by J. Frank Llewellyn
I was just a little fellow when I attended my first baseball game—Philadelphia Athletics vs. St. Louis Browns, June 3, 1907. This was a long time ago, back in the early days of this century, back when gentlemen wore top hats and a steak dinner cost a quarter, and baseball was played in the sunshine, on real grass, by great athletes who were bigger than life. Unfortunately, I saw very little of that first game—because everyone was wearing a top hat! But, that's baseball for you.
People ask me if Ty Cobb was as mean as they say. Did he really sharpen his spikes? Did he really yell filthy, racial epithets at his opponents? Did he really tar and feather a taunting fan after a game? Well, the first two may have been true, but that last one—hell, that's the first I've ever heard of it.
Cobb was tough, but not near as tough as Clyde Garver, a huge and intimidating right-handed hurler for the Washington Senators. The Senators were blessed with having (for my money) the greatest pitcher and hardest thrower in the game in Walter Johnson, so when Garver, a far bigger man, took the mound for the first time, the anticipation in the stands was predictable: this guy must really be able to "bring" it. But Garver, on the contrary, was a "cutie"—lots of junk, changeups, flutterballs, "ephus" pitches and so on. I think the big guy could have hit you smack on the nose and you'd never feel it. Because of his powder puff style, Garver upset the fans' expectations. They grew surly and some of them stormed the field and challenged Garver, who obliged by beating up every last one of them—about forty in all, mostly men. An angry Clark Griffith fined Garver ten dollars for every fan he beat up. You do the math. Ouch.
Odd, unpredictable things happen in baseball. Take the incident known as "Finnegan's Phantom Fling."
In the heat of a tight pennant race, the Pirates were leading the Giants by a run in the bottom of the ninth at the old Polo Grounds. With two out and the bases loaded, pinch-hitter Heinie Grimm, a seldom-used Giants catcher, surprised everyone by belting a long drive to the deepest part of center field. Pittsburgh outfielder George Finnegan almost made a spectacular catch, but he ran smack into a crowd of fans that had poured onto the field thinking the game was over. A young Giants rooter snatched the ball up and threw it as far as he could. The kid unintentionally threw a strike to first base, beating the lead-footed Grimm by a step. The umpires, believing Finnegan had thrown the ball, called Grimm out and the game over.
Later, the Giants lodged a protest and the league, on the last day of the season, ruled that, due to fan interference, Grimm could not be called out, the ball was still in play, and Grimm, who had since been traded to Cincinnati, must touch first base at the Polo Grounds in New York in order for the winning run to score. The Giants, tied with Pittsburgh in the standings, naturally were anxious to find Grimm and bring him back to New York. The Pirates, on the other hand, were just as anxious to find the ball and tag Grimm out. What followed was as crazy as the play itself.
Frank Lawrence, a private detective hired by the Giants to find Grimm, found him in Chicago, in a speakeasy, three sheets to the wind. Unknown to Lawrence, Grimm's drinking partner was Nat Olander, a private detective hired by the Cincinnati ball club to detain Grimm and keep him as far from New York as possible. When Olander offered to help Lawrence bring Grimm back to the Polo Grounds, Lawrence naively accepted, and the three of them boarded the next 20th Century Limited—headed west!
As fate would have it, also riding on that train was none other than Al Capone, who, upon learning of Grimm's presence, summoned him to his private car and asked him if he would fix the World Series for him. Grimm said yes, he would, the only problem being he was no longer a member of the Giants—and the Giants couldn't win the pennant unless he, Grimm, touched first base at the Polo Grounds back in New York. Capone, never one to be daunted by such obstacles, ordered the train turned around—and they headed for New York.
Meanwhile, the actual ball from that game had found its way into the hands of flashy Broadway press agent Pete Maxie. Maxie had purchased the ball from Shem Massey, the Giants' batboy, for three hundred dollars, an enormous sum at the time, especially since just about anyone could claim to have the ball—but Maxie had a plan. He assembled a group of fifty beautiful chorus girls, all of them appearing in a big stage show he was promoting, and brought them up to the Polo Grounds where, with New York Mayor James J. Walker and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis looking on, Maxie threw "the ball" to first base, just a little too late to beat a dead ringer for Heinie Grimm, who was then called safe, and the Giants were officially declared the National League pennant winners.
And then, to everyone's surprise, in strode the real Heinie Grimm, accompanied by Capone and a collection of his top henchmen. Grimm, upset that he was cut out of the publicity and money attendant with such a stunt, demanded to see Pete Maxie, but, when the two were introduced, Grimm inadvertently was tagged by "the ball," Commissioner Landis saw it, quickly verified the real Grimm's identity, called him out, and awarded the pennant to the Pirates. A furious Capone, who'd already wagered a fortune on the Giants to win the pennant (and lose the Series), ordered his boys to "take care of" Grimm. They misunderstood, putting Grimm up at a fine hotel, all expenses paid. Later, when he got word of the mistake, Capone had Grimm dropped out of a plane over Lake Michigan.
