Friday, January 30, 2015

Forget Deflate-Gate; Baseball's Con Men and Rule-benders



          All the recent hoopla over football’s deflate-gate got me to thinking about the long and distinguished history of “bending the rules” in baseball. Anytime you have a group of highly aggressive athletes playing a difficult game, you can expect to see all manner of ruses to get an edge. While football's rulers, perhaps to illustrate their rigid control over the violent game, always appear shocked—shocked—at any discovery of perceived fraud and intrigue, baseball has longed winked at rule-bending. In fact, many of the rogues who regularly perpetrated dastardly deeds—both expressly and implicitly unlawful--have come to be considered loveable rascals who are a priceless part of the lore of the game. The distinction between exactly what is a misdemeanor and what is a felony is blurred. One man’s cheater is another man’s gritty competitor just trying to win. But, as with all things, there are limits--there has to be some way of preventing total chaos. The discussion over which is which helps time pass on those slow days when the only alternative is to talk about the weather or listen to endless, mindless questions about the Super Bowl being asked to people who are only there so they won’t get fined.

          As far as hijinks and scams go in baseball, perhaps the only absolutes that are prohibited (other than the appearance of consorting with gamblers) are to physically alter equipment or to use banned chemicals to physically alter bodies. There’s not much defense for a doctored bat. While everyone talks about it, only a handful of players have been caught red-handed; usually when their bats shattered in mid-game, notably Graig Nettles in 1974 (superballs) and Sammy Sosa (cork) in 2003. Albert Belle and Norm Cash were other famous corked-bat busts. Interestingly, a 2007 episode of Mythbusters concluded that corking a bat actually resulted in less distance on a hit, but what do nerds know about baseball?

          When it comes to steroids and other performance enhancers, as far as I can tell, the commissioner and owners didn’t really have a problem with them when the users grew cartoonish heads and biceps and were hitting preposterous numbers of home runs.



          The only problem came when they realized that the use of these substances seemed to have a curious affect on the players’ personalities—mainly it turned them into pathetically inept, pathologic liars. And they also sometimes caused the total loss of the ability to speak English. This was bad for the image the game was trying to project to the public, and to congress.

          There are many things guys do which are not necessarily cheating per se, but are just attempts at deception and deceit; what a bad football announcer would refer to as trickeration. Among these are the old hidden ball trick (always referred to as “old” as if to distinguish it from the “new” hidden ball trick). Savvy second basemen and shortstops have long pantomimed turning a ground ball double play to decoy a runner from first, running on the pitch, into sliding into second to break up a faux double play when the ball has really been popped up—thereby being easy fodder to be doubled off first with a casual flip with the real ball.

          Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw, a member of the game’s Mount Rushmore of early icons, was known as a wily competitor who was not above using guile and chicanery if it would help him win games. This is a polite way of paraphrasing the sentiments of the great Babe Ruth, who succinctly said of McGraw, “He’s nothing but a son of a bitch.”

           While many of McGraw’s ploys were considered to be innovations, became accepted practice and influenced the way the game was played for the next century, many were felt to be so egregious that they led to specific rule changes. McGraw was notorious for taking advantage of the early practice of having only one umpire work a game. While on offense, McGraw and his cohorts were known to cut across the infield while running bases, avoiding the second base area all together at times, and arrive at third with surprising (to the unknowing umpire) alacrity. On defense, while the umpire would be watching the flight of a ball, McGraw would block, grab the belt, trip or otherwise commit felonious assault on an opposing base runner. Honus Wagner was quoted as saying that he once hit a triple against the Orioles which should have been a home run, but he was bumped by the first baseman, tripped by the second baseman, the shortstop gave him a couple of shots when he went by, and when he got to third, “John McGraw pulled out a shotgun.” McGraw’s orneriness led to Major League baseball adding more umpires to better watch for shenanigans.  

          One of the best con men in baseball history was Eddie Stanky. Appropriately nicknamed “The Brat,” Stanky was immortalized by the words of Leo Durocher: “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field. He’s no nice guy. All the little SOB can do is win.”

          Stanky played second base in the ‘40s and ‘50s for the Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Giants and Cardinals—surprisingly never lasting more than 4 years anywhere. Although all Stanky did was win, sometimes he needed a little creative misconduct in order to ensure that he won. One of his favorite tricks was to jump up and down and wave his arms behind the pitcher to distract the batter. This became known as the “Stanky Manuever” and was summarily outlawed.
          When Stanky was on third base with less than two outs and a teammate hit a fly ball, he would back down the left field line, sometimes 10 or 20 steps, to get a running head start, timing it so that he hit third at the same time the outfielder caught the ball—thereby being virtually impossible to throw out at home on a sacrifice fly. Unfortunately the annoying rule-makers, obviously Stanky-haters with little sense of humor, outlawed this as well.
          When running the bases, Stanky frequently carried a handful of sand to throw into a fielder’s eyes on a close play and he was an expert at kicking the ball out of gloves, most famously pulling this on Phil Rizzuto during Game Three of the 1951 World Series, keeping a game-winning rally going.

