THE CONSCIENCE OF THE TRADE
In the crazy summer of 1947, the best reporting gig you could have was covering the Brooklyn Dodgers. Each game day you'd wake early, shake the sleep off your shoulders and wrestle first thing with the story tumbling in your mind. What was the angle that day? More troubles for Jackie Robinson? Was arch-racist Ben Chapman and his Phillies in town? Or perhaps there'd be a new twist in the Durocher saga? The choice was yours. After coffee you'd speed on down to the paper, get your things in order, then hop on the Brighton Line to Ebbets Field, pad in hand and prose in your heart. Being an hour or two early you could mosey on down to the field and walk amongst Robinson, Reese, the cold Dixie Walker, and maybe even Branch Rickey. Rachel Robinson would be in the stands, nervous as hell. After batting practice, while the team retreated to the dugout, you'd find yourself in the press box, cloudy from cigarette smoke, and there would be the immortal scribes: Dan Daniels of the New York World-Telegram. Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American. Jimmy Cannon of the Post.
And Lester Rodney, of the New York Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party. The man who, perhaps more than any other reporter, helped break the color barrier in baseball.
"Even the New York Times admitted that you would have to have read the Daily Worker or the Negro weeklies to get a real sense of what Robinson went through," Rodney says with pride. Any writer worth his press card covered the Dodgers that season, and most fans with any sense of history know who the principals are. But what few know is that, by 1947, Lester Rodney and the staff of the Daily Worker had waged a heated battle to integrate baseball for over ten years.
Unfortunately, the story of Lester Rodney has pretty much been purged from the history books with the precision of
well, of Josef Stalin. Read any number of the great books on the subjectfrom Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment to the insider tales from Red Barber and Robinson himself, to The Boys of Summerand you'll find only fleeting references, if any at all. Now Rodney's story has finally come to light in Irwin Silber's Press Box Red (Temple University Press, $19.95), a 220 page interview with the former reporter.
Lester Rodney didn't start out a Communist. In fact, his family were staunch Harding Republicans. "I remember when President Harding died," he recalled in the book. "We had a big black-bordered photo of Harding in our front window with the words 'We Mourn Our Loss Warren Gamaliel Harding' underneath. How many other people know how to spell Harding's middle name?" But his father lost everything in the crash of '29, and turned "into an old man overnight." They lost their house, and his mother had to take work as a milliner, while Rodney hustled for work as a lawyer's assistant and chauffeur. All the while he tried to scrape together any number of freelance writing jobs. Eventually, he began to take some evening classes at New York University. It was in college where, like Thomas Merton and thousands of other New York students before and after him, he first met the Communists. "I used to argue with them at first," he said in the book. "I think the stock market crash began to make me more open to radical ideas." Rodney started paying attention to the cause and read the Daily Worker regularly. He began to like what he read.
All except the sports page. At the time, the Daily Worker covered sports once a week, and the writing was heavy-handed. "[It] was kind of stilted, certainly as compared to the breezy style of the usual sports page. They couldn't really cover events. And when they did feature pieces and analysis they sometimes slipped back into the denouncing-the-system mode." Rodney wrote letters to the editor, complaining. "I made one mistake," he admitted. "I put my return address on the envelope."
The editor of the Worker, Clarence Hathaway, invited Rodney in. Hathaway, Rodney remembered, was a "hard-drinking guy
who once broke a chair over a Socialist's head in Madison Square Garden." This tough took a liking to Rodney. Although he didn't intend to sell himself, Rodney made it clear that the sports section had to be lighter in tone and less dogmatic. "They needed to see the fun side of sports and the beauty, too. What's more beautiful than a 6-4-3 double play?" Hathaway agreed, and Rodney began to write for the sports section. Readers adored his style, and Hathaway, fighting criticism from the party muckity-mucks, polled his readers as to whether or not they wanted a daily sports section. By a 6-1 margin, the vote was overwhelming in favor of daily coverage. To Rodney's surprise, Hathaway hired him to be the managing editor. The sports page was his.
