Alone in the cafeteria in that jazzless time, the two sit, watching all the strays and hookers march by the window, watching streets of pink and orange and champagne-glass neon darken slowly.
"Frank...tell me," says Birdie Tebbetts. "You been at this job awhile now. What do you do? The days are so empty."
"For you," answers Frank, "not for me. Never for me."
Another day, Houston on a July afternoon. It seems a perfect place for baseball's annual testimonial to itself, the All-Star Game, that time for reflection and planning when everyone studiously avoids doing either and ultimately proclaims: "Why, it's a Grand Old Game." The Game is alive, too, there in a hotel lobby, alive with bald heads nodding earnestly behind potted palms. Well, yes! What is happening to the empire, The Game? There, look: two All-Stars like that parading through the lobby wearing Nehru jackets and beads.
August 25, 1968
If that's not insurrection, what is? Whatever happened to the nice, comfortable rebels? Like, say, the guy walking into the lobby right now. Yeah, the one over there, with his hair flecked with gray, his face deeply tanned and seamed, the one with that exploding smile. The old rebel gains a prominent position in the lobby and is quickly circled by old friends and enemies, some of whom are looking for a laugh or information, many of whom are just looking. The one thing all of them are doing is listening, because no one in all of civilization has ever talked more than Frank Lane.
Lane, the former great general manager and champion trader, it was plainly audible, was alive and well in Houston. He has also been reported in a similar condition in Tacoma, Elmira, Guadalajara, any place to which a plane will carry him. Alive and well for Lane means being in baseball, being a part of the culture and continuity of The Game. Walter O'Malley could hunt lions and buffalo in Africa and Branch Rickey could retreat to his Scriptures, but Lane never needed anything but baseball. He was, true, once quite scholarly on the dark interior of burlesque from Juàrez to Short Vincent Street in Cleveland, but age has now impeded that research.
"I was also once mildly interested in golf," says Lane, "but that didn't last long. I used to get so mad playing that finally my wife said, 'Frank, if I didn't have any more fun than you, I'd quit.' The next shot I took sliced and hit a tree 60 feet away. I didn't say a word. I just took every club and broke them in half. I haven't picked up a club since."
His imperfection may have angered him, but one guesses that he felt guilty about diverting any portion of his concentration from baseball. Every part of The Game, the irrevocable tale of the line scores, the stretching of shadows across the outfield, the mundane information of the guides and other catalogues of data now so neatly piled on his hotel dresser, consumes him. "I can spend all day looking through these books," he says. "There's something romantic in the history of all the players." Like? "I don't know, there's just a feeling."
Lane is perfect for his current job. He is a superscout for the Baltimore Orioles, which means he flies 100,000 miles each year, spends his days in hotel rooms or cafeterias and his nights in ball parks; he sits in the press box or some other area (preferably where fans are sufficiently deaf or callous to his profane raging), his sharply pointed pencils and scoring book in front of him, his eyes flickering, his mouth flapping. Officially, Lane provides the Orioles with critiques of other clubs and scouts minor league talent. Unofficially, he is sort of an ambassador, an antenna for trade talk and devoted collector of information, much of which is valuable and ranges from the foibles of players (on and off the field) to the latest bungling or power play in baseball's high chambers.
"A guy once asked me," says a baseball reporter, "why I spent so much time with Lane. I told him I can learn more from Lane in two minutes than I can in two days from any other baseball man."
The problem, so everyone says, is that Frank Lane is the only scout in history who cannot see. "Frank often was called a great judge of talent," says Nate Dolin, a former vice-president of the Indians, "but I don't see how he could see well enough to judge it. His eyesight was bad, but he didn't want to wear glasses. A drive with Lane as the chauffeur became quite a thrill." His ears, for years an unused part of his anatomy, are not his eyes, Lane insists. "Hell, I can see," he says, explaining:
"That's a bum rap, but I know how it began. It began when one day I called this club owner up who had owed me a large sum of money for a long time. I knew I would get it eventually, but I needed it then. So I told him I needed it because I was going to have an eye operation. The money came. Sometime later I show up in the press box in Chicago. So in comes this pitcher, who is one of them no-windup pitchers. I never did like the idea of no windup. So here is this pitcher warming up, and Lee MacPhail is sitting next to me, and I mumble, 'no windup Larsen, eh?' Lee sort of looks at me. And then I mumble again, 'no windup Larsen, ha!' Lee now has a worried look on his face, and then I say the same thing again. Lee finally says, 'Frank, that's not Larsen.' I knew that. I was just cursing Larsen for starting that stuff. Ever since, they think I'm blind. Hell, I can see."
