Search

DESTINY'S WHIPPING BOYS

April 05, 1965
April 05, 1965

Table of Contents
April 5, 1965

Yesterday
The Jump
The Masters
Kennedy
Senators
Wrestling
Motor Sports
Auerbach
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

DESTINY'S WHIPPING BOYS

Bad but not horrid, funny but not cute, the 'new' Washington Senators blush virtually unseen in a lonely purgatory they never made, chained to a drab and dreary history they never read

Benny Daniels coiled his lean body languidly as if to lob the ball. But surreptitiously he was reaching back, and the sneaky fast ball popped loudly as it hit Don Zimmer's glove. Zimmer shifted his cud and spat a stream of tobacco juice on home plate. "That's the hardest you thrown in two years," he said. "Nobody knows how fast I am," Daniels said. "The ball don't get to the mitt that often." It was a stock line, vintage early Lefty Gomez. A few minutes earlier, in the clubhouse, Ron Kline had informed a visitor that he thought of himself as being in the twilight of a mediocre career. That was a mot copyrighted if not originated by Frank Sullivan (the pitcher, not the old Saratoga hand who writes for The New Yorker). In the camp of the "new" Washington Senators even the wisecracks are secondhand.

This is an article from the April 5, 1965 issue Original Layout

Still, the Senators are a funny group as ball clubs go, and it is unfortunate that more persons in the Washington area are not aware of this. They might come out to see them play. The Senators finished ninth last year and attracted 600,106 customers. That was 64,502 more than they drew the year before, and Dr. Coué would have said that was improvement, but it was also 1,132,491 fewer than paid to see the 10th-place New York Mets. The differences between the Mets and Senators are too marginal to merit solemn argument, but the Senators are not—at least in the eyes of their nonbeholders—cute.

The Washington management carefully avoids the central fact that there was nothing but a great groundswell of public apathy to welcome them in 1961 when the new club sought to fill the "vacuum" left by the old Senators, who moved to Minnesota and renamed themselves the Twins. The Mets, entering an aching void to solace still-sorrowing Giant and Dodger fans, were conceived in nostalgia and dedicated to the dubious proposition that any team is better than none at all. The Senators were similarly dedicated, but they were born in original sin. All the evil that the Griffiths—old Clark and young Calvin—did in Washington lives after them; the good was packed off to the Northwest Territory in Calvin's carpetbag.

In a sense, the new Senators' management has brought the problem on itself. From 1934 through 1960 the old Senators finished in the second division 23 times in 27 years, the last 14 consecutively. They finished as high as second only twice, both times during the war. When Calvin Griffith said he was leaving town, the attitude of Washington fans resembled that of the harried mother Sam Levenson tells about: when her brat threatened to run away from home, she said, "So go. I'll make you sandwiches."

It might have followed that what any new franchise in Washington needed most was a clean break with history—maybe even a new name, to cosmeticize some of the stigma. Instead, the new people embraced history, taking the position that they were not new at all. "The Washington franchise was never vacated," says Burt Hawkins, who endured the old as a newspaperman and now doubles as PR man and road secretary to the new. "The Twins are the new franchise. The records are ours."

Which means Walter Johnson and all that. But along with The Big Train they got a big chain to drag through the league, maybe through their entire existence. Things like this: it says in the American League Red Book that Pitcher Jim Grant is 22-5 lifetime over Washington, and only Whitey Ford enjoys figures of greater preponderance over anybody. But analysis shows that Grant was 16-2 over the old Senators and only 6-3 against the new. The latter-day Senators have been three times as successful (.333-.111) against him as their forebears, but they have taken that 22-5 thing to be their own and they are stuck with it. The iniquities of the fathers are being visited upon the children of the second generation, and it doesn't look good for the third.