Rodney threw himself into his work. He first gained attention with a scathing attack on Walter Briggs, the Detroit Tigers owner, for the firing of Mickey Cochrane. Cochrane had taken the Tigers to two pennants in '34 & '35, then suffered a nervous breakdown in '36, and in '37 was almost killed by a pitch to the head. Mickey retired from playing to concentrate on managing, and was fired toward the end of a rebuilding year, tossed aside like an old jalopy. Rodney wrote a furious article denouncing Briggs, which garnered the attention of syndicated columnist Heywood Broun, who poked fun at it (essentially for being in the Worker), but agreeing with Rodney that Cochrane's firing was unsound. From then on, he was a fixture in the press box. Surprisingly, Rodney got little grief from the rest of the sportswriters, usually just a cold shoulder or being poked fun at in the sports pages. But mostly there was mutual respect.
"The word 'Communist', like the word 'Negro', is an abstraction," Rodney explains. "And when they see that I'm a professional doing my jobthey read my work, every newspaper had it on its desk each morningand doing it well, that abstraction wore off."
As time went on, it became clear that Lester Rodney and the Daily Worker were not going to be content to simply report the sports news of the day. He and his staff were uncomfortable with the current climate in baseball, and he turned his sights on larger issues. Perhaps most importantly, Rodney and the Daily Worker sought to end the color barrier.
Beginning on August 13, 1936, the Worker struck. The headlines were wonderfully sordid: "THE CRIME OF THE BIG LEAGUES! Beginning next Sunday, The Worker will rip the veil from the "Crime of the Big Leagues"mentioning names, giving facts, sparing none of the most sacred figures in baseball officialdom."
And so they did. It is easy, in retrospect, to say that we would have fought for integration. Today this is a no-brainer: only a Klansman would keep someone out of baseball because of their race. But at the time, sportswritersmost of whom were good men, ethically sounddid little or nothing to change this corrupt system. Some, though by no means all, of the African-American newspapers fought for integration. But Rodney and the Worker took it a step further.
For the most partand especially among the white pressthey stood alone. When Joe DiMaggio admitted in 1937 that Satchel Paige was the toughest pitcher he ever faced, the Worker was the only paper to print it. In fact, no white newspaper had ever challenged anyone from Major League Baseball about the ban. Sending reporter Ted Benson to speak with then National League President Ford Frick, the Worker was able to nail down an official statementfor the first timeregarding the league's policy toward blacks. Frick, taken aback at Benson's direct questioning, said "there's no rule" barring blacks. Later, at a press conference, he announced that a player "must have unique ability and good character and habits," and that "I do not recall one instance where baseball has allow race, creed or color to enter into its selection of players."
This was a pivotal moment, for it was finally out in the open: no rule, so why no blacks? Rodney was quick to strike. "We never had what you might call a plan for the campaign," Rodney said. "But a strategy did evolve." First, as he put it, the Worker sought to "raise hell" about segregation, just to get it into the public's mind. Unlike today, most Americans had no clue that baseball was segregated, that good baseball players were being denied tryouts simply because they were black. Second, the Worker wanted to promote these great black players. Most fans didn't realize there were great players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, etc. Third, they interviewed players and managers to prove that the men on the field would, in fact, play alongside blacks. Fourth, the Worker questioned the executives to find out why they weren't hiring blacks, to put them on the spot. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they sought to get the public involved.
Armed with the organizational skills of the Communist Party, the Worker staged protests, gathering hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of union men and women to picket outside of the New York stadiums. They collected millions signatures on thousands of petitions and dumped them in the Commissioner's office. Questioning the managers and players, they found what we all know todaythat aside from a few stubborn racists, baseball was ready for blacks. They ran articles touting Satchel Paige, including one in which Paige challenged the New York Yankeesthat year's world championto a game against Negro all-stars. If his team didn't win, they wouldn't take a dime. Needless to say, the challenge was not accepted.
Rodney worked in conjunction with a number of the African-American papers. "The Daily Worker never wanted the race issue to be an exclusive," he says. "We simply wanted to end the damn ban. It was a disgrace." In 1939, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier (an African-American weekly) published a series of interviews with every major league manager but one (Bill Terry of the Giants). To a man, they all agreed that the Negro League players were good enough, although they worried that white players and fans weren't ready. The Worker reprinted every article in that series, and offered to share their own (which the conservative Courier never accepted).
