It is typical of Cookie Lavagetto that he should not want his story written. "I prefer to remain in obscurity," he says. Only a man as modest as Lavagetto would consider obscurity his. Fourteen years ago he lit up the sky over Brooklyn with his famous pinch-hit double in the World Series. Today, as manager of the Minnesota Twins, he is regarded as one of the best baseball men in the game.
Lavagetto, the first manager in Minnesota history, is being treated royally. Hotel managers dote on him. People want his autograph. He has his own radio show just before each home game. An auto dealer has given him a new car to drive. At the stadium parking lot attendants call him "Mr. Lavagetto."
Nothing like this ever happened to Cookie during the long, dismal years when the Twins were the Washington Senators. He was treated with respect by the fans, but then so were the groundskeepers. Now, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he enjoys uncritical admiration and, better still, a team with a winning look. Lavagetto has been preparing his team for success for several years—it might even have happened in Washington if the team had stayed there—but Cookie would take credit for the improvement only if it were forced upon him. His humility is sincere, for Lavagetto is not a man of guile. After a recent game, a reporter asked him if he didn't think his right fielder had been playing too deep for a certain hitter. "My mind was on other channels at the moment," Lavagetto answered. "I didn't notice where he was playing."
Lavagetto's honesty is refreshing in a business riddled with deception. Several seasons ago Cookie was asked which team he thought would win the pennant. "Yankees by 15 games," he replied directly. A few days later he received a telegram from Commissioner Ford Frick warning him that such talk was bad for baseball. Lavagetto parried neatly by telling Frick he was merely trying to make the Yankees overconfident, so his Washington Senators could beat them.
May 14, 1961
Cookie's face does not suggest a sense of humor. He is a severe-looking man with a swarthy complexion, heavy brows and a hawk nose. At 46, his black hair is flecked with gray, and there are deep creases on his forehead and around his dark brown eyes. Only when he smiles does he look anything but angry.
His outward manner sometimes appears gruff. He may toss off a carefully composed question with a syllable, leaving the asker disorganized. He may not answer at all, but often this is because he has not heard the question. "I have a tin ear," he explains. He can sit for minutes in brutal silence after a question, giving the impression of annoyance. Then he will start to talk, and it is clear that he was not annoyed or puzzled but was simply trying to frame a thoughtful answer. He is extremely careful in his choice of words. When someone told him that one of his players looked unsure of himself at the plate, Lavagetto said, "You have detected what is known as pressing." Sometimes he misuses the language, but always colorfully. Recently he talked about the "strange twist of faith" that led him into baseball. He also hated "to leave the home folks down" after the Twins' opening loss in Minnesota, an understandable slip after so many years as a player in Brooklyn.
Cookie Lavagetto arrived in Brooklyn via Pittsburgh and Oakland, his home town. He was born Enrico Atillio Lavagetto, but when he was confirmed Atillio was changed to Arturo. On his first day at school his teacher told him that in English, Enrico was either Henry or Harry. Enrico discussed it with his parents and decided on Harry.
It was as a boy that he met Mary Poggi, the girl he later married. "Our families used to go mushroom-hunting together in the hills above Oakland," Lavagetto recalls. "We'd go up after the heavy rains. Mushrooms make a swelling in the ground, so we'd take a stick and scrape away the leaves. Sometimes there's a mushroom, sometimes not. You'd never know." Today Mary and Cookie live with their two sons, Mike, 13, and Ernie, 12, in Orinda, not far from their mushroom-hunting grounds.
Twist of faith
Young Harry got his baseball break—the "twist of faith" he referred to—in the spring of 1933. He had been unsuccessful in establishing himself as a player, and his father was anxious for him to go to work, collecting trash. By chance, a benefit game was arranged between a group of major league players living in the area and some local sandlotters. Lavagetto didn't get into the game until the fifth inning, but the first time he came up the bases were loaded. Harry drove them all in with a double and found himself swamped with offers after the game. He signed with Cookie DeVincenzi, owner of the Oakland team. Harry became known as "Cookie's boy" and, eventually, just plain Cookie.