Alas. The current Senators are a singular collection of Hessians who have done very little to deserve their fate. Seldom in the field of human endeavor has there been such an assemblage of men victimized by the cruel coincidence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take Don Blasingame, the second baseman. From one point of view it could be argued that a man who had taken as his bride the many-splendored daughter of Walker Cooper ought not expect much more luck. (Sara Cooper was Miss Missouri of 1957 and the jury wasn't out long.) In any case, the rest of Blasingame's luck has been mostly bad.

In 1960, after his third good season in St. Louis, the San Francisco Giants deemed Blasingame worth Daryl Spencer and Leon Wagner. The year before, 1959, the Giants had "bought" the pennant from St. Louis in the person of Sam Jones, and then had blown it—partly because. Spencer neither felt nor acted like a second baseman. Now, they decided, The Blazer would make everything all right. Nothing was all right. By June the Giants had reached the reductio ad absurdum of having Tom Sheehan, the Falstaffian scout, as manager, and just played out the schedule. Blasingame, never really more than a quite adequate player, wilted under the unreasonable pressure and became inadequate.

The next spring he was traded to Cincinnati, where there would be a pennant that year, but Blasingame could win only part of a job. He ran into the one brief flash of adequacy by Elio Chacon, who later tipped his fraudulence by failing as a Met. After that, for The Blazer, there was Washington.

The first wrong place for Don Zimmer was the batter's box in Columbus, Ohio on a July night in 1953. At age 22, with 23 home runs in the bank and the league lead in runs batted in, Zimmer had it made. Then a curve ball got him above the left temple and nearly killed him. "I didn't see it," Zimmer said. The fractured skull finished him for the year, and the dizzy spells lasted into the next season, but he finally got to Brooklyn to sit in the shadow of Pee Wee Reese.

Zimmer played half the 1955 season when Jim Gilliam had his only bad year. But he didn't get to his "real" position, shortstop, until Reese was injured in 1956. He was in the right place then, but it was going to be the wrong time. "Hodges hit a home run," he said, "and I was the next man up. Jeffcoat hit me."

Hal Jeffcoat's pitch shattered Zimmer's left cheekbone and detached the retina of his left eye. Friends suggested in vain that he quit ("What would I do for a living?"), and in the spring of 1957 the Dodger entourage was observing his reflexes carefully. One day in Miami Stadium he showed them Don Zimmer's kind of reflex action. Detroit's Jim Bunning, pitching with untidy speed, threw the highest and tightest of pitches, and Zimmer had to bail out. That kind of pitch can scare a man who has never been hit, and surely Zimmer had to become a fanny-in-the-dugout hitter sooner or later. Instead, he got up and hit the next pitch into the parking lot.

But the next three seasons were bitter years for Zimmer. He may not have invented his favorite expression, "Play me or trade me,'' but he is undisputed author of the phrase, "The Man don't like me," which he frequently employed within earshot of Manager Walter Alston. He had one last opportunity with the Dodgers, but again it came at the wrong time for Zimmer. In 1959 Los Angeles won the pennant the hardest way, with a team put together with string and glue. The Man could have and would have used any little bit of help he could get. That was the year Zimmer hit a melancholy .165.

Zimmer's weakness is his strength. There are 185 pounds packed on his frame, which is not nearly the 5 feet 9 it says in the book, and a number of those pounds are in the brawny arms that led Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald Tribune long ago to dub him "The Boy Blacksmith." And there is a strong mind in the strong body, which has often made Zimmer his own most formidable opponent. He wanted to hit home runs. His .238 lifetime average could be 30 points higher if he had ever recognized right field as fair territory, but the sight of a left-field fence has always aroused a sensual urge in him that he cannot resist for long.

A new Don Zimmer introduced himself at the Chicago Cubs' camp in Mesa, Ariz. in 1961. He had seen the light and shortened his stroke. No sir, it did not pay to go for the long ball, and he would not. He even asked the manager to bat him second so he could demonstrate his proficiency as a hit-and-run man. In the first inning the Cubs" lead-off man got on. Zimmer looked eagerly for the sign, then strode purposefully into the first pitch. The ball went behind the runner, as prescribed. It also went behind the scoreboard in right center. The next time up the new Don Zimmer almost spun himself into the ground trying to reach the fence again.

