On a dark and rainy afternoon in Boston some years ago the Braves were losing a game to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the bottom half of the fifth inning and as the sky grew darker and the rain increased, the Braves tried everything to make the umpires call off the game before it became official. Finally Connie Ryan, the Braves' second baseman, came wandering out of the dugout wearing an oversize raincoat and carrying a flashlight. History does not record whether the umpires laughed, but certainly everyone else did.
And they laughed the day that Lefty Gomez had to bat against Bobby Feller in the gloom of late afternoon. This was in 1940 when the young Feller was long on speed but short on control. Just before Gomez took his stance at the plate, he reached in his pocket, produced a book of matches and lit one.
"Put that out," ordered the umpire. "It's not that dark. I can see him fine."
"Oh, I can see him fine too," said Gomez. "I just want to make sure he can see me."
April 29, 1962
The Ryan and Gomez stories are part of the lore of the game and they are told and retold whenever baseball people get together. And yet it is one of the sad facts of baseball that if either of these incidents happened today, the offender would be reprimanded sharply and probably fined by his manager, his club owner or the league president.
Individuality is disappearing from the game; the trend is toward the organization man. There are still a magic few who by the force of their personality or the style of their play manage to stand out from the rest, but their number is dwindling. A Dick Stuart is cautioned by the Pittsburgh front office that he will go a lot further in baseball if he keeps his mouth shut and sticks to hitting. Casey Stengel disagrees. "If you think you're going to do better just by being serious all the time and never telling any stories or doing any kidding around—why, you're a little mistaken," he has said. Stengel can say that and practice it because he is a big name, too big to control. When he sets off sparklers in the dugout, as he did in Chicago two years ago, the umpires and the commissioner's office can only look the other way and pretend it didn't happen. But let a little man try it and he's in trouble.
In the summer of 1957, when Bragan was manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was thrown out of a game for arguing a call with the umpires. Bragan withdrew into the dugout but reappeared almost immediately with a small carton of orange soda pop and two straws. "It's a hot night," he said, "and as long as we're going to discuss this thing we might as well be comfortable." Not only was he fined, but less than a week later he was fired as manager.
Ballplayers themselves seem to have less patience with the comedian or eccentric than they once did. Today any player who varies from the normal pattern of behavior on the field is immediately branded as either a hot dog, baseball's special term for a show-off, or as a flake—an oddball. Last year when Gene Freese, new to the Cincinnati team, hit his first home run of the season, he jumped and skipped his way around the bases, giving a masterful imitation of Bill Mazeroski's romp after he hit the home run that beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Freese immediately was stamped as a flake. So was Jackie Brandt of the Baltimore Orioles after he hit a home run and then slid into every base as he ran it out. The umpires and the front office winced, but there were no complaints from the fans.
There have been flakes and hot dogs in baseball as long as the game has been played, although they were called by other names, like showboats and hamburgers. One of the early flakes was Germany Schaefer, who once decided that the quickest route from first to third base was straight across the diamond. There was a day when Schaefer came to bat against Nick Altrock with a runner on first. Schaefer took the first pitch for a strike. Then Altrock threw over to first base to hold the runner close. Schaefer swung and missed the second pitch and threw his bat away in disgust.
"That's only strike two," the umpire said to him.
"The heck it is," Schaefer said. "I swung at the ball he threw to first."
Rube Waddell was another flake. If he heard the wail of a fire siren he was apt to take off, even if he happened to be warming up. Connie Mack, his manager, once recalled the time he was watching a spectacular blaze and admiring the skill and daring of a fireman high atop a ladder.
"I stood there marveling at this man," Mack recalled, "and then I realized I was watching Waddell."
Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gomez were both as zany—or flaky—as they were effective. There was a day in St. Louis when the Cardinals had to play a game in 110° temperature. All the players were complaining about the heat, so Dean and his teammate Pepper Martin collected scraps of paper and wood and made a fire in the dugout. Then they wrapped themselves in blankets and squatted in front of the blaze.
Gomez was once asked what his chief ambition was. "It's a crucial game before a packed crowd at Yankee Stadium," said Gomez. "In the ninth inning the bases are loaded. Our pitcher is beginning to fade and Joe McCarthy calls me to the mound. And then I come roaring out of the bullpen, riding a motorcycle and wearing a full suit of armor."
The words and deeds of players like Schaefer, Waddell, Dean and Gomez are almost alien to baseball today. The organization ballplayer thinks first, last and always of security, in the form of high salaries, profitable endorsements and a lucrative pension plan. He plays it safe, and he has taken much of the color out of the game.
There are still some genuine comics in baseball, however. Gil Hodges, so long a Dodger, now a New York Met, is one, although he necessarily must keep his talent carefully hidden. When the Brooklyn Dodgers made a trip to Japan in 1956 for a score of exhibition games, Hodges played left field. Between innings he improvised a pantomime that had the Japanese fans roaring. In his act, Hodges would be all things, pitcher, batter, base runner and fielder. It was good entertainment, but the act closed forever when the Dodgers returned home. Hodges felt it would not be proper to continue it in the major leagues, and baseball lost an added attraction.
Still the Hodges humor shows through on the field occasionally. Hodges was playing first base in St. Louis a few years ago when Stan Musial came to bat. Musial hit a vicious foul ball just wide of first. In a quick, graceful motion, Hodges moved to his left and came up with the ball. On the next pitch, Musial hit another wicked foul and again Hodges made a lunging stop. On the third pitch Musial swung and missed and the bat came flying out of his hands toward first base. Hodges swooped in on the bat, scooped it up and for an instant pretended that he was about to throw it toward third. Then he turned, his face as solemn as ever, and handed the bat to the bat boy.