Cookie spent 1933 with Oakland, then was signed by Pittsburgh. Three years later he was traded to Brooklyn. "He was a skinny, awkward kid then," his good friend Charley Dressen remember?. "He ran funny, sort of waddled, but he got there quick. He was a quiet fellow. He'd sit in the dugout, slouched down, maybe daydreaming. Then he'd say something and make everybody laugh."
"Cookie was a character," says a newspaperman who covered the Dodgers then. "He walked funny and always needed a shave. His shirt would be hanging out of his pants, and he wore his hat at a weird angle. Cookie would just sit there, not realizing he looked any different than the next guy."
"Oh, I used to know it," Lavagetto said recently. "I used to enjoy wearing one sock up, the other down. I don't know why exactly. I just enjoyed it."
Cookie also decided he would enjoy flying. He and his pal Dolph Camilli signed up for lessons at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. "We'd get up early, get out to the airfield at 9 and be back at Ebbets Field in plenty of time," says Cookie. "We flew Piper Cubs. I'll never forget when the trainer made me put the plane in a spin for the first time. I saw houses and land, then clouds and trees and more clouds—was I scared! The trainer says, 'Want to do it again?' I told him, 'Hell no.' "
Soon after both players got their pilots' licenses, Larry MacPhail, owner of the Dodgers, found out about it and, characteristically, exploded. "One day Durocher stood up in front of the whole team," says Cookie. "He said that Camilli and Lavagetto are hereby fined $500 apiece for activities detrimental to the ball club."
Nothing that happened in Brooklyn before the war was quite as bizarre as Jack Pierce's visits to Ebbets Field. Pierce, a Brooklyn tavern owner, developed a great affection for Lavagetto. He watched every game from behind the visitors' dugout, because it was close to third base, Cookie's position. He used to hire two taxis to go to the ball park, one for himself and his friends, the other for his balloons, banners and buckets of champagne and ice.
"He'd spread those banners out over the rail," says Lavagetto. "Each one would have 'Cookie' written on it. Then he'd start releasing the balloons. I think they were filled with helium. And, of course, they'd drink their firewater."
Pierce would sit there throughout the game yelling "Cookieee! Cookieee!" The story goes that in one clutch situation with Lavagetto at bat, Pierce was yelling so much that Lavagetto had to step away from the plate and tell him to shut up. Cookie then lined out a hit to win the game. Everybody was happy, but when Cookie and some of his teammates returned to their Brooklyn hotel, there was Jack Pierce with tears streaming down his face. His feelings were crushed.
It should not be overlooked that Lavagetto was a fine player. For the most part he batted second in the Brooklyn lineup, and there were few players better at slapping the ball to right field behind the runner. "He was a great two-strike hitter," recalls Whitlow Wyatt, the ace of the Dodgers' pitching staff before the war. "With men on base he was about the toughest man to get out that we had on the club."
Of course, nothing Cookie Lavagetto ever did on a baseball field matched his famous pinch-hit double in the 1947 World Series. Lavagetto had enlisted in the Navy in February of 1942, and the four seasons he missed had ruined his career. "I was washed up," he admits. He played very little in 1946 and even less, only 41 games, in 1947.
To fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, Lavagetto's hit has profound historical value. (Where were you when Cookie made his hit?) Briefly, it was the fourth game of the Series, and the New York Yankees led in both the Series and the game, 2-1. Floyd Bevens, the Yankee pitcher, had a no-hit game going into the ninth inning. With two out, the Dodgers got two men on base, on walks. Eddie Stanky was due up, but Manager Burt Shotton told Lavagetto to hit for him. On the second pitch Lavagetto lined the ball off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field. Both runners scored, the Dodgers won and Lavagetto, no matter what he did for the rest of his life, would never be forgotten. It was, ironically, the last hit Lavagetto ever made in the major leagues.
Cookie was released by Brooklyn after the 1947 season, ingratitude which temporarily embittered him toward the Dodger organization. He spent the next three years back in Oakland, playing under Dressen in 1949 and 1950. When Dressen was hired as the Dodger manager in 1951, Lavagetto went with him as a coach. He was there, sitting on the bench, when Bobby Thomson hit his pennant-winning home run.
