Monday, February 20, 2017

When Johnny Bench's Career Almost Ended at 25

The Cincinnati Reds were only three outs away from being eliminated in the 1972 Playoffs. Trailing the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2, in the fifth and final game, Johnny Bench led off the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pirates' ace reliever Dave Guisti.

As Bench prepared to leave the on-deck circle, his mother caught his eye. Katy Bench had left her seat and worked her way to the rail near the Reds dugout. Although Katy would later tell a reporter that she yelled, "This is it," in the version Johnny would tell for years he heard her say, “Hit a home run." The exact words are perhaps unimportant, (who can hear clearly when 50,000 fans are screaming?) but his account sounded much better for the myth-makers.

The dutiful son then walked to home plate, swung at an outside two-strike pitch and lined it over the right field wall. Riverfront Stadium exploded. In the broadcasting booth, the voice of 28-year-old Reds announcer Al Michaels reached an octave previously thought unattainable by primates. Although the Reds didn’t officially win the game until a few minutes later when George Foster scored on a wild pitch, there was no doubt that the game was over as soon as Bench’s drive cleared the wall.

It would be remembered as the most dramatic moment in Reds’ history. And the amazing thing about it was that as Bench walked to the plate for that at bat, he was burdened with a secret. None of the fans, no one in the press box, very few in the dugout knew that if he had made an out here, if the Reds failed to advance to the World Series, there was a plausible chance that this would be the last at bat of his major league career.

Johnny Bench had proven himself to be a once-in-a-generation transcendent talent. He hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs in 1970 and followed that with 40 and 129 in 1972, leading the league in both categories both times. On defense, it was immediately apparent that Bench was special from the first day he laced up the shin guards in a late 1967 call-up. No one else would win a National League Gold Glove for catching for the next ten years.

By the end of the 1972 season, Bench had played in five All-Star games and had taken home five Gold Gloves and two MVP awards--and he hadn’t turned 25 yet.

In addition he had reached a level of pop-cultural appeal rarely seen among baseball players. He had toured with Bob Hope, appeared on the popular TV spy show Mission Impossible and belted out songs on Hee Haw. Few major league players would have even tried pulling off the act of snapping his fingers in front of Junior Samples and a hound dog, surrounded by hay bales and fake corn, wearing a pair of lime-green pants borrowed from Kermit the Frog. He was clearly a man of rare talents and accomplishments.

The trouble started when Reds players had their annual routine physical exams in early September. Traditionally this was a casual off-day away from the ballpark, a chance for Pete Rose and Joe Morgan to hold court trading endless put-downs and wise cracks, for Tony Perez to sneak among his teammates, pinching them on the butt and then scurrying away giggling. Few players took the tests seriously. The players, all marvelous athletic specimens in the prime of their lives, passed easily. All except one.

Johnny Bench got a call the next day from someone at the hospital who wanted him to return for another Chest X-Ray; the first one had been a bit blurry, he was told. So Bench went back the next day and the X-Ray was repeated. Before he could leave, they needed another one—just routine, he was told. Then they wanted to do some more tests. Finally he learned the problem: there was a spot on his right lung. A spot that hadn’t been there the previous year.

Doctors couldn’t tell exactly what the spot represented—it could be benign or it could be cancer; they needed more tests to be sure. Blood tests for the usual suspects, tuberculosis and histoplasmosis, were taken and came back negative. Attempts to reach the lesion with a bronchoscope were unsuccessful. Bench was informed that they would need a more invasive test to determine the diagnosis. The only other option was to just watch the lesion awhile and see if it changed. But if they waited and it turned out to be malignant, the waiting would throw away the only chance of cure.

In 1972 lung cancer was almost uniformly fatal. Immediately jumping to mind was the movie Brian’s Song which had debuted the previous year, making more tough he-men run for the kitchen to avoid public tears than anything since Old Yeller. Dying jocks were on the brain.

What Bench would need in order to diagnose the spot on his lung was a serious surgical procedure. The medical term thoracotomy was derived from old Greek which, loosely translated, means to have one’s chest filleted open like a mackerel. In 1972 technology the most-commonly used, traditional operation was a posterolateral thoracotomy in which the large muscles of the back, the latissimus dorsi, were completely cut through, often accompanied by the removal of a rib. It was, and remains, one of the most painful surgical incisions known, usually resulting in a slow agonizing recovery process. Cutting through and then sewing the muscles results in scar tissue which can restrict free arm movement. Playing baseball at a high level afterwards is an iffy prospect and could take as long as a year, or longer.