With the advent of World War II, the Worker really turned on the heat, especially against Commissioner Landis. Articles with headlines such as "Can You Hear, Judge Landis?" made the sports page nearly every day. They caught Leo Durocher, who said he'd "sign them [blacks] in a minute if I got permission from the big shots." Of course, Rodney and the Worker were attacked by both baseball and the mainstream press, in part because of their cause, but also simply for being Communist. The Sporting News suggested that the Worker, was trying to "grab the limelight". They were called carpetbaggers. The owners, for their part, claimed that they were trying to destroy the Negro Leagues, where blacks were 'protected". But the Worker pressed on, undaunted.
Judge Landis died in 1944. One year later, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. Rodney, now in the Army and stationed in the Pacific, received a telegram informing him of the news. Almost immediately their efforts were forgotten, expunged from the public memory. "I was stunned and elated at the same time," he said. "But it was also frustrating. How do you express your feelings to someone not just about Jackie Robinson, but the role of the Daily Worker and the Communist Party in the whole thing, when they're totally unprepared to think of you that way?" Branch Rickey hated the Communists, and refused to acknowledge their work. Even Wendell Smith, who eventually worked for Rickey, stated that "the Communists did more to delay the entrance of Negroes in big league baseball than any other single factor", an overstatement even for the time. Rodney and the Daily Worker did nothing to promote themselves in this matter.
But some, Rodney notes, privately acknowledged their contribution. "Look at Dick Young, staunch anti-Communist. He came to me in the press box, before opening day in '47, and said, 'You know, Rodney, I gotta give you credit. You had something to do with this.'" And Rodney acknowledges that the level of influence his paper, and the Communist Party, had is open to debate. "True, if there had never been a Communist in the United States, there would have been integration. However, we were a catalytic agent. We and what was called our "fellow travelers", people who came with us and agreed with us, but never joined the party.
"I believe, though, that Jackie Robinson would never have played baseball in 1947 if there hadn't been an organized campaign to stop the racial ban."
Rodney still keeps an eye on baseball, still has his opinions. He believes Pete Rose should be in the Hall, but banned from baseball. He is pleased that the sportswriters today are more critical. "I always think they should be tougher on the moguls," he says, laughing. "But you'll read outright criticism of Steinbrenner that they didn't used to do before."
Like many people, he broke from the Communist party long ago. But he isn't ashamed of his past. "You know, we were Americans. We weren't an adjunct of the Soviet Union. So when the first country in the worldRussiaproclaimed itself socialist, people over profits, we were starry eyed. We rooted for them to make it work. And we indulged in a lot of 'do-it yourself' brainwashing, refusing to recognize the reality until it was hurled in our face. But," he's quick to add, "that doesn't mean that the Daily Worker wasn't legitimate. The Worker was the only paper that tackled the racist subject head-on. We helped to put health-care and unemployment benefits on the national agenda. There were a lot of positives to go with the big negative."
It is troubling to think that if Lester Rodney had not been a Communist, if he had written for any other New York paper, his story would have resulted in biographies, articles, and numerous chapters and references in every account of this incredible time. Instead, he's virtually unknown. Unfortunately, many historians saw only the Red, and thought of Rodney and the Worker as mere propaganda tools. Funny thing is, if you were to read these articles, as we have, you find virtually no references to Communism, or the poor workers, or the lumpen proletariat, the bourgeoisie, any of the old clichés. In fact, there's nothing like that at all. Just hard hitting questions that everyone should have been asking, but weren't.
"You know, every once in awhile I'd have a writer come over to me and say, 'I don't like anything that your paper stands for, but here's a little item I can't get into print, and I'd sure like to see it in print.' The sportswriters were not racist guys, but they knew it was a subject their paper wouldn't go for. And I'd get a little expose of wrongdoing, some racism in the front office, and I'd get credit for running it. In that way," Lester Rodney says, these forty some years later, "we were almost like the conscience of the trade."
It was a sad day when Warren Spahn died. We know many of his statistics, know that friendly face, might even have a baseball card or two laying around. If you had a friend who'd also admired him, you could sit around these cold winter nights, discussing the merits of having Spahn on a fantasy historical team. You could try to best one another on some remote piece of trivia, such as how many years the old boy led the league in innings pitched, or complete games. And if your memory failed, you could, as Thurber said, look it up.
