Damned Yankee: A dark secret kept John Malangone from fulfilling his promise
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "Damned Yankee," by Gary Smith, which ran in the Oct. 13, 1997 issue.
John Malangone had all the tools to succeed Yogi Berra at catcher for the New York Yankees, but his torment over a dark family secret kept him from fulfilling his prodigious promise.
Everything you will read on the next 11 pages revolves around one photograph. The rest of the old man's past, you must understand, is all but gone. The framed baseball pictures were smashed by his hammer. The scrapbook thick with newspaper clippings was fed to the furnace in the basement of the Sears, Roebuck in Paramus, N.J. The trophies, with their figurines of ballplayers and eagles and angellike women, were placed on a portable table in the middle of a ball field and annihilated, one a day, by the old man's rifle arm. Have you ever heard the popping sound an angel makes when it's struck by a fastball?
Surely the other artifacts that survived are too few and too baffling to be trusted. The death certificate of a seven-year-old boy ... the tattered letter from the New York Yankees front office ... the 1955 Louisville Slugger with the name John misspelled on the barrel. Without the photograph, who could watch the gray-whiskered man with no laces in his shoes rummage through his trailer and not wonder if his tale is too fantastic to be true?
But then John Malangone, with a funny look on his face, a mixture of pride in the thing he's holding and an eagerness to be rid of it, thrusts in front of you the picture, snapped on a sunny spring training day 32 years ago. You stare. No. It wasn't a dream. The old man hasn't gone mad. If it hadn't been for the horror, he really might have filled Yogi Berra's shoes. Look at the picture. Just look at it.
"Kid! Come over here. Wanna take your picture."
"Who, me? You don't want my picture."
"Come on! Gonna put you right between the two Hall of Fame catchers, Dickey and Cochrane. You're gonna be plastered all over the Daily News."
"The Daily News? Naw, get somebody else." "Somebody else? You crazy, rookie? You're gonna be a helluva star."
How many of us possess a photograph of the very instant when our lives reached the top of the hill and then, with the click of the camera -- because of the click of the camera - -began their descent? Look closely at John Malangone, in the middle. It's 1955. He's 22. Touching his glove, anointing him, are the fingertips of perhaps the two greatest catchers in the history of baseball: Mickey Cochrane, on the left, a 51-year-old Yankees scout and camp instructor, and Bill Dickey, a 47-year-old Yankees coach. John has just homered in an intrasquad game. He's fresh from leading the winter league in Venezuela in home runs, RBIs and doubles. Casey Stengel has tabbed him "the probable successor to Yogi," even though Berra would be the Yankees' regular starting catcher for four more seasons.
John remembers the words the tall photographer uttered just before he took the picture. John remembers the panic spreading through his stomach as he squatted between Cochrane and Dickey, the fear that someone on his block in East Harlem would see this picture in the next day's paper and call the Daily News and tell what occurred on that summer evening 18 years before, insist that what John really deserved was a seat in a chair humming with a couple of thousand volts. John remembers everything, because memory is the whip he has used to flog himself for 60 years ...
Orlando Panarese was blond and he was bashful and he was handsome and he was seven, and when he and John trampolined on the bed they usually shared, they jumped so high they nearly banged their heads. It was perfect, having your best buddy be your uncle. Having your mom's little brother living just one floor up in a tenement on 114th Street, so your family was his family and all of you, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, ended up on the roof with Uncle Duffy's pigeons every summer Sunday, playing checkers and eating linguini with red sauce bare-chested, if you were a boy, to save your mother from spending Monday scrubbing shirts. So you could float in and out of each other's apartments at any hour and end up in pj's pounding each other with pillows while Mom and Grandma rolled pasta or talked another cup of coffee to death. Zi, John called Orlando, shortening the Italian word for uncle. They would slip downstairs at sunrise, while Grandma Panarese dressed for church, and earn apples for her by helping the Italian fruit peddlers pry open their crates. "Grazie, Orlando. Grazie, John," she would say when they delivered the apples to her, bowing formally to the little boys.
They were upstairs talking, Mom and Grandma, that July evening in 1937. They couldn't keep their eyes on five- and seven-year-old boys all day, could they? Eleven years had passed since Grandma had lost her first Orlando, her eight-year-old son who was tagging along with his older brothers to the movies when one of them fibbed, "Go home, Orlando, Mommy's calling you," and the little boy turned back to cross the street and was killed by a truck. A mother can't run scared every minute for 11 years, can she?
John found the broken umbrella rusting in the basement of his six-floor tenement. He and the boys on his block pulled off one of its metal spokes and lashed it, with rope, to a shorn-off broomstick handle. Excellent. A javelin. A new contest for the first-generation Italian-American children teeming on the streets of East Harlem. John took the javelin, paced down 114th Street and eyed his goal: the pile of sand the peddlers would shovel onto the wooden ramp leading into the stables next to John's apartment building, so their horses wouldn't slip in their own urine. The other boys stood in a group in front of the candy store and watched.