In the old days we didn't have television. We had to listen to the radio, or read newspapers, leaving it to our imaginations to supply the action of our heroes on the field. (Gee, I wish I could have had a big-screen color TV set back then!) One of the best baseball announcers was Ted Van Heusen, the voice of the Springfield Mudhens in Western Massachusetts in the early thirties. Van Heusen used to spice up his broadcasts with funny sound effects, like letting the air out of a balloon whenever an opposing pitcher bent over to pick up the rosin bag, or imitating a baby crying whenever a hit batsman rubbed the spot where he got hit. Once, Van Heusen was so upset with a slumping Mudhen that he leaped onto the field during the game and nearly strangled the poor fellow—and would have succeeded had it not been for the efforts of "Whiz" Kennedy, a promising second sacker who was up for a cup of coffee with the old Boston Braves. Kennedy, a former marine, restrained Van Heusen, who was subsequently fired, and replaced by—a young Ronald Reagan.
Before the turn of the century there was a tall, lanky first baseman by the name of "Sunday" Bob Terwilliger who, because of his unusual religious beliefs, would only play baseball on Sundays—thus the nickname. But this was in an era when "blue laws" prohibited the playing of professional sports on the Sabbath. As a result, "Sunday" Bob never played baseball. Not one inning. You can look it up.
Here are some of my favorite nicknames: Eddie "The Poet" Parmenter (he spoke only in rhyme); "Quarter Ton" Tommy Devore (he weighed 500 pounds!); "Blind" Sid Dumont (he was blind); and "Flatulent" Lou Bendell.
Once, it must have been in the late forties, I was taking the subway uptown to a game at Yankee Stadium when I noticed a gentleman standing directly across from me who looked awfully familiar. A big, strapping fellow, well-groomed—he had to be a professional ballplayer, I figured. For the life of me, though, I could not think of his name.
Remember Eddie DeBonis? In 1949, DeBonis was tearing up the Class AA Quad-State League for the Pineola Red Sox. He was batting .442 with forty-seven home runs when Boston called him up in late August. It was impossible to get a ticket for DeBonis's first major league game. In fact, they had to hire armed guards at Fenway Park just to keep the crowd under control. I remember. I was there. When DeBonis's name was announced, the cheer that followed shook the grandstand to its foundation. I have never seen—or felt—such anticipation for a major league debut.
And then, it started to rain, and then pour, and it didn't stop until, after two hours, the game was postponed and re-scheduled as part of a doubleheader in September. By then DeBonis had been sent back to the minors, and by the following spring he was out of baseball for good after being beaned by a beer bottle. I gave my rain check to a friend, Charlie McGreevy, who began a streak of never missing a Red Sox home game for the next thirty-two years, until his death, in 1981, ironically from being beaned by a beer bottle.
Statistics don't tell the whole story. Certainly not in the case of Arthur "Cut" Hadley, a diminutive second baseman who was trying to hook on with the Giants in spring training many years ago. Despite playing poorly, Hadley was still with the team when they left Florida and headed north. At a stop in Charleston, however, Giants manager John McGraw suddenly ordered Hadley off the train. When he asked for an explanation, Hadley was told he'd been cut from the team in Florida—but that they forgot to tell him. He was given five dollars and a ticket back to his hometown in Ohio. I ask you, could you have told that story with statistics?
Babe Ruth was quite a character—and what an appetite! In 1922, before a game in Philadelphia, he ate: thirty-five hot dogs; a gallon of ice cream; forty-two boxes of Cracker Jack; and washed it all down with sixteen kegs of beer. He died the next morning, if I'm not mistaken.
Years ago, after the season ended, players would make some extra money by "barnstorming" around the country, playing exhibitions against local teams, or Negro League all-stars, or Hollywood celebrities. One time, in California, I remember seeing a barnstorming team of Major League all-stars led by Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, and Jimmie Foxx go up against a team of movie stars. It was surprisingly close, the winning run scoring when Charles Laughton, playing third base, couldn't handle a sharp line drive off the bat of Joe Medwick. The very next day I saw Giant great Carl Hubbell strike out, in order: Franchot Tone, Leslie Howard, Leon Errol, Franklin Pangborne, and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.
In baseball there's the game itself, the game out on the field, but there's another game, a hidden game, a "game within the game" that's never seen by the fans, or the coaches, or even the players. It's the damnedest thing.
Today, you can't go to a ball game without having to first sit in traffic for an hour and a half and then, when you do get there, you can't find a parking space. And then you can't find your seat. And then you get into an argument with some jerk sitting behind you who makes fun of your hat and calls you "Abe Lincoln." And then, when you leave, you can't find your car. And then you can't find your keys. And then you get stuck in traffic again for an hour and a half, and when you finally do get home your nerves are shot and you're ready to kill.
But, that's baseball for you.