Jimmie Dykes put down his cigar and put on his eighth major league uniform in Bradenton, Fla. the other day and thus became the longest-running one-man show now performing in organized baseball. He reported at the training camp of the Milwaukee Braves to serve as a member of Manager Birdie Tebbetts' coaching staff, a step down from the managerial status he held at Cleveland last season, but not—by the grace of Birdie—a stepping-out from the game in which he has been loudly active without interruption since 1916.
It was the second time that Dykes's longtime friend had decided that the show must go on. In 1955 there seemed to be no demand for Dykes's services in either major league. He sat out spring training at home in Norristown, Pa. and finally agreed, over the telephone, to become a baseball announcer for a television station in Philadelphia. A few minutes after he had accepted the announcing job, the phone rang again. It was Tebbetts asking if he'd like to coach at Cincinnati. Dykes accepted promptly, called in his resignation as a television performer and hastened to join Birdie, with whom he served four seasons, finishing the last one as temporary manager when Birdie was fired in August.
Dykes arrived in Bradenton by way of Garmisch (Germany), Paris, London and a final fling at the poker table in the men's bar of Philadelphia's Bala Golf Club. He had been abroad helping conduct baseball clinics for the Air Force; he had been at the poker table at Bala almost every other waking hour during the winter, a pleasurable and sometimes profitable activity that he considered to be well worth the 35-mile round-trip drive from his home.
Locker room atmosphere, at golf clubs and ball parks, thick with his own cigar smoke and heavy-handed masculine humor, suits Dykes at age 65 as well as it did when he became the bush-league property of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1916. One day recently, just before leaving for Florida, he showed up at his club with a guest and introduced him around as a man from the FBI. There was no reason for anyone to doubt the visitor's identity and he was received respectfully. Dykes posted him behind a poker-playing fellow member, Mike Tierno, with instructions to stare steadily at Tierno for a time and then ask him, "Sir, do you keep a record of your winnings at cards?" This had the effect of completely unnerving Mr. Tierno, who cried out, "I never win!" as he threw in his hand and rushed to the bar to compose himself.
March 12, 1962
That same afternoon, Bing Miller, the great outfielder of the old A's, dropped in and pulled a chair up to the poker table. He had brought Dykes a hat, a duplicate of his own, which Jimmie had admired while lunching at The Tavern in nearby Bala-Cynwyd. Bing puts in three or four hours a day there, acting as greeter and glad-hander for the proprietor, Jack Everhart.
"Would you say, Bing," asked a club member, "that Jimmie here was the greatest infielder in baseball when he was in his prime?"
"Why," said Bing, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully, "I'd say that in his prime, at his peak, during his best days with the Athletics, Jimmie Dykes was the worst infielder of all time. The only way he could field a ball was to knock it down with his chest."
The interrogator nodded solemnly. "Am I to infer, then," he said, taking a sip from his glass, "that Dykes's great reputation in baseball stems from his cunning as a manager, his mastery of baseball strategy, the lightning-fast workings of his steel-trap mind?"
"As a manager," said Bing, "Dykes established a new low. He was so bad that Mr. William O. DeWitt of the Detroit Tigers went to Mr. Frank Lane of the Cleveland Indians and got down on his knees and begged Mr. Lane to take Dykes off his hands. Mr. Lane can't stand tears and so, as you know, he swapped Joe Gordon for Dykes. It was the only time in baseball history that a manager got bad enough to be traded."
Dykes puffed on his cigar butt and drew another cigar from his pocket to light from it.
"Speaking of smart baseball men," Miller continued, "I consider William O. DeWitt to be the outstanding genius of the game today."
"Well," said a poker player, "he won a pennant at Cincinnati."
Bing Miller nodded. "When he got rid of Dykes, it was the turning point of his career."
Dykes tapped the ashes from his cigar. "Miller," he said, "this hat you brought me. I think I'll return it to you with a suggestion."
Miller got up and leaned over and punched Dykes on the shoulder. "Have a good season, Jimmie," he said. "I'll see you when the Braves are in town. I've got to get to work now."
"Work!" growled Dykes. "You call that work you're doing over at The Tavern?"
Bing turned at the door. "It's not what I do that makes me valuable to Jack Everhart," he said. "It's my drawing power. People like to eat at a place where they can meet a celebrity."
Miller was gone before Dykes could say anything more. He concentrated on his poker hand, bet, raised and lost.
"That Miller," said Mike Tierno, returning from the bar and sitting down at the table. "I understand he collects better than $500 a month as a baseball pension."
"I guess, Jimmie," said Tierno, "you'll be collecting a nice check when you finally quit the game."
"I won't collect a dime," said Dykes, "except social security. I'm eligible for that right now. But there's some technicality that keeps me from getting a baseball pension. Managers weren't covered until recently. You'd think a guy with 45, 46 years in organized ball would get something."
"Why don't you take it up with the commissioner's office?" said Tierno.
"I spoke to Charley Segar, Frick's assistant, one time," Dykes said, "and he said he'd look into it. I don't know about the commissioner's office. I think maybe somebody up there hates me. I've always been a pop-off guy and some things I've said didn't make a hit with Mr. Frick, I guess."
