There were times during the long, hot season when John (Spider) Jorgensen, the manager of the Artesia, N. Mex. Dodgers in the Class D Sophomore League, didn't know whether to bust out laughing or break down and cry.
If Spider, the onetime hard-hitting third baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-50), were a man given to tears he might have been close to them as he addressed his last-place, 18-man ball club in the concrete-block, tin-roofed clubhouse underneath the stands of the Artesia ball park one evening toward the end of the season.
"Fellows," Spider pleaded emotionally, "haven't I tried to be fair and square with you all summer? Haven't I done a lot of little things for you? Didn't I lend you my pickup truck when you had dates? When the groundkeeper's wife forgot to do the laundry, didn't I take the towels to the laundromat and do them myself? When the groundkeeper failed to show, didn't I get out there and help rake the infield? Oh, sure, I had to fine a few of you that I caught in the all-night hamburger joint at 2 o'clock in the morning, but you know that was for your own good. When you've come to me with your problems, haven't I tried to be as understanding and as helpful as your own fathers would be? Yeah, I know, I know I blew my top lots of times when you kept breaking bats after I showed you they wouldn't split if you held them right. Be fair: wasn't I within my rights? You know this ball club has split more bats than any team in the league."
There were murmurs of assent and vigorous nodding of heads among the young players.
August 27, 1961
"All right then!" cried Spider. "Now will you do something for me? Will you go out there tonight and win me a ball game? We can still get out of last place if we all bear down. Boys, I hate to lose—it kills me, it makes me bitter. Win me one, will you?"
With loud, fierce cries of determination and pounding of gloves, the squad broke for the door and started out to the playing field.
Jim Acton, a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher from Fullerton, Calif., stopped and turned back to his manager.
"Acton," said Spider, "I thought I might start you tonight. How do you feel?"
Acton, in whose frank and open countenance there is no trace of guile, put a reassuring hand on Spider's shoulder. "Put me in there," he said. "I'm ready, Babe."
It is at times like this that Spider, who is a sucker for the absurd situation, is in grave danger of busting out laughing.
"Good," he said, keeping a straight face. "And while I have the chance, Jim, I want to thank you for calling me Babe all season. It's one of those nice little touches that makes a manager feel he's really communicating with his players."
Acton nodded. "I dig, Babe," he said.
"And while I'm on the subject, Jim," Spider went on, "I've been meaning to tell you something. When you get back to California, you'll be dropping in the office of the L.A. Dodgers. Now Fresco Thompson, the vice-president of the club, naturally keeps a pretty close eye on this team because of our working agreement. So this is a little tip for you. Fresco is the type of guy who likes ballplayers with personality. He'll know from my daily reports that your earned run average isn't so hot, but you can get around that if you handle him right."
Jim Acton was listening carefully.
"How do I handle the man, Babe?"
Spider swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "Call him Babe like you call me. Fresco will go for that. He'll think you like him a lot and he wants ballplayers to like him. Maybe, I don't know, he has a deep-down feeling of insecurity. Your calling him Babe will give him a big lift."
"This I appreciate," said Acton.
"I knew you would," said Spider. "Now go on out there and pitch me a ball game."
Acton squared his shoulders and swaggered out the door. In a moment, Spider followed him. Near the dugout, one of his catchers, 19-year-old Paul LaRocca from Valley Stream, on Long Island, was waiting for him.
"Spider," said LaRocca, "you were saying about being like a father."
Spider looked at him in mild alarm.
"That reminded me," said LaRocca, "about something my father told me that I don't understand."
"Go ahead, boy, speak up, get it off your chest," said Spider.
"Weil," said LaRocca, "my father was telling me that when he was a little kid, 40 years ago maybe, they used to have terrible winters in New York. It snowed all the time. Then, for 40 years, it didn't snow hardly at all. Then last year, Spider, it snowed all the time again and there were blizzards, and it was just like when my father was a kid. How come, Spider?"
Spider, who has learned to answer all questions promptly no matter how far out he has to reach, took a deep breath. "Why," he said, "that situation there is due to the tilting of the earth on its axis. Forty years ago the earth was tilted in such a way as to dump heavy snow on New York, and then it gave a tilt around the other way and the winters were mild. Then last year the earth tilted back to where it was 40 years ago. That accounts for the heavy snow and the blizzards."
LaRocca frowned and pondered.
"Yeah," he said after a moment. "O.K. Much obliged, Spider."
Dick Strutz, the 21-year-old infielder from St. Paul, walked up as LaRocca moved away.
"Spider," he said, "have you got any garters?"