O.K., but Frank Lane never relied on his eyes anyway, and more than a few thought his performance as a general manager over 12½ seasons with Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland and Kansas City indicated as much. The trade was his device, and they ought to put him in Cooperstown for the way he used it. He went to sleep with his own convoluted reasoning and the waiver list underneath his pillow, and all he ever needed when in action was an ample supply of throat spray, a telephone, a pad and a book full of numbers. During his career he executed over 500 deals, some with craft, all with desperation. The frequency of his trades, whether the result of some psychological compulsion or just an extension of his personality, was his strength and, at times, his weakness.
"I've never known anyone else," says a Lane watcher in St. Louis, "who simply had to trade. And the bigger the player, the longer the player had been with the club, the more excited Frank got about making a deal for him. In the middle of a deal, Frank actually quivered. His lips trembled. His body shook. I've just never known anyone like him."
The exchange of players is not a simple exercise. It requires cunning, patience, occasional manufactured naiveté and a determination not to be lured away from your original objective. In other words, if you need a shortstop do not settle for an outfielder, even though he is more attractive than the shortstop. Lane seemed to possess all these qualities, and he never panicked when required to handle the hairpin curves on those circuitous routes that many trades follow, where discussion might travel over five clubs and 15 different names. On one occasion Lane spent 36 hours over a weekend angling for one player.
"It was Saturday," he says, "and I was in my pajamas talking to Hank Greenberg, and this waiter brings in my breakfast. Then, in the afternoon, the same waiter brings up lunch, and I'm still on the phone. And still in my pajamas. Later, here comes the same guy up with dinner, and I'm still looking the same and doing the same thing. Well on Sunday morning this waiter comes up with breakfast and there I am in the same position, wearing pajamas and shouting into the phone. 'Mr. Lane,' the waiter yells, stepping inside. 'Mr. Lane, is something wrong? Are you sick?' So I says, 'No, just a bit punch-drunk, son.' "
The player, Minnie Minoso, was finally landed, but such success is, if not rare, certainly scarce. The people who trade players are not ignorant of their merchandise, and all of them are aware of the elementary moves and precepts, foremost of which is not to "come out looking bad." Only the gambler, they know, can get busted real good, and he has rapidly become extinct in The Game. Lane was a gambler, but he knew and respected his opposition: Gabe Paul—he wanted $1.05 for every dollar, which made him less difficult than John Quinn, who always demanded $1.10. George Weiss—he was just interested in insulting your intelligence. Bill DeWitt—well, he did not sell the Reds for $7 million, a $2.5 million profit, and still retain rights to 15% of the stock for his son, because he was stupid. Bill Veeck—liberal, imaginative and a bulldog.
Of course, Branch Rickey was the consummate artist. All others, including Lane, learned from Rickey. "He was more like the old frontier salesman," remembers Bill Veeck. "He would load his wagon down with goodies and go from town to town, selling this shortstop as an all-purpose defensive nostrum and that pitcher as a specific for doubleheader blues. The artist in him demanded that he hypnotize the customer with his sales pitch and that when the time finally came to close the deal he could pull the right card out of his sleeve—to undoubted internal applause. The greatest proof of Rickey's genius was that you always knew what he was doing—except when he was doing it to you."
At least in one case, Rickey was probably too effective as a teacher, or perhaps the student Lane had been unusually attentive. Rickey, with his usual bag of good, young shortstops, stopped in Chicago to see Lane. The two were watching the day's game when Luke Appling, long a star but now aging rapidly, waved at a ground ball. Lane went into his usual Donald Duck rage, whereupon Rickey offered his condolences.