John reached back and threw himself, all of himself, into that javelin. Maybe it flew a little off the side of his hand, and maybe it went farther than anyone thought a boy his size could throw it. Every time he has seen it happen ever since -- on the sides of water glasses, on cabinet doors, on outfield walls -- he has squinted and tried to discern whether it was a misjudgment of his might or a flaw in technique. But he knew, as he watched the javelin arc, that he was in trouble, and he knew when he heard the boys gasp that it had hit someone, and he knew when he approached the tight circle of children and frantic adults and saw two small feet protruding -- one sock of solid color and one sock striped -- that it was Uncle Orlando. Because when he looked down at the ground, the other striped sock and the other solid one were on his own feet.
A boy turned to John. "You're in trouble," he said.
"Spell that name for me."
"Your last name, kid. You pronounce it Mal-an-go-nee, right? Gotta make sure they spell it right when they run this picture. M ... A ... is it two l's or one in Malangone?"
"Uh ... yeah ... two ... two l's."
He remembers cringing that day as the photographer scribbled in his notepad. Another secret they were closing in on. Another secret that each line drive off his bat, each shotgun throw from his arm to rub out a runner stealing second was leading them closer and closer to discovering: The 22-year-old Yankees hotshot couldn't read or write. Oh, they would find out why, sure as the sunshine beating on his shoulders when he crouched between Cochrane and Dickey.
You can't figure out anything in life. You can't figure on a javelin flying through the air and hitting someone.
He had shoved it out of his mind since the day he had signed, but now, as the shutter clicked, he could smell it: the beginning of the end. The story of the lovable homegrown Italian boy laying siege to the position of the lovable, aging Italian Hall of Fame catcher, the story of a kid as strong as thunder and flakier than snow, able to awaken from a dead sleep in December and out-malaprop Berra, out-Yogi Yogi -- you don't think the New York tabloid wretches, the chroniclers of the greatest dynasty in baseball history, are going to crawl all over that? You don't think they're going to find out how his brain shut down because of the accident and how neither he nor all the letters and numbers he stared at could ever stay still after the next shock?
You can't figure on anything in life. You can't figure on a javelin flying through the air and hitting someone's skull, let alone your uncle's. And then, once it does, you can't figure on him pulling it out with his own hands, and, oh, thank God, standing up. And walking home with the help of his mother, barely bleeding because it's a puncture wound, and looking all right for a few days, thankyouthankyouGod ... until the small red swelling appears. Nobody ever told John that the wound became infected and that Orlando was taken to a hospital and that he underwent surgery to relieve the swelling but that the infection kept spreading because the use of penicillin was still four years away; Jesus Christ, it's so easy to hoodwink a five-year-old boy. Nobody told him anything, not even what all the commotion was upstairs in Grandma's apartment and why all the adults looked so sunken-eyed. They forgot all about John for a moment, and he wandered up the steps and through the door and into a room where he saw a box surrounded by white drapes and flowers. He stared at it, too short to see its freight. He moved closer, closer. He stepped up onto the kneeler. Orlando ...? God, he looked beautiful. Why was he sleeping there? Zi, what's wrong? ZI, WAKE UP!
That was how John learned what his right arm had done. That was when he screamed, and his right eardrum popped, and his tongue nearly went down his throat, and the corner of his mouth and his right hand went numb for the first time. That was when he lost half of his hearing and, for nearly a year, every word of English he had learned. That was when Grandma burst into the room and found the catatonic boy and shrieked at God, "No, not this one too!" And rushed him to the room in her apartment that she had turned into a chapel and held him near the candles and the crucifix and the statues of St. Anthony and Mother Mary and Baby Jesus, her fumbling fingers pouring olive oil into a small bowl and dropping into it a piece of wool torn from mattress stuffing, then striking a match to light the wool and warm the oil, and thrusting her thumb into the liquid and using it to rub tiny signs of the cross on the boy's forehead, his nose, his chin, his temples and behind his ears, murmuring ancient words that had been passed down to her, until her eyelids slowly sagged and a great yawning fatigue overcame her, as it always did when she healed the old way.
"Shhhh. Don't say a word," they said to each other when the boy finally fell asleep. "He's quiet now. Don't say a word about any of this -- ever -- do you hear me? He's only five. He'll forget everything if no one ever says a word."
Go back to the photograph. Perhaps you see it now: the uncertainty in John's smile, in his eyes. Perhaps you see what John sees when he looks at that picture today. "Half of that boy is missing," he says. "That's just a body there. That's just a shadow I was casting. That's just a shell."
The police arrived at John's apartment after Orlando's death. The five-year-old boy climbed out the back window and hid on the fire escape until they were gone. He had evaded them, he thought. For now. But then a kid on the street called him Killer. A woman who saw her daughter talking to John cried, "Stay away from him!" One of the Mafia members who ruled his block slapped him on the back and said, "Ya got one under ya belt, kid!"