Another reconstructed Don Zimmer came to Pompano Beach this spring. He had caught 32 games in the Florida Instructional League during the winter, in an effort, at 34, to increase his utility and enhance his job security by becoming a catcher. He had broken only one finger.

"The guy didn't even want to hit the ball," Zimmer said, "but he was reaching out and he ticked it. There wasn't three people in the stands, but one of them was my wife and I said, 'God damn it,' loud. I knew it was broken, but I just stood there awhile. I didn't want to look at it."

Zimmer was catching again in 10 days. He is, surprisingly, in the right place. "A third catcher is the sort of luxury I don't believe I can afford," Manager Gil Hodges said. "But Don may solve the problem for me. He's a good catcher."

In the lexicon of baseball the barbarized adverb "real" delineates the exceptional. Tom Tresh has good speed; Willie Davis has the real good speed. Don Drysdale throws hard; Jim Maloney throws real hard. Zimmer is not a real good catcher, because, again, his timing was bad. "He should have made the change eight years ago," Hodges said. "He'd be a first-class catcher."

Gil tested his old buddy when he "let" him catch 10 innings in an exhibition game in Mexico City, where it is 7,500 feet high and they never water the infield. "That dust bowl," Zimmer said last week. "The first day we took a lap around the field and guys was gasping and pulling up before we got halfway." By the fourth day the team had largely overcome its anoxia, but almost all hands were weakened by varying degrees of dysentery. "When No. 14 [Hodges] used a catcher as a pinch hitter in the third inning," Zimmer said, "I thought, oh, oh. Then he used the other one in the fifth, and I could see how it was going to be. I was it. I was running down to back up first on every ground ball, and by the eighth inning I was walking back. Yeah, I suppose it was kind of funny, but I'm battling for a job. I'm not fooling around."

Then Zimmer tore a muscle in his elbow, so badly that he could not lift his arm, so badly that he'd be out of action until after the season begins. Hodges put his plans for Zimmer in escrow, and The Boy Blacksmith began planning his next comeback.

The biggest man in the Senators' camp is thinking small. Sweating down to his 245-pound playing weight, Frank Howard is trying to convert himself from a superman to a useful baseball player. He made his first mistake late in 1958 in his first game as a Dodger. He hit a ball "over everything," and thereafter anything he did that was ungargantuan was disappointing. Last winter the Dodgers gave up on him, and he's glad.

"I'll get to play more here," he said. "Over there I'd have been a platoon player. Yes, I think the ballyhoo hurt me, because I never was really that good. People see you are capable of doing something and they...well, they want you to do it more often. I don't think I can hit, .300, or 40 home runs. I'd say 30 home runs and about .275. I really don't have more ability than that."

Howard's Los Angeles performance (he hit .296 twice and as many as 31 home runs) could get him steady work as a Senator, maybe. He hasn't become much more graceful as an outfielder, and he can't throw. At least he doesn't know if he can. "The arm is better," he said after lobbing a relay to nobody and giving away a run. "But I haven't cut loose yet."

Ron Kline is the leading wrongo of the Senators' pitchers. After losing 83 games in six years with the Pirates, he was traded away in December 1959—just in time to miss a winner's share of the 1960 World Series. He remembers his stewardship in Pittsburgh. "I had pitched six days in a row," he said. "One day in Chicago I told Bragan I was going to need a day off pretty soon. 'The way you're pitching,' he said, 'you've had the whole year off.' " Bobby Bragan was fired that night, but Kline isn't making a post hoc thing of that.

