Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jackie Brandt: Baseball's Original Flake

Every era has certain players that teammates, opponents and writers love to talk about; the kind of guys who make playing, watching and covering the game fun. In the early 1960s, Jackie Brandt was such a man.

And for etymologists in the crowd (there is always at least one etymologist in every crowd), it's interesting to note that Brandt may have been the inspiration for the word "flakey" entering the modern lexicon. The term is commonly used now, but until the mid-1950s, it was used only by criminals and the drug culture, specifically for someone addicted to cocaine. Wally Moon and Rip Ripulski hung the moniker on Brandt soon after he showed up to the Cardinals' St. Petersburg camp in 1956 because, as Moon later explained, they felt the young Brandt was so wild that his brains were falling out--flaking out of his head. Whether or not Brandt was actually the first to be called that, it is unlikely anyone else earned or appreciated the handle as much as he did. He happily answered to "Flakey" the rest of his career.

Jackie Brandt was a gifted athlete with great speed, a strong arm, a solid bat and the type of physical ability that made everything he did look graceful. He had a fairly good major league career playing for 5 teams over 11 seasons, with his best years coming in Baltimore from 1960-65. He won a Gold Glove in 1959 and was named to the All-Star team in 1961 when he had his best season, hitting .297 with 16 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Brandt's curse was that, although he was a solid player,  his natural ability made everyone always expect more. The fact that he glided smoothly across the outfield, eating up yardage while appearing disinterested--without his eyes bulging, head bobbing and hat flying off--made people assume that he wasn't trying, even though he in fact covered much more ground in a shorter period of time than the bulging, bobbing, hatless crowd.

Unrealized potential weighs heavily on athletes and those who attempt to manage them. It was Brandt's bad luck that sports people often compared his tools with those of guys named Kaline, Mantle and Mays. "The trouble is that people have said and other guys have written, that I am supposed to be half of each of them," he explained in a 1964 Sport magazine article. "In the first place, that adds up to one-and-a-half people. In the second, I don't want to be any of them. I would rather be me."

And there was nothing wrong with being Jackie Brandt. It's just that he made certain conservative types a bit nervous. You see, Brandt was, to put it politely, different. He did not conform to normal behavioral patterns. Some said he was a nut. True, he was not like anyone else, but is that necessarily bad? Brandt's mind was as agile as his body. There was always something extra going on between those ears and sometimes he didn't seem to bother with the details. Fans and teammates were never quite sure what he might do next, like the time when, hopelessly caught in a rundown, Brandt did a backflip to attempt to avoid a tag, earning great applause from the crowd but an unsympathetic thumbs up from the umpire.

"You gotta have fun," Brandt frequently told inquiring writers.

A new decade was dawning and attitudes were changing; conformity was on it's way out. No more would it be okay just to be another crew cut, button-downed, cliche-spewing man in a little box. Unfortunately for Jackie Brandt, he arrived just a few years too early. "The Sixties" hadn't really taken hold yet. He was ahead of his time. But he didn't know it. Or care.

Brandt didn't seem to care too much about anything and that was part of his charm. He was perpetually happy; impossible to make mad and as loosey-goosey as they came. His laid-back attitude and general contentment with life were sometimes mistaken for laziness. Writers complained that he played too nonchalantly. Aware of this, one spring he vowed to improve his image: "This year I'm going to play with harder nonchalance."

This was another of Brandt's charms. He was full of witticisms and odd views of the world and he was happy to share them. No writer ever walked away from Brandt with an empty notebook. "The most consistent thing about me is my inconsistency," he once explained to a reporter.

But managers, those stodgy slaves to win-loss records and nonlovers of anything different, often didn't appreciate Brandt's schtick. He was noted to have a special talent for driving managers crazy. This was especially acute when he plied his trade for serious-minded, leather-skinned, old-school hard-liners such as Fred Hutchinson, Paul Richards and Hank Bauer. One afternoon, Brandt wore out batting practice pitcher Charlie Lau, hitting 7 or 8 balls over the left field wall. Bauer, standing at the edge of the cage, growled, "Why don't you do that in a game?"

Brandt smiled and replied, "Put Lau out there in the game and I will." While his teammates broke up around the batting cage, the dour manager did his best imitation of a cigar store wooden Indian. Brandt's name was missing from the line-up card that day.