While digesting this information and what it might mean--for his career and his life--Bench silently bore the strain and went about his day job. He not only showed up for work, but performed brilliantly in the closing weeks of the season, hitting 11 home runs and 33 RBIs during the month of September as the Reds drove toward the pennant. Only closest family members and friends were told.

One of those let in on the secret, Bench's attorney and friend Reuven Katz, also happened to represent the surgical department of the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Katz made some discrete inquiries about thoracic surgery and came up with the name of Luis Gonzalez.

Luis Gonzalez, 45 years old in 1972, was a trim, dark-haired man with a warm smiling face and a good sense of humor. A war-time Marine before going to medical school, he had been on staff at the University of Cincinnati for a decade and was known not only as an excellent surgeon, but an innovator. Dr. Gonzalez had been an early proponent of a type of incision for these operations that avoided severing the latissimus dorsi and removing a rib.

Bench met with Dr. Gonzalez and a date was set for the surgery to take place in early December. A brief statement was released to the press informing them of the procedure before Bench entered the hospital, just days after his 25th birthday.

Suddenly Johnny Bench was the most famous hospital patient in the midwest. Cincinnati's two daily newspapers, along with those in nearby Dayton, would keep interested citizens informed of his progress with daily articles, in both the front page and sports page, for the next two weeks.

 Modern baseball fans, accustomed to players having a myriad of off-season surgical procedures and returning unscathed the next season, should realize that in 1972, the type of operation Bench underwent, although termed a muscle-sparing procedure, was still a harrowing experience.  The incision started just below his right nipple and arched under his armpit toward the back. A minor muscle, the serratus anterior, was severed to reach the chest wall.

Next, think of the meaty space between the ribs the last time you had a rack at your favorite barbecue joint. This muscle was cut through with a blade. The surgeon then reached for a sinister-looking torture device called a rib-spreader. The scariest aspect of the rib-spreader is that there is no attempt at deception--it does exactly what the name implies: it . . . spreads . . . ribs.

The metal ends are inserted between the ribs and the knob turned, gradually spreading, widening the ribs until adequate visualization of the contents of the chest is achieved. If done too forcefully, this could break ribs or dislocate them from their attachments. Also spreading the ribs stretches the nerve that runs just underneath, resulting in prolonged pain.

Once the biopsy was taken and bleeding controlled, the whole mess was closed with multiple layers of sutures, some in the muscles, some in the tissue beneath the skin and, last, the skin itself. Legend has it that the surgeon, a veteran of more than 15 years in the operating room, remarked that he had never seen a patient with such unusually developed musculature as Bench had in his back.

The operation took two hours and was a success. The lesion, which was slightly larger than a marble, was found in a fissure between the lower and upper lobes of the right lung and was completely removed along with a small amount of actual lung tissue. A frozen section pathology exam was done during the procedure and revealed no sign of cancer.

 The official diagnosis, confirmed with further tests in the lab, was coccidiodomycosis, a fungus which is ubiquitous in the southwest. Infection occurs by breathing in an airborne spore which then causes an inflammatory lesion in the lung. It was felt that Bench had probably contracted it in during a golf tournament in the southwest the preceding year.

The patient made a quick recovery. Two days after the operation, dressed in red pajamas and a pink robe, Johnny held a press conference in his hospital room. He proudly showed off the gnarly ten-inch scar and joked with reporters that he was taking interviews for pretty young nurses to look after him when he went home. He added that he hoped to be able to use the operation as an excuse in spring training. “If Sparky Anderson gets tough I can just say, ‘Hey, Sparky, I’ve got this lung, you know.’”

Bench spent a restless six weeks recovering. By early February, he was testing his baseball swing and playing golf. By spring training, he was ready. He would catch every game during the exhibition season, a marked increase to his normal spring work load.

Early, there were rumors that his famed right arm was not yet back to strength. In one of the first spring games, two successive Cardinal base runners tried him out and both would-be thieves were gunned down at second. By the time the season started, the rest of the league had regained their healthy respect for Bench's wing. While the 1973 Reds were stealing 148 bases, only 55 brave souls dared to attempt to take a base without permission against Bench. Half were thrown out.

Bench started slowly at the plate, but in early May he had put together a modest nine-game hitting streak when the Reds traveled to Philadelphia to face the Phillies and their ace Steve Carlton. Bench then treated the Hall of Fame-bound Carlton like a batting practice pitcher, slamming three home runs and seven RBIs in a 9-7 win—he was back. Oddly, it was the second time in three years Bench had victimized Lefty with a three-homer game.

