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.


  1. I would never have guessed Jackie Brandt was the first "flake". I would have assumed it had been applied to Jimmy Piersall originally.

    1. While Piersall certainly would have earned the title and was called many things during his career, I don't recall him routinely being referred to as a Flake until the term gained common usage. In a 1973 book, veteran sportswriter Maury Allen repeated the Moon story and stated that Brandt was the first baseball player to wear the title.

  2. He was Bill Lee before there was a Spaceman!

  3. Little known fact of the day: Jackie Brandt is mentioned twice in John Updike's classic piece, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu".

  4. I did not know that. I'll have to look that up. Thanks.

  5. Early in the 1963 season Mantle had caught his leg under the fence in Memorial Stadium chasing a home run and missed over 60 games. It was during a game at the Stadium vs the Birds that he made his first appearance since the injury. He pinch hit in the 9th inning. After falling behind 1-2 he hit a ball headed for the short left field corner. It looked like it was going to be a homer. The crowd was going nuts..but then I saw Brandt chase that ball, and damn if he didn't dive head first into the stands to rob the Mick of a homer..BUT..he missed the ball, the Mick hit a homer in his first appearance after missing 60+ games. The crowd went even more nuts. Believe me, we all knew Brandt was a darn good fielder and it was a relief when he missed the ball. Good article, thanks.

  6. Nice story, thanks for sharing it.