Brandt was never bothered by incidentals like facts and he had an excuse for everything. Once when he came back to the bench after taking a called third strike with the bases loaded, Richards asked, "What pitch were you guessing? Fastball or curve?"

"Neither," came the answer. "I was guessing ball."

In reply to a Bauer query as to what happened on a misplayed a fly ball, Brandt answered without hesitation, "I lost it in the jet stream."

When confronted by writers that one of his excuses didn't hold water, Brandt unabashedly pleaded innocence: "I said that? My lips must have been sunburned."

Brandt was equally quick-witted among teammates. Once as the team boarded a plane that was late due to bad weather, Brandt asked loudly, "What time is this plane scheduled to crash?" Standing nearby, catcher Clint Courtney, who was deathly afraid of flying anyway, was so unnerved by the comment that he left the airport and took a bus.

Many former teammates recall an expedition organized by Brandt. Tired of the minimal ice cream choices in the team's hotel, he gathered his buddies for a 20-mile drive to a place that offered multiple flavors. Once there, he was apparently overwhelmed with the possibilities and ended up ordering vanilla, causing the angry teammates to threaten to make him walk back.

Even being traded didn't seem to bother Brandt too much. In December of 1965, Brandt and young pitcher Darold Knowles were traded from Baltimore to Philadelphia for pitcher Jack Baldschun. Baldschun was then packaged with Milt Pappas and Harry Simpson to the Reds for an "old-thirty" Frank Robinson. For years, Brandt happily told anyone who would listen that if it weren't for him, the Orioles would have never gotten Robinson and won all those pennants that followed.

After the last game one year, Oriole general manager Lee MacPhail wished Brandt a nice winter. "I always have a nice winter," Flakey replied, "It's the damn summers that kill me."

The 81-year-old Brandt retired to Florida long ago. Here's hoping he has many more nice winters. He certainly made our summers more fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Philistine Commish Expected to Give Ruling on Goliath Hall of Fame Eligibility Soon

Fans of the former Philistine champion Goliath are anxiously awaiting the promised before-the-end-of-the-year ruling by the new Philistine commissioner on his eligibility for inclusion in the Philistine Hall of Fame. In the past, each new commissioner has steadfastly refused to revisit the case, blindly following the view of the previous regime.

The subject has long been a public relations nightmare for the Hall. Goliath, of course, was once considered to be the mightiest Philistine warrior of all time and many fans remember his enthusiastic pillaging and plundering as the very embodiment of all that Philistia stood for. He was famously quoted as saying that he would walk through Israel in a manna suit just to get on the battlefield. Indeed, if any man deserved to be enshrined on the hallowed walls of the Philistine Hall of Fame it is Goliath of Gath.

It was apparent from the earliest age that Goliath was something special. Inhabitants of his home town recalled that his father, Beelzubub the Belligerent, mercilessly stacked his youth warrior squad and they literally slaughtered all comers. Later, when local officials tried to make more equitable teams, his father pulled him out, aligned him with local youth stars Ashkelon the Big For His Age and Uliat the Held Back For an Extra Year and formed a travel gang that marauded far and wide.

Goliath shot to national prominence in his late teens when a unprecedented growth spurt caused him to swell to giant-sized proportions, gaining two cubits and a span over a period of only three months. Thereafter, he reigned as the undefeated champ until he was upset by the Israelite David in one of the biggest, well, David and Goliath upsets in history.

The fact that Goliath has not been included in the Hall of Fame until this point has long sparked debate and has been extremely disappointing to those who invested heavily in his Topps rookie papyrus, once the most prized piece of memorabilia this side of the Holy Grail. [On a side note, archaeologists have determined that the same batch of bubble gum put in those packs was still being used as late as 1971]. It was originally thought that the crushing defeat to David played the major role in Goliath's exclusion from the Hall, however, recently discovered archaeological documents have shed new light on the subject.

It has become apparent that scribes of the time speculated that Goliath's phenomenal growth spurt did not occur, shall we say, just by living clean and eating unleavened bread. There were wide-spread rumors that his father had arranged for a series of injections which were originally passed off as vitamin B-12, but actually contained anabolic steroids. The suspicion became especially acute when Goliath showed up one spring needing a helmet nearly twice the size of that used the previous fall. And, indeed, one of the problems he had against David was the fact that his head was so large that none of the helmets fit him, leaving his massive forehead exposed as an easy target.