Washington's general manager, George Selkirk, holds the alltime high—or low—for wrong-time, wrong-place occupancy. His record as a left-handed hitter was a proud one, and he could do everything else well. But excellence was not enough when he reported to the Yankees in the spring of 1935. All Selkirk had to do that year was take Babe Ruth's place. If that weren't implausible enough, publicity men had not yet conceived the idea of retiring famous uniform numbers. Selkirk had to trot out to right field with No. 3 on his back.

George bore it well for two seasons, and in 1937 he got off to an excellent start. By mid-June he had 17 home runs and was leading the league. Then he broke his collarbone. "That's what they thought," Selkirk said. "When they took the sling off they found my elbow was broken, too." He had other good seasons, but never a real good one.

Perhaps, it was suggested in discussing attendance figures with Selkirk, Washington is the wrong place for a ball club to be. D.C. Stadium may, as he says, "make Shea Stadium and Chavez Ravine look bush," but people don't come. There was that rumble on Thanksgiving Day 1962 after a football game, and since then nobody knows how many fans have stayed away out of fear.

"Not many," Selkirk said. "You're as safe there as you are in any ball park. Look, they had a story about a guy who got the hell beat out of him on his way home from the stadium. You know how far away he was? Twelve blocks. Our problem is to improve the team and build the people's confidence. When we have that, we'll draw."

One hopes that when they have and they do, Gil Hodges will still be there. He is the one member of the Senators' dramatis personae who is certainly in the right place at the right time. If it were possible to follow the top line of Hodges' breeding back to antiquity, the name of Job would pop up somewhere.

Only such a man could keep his aplomb in the face of the maddening consistency with which last year's plodding Senators won 31 games on the road and 31 at home. "If you can't play for him," Frank Howard said in a grammatical variation of another baseball standard, "you can't play for nobody."

His nonpareil nice-guyness led many to doubt Hodges could be a manager. How could a man who never yelled at an umpire chew out a player? "I don't use the name of God," Hodges said, "and I don't use the obscenities. I don't say I've never used them, but it's not my regular vocabulary. No, it's not a religious thing. I had early parochial training and I went to a Catholic college, but nothing special. Anyway, the fact that I am not capable of using language like that doesn't mean I can't express myself. I believe I make my points." The players believe so, too. "He's the sweetest guy in the world," one of them said, "but he's a tough son of a bitch."

Hodges has done most of his chewing out privately, but a few players who didn't get the message have been read off before the troops, Marine Corps style. "I don't like to embarrass a man," Hodges said, "because I know how it feels. I was in one of my characteristic slumps in Brooklyn and decided skipping batting practice might help. When I showed up late Harold Parrott [then Dodger business manager] said Dressen was looking for me. Harold said I should tell him I went to late Mass, but Charley knew there were early Masses. The next day he called a meeting and gave it to me. Now, I was wrong, but Charley got carried away and said a lot of things that were out of line. He even mentioned my family, and he shouldn't have done that.

"I took it because I was wrong. If I'd asked permission he'd have said O.K., so I was stupid. And I took it because all the other guys were there. It wouldn't be right to put a manager down in front of the club."

Why did Hodges become a manager? "I needed a job. I couldn't play anymore. Sure, I have the bowling alley in Brooklyn, but that's not making money yet. I did make good money in baseball, but not real good."

Hodges could have made the real good money by having the real big season instead of spreading his 370 home runs so evenly. In 1952 and 1953, for example, he hit 32 and 31 home runs. Had he hit 51 the first year and 12 the second, the fiscal structure of baseball being what it is, he'd have been ahead.

"Yes," he agreed. "I admit I made the mistake of being too consistent."

So, unhappily, have the new Senators: ninth, tenth, tenth, ninth. Only the Mets have done worse. And people come to see them play.

ILLUSTRATIONBULGE IN ROOF of Senator dugout is made by towering Frank Howard (9), now thinking small after his "failure" as Dodger superman.ILLUSTRATIONWEARY WARRIOR Don Zimmer, now 34, is retooling himself as a catcher, is still breaking bones and swinging like "The Boy Blacksmith."