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.

No comments:

Post a Comment