Spider squatted down and picked a blade of grass. It was the quick movement of a veteran infielder who, at 41, is as lean and agile as when he was playing at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He was still active as a player-coach with Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League as recently as 1959. Artesia is his second managerial assignment.
Spider glanced up at Strutz, a good-looking 195-pound six-footer who is easily the most sophisticated man on the Artesia roster. He spent almost two months of last season with St. Paul, then in the American Association, and never tires of telling his teammates about the high level of living in that rarefied baseball atmosphere.
"Funny you should ask about garters, Strutz," said Spider. "It just so happens that I sat up until 3 o'clock this morning making garters. But doggone it, I just now remember that I came off and left them scattered all over the bed. Run in the clubhouse and take the keys to my pickup and drive over to my apartment and get them."
"Listen, Spider, a busted garter is nothing to kid about," said Strutz.
"Who's kidding?" said Spider. "Didn't you hear the inside story of why Joe Gordon was fired as manager at Kansas City? He let himself run out of garters, that's why."
"O.K., Spider," said Strutz, "I guess I'll have to try to find a safety pin somewheres."
Out in center field, one of the Artesia pitchers who had worked the night before climbed up on the scoreboard and took a seat on a folding chair. His job was to keep an eye out for balls hit over the fence during hitting practice and direct one of several small boys who are retained (at $2 a night) to chase after them.
Underneath the grandstand, the man in charge of the concession stand rented two seat cushions to a customer and sold a hot dog and a bottle of Squirt, a popular soft drink in the West, to another man. The concession man, who works on a straight salary, is V. R. Hickman, principal of one of Artesia's elementary schools.
Tonight's opponents of the Artesia Dodgers were the Hobbs Pirates. They would not take hitting practice because they did that before setting out from Hobbs, 90 miles away. After the game, they would drive back and have their midnight supper when they got there.
Up in the press box, Paul Frost, a distinguished-looking man with crew-cut gray hair, leaned forward and spoke into the public address system:
"Will you kids down there in the box-seat section along the third-base line stop walking on top of those railings and get back up there in the stands where you belong?"
The kids scurried back up to where they belonged with no face-saving dawdling about it, for the voice of Paul Frost has the ring of authority. He is no ordinary ball park announcer. He does that chore (as well as the official scoring) because he happens to be president of the Artesia ball club and has to save a dollar where he can. Baseball is just a hobby with Mr. Frost. He is an electrical engineer, a graduate of Purdue and the manager of the thriving electric power and telephone cooperatives serving the surrounding countryside. He led the campaign to get Artesia a team in the Sophomore League four years ago, along with Grady Wright, an oil producer; Ralph Box, also an oil man; Robert Bourland, an accountant; Charles Johnson, a banker; Earl Ziegler, an oil supply man; J. L. Taylor, a rancher; and James Ferguson, a retired merchant.
As the game got under way, Mr. Frost read off the lineups he had personally obtained from the rival managers and then identified each hitter and gave the summaries at the end of each half inning. In between times, he answered some questions about the team and the league.
"The Sophomore League," he said, "is a sort of an incubator for more than a million dollars' worth of bonus babies who have been signed by major league ball clubs. We didn't get any of the big ones. Bill Sebera, our first-string catcher, who was sent to us by the Los Angeles Dodgers, got $35,000 for signing, and Dan Ardell, who was optioned to us by the Los Angeles Angels just a little more than a week ago, got something like $40,000. The Alpine Club must have $300,000 worth of bonus babies. I believe one of their boys got $125,000."
"That," said Jimmy Cox of the Artesia Daily Press ("covering the Heart of Southeastern New Mexico's Growing Oil and Ranch Empire"), "is probably more than Spider Jorgensen made in his entire major league career."
"Very likely," said Mr. Frost.
"Aren't the lights in this ball park kind of dim?" asked an out-of-town man.
"Yes," said Mr. Frost, "but we can't do anything about that. The park belongs to the city and we get it for $1 a year."
"Because of the dim lights," said Jimmy Cox, "some people call this Candlestick Park."
"Getting back to the Sophomore League," said Mr. Frost, "there are five New Mexico teams in it and the sixth one is at El Paso, Texas. No boy with more than three years of professional experience can play in this league. Every club has a working agreement with a big league club. Ours is with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hobbs works with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Alpine Cowboys work with Boston, the Carlsbad Potashers work with the Chicago Cubs, the Albuquerque Dukes are tied up with the Kansas City Athletics and the El Paso Sun Kings work with the San Francisco Giants. Excuse me."