            Groundskeepers have long been involved in baseball’s skullduggery with ploys like angling the dirt along foul lines to allow line-hugging bunts to either stay fair or roll foul, depending on the home team’s inclination. When Maury Wills was terrorizing opponents stealing bases in the sixties, it was not uncommon for some teams to dig up and overwater the baselines when he visited their cities--preventing him from getting a good jump. Here is the typical view Wills had of second base while standing on first:

           In the late sixties, Oriole manager Earl Weaver gamed the infield at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Realizing that his guys Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson were quicker and better than anyone else’s infielders, he endeavored to make the infield harder and faster—thereby allowing Oriole hitter’s balls to scoot through, while the Oriole's superlative defense would still smother balls hit by opponents.

          The most nefarious bit of baseball field-skullduggery was perpetrated by the Chicago White Sox in the mid-sixties. Not surprisingly, their manager by that time was none other than Eddie Stanky. For years, the White Sox regularly had 2 or 3 of the top five American League ERA leaders, while their own hitters struggled to top .230. Although their sinkerballing pitchers like Joel Horlen, Gary Peters and Tommie John were good, they certainly had help. The groundskeepers kept the infield grass roughly the consistency of the African savanna—making it impossible to get even a cannon shot through the mess. They also mushed up the area in front of home plate, so that a chopped ball would die into a nice soft play for the pitcher, rather than hop high enough to allow the batter to beat it out. In the most ethics-stretching maneuver, it was widely rumored (and confirmed by some sources) that game balls were kept in a humidifier hidden in the bowels of Comiskey Park, greatly decreasing the distance a well-struck ball would fly—turning home runs into harmless cans of corn.

          Pitchers have been accused of deception and impropriety ever since the first person noticed that applying certain substances to the ball would cause it to behave in peculiar ways, making it especially difficult to hit with a round bat. Whitey Ford was a magician who could do wonders with a small scuff or smear on a ball. Yogi Berra and Elston Howard used to secretly rub a ball on their shin guards before returning it, to give Slick something to work with. In the seventies and eighties, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry were infamous for loading the ball up. Perry ultimately used the suspicions and his multiple printed confessions into a schtick in which, before throwing he would go through a multitude of motions simulating rubbing and applying all manner of foreign substances to the ball.

          Stealing signs has long been considered a noble art. It certainly helps hitters to know what pitch is coming and helps the defense to know when a bunt or steal is on. While the stealth and brains of deciphering the enigma of opponent's signs is an intellectual pursuit, some have taken the odious step of using additional science and technology, and that seems to be where people feel the line should be drawn. Using binoculars from the bullpen or stands is considered to be dirty pool--squinting with your own eyes is okay. The inimitable Leo Durocher pushed this limit of naughtiness in midseason 1951.

           The Lip stationed one of his minions in the centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, having him peer through a small window with a telescope to observe the catcher’s pitch signal. An electrical wire was run from the observers’ nest to the Giants’ bullpen. The buzz would alert an accomplice in the bullpen to the important info—namely whether a fastball or curve ball was coming. By either standing up or sitting or crossing his legs, the henchman would pass the poop on to the batter. It must have helped, because the Giants were virtually unbeatable the rest of the season, pulling off one of the most celebrated comebacks in baseball history.

          The next time you watch the poobahs of football gravely fret over simple things like how much air is in their balls, just remember: baseball knows how to take care of rapscallions who play free and loose with the rules--they put most of them in the Hall of Fame.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

The (Big) Boys of Summer: Baseball's All-Time All-Eating Team

          We all know that professional baseball is played by highly skilled athletes who possess world-class reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But one of the great things about the game is that, perhaps more than any other sport, it lends itself to players of all shapes and sizes. Some players have been famously plus-sized. As these men have become part of our heritage, I thought it would be interesting to pick a team of the very best--the All-Time, All-Eating team.
          I should say from the start that inclusion on this team should in no way be considered insulting. The guys listed here were great players. Most of them were very popular in their towns as well. There are a number of reasons for the popularity, but in addition to personality and performance on the field, I think it is always comforting to fans when we see guys who are shaped more like we are. It gives us hope--if not on the field, at least at the table.
         So here is my team of baseball's Barons of Bulk; the Princes of Paunch, the Kings of Corpulence, the game's abdominal snowmen. When these guys sat around the clubhouse, they sat AROUND the clubhouse. The salad days of their youth actually contained very little salad at all. According to insurance actuarial tables of body mass index, these guys should have all had coronaries before their 25th birthday. But they didn't. They were productive major league baseball players and that's why we loved them.
       
