Next week in Tampa, Florida, a cheerful, florid, round-faced man named George Robert (Birdie) Tebbetts resumes his active, in-uniform duties as manager of the Cincinnati Redlegs. The major leagues' Manager of the Year for 1956 will direct his players in their early spring-training workouts, supervise his coaches and discuss the merits of his various players with his coaches and with his boss, the general manager of the Redlegs, Gabe Paul.
Frequently he'll find time to sit in the shade of the dugout or the cool of the hotel lobby, and there hold court for succeeding clusters of baseball writers. He will discourse, with wit and knowledge and a nice command of the language, on a variety of subjects, most of them, though not all, dealing with baseball. Watching him, as he puts in a day (or a week, or a season) as manager of the Redlegs, you might be moved to observe that here was a man completely at home in the world, a man perfectly in tune with his environment—which in his case is the warm, hustling arena of baseball.
In this observation you would be correct, of course, but if you were to go a step further and assume that this was the only place for Birdie Tebbetts, that away from the lively, public glare of the game he would be out of his element, you would err. Short weeks ago this same round, fleshy face—surmounted then by a fedora hat and all but encircled by the upturned collar of an overcoat—squinted over the steering wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan and through its ice-encrusted windshield at a driving snowstorm. This was on the road from Nashua, New Hampshire, where Tebbetts grew up and where he lives in the off season, to Andover, Massachusetts, where he was to speak at a luncheon of insurance men. He wore rubbers over his shoes, had snowtread tires on the rear wheels of his Olds and carried an ice scraper for the windshield in the glove compartment. He seemed very much at home.
"Snow like this would cripple New York," he said with cheerful smugness. "Up here we're used to it. We know how to handle it. They have accidents in New York in snow like this because they're not used to it. Up here we respect the snow. We know how to drive in it. We take it slow and..."
February 25, 1957
A car came from behind, swung out, passed Tebbetts in an interrupting cloud of snow and barreled on down the road. Tebbetts stared after it glumly.
"...except for damn fools like that."
He stopped the car carefully by the side of the road, reached in the glove compartment for the scraper and opened the door. In the car Paul Sadler, head of the insurance agency in Nashua with which Tebbetts has been associated for the past 10 years, looked back at the road and said in his quiet, mannerly way, "Be careful, Bird."
Tebbetts made sure the road was clear, then scraped the ice from the windshield, brushed the snow from his coat, got back in the car and continued on his way.
"People ask me why I live up here, in all this snow. Freddy Hutchinson [the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals] is always after me about it. Hutch lives down there in Florida. He says you buy a T shirt and a pair of dungarees for the kids and that's all there is to it. No expense, and they're out playing in the sun all winter. Up here I have to buy snowsuits and sweaters and galoshes for my kids. Every time they come in the house or go out of it, they've got to be dressed or undressed."
Tebbetts pondered on this, thinking perhaps of Hutchinson's children, who at that very moment might well be scampering along the beaches of Anna Maria Island under the Florida sun. Then he justified his existence:
"I live in three worlds. Baseball is one. I love baseball. I liked to play it. I like to watch it. I like to talk about it. I think—if I didn't have a responsibility to my wife and my kids—I think I'd rather have a low-paying job in baseball than a high-paying one outside it.
"Then there's public speaking. That's a special world of its own. I do a lot of speaking. I was down at Hartford last night. There's this luncheon at Andover today. Tonight down in Lowell. I don't like to refuse requests to speak. It's part of my life. It's part of baseball. It's part of insurance."
Tebbetts drove slowly, carefully, his slablike hands gripping the steering wheel until he lifted one to make a gesture that embraced the snow and the hills and, indeed, the entire city of Nashua.
"Then there's this. This is the world I was brought up in. This is where I can make a living outside of baseball, if I have to. This is where I can be myself. I walk down Main Street in Nashua and people don't say, 'There's Birdie Tebbetts, manager of the Cincinnati Reds.' They say, 'There's that fresh Tebbetts kid, used to be mascot for the Nashua Millionaires.' And they stop and talk. Sometimes it takes me an hour to walk two blocks."
The Nashua Millionaires were a renowned semipro team established during the 1920s by Francis Parnell Murphy, a Nashua man who later became governor of New Hampshire and for whom Tebbetts has the reverence a devoted son has toward his father. Tebbetts' own father died in the influenza epidemic during World War I when Birdie was about 5, and he has no memory of him. But he speaks warmly of Murphy. "He bought me my shoes from the time I became mascot of the Millionaires until I was old enough to buy them myself. He talked to me and advised me. He did a lot of things for me. He's a wonderful man. I've tried in my life never to do anything that I thought would make Governor Murphy ashamed of me."
