The emperor-to-be and me

April 30, 2019

Akihito 1

Crown Prince Akihito tries on a Yankee cap for Casey Stengel and the future Empress Michiko/Associated Press

Considering the amount of time we spent at Yankee Stadium during my youth and adolescence, it was inevitable that we would see some familiar faces. These included Jimmy Powers, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, and Faye Emerson. We also saw a face that was unfamiliar to us but not to a lot of other people who were in the ballpark that day—Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, who was sitting just to the left of the Yankee dugout with his wife, the former Michiko Shōda.

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Crown Prince Akihito throws out the first ball on October 2, 1960. My dad and I are clearly visible in the background./Getty Images

It was October 2, 1960, the last day of that season, and the prince got the proceedings under way by throwing out the first ball. He must have felt right at home; baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872, and it’s still one of the most popular sports for both spectators and participants. Akihito himself played some baseball, although I think he spent more time playing tennis.

Hirihito was still emperor of Japan in 1960, and his oldest son had been invited to the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once had had a different kind of relationship with the royal family. We were sitting a couple of dozen rows behind Akihito and throughout the game we watched a steady stream of Japanese people slip down to pay their respects to him.

Dale Long

DALE LONG

To these spectators, the news of the day was of secondary importance: The Yankees won their 15th game in a row when Yankee first baseman Dale Long hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 8-7.

How much Akihito knew about Dale Long I am not aware, but there was a lot worth knowing. Long was in the eighth of his ten major-league seasons when he hit that home run, and the Yankees rewarded him by shipping him to the Washington Senators. He came back to the Yankees for 55 more games in his last two seasons, 1962 and 1963.

Jiggs Donahue

JIGGS DONAHUE

In 1956, Long set a major-league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. That record has been matched twice, but never surpassed. In 1959, he tied another record by hitting back-to-back pinch-hit home runs. Although he was a career first baseman, in two games with the Chicago Cubs in 1958, he became the first catcher to throw left-handed since Jiggs Donahue who was a catcher and first baseman for several teams between 1900 and 1909.

I was 18 years old in 1960, and I’m sure I didn’t give much thought to Akihito, who became emperor and now has abdicated in favor of his son, beyond the fact that the folks who were trying to get up close to him kept standing in front of our box and blocking our view.

Margrethe II

QUEEN MARGRETHE II

Since then, I have wondered about modern states that still have monarchies. I raised the question once while I was having lunch with a chemist in Denmark. Why does one of the more advanced societies in the world still have a monarch? Apparently no one had asked him that before. He kind of sputtered around for a while until, referring to Margrethe II, he said, “Well, she is Denmark, isn’t she?” And then, since I had got him to thinking about the issue, he said that we Americans only delude ourselves that we don’t have royalty. We simply invest the same respect and adulation in the president and first lady and in other public figures. Fair enough.

Many years ago, I watched a game from the press box at Yankee Stadium, and the reporters were informally playing baseball trivia, trying to stump each other with questions about guys like Jiggs Donahue. There was a man standing behind the press box seats, and he was kibitzing in this contest. At one point, the reporter sitting next to me asked me, “Do you know who this is? It’s Dale Long!” It wasn’t Ted Williams or Stan Musial, but it didn’t matter. It was Dale Long, and he had played major-league baseball—major-league baseball!—something a relative handful of American men could say over the previous century and a half.

Royalty comes in many forms, and Dale Long was more than good enough for me.

 

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Naming - 1When I was a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to cover the dedication of a school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, that was named after a former mayor, James J. Flynn Jr. During the ritual, Jay Flynn, as everyone knew him, stood next to me, and at one point he leaned toward me and whispered in his gravelly voice, “They should never name a building after someone who is still alive. It’s too risky.”

Jay Flynn never made the Perth Amboy school district regret its decision and, nearly a half century later, the James J. Flynn Elementary School goes on serving the needs of the city’s youngsters. Still, I got his point. Around that same time, the name of a United States senator from New Jersey was removed from a major railroad station, because he had been convicted of accepting bribes and was sentenced to federal prison.

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MICHAEL JACKSON visits the Gardner Street Elementary School/elusiveshadow/com

And lo, I now read in the Los Angeles Times that some folks are having second, or third,  thoughts about honoring the late entertainer Michael Jackson by naming an auditorium after him in the Gardner Street Elementary School, where he was once a pupil. Jackson visited the school in 1989 to express his gratitude. In 2003, after Jackson was arrested and accused of abusing minors—he was acquitted two years later—his name over the auditorium doors was covered up. But after the singer died at least some of the public and school authorities had another change of heart, and “Michael Jackson Auditorium” was restored. And now, because of the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, which, I understand, renews accusations of abuse of minors, the propriety of honoring Jackson at an elementary school, of all places, has again been called into question.

