In 1959 the San Francisco Giants led the National League for 74 days—and then blew the pennant by losing seven of their last eight games. It was a performance to bring sadness into the lives of Horace Stoneham, who owns the Giants, and Bill Rigney, who manages them, and a large number of athletes who contributed, more or less, to the eventual catastrophe. Perhaps saddest of all was a large, toothpick-chewing individual named Sam Jones, who had toiled so magnificently in defeat.
Today, in the spring of 1960, no baseball team in the land can match the buoyant good spirits of the Giants. Stoneham is happy because the Giants are favored to win the pennant. Rigney is happy because his already impressive roster has been blessed with the addition of Billy O'Dell, a fine young pitcher, and Don Blasingame, a superb little second baseman, and also because he will have the services of Wondrous Willie McCovey all year. The Giants themselves are happy because they have a new and much larger ball park and can look ahead to a plump World Series share. Everyone is happy but Sam Jones. This is partly because Sam is never happy. Even more, however, it is because Sam Jones knows that if the Giants are to make another big run at the pennant, it will be up to him once again to get them there.
Last year, Sam Jones, who had never before won even 15 games in a big league season, won 21, tying Milwaukee's Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette for most victories in the league. He pitched a rain-shortened no-hitter and a one-hitter which only a questionable fielding play at shortstop kept from being a hitless game. He led the league in earned run average and was second in strikeouts. He started and he relieved, something Sam had never before been called upon to do. He pitched with three days' rest and two days' rest and no days' rest. He beat the Braves and Dodgers a total of eight times. At the end of the season the Giants were ready to raise a monument to Sam Jones and his incredibly strong, strangely crooked, sometimes pain-racked but always willing right arm.
"He did everything you could ask of a pitcher," said Bill Rigney, "and he did it well."
April 11, 1960
Jones's sudden arrival at this position of eminence was less than remarkable to National League batters, who had been intimidated by his vast physical gifts for years. Sam is 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 210 pounds and can be as mean as a grizzly bear. He is able to throw a baseball about as hard as anyone alive, and perhaps no one, current or deceased, ever made a baseball bend in such wondrous ways. Sam has a very wicked curve.
"That thing doesn't break when it comes up there," says Richie Ashburn. "It explodes."
What makes Sam's curve so special? Dick Groat was once asked.
"Which one?" said Groat. "He's got a dozen of them. He throws from here"—demonstrating a sidearm delivery—"and here"—throwing from three-quarters—"and here"—throwing overhand. "He has fast curves and slow curves, about six different speeds. And they all break quick. Then you have to worry about that danged fast ball, too."
"He gets more rotation on his curve than anyone else," says Hank Foiles, who once caught Sam in the minors. "It comes up there and then it goes boom! It breaks about this far. If I had longer arms, I could show you."
In short, Sam Jones has the kind of stuff that other ballplayers talk about in the dressing room after the game and around the batting cage the next day and are still talking about long after Sam has left town. When the subject of stuff comes up, they agree that Sam has the most.
"I would hate to try to make a living," they say, "batting against him every day."
The puzzling feature is why Jones lingered on the fringe of stardom for so long before he finally scrambled to the top at the age of 34. He reached the big leagues with the Indians for a few games in 1951 and then began to bounce around. He went from the Cleveland organization to the Cubs to the Cardinals, winning a few here, losing a few more there, frightening opposing batters with his curve and speed, frightening his own managers with his lack of control. At the end of the 1958 season, Sam's lifetime big league record was 51 victories and 60 defeats. He seemed destined never to rise above the .500 class, a man who could beat you badly at times, but who could never win the big ones.
"You stay close to Sam Jones long enough," they used to say, "and eventually he'll walk someone in a tight spot or hit someone or throw the ball away, and he'll beat himself."
Even in Sam's greatest moment, his storied wildness threatened to ruin it all. Pitching for the Cubs against the Pirates on May 12, 1955, Sam went into the ninth inning with a no-hit, no-run game. Suddenly he walked the first three men.