Becoming mascot of the Millionaires was a major event in Tebbetts' life. A dozen boys wanted to be mascot, and Birdie says he outfought all of them for the job. Each day one or two fewer appeared at the field, until finally only Birdie and one other boy were left. "And I licked him," Birdie said, "and I got the job."
Paul Sadler laughed. A decade older than Tebbetts, whom he seems to regard with a paternal fondness, he was an active sportsman and an avid follower of the Millionaires when Tebbetts was the mascot.
"The truth of it is, Bird," he said slyly, mocking the image of the tough little boy that Tebbetts had evoked, "you got the job because you were cute."
Tebbetts grunted and Sadler laughed again.
With the Millionaires, Tebbetts served as mascot and bat boy and as part of the pregame show. "Come and see the 12-year-old catcher," the publicity releases would say, and before the game the youthful Tebbetts, who had thick legs and strong arms but who was otherwise a lightweight, would go out with the regular players and take part in infield drill. Thus he was a catcher from the beginning and continued as a catcher through high school and college, semipro ball and the minor leagues, and for 14 seasons in the majors with Detroit and Boston and Cleveland.
Catching, however, was a family trait.
"My uncle Frank Ryan, my mother's brother, was a catcher," Birdie said, an amused grin filling his face as he went on. "He worked in the mills and he caught semipro ball. This one day he'd been working long, long hours, and he hadn't had much sleep, and he'd caught, oh, two or three ball games in a row. Along about the sixth inning the infielders came in to talk to the pitcher. Well, it was a hot day and Frank was tired, so he didn't bother to go out to the mound. He squatted there behind home plate with his head down, waiting for the conference to finish. And he fell asleep." Birdie laughed out loud. "The pitcher looked in for the sign, and Frank didn't do anything. Just squatted there with his head down. Someone had to nudge him to wake him up."
Tebbetts was an outstanding athlete in high school, a basketball star, an all-state quarterback in football, an eyecatching baseball player who came under major league scrutiny early. By "agreement," common practice in these years, the Detroit Tigers arranged for him to go to college on a scholarship. He chose Providence College in Rhode Island.
"I remember when I was catching for Providence. There used to be a lot of town baseball in New England then, and when one town played a rival town it was a big thing. Lots of feeling and lots of betting. They'd import ballplayers to strengthen the local teams. I used to catch all around that way when I had the time off from school. You wouldn't know which team you were going to play for until you got to the field.
"This one time North Brookfield in Massachusetts was playing somebody, and I got a phone call asking me if I could play on a certain day. I could, so I went up to where the game was. Now Connie Mack came from around Brook-field, and if he happened to be in Boston with the Athletics and they had a day off, he'd let a player go out to Brook-field to help out. Well, I got to town and I went in the hotel and I told the clerk I was one of the ballplayers, and he showed me the room down the hall where I could change into my uniform. I was in there getting dressed when the door opened and this big guy came in. He stuck his hand out and said, 'How are you? My name's Grove.' I thought to myself, holy smokes, Lefty Grove! And then I thought, my God, I either have to hit against him or catch him. When we got to the ball field, it turned out I had to catch him. I was about 18 or 19, a punk kid catching in college, and Grove was winning 30 games in the American League.
"We started to warm up and I thought, hell, he's fast but he isn't that fast. I could handle him all right. I was giving it the nonchalant routine, flipping my glove this way and that and feeling pretty good. Then he waved his hand straight down at me, the sign for the fast ball. He wound up and he threw and I never saw it. It went past my ear and hit the screen behind me. I never was so scared in my life. Grove came in and he said, 'Didn't you see me signal for the fast ball?' I said, 'I saw the signal but I didn't see the ball.' He said, 'I'll build up to it slowly.'
"Well, now the game starts, and in the first inning Grove throws nine pitches and strikes out the side. I dropped every pitch but the last one. Some guy in the stands behind the bench yelled, 'Why don't they put a player in to catch?' Grove came in to talk to me, and he said, 'I'll take it a little easy.' I was sick but I was sore too, and I said, 'Look, you do the pitching and I'll do the catching.' I was scared but I was damned if I was going to quit.