Had you lived in Memphis, Tennessee, in early 1938, you could have taken in one of the many games of the champion Negro League Memphis Red Sox. Imagine an old wood and concrete stadium, a place that served chitterlings as snacks with the rest of the standard fare. You'd see a contest betwixt the Sox and the Monarchs, two teams fighting for the pennant. Undoubtedly there was some kid, a baseball-loving urchin who lived for the Sox, who stole into nearly every game. They didn't have bubblegum cards, he didn't see the players' names in The Sporting News, or even the local Memphis papers. But every team has its fans, and every player has his followers. No doubt there was some kid whose favorite ballplayer was journeyman left fielder Bubba Hyde.
Cowan F. Hyde, Bubba as he was known, passed away Thursday, November 20, at the age of 95. Virtually every newspaper and internet service used the Associated Press wire on his obituary. They didn't even bother to print his full name.
Had anyone forgot how brutal the color barrier was to thousands of innocent people, they need only look to the story of Bubba Hyde for a reminder. Sometimes it's easy to forget that life in the Negro Leagues isn't all tales like Buck O'Neil, captured by Ken Burns and various biographies (and not to take anything away from that kind man). No, you also have gentlemen like Bubba Hyde, a twenty-three year veteran of the Negro Leagues, who, again according to AP, was fast on his feet and delivered Meals-On-Wheels up into his nineties. Why, he once beat a horse in a race around the diamond.
When an obscure major league ballplayer dies, baseball fans have a unique ability to crack open one of the many tomes that house that players career, captured in the statistics. Now and then, the folks at SABR toss together lengthy articles, containing the numbers and algorithms that prove that such-and-such obscure player actually was one of the more underrated ballplayers of all-time. Not so with the Negro Leagues. Consider Bubba Hyde. According to James A. Riley's great Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Mr. Hyde was a great leadoff hitter, a favorite of manager "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and a player that hit .313 in '42, then had a string of decent years from '44-'46. A good outfielder, Bubba was also a utilityman, who would jump to second base when the need arose. From Memphis to Indianapolis to stints in the Mexican League, Bubba Hyde was a journeyman, which is part of what has damned him to obscurity. This isn't to say that Mr. Hyde would have been a lock on a big league career without the color bar in place; he might have been a career minor leaguer like many more thousands of players today (which would also send him tumbling into obscurity). We'll never know. Could he have been the best left-fielder in 1939? Could he have been an all-star one year in the bigs? Could an argument have been made that he was the best leadoff hitter the month of August has ever known?
Racism kept him out of baseball then. And it keeps him out of these arguments today
Bubba's stats are so vague that this man who's given a complete entry in Riley's book, has no mention in John Holway's Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues, also a valuable reference work. Seeing a picture of him, he almost has that same irascibility that Roger Maris brought to the Yankees. But there's no way of knowing his personality, and no way of knowing how decent a player. More importantly, we can't even dawdle over his statistics, the numbers that help trigger the imagination.
So Cowan F. Hyde will have toiled in relative obscurity. Maybe that's not so bad. For instead littering a crowded landscape with autographed balls, plaques and brand-name jerseys, his was a life that passes quietly into the darkness, with only a few persons left to carry to carry his name.
THE TONIC THE SPORT NEEDED
by Jeff Kallman
"We should have an essence of urgency and pride to not want to be that team," said Detroit Tigers catcher A.J. Hinch, following an August 22nd loss to the Anaheim Angels. "I certainly don't want to be the answer to a trivia question, and I hope nobody here does. You should at this level have a lot of pride and understanding of history. If we lose 119, that's better."
Now, where had I seen it phrased in quite that fashion before, or close enough thereto? The answer: I had seen it phrased from the owner of "That Team", speaking to Jimmy Breslin, then of the New York Herald-Tribune,, who had covered "That Team" as their birth season transpired and was now composing a book as if to prove he, too, had survived the experience. "Nothing went right, did it? Well, let's hope it's better this year," said Joan Payson, the original owner of the Original Mets, before the 1963 season, from the parlor section of her private railroad car. "I simply cannot stand 120 losses this year. If we can't get anything, we are going to cut those losses down.
"At least to 119."
