Murder most foul

November 24, 2011

GREG HALMAN

When I first heard the other day that Greg Halman had been stabbed to death I was, of course, shocked, but not just because of the murder itself. Murder usually takes us by surprise, whether the victim was someone we knew, someone we only knew about, or someone we never heard of. It’s in the nature of the crime that it seems to come, as it were, out of left field.

In this case, my shock was doubled because the victim was a major league baseball player. It’s a hangover from my growing-up years when I thought those guys were special. I came to learn, as we all do, that they’re subject to all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our kind. I know that intellectually, but emotionally I’m the type who still thinks Santa Claus will show himself some day and sit in judgment over the sheep and the goats.

The fact is, though, that baseball players may be more susceptible to homicide than the general population is. Something like 17,000 men have played in the major leagues and I know of ten who have been murdered. What’s that – one in about 1700? The murder rate in the United States last year – ostensibly an all-time low – was nearly one in 10,000.

LUKE EASTER

The ones I know about are Frank Bell, Frank McManus, Ed Morris, Lymon Bostock, Tony Solaita, Gus Polidor, Ivan Calderon, Dernell Stenton, and Luke Easter.

The one that most sticks in my mind is Easter, because he was one of my first “favorite” players. He came into the major leagues in 1949 when I was seven years old. He was about six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds. I got most of my baseball on the radio then, and for a while I thought his name was Lou Keester. I didn’t know it then, but because he was black he didn’t get to play in the bigs until he was 34 – although he was inconsistent when reporting his age and place of birth. He is a prime example of the damage that racism did to major league baseball. He appeared in only six seasons in the majors and played in more than 100 games in only four. He was a good first baseman and a slugger in semi-pro ball — which was a big deal in his day — and in the Negro Leagues. He hit a total of 86 home runs in 1950, ’51, and ’52; he played only 396 games in those three seasons, and he was 37 years old in 1952. He and Mickey Mantle were the only players to hit a ball over the right-field scoreboard in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Easter’s traveled 477 feet.

After his major league stint, Easter played in the minors until he was 48 and coached for a while. Wherever he went, he added to his reputation as a genuinely nice man who liked to help other players. When he and baseball were done with each other, he went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance and became the chief union steward at a company in Euclid, Ohio. In 1979, he was delivering payroll money to a bank when he was accosted by armed robbers who shot him to death when he wouldn’t turn over the money.

When a fan remarked that he had witnessed one of Easter’s longest home runs, Easter said: “If it came down, it wasn’t mine.”

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Pete Sheehy in the clubhouse of the real Yankee Stadium

I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.

So I asked Pete if it were possible that a man who had had such intimate contact with the Yankees of the ‘twenties to the ‘eighties could have a favorite. This was how Pete answered: “Joe.”

He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.

DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.

If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.

But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.

To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.

Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”

And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.

The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini  — came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.

In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of  silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.

This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.

On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:

”  ‘You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “

Number 12

December 1, 2010

While I wasn’t paying attention, Gil McDougald slipped away. The news got away from me over the weekend, and I did not hear until this afternoon that the former Yankee infielder had died on Sunday.

I saw Gil play many times in the 1950s, when my father used to take me to Yankee Stadium as often as three times a week. We looked at ballplayers differently then. We admired players like Gil, of course. How could we not have admired a guy who played second, short, and third at a championship level? But, aside from their prowess on the field, we didn’t think of them as being remote from our place in the world. They were celebrities, but not in the way that term is understood today.

McDougald had a business on the side; I think it was called Yankee Maintenance Service. One of his clients was the bank around the corner from our house, and we’d often see the blue Volkswagen bus parked outside while the crew was cleaning the place. Once in a while, Gil would stop by to make sure his customer was satisfied with the service. It wasn’t the sort of thing Alex Rodriguez does with his time.

The news stories about Gil’s death have reported that he played on a bunch of championship teams with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. But he also played with Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, and Andy Carey — just guys playing ball, like Gil.

I went to see Gil at his place of business long after he had retired from baseball. He told me that at the end of his ten-year career with the Yankees, Gene Autry offered to double his annual salary if he would play two more years with the fledgling Angels in California. Autry wanted names on the roster. Gil — a family man par excellence — said he wouldn’t disrupt his household for that price.

Gil McDougald was an All-Star at three infield positions. The  only other man who can make that claim is Pete Rose. When Casey Stengel said, after the Yankees had beaten the Braves in the 1958 World Series, “I couldn’t have done it without the players,” he was talking about Gil as much as about anyone else. And when I remember those hazy afternoons in the Stadium that greed has torn down, the guy out there gunning one over to Joe Collins, that’ll always be Gil.

 

The Polo Grounds in 1951: Gil McDougald becomes the first rookie to hit a grand slam in a World Series.