To a casual observer, Bench seemed to bear little negative effect from the drama of the offseason. He would play in 152 games (134 as catcher) in 1973 and finish the season with 104 RBIs. He went on to play ten more years, retiring as the all-time leader in home runs and RBIs for a catcher and had more RBIs than any major league player for the decade of the 1970s.

But the operation did have a cost. While remaining a good RBI man, Bench was not the power-hitter he had been. In the three seasons before the operation, he had averaged 37 home runs a year. His best seasons afterwards were 33 home runs in 1974 and 31 in 1977. He later admitted that he was never quite the same player. “I never felt like I was Johnny Bench after that surgery.”

All things considered, it's remarkable he was able to perform as well as he did. And it's awe-inspiring to wonder what might have been, considering his first five seasons.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Say it Wasn't So: Joe Jackson, World War I's Most Famous Baseball Slacker

Here's one you may not have heard: how Shoeless Joe Jackson was briefly turned into America's most-scorned draft-dodger in World War 1. It's true, but as with all Shoeless Joe stories, some work is required to separate fact from myth. It also helps to read published reports from his contemporaries, to view everything in the context of the times and to be aware of other forces which were at work.

The War began in Europe in July, 1914 but had little effect on baseball in America the first few years. The 1916 season had been both successful on the field and profitable for the owners. Business was good. But things would soon be changing. The United States declared war on Germany just days before the start of the 1917 season.

Initially there was talk of shutting down baseball--a thought that mortified owners, who understandably did not want to lose their businesses. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was especially unhappy at the prospect. He had invested heavily to build his championship-caliber team (he spent his money on obtaining players, not necessarily on paying them). His star hitter, Joe Jackson, had been acquired from Cleveland in 1915 in a deal described as worth $74,000--$31,000 in cash and 3 players who had cost Comiskey $44,000--one of the most expensive deals of the time.

Outwardly eager to help the national cause, baseball owners made a great show of their patriotism. They donated cash and rounded up baseball equipment for soldiers to use in their spare time. Exhibition baseball games were played for the benefit of the Red Cross. Special enlistment booths were set up at American League parks. Players went through military marching drills in pre-game ceremonies. There was even a prize for the best drilling major league team.

The Chicago White Sox go through pregame military drills (Jackson is third from the right)

As the war turned into a second year, the owners agreed to abbreviate the 1918 schedule to 140 games. It soon became obvious that benefits and drills and shortened seasons were not going to be enough to keep baseball players out of the war, however. When the U.S. military leaders got their first real good look at the teeth of the German military machine, they murmured around their cigarettes, "We're gonna need a bigger army."

And thus in May, 1918 Provost Marshall General Enoch Crowder issued the famous "Work or Fight" order, stating that every healthy male between the ages of 21 and 30 must find "essential work" by July 1 or face military conscription.

The wording of the order was particularly chilling for baseball owners. It included a list of employment which was regarded as nonessential to the war effort:  "games, sports and amusements, excepting actual performers in legitimate concerts, operas or theatrical performances." Baseball owners were suddenly aware that they needed to round up some guys who could not only hit .300 and play the field, but do so while wearing a Viking helmet and belting out a rousing falsetto. But since such men were in short supply at the time (alas, they always seem to be), other arrangements needed to be made.

Initially owners tried to get special consideration for their able-bodied players. While the government in Washington indicated that they hoped the game would go on, if it could be accomplished "in harmony with the great purpose of putting winning the war first above everything," and Crowder released another statement within a week suggesting that ballplayers would be considered by draft boards on an individual basis, it became clear that a great many ballplayers would be leaving their teams. Overall, an average of 15 players would be lost per team in the 1918 season.

Which brings us to Shoeless Joe. In 1918 Joe was 30 years old and had completed seven major league seasons with a sparkling .352 lifetime batting average. He was considered to be the second best hitter in the land (some thought the best at purely swinging the stick as Ty Cobb usually bunted enough to get more than the five or so hits per 500 at bats that gave him the roughly ten point lead in average, whereas Joe bunted about as often as he read from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare).

In 1917 Joe had hit .301, the worst average of his career, but he had helped to lead the White Sox to the World Series title (he hit .304 in the Series, not bad, but not as good as the .375 he would hit in the more famous Series two years later).