"After that first inning when we were on the bench, Jack Barry, the old Million Dollar Infield shortstop who was the Holy Cross coach and who was managing Brookfield, said to me, 'Bird, you're used to college pitching. You're taking your eye off the ball as he throws it. You can't do that with a pitcher like Grove. Keep your eye on the ball all the way, and you won't have any trouble.' Well, I still had trouble but I got so I could handle him all right, and I got a base hit that drove in the only run we scored, so the day ended up pretty well.
"Back in the hotel when we were dressing, Grove said to me, 'Son, you go to college, don't you?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'You committed to any major league team?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He nodded his head and then he said, 'I think you're going to make a major leaguer.'
"Now about five years later I am a major leaguer. I'm with Detroit and we're playing in Boston. Grove's with the Red Sox now. We come from the clubhouse through the runway that leads to the field, and there's Grove sitting in the runway smoking a cigaret. I didn't say anything. I was just going to walk past him, but he put his hand out and stopped me. He said, 'Hello, there.' I stopped and I said, 'Hello, Mr. Grove.' He grinned, and then he said, 'I guess I'm a pretty good scout.' "
In Andover, Tebbetts was in his "speaking world." He met a couple of dozen insurance men, ate lunch and spoke, extemporaneously, for three-quarters of an hour. He and Frank Brigham, spry, 78-year-old vice-president of Merrimack Mutual, one of the many companies represented by Birdie's employer, needled one another during the speech. Tebbetts said something in praise of mutual insurance companies; Brigham promptly dived into his pocket, came out with a promotional ballpoint pen imprinted with the name of the insurance company (complete with slogan: "We Swampum with Wampum") and elaborately presented it to Tebbetts. "There's your fee," he said gleefully. "Keep it up." The audience howled, and Tebbetts, half turning toward Brigham, pointedly praised stock insurance companies, traditional rivals of the mutual companies. Grinning, Brigham stuck his hand out at Tebbetts and said, "Give it back." More howls.
It was late afternoon when Birdie got back to Nashua and swung his car into his driveway. It had been shoveled, but it was already beginning to fill again with snow. "Mary shoveled the drive," Tebbetts said as he got out of the car.
Inside the house he walked through the dining room toward the kitchen. His wife, a tall, strikingly attractive girl, came to meet him.
"Hey," Birdie said, smiling. "You were out shoveling."
"Certainly," she said.
"Why didn't you call and see if George or Jimmy could do it?"
"They're in school," Mary explained. "I wanted to get it started. Listen, a man called from Lowell. He said the snow was so bad that he wanted to postpone the affair tonight, if you could give them another night you could speak."
"What did you tell him?"
"I said I didn't know, and could I have you call him. But he said he had to know one way or the other by 1:30. I told him I couldn't get in touch with you—I didn't know where in Andover your luncheon was—and he said, well, they'd just have to go ahead with it then. He said would you be there? I said if you told him you'd be there, well, you'd be there."
Birdie looked out the window at the snow, which was still falling heavily.
"I wish I'd known," he said. "I hate that drive tonight. It was terrible this afternoon."
"What time do you have to be there?" Mary asked.
"We'd better eat early then," she said. "Do you want a cup of tea now?"
"Yes, please," Birdie said. He turned and went back through the dining room and the living room to the sun porch on the far side of the house. In the sun porch, playing, were two of his three small daughters. They shouted when they saw him, dropped their toys, ran to him and climbed up on his lap. He greeted them with mock formality that amused them greatly.
"Good afternoon, Betty. Good afternoon, Patty. Where is Susan, still in school?"
He sat with them on his lap in the corner of the porch, joking with them until they were roaring with laughter. After a while he let them slide to the floor, and they went back to their toys. He wandered through the house to the kitchen and sat at the table, tapping it idly with his thick fingers, talking. Mary set cups and saucers on the table, and cream and sugar. She poured coffee for herself, then turned back to the stove for a minute, frowning and sniffing. Suddenly she opened the toaster. Inside it was a kitchen sponge, about the size of a piece of bread, and nicely browned around the edges.
"Patty," Mary announced, holding up the sponge. "Playing house."
She turned back to the stove for a minute or two, then to the sink. Birdie tapped his fingers. He glanced at her impatiently once or twice and finally spoke.
"Mary," he said in the classic tones of the patient, suffering husband, "may I please have my tea?"