Other scholars point to a more sinister accusation--that of illegal gambling. It had long been suspected that the infamous David match was fixed. Many eyewitness accounts claimed that they did not even see the stone--giving rise to what became known as the "phantom stone theory." It was speculated by some that Goliath was not killed by David at all, but merely took a dive and then was trampled in the ensuing melee as the Israelites stormed the field.

Adding credence to this theory is the discovery of ancient documents which reveal that although Goliath was a prohibitive favorite, local scroll-makers were taking a surprising amount of action on David just before the fight.

Newly damning evidence against Goliath shows up in the recent translation of parchments found among the holdings of Shlomo the Greek, ancient Israel's most notorious gambling kingpin.

Numerous references are found to a "Big G" who placed copious wagers--often on some of the biggest upsets of the time, such as "Big G wants a dime on the Israelites plus 2 and a half over Jerico Sunday" and "One thousand sheckels for Big G on Samsom over Philistines."

One particular inscription states that "Big G may not be good against WLSB this weekend." Biblical scholars now feel that WLSB stands for wimpy little shepherd boy and Big G is indeed Goliath. It is now thought that, despite the fact that gambling on matches by participants was expressly forbidden under Philistine law, "Big G" not only gambled regularly but did so with the other side and ultimately met with a losing streak and found himself heavily in debt to underworld figures, leaving him little recourse but to arrange to throw the fight.

Several ancient Philistine Hall of Famers were quoted in scrolls on the matter. "He should have helped us win the Ark a couple of times but just didn't get it done, now you have to wonder," said one former running mate.

"Everyone knows the rules," said another. "He knew the rules and did it anyway. I hope he never gets in."

As so with these recent findings, Goliath, despite his continued popularity among fans, may have trouble ever getting into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Giving Back, Bird Style: Mark Fidrych's Post-Baseball Years

One of the things that attracted me to the Mark Fidrych story was the way he lived his life after baseball--essentially the same way he lived it before. I found this rather remarkable given the circumstances of his career and how it ended.

Here was a guy who, improbably, became the most famous person in the country in 1976, who lit up baseball stadiums like no one ever had before. His youthful enthusiasm, electric talent and unparalleled natural charisma made him irresistible. He was on the cover of seemingly every magazine that year.  For one incredible summer he was on top of the world, loved by fans everywhere.

And then it was over. An injury his second season set off an an agonizing 6-year journey of failed attempted comebacks--done in by a torn rotator cuff.

If anyone ever had cause to be bitter and wallow in self pity, maybe even descend into substance abuse and live a sad, tortured existence after baseball, it was Mark The Bird Fidrych. Since his first season was at the beginning of the free agent era, he never made big money--a year or two later and he could have named his price. Also he played in the days before medical advances that could have diagnosed and maybe even treated his injured arm--a few years later and he could have maybe pitched another 15 years. It should have been enough to drive him mad.

And yet from numerous sources, I learned first hand that he went back to his tiny Massachusetts home town and resumed his life. He remained the same upbeat, incredibly spontaneous, fun-loving, out-going, friendly guy he had always been. He bought a farm and a dump truck and worked for a living. He got married and raised a daughter.

He clearly understood how great his fame had been, yet he remained humble enough that once while working in his mother-in-law's diner--a few feet from a framed cover of Rolling Stone bearing his own smiling mug--in answer to a stranger's inquiry that he looked familiar, he answered, "Well, I used to work at the garage on Main Street."

And he never forgot those who helped him along the way. While busy working for a living, he still found time to lend his fame out for good causes.He regularly showed up on opening day of the local Little League to sign autographs and give inspirational talks to kids. He was active in the nearby Jimmy Fund and Dan Farber Clinic and could always be counted on to show up for charity golf and fishing events. The majority of his charity work involved children, especially those with special needs. "It's called giving back," he told a reporter in 2001. "If I can help a younger kid out that is a great thing to have because people helped me out."

