With a tear in his fountain pen, Bill Stewart, the umpire, quoted Birdie Tebbetts to Warren Giles, President of the National League: "You're a lousy umpire. You booted it in the World Series. You booted it in the All-Star game. You're just a lousy umpire."
"That'll cost you fifty," Giles advised the Cincinnati manager, whose eyes and wallet opened wide.
"I wouldn't say a thing like that to an umpire," Tebbetts protested.
He could be mistaken about that. From time to time managers of baseball teams have been known to use language within earshot of umpires, and language is a tool which Tebbetts employs with facility. Yet when he says he did not say what Stewart says he said, it is difficult to believe he did, for the manager of the Reds is a freak among baseball men. He never says, "I was misquoted," unless he was.
When he was a member of the Boston Red Sox, the papers quoted his estimate of his playmates: "Moronic malcontents." He did not disown the happy phrase.
ANOTHER HAPPY PHRASE
When Charley Dressen, as manager of the Dodgers in 1951, publicly accused a Brooklyn pitcher of cowardice, Tebbetts made a speech. He said Dressen was not a nice man and that ball players all over had rejoiced that his Dodgers lost the pennant. Birdie did not back down.
This is Tebbetts' first season as Resident Djinn of a major league team, but he was marked for such an office by the time he got out of Providence College. It is a tenet of baseball faith that man thinks best from a squat. Hide his comely features behind an iron mask, sheathe bosom and shins in armor, put a big liver-shaped mitt on his left paw, and when he goes into a squat his brain gives off sparks. Machiavellian stratagem and weighty decisions become as child's play to him.
That is why so many used catchers, from Connie Mack to Al Lopez, have been elevated to godship and awarded a private dressing room for changing their underwear and holding press conferences. Tebbetts is not only a used catcher, but one with an intellect as sharp as a buccaneer's dirk.
Moreover he is a dedicated man, a monk in flannels pledged to baseball by holy vows. Baseball is all he cares about, all he thinks about. On winter evenings he sits at home staring vacantly into the fire, lips moving silently. "Well," his wife will say, "what inning are we in now?"
In a New York theater last winter, Tebbetts encountered a friend in the lobby between acts. The friend inquired after the family. Mrs. Tebbetts was inside, Birdie said.
"How are your progeny?" the friend asked.
"I need right-handed pitchers," Birdie said. When he got back to his seat, chuckling, he repeated the exchange to Mrs. Tebbetts.
"It figured," she said.
This does not imply that he is indifferent to children. He approves of them, perhaps absent-mindedly, including his own three. He also thinks well of mother love.
When he was catching for the Detroit Tigers he was warmed by a motherly letter from Mrs. Howard Wakefield about her son, Dick, toward whom the Tigers had cast sheep's eyes and $52,000. Her boy was coming out of college to join the Tigers, and Mrs. Wakefield hoped Mr. Tebbetts would keep a fatherly eye on him.
Like everybody else who meets Wakefield, Tebbetts found the young man to be amiable, talented and altogether likable. They struck up a warm friendship that was not affected by the discovery that Wakefield was not a major league outfielder. Birdie had not bet $52,000 that he was.
Failing with the Tigers, Wakefield also failed with the Yankees, which is easier. He reached the minors on merit. Meanwhile Tebbetts was traveling, too. By the spring of 1952 he was with the Indians, training in Tucson, Ariz. There Wakefield arrived seeking a try-out. No go. Al Lopez, the manager, told Wakefield he wasn't going to make it as a regular and suggested that he hunt another job. Wakefield called on Leo Durocher who said yes, he was welcome to try out with the Giants. New York and Cleveland customarily tour home together from training camp, playing exhibitions as they go.
A PEACHY PITCH
In Baton Rouge, La., Tebbetts was catching a young pitcher and Cleveland was leading the Giants, 1 to 0, with two out in the ninth inning. Durocher gave Wakefield his first chance as a pinch batter.
Tebbetts happened to know that it had been decided to farm out the young pitcher for another season. What happened here would not affect his future. Birdie called for a pitch which, experience had taught him, would look ginger-peachy to Mrs. Wakefield's boy. Dick hit it on a line to left center for two bases. The next batter popped up.
"You took real good care of your boy," the Giant coach, Herman Franks, yelled to Tebbetts.
"That was the pitch?" Tebbetts snapped. "Did it have something on it?"
"Pretty good stuff," Franks conceded.
"And the next pitch the guy popped up," Birdie said. "Same pitch, wasn't it? Listen, exhibition or World Series game, I don't take care of anybody. I wouldn't groove one for my mother."
Silently he added to himself: "I didn't say Wakefield's mother."