Mary turned and looked at him, a little smile touching her lips. She leaned over, put her arm around his shoulders, gazed into his face and said, very slowly and distinctly: "Why don't you reach out and pick it up?"
Then Birdie saw the teapot, quietly steeping on the table, not a foot away from his cup. His face reddened but he smiled, enjoying his chagrin as much as Mary did.
After dinner Tebbetts drove through the snow to Lowell to speak before the annual smoker of the Lowell Oblate Mission, a church group. The snow held up the arrival of the crowd, and this delay, compounded by a series of near-comic difficulties with a movie projector that was showing films of high school football games, put off Tebbetts' turn to talk until well into the evening, when the audience was restive and impatient. His speech, deliberately casual and informal, seemed to be well received, but Tebbetts, like all performers, wondered if it had gone over. He could not be sure that it had, and on the long drive back to Nashua the doubt rankled him.
A NEW BRIDGE IN NASHUA
The next day Birdie was in the world of Nashua. He had an appointment with his dentist—a friend, Dr. Nicholas Panagoulias—to have a new bridge fitted.
"How's the swelling in the cheek?" Dr. Panagoulias asked. "Has it gone down?"
"I think so, Nick," Tebbetts replied. "Though I don't know whether it was swelling or fat."
Dr. Panagoulias installed the bridge and then warned Tebbetts that it would be uncomfortable for a while.
"You'll get used to it, though."
"Will it improve my disposition?"
"Ah, no, Birdie," the dentist said. "You have a good disposition."
Later, Birdie drove out to the Nashua Country Club for Saturday lunch with several friends. Like most fine athletes, Tebbetts is aggressive, sure of himself, a little on the egocentric side, but he nevertheless has a strong and curiously touching pride in his friends and a warm affection for them. Ordinarily, he savors these meetings with them. Today, however, he was unusually quiet. He twisted his jaw from time to time and occasionally pressed against the new bridge with his thumb. He left early and on the way home stopped off at his brother's house.
Charlie Tebbetts, a year older than Birdie and darker and quieter, met him at the kitchen door.
"Hello, Bird," he said. "Come on in."
Charlie's wife, Hildreth, asked if they'd like a cup of tea. Birdie said he would, and then grimaced and pressed the new bridge again.
"Darn thing doesn't feel right."
"A new bridge?" Charlie asked. "Oh, they take a while to get used to."
They sat in the front room, drinking tea and talking about teeth, kids, baseball, the old days. As they talked, Mary came along the sidewalk. She wanted to borrow the car from Birdie, but once inside she sat down to talk for a while, too.
"This one," Birdie said wryly, referring to Mary. "I met her up in Montpelier one fall when we were barnstorming. Mary was secretary to the governor of Vermont and she had to be sort of official greeter when we arrived. I tried to make a date with her for that evening but she said she was sorry, she was busy. So I said, well, we'll just have dinner then. She said she was afraid she already had a dinner engagement. I said, how about tomorrow; we'll still be here tomorrow. Let's have lunch. She said she was sorry, no lunch. I made a big impression. Well, a short time later the Elks Club up there decided they wanted me to speak at some affair or other. Mary's father was the president of the Elks or the program chairman or something, and he asked Mary to write to me and ask me up to speak. Mary said, oh, no, not to Tebbetts. But her father said, ah, come on, please, and so Mary wrote me. Well, I wrote back and I said, gee, Montpelier is way out of the way, it'd be a terrible inconvenience and expense to go way up there to speak, and I just couldn't do it unless I got a fee of, oh, $500. Unless, I said, I happened to be in Montpelier for social reasons, perhaps even having dinner with you, and then I'd be happy to speak. Mary wrote back and said, 'Dear Mr. Tebbetts: The Elks don't think you're worth it, and I'm busy. Yours truly, Mary Hartnett.' "
Mary, listening to this, smiled at Birdie, and Birdie grinned back.
"I got her finally," Birdie said. "Married her in the fall after playing a season with the Red Sox. After playing a season with the Red Sox nothing could bother you."
"That wedding was a day," Hildreth said, smiling.
"That was a day," Birdie agreed. "Charlie was my best man, and he told me he felt faint, and I told him he'd better go inside off the altar and sit down for a few minutes. Mary's brother—he didn't bother feeling faint. He was sick. We got him off. Then Mary said her slip was falling, the strap had broken. I told her, let it fall, step out of it and leave it where it is. I leaned the other way and whispered to the maid of honor to be ready when Mary turned to leave the altar and pick up the slip. That's the day I realized I could manage a baseball team."