As a great hitter and key member of the World Champs, Jackson was one of the game's most famous personalities. But he was also one of the most difficult for fans and writers to figure out. His very existence seemed to be an amalgam of assorted tall-tales, half-truths and outright lies. Joe himself did little to clear up the confusion when interviewed or spotted on the street.

In a 1916 profile for Baseball Magazine, one of the pre-eminent early baseball writers, F. C. Lane, wrote that "The oddest character in baseball today is that brilliant but eccentric genius, Joe Jackson. . .  To sum up his talents is merely to describe those qualities which should round out and complete the ideal player. In Jackson, nature combined the greatest gifts any one ball player has ever possessed but she denied him the heritage of early advantages and that well balanced judgement so essential to the full development of his extraordinary powers." And that lack of early advantages and well-balanced judgement would prove to be very important to Joe in the years to come.

By the spring of 1918 three of Joe Jackson's brothers had already volunteered for military service. Joe was the sole supporter of his wife, Katie, his mother, a younger brother and a sister. Because of this, the Greenville, South Carolina draft board had placed him in Class 4, making him safe from the draft.

Joe Jackson's draft card (those under the impression that Jackson was unable to write should note the fairly legible signature at the bottom)

After 17 games of the 1918 season, Joe was hitting .354. The White Sox were in Philadelphia for a series against the A's when Joe received a dispatch informing him that the Greenville draft board had reclassified him 1-A. He reported as ordered to the Philadelphia examining board, passed with a perfect mark and was told to expect orders to leave for an army training camp within the next two weeks.

When the White Sox departed for Cleveland the next day, Jackson was nowhere to be found. He soon turned up and announced that he had found a position of employment with the Harlan and Hollingsworth Shipbuilding Company, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, in Wilmington, Delaware. Work in the shipbuilding industry was considered essential and thus exempted Joe from military service.

The news did not play well in the national press. While many other players were avoiding combat by playing on ball teams in industry and the military, Joe Jackson, the most prominent of the early names, was singled out.

That week's Sporting News carried several editorials about the "Jackson Case," as it was roundly being called. Readers were informed that "at a time of every man doing his patriotic duty," Joe Jackson was "cleverly seeking exemption when by all rights . . . he should be in an Army or Navy training camp." Jackson "owed it to the great game he represents, to join the military and set an example to myriads of youngsters coming of age who hold him as an example."

In the same issue, American League President Ban Johnson "leveled a solar plexus wallop at the baseball slacker." Johnson, who hated Charles Comiskey's ample guts and loved nothing more than a chance to knife his enemy when he was vulnerable, to publicly humiliate him, derail his business and maybe cost him a player or two, announced a warning to players seeking to avoid conscription. He told the writer he would like to yank back by the collar those who entered employment with the ship construction business particularly. Johnson left little doubt this was specifically in response to Joe Jackson's status. Johnson would soon announce that hereafter athletes would have to stick with their clubs until the final Government call, and then go straight to war-service.

That was only the beginning. A scathing editorial soon followed in the Chicago Tribune entitled "The Case of Joe Jackson." Joe, a man of "unusual physical development," who "presumably would make an excellent fighting man," was excoriated and branded a coward and shirker.

Another article entitled "Retreats to Shipyard" stated "The fighting blood of the Jacksons is not as red as it used to be in the days of old Stonewall and Old Hickory for General Joe of the White Sox has fled to the refuge of a shipyard."

According to some sources Charles Comiskey had initially encouraged his players to try to find exemptions to remain playing for the White Sox as long as possible. Always careful of the winds of public opinion, however, he now pompously joined in the scorn of Jackson. Comiskey was shocked (shocked!) that one of his beloved employees would even think of trying to avoid military service in this time of national need. "There is no room on my club for players who wish to evade the army draft by entering the employ of shipbuilders," he told reporters from atop his soapbox. The great man was so disappointed, he threatened to not take the "jumpers" back after the war. Skeptics to Comiskey's pure intentions would later point out that while this posture kept him on the side of patriotism and duty, it also prepared him for future player negotiations, well aware that a man who thinks he is not welcomed back (and has no other employment options due to the reserve clause) is much more pliable at the contract table.

It soon became apparent that the thing that truly rankled Comiskey was not that Joe Jackson was shirking his duty to his country by not carrying a rifle, but that he was doing so while playing baseball for someone else; and doing so while Comiskey's team was certain to fall in the standings.

