Cookie Lavagetto, the manager of the Washington Senators, looked up and down the long luncheon table in a corner of the tearoom atop Wood-rums' furniture store in Charleston, W.Va. He had the imperturbable air of a man who, having finished in eighth place in the American League for the last three years, is beyond further surprise in this life.
Cookie stared down at the wreckage of strawberry shortcake on his dessert plate. He raised up his head and turned to the only woman present, Mrs. William O. Abney, a sprightly gray-haired lady who is known as Mrs. Baseball for her years of devotion to the Charleston team.
"Mrs. Abney," said Cookie with a. courtly bow. Then, glancing around the table, he went on: "Mayor Shanklin, Mr. Woodrum, Manager Wilber, General Manager Milkes, directors of the Charleston club, coaches, sportswriters and radio announcers—have I mentioned everybody?"
Everybody laughed except me. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry—for years ago I had attended many a civic booster luncheon like this one and listened to the manager of a chronic second-division ball club put the best face on things. My old team was the St. Louis Browns. I had been a schoolboy fan, and when I grew up I worked for several years in the front office. Out of this experience I could almost predict what Cookie was going to say: the boys had been losing some games they should have won, injuries were plaguing the team, somebody was pitching better than the record indicated, once things shook down the club couldn't help but get going and, while it wasn't (speaking frankly now) a pennant contender this year, why it would be right up there giving the leaders a lot of trouble.
May 29, 1960
"To give you a rundown on our ball club," said Cookie, rearranging the silverware on the table, "as you know, we've been losing a lot of ball games by one run, and if we can just reverse this trend, why, I think we'll be up there battling for top position." Cookie went on to say that, of course, the leg injury suffered by Harmon Killebrew had hurt the team, but he hoped for Harmon to be back in the lineup on this road trip. Pedro Ramos, who at the time had an 0 and 4 record because his teammates couldn't get the runs for him, was just bound to start winning—it stood to reason. Washington had a real stopper, maybe the best pitcher in baseball, in Camilo Pascual (who had pitched 15 straight scoreless innings up to now) and a couple of great hitters in Bob Allison, one of the league's leading batsmen, and Jim Lemon. Earl Battey, obtained in the $150,000 deal that sent Roy Sievers to the White Sox, appeared to be solving the Senators' problem behind the plate. All in all, Cookie had a good case, and, as he said, his principal job now was "to keep the boys up there spiritually and mentally."
Only thing was that Washington was in seventh place and skidding toward eighth. Undeniably, as Cookie said, it was a better ball club than the one that had finished last three years in a row—a condition that once caused Cookie himself to break out in a psychosomatic all-over itch. But that was old stuff now. This was the hopeful time of year (Cookie hadn't scratched himself once), and a second-division ball club could explain things away—even poor attendance. Washington, for instance, was running considerably behind last year's gate at home, but blame the horrible weather for that.
Cookie wound up by saying that Washington would be sending Charleston (its farm club affiliate in the American Association) another player later in the week, and he hoped that the boy might make the difference for the local team—also in second division at the moment.
After the luncheon almost everybody went off to take naps before the night exhibition between the Senators and Charleston. Although the game created some inconvenience for the parent club, Washington President Cal Griffith had obliged because Charleston was also having its troubles at the gate (bad weather again here) and had asked for the exhibition to supplement other pump-priming stunts, which included a radio announcer refusing to shave until the ball park had been filled to capacity once, and another fellow sitting up on top of the scoreboard night and day until the same happy event occurred.
It was all as I so fondly remembered it. I had found in Charleston, and in Washington, too (and was soon to find again in Detroit), what I was trying to recapture—the serenity of second-division baseball. It had been a joy to see the Yankees and Senators play the previous Saturday. The attendance had been 7,552. No parking problems. No battling through crowds at the gate, no noise, no commotion around the hot dog-stands. Just unadulterated comfort with nobody to stop you from draping yourself over five seats in a whole section of the grandstand that you had practically all to yourself—except for the sparrows that flew in to peck at the old popcorn littering the aisles. As usually happens with a true second-division ball club, the Senators looked like world beaters before the small crowd. Pascual shut out the Yankees with four hits and struck out Mickey Mantle three times. It was an ideal game for the small hard core of Senator fans. They could yell and make themselves heard all over the grandstands and even down on the field. One man sitting near me, obviously a regular, called out as every Yankee batter approached the plate, "All right, Camilo! No sweat, no sweat! Take it easy. This guy's a bum." Here and there in the grandstand other regulars turned to nod their approval.