A.J. Hinch, of course, had his worry for nothing. The 2003 Detroit Tigers could not have become the 1962 New York Mets if they had lost every one of their 162 scheduled games. (As it happened, the 2003 Tigers lost exactly 119 games.) Many had fun with the idea of the hapless Tigers tying the Original Mets' single-season loss record. Any idea that these Tigers could equal those Mets was about as realistic as the idea that a Piper Cub could beat a Boeing 777 on a flight from New York to London. These Tigers merely sucked. The Original Mets sucked
Try to imagine a baseball team managed by Cosmo Kramer and coached by Charles Chaplin, Ernie Kovacs, Rod Serling, and Charles Addams. Think of Bud Abbott on the mound and Lou Costello behind the dish, the Marx Brothers covering the infield, the Three Stooges patrolling the outfield, and the Keystone Kops on the bench. If that sounded like the 2003 Tigers to you, you need to read Mr. Breslin's little book, Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? (introduction by Bill Veeck. Ivan R. Dee, 124 pages, $12.95 paperback.), a book too long out of print until earlier this year, telling the surrealistic odyssey of the Original Mets with style to burn.
The Tigers were outclassed by Those Mets. Not even in moments where the Tigers might have resembled even one Original Met would you have heard Alan Trammell say he had been in this game a hundred years but seen new ways to lose he never knew existed yet. Not even on the sad night when the Tigers actually did accomplish something the Original Mets had not done, losing a game 14-8 IN extra innings. The trouble is, the Original Mets never played an extra-innings game. Not one.
In a sense, the Tigers had another point against their favor. They weren't freshly created from the flotsam and jetsam of the league in an inside-out bid to re-enfranchise an awful lot of fans, who felt badly left in the proverbial lurch (and would sooner have elected a Communist as President of the United States than made of themselves Yankee fans) when two beloved old teams (several of whose former players ended up, God have mercy, as Original Mets) left town for points West.
And the Tigers were not constructed initially in an expansion draft that seems to have been designed with calculated deliberation to fleece the living brains out of the incoming ownership of both the New York and the Houston franchises. "(I)t really was robbery in the daytime," Mr. Breslin wrote. "It meant that every National League club could look over the roster, select players they were going to release for nothing or send back to the minors anyway, and place them on the list of players available to the two new teams. For exorbitant prices, of course
They were mostly old guys who, in a week or so, would be around with free agents' papers in hand, looking to catch on with some club in a utility role. But here, under this great scheme, was a way to get money for them. Big money. And at the same time it could be made certain that Houston and the Mets would be in the second division for years to come."
The Tigers defied nothing though they had something enough to defy. Sit back and read the following passage from Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? and tell me that you couldn't be reading some sportswriter's or editorialist's lament written maybe two weeks ago:
"You see, in the last fifteen years, baseball has needed help
it has become so commercialized, and the people in it loaded with so many gimmicks, that it all reminds you of the front window of a cheap department store
And, in the playing of the game itself, baseball acts as if we are still in a depression and nobody has any place to go. With nominal maneuvering, a major league manager can halt a game for ten minutes while changing pitchers. Baseball still thinks this is 1934. Only this is 1963 and people are working and have money and move around and spend it. The entire character of leisure time has changed drastically
everything has changed with it except baseball, and that is baseball's trouble right now."
Not even Mitch Albom could write about this year's Tigers the way Mr. Breslin followed that up about the Original Mets: "But last season, the New York Mets came to the rescue. Dressed in their striped uniforms, with blue lettering and orange piping, they put fun into life. It was hell to play for them, but for anybody who watched them it was great
The Mets tried to play baseball, and the players trying to do it were serious. But the whole thing came out as great comedy, and it was the tonic the sport needed. People did not follow the Mets. They loved the Mets."
And, they have remembered them. In no small measure thanks to Mr. Breslin's book, but in no small measure thanks to the calamities of the Mets themselves. They have remembered Don Zimmer making the first official in-season defensive play of the Mets. He fielded a ground ball cleanly, in the first inning of their first game, and threw it ten feet above first baseman Gil Hodges's head. He also opened the season in such a hitting slump that, when he finally got a base hit, he was traded post haste to the Cincinnati Redsbecause, wagged the wags, the Mets wanted to get value for him while he was hot.
