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:
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."