          For the guys who came close, but didn't quite make the team, remember the words of Winston Churchill: "Never, never give in." (He was talking about the urge to stop with just two or three servings of mutton).
       

First Base: Boog Powell
          There is stiff competition for the first base slot on this team, mainly because first base seems to be the traditional place teams try to hide their weighty issues. There are a number of very worthy candidates, particularly Willie Stargell, Cecil and Prince Fielder, but for my money, I like Boog Powell. Boog was an enormous specimen right from the time he first showed up in the Orioles training camp as a 19-year-old with an 18 3/4-inch neck. Over the next few years he proceeded to fill out the rest of his body; and then he kept growing.
          Powell waged monumental battles with manager Earl Weaver over his weight until Weaver finally accepted that he seemed to hit better when he didn't worry about what he ate. Thereafter, his weight grew faster than the national deficit. Boog was an imposing, and sometimes peculiar, sight on the baseball field; Dan Epstein wrote in Big Hair and Plastic Grass that the Orioles abruptly dumped an all-orange uniform in the early 70s because Powell objected to looking like the world's biggest pumpkin.
          Boog was a very good player and had some great seasons. But recurrent physical ailments dramatically curtailed his production. Seasons of 30+ home runs were interspersed in his prime with years of only 12 or 13 and he was essentially done by 33 years old.
          I always felt that if he had been in better shape, Powell could have ended up with numbers that would have made a strong case for the Hall of Fame; he probably left 100 home runs on the table when he retired--probably the only things he ever left on a table.



Second base: Carlos Baerga

          Second base is not a position that lends itself to overweight players. Second basemen have to move quickly to run down hot grounders and jump out of the way of guys who want to kill them while they are turning double plays. Second basemen who put on weight quickly become either outfielders, coaches or unemployed.
          Carlos Baerga was one of the best-hitting second basemen in the majors for several years for the Indians in the 1990s. When weight trouble put him in the manager's doghouse, rumor has it that he proceeded to eat the dog. He was finished as an everyday-player before he turned 30.


Third base: George Scott


          With apologies to Pablo Sandoval, I'm going with George Scott at third base. Scott was a surprisingly nimble-footed, slick fielding first and third baseman, but since first base is so crowded on our team, we will put him at third. He burst on the major league scene with a great rookie season in 1967, helping the Red Sox to their Impossible Dream pennant. It was apparent very early that Scott had trouble curbing his appetite and  Manager Dick Williams, not particularly known for his sensitivity, made Scott's weight his personal mission the next year. Williams continually harangued Scott and loudly complained to the press that talking to Scott was like talking to a brick wall. Not one to respond to tough love, under constant duress, Scott proceeded to have one of the worst sophomore slumps in history. Once Williams departed, Scott had some great years and continued to pack on the pounds.
          It's not as though Scott didn't try. To the contrary, as he aged, he became so obsessed with keeping his weight down, that his efforts actually hurt his play. In 1978, with the Red Sox, he worked so hard before games, staggering around the field while wrapped tightly in a rubber suit, that he was often exhausted by game time. More proof that sometimes it's better just to relax and eat.

Shortstop:

          Shortstop is a tough one. The shortstops of my youth were guys like Mark Belanger and Eddie Brinkman--they always came to the ballpark looking like they had just been rescued off a raft. They were so skinny, they didn't make a shadow during day games; they couldn't have worn a double digit number because their backs were only big enough for one number. More than any other position in baseball, there is very little tolerance for even the slightest amount of excess flesh at shortstop. For this reason, a fat shortstop is seen about as often as a skinny sumo wrestler.
          I've given this a lot of thought and I'm going to have to take the easy way out. The only man I can remember looking even slightly unfit at shortstop was Luke Appling. Appling was a Hall of Fame shortstop with the White Sox in the '30s and '40s. His selection to this team comes with a caveat: when I saw him play he was 75 years old, competing in an old-timers game at RFK Stadium in Washington. So he deserved to be carrying around a few extra pounds. The extra weight didn't seem to hurt him though, as he hit a home run off Warren Spahn.