Mr. Frost picked up a piece of paper and spoke into the microphone:
"Tonight's lucky scorecard prize has been won by Mr. J. R. Bradshaw. If Mr. Bradshaw will come to the press box he will receive a certificate for two pounds of Payne's tasty pork sausage and two pounds of Payne's finest wieners, courtesy the Payne Packing Company."
The out-of-town man got up and said, "I think I'll mosey down to the dugout and see how Spider is feeling."
"I'll walk part way with you," said Jimmy Cox. "I want to see some people on a story. Will you join me in a bottle of Squirt?"
"A little later, James," said the out-of-town man, "I'll find you in the stands."
That wouldn't be difficult because there were no more than 200 persons at the game (Artesia has a population of about 12,000). The women had put on their sweaters, for although the thermometer had touched 100° that afternoon there was now a chill wind roaring through the park, kicking up the dust and sand of the infield and dispersing, for the moment, the small clouds of king-sized mosquitoes that were clustered about the heads of the players and the umpires.
The game was going into the top half of the sixth. Spider was feeling a lot better than he had felt coming out of the top half of the first. Jim Acton had got off to a shaky start, and Hobbs had scored three runs. But Acton, after dousing himself liberally with mosquito repellent in the dugout, pulled himself together and pitched four hitless innings. Meanwhile, with the help of two Hobbs errors, Acton's teammates had given him a 5-3 lead. Now he was facing Lyle Owens of the visitors, the first man up in the sixth.
Owens hit the ball out of the park, and after Norm Housley had struck out, Ronald Woods homered to tie the score at 5-5. Then Bill Siebert singled, Harper Cooper walked and Bill Weaver rapped out the third home run of the inning. That was all for well-intentioned Jim Acton. Spider called in Ron Witkowski (who was so homesick for his home town of Buffalo that he had been crossing out each passing day on a calendar ever since the start of the season),, and as Ron threw a few warmup pitches Jim Acton walked sadly off the field. He knew that tomorrow night he would be sitting on the folding chair up on the scoreboard. As he passed Spider, he said simply, "Sorry, Babe."
Things got worse instead of better. Witkowski couldn't stop the Hobbs hitters, and Rudy Matulka of Omaha, Neb., actually an outfielder, had to finish the game—but not before Spider had been thrown out of the game for his vehement protest of what he considered a bum call at the plate. The final score, with Spider still fuming up in the stands, was posted as Hobbs 13, Artesia 5.
Soon the victorious Pirates were piling into their cars for the 90-mile drive back to Hobbs. The defeated Artesia Dodgers were assembled in The Steak House, an all-night eating place, listening to Dick Strutz hold forth once more on the good life as lived in the Triple-A American Association.
"Up there in St. Paul," said Strutz, "they used to have a guy in the clubhouse who had your socks and uniform all laid out for you when you walked in. There was another guy who didn't do anything but shine shoes. On the road, you got $10 a day eating money, not the lousy three bucks we get down here."
"Strutz," said Lou Pannella, a third baseman from Philadelphia, "you are nuts. They only get $10 a day meal money in the major leagues."
"In the major leagues," said Strutz, "they get $15."
"Strutz," said Ron Witkowski, the pitcher, "what do umpires get for traveling in their own cars?"
Dick Strutz, who—if he had learned nothing else from Spider Jorgensen this season—had at least learned never to let any question go unanswered, replied without hesitation, "An umpire gets 3¢ a mile for the use of his car."
Pannella exploded. "You're crazy, Strutz. You can't drive a motor scooter for 3¢ a mile."
Strutz reached for a toothpick and smiled. "Umpires can," he said.
Meanwhile, at Hotel Artesia, Paul Frost and Spider Jorgensen had accepted an invitation for a postgame drink with the out-of-town man.
"What will it be, gentlemen?" asked the waitress in the cocktail lounge.
"Scotch and soda," said Paul Frost.
"A bottle of Squirt," said the man from out of town.
Spider Jorgensen leaned across the table, the muscles in his jaw taut, still not over the night's defeat and the hassle with the umpire. "It's the same everywhere," he said, slapping the table. "I don't care whether it's Yankee Stadium, the Coliseum in L.A. or the ball park down here in Class D. You just can't win ball games without pitching."
Paul Frost and the out-of-town man nodded in sympathy.
The waitress touched Spider gently on the shoulder. He whirled around in a jerky, nervous reaction.
"What?" he said, looking up at the girl.
"I'm waiting for your order, Spider," said the girl.
"Oh," said Spider, slumping back in his chair. He thought a moment and then said, "Squirt. Vodka and Squirt."
The out-of-town man didn't say so, but he couldn't help feeling that if any man in the state of New Mexico deserved vodka in his Squirt this evening it was John (Spider) Jorgensen.