A CELLAR IN THE SNOW
Mary borrowed the car key from Birdie, invited Charlie and Hildreth to dinner that evening and left to run some errands. Soon after Mary had gone, Birdie arose.
"See you tonight," he said and began to leave by the front door.
Charlie gently barred the way.
"Go out the door you came in," he said, honoring the old superstition.
Birdie looked at him. Charlie grinned.
"With my luck, Bird, don't take any chances."
Birdie shook his head wearily and went out through the kitchen. He walked the few blocks along the snowy road to his own house. Mary came in a little later, and as she started to prepare dinner Birdie went down to the basement to his "wine cellar," a locked closet from which he extracted two bottles of a delicate pink vin rosé. In the basement were stacks of scrapbooks covering his career in sports, and before bringing the wine upstairs Tebbetts poked through a couple. He stopped at a photograph of himself, catching for Detroit, blocking Ted Williams with his left leg as Williams slid for home plate. Beyond them, Joe Cronin, then manager of Boston, watched the play with anxiety all over his face.
"That's the greatest action picture I ever saw," Tebbetts said. "Look at the way Teddy's leg is twisted against mine. You can see how a man's career could end in a split second." He studied the picture with distaste. "He could have torn all the ligaments in his leg. And the hell of it was, I didn't have the ball. Williams bounced off me and rolled past the plate, and he had to crawl back to touch it. The throw came in then and I jumped across the plate and tagged him. Cronin came over to me and—my God, here was his great ballplayer just missed breaking his leg—and he said, 'Birdie, what were you trying to do to him.' I said, 'Joe, I don't know his name. All I know is he was trying to score.' "
Tebbetts reached in his mouth, loosened the bridge and took it out. "Boy, what a nuisance," he muttered.
In an older scrapbook was pasted a sports column from a 1929 Nashua newspaper. Part of the column read: "The element of surprise and the ability to pull the unexpected is the most valuable requisite that a coach can find in his quarterback, and only one schoolboy in the entire state possessed that qualification this fall. That boy was George 'Bird' Tebbetts, master showman of the gridiron, and probably the most daring and fearless quarterback that Coach Ray Pendleton has produced in his seven years of coaching football teams here.... Small wonder that a team will play inspired football when they know they are being quarterbacked by a boy who has faith in their ability."
"It takes a lot more than faith and inspiration," he said. "It takes players."
Suddenly, despite the fact that he was in a cellar in New Hampshire with snow drifted high all around his house, Tebbetts was back in the world of baseball.
"Take the Redlegs. Everybody's talking about them for the pennant this year. Now down in Lowell I said we'd win the pennant. Well, what do you want me to say? I don't even know if they were listening to me, and maybe we will win it. But, my Lord, you've got to be realistic. Pitching is still the big thing in baseball. And in our league Milwaukee and Brooklyn have the pitching, deep pitching, strong pitching. Everyone talks about our hitting. All right, we have power. But it isn't sustained. It seems to me we'd go weeks at a time last season without putting together three base hits in a row. We need another good, steady right-handed hitter, one who can hurt the left-handers. Now take Wally Post. First of all, for some strange reason, he doesn't hit left-handers well. And it didn't make any difference to him if a man was on first base or third, because he'd either hit a home run or strike out. And he struck out a lot more often than he hit home runs. We had power, sure, but we used it inefficiently. And with our pitching we can't afford to waste runs." He stood up, and the chances seemed good that he was thinking of ways to avoid wasting runs. "We have to finish third," he announced. "We should finish second. And we may win."
He worked the bridge back into his mouth, bit on it, grimaced and went upstairs, carrying the wine.
"I'm going to leave it in," he stated, setting his mouth. "I'm going to leave it in. I'll beat it."
The phone rang, and Birdie went into the front hall to answer it. He spoke for a few minutes and then walked into the living room, a big, beaming grin on his face, the painful bridge forgotten.
"That was that fellow down in Lowell," he announced proudly. "He said the club liked my talk so much they wanted to know if they could put me down on the program for next year. For next year!"
Smiling, he sat on the couch in the living room, enjoying the happiness of the moment and waiting with great good cheer for the arrival of his guests, the coming of spring and, quite possibly, a pennant-winning season just ahead. For here is a man at home in the world.