Spend a few days around the Kansas City Athletics and their ball park, and you tend to suspect that the hand of Mack Sennett is behind it all. It seems after a while that every Kansas City player looks like Joe E. Brown performing in some marvelous farce on film. There is something wonderfully unreal about it all, beginning with Charlie Finley and the editorial campaign that he conducts against the Yankees—fences in left and right center carry messages comparing the foul-line distances in Yankee Stadium to those in his park. And then there is the rest of it: the yellow cab that transports bullpen pitchers to the mound, the flashing lights and foghorns—exact replicas of those on the Queen Mary—that blast off after each home run, the shepherd and his flock of sheep in right field, the young ground-keepers who flit about like toy soldiers controlled by a central button. Add to all of this Jimmie Dykes, daintily appointed in a gold-and-green uniform, a substitute first baseman who catches pop flies in the middle of his head, an announcer who seems genuinely startled after each victory, and it becomes quite evident that baseball is far from being a serious business in Kansas City. "Yes, I'd say this is a happy ball club," said Manager Ed Lopat (before he was fired last week), while Jim Gentile sang around the batting cage and Doc Edwards, the substitute first baseman, played catch wearing a mask and a batting helmet.
It follows then that John Wyatt, a relief pitcher who speaks a language all his own, should be a member of this team, but it does not follow that he should be so consistently effective on a ball club that has been challenged to a game by a group of vendors. "In Wyatt and the ground crew," says one critic, "you have the sum total of Kansas City's excellence." During one recent home stand, the only conspicuous performers on the field were the ground crew (it rained a lot), Ed Lopat walking to the mound and John Wyatt getting out of a cab and trudging to meet him like a big bear in the middle of the Big Top. "Without Wyatt," said Lopat, "we'd be in real trouble."
It is difficult to understand what other "real trouble" the Athletics could experience. After 52 games the Athletics were 17½ games out of first place, mainly thanks to a pitching staff that is viewed as a magnificent example of imperfection and inexperience. "If I lost a starter in the early innings," said Lopat, "the game usually got out of hand. If we could stay close, or hold a slim lead around the seventh inning, we could pull Wyatt in and everybody knew that we at least had an even chance of winning."
With nine saves and three wins Wyatt had figured in 12 of Kansas City's 17 victories. Last season he pitched 92 innings and recorded 19 saves to rank third among the league's reliefers, impressive enough to interest Minnesota and Detroit, two clubs that could certainly use him right now. Since coming up to the majors in 1961 he has learned to throw a sidearm curve and a three-quarter curve and a "foke" ball, a pitch that seems to arouse the ire of everyone in the league. Players refer to it as one of the best spit balls around. "John, where'd you learn that pitch?" a manager asked him once. "Man, why I learnt that pitch in Puerto Rico during the winter," said Wyatt. "Yeah, swimmin' in the Caribbean," cracked the manager.
Wyatt's best pitch is his fast ball, which he finally has learned to use with intelligence. "But the big thing I gotta do, man, is get that curve ball over when I'm behind," says Wyatt, "else I might as well go out and buy me a lunch pail and, man, that ain't hittin' it."
Curiously, there has been little written about Wyatt in the daily press despite his success, his colorful patois, his sense of humor and easy nature but, as he says, "Ole John don't care. He just interested in those hogs." Says one K.C. official: "Wyatt probably doesn't get any publicity because nobody understands what he's saying. At first I thought I would need an interpreter."
In the extraordinary lexicon of John Wyatt, dollars are hogs, smoke is his fast ball, food is grease, and "that ain't hit-tin' it" is a negative reaction to something. Every conversation is strangled with unintelligible words that are spouted with varying degrees of inflection. And you never are sure who he is talking about. Here is a sampling of his comments.
On Al Kaline: "Man, the Line is the best hitter anywhere. Ya got to do some scufflin' with that guy. He just grin at me all the time like he know he gonna hang me out to dry. You know, like you come from the side, almost turn your back to 'em and send that smoke in from left field. Well, I'll tell ya, a lot of 'em give ya an inch or two. But, man, the Line, he just stay in there, and swoosh! Ya're leavin' the game with an L, and Ole John don't like them Ls, he just like them Ws and Ss."
On relief pitching: "Man, I like workin' with the fire hose. Everything's burnin' in there, and Ole John come in with the big hose and [whispering] put out tha' fire. But those big hitters, they gonna sting ya, too. Then John, he go home and turn on tha' lowdown stuff, like James Brown's Oh, Baby Don't You Weep. I don't get any Zs on those nights. The best? Man, Radatz! He definitely open my nose."