They have remembered Elio Chacon, the hot dog shortstop, whose greatest talent was his ability to amble back for short pops to shallow left and plow into oncoming outfielders, causing such balls to fall in for base hits.
And they have remembered, especially, the most Metsian of the Original Mets. What the like of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Barry Bonds have done for the winners, pacesetters, and heroes, the most Metsian of the Original Mets did for the losers and anti-heroes. Marvelous Marv. Mr. Breslin, of course, has phrased it even more memorably. "Marvelous Marv," wrote he, "was holding down first base. This is like saying Willie Sutton works at your bank."
He was likewise at the plate, and it only began with the afternoon he whacked what looked like a two-RBI triple deep to the right field corner, ran to third as if he had a tax examiner on his trail, and ended up being called out at first. Ernie Banks called for the ball, stepped on the bag, and reminded the umpire that Marvelous Marv hadn't come to within two feet either way of touching the base. The umpire punched a hole in the sky with his thumb. Casey Stengel rumbled up out of the dugout, bent on punching a hole in the Polo Grounds' center field clubhouse with the umpire flying off his fist, until first base coach Cookie Lavagetto stopped him.
"Forget it, Case," counseled Cookie. "He didn't touch second, either."
My sole regret upon the republication of this book is that Mr. Breslin could not bring himself to include the quintessential example of how, even when he did it right, Marvelous Marv could not do it without some kind of inside-out punctuation.
Doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates, game two, the Polo Grounds. The Mets had dropped the first game and had begun the second game in typically atypical fashion: third base coach Solly Hemus had gotten himself thrown out over a beef with an umpire. Stengel moved Cookie Lavagetto across to coach third and sent out veteran outfielder Gene Woodling, his old Yankee jack-of-all-trades, to coach at first. Needing Woodling to pinch-hit midway through, Stengel needed another first base coach. With a little needle from Richie Ashburn, Stengel pointed to Throneberry.
The mere moment he poked his nose out of the hole to make for the first base coaching line, the Polo Grounds crowd hit him with a scream soon enough to be a trademark of concerts by the Beatles.
Then came the ninth inning. Elroy Face, the should-be Hall of Fame relief pitcher for the Pirates, had come on to pitch. Once again proving they were the unchallenged masters of script defiance, the Mets pushed in two runs and had two men on when the crowd switched their chant from the anti-martial "Let's Go, Mets!" to "We Want Marvelous!" Stengel obliged, calling the big fellow back from the coaching line and telling him to grab a bat. All Marvelous Marv did was hammer a Face forkball over the right field fence and the Mets had the game, 5-4.
The Polo Grounds crowd went nuclear. They stayed that way until Marvelous Marv agreed to step forth from that center field clubhouse and give his adoring fans a curtain call.
He had nothing on but his underwear and his uniform stirrups.
"They are without a doubt," said Bill Veeck to Mr. Breslin, even before Veeck agreed to introduce Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"the worst team in the history of baseball. I speak with authority. I had the St. Louis Browns. I also speak with longing. I'd love to spend the rest of the summer around the team. If you couldn't have fun with the Mets, you couldn't have fun anyplace."
But you can have fun with the Mets all over again, by way of this charming, rhythmic book. And, you can lament that for only too many reasons, all of which Mr. Breslin either enunciates outright or leaves vivid between his lines, this was probably a baseball team that could and did happen but once.
As the cold weather descends upon those of us fortunate to live in these northern climes (and we are fortunate), the winter is a wonderful time of year to curl up inside and read a good book. This is the time of year that one becomes that much more intellectual, when the axis of the eye turns inward, to reflect less upon the world outside and more on the inner reaches of what life, and in this case, baseball, means to us.
This having been said, the winter is also a time when we at Mudville like to turn to the books of old, to visit some of the great titles of the past, as opposed to the ones being published today. Besides, it's time for all of us to leave the giant chain bookstores behind, and travel to some of our local used book shoppes, or, even better, a public library. For there really isn't much in the way of adventure when you wander into your local Behemoth & Leviathan Books, down in the mall. It's really not so bold to stand in the "Sports" section for ten minutes and browsing among the limited selection, choosing between Moneyball and the other bestsellers. Friends, choices are being made for youthey are being made by publishers and the honchos at the big stores. There's no conspiracy afoot: these guys are in business to make money, and the baseball books there have been given the support of their publishers or are icons, such as David Halberstam.