Pascual's superior performance on Saturday helped to draw 17,637 to the Sunday game. As used to be the case with the old Browns before large crowds, the Senators looked their worst. They lost 11-2. The game itself was not the only irritant to the regulars. The crowd made an awful racket and kept crowding the hot dog stands and other conveniences, and there was no place for sparrows to light. The regulars had to make themselves fit into single seats. The man whose rooting had been heard perfectly the day before was drowned out entirely. He looked utterly miserable.
Letters to Cookie
Miserable as they sometimes are, Washington fans are dedicated. Nor are they confined to Washington. Cookie Lavagetto gets a torrent of mail from all parts of the country. Recently the entire population of Windham, Mont, (an even 100) signed a telegram to Cookie just to say Windham was solidly behind him. A letter from a lady in San Francisco told Cookie that she had a deep-down feeling that he was going to beat somebody this year—"land knows who." Six convicts in a Maryland prison signed a letter telling how they were caught in a nest of Baltimore fans and imploring Cookie to beat the Orioles if he beat nobody else.
In Washington, Mrs. Ruth Allen was taken ill this spring and missed her first Senators game in 25 years. Miss Isabelle Parks has had the same box seat since 1926, but she confesses that she is actually partial to the New York Yankees. Johnny Morrisey, for 41 years the ticket manager for the Senators, says that the old neighborhood around the ball park has changed and people within walking distance don't come as regularly as before.
It was the same story with the old Browns and their small but loyal following of discerning fans who appreciated the comforts of an uncrowded grandstand. Thinking about that on the day Pascual shut out the Yankees, I wandered through the near-empty stands looking for modern improvements that had been made since my days at Sportsman's Park (now Busch Stadium) in St. Louis. I didn't see much difference until I got to the press room, which, like all the others around the circuit, is equipped to serve top sirloin and chopped steak platters and strong drinks. This was a distinct advance over the old Browns press room, which was a room in a tenement next to the press gate. It featured peeling wallpaper and a washtub full of iced beer. On double-header days a boy was sent to the drugstore for sandwiches, which were distributed to the working press between games.
I went up to the Washington club's offices and paid a visit to President Griffith. I told him about the old Browns and the drugstore sandwiches, and then I asked him if he sold old baseballs. He looked at me incredulously. "Certainly not!" he exclaimed. "Why, we lose so many balls in the stands we have to use new ones for batting practice." I explained that the Browns had a corps of ushers who would fight like tigers to recover a ball hit in the stands. The batting-practice balls were used until they were warped, and then Miss Peggy Murphy, the bookkeeper, put them on sale in the front office for 25¢ each. Semipro and amateur teams snapped them up, and the venture brought in a nice dollar.
Mr. Griffith said baseball wasn't that kind of shoestring operation any more. He said old Clark Griffith had won a world championship in the '20s with an annual payroll of $125,000. Now, he said, the Senators have a payroll, for players and office help, of $50,000 every two weeks.
I told Mr. Griffith I was charmed with the comforts of second-division, even eighth-place, baseball. Mr. Griffith said he was sorry, but he wasn't charmed at all. I said somebody had to be last, and Mr. Griffith agreed but said that he wished it would be somebody else. Three straight years in eighth place, he said, was more than enough of the cellar for him.
I said I had to admit that this ball club was different. With Allison and Lemon hitting that ball, with Killebrew due back soon, with Pascual going great guns and Ramos just overdue for a streak, I said this ball club was going places. No pennant this year, I said, but up there making trouble for the leaders.
I used to say that about the old Browns every spring. I hadn't learned much. A few days later we flew into Detroit on our first-class charter plane, dropped the first game to the Tigers (another heart-breaker for Ramos) and slipped into eighth place by 10 percentage points. But next day Camilo Pascual came through again, shut out the Tigers 3-0 in 11 innings, and the Senators bounced back to seventh.
It was a perfect game to watch. There were just 4,904 paying customers. A man could find his five seats just about anywhere he wanted. He could walk up to the hot dog stands and pick out the particular dog that was done to his liking. He could turn around and call a hitter or a pitcher or an umpire a bum and have the pleasure of seeing his target look up to see where the insult came from.
It was peace, it was wonderful, it was good old eighth place where a man has plenty of elbow room—and the sparrows have a feast on the old popcorn.