Mark's biggest charitable activity became the Wertz Warriors of Michigan. Baseball fans will recognize the name--before he launched the 1954 World Series drive that made Willie Mays famous, Vic Wertz had been a popular member of the Detroit Tigers and he made the Detroit area his home after baseball. Wertz helped organize the Wertz Warriors in 1982 as a way to fund Michigan Special Olympics. The group uses an annual seven-day, 900-mile cross-country snowmobile ride across the state to provide complete funding for the Michigan State Special Olympics Winter Games.

After Wertz passed away, the group used other former Michigan-area athletes as front men for the fund-raising. Mark Fidrych, through a chance meeting with one of the members, signed on enthusiastically in 1992 and made it for the next 17 straight years. He was the drawing card, giving talks and signing autographs at each stop. Although he was the one everyone showed up to see, he didn't act like a big star. He was one of the guys. He blasted his way through the snow of Northern Michigan with the same enthusiastic abandon he showed on major league mounds. "For me it's the athletes, It's another thing to help out where you can," Mark said.

In talking to members of the Wertz Warriors, it was obvious that they loved the guy.
I recently found some pictures they had given me of Mark on their trips. Unfortunately, there wasn't room in the book to print them all.

Here's wishing every major league baseball player could remain as grounded and happy in retirement as the one and only Bird.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Joe, You Shoulda Made Us Proud: The Disappointing Baseball Career of Joe Shlabotnik

In the annals of baseball history, one name stands tall and resolute when it comes to futility: Joe Shlabotnik. But surprisingly the Joe Shlabotnik story is not one of failure, but of hope, loyalty and endless optimism as seen through the rosy lens of childhood. Shlabotnik's career was saved from the eternal scorn it so richly deserved thanks to the steadfast devotion of his greatest--and possibly only--fan, America's favorite round-headed juvenile baseball aficionado, Charlie Brown.

If idols are, as psychologists would have us believe, a form of identification attachment, Charlie Brown could not have picked a more perfect one. Remarkably fitting for the good-hearted born loser Charlie Brown, Shlabotnik failed spectacularly, and not just on the field. He let Charlie Brown down continually and consistently. But as spectators to the carnage, we somehow understood that no hero is ever as unequivocally infallible as the hero of our youth and Shlabotnik's foibles only made us love him more.

Little is known about Shlabotnik's early years. His last name hints a Slovenian ancestry. He was apparently blessed with enough athletic skill and opportunity that someone (no doubt later driven out of the sporting profession by shame, derision or both) felt that he was deserving of a professional baseball contract. He was signed during the 1950s, before the major league draft; maybe he was courted by numerous scouts and received a bonus, or maybe he was signed as a favor because his uncle was a former player or scout. Whatever the reason, he surely became part of the cautionary tale repeated for years on the perils of scouting and signing young baseball players: "Sometimes your guy turns out to be a Sandy Koufax, sometimes he becomes a Joe Shlabotnik."

In his initial years as a professional Shlabotnik, in the glory of his youthful strength, impressed the front office brass enough with his minor league play that he was eventually promoted to the major leagues. Alas, this is where his story turns sour. For all the promise and potential, Joe Shlabotnik failed to produce at the big league level. It didn't take long for Shlabotnik to establish the fact that he was, in the parlance of baseball men, a no-hit, no-field player.

Shlabotnik was first mentioned as the object of Charlie Brown's idolatry in 1963. He had apparently been in the major leagues for some time because Brown remarked that he had been trying for five years to get a Shlabotnik bubble gum card. Like Shlabotnik's play on the field, Charlie Brown's attempts to obtain memorabilia of his idol--no matter the effort and planning--are doomed to miserable, gut-wrenching failure. In typical Charlie Brown fashion, he spends five dollars on baseball cards (which came in 1 cent packs containing one card and one piece of gum at the time) trying to get a card of his hero. Alas, not one of the 500 packs contained a Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown's female nemesis, Lucy, who couldn't care less about baseball, spends one penny on bubble gum and, naturally, discovers a Joe Shlabotnik card in her pack. Determined to get the card, Charlie Brown offers to trade every card he has for it, offering Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax and others. Lucy steadfastly refuses because she thinks Shlabotnik is "kind of cute." After Charlie Brown leaves in dismay, Lucy tosses the card in the trash and admits, "He's not as cute as I thought he was." This sets the trend for several decades of torture and disappointment, for both Brown and Shlabotnik.

