Saturday, November 22, 2014

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, November 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who's on first?

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Veteran's Day Salute to Baseball's Servicemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Baseball's Pranksters, you gotta love 'em

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

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

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

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