Not so in a used bookstore. And not so in a library. Sure, the grouchy fellows that staff most of our Twin Cities bookstores are certainly making choices, but they're at least fascinating ones. And the Public Library, well, if you live anywhere else in the country (where they don't hide books that are over ten years old), then you can browse through a history of weird titles, with odd subjects. You get to look over well-worn books, get to actually discover titles you never would have thought existed.
Some of which we'll discuss here. If there's one genre that really reflects the sport, warts and all, it's the biography. Thankfully, Jim Bouton's Ball Four cracked open this genre, so that now we have books that manage to make players come off as real human beings, who struggle and suffer, and not just square, comic book superheroes.
Like movies, most of these books were at their best in the turbulent 1970s. For whatever reason, contemporary poets seemed to get in on the biz then, and two of them, Donald Hall and Tom Clark (who used to edit The Paris Review), were the men behind two of the more kooky books on fabled pitchers of that era: Dock Ellis of the Pirates and Yankees, and our fave, Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers.
There aren't many pitchers around today that match Dock Ellis. Ellis was known for many things, not the least of which was his revelation that he had dropped LSD before pitching a no-hitter with the Pittsburgh Pirates (and which trumps David Wells claim that he was merely hung over while hurling a perfect game). Then there was Ellis' decision to rile up a placid Pirates team by hitting three batters in a row. The Pirates, he felt, had become too complacent to the mighty Cincinnati Reds, so in an early May game, he plunked Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, then Dan Dreissen. Then, with the bases loaded, he tried to hit Tony Perez, but ended up walking him, sending a run across. Failing to hit Perez, he tried to clobber Johnny Bench, before he was removed.
Needless to say, no one would ever do that today.
Donald Hall's Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1976) captures Mr. Ellis' insane life, but it does so in with the urban flair of the 70s, and isn't afraid of being gritty. You can buy it today, with a soft, nostalgic cover, a ruminating Dock staring off at a distant stadium, bearing a resemblance to Wyeth's Christina's World. Or, you can head to the used bookstore and buy the one with the cover we prefer (at left). There's some candid discussions of race, and Donald Hall, who's own nostalgic style sometimes gets a bit goofy, is nonetheless the right guy for the job here. If only to get an idea of what ballplayers were thinking back in the day (and it wasn't all fun and games), Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball is a fine and fascinating read.
Of course, the '76 Detroit Tigers were, in our book, one of the most colorful teams in history and Mark Fidrych was its focal point. Mr. Fidrych had a pair of biographies, one of which, Go Bird Go! is just plain awful (and whose title makes it sound like a Dr. Seuss easy reader). Unfortunately, No Big Deal (Lippincott, 1977), sort of the definitive biography, isn't much better, having been "written" by so-called poet Tom Clark. "Written" because it's a 250 page interview, trying desperately to capture the essence of this free spirit. Containing perhaps four thousand "Y'know's", it meanders all over the place. Still, when reading one conjures up images of these two, sitting around the patio of a Florida hotel, smoking dope and drinking beer, while Robert Altman films the whole works for a baseball epic on par with "Nashville". They talk ball, they talk about doing dishes, they talk girls:
TOM: Doesn't it sort of rip off your energy to try to deal with everybody that calls you up?
MARK: Yeah. I mean, like that'sThat's when it really started, y'know? And like I couldn't really believe it was gonna happen like this. 'Cause they told me it was gonna happen. They said, you just watch.
T. Did you ever try to deal with everybody who calls you up?
M. Yeah. If I don't have something, I would. But then if you saw it and you don't like it, you go, pfft, see you later. But still, it got to the point where it was wow, y'know? Here I am, y'know, my roommate and Itwo chicks come up, one chick gets sick and the other just takes on both of us! And we're sittin' there goin', whoa. I'm lookin' at him, y'know, and he's lookin' at me, and we're goin' yeahh! Like, we called her baby-oil lady, because she liked baby oil. Y'know? I'm just sittin' there, whoa! Y'know? I'm trippin' out at this?
T. Where was this?
M. This was Baltimore! And like the chick goesI go like this, I go, Do you like this? She goes, yeah, I like it. And I said, whoa!