"Too bad, Frank, your infield is in sad shape," said Rickey, pulling a list of names out of his pocket. Next to each name a price was marked: Bobby Morgan—$250,000; Rocky Bridges—a meager $150,000 and three players. The list was long, but down near the end was the name of Chico Carrasquel. The price was $50,000 and 3 players. Lane expressed restrained interest.
"Oh, I can't let you have Mr. Carrasquel," said Rickey. Lane waited patiently, until he could determine what player Rickey really wanted to sell in Chicago. It turned out to be Sam Jethroe. The price, $250,000 and three players, appeared to be one beyond all bounds of civilized piracy.
Lane feigned interest in Jethroe but admitted that his funds were limited. "I'll tell you," said Lane, "Appling is about to collapse. I can't afford your top kids there, but give me a fair price on Carrasquel and then I'll have an idea what I can give you for Jethroe." Rickey and Lane agreed on a price of $25,000 and one player for Chico and that they would meet in Buffalo at the International League playoffs the following week to close the deal.
A few days later Rickey's son, Branch Jr., stopped by Lane's office. Lane asked him about Carrasquel and then kept talking about the deal he had made with his father. Later, Rickey Sr. was unable to make it to Buffalo, so Lane, acting quickly, sent a telegram telling him he was preparing to announce the purchase of Carrasquel. Soon, the phone rang.
"I never made a deal for Carrasquel." Rickey moaned. "I just talked about him as a part of a transaction involving Jethroe."
"Are you kidding?" Lane asked, acting stunned. "Check with Branch Jr." Rickey left the phone, talked with his son, and returned to the phone, saying: "All right. I don't remember it the way you say it, but if I made an agreement I'll live up to it."
The deal was announced, and a few days later Rickey was on the phone again. "All right," he said, "now let's get down to business on Jethroe."
"Jethroe?" wailed Lane. "I'm not interested in Jethroe. Whatever gave you that idea?"
Says Lane: "Rickey was a lot of fun, but of all the men I've tried to deal with, the most frustrating was George Weiss. We never made a trade. He had some peculiar ideas.
" 'Frank,' he'd begin, 'we need a pitcher. We want someone good. Like Billy Pierce.'
" 'Sure, George, but Pierce is our ace,' I'd counter. 'We'd want a lot in return.'
" 'Oh, you can have it, Frank,' he'd say generously. 'You can have help at any three positions.'
"Weiss was a reasonable man after all, I'd think. 'Fine, George,' I'd say. 'I'd like Joe Collins for first base. An outfielder, say Hank Bauer. And a catcher. Give us Charlie Silvera.' Then he would say he would call me later.
"Weiss would call back, I knew that. 'That deal for the little lefthander,' he'd start out when he called. 'Billy Pierce. It's all set the way we blocked it out?'
" 'Sure, let's go over the details.'
" 'O.K.,' he'd say, 'we get Pierce. You need help at first base and we're sending you Jack Smerf. He's playing for Centerville now. What a prospect!'
" 'I asked for Collins,' I'd remind him.
" 'Now for your outfield,' Weiss would continue, I have just the man—Pierre Ponceby. He's in Class D at the moment, but he's a great long-ball hitter, great speed and a rifle arm.'
" 'What about Hank Bauer?' I'd say.
" 'As for your catching problem,' Weiss would go on, 'Slugger Nofingers is your man. Another Bill Dickey.'
" 'But George,' I'd protest, 'I wanted Silvera. The guys you're offering are all in the minors.'
" 'Let me explain,' Weiss would quickly say.
" 'Forget it, George,' I'd say, quite exhausted. 'When did you develop a sense of humor?' I would then hang up, thoroughly aggravated. Weiss thought any club should be proud to have an ex-Yankee, even if the guy was maimed."
The Yankees were always a profitable target for Lane; a feud with them always produced at the gate, and Lane was unrelenting. "Weiss is a lonesome man," said Lane. "He'd like to be like Lane and Veeck, but he doesn't know how." Casey Stengel, he said, "is like Arthur Treacher, the actor who is the public's conception of a butler but doesn't know a damn thing about butlering. That's Stengel. He just looks like a manager." Lane is certain that Stengel, who was himself a master at the put-on, is still not sure whether Lane was serious or not.