Dressen insists the Dodgers would have won the 1951 pennant if he had been allowed to use Lavagetto. "I wanted to put him on the active list, but the brass said no. They didn't want to send a young fellow down. Hell, with Cookie to pinch hit down the stretch, I could have won easily."
Cookie stayed with Charley through the pennant-winning years of 1952-53. When Dressen was refused a two-year contract in 1954 and quit, Lavagetto sent Walter O'Malley a terse telegram: "Please accept resignation." The two friends went back to Oakland.
In 1955 Dressen was made manager of the Washington Senators and, of course, Cookie went along as coach. The Senators finished in the depths of the American League in 1955 and 1956. When the team started slowly in 1957, Dressen was abruptly fired, and the manager's job was offered to Cookie. Lavagetto didn't want it. He had never thought of himself as anything more than Charley's coach, and his immediate reaction was to refuse the offer and depart with Charley. What, argued Cookie with typical honesty, could he do for the Senators that Charley could not? But Dressen himself talked to Cookie, coaxed, pleaded and finally persuaded him to give it a try.
Man of decision
From the moment he made his decision to manage, Cookie began to develop into his own man. As a coach, his rich qualities lay dormant under the brass-band personality of Charley Dressen. His world had been secure, cozy. There had been fungos to hit, signs to flash and an occasional runner to wave around third. He could play bridge with the players and refer reporters' questions to Charley. Few people wanted his autograph, and no one wanted him to speak. It was a life free from mental strain. Now, as manager, Cookie led a different life. People wanted him to speak, a duty he has always found difficult. No longer could he play cards with the boys or refer questions to Charley. He learned that when the team is on the road the manager is allotted a hotel suite for himself. Cookie missed having a roommate. Hardest of all was the problem of running a last-place ball club, of deciding batting orders and who should pitch and whether or not to hit-and-run. When the team lost, as it usually did, Cookie took the game home with him and brooded over what had gone wrong. The worrying took a physical toll. He broke out in hives. Sleep came near dawn. Food, which had always tasted especially good to Cookie, became indigestible. He longed to be a coach again.
"He was unsure of himself in the beginning," recalls Russ Kemmerer, then a Washington pitcher. "He tried to manage just the way Charley did. He was sensitive about chewing out a player. You knew sometimes you had a little hell coming, but Cookie wouldn't give it to you." It took a while, but eventually Lavagetto realized he could handle the job. He learned to be decisive about removing a pitcher or juggling his lineup. The hives disappeared, the appetite returned and at night Cookie slept.
The Senators didn't improve, at least not at first. They cruised on peacefully in eighth place. Once they made five errors in one inning. Another time they lost 18 games in a row. To relieve the boredom of constant defeat, Cookie invented a game. Every day the players gathered in the clubhouse in courtroom fashion. Eddie Yost, then captain of the Senators, was the judge. In this setting players accused each other of misdemeanors, like singing poorly in the shower, snoring too loudly or jogging around the bases too slowly after a home run. Herb Heft, the club's publicity man, was once docked $1.25 when the team bus was late. Yost announced the fines. Anyone accused had the right to appeal, but if he lost (which was inevitable), the fine was doubled. All fines were solemnly collected and banked, and when the season was over the money was used to pay for a grand farewell party.
Although the Senators finished last in Cookie's first two seasons as manager, the team won more games each time than it had the year before. In 1959 young players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison joined the few standouts of the cellar season, Jim Lemon, Pedro Ramos and Camilo Pascual. Last year Cookie and Senator Owner Calvin Griffith made a fine trade, parting with Roy Sievers for Earl Battey and Don Mincher. Battey quickly developed into the best catcher in the league. Together these young players got the Senators out of last place. In fact, the team almost finished in the first division, falling to fifth in the last days of the season.
This year, as the transplanted Minnesota Twins, the team looks even better. There is a fine young shortstop, Zorro Versalles, and two good young left-handers, Jack Kralick and Jim Kaat. It is a coming team, not a pennant winner this year perhaps, but a threat for the future.
Recently Cookie was asked if, after all the attention he has received as manager, he could ever again be satisfied with coaching. A minute passed, and then Cookie said, "I just don't know. I can't tell. We'll just have to come to that bridge when we come to it."