As a baseball player and as an idol Joe Shlabotnik was remarkably consistent. He possessed, as they say, a unique ability to take a good situation and make it impossibly worse. But Charlie Brown was certainly no fair weather fan. He, of all people, understood the frustration and addictive nature of the game of baseball. Charlie Brown never lets reality cause disillusionment with his hero. He is all in, for better or worse. After a game in which Shlabotnik goes 0-for-5 and commits three errors, Brown explains to a friend, "When he suffers, I suffer."

Unfortunately, after too many such games team management finally decides to stick a fork in Joe Shlabotnik's major league career. Brown is incredulous and saddened when he learns of the demotion. "Other kids baseball heroes hit home runs, mine gets sent to the minors," he moans.

Offering much-needed moral support, in a letter to Shlabotnik, Brown writes, "I think it was unfair of them to send you to the minors just because you only got one hit in two hundred and forty times at bat."

Refusing to believe anything but the best for Shlabotnik, when a friend attempts to add psychological analysis and asks if his hero had feet of clay, Brown replies pragmatically, "No, he had a low batting average."

It should be noted that the batting average of .004 still stands as the mark in post-1900 baseball for the lowest batting average in a major league season for a player with more than 200 at bats. And, consistent to the end, the one hit Shlabotnik got that miserable year was a bloop single in the ninth inning with his team leading fifteen to three.

Perhaps because he can understand the struggles of Shlabotnik more than anyone else, Charlie Brown remains faithful. He even starts a Joe Shlabotnik fan club and produces the fan club newsletter which appraised the members of the exploits of their hero: playing for Hillcrest in the Green Grass League, Shlabotnik "batted .143 and made some spectacular catches of routine fly balls. He also threw out a runner who had fallen down between first and second." [Unfortunately the newsletter is stopped after one issue because, as Lucy remarked when asked for comment, "Who needs it?"]

Shlabotnik then threatened to become a Green Grass League lifer. He was traded to Stumptown, where his play continued to stink:

When it finally becomes apparent to management that Joe's playing days are woefully behind him, he is offered the chance to begin on the managerial track. He takes over the reins of the Waffeltown Syrups, a team so deep in the bush leagues that they play their home games in a field near a corner so they can play night games under the street lights.

Alas, Shlabotnik's minor league managing career is short-lived. He finishes with a record of 0-1, fired after the first game because he signaled for a squeeze play with no one on base. Despite the failure, he is touched by the continued devotion of his fan.

Shlabotnik's post-baseball career was similarly disappointing. Unfortunately, Shlabotnik played in the years before players made big bucks. As a guy who was sent down around 1963, he probably never made more than $25,000 a year, maybe even less. He was noted to be working for a time in a car wash.

In later years he tried to cash in on the memorabilia craze but had very little success. While some former major league players were able to command large speaking fees, Shlabotnik's stated going rate was only $100 but, as an old softy, he settled for 50 cents to appear at a Charlie Brown testimonial dinner because that was all the dough the committee could muster (unfortunately, Shlabotnik got lost and never made it to the dinner).

Another time Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy paid for tickets to sit at a table with Joe at a sports celebrity dinner, forgoing the opportunity to sit with other sports icons like Willie Mays and Muhammed Ali. Once again, Joe was a no-show as he mistakenly wrote down the wrong event, the wrong day and the wrong city on his planning calendar.

Even though his miserable professional baseball career ended almost fifty years ago, Joe Shlabotnik has not been forgotten. Indeed, the mere mention of the name usually evokes a smile among baseball faithful. Maybe it's because we can all relate to what he went through. Maybe, like us, despite effort, he sometimes couldn't avoid failure. But the failures made his triumphs--like the bloop single--so much sweeter. And he never gave up. Charlie Brown's blind devotion and optimism, tinged with doubts and frustration, are a heart-warming reminder that love should not be based on mere box scores and win-loss records. 

So here's to you Joe Shlabotnik, where ever you are. You King of Catastrophe, Pharoah of Failure, Sultan of Snafu, Dauphin of Disappointment. You did your best. To paraphrase the immortal words of Casey Stengel: "We would have given you an award, but we wuz afraid you'd drop it."