According to Baseball Magazine, "One disagreeable feature made itself manifest during May--what looked almost like a second Federal League, fostered and developed under the wing of the Government . . . a new league of steel, shipbuilding, and munition plants, with the players mostly well-known stars of the present or the past. There was a gasp of surprise when the list of players gathered by the steel plants was given out. . . It was frankly asserted [by major league owners] that agents of the steel plants were gathering big league stars, promising them fat salaries, nominal positions in the plants, with nothing to do but play ball, and at the same time pointing out that munition workers wouldn't have to go to the trenches. . . . The pot boiled over, though, when Joe Jackson, the great star of the White Sox, after being called by the draft, announced that he would enter a shipbuilding or steel-plant and the steel-folks began to bill him as a star of their ball club. . . . making money on the side."

In the same vein, the Sporting News asserted that "Jackson was not a volunteer in the ship building concern, but was sought out and went because he was importuned to do so."

Owners were outraged that fans (people who should be paying money to them!) were going to see baseball stars (who used to belong to them!) play for someone else.

Through it all, Joe uttered not a word of public comment or protest against the accusations. A solitary writer in the Sporting News offered some defense for Joe, stating that there was something unfair in the Greenville draft board decision. "I can't understand why Jackson was placed in Class One-A. There are many stars of the big leagues who are married and have many times the amount of wealth Joe possesses who are in Class Four." It appeared the Greenville decision was made to give a great show of not offering favoritism to a famous athlete or perhaps as the result of a personal grudge.

Despite the public outcry, work by the ballplayers at the shipyards continued throughout the war. How much work was done and how much baseball did the guys actually play? It's anyone's guess. For the record, they did play a lot of baseball. But a foreman at the ship yard told a reporter, "The boys in the yard all knew they [the ball players] were married men and hence not attempting to duck the draft and they warmed up with them right away when they observed that they meant business. . . and they weren't handed any soft jobs like watchmen . . . they do a good day's work." He added that they only went to the ball field at the close of the work day.

And much good came out of the ballplaying.  They played a series of exhibitions for the Red Cross. One at the Polo Grounds, with Joe as the headliner, raised $6,000. Joe's wife would keep in her scrapbook a letter from a Reading, Pennsylvania organization thanking him for drawing 10,000 fans to a benefit.

The tumult over Joe soon faded from the public's attention as much more pressing matters arose and attention turned to the actual fighting in Europe. As for 1918, it turned out pretty well, Joe Jackson was the star of the Steel League, hitting a robust .393. Harlan won the championship--Joe hit two home runs in the title game--and, oh yeah, we won the war, which is always nice.

So everyone was in good spirits and ready to get back to baseball business as usual for 1919. There was only the small matter of rounding up the players. When the 1918 season had ended early on September 1, the owners had released all players, saving around $200,000 they would have otherwise spent on those pesky salaries. Amazingly, the next spring every single player--technically all free agents--signed back with their original team for 1919 (66 years later this practice would be labeled collusion and would cost the owners millions in a court settlement, but at the time a players union was as inconceivable as another, larger World War ever occurring).

As an example of just how much the owners had baseball writers in their pockets, the said writers soiled themselves attempting to educate fans on all that the owners had done for their country and baseball in general. "[The baseball] fan, when it's all over and the game comes back to its former basis, should remember how the  . . . magnates acted in the hour of need." W. A. Phelon, wrote in Baseball Magazine. Not satisfied with mere praise, Phelon even suggested the public should give them a "Magnates' Day and a lot of floral tokens just to show that these gentlemen, after many years won the public heart at last?"

Early in 1919, Comiskey, that gentleman magnate, let it be known that Joe Jackson had been reinstated to his team. What with the war being won and all, opinions had changed and the big ol' lovable Roman was willing to let bygones be bygones--especially for guys who could hit .350 in their sleep and were willing to do so for a pittance. He signed Joe back for the same $6,000 a year he had been making since 1914.

Joe Jackson and his White Sox teammates quickly proved to be the best in baseball in 1919 as they stormed toward the pennant, and a date with infamy.

So all the ingredients were there: the avarice of owners, the unrelenting drive of organized baseball and writers, working side-by-side, to maintain the proper image at all costs, sacrificing a few players if necessary, the cut-throat rivalry between Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey, and then the players, plugging along on the field, unable to control their own destiny.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, the great misunderstood slugger from Greenville, South Carolina, whose legacy would be still provoking emotional debates a full century later, was, as so eloquently put by Mongo in Blazing Saddles, only a pawn in the game of life. Unfortunately for Joe, it wouldn't be the last time.