On Harmon Killebrew: "Man, that Minnesota club got enough wood over there to build a house. And the Brew, well, he like a big lumberjack comin' after me with a blade in his hand. He just stand up there and wave that stick like it's a big redwood. One time I give 'im a pitch that couldn't be better, just where I wanted it. He's fooled on it, and checks his swing. I look up, and that ball is done gone on a long trip, and he's standin' there with the nub of the bat in his hand. He's some strong. I fool him now and then, and he just shakes his head like he sayin', 'I'll get ya.' Man, every time I see him I say, 'Man, why ya pick on me like that?' "
On Charlie Finley: "That man been fair to me. He's the green goose, and I can't say anything bad about him. I always go where the green goose flies. He got all the hogs, and Ole John gonna git some of 'em so he can go in style like the Tile goes."
On Jim Gentile, alias the Tile: "He's the sweetest and cleanest guy in the league, man. He's some slick. Mohair suits, $40 shoes, white on white silk shirts. And he can do some drinkin', he can pick it up. I mean, he can drink up any ball hit near him. All the guys in our infield can drink."
On the Athletics: "Everybody want a piece of us. Why we pull into a city, and they can't wait to git us to the park. We go into Cleveland, and Jim Grant say he's sorry he didn't meet us at the airport so he could drive the bus into town."
Everybody may want a piece of the Athletics, but very few opponents want anything to do with Wyatt when he is on the mound, and many people think he is going to get better. Says Lopat: "He's not polished yet. But he can stay around eight or nine years if he works hard. When he came up all he could do was throw. Now he is becoming a better pitcher every time out. He kids around a lot, and he helps keep the club loose, but when he steps across that big line he's all business. He's a guy who knows where he is, and appreciates being in the majors. So many don't, you know. He wants to stay up because he knows what it is down there."
Indeed, Wyatt does know what it is like "down there," and he always talks about the minors as if he were talking about the Black Hole of Calcutta. He spent eight years in the minor leagues, beginning with Hannibal in 1954 where he was released late in the season and given bus fare to Buffalo. The manager said he didn't have "the equivalent of a major league fast ball." In 1955 he joined the Indianapolis Clowns. "Man, I'll tell ya, that weren't no ball," he says. "Two dollar a day to eat on, two to a bed, a different town each night. A lot of times we be puttin' our uniforms on in the bus. We traveled through 47 states that summer. Man, I'm sure glad to be up here because, baby, that ain't hittin' it down there." Wyatt was in the Braves' camp in 1956, and later he was sent to El Paso where the manager was preparing to release him before even seeing him pitch. Fortunately for Kansas City, the manager ran out of pitchers and had to use Wyatt. The A's eventually purchased his contract. And now Wyatt, who is 29, receives $10 a day meal money and $15,000 a year, and he drives around the city in a baby-blue Oldsmobile convertible wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and a broad smile on his face. "Yeah, it swings up here," he says. "But when I can't eat any more dust I ain't gonna be like a lot of guys. All my hogs gonna be invested in a 'partment house, and Ole John gonna sit back and jest collect, the rent."
Big John walks alone
Wyatt, who stands 6 feet and weighs 200 pounds, says the difference between the minors and majors is "more sleepless nights." Yet, on the exterior he doesn't seem to be the type who would fret over a poor performance. He sort of floats around the field, and when you look at him there always seems to be something missing, perhaps a sign around his neck saying: "Gone Fishin'." He does not mix too much with other players off the field. "I go by myself," he says. "I picked that up when I was a little kid. One day in Ypsilanti, Mich. this boy and I went to pay my mother's light bill, and while I'm payin' the light bill this boy is makin' like Willie Sutton on an iron. When I get home the police is waitin' for me, and they say, 'Man, where's the iron?' I say, 'Man, I ain't got no iron.' I couldn't tell them who took it because this boy was my friend, so next thing I know I'm in juvenile court. Ever since, I go by myself. That way you ain't responsible for nobody." Wyatt's favorite diversions are pocket billiards and cards, but "nobody want any part of me any more," he says. "I can't find any more lames [translation: weak players]. I use to carry my own stick around, but now everybody want me to give 'em out and take out after 'em [translation: everybody wants a-handicap]."
Wyatt had been recalling his youth while sitting in front of his locker in the Kansas City dressing room. Now he rose and walked down the ramp to the dugout. Big rain clouds hung over the park. Wyatt called to Ed Lopat: "Boss, is Raymond gonna turn us loose today?"
"No," said Lopat. "Raymond's not going to turn us loose."
"Who is Raymond?" a visitor asked.
"That's the rain," smiled Lopat. "He wanted to know if it will rain hard enough for the game to be postponed."
H.L. Mencken, when compiling his definitive study of the American language, would have dearly loved John Wyatt, collector of hogs, hunter of lames, thrower of smoke and the only man on the Kansas City pitching staff who can get anybody out.