Of course, the risk attached to heaping praise on someone doesn’t end with the person’s death. I am not equating the two episodes, but this Jackson business comes up in the same week as the absurd decisions by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” at their games and, in the Flyers’ case, to remove a statue of the singer from outside the team’s arena—all because of two racially troublesome songs that she recorded nearly ninety years ago.

2009 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

HARMON KILLEBREW/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In the midst of all this, word came this month in the Idaho Statesman that, pursuant to a House Resolution passed in December, the post office in the town of Payette (2017 pop. 7,434) has been named after Harmon Killebrew, a native of the place and one of the great baseball sluggers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. A 13-time All Star, Killebrew played almost all of his career with the franchise known first as the Washington Senators and then as the Minnesota Twins. While he was playing major league ball, Killebrew joined the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, and he neither smoked nor drank. He was a gentleman on the field, even to the extreme of complimenting umpires on tough calls.

When Killebrew died in 2011, Twins President David St. Peter recalled Killebrew’s prodigious hitting, his role in establishing the Minnesota baseball franchise, but also the “class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day.” When a writer for Sports Illustrated asked Killebrew if he had a hobby, Killebrew said, “Just washing the dishes, I guess.”

What do you say, Jay? Shall we take a chance?

 

 

Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

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IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

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JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

 

My brother often shares with me his irritation with the broadcasters who describe Yankee baseball games on television and radio.  We were, after all, raised in baseball by Mel Allen and Red Barber, in whose care baseball play-by-play was an art. In a way, no announcers can satisfy us with Mel and Red as a standard. This week, my brother complained that John Sterling, who does the radio broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the 1927 Yankees used only 25 players over the whole season. I guess that was an implied criticism of, or at least a contrast to, the multiple roster changes — making trades, buying contracts, and bringing kids up from the minors — the Yankees have made during this season in which, incidentally, eighty percent of the starting rotation is on the disabled list.

WAITE HOYT

WAITE HOYT

In fact, however, making comparisons between baseball in the 1920s and baseball in the 2000s is a tricky business. Sterling was right about the number of players on the Yankees’ roster in ’27, and my cursory tour through the statistics for that season suggest that 25 was a low number even then. But Sterling didn’t pick the ’27 Yankees at random. He picked that team because that team won 110 games and rolled over the Pirates in four games in the World Series. He picked that team because that team is often identified as the greatest team ever. That’s an indefensible ranking because — very much to my point here — baseball was so much different before that era and has become so much different since.

WILCY MOORE

WILCY MOORE

But certainly the 1927 Yankees were one of the greatest teams ever, and that was due in large part to the presence of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The major league season in 1927 was 154 games. Because of a game that ended in a tie, the Yankees that year played 155 games, and those four players each appeared in more than 150. Gehrig played in 155. So there was a significant element of stability built into the roster. I don’t know if this has been analyzed scientifically, but I often hear it said that players then were less injury prone and less likely to sit down because of an injury. Gehrig carried this last propensity to extremes, which helped to account for his appearing in every Yankee lineup for fourteen years.

The Yankees that year also had five starting pitchers who among them won 82 games. The ace, Waite Hoyt, who won 27 games, threw a total of 256 innings. And in those days before specialization, Wilcy Moore, a reliever, pitched a total of 213 innings and won 19 games. So the rest of the pitching staff had to account for only nine wins. Moore threw 213 innings in 1927. What with the modern system of middle relievers, set-up men, and closers, the most innings a Yankee reliever threw last season was 77.

 

 

WARREN SPAHN

Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)

Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.

EDDIE ROMMEL

Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.

I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.

Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.

Fr ALOYSIUS TRAVERS

The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.

Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.

But who’s counting?

You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.

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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.’ “

“Jumpin” Joe Dugan, who spent a few seasons as Babe Ruth’s teammate, had this to say: “To understand him, you have to understand this. He wasn’t human.”

I get that. Ruth may not have had it all — he wasn’t much of a base stealer — but he had more of it than anyone else. There’s no point in arguing about it. I love Aaron, Mays, Banks, and Mantle as much as the next fellow, but none of them went 94-46 with a 2.16 ERA before becoming one of the best hitters in history  and a fine outfielder to boot. In addition to that, his bombastic personality and his enormous charity revitalized a flagging game in a way that no one else could have done, making his name familiar to people around the globe — down to our own time — no matter how much or how little they know about baseball.