And then no one saw him. The alleyways behind the tall tenements became his home. On his way to and from school he could go for blocks scrambling over the seven-foot mesh fences that separated one building from the next, never seeing the sun except when he darted over a cross street to the next alley. He could go for hours hurling balls in the shadows at a clock he drew in chalk on an alley wall, aiming first at one o'clock until he nailed it on the button, then one by one around to 12, over and over and over, taming the arm that had betrayed him. Then he would line up two dozen bottles, hurling anything when his rubber ball had disintegrated -- rotten apples, oranges, stones -- exulting silently when the bottles exploded and the noise shattered off the walls. Soon he was turning his back on his target, spinning and blindly throwing, throwing, throwing ... When at last he grew weary, he would grab a stick and imagine that he was conducting an orchestra, sending waves of beautiful music swelling up the tenement walls.
When it snowed and the block was empty, the boy would emerge. The people would hear a relentless scraping noise, and when they peered out, the sidewalk up and down 114th Street between First and Second Avenue would be bare.
He risked exposure only in exchange for exhaustion. He would race to the coal yards three blocks away, and for a quarter, but not really for a quarter, he would take some malingerer's shovel and do the man's task all day. He would continue waxing and polishing the Mob's black Chryslers, long after they were already gleaming, in the alley behind their clubhouse. He went to the basement where the old paisanos made wine, and he hand-cranked the press until his arms screamed. He stood on three empty soda cases and pounded the speed bag in the Silver Star boxing club, just down the street from his apartment building. He mucked the peddlers' stables, wrung water from neighboring women's wet laundry with his thickening wrists, wrung so tightly he sometimes ripped the clothing, trying so hard to please everyone around him and to fatigue the creature into tongue-hanging silence.
Yeah. You know. The thing. The hunchback, just behind John's shoulder. Can't you see it in the photograph? The one that could show up at any moment when John wasn't throwing or shoveling or mucking or wringing or punching. The beast he would suddenly hear laughing faintly and mumbling so softly that John had to lean to make out the words. You ... You killer, you ... You know what you deserve ... He would shut his eyes, clutch his head, cover his ears, and still he'd sense it, still he'd hear it. It looked like ... yes, almost exactly like Quasimodo, the terrifying humped creature with half a sunken face whom John kept returning to the Cosmo Theater to stare at in The Hunchback of Notre Dame ... only somehow the eyes and nose and mouth of the hunchback stalking John were his own.
His head would begin to throb. His throat would tighten; he couldn't swallow, he couldn't breathe! His right ear would pop and begin to ring, his throwing hand would go numb, the right edge of his mouth would curve up, his arms shiver, his equilibrium vanish, his vision tunnel and blur. And now, upon whatever surface his eyes fled to, he would see and hear the javelin arcing through the air, making that terrible swishing sound, and then the coffin, looming larger and larger as if he were a small boy again, stepping nearer and nearer to it, and then, Orlando's beautiful face inside it. And John's fist or his baseball bat would lash out at the image, and suddenly there was a hole in the wall or the cabinet or the wardrobe in his bedroom, and his mother was scurrying to find someone to patch it before his hot-tempered father came home.
"Why?" he would hear his father scream at his mother. "Why did you leave him alone that day? It's your fault!" But never, ever, was the subject mentioned when John was in the room. The boy might go two nights, three nights in a row without sleep, and when at last he dozed he would dream that he was running down 114th Street, racing against the javelin, reaching up to catch it before it landed, and then he would awaken, shouting "Orlando!" in a puddle of urine and sweat.
He knotted two dark socks together and tied them around his head, over his ears, to keep that maddening swishing sound from entering his ears whenever the wind blew, or whenever he tried to outrun the son of a bitch, all the way from East Harlem to Greenwich Village ...
Still mumbling. Still there.
Maybe he could drown the bastard. Maybe, if he jumped into the Harlem River off the Willis Avenue Bridge and stayed underwater for one minute ... two minutes ...
Still laughing. Still there.
Maybe if he stuck his grandmother's sewing needle into his throwing arm ...
He felt nothing. Still there.
Maybe if he careened down the ramp off the Triborough Bridge on a bicycle with no chain or brakes, he could shatter the hunchback.
He broke his leg.
Maybe he had to pinpoint the demon's location first. Maybe if he turned swiftly when he walked through snow, he could see footprints, the same way the police finally located and killed the Invisible Man in the next movie that obsessed John at the Cosmo. Maybe fabric would reveal the creature's whereabouts, as it did in the film. Maybe if John stood in front of a mirror nonchalantly and suddenly tossed one of his grandmother's black veils over his shoulder, it would land on the demon's head, and then John could whirl and throttle it. Maybe if he heaved a handful of his mother's baby powder over his shoulder ... No! Nothing! Damn him!
There were only two things to be done. Hurry to the arms of his mother, Josephine -- she hugged him, soothed him without ever saying what she was soothing away and led him to her own mother, who would stop the pounding in his forehead and temples by rubbing them again with warm olive oil. Or he could race to Mount Carmel church and go up into its tower to sit with the bells, just like the hunchback did in the movie to escape his enemies. Inside the church, where the demon couldn't pursue John, he would light a votive candle and pray feverishly, "Make him stop, God! Make him go away! Please, God, I'll do your work, I'll help people, please!"