[sic]. The italics are theirs.
Believe us, that scene transcends context. And yet, there's something intriguing to reading this book, even if it does fall into the "that's typing, not writing" category. For who wouldn't have loved to have been able to have been the fly on the wall at a similarly weird conversation, say, with Grover Cleveland Alexander in the swingin' 30s?
Where Tom Clark deserves his obscurity, Ed Linn, possibly the greatest sports "collaborator", does not deserve his. By now readers are well aware of our fanatical love of Bill Veeck, which began with all three Veeck/Linn books (Veeck As In Wreck, The Hustler's Handbook, Thirty Tons A Day). But Linn had a larger hit in smoothing out Leo Durocher's words in Nice Guys Finish Last (Simon and Schuster, 1975).
This is one hell of a good read. It's a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure, covering baseball from the 30s to the 70s, taking the reader onto the diamond, into fights, and upstairs to the Commissioner's office to name but a few places. You get to see Judge Landis ("They got him right out of Dickens. He'd be waiting for you in an old torn sweater, pipe in his mouth, his mane of gray hair all awry and the back of his hands blotched with age."), the 'Hamfat Politician' Happy Chandler, and ice-cold Bowie Kuhn. There's Rickey, Robinson, McPhail, Dizzy Dean, and a cast of thousands. You even get to watch him make fun of arch-nemesis Fatty Fothergill:
"Just as our pitcher, Henry Johnson, was getting the sign, I hollered 'Time!' and went racing in toward the plate as if I were absolutely furious about something. When I got within ten feet of the plate, I yelled just as loudly as I could, 'There's a man here hitting out of turn!'
"The umpire pulled out his lineup card, studied it carefully and shouted back, 'What's the matter with you? Fothergill is the hitter.'
"'Fothergill?" I said, squinting. "Ohhhhh, that's different. It's only Fothergill. From where I was standing, it looked like there were two men up there.'"
And so, "blind with rage", Mr. Fothergill struck out to end the inning, stranding two.
That's just one of dozens of stories in Nice Guys Finish Last. Hell, Durocher played or managed some of the most riotous teams in history: the '28 World Champion Yanks, the Gas House Gang Cardinals, the Dodgers of Robinson's time, the Giants when they hit "the Shot Heard 'Round the World" in '51 and when they upended the Indians in '54. He led the Cubs to their choking in '69. You look at book like the Fidrych piece, and although it tries to capture the mood, poor writing (and poorer editing) take you away from the time and make you focus on the 'y'know's'. Because Ed Linn knows what he's doing, when you grab Nice Guys Finish Last, grab it with both hands, as you would the edge of a bar you were about to tumble from. This is a tavern read, a book that speaks loudly, with whiskey on its breath, it's shoulders aching from an afternoon on the diamond and an evening rolling the dice.
Jim Bouton hit the bookshelves again this year with the poignant Foul Ball. If you were to go by the computers at your major bookstore, you'd think Jim wrote but two books: Ball Four and Foul Ball. But Bouton's had a number of other titles, long since gone out of print, including a novel, Strike Zone, with Eliot Asinof; the original sequel to Ball Four, the hilarious I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally ; and "I Managed Good But Boy Did They Play Bad" (Playboy Press, 1973). Managed is a collection of pieces about the helmsmen of the ball clubs, and it's a cracking good read, taking pieces from lengthier books to ruminate on Casey Stengel, Dick Williams, and Bouton's favorite, Jim Schultz. It also includes little jokes, like the photo here, whose caption reads "This picture has nothing to do with this book. It has to do with Paul Whiteman, Babe Ruth, and John Philip Sousa. Just thought you might like to look at it."
We did, thank you very much.
The bottom line of this lengthy essay is to get you out of the mall and off Amazon.com and do some searching. Baseball, like most subjects, is complex, and full of strange little paths and vistas. Why stick with reading crap like Ten Rings, Yogi Berra's awful (and self-loathing) leftovers? Most of us love baseball history, so why rely simply on academic tomes? Get out and dig for the great books of the past, written when the news was fresh. Wrap it up, stick it under the tree or the by the menorah, and hope the recipient appreciates a good used book as much as you do. A baseball season's an adventure; your post-season reading should be one, too.