I get that. John McGraw didn’t get that. McGraw was the manager and a part owner of the New York Giants, and he was by reputation one of the best skippers ever. He believed in “scientific baseball,” which was the only way to play the game successfully in the dead-ball era. McGraw was all about place-hitting, bunting, stealing, studying your opponents and taking advantage of their weaknesses.

McGraw was not about the long ball — especially not the home run — which was coming into vogue at the beginning of the 1920s. As Robert Weintraub explains in this lively and entertaining book, Babe Ruth – the first home run hitter par excellence  – represented to McGraw the ruin of the game. McGraw, by Weintraub’s account, despised Ruth, called him a “baboon” and a “bum,” and predicted that he would hit into a hundred double plays a year.

Weintraub’s book covers the 1923 season, the Yankees’ first season in the original Yankee Stadium – not the knockoff they play in now. The team first appeared in the city when three New York guys bought the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise and moved it north in 1903. The Highlanders, as they were known for most of the first decade, played in Hilltop Park — the present site of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center — until 1913, when they moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the Giants. At the point at which Weintraub picks up the story, McGraw was fed up with the Yankees in general and Ruth in particular.

McGraw, as Weintraub recounts, was accustomed to being the toast of the town, and he became increasingly agitated as the Yankees gained in popularity. By 1921, he engineered the Giants management’s decision to tell the Yankees to move out of the Polo Grounds. This, it turned out, was a serious error, because it spurred Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston — whom McGraw had inspired to buy the Yankees — to build Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River.

McGraw had a brief period of satisfaction left to him, because the Giants and Yankees won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so that the whole World Series was played in the Polo Grounds, where Giants pitching made a monkey of Ruth. After the ’22 affair, there was widespread talk that the Babe was through.

In the ’23 season, though, Ruth — seriously chastened by his failures — made at least a show of curbing his appetites — sexual and otherwise — and he tore the league apart, winning the Most Valuable Player award. The rest of the Yankees, led by their dour little manager, Miller Huggins, had an outstanding year, and the momentum carried them to a World Series win that finally took the wind out of McGraw. McGraw was so bitter that he made the Giants dress at the Polo Grounds for the away games and cab it over to Yankee Stadium. The manager himself walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

The only bright spot for McGraw in that ’23 series was his reserve outfielder, “Casey” Stengel, who hit two game-winning home runs, one of them inside the park. During the off season, McGraw traded the aging Stengel to the Braves. “It’s a good thing I didn’t hit three home runs,” Casey said. “McGraw might have sent me out of the country.”

This is a colorful book, loaded with the characters of the ’20s – Warren G. Harding, Charles Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Fanny Brice. And, of course, all those ballplayers – Frankie Frisch, Bob and “Irish” Meusel, Everett “Iron Man” Scott, George “Highpockets” Kelly.

The real heart of this book, though, is found in the stories of McGraw and Ruth, two low-born, hard drinking, brawlers who clawed their way to the top where their lives intersected at a pivotal time in baseball in general and in New York baseball in particular.

Talking baseball

March 10, 2011

 

PETER SCOLARI

The coincidence is a conversation piece. For example, I read somewhere that actor Peter Scolari’s ambition to play pro baseball had been derailed by an elbow injury. Baseball is a favorite subject of mine, so when I met Scolari recently I began by saying, “Tell me about you and baseball.” He did. The reference I had read was true: he played high school ball well enough to think that he might turn pro, but he got hurt, had surgery, and after that — well, let him tell it: “I couldn’t get anything on the ball,” although he has played in several theatrical leagues.

But to put that story in context, Scolari told me that his father — attorney Art Scolari — had played baseball at East Side High School in Paterson (this would have been long before Joe Clark got there) and then was an All-American shortstop at Drew University. Paterson? I was born in Paterson. My dad, who was about 13 years older than Art Scolari, went to Central High School where he ran track — particularly relays — and later managed a semi-pro baseball team that played all around the Paterson area.

PETER SCOLARI / New York Daily News

I haven’t told Peter Scolari this yet, but after our conversation, my web browser stumbled on a story in a 1939 issue of the old Daily Record of Red Bank, N.J., reporting that a teenager named Lawrence Mahoney, who was from Lincroft, had successfully defended his state horseshoe pitching championship for the fifth time in a row. It was no snap, according to the story: breathing down Mahoney’s neck was 15-year-old Art Scolari of Paterson. Mahoney was 9-0 in the tournament; Scolari was 8-1.

Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in their "Bosom Buddies" regalia

I could have talked about baseball all night — it’s one of my many excuses to talk too much — but I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick to talk to Peter Scolari about his current project, a production of Ken Ludwig’s new play, “Fox on the Fairway.” This play, with a golf theme, had its world premiere last year in Washington, D.C. It’s a farce, and that’s a word that sends up the skyrockets, because farce done badly — or even done “all right” — is a painful experience for an audience. I’ve been there. Scolari, who knows a lot more about it than I do, made that point: “I don’t like to see a farce in which folks do an okay job. I’ll watch ‘The Sunshine Boys’ or ‘The Odd Couple’ and have a great time if everybody does a ‘good’ job. If I go to a farce and everybody does a ‘good’ job, I think, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

I’ve read Ludwig’s play, but reading farce is like reading a recipe. It lays out the parts and the moves, but it can’t even hint at the reality. I have also read at least one negative review of the Washington production, but the fact that a farce doesn’t work with one company doesn’t mean it won’t work with another. Ludwig, after all, is the author of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” both of which won him Tony awards. And Scolari knows a thing or three about playing comedy in general and farce in particular.

Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks in 2004 at the premiere of "Polar Express" in which they both appeared

Scolari first drew national attention in 1980 when he co-starred with Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies,” a TV sit-com about two young men who dress in drag so they can live in a women-only hotel where the rent is dirt cheap and about what they can afford. The show, which lasted a couple of seasons, was indirectly inspired by the Billy Wilder movie “Some Like it Hot.” Since then, Scolari has put together a long resume of television and stage appearances, mostly in comedies, including 142 episodes of Bob Newhart’s second hit series, “Newhart.”

Talking to Scolari, who is witty, thoughtful, and articulate, was an entertainment in itself. If I weren’t aware that I was keeping him from his train after he had spent a full day of rehearsal, I would have prompted him to talk for another hour, just so I could listen. If I had had unlimited time and he had had unlimited patience, I would have steered him back around to baseball, because no sport lends itself to talk as well as baseball does, and my guess is that Scolari appreciates that as much as I do. I asked him which New York team he roots for now that he is living on the East Coast again after his sojourn in California. He could have simply said that he roots for the Yankees, but this wasn’t a guy answering questions. This was a guy talking baseball:

Thurman Munson, Yankees catcher, captain, All-Star, and MVP, was killed in a plane crash in 1979. He was 32.

“I follow the Yankees. I make no apologies about it, but they’re not the Yankees. For me the Yankees who owned my heart ended with the captain, with Thurman Munson. I never got over that, to be honest with you, as a fan. So you come back, and they’re your team, and they’re in the Bronx, and that’s really important — but it’s not quite the same.”

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.

 

 

 

BOB SHEPPARD

I spent a Yankee game in 1972 sitting next to Bob Sheppard in the booth from which he announced the players and sent other pertinent information rolling through the stadium like summer waves rippling along a shore. He was, as many have been saying in the wake of his death, a gentleman. He began his career at Yankee Stadium in 1951 – the same year that my father took me there for the first of many times. That means something to me, because Bob, with his courtly manners, his precise diction, and his John Barrymore tone, fit right into the atmosphere in the stadium at that time. As it turned out, he worked long enough to be the last vestige of the mood of those days, when many men came to the ballpark in suits and ties and many women in objects of finery from that now nearly extinct artisan — the milliner.

MARK BELANGER

Bob, who taught speech at the university level, had a great respect for words, including proper names, and he didn’t understand people who didn’t share that feeling. He told me that when Mark Belanger of the Baltimore Orioles made his first appearance at Yankee Stadium – probably in 1965 – Bob approached him and asked whether the name was pronounced Bel-ANN-zher, BEL-un-zher, or Bel-un-ZHAY. Belanger, who was to become one of the great defensive shortstops in American League history, said that some people pronounced the name one way, some another. Bob persisted, asking how Belanger wanted it pronounced, and was scandalized when the young man didn’t seem to care. Belanger himself pronounced it Bel-ANN-zher, so that’s the pronunciation  Bob used.

BOB SHEPPARD

Bob was known for several traits, including his religious devotion and his dependability. He told me, though, about an incident in which the Yankees had scheduled a 5 p.m. start for a twi-night double-header to make up for a rainout. Bob had forgotten to put the change in his date book. The phone rang at his Long Island home, and the caller — a member of the Yankee staff — asked what Bob was doing. “I’m just putting a steak on the grill for dinner,” Bob said. “That’s nice,” said the caller. “We’re in the second inning.”

There has been a lot published today about how various baseball personalities regarded Sheppard. My favorites were from Oscar Gamble, who used to refer to Bob as “the man upstairs” and from Reggie Jackson, who said that when Bob said “44,” he made it into a bigger number. You can read Bob’s obituary by clicking HERE.