He would give the shoes off his feet to a beggar. He planned to become a priest, choke the demon with the collar, but he couldn't even cut it as an altar boy. Instructions bewildered him; he just couldn't concentrate. He would turn the wrong way at the altar, forget what part of the Mass was coming next, spill the wine, exasperate the priest. It was the same story in school, where the letters and numbers swam, and he would end up in the back of the classroom, the perennial dope, lovable but hopeless.
No one could stay mad at him -- except his father, the barber. Sylvester Malangone would come home and find his wife gone again, always upstairs with her mom; her guilt over her son's killing of her mother's son had turned her into Grandma's slave. Sylvester's jealous rage would begin to boil, and at the slightest excuse he would seize the thick barber's strap he kept on a hook and rip into his eldest son, John, knowing that the thumps and cries would bring his wife racing downstairs in tears, back where she belonged.
After the rat the beatings grew worse. John awoke to an earthquake one night when he was 10; his father was heaving the mattress right off the bed on which John and his brother, Sylvester Jr., were sleeping, and lunging for a rat of terrifying size. Now John's dad had the rodent where he wanted it, shrieking behind the radiator, just enough space between the radiator's ribs to insert one of the boys' bed slats and pin the rat against the wall. The shrieking grew ghastly, almost human, and sweat erupted from the father's pores as his two sons cowered behind him, but he drove the slat home and blood spattered them, and the father swooned and cried out and began to shake. He ended up in a straitjacket at Bellevue, and when he came home a month later, his fury at John had grown even larger.
Five decades would pass before John would learn that his father, too, carried a terrible secret. Fifty years of silence and rage until John learned about the day that his dad, then just a seven-year-old boy, had been so happy to see his own mother coming home from another long day at a sweatshop that he and his two brothers had thrown a bear hug around her legs on the street, toppling her backward onto the jagged edges of a steel garbage can, causing a wound that became infected, just like Orlando's, and killed her. And John, when he finally heard the story, understood instinctively that everything he had turned in on himself, his father had turned outward -- upon John, the son who had also killed a loved one accidentally.
He knotted two dark socks together and tied them around his head to keep out that maddening swishing sound.
The beatings stopped all at once when John was 15. His father grabbed the strap one day, enraged at John's younger brother for a change, after the boy had knocked the family's radio off the counter and broken it, and cocked his arm behind his ear to let the boy have it, when ... huh? The barber yanked down, and yanked again, but it was as if the strap were nailed to a ceiling beam. He looked over his shoulder and saw John clutching the strap with one hand. "You son of a bitch!" Sylvester Sr. shouted. "So you want it!" And he yanked and yanked, until it dawned on him that his boy was a 5-foot-10, 195-pound man, arms and thighs like a stevedore's from all the frantic shoveling and mucking and punching, and his strap would remain where it was for all time if John so willed it.
The barber grew small before John's eyes. John let go of the strap. His father opened a window and flung the strap into the alley.
Sylvester Sr.'s eyes widened: Out the door John darted, returning in seconds and placing the strap back on its hook.
He needed the lashes. They made him feel good.
You can't see Paul Krichell. He was just a few feet out of the picture that day, wearing a proprietor's grin. "You make me proud, John," Krichell told him just after the click. It wouldn't be long now, the 72-year-old scout realized, until the press began pestering him for details of that improbable spring day in 1950 when he strolled onto the field at East Harlem's Jefferson Park in his sunglasses, straw hat and white cotton jacket, looking for someone else.
He had positioned himself on the first base line that day to assess a player from Ben Franklin High. Krichell was the man who had found Lou Gehrig, Charlie Keller, Red Rolfe, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford and a fleet of others, a calm, assured gentleman who knew that everyone knew he was Krichell, the great Yankees scout.
He took no notice of John as the teenager finished laying the strip of lime down the leftfield line. John, academically ineligible, had never played on the team. He was in the hammer-and-nail class at Ben Franklin, the 1940s version of special ed, and served as a gofer for the varsity coach. "Wanna throw, Paulie?" John asked.
"Sure!" said Paulie Tine.
The two boys had met six years before: Paulie with the disfigured face and John with the disfigured soul, clinging to each other with the static electricity of pain. Paulie was two years older, his cheeks ravaged by a case of acne so severe that John believed him when he claimed he had been burned in a fire. Alleys? Sounded good to Paulie. Baseball all day across the East River at Randall's Island, or on the field at Jefferson Park that was farthest from 114th Street, where no one would likely recognize them? Suited Paulie just fine. The moment that kids from John's block showed up, Paulie would scent his buddy's fear and say, "I'll race ya, John!" The moment girls started pointing at Paulie and shrieking and hiding behind each other's backs, calling him the Mummy or the Phantom of the Opera, John would say, "I'll race ya, Paulie!" And lickety-split they were off, almost faster than shame, Paulie a heartbeat ahead at first and then John pulling even as they neared the 107th Street Pier and headed straight for the edge, diving blindly into the East River -- goners if there had been a log or a boat below.