Frank was not always so jocular, nor was he just a nice, eccentric dissident. More often, he was an irreverent, profane disturber of the peace. He laced into Commissioner Ford Frick for being desperately obsequious. Managers, he reported, were not good judges of talent; they think of only one day, one play. General managers, now—they were much better; they see much more. The one manager Lane respected was Paul Richards. "Yeah," says Lane, "but I never liked him. Richards looked out for Richards, but nobody did his job any better. He was tough and aloof, and when he walked into a clubhouse it was like a cold, sharp wind sweeping through it."
Lane was himself less than a favorite of the players. His trading bruised their thickly shelled sensitivity, and his endless vitriol from the stands dropped like a thud on their egos. Lane, because of wonderfully creative swearing that could effectively clear whole areas of fans, often had to sit in the bleachers, or, on special occasions in St. Louis, on the park roof. Still, Lane was generous with his players, although he was neither polite nor patient with them in his negotiations.
Ray Herbert was a good example of Lane's negotiating technique. Herbert thought that he had always been too easy to sign, and, after receiving one contract, he wrote Lane saying as much.
"All right, I'm upset," Lane wrote back, "so what are you up to?" Herbert explained he was "up to money."
"How's that new, comfortable home of yours?" Lane wrote in reply.
"The home's fine," answered Herbert, "but I'd really be comfortable, if you'd give me what I deserve. If not, listen, how about trading me for a couple of Class B pitchers?"
"I would," Lane wrote back, "but I'm not sure which Class B pitchers I can get." Exasperated at last, Lane ended communications with Herbert, saying: "Look, sign this contract, hang it on the wall, or tear it up." A few days later Lane opened an envelope and the pieces of Herbert's contract fell out.
Lane says now: "I always did what I had to do. That's why I like Ulysses Grant. He did what he had to do. He was human. He had courage. All those jealous Union generals tried to block his moves, but he had his say. To Lincoln or anybody." Such boldness and individualism, particularly in baseball, is often alienating. His colleagues soon concluded that Lane was, as someone once said of Disraeli, "a self-made man who worships his creator." He was also viewed as a destructive vagabond, a mountebank and, finally, a failure, because he never won a pennant. Yet Lane, despite his volatility and undisciplined emotions, was one of baseball's finest general managers. Busted or lifeless franchises were Lane's specialty, and resuscitation was always quick and profitable.
Lane was president of the American Association when Chuck Comiskey asked him to take command of the White Sox. It was the one job in baseball nobody wanted, and Frank was warned of the problems: Chicago, then in eighth place, had never drawn a million people in its history; the White Sox were financially impoverished. In his first year Lane traded or waived 38 of the 40 players on his roster, and during his seven years with Chicago he made 241 deals involving 353 players; he acquired Minnie Minoso, gave up Catcher Aaron Robinson for Billy Pierce and Catcher Joe Tipton for Nellie Fox.
These three players, plus the hiring of Manager Paul Richards, made the Sox a contender. Lane broke with Chicago when Chuck Comiskey, listening to people who thought Lane was receiving too much credit, failed to back him up in a violent dispute with Commissioner Frick. When he left, Chicago was healthy, the franchise value (worth $6 million) had been doubled.
St. Louis, which was losing money, was the next stop for Lane. Gussie Busch, disappointed with the ineffectiveness of his farm system, told Lane he had no restrictions. Only one player was not to be touched: Stan Musial. "I never tried to trade Musial," Lane declares now, "no matter what anybody says. That is one of the great myths in baseball." He did trade the revered Red Schoendienst (among a few dozen others). "Hell, the way they carried on there, you'd a thought I killed Schoendienst," he says.
Lane moved the Cardinals up in the standings and brought the people through the gate; the Cards climbed from seventh to fourth in 1956, and the next year lost the pennant in the last two weeks of the season. He left St. Louis in 1958, tired of the brewery intrigue and politics, grown irritated at the intrusion of brewery officials and a corresponding loss of his own power. "Gussie Busch," he says, "is one of the grandest guys anyone would want for a boss—but I couldn't convince him a ball club can't be run like a brewery business."