 

 

 

MICKEY MANTLE

In the first inning of the 1961 All Star Game, Whitey Ford of the Yankees struck out Willie Mays of the Giants. It was a called third strike. The event prompted an uncharacteristic response from Ford’s teammate, Mickey Mantle, who was playing center field. Mantle clapped and whooped and hopped his way all the way back to the American League dugout at Candlestick Park, and Mays was none too pleased. Anyone in or around baseball would have understood that. Mantle had broken the “code” — the set of unwritten rules by which major league ballplayers mutually govern each other’s behavior on the field. One of the principal canons is that one player doesn’t show up another player on the field – particularly not during a nationally televised All Star Game. A player who shows up another player is often inviting a pitch aimed at his head sometime soon if not in his next at-bat.

WILLIE MAYS

Besides being irked, Mays probably was baffled because it wasn’t like Mantle to  behave that way. Even in the era before hot dogs like Barry Bonds stand in the batter’s box watching their home runs leave the park, Mantle was known for his demeanor after he hit one of his 536 homers. He circled the bases with his head down, as though he were embarrassed at causing such a fuss, and he said explicitly that he figured the pitcher felt bad enough already and didn’t need to be humiliated by a showboat. Curtain calls were virtually unknown in Mantle’s era, but he wouldn’t even look up into the crowd as he returned to the dugout. I recall one instance late in his career when he hit one of his last home runs and just touched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the fans. It caused a sensation.

WHITEY FORD

It turned out that Giants owner Horace Stoneham had arranged for Mantle and Ford to play golf at an exclusive club, and the two players had rented all the equipment they needed for about $400 and charged it to Stoneham, intending to repay him. When they saw their host again, however, Stoneham offered a wager that if Ford retired Mays the first time they faced in the All Star Game, the debt would be forgiven, but if Mays got on base, the players would owe Stoneham $800. Ford accepted the bet, and Mantle was furious because at that point Mays was six-for-six against Ford. When the showdown occurred, Mays hit two very long foul balls against Ford, and then struck out looking at a nasty curve ball. Hence Mantle’s schoolboy reaction was more about Stoneham than about Mays.

DENNY McLAIN

I learned about that incident in “The Baseball Codes,” a book by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca that explores some of the cultural aspects of baseball that are not covered by the official rules. The discussion has a lot to do with “respect” — between players, between teams, and for the game itself. At times, it seems, it’s the same kind of “respect” that governed the behavior of people like the Gallo crime family. Cheating — using a foreign substance on a ball or stealing signs — is allowed, for example, until a player or team gets caught. Then it has to stop.
One of the topics discussed in the book is the protocol regarding records. For instance, based on a 1948 story in Sport magazine, the authors report that Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, had once declared a game rained out because Lou Gehrig — who was in the midst of his consecutive-games streak — was sick with the flu. There was no rain.

JIM PRICE

This also works across teams. For instance, the authors repeat the well known story about Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who as a boy had idolized Mickey Mantle. McLain wound up pitching to Mantle in a game in September 1968 — the season in which McLain won 31 games and Mantle retired. Mantle at the time was tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list — both with 534. McLain decided he was going to do what he could to help Mantle hit 535 and so informed Tigers catcher Jim Price. When Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, Price let him know what was coming, and McLain stood on the mound clapping as the ball went into the seats.

NAPOLEON LAJOIE

Another twist on the records issue, as described in this book, involved the very popular Cleveland second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie (LAH-ja-way) who, on the last day of the 1910 season, was running to second to Ty Cobb for the batting title. Cobb was as disliked in the game as Lajoie was liked, and St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor was among those who despised the Tigers outfielder. So with Cleveland playing St. Looie in a double header on the last day of the year, O’Connor moved his third baseman far behind the bag to give the right-hand hitting Lajoie a clear shot down the left field line. Lajoie wasn’t in on it, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he bunted for seven straight base hits in the two games. He also had a triple before he noticed the odd positioning of the third baseman. But in his last at-bat, Lajoie swung away and grounded out. Cobb ended up with a batting average of .3850687, and Lajoie with .3840947.

TY COBB

The postscript is that O’Connor’s tactic was so widely criticized that he was fired by the Browns and never managed in the major leagues again. The post postscript is that in 1981 the office of the Commissioner of Baseball ruled that Cobb had been erroneously given credit for two hits that season, so that his average was actually .383, and Lajoie — who by that time had been dead for 22 years — was declared the batting champion.
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ERRATUM: I have learned since writing this post that the Lajoie-Cobb incident may not have ended as it was described in this book. The Cleveland Indians web site indicates that it was a baseball historian at the Sporting News who found the discrepancy in Cobb’s stats for 1910, but that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to take the batting title away from Cobb.

JACK REED

The 20-inning game the Mets won on Saturday got me to thinking about a 22-inning game between the Yankees and the Tigers in June 1962. I was watching that game at home, but I left, drove about 10 miles to visit a friend for several hours, and then drove home and found my brother watching the Yankees and the Tigers. That was long before VCRs and the YES Network’s “encores,” and I was dumbfounded when Tony told me it was the same game I had been watching before I left. It ended exactly seven hours after it had started. The Yankees won, 9-7.

As if the game wasn’t enough of a curiosity in itself, the way it ended was one of those delightful surprises that baseball is so good at providing. For a few years back then, the Yankees carried on their roster an outfielder named Jack Reed, whose job was to play center field in the very late innings so that Mickey Mantle, near the end of his career, could rest his battered and diseased legs.