"Speaking of popping off," said the man who was supposed to be from the FBI, "what happens when a guy who has been popping off as manager—as you were at Cleveland last year—steps down to coaching for a fellow like Birdie Tebbetts, who does a little popping off himself now and then?"
"The manager does the talking for the ball club. Milwaukee is Birdie's club. I'll take my orders from him and I'll keep my trap shut about the team where newspapermen are concerned."
"You've known Birdie a long time."
"Birdie and I go way back. I tried to get him when I was managing the White Sox and he was catching for Detroit in '39, but they wouldn't let him go. We understand each other. I used to ride hell out of him from the bench. I'd mimic his voice. He would get a very red derri√®re, as the French say, about that."
"No use asking you," said the fake FBI agent, "who was the greatest man you ever met in baseball."
"Mr. Mack," said Dykes, "was in a class by himself. There'll never be another one like him."
"You always called him Mr. Mack?"
"I understand he never did use bad language."
"Never," said Dykes. He stared at his hand and threw in some chips. "Well," he said slowly, "there was one time. The team was in a terrible slump. Mr. Mack called the coaches into his office for a meeting. Mickey Cochrane, Bing Miller and myself. He said he was worried about the club and he had tried hard to figure out what was wrong with it. Then he didn't say anything for a minute. Finally, he spoke up again and said he had come to the conclusion that the boys were overindulging in affaires d'amour, as the French say. Mr. Mack did not speak French."
"What did you coaches say to that?"
"We were shocked," Dykes said. "We didn't say anything right away. Finally, I said, 'Do you mean at home, Mr. Mack?' Mr. Mack shook his head. 'No, Jimmie,' he said. 'On trips.' "
A chin is for tagging
"How about Ty Cobb?" someone asked. "You played with him after he was traded to the A's from Detroit. Just how tough was Ty?"
"The first words I ever had with Ty was when he was with Detroit and I picked him off second on a throw from Mickey Cochrane. Ty dived back for the bag, but he was out by a foot. He got up and dusted himself off and stuck his nose in my face. He said, 'I'll be back, kid.' I looked him right in the eye and said. I'll be here, Mr. Cobb.' "
"What would you do in the old days when a guy like Cobb came into second with his spikes high?"
"Why," said Dykes, lighting a fresh cigar, "I'd tag him gently but firmly on the chin."
"Gene Kelly, the announcer, tells a story about Pepper Martin and you in the 1931 World Series. Martin stole five bases, didn't he?"
"The way Kelly tells it, Pepper came diving into you at third base and you gave him the ball square on the skull. Old Pepper, the story goes, got up and walked away without a word. But in later years Pepper said that incident never happened at all."
"The hell it didn't," said Dykes. "It happened just that way, and Pepper can deny it all he wants to." He examined his cigar. "I always liked old Pepper."
"Who were some of the other baseball characters you've always liked?"
"Stengel," Dykes said. "I like old Case, love to needle him. I'll have a lot of opportunity now that we're both in the National League. Ted Williams is a great guy. When I was signed to manage Cleveland for a full year after that Mister William O. DeWitt swapped me to Frank Lane for Gordon, Williams sent me a wire saying, 'It couldn't happen to a better guy.' He just signed it, 'No. 9.' I don't save many things, but I've saved that wire."
Dykes thought a while, winning a pot for a change.
"I like Frank Lane," said Dykes. "He always leveled with me. As I was telling the Air Force boys overseas, nobody ever had to wonder what Frank was thinking. All you had to do was buy a newspaper and there it would be."
"Jimmie," said Mike Tierno, "all the guys you like are pop-offs like you."
Dykes looked at his watch. It was near 6 and it was his habit to start home about that time when the highway traffic began to thin out a little.
"Maybe so," he said to Tierno, getting up and reaching for his coat, beckoning to his guest, the man who wasn't from the FBI. He reached into his coat pocket and drew out what surely must have been his 15th cigar of the day.
"Maybe so," he said again to Mike Tierno as he started to the door. "It seems to me everybody popped off when I broke in. Just like it seems that the pitchers threw harder in the old days. Just like it seems we used to have more fun. We didn't own bowling alleys or motels or get on the Perry Como Show, but we had a lot of laughs. I guess it looks better from where I sit now, 65 years old, than it really was."
"What will you be doing for Birdie Tebbetts at Milwaukee, Jimmie?" a man called out.
"Why," said Dykes, turning around at the door, "I see where Birdie has signed Bill Adair to coach at third. So maybe he'll use me at first base. He said he wanted me to look at some of the other clubs during the season. He says he doesn't want me to work too hard. I'll tell Birdie nuts to that. I can work as hard as ever. When I can't, I quit."
"Too bad you're not in on that baseball pension plan, Jimmie."
Dykes looked in his new hat, the gift of his old teammate, Bing Miller.
"Yeah," he said. "But, hell, I've had 46 years of steady work. Is that bad?"
Jimmie Dykes didn't wait for an answer. He put on his new hat and set it at a rakish angle. It was a youthful hat with a low crown and a narrow brim. On Jimmie Dykes, swaggering out the door, heading south for his 47th season in organized ball, it looked good.