"What's the matter, Sam?" asked Stan Hack, who was managing the Cubs. "You tired?"
"Nope," Sam mumbled. "Ain't tired a bit."
"Well then, Sam," said Hack, "how about getting some of those pitches over the plate?"
Jones then struck out Groat, Roberto Clemente and Frank Thomas to end the game.
His wildness and his remarkable ability to strike people out have gone arm in arm down through the years, lifting him to no-hit fame one day, dropping him plunk under a cold shower the next. In 1955, the year of his no-hitter, Jones lost 20 games to lead the league. He walked 115 in '56 and 107 in '58, and these were figures unmatched by anyone else, too. But in those same three seasons he was striking out 198, 176 and 225. Each was high for the year, and the last broke a Cardinal record which had been set by Dizzy Dean.
While lack of control was Sam's major problem, it wasn't his only one. There were days when he was something less than a tiger out there on the mound.
"When he gets ahead," Stan Hack once explained, "he gets careless. If he has two men out, he's careless with the next batter. If he gets a two-or three-run lead, he gets careless."
Sometimes after Sam pitched, he would disappear for days. He just didn't seem to care.
Sam also ached. In 1951 he pitched 267 innings at San Diego, nine more at Cleveland and then took a busman's holiday, putting in a full winter of overtime in the Puerto Rican League. This schedule not only wore out the batters for miles around, but also Sam Jones. He developed bursitis, and the next spring could hardly lift his arm.
"You need an operation," the doctors told him.
"No sir," said Sam. "You ain't gonna cut on me."
Eventually heat treatments and injections chased the bursitis away, but this was only the first of a long line of painful maladies to lodge in Jones's arm. There followed arthritis and bone spurs and bone chips and a lot of other things.
"His elbow," says Bob Bauman, the Cardinal trainer, "was just about the worst I've ever seen. And crooked! His right arm was at least an inch shorter than his left. We worked on it and got it straightened out, and then he couldn't get the ball anywhere near the plate. So we let it get crooked again. I don't see how he could pitch. There were days he couldn't even comb his hair."
Even now, when someone asks Sam how the arm feels, he is likely to say: "It's broke."
Yet Sam is not ornery, only different, and perhaps his basic trouble is that he landed in the wrong era. Back in the early, carefree, tobacco-juice-and-dirty-shirt days of baseball, he would have been just another of the boys. But in the mid-20th century Sam Jones stands out like a Neanderthal man at a ladies' tea.
Today most ballplayers are smooth and well-educated; they dress sharply and speak articulately and know their way around. Sam came out of the coal fields of eastern Ohio and West Virginia and never got past the 11th grade. He grew up, so to speak, in the U.S. Air Force, and his path to the Golden Gate was by way of the tank towns and dingy ball parks of the Negro leagues. When Sam first came into organized baseball, Negro teammates on his own ball club considered him so childlike and rude and socially awkward that they were embarrassed.
Sam is still extremely shy. He will turn away from conversation with a stranger, and the mere request for a public-speaking appearance sends him bolting for the hills. Sam admits it himself. "Makin' those speeches," he says, "scares me to death." When the words do come out, Sam mumbles as if he had a mouthful of marbles. Because of a blocked sinus condition, he also snorts. And he has difficulty hearing out of one ear.
FEAR OF FLYING
His horror of airplanes is legend. "Man had no business inventin' airplanes," Sam says, and each time he steps aboard one of the winged monsters it is with trepidation in his soul. "We'll never make it this time," he warns his teammates, and he always talks a lot on airplanes because of the feeling that each trip may be his last.