Has there ever been a friend so loyal as Paulie? When John couldn't read a sign, Paulie lied, "Don't worry, John. I can't read that either." When John threw a BB from deep left, Paulie pogoed across the field, screaming, "Didja see that throw? John Malangone! What an arm!" He was the admiring audience John had never had, couldn't have -- not after what happened when a cop talked him into joining the Police Athletic League at 13 and he froze on the mound in his first and only game, unable to throw a single pitch for fear he would kill the batter. But even to Paulie, John never told his secret.
They were throwing to each other for distance on an adjacent field when Krichell's hungry eyes roved. What? Did he just see what he thought he just saw? One kid had just thrown the ball from home plate and hit the leftfield fence, near the sign that said 368! Krichell's legs began to move.
"How old are you, kid?" Krichell asked.
"Seventeen," replied John.
"Where do you play?"
John hesitated. Loaded question.
"Anyplace!" Paulie piped.
"Come to Yankee Stadium tomorrow. We're having a tryout."
"How do I get there?" asked John.
Krichell's eyebrows took a slow walk. An East Harlem teenage boy who didn't know where the Stadium was? What hole had this kid been hiding in? "What's your address, kid? We'll pick you up."
The tryouts had been going on for weeks, the legion of young prospects already whittled from hundreds to 40, when John entered the Stadium, believing he was about to participate in a distance-throwing contest. The Yankees' coaches blinked at the lefthander's glove, one of Paulie's, that John had been jamming onto the wrong hand for years, and gave him a righthander's mitt. The first day, John sat the entire practice game with Paulie at his side. The second day, he was sent to the mound in the seventh. For three scoreless innings he threw blurs. As the Yankees brass stood to leave in the bottom of the ninth, he approached the batter's box. The first pitch came in ... and went out, ricocheting in the upper deck's empty seats, whack, whack, whack.
"What do you think about playing pro ball?" Krichell asked moments later.
"Sure!" crowed Paulie.
Half the block was out on 114th Street three days later, surrounding the big black car, as word went from window to window: The Yankees are here. What for? To sign Malangone. Malangone?
Mark this sentence with your thumb. Go back to the photograph. Take a look at the ain't he hot stuff? look on Cochrane's face. Priceless. See, Mickey smelled smoke, but he had no idea he was crouching beside a volcano. Just smoke, because he knew the whiff of pain and anxiety well. He had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1936, lost a son in World War II. Sure, this kid he was tutoring, Malangone, was an original -- first player Mickey had ever seen run to the outfield during dead time and hit fungoes to himself. But when it was quiet and the kid was unaware, gazing into space, Mickey saw fear ... and mistook its source. "You're gonna make it," he kept reassuring John. "You're locked in. Stop worrying. If not this year, next year for sure."
Hell's bells, the kid had the goods. "Stronger than a bull," recalls Johnny Blanchard, one of John's catching rivals in the Yankees' farm system. "A rifle arm. Power out the ying-yang. He was a big Yogi Berra."
For the first two years the Yanks hid John on local sandlot teams, converting him from a pitcher to a catcher to take advantage of his stick, watching with a wary eye as he piled up MVP trophies in weeklong tournaments. They were fearful it would be discovered that they had signed him before he had graduated, but unable to send him away to one of their farm teams; he kept freezing on the train platform when it came time to leave his mother's arms, his grandma's healing fingers. Finally, in the spring of 1952, just shy of John's 20th birthday, Paulie poured him onto a bus and he went to Trois Rivieres in the Canadian Provincial League.
After Orlando's death, a mobster told John, "Ya got one under ya belt, kid!"
"Listen up, men!" Trois Rivieres manager Frank Novosel barked to his team as their bus rolled through Montreal, hours after he had made his final cut. "The guys on this bus are the guys who've made the ball club. This is the group that's going all the way. You got it? There's no turning back now, men! No turning back!"
And suddenly, with those words, John felt the shivers and the sweats again, the ringing and mumbling in his ear, the choking in his throat, the numbness in his throwing hand: The hunchback had crossed the border! He rose, struggling to breathe -- no, not here, on a moving bus with nowhere to run. He stumbled to the front. He knew what happened when he felt trapped.
It was the same feeling he had coming out of anesthesia after a double hernia operation just a few years before, when he reached down and felt the surgeon's clips and thick bandages all over his groin and abdomen and suddenly became sure they were the beast's hairy hands and fingernails. He screamed and ripped open the entire incision, trying to tear the creature from his groin, then reached up and tore at his face. There was blood everywhere, and a nurse rushed through the door and shrieked. He hurled her across the room. Two orderlies charged in. Two orderlies flew out. It took six men to straitjacket him, and he lost so much blood that he nearly died.
And now his new teammates and the Trois Rivieres bus driver blinked at him, unaware of such terms as panic attack and post-traumatic stress disorder; in 1952 there were only lunatics and maniacs. "I need a church!" John panted.
"What're we here for?" the bussie grunted. "To play or pray?"
"Take him to a church!" growled Novosel. "When you can hit like him, we'll go where you want to go."