Outfield:
           Teams sometimes try to stick a large man in the outfield, hoping that the hard-hitting will produce more runs that the defensive liabilities let in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it leads to both sad and hilarious sights and occasionally can be perilous to teammates or fences that get damaged by the lumbering behemoths once they get up a head of steam while chasing flies.

Greg Luzinski

          Luzinski was just a big guy. He had a massive chest and thighs that belonged on a triceratops--and that was when he was young and in shape. He had some great hitting years with the Phillies for a decade, but by 1981, they gave up on him after two straight subpar, injury-plagued seasons when it was apparent that he was unfit for defensive duty. The American League White Sox snapped him up, placed him at DH and enjoyed a couple of very productive seasons.
          When he helped the White Sox to the playoffs in 1983, driving in over 100 RBIs, there was intense speculation on where they would put his productive bat if they made the World Series. His wife was even quoted as fearing for his safety if he was placed anywhere on the field with a glove on his hand. Alas, the White Sox lost in the playoffs and he was spared.


Babe Ruth


          First of all, I love Babe Ruth. No baseball list on anything is complete without the Babe. He hit home runs farther and more frequently, generated more publicity, "dated" more women, passed gas louder and, yes, ate more hot dogs than anyone else in baseball history. Everything about him was, well, Ruthian.
          Contrary to popular myth--especially perpetuated by the ridiculous John Goodman movie--the Babe wasn't really fat until his later years. Even into the mid-1920s, he was a big guy with a huge barrel chest, but certainly did not have a belly, in spite of every attempt to eat himself into the size of a small third world country.




          Neither the weight nor the lifestyle ever really slowed the Babe down. As late as age 38, in 1933, he hit 34 home runs with 103 RBIs and batted .301. But that's why he was Babe Ruth and we're not.


Bob Fothergill

          Fothergill is the wild-card of this team; not a commonly-known name nowadays. A very good hitter for Detroit in the 1920s, who batted over .350 several times and had a lifetime average of .325, he was one of baseball's all-timers, for a number of reasons. First, the nickname. In those less-than-politically correct days, he was known to one and all, as "Fatty." Fatty Fothergill. Nice.
          The 5-10, 230 pound Fothergill had the reputation as one of the game's top, if not the top, eater and drinker. His dietary exploits were legendary.
          In Leo Durocher's book, Nice Guys Finish Last, he writes about an encounter with Fothergill in the late '20s, when Leo the Lip was a young, obnoxious shortstop on the Yankees, bent on doing anything he could to help his team win. In the last of the ninth of a close game in Detroit, the Tigers had the potential tying and winning runs on base with the dangerous Fothergill at the plate. Leo loudly called time out and walked toward the middle of the infield. He then peered in at the plate and apologized to the umpire: "I was going to protest. From where I was standing it looked like there were two men up there. But now I see that it's only Fatty."
          In a blind rage, Fothergill, who detested his nickname, whiffed at strike three and then chase the laughing Durocher all over the field with his bat.


Pitcher:

          More than any other position, pitching lends itself to a diverse assortment of bodies. Pitchers can wear prodigious amounts of weight quite well. There have been numerous pitchers over the years who would be worthy additions to this team. C.C. Sabathia, David Wells and Rick Reuschel come to mind. Surprisingly, Kent Tekulve and Ewell Blackwell did not make it. I should note that many people felt that Gaylord Perry was rather rotund in his later years. This was a misconception caused by the fact that he routinely took the mound with enough lubricants, oils and jellies to stock a complete pharmacy--and they were all hidden under his shirt.

Mickey Lolich


           If anyone ever inspired an alliteration-loving hack to refer to him as a portly portsider from Portland (Oregon), it was Mickey Lolich. Lolich is another of those guys whose stats grew along with his waistline. He was a good pitcher in the 1960s, although overshadowed by the charisma and antics (and 31 wins) of Denny McLain. He gained eternal fame for winning three games in the 1968 World Series. Then, in the early '70s, shaped like a walrus, he was simply one of the best pitchers in the league.
           For Lolich, the flab around his midsection became like hair for Samson--his strength and endurance grew in perfect proportion with his gut. He ate innings the way he ate cheeseburgers--in great quantities and with gusto. In 1971 he threw the astounding total of 376 innings while winning 25 games. Modern pitching-count gurus should note that the work hurt his arm so much that in 1972 he was only able to throw 327 innings and win 22 games.
          Totally unrepentent in his lack of dietary discretion, Lolich revelled in his girthiness and liked to refer to himself as "the drinking man's idol."
          After retiring from baseball, he devoted time to his great love, spending several years running a Detroit-area doughnut shop. While the rumor that he ate up all the profits is greatly exaggerated, it was certainly not because of a lack of effort.


