to give Slick something to work with. In the seventies and eighties, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry were infamous for loading the ball up. Perry ultimately used the suspicions and his multiple printed confessions into a schtick in which, before throwing he would go through a multitude of motions simulating rubbing and applying all manner of foreign substances to the ball.

          Stealing signs has long been considered a noble art. It certainly helps hitters to know what pitch is coming and helps the defense to know when a bunt or steal is on. While the stealth and brains of deciphering the enigma of opponent's signs is an intellectual pursuit, some have taken the odious step of using additional science and technology, and that seems to be where people feel the line should be drawn. Using binoculars from the bullpen or stands is considered to be dirty pool--squinting with your own eyes is okay. The inimitable Leo Durocher pushed this limit of naughtiness in midseason 1951.

           The Lip stationed one of his minions in the centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, having him peer through a small window with a telescope to observe the catcher’s pitch signal. An electrical wire was run from the observers’ nest to the Giants’ bullpen. The buzz would alert an accomplice in the bullpen to the important info—namely whether a fastball or curve ball was coming. By either standing up or sitting or crossing his legs, the henchman would pass the poop on to the batter. It must have helped, because the Giants were virtually unbeatable the rest of the season, pulling off one of the most celebrated comebacks in baseball history.

          The next time you watch the poobahs of football gravely fret over simple things like how much air is in their balls, just remember: baseball knows how to take care of rapscallions who play free and loose with the rules--they put most of them in the Hall of Fame.

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.