Until he retired last year, Ted Williams was hands down baseball's most magical personality, the surest box office draw in the game. Red Sox attendance without Williams last year was off 280,000 at home and another 130,000 on the road, this in spite of an expanded schedule, the Maris-Mantle home run derby and an improved Red Sox team.
It is no secret that the Washington Senators had attendance in mind when they traded for Jimmy Piersall. Washington needed someone who would draw the crowds at home and away. When tickets went on sale for Washington's opener this year, more than 44,000 were sold in three days. Crowds began lining up at 4:30 a.m., four and a half hours before the ticket windows opened. This may have been due in part to Washington's new stadium, but Piersall was the big reason. Two things made Piersall one of the game's most exciting players and hence, big box office. His demonstrations—the bug sprays, tirades at umpires and sportswriters, helmet slinging—are well known. What is sometimes overlooked is that Piersall is also a very accomplished player, a player without any pronounced weakness. He can bunt, hit a home run, hook slide and make a catch. He performs with a gusto that borders on the hysterical and the fans love it.
The fans love Rocky Colavito of Detroit, too. Detroit officials estimate that Colavito adds about 1,500 people—many of them giggly young girls—to every game's attendance. Part of the magic of Colavito is his dark handsome face, and part of it is his swing and the ritual leading up to it. Before Colavito steps into the batter's box, he ceremoniously takes each end of his bat and brings it over his head and down behind him, arching his shoulders violently in the process. Rocky calls this loosening his shoulder muscles; others call it hot-dogging. What does it matter? It is good theater. The show continues as Colavito steps into the batter's box. Slowly and deliberately he swings his bat forward until it is pointed menacingly at the pitcher. He keeps it there for a full second, then draws it back and is ready to swing.
The swing is the piece de resistance. When Rocky swings, he comes up from the heels and spins all the way around. There is vengeance in the swing and the fans realize it, so that even when he strikes out, it is exciting. And when he hits a home run, glory be. There are better players than Rocky Colavito—Al Kaline, his teammate, is one—but it's Rocky who draws the fans.
Just as Colavito can be accused of being a hot dog, so can almost every other exciting star. Luis Aparicio (see cover) and Maury Wills are almost identical in their ability to play shortstop and steal bases. Yet Aparicio is electric, while Wills is merely a pleasant, serious-minded young man. Luis' flash stems from his uninhibited joy as he makes the play. He's a happy guy and he has perfect confidence in his own skill. He handles his hands with a little extra fillip, not so much for show as for the pleasure it gives him.
There is a lot of hot dog in Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente likes to turn loose his howitzer throwing arm whenever possible, even when the base runner wouldn't dream of advancing. It always draws oohs and ahs from the crowd. Clemente also has a habit of swinging wildly at bad pitches, missing, and propelling himself completely around and onto the seat of his pants. His base running and slides are conducted with the same abandon. But Clemente is a very good ballplayer and he is the best gate attraction at Pittsburgh since Ralph Kiner stopped hitting home runs.
The baseball fan wants each player to be different from any other, each to have his own little eccentricities. He knows that when Vic Power takes throws at first base on the run he is showing off, but the fan looks forward to it and would be disappointed if Power suddenly started to field in the conventional way. There would be disappointment, too, if Willie Mays abandoned his basket catch, stopped running out from under his cap and stopped playing pepper games with schoolboy delight. And how much duller the game would be if Casey Stengel made himself understood.
The fan is always ready—in fact, eager—for new personalities in baseball. San Francisco had Mays and Orlando Cepeda when Willie McCovey broke in, but for several weeks McCovey was the only man in town. McCovey has slipped back now, but his name still causes a stir. In San Jose, citizens petitioned to change the name of McCovey Street to Monte Vista Drive. ("What did this guy Monte ever hit?" asked one resident.) The petition was denied but a local councilman said, "If McCovey doesn't have a good season, the name goes!"
The Yankees were the Yankees—Mantle, Berra, Ford, etc.—when Ryne Duren blazed upon the scene. Duren, good as he was, might have been lost among a team with such stars as the Yankees, but he knew how to give the fans a good show. First he would vault the bullpen railing with one hand to let the crowd know it was the mighty Duren who was coming in. Then—and the fans came to count on this—he would fire his first warmup pitch high above the catcher and all the way to the screen. Then he would strike out the batter, at least most of the time. Duren's meteor, like McCovey's, has burned out, but he proved that there is always room for a personality.
Each new season seems to produce a few players with that intangible touch of magic that makes people want to watch them in action. Los Angeles fans have learned to root for Willie Davis to hit one not over the fence but between the outfielders so they can see him streak around the bases like a frightened fawn. The same fans were surprised and delighted when in the Dodgers' third game of the season, a young pitcher named Pete Richert came in from the bullpen and struck out six batters in a row. Now they are not too sorry when a Dodger starter is knocked out; it means that Richert may be coming in. Baltimore fans root for a flashy newcomer named John (Boog) Powell to hit a home run; opponents root for someone to hit a line drive to Powell in left field just to see how he butchers it. In either case, it's exciting baseball.
Baseball needs these new personalities, the more, the better. But it could also use a few young players with the imagination and the nerve to come roaring in from the bullpen on a motorcycle, wearing a full suit of armor.