LaMarr Hoyt


          LaMarr Hoyt had a few great seasons with the White Sox in the early 1980s. In 1983, he won the Cy Young Award while going 24-10 and was unbeatable the second half of the year--the White Sox won all of his last 15 starts and he got the decision in 14 of them. In addition to an ample waist line, he had impeccable control, rarely walking more than one batter per nine innings.
          His catcher, Carlton Fisk, said about Hoyt after a great playoff performance: "He did a big favor for everybody that doesn't work out, because they'll take a look at his body and go eat anything they want."
          Another time, spotting Hoyt walking out of the showers wearing only a grossly inadequate towel, Fisk remarked to reporters, "You have to admit LaMarr has a lot of stomach--I mean guts."

Catcher: Smokey Burgess

          Although every Little League coach mistakenly sticks the fat kid behind the plate, major league catchers are not usually overweight--they just look like it because of the funny way they walk. It's not really their fault--you try squatting a hundred times a night all summer and see how you look walking. Most catchers were great athletes originally and they often lose large amounts of weight during the season from all that squatting. That being said, there have been many catchers who possessed particularly peculiar looking, oddly shaped bodies, like Yogi Berra, and there have been a number who could be accused of approaching obesity.
          Smokey Burgess was a pretty good catcher in the 1950s, but he seemed to grow larger each year. Surprisingly, the larger he grew, the better he hit. When he could no longer squat with the assurance of being able to get back up without the help of a wench, he became a pinchhitter and would have continued pinchhitting forever except that he finally decided to give up baseball to collect his social security check. He was actually still an active player when this picture below was taken, but he was not, as he looks, 85 years old. He was only 39.      

          I'm going with Burgess for this team mainly because of the great quotes his pot-bellied appearance inspired. In the early 1970s book, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, they wrote, "Smokey Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat, like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn, but FAT fat, like the mailman or Uncle Dwight. Putsy fat. Slobby fat. Just plain fat."
          He was described in print at other times as looking like a "walking clothes bag" and "not even fit enough to play Moose Lodge softball." With testimonials like that, who am I to argue.

Pinch Hitter: Gates Brown
          The Gator was a classic guy. Signed by the Tigers after a stent in the Ohio State Reformatory, he never dodged questions about his mis-spent youth, telling reporters that in high school, he "took a little English, a little Math, some Science, a few hub caps and some wheel covers." With his infectious personality and blue-collar traits, Brown was beloved in Detroit. Like a lot of the guys on this team, Brown was a phenomenal hitter who couldn't play in the field. It's a shame he came along before the designated hitter rule. As it was, he became one of the most consistent pinchhitters in baseball history.
            Once, Gator was sneaking a hot dog in the dugout when the call came for him to pinch hit. Rather than lay the ketchup-laden dog down (you can't trust anyone in a dugout), he stuffed it in the front of his pants. He proceeded to rap a base hit and belly-flopped into second base. The umpire, worried at seeing red all over the front of his pants, told him, "Stay down Gator, you're bleeding." This episode alone earned him a place in the eating Hall of Fame.

Bench:

John Kruk wasn't in as bad of shape as a player as he's had the good sense to joke about on television, but he makes this team, if nothing else, for his immortal line: "I ain't an athlete, I'm a baseball player."

Rusty Staub, like most guys on this team, could flat out hit. And like most guys on this team, he loved to eat. Unlike the others, however, he was a great cook. And I don't just mean that he could heat up a leftover deep-dish pizza in the oven. He was an accomplished gourmet chef; so good that he opened his own restaurant in New York which stood on the quality of its food more than the quality as a player of its owner--no small feat.

Manager.

          Every team needs a manager and this one is no different, if for no other reason than to be the guy to pick out where to eat after every game. There have been many mangers over the years who have made us question why baseball insists on that ridiculous tradition of having the old guys squeeze into those uniforms and be thankful that other sports didn't pick it up--no one would have wanted to see John Madden, for example, prancing along the football sidelines in tight polyester. For sheer love of eating, I have to go with Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda may indeed have bled Dodger blue, as he often liked to say, but you can be sure that, along with that blue, there was plenty of garlic, butter and oregano coursing through his veins. Lasorda's career is a testament to the power of optimism and pasta. He once said, "When we win, I'm so happy I eat a lot. When we lose, I'm so depressed I eat a lot. When we're rained out, I'm so disappointed I eat a lot." What more needs to be said.



          So there you have it. Baseball's All-Time All-Eating team. These guys were the best. Just don't get between any of them and the post-game spread.