CLETIS BOYER

Nothing more was expected of Reed, and usually nothing more was forthcoming. But the young man from Silver City, Mississippi, picked the top of the 22nd inning in that game to hit the only home run of his career, providing the Yankees with the runs they needed to win. Reed, incidentally, may not have spent much time in major league baseball, but he is one of a handful of players who can boast of appearing in both the World Series and a college bowl game – three games with the Yankees in the 1961 fall classic, and the 1953 Sugar Bowl with Ole Miss.

Yankee third baseman Cletis Boyer had hit a three-run homer in the first inning off Tigers starter Frank Lary, who was usually hard on the Yankees.

ROCKY COLAVITO

And while Rocky Colavito probably would have said that he’d rather the Tigers had won, even if he had gone hitless — ballplayers always say things like that — he had one of the biggest days of his career, collecting seven hits in ten times at bat. Meanwhile, the Tigers pitchers held the Yankees scoreless for 19 consecutive innings in that game — two shutouts, end to end.

Another note: Yogi Berra, who was 37 years old, caught the complete game.

MICKEY MANTLE

I’m ready to talk baseball, not that I ever stop. The camps are up and running, Johnny Damon has signed with the Tigers, George Steinbrenner was out watching his grandson play in a high school game, and the Yankees are starting to say “Chamberlain” and “bullpen” in the same sentence with more and more consistency.

The more things stay the same, they more they stay the same, and Yogi Berra turned out for yet another spring training. It seems to me that there is a doctoral dissertation in Yogi Berra, maybe in American Studies. Some scholar should examine the history of Berra’s public image, which is more like Babe Ruth’s image than is immediately apparent. The man hasn’t been a day-to-day part of baseball for decades, and his name is still known to people who know nothing about the game, who weren’t yet born when Berra played his last game or, for that matter, managed his last game. He has ears like flapjacks and a hound-dog mug that now looks like a relief map of northern Greece. And we love him.

LAWRENCE PETER BERRA

It is a little early for serious talk about the 2010 season, what with Joe Girardi saying things like this: “I think our No. 1 concern is ironing out our lineup. When I say it’s a concern, I’m not concerned that we don’t have the players to do it, I’m concerned with where you place them.” Uh, did he read that in one of Casey Stengel’s old notebooks?

In my search for some baseball intelligence, the most interesting thing I found today was about a game played in 1953. Several sites have picked up on this story, originally published in the New York Times. This is a hilarious account of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle arguing about how the Yankees aborted an 18-game winning streak by losing a game to the St. Looie Browns. As the writer demonstrated, both players were sure of themselves and both had it very very wrong. It’s an object lesson for the rest of us when we’re cock sure of our memories. You can read it by clicking HERE.

Good, good grief

May 30, 2009

peanuts1960scollectionI just read — for the purpose of reviewing it — a book called “Security Blankets: How Peanuts ® Touched Our Lives.” This is a collection of about 50 stories from people who feel their time on earth has been enriched somehow by the comic strip, the books, the TV specials, the tchatchke, or by some encounter with Charles Schulz himself.

It appears to me that the book is an attempt to reinvigorate the trade in stuffed Snoopy dolls (referred to repeatedly in the book as “plush”) or other “collectibles.” Maybe the Peanuts market is suffering from the combined effects of Schulz’s absence, the aging of the Peanuts Generation, and the paucity of disposable income.

 

THE RED BARON

THE RED BARON

That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories here. One of my favorites was submitted by a man whose father was not only a World War I flying ace, but who piloted a Sopwith Camel and, in August 1918, actually outran the Red Baron himself. 

Several of the people whose little essays appear in this book said, in one way or another, that their own cares or frustrations became a little easier to bear when they realized that others shared their feelings. Of course, the “others” were fictional cartoon characters, although many a Tuesday night meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church might have provided the same kind of support, except in flesh and blood rather than pen and ink. The writers in “Security Blankets” may have been unwittingly identifying with the often solitary and unfulfilled artist behind those characters rather than with the characters themselves.

 

MICKEY MANTLE

MICKEY MANTLE

Still, these stories reminded me of a book I read that contained a collection of letters that had been written to Mickey Mantle whose family published them after his death in order to raise money for an organ-transplant program. The letters told Mantle how much he had meant either to the writer or to someone in the writer’s life — a father, perhaps. Mantle, I have read elsewhere, was always mystified by sentiments of this kind. He felt, I suppose, like Louie DePalma — the “Taxi” character — who said of his girlfriend: “She sees something in me … something that’s not there.” 

But both cases may be related to an idea I passed along to my students last semester — that once a writer has published a story, a poem, or an essay, he no longer owns it. Once he has published it, it belongs to the reader — and to each individual reader in a unique way. Neither the writer nor the writer’s critics can tell the reader what the reader can infer from the work. Maybe that’s true of cartoonists and swtich hitters, too: that once they have led their lives, they cannot control, nor contradict, what people infer from them.