Goodby St. Louis, hello Cleveland. Horse racing and an uninspiring ball club had been taking large chunks out of the Indian attendance. Lane's contract stipulated that he would receive 5¢ for every fan over 800,000. Also a new Cadillac. Lane prospered and so did the Indians, but it was a tempestuous relationship. Under Lane, the Indians moved from sixth place to fourth in 1958 and then finished five games out of first place in 1959—and Lane managed to jolt the sensibilities of everyone. He committed the unspeakable act of trading Rocky Colavito—a local patron saint who induced substantial ardor—he fired and rehired Joe Gordon, his manager, during a pennant race; and then in 1960 he swapped managers with Detroit, Gordon for Jimmy Dykes. "Even though both of them desired the trade," says Lane, in a blush of remorse, "I was never proud of that one." He left Cleveland after the 1960 season, lured away by a cigar-smoking, frenetic insurance man.
The alliance between Charlie Finley of the A's and Lane was comedic, but it was also the sudden denouement of Frank Lane. The negotiations between Finley and Lane were beautiful. Lane, hitting point by point, began by requesting a four-year contract with an option at half pay as a consultant. Next, he demanded a fantastic salary and an elaborate capital-gains arrangement. And by the way, Charlie, "How about a new Eldorado Cadillac every second year?"
"You got it all," said Charlie. "One thing, though. How about settling for a 300SL Mercedes-Benz convertible? That's first class. It goes faster than you can talk. I also want you to drive around wearing a $100 10-gallon hat. So everybody sees you."
Fine, Charlie. "We're in business," said Frank.
The top executive in baseball, as Finley proclaimed at the time, was fired eight months, 22 days, three hours, 18 minutes and six seconds later. Finley was suspicious and untrusting, said Lane, and he demanded subservience—something Lane could never give. "I think," said Finley, "it's most appropriate for a mule to answer someone like Lane." Lane was out of baseball now, and brooded in Acapulco at the expense of Finley. Finally, Finley made an effort to stop paying him, and Lane sued. Finley claimed Lane was not actively seeking employment.
Lane had trouble finding anyone to testify for him at the trial. One executive, who had worked for Finley, volunteered to appear but he never did, claiming later: "Why, Frank, I have to deal with Finley." Only Bill Veeck took the stand for Lane. Lane testified that he had sought employment while in Mexico. "I wrote to all my friends looking for a job," Lane testified, "but only a couple answered." Did Lane turn down a broadcasting job in Kansas City, Bill Veeck was asked? "Well, let me say this," Veeck replied. "If I were hiring broadcasters, Frank Lane would be the last man I'd want near a mike." Veeck's testimony was powerful, and it was not long before Finley and Lane reached a settlement—in Lane's favor, but he would never achieve any position of power again. He would never make any more trades.
Small bursts of lightning move across the window of a small hotel room in Houston. The Sporting News, with all its gray minutia, is on the bed. "I was reading it until 4 this morning," says Frank Lane. Next to the phone is a scratch pad covered with doodling. On the dresser are the little books filled with tiny figures and names, the language of his life. Lane talks, but he is evasive, cautious now. "Finley," he says, "is a nice man. It's just that he is like a man who builds a house right down to the smallest of his specifications and then goes and throws rocks through the windows. The worst thing I ever did was listen to him, go to work for him. But if I worked for him again, I'd con him."
His words drone on, your mind wanders. The last dramatic trade in baseball, you remember, was the one involving Frank Robinson back in 1965. Lane is a relic, you think; his kind of front-office baseball is no more. Now the image of Lane standing in the lobby waves through the mind. He just goes from town to town, telling all of his old stories and campaigning for The Game—his last hustle.
His daily routine is rigid: up at 6 a.m., deep-breathing exercises, breakfast. Then, later to the ball park and back to the hotel room, where he works on his reports. The pencil moves slower these days, but his remarks remain sharp: "Bad in the clubhouse;" "the only reason this guy is used is because nine players are required." Yes, you think, he is J. Henry Waugh, Prop., the character who oversees a whole imaginary baseball world in Robert Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.
"I'm really lucky," Lane says, after once again insisting that he never did try to trade Stan Musial. "I'm lucky to still be in baseball. It's a helluva game. A grand game."