A few turns, a few blocks, and the most glorious sight in John's life appeared: Montreal's huge cathedral, St. Joseph's Oratory. Between games, for the rest of the season, he was at church, praying and holding holy oil over the candles he had lit and rubbing it where Grandma had. He hit .302 with 17 home runs and 90 RBIs that season. The fans loved him. One day he might be missing a sock, the next a belt, then a hat. He played without shoelaces. "My feet are tight," he told the skipper. Truth was, he couldn't concentrate enough to tie a bow.
Just before the team's last game, the manager pulled him aside. "The Yankees have called you up for four days," said Novosel. "You probably won't get to play, but you'll get a taste of the big leagues. Then you're going to Venezuela for winter ball. Congratulations!"
"Skip, can't I stay here with you?"
"Are you crazy, son?"
The picture's a damn lie, and Bill Dickey knows it. Go back and look -- you couldn't have caught it on the first glance or the second. Sure, Dickey's smiling, but it's only for form's sake. He's smiling at nothing. He isn't looking at the kid.
Dickey didn't care what Stengel or Cochrane thought, or how many four-baggers John hit. He didn't give a flip that John was fresh from two years in the Army, where he'd won a medal for saving a drowning soldier. He didn't give a damn that the glove on John's left hand was given to him four days earlier by Berra himself. Nobody with a head like Malangone's was going to inhabit the soil behind the plate that Dickey, for 17 years with the Yankees, had made holy.
And he was right. He just didn't know how right until that photo hit page 66 of the Daily News on Feb. 23, 1955 -- Malangone misspelled with two l's in the caption beneath it -- jangling John's telephone with calls from relatives, friends, Louisville Slugger and Bazooka, and stirring his darkest fear: A locker in The House That Ruth Built was awaiting him, and with it, a chair just up the river at Sing Sing.
Suddenly the disintegration began, and no one in Yankees management could figure out why. So innocently, it started. "Just sign your name here," said the Louisville Slugger representative, handing John a form. "We'll use that signature on your new line of bats." John froze, uncertain how to spell even his first name, terrified that the world would learn he was illiterate. He stalled, begged Paulie to jump on a plane to St. Petersburg to sign for him, but a snowstorm in New York had canceled all the flights, and besides, Paulie had already bailed him out that spring, driving to Tennessee to retrieve John when he misread the road signs on the way from New York to Florida and got lost for three days. Jhon, he finally scrawled on the Slugger form. Someone at the company noticed at the last minute and tried to etch over it, but his teammates snickered and Yankees brass scowled when the bungled bats appeared. John snickered too. That was always the best way to cover his confusion: Giggle, play the buffoon, act crazy, man, so no one suspects you're going crazy!
He came to the plate in an intrasquad game brandishing a rake instead of a bat. He noticed a motorboat with keys in the ignition, jumped in and gunned it for a joyride, forgetting to untie the rope. The dock and the boat both splintered. The Yankees' front office got a call.
John bought a motorcycle. He wrecked it one day later. In retaliation for a prank, he cackled and hurled oranges at his teammates in the Yankees' hotel, splattering seeds and juice, shattering an exit sign. "I did it, Skipper," John volunteered at the next morning's team meeting.
"Why, John?" asked Stengel.
"I was warming up, Skipper."
"Yeah?" said Casey, rolling his eyes. "Who was your catcher?" On the golf course just outside the hotel, John noticed a pond full of golf balls. He filched a dozen pillowcases and filled them with balls, placing them in the lobby beside the baskets of oranges and grapefruits for the guests. Stengel got another belligerent call. Finally, a day passed without trouble, and John mock-swooned in relief onto his roommate's bed. A slat splintered in half and tore right through the roommate's expensive suitcase, and the roomie went straight to the brass. What more did John have to do to make the Yankees see what he saw when he looked in the mirror?
Sooner or later, Dickey knew, Stengel and the front office had to see what he saw: that the catcher was the nerve center of a ball game, and that you couldn't have a guy there, no matter how powerful his arm or catcherlike his body, who flashed signs that were incomprehensible to his pitchers.
John's teammates -- the nonpitchers, at least -- loved to gather around him in lounge chairs beneath the stars that spring and reenact his latest fiasco. They crooned the song they always crooned to guys about to walk the plank -- Dear John ... I sent your saddle home -- and were agog that day after day, by sheer dint of talent, his saddle remained right where it was. And they marveled at Malangonese, a language in which an RBI might be an IBM, and treading water was threading water. The great Joe DiMaggio, John addressed as Charley. Correcting him was pointless. "OK, tank you," John would say in his thick Noo Yawk accent. "I got it now. Got it down to a teeth."
One evening during that pivotal spring of '55, the players were buzzing about the change that had come over pitching coach Phil Page. "Didn't you hear what happened?" a player told John. "He killed his friend over the winter in a hunting accident."
John blanched. Then came the cold sweat, the hair rising from his flesh. He lurched away from the group, hesitated and then bolted for Page's room. Finally, for the first time in his life, he was going to tell someone his secret. Finally there was someone who would understand, someone whom John could perhaps even help. He rapped on the coach's door. Page opened it. John's mouth opened. Nothing came out.
"What do you want?" the coach demanded.
"Maybe I ...," John stammered. "Maybe I can help you."