Along with his great size—and Sam looks even larger than he is—there is a ponderous slowness. Whether walking off the field or across Main Street, Sam moves with a labored tread, and the odds seem to grow with each step that he will never make it. His normal expression is a doleful one. This, in part, led to the nickname Sad Sam, although no one in baseball ever calls him that. He has, over the years, become closer and closer to his teammates ("Sam Jones is one of the nicest guys that ever lived," the Giants will tell you), and behind his gloomy fa√ßade exists a mountainous sense of humor, though it's noted more for its explosiveness than its subtlety. Sam is a leading exponent of the hotfoot and pie-in-the-face school. He is very light-skinned and has freckles, and his reddish hair is thinning fast; since Sam is sensitive about this he always wears a pork-pie hat, indoors or out, which usually perches far back on his somewhat pear-shaped head. From the corner of his heavy-lipped, homely mouth droops the ever-present toothpick which gave him his other alias, Toothpick.
As Sam's fame increases, so does that of the toothpick, an item he may have saved from becoming obsolete. Sam began to chew them in the Air Force because both tobacco and gum make him sick. His wife once said that he keeps one in his mouth even when he sleeps.
Sam has a gold toothpick which a broadcaster gave him after the 1955 no-hitter, and Frank Lane once promised him a diamond-studded one if he would win 20 games. For everyday chewing, however, Sam prefers the plain white, untreated ones. "Them flavored toothpicks," he says, "bust up."
But it is Sam's right arm, not his toothpicks or eccentric nature, that may decide the fate of a season. Behind the sudden rise to fame of the arm and Jones lie three hard reasons: control, a run-scoring team behind him and confidence.
At St. Louis in 1958, Fred Hutchinson called Sam "just about the best pitcher in baseball." Hutch and his coaches on the Cardinals had worked with Jones for two years, cutting down on his big motion, smoothing out some minor faults and turning Sam into a pitcher who could do a pretty good job of finding the plate. With his overpowering stuff, that was all Sam needed. He produced a 2.88 earned run average, second best in the league. But the Cardinals, because of their big youth movement, traded Sam to the Giants for Bill White, a fine young first baseman-outfielder, and the Giants reaped the benefit of all that teaching.
"His control is pretty good now," said Hobie Landrith, the Giants' catcher, who played with Sam at Chicago and at St. Louis, "and this club can get him some runs. Someone hits every day, and that's all a pitcher as good as Sam needs. You get him a few runs, and he's going to win.
"But the big thing is the added confidence he has in his curve. He used to have to go to the fast ball when he was behind, and the batters would wait for it. Now he knows that he can get the curve over when he has to, and he throws it even on a three-and-two pitch."
Bill Rigney probably added to Sam's confidence by becoming the first manager to utilize Sam's full potential. When Sam was traded, the popular crack around the league was, "The Giants better have a good bullpen to bail him out." This was based on Sam's reputation for losing close games and blowing leads. But in April last year, in Los Angeles, the Giants were in a close game and the relief corps, practically nonexistent from the first of the season, was in even worse shape than usual. Rigney looked down the bench, and his eyes fell on Jones.
"How do you feel, Sam?" asked Rigney.
"Good," said Sam, who wasn't planning anything more strenuous than breathing until his next turn came around.
"Well, how about going down to the bullpen?" Rigney asked. "I might need you in a little while."
"Sure," said Sam, and lumbered off. He was back almost before he left. With the Giants ahead in the ninth inning, two Dodgers on base and one out, Jones struck out Carl Furillo and Don Demeter to end the game.
"I've always wanted a pitcher who could do that," says Rigney, "who could relieve for you in a tight spot and strike somebody out."
Instead of needing a bullpen, Sam became the bullpen. In addition to 35 starting assignments, he relieved 15 times. Once he pitched six times in 10 days. Last season was the first real pennant race Sam Jones had ever been in, and instead of letting the pressure get him down, he responded in a most remarkable way. He was a better pitcher and a tougher one than ever before. He was magnificent.
There is no reason to believe that Sam Jones won't be just as magnificent this season. If he is, the Giants will stay happy all year long.