Page's eyes narrowed. The buffoon, he thought, was mocking him. "You?" he said. "You can't help yourself." He shut the door, and the words that might have saved John never left their vault.
Camp broke. The confounded Yankees chiefs assigned John to the Double A Birmingham Barons. The Barons had a new manager. His name was Phil Page. A few days later, as the Barons played their way from Florida to Alabama in a string of exhibitions, John was sitting in the stands an hour before a game and needed to use the rest room. Confused by the lettering on the doors, he waited and watched. A door opened. A woman emerged. John headed through the other door, not realizing that the ladies' room had two doors. A woman screamed. Page refused to believe it was an honest mistake.
Only a couple of weeks had passed since the click of the camera, and now John and his Mercury were lost on the road again, in search of the Class B Tars in Norfolk, Va. A place where he and the hunchback could hit .326 without running the risk of being called up to Yankee Stadium.
It grows more and more unnerving, the idyllic photograph -- doesn't it? A few weeks later John walked into a doctor's office in Norfolk. "My nerves are bad," he told the physician. "I think too much."
"Take off your clothes," the doctor told him. "I'll be right back." While the doctor was gone, John fled. For four years, from Norfolk to Portsmouth to Montgomery to Knoxville to Amarillo to Charlotte to Winston-Salem and back to Knoxville again, he fled. Every city, his ritual was the same. First, he would search for a church, a place to drop a 50 and run the whole rack of candles. Second, he would find lodging, preferably in a migrant worker's shack on a farm a few miles from his teammates, so they wouldn't know what happened when he chanced to see an umbrella or a pair of striped socks, so they wouldn't notice him roaming the roads at night gathering rocks to throw at poles and trees. Then he would look for a day job simonizing cars or hauling blocks of ice or collecting golf balls at a driving range, anything to demolish dead time. Dead time was killer time; why was baseball so riddled with it? He would count mosquitoes during games, do push-ups, run sprints, squeeze his crucifix, rattle off Hail Marys, do anything to stave off another flashback, meanwhile losing all track of minor things such as strikes, balls, outs, base runners, signals, score. You don't tag up with two outs, Nuts 'n Bolts, you run on anything! Get your head in the goddam game! He was cut from the team in midgame in Winston-Salem -- what's a manager to do with a guy who rips two straight doubles and gets picked off both times?
He couldn't possibly explain it to anyone, not even himself. Each time he slunk out of the office of another furious manager, he felt humiliated ... and relieved. Relieved because when he went a week or two without punishment, his guilt would eat at him like acid; he was cheating, getting away with something. And yet he lived in dread of pushing the Yankees brass too far, of being separated once and for all from the game he loved, from the rickety minor league clubhouses and stadiums where he was so popular.
For years he tiptoed this precarious ledge between stardom and banishment. One night he would leave a gaping hole in Norfolk's centerfield fence, attempting to snag a fly ball in his Mercury at 40 mph. The next night he would batter the plywood-bandaged wall with line drives. He would go AWOL for two weeks. He would hit .356 at Winston-Salem. He would ground out and continue running up the rightfield line, all the way to the fence, and smash it with his fist. No one ever dreamed that he was swinging at a flickering image of a javelin, a coffin, a child's face.
He lived for those weeks when Paulie would join him. In between he befriended the old black groundskeepers and locker room janitors in all those Southern towns, helping them to rake the field, dig mud from cleats, scrub the floor. They too were outcasts, and they never tried to get too close. In '57 he married a knockout from East Harlem named Rosemary Chique, whom he had met -- where else? -- in a church. He turned everything over to her: checkbook, money and responsibility for the children they would have. Even when things were great, when it was just the two of them and her skin on his skin felt like heaven's grace, the mumbling might start: What about Orlando? You're alive right now, too alive, but he's just dust beneath the ground. John would have to turn and roll away, the life all gone from him.
And then, in the spring of '59, still without a single big league at bat, his career was over. It ended in a flash when he wiped out his third motorcycle, broke his leg ... and knew that he had finally run out of ways to make absolutely certain that he failed.
Thirty-two years walked by. The photograph remained forever young, hanging on a wall in the house John and Rosemary bought in Little Ferry, N.J., right across the street from St. Margaret's church. But everything else changed.
Paulie was shot on the street by a mugger and died on the operating table calling John's name. John stood on the 107th Street Pier and screamed back Paulie's.
John's father died of lung fibrosis. "You never forgot, did you, John?" the old man said just before he expired, and the two of them cried. But they never spoke of what John never forgot.
Rosemary bore John five children through their on-again, off-again marriage, but he was afraid to hold them or play with them, afraid he would hurt them and lose them ... and so, of course, for long periods of time, he did. He always seemed to be gone, working two full-time jobs, repairing and installing New York City fire hydrants from dawn till midafternoon, running to his mother's house in the Bronx for an hour and then off to his night job as a mechanic in Sears' automotive department. They called him the Santa Claus of Sears, he gave away so many repair jobs, still hoping against hope to convince God to call off the beast. But, of course, John needed the beast, so who could say that any of its visits came without a whistle from somewhere deep inside John?
He turned to drinking and totaled five cars, but he and the demon always walked away. When his despair, at last, was more than the candle racks at St. Margaret's could bear, he took it to a therapist in the early 1980s. He spoke of grief, of anxiety, of the ticket to the bigs that he had torn to bits, of everything but the hunchback and the secret. "You're reminiscing too much," the therapist told him. "You need to get rid of all those trophies, plaques and pictures."
He began the destruction with sledgehammer blows of his bat, but that was too impersonal, too swift. He needed to involve the killer that hung from his right shoulder; he needed to make sure he was still in command of it. The children playing at Moonachie Park in northern New Jersey kept looking at each other and shaking their heads. Day after day, a gray-whiskered man wearing a wool pullover hat in the dead of summer because of what the wind did inside his ear, wearing a coat because the warmth took him back to his grandmother's candles, would set up a table in front of home plate and place a trophy on it. Then he would lay cobblestones to steady the trophy and blocks of wood to shield all of it but the metal figurine. He would walk 30 or 40 strides with a bucket of balls. Only the finest, most accurate 55-year-old arm in the country could hit the tiny target from that distance. Only John Malangone could nail his past right on the head.
There's no need to leave you, dry-mouthed, on that ball field, because that's not how the story ends. On a February day in 1991, a 53-year-old man from Manhattan named Ron Weiss got directions to the Sears in Paramus, N.J., where John worked. Ron's son had just been cut from his school baseball team. Ron's life had just been shaken by his retirement after 30 years as a phys-ed teacher and coach. Ron's heart was still racked by regret that he had never taken a shot at the big leagues. And the one shiny thing that he kept clutching was a compliment from a teammate on a sandlot team he had played for in 1965, an anvil-armed power hitter who had told Ron that his infield play reminded him of a couple of guys he had rubbed elbows with a few years back, a couple of guys named Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson.
Ron ignored John's reluctance. Ron kept coming back, asking John to turn his son into a ballplayer, asking John to be a friend. "You don't know who I am," John finally said. "You can't trust me with your son."
Perhaps it was because Ron was virtually a stranger. Perhaps it was because of Ron's childlike trust. How do you figure that after a lifetime of holding it in, a guy whom John had given an offhand attaboy 26 years earlier would be the one to whom he would spill his guts? The javelin, the coffin, the demon, everything. And mercy, Ron didn't recoil, not an inch.
They went together to John's mother. The 80-year-old woman began to sob when Ron spoke Orlando's name. "You're gonna get him sick!" she told the stranger.
"Mom," said John, "I've been sick for a long time." She cried some more, and they talked through their tears and their shudders for hours. When they finished, John wanted to dance.
He and Ron took another trip, to the Manhattan Bureau of Records. They asked for the death certificate of Orlando Panarese, and John nearly vomited as he waited to see if the word after Cause of Death was Murder. The clerk handed Ron the medical examiner's report. Ron cleared his throat and read: "I further certify that I have viewed said body and from Partial Autopsy and evidence, that ... the chief and determining cause of his death was Brain Abscess following perforating fracture of the scalp, skull and brain: that the contributing causes were Accidental." John hugged Ron. John wept.
He needed to tell someone from the Yankees his secret. He tracked down Johnny Blanchard at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, where Blanchard had gone to sign autographs. John told him everything. "I was paralyzed," says Blanchard.
A week without the hunchback passed, then another. The damnedest craving came over John. "Ron," he said, "ya know what I wanna do now? I wanna play ball. Play ball with a clear mind, for the first time in my life. C'mon, let's join a team."
John squeezed hand grips to bring back the wrists. He swam laps at the Y. He spent hours taking cuts in batting cages and playing catch with Ron's son. John pitched and Ron played second base in a New Jersey league for men over 40. By 1994 they found themselves in Florida, playing in the Roy Hobbs World Series. John won two games on the mound and singled home Ron for the run that won the national title for the New Jersey Wonderboys.
John lives in a trailer today, retired from his two jobs and separated from his wife, spending his days fixing cars for friends, playing ball with three or four teenagers whom he has taken under his wing to make sure they never give up, and learning, with Ron's help, how to read. "Symphonics," John calls their method.
Rescued? John almost thought so, but in truth, he had only reached a reef where the rescue might begin. One Sunday morning last March, on opening day of the 1997 over-40 season, Ron miscalculated the power of guilt. He gave John a few articles he had clipped, one about a Houston Oilers defensive lineman who killed himself with a shotgun in 1993 just moments after losing control of his car and causing a crash that killed his best friend, and one about a girl whose face was impaled by a javelin at a high school track practice.
You know what happened next. John couldn't play ball for three months, so fierce was the volcano, but then he staged another comeback, on a Sunday three months ago. The oldest pitcher in the league took the hill for the Bergen Rockies and twirled a four-hitter against the Bergen Cardinals for a 14-1 win, and he was so damned excited each time he returned to the dugout, so full of hope -- honest-to-God 65-year-old half-scared-to-death hope -- you just wished to hell someone had been there to take a picture.