I had been into 1886 for no more than an hour, and lo!
"I've just found the first time the hidden-ball trick was played! In history!" I cried.
Mac Mac Farlane's eyes—as they were not reluctant to do, for all their venerability—twinkled. "Good going, Kid," he said.
Here it was on page 1 of the Sept. 13 issue of The Sporting News:
FOUTZ'S SHARP TRICK.
He Catches Pete Browning Napping at Second Base,
And Puts Him Out Without the Asisstance of Captain Comiskey
"It happened in a game between St. Louis and Louisville," I went on. "On September 8, 1886. 'In the presence of 6,000 persons, Foutz played the sharpest trick ever seen on the ball field.' Pete Browning was on first for Louisville, and took a big lead because Charley Comiskey was playing way off the' base in rightfield. 'Pete had his back turned toward second base, and was keeping an eye on the movements of Comiskey, while he eagerly pranced back and forth to show the crowd that he was not afraid to steal off a bag. Foutz pretended not to watch Browning, but suddenly....'
"Wait a minute," I said, my heart sinking. "What position did this guy Foutz play?"
Mac Farlane did not know, but moved to look it up in one of many volumes. This time, I was quicker. I advanced the microfilm to the box scores. They were old. They were faint. But there was the game in question, and there was Foutz.
"His name was Dave," said Mac Farlane. "He was..."
"He was pitching," I said. I had not found the first hidden-ball trick after all.
But I had found something pretty amazing. Something from the days when organized ball was as young as I was when I became a fan of it. The days when baseball was so young that almost anything could happen. I had found not only the first time but surely the last time that a pitcher picked a man with a .343 lifetime batting average off first base without making a throw.
...suddenly Bushong [the catcher] signaled; and Foutz dashed over toward first base with the ball in hand, touching Browning before the latter knew what had happened. Such a play was never before seen, and the spectators howled with delight. Pete was mighty mad, and, as he has a faculty for being caught napping, the play was
"Pete Browning," mused Mac Farlane with relish. "An odd fellow. He didn't slide. Wouldn't slide. Another thing, he thought every bat had a certain number of hits in it, so when old Betsy got 19 hits he'd hang her up in his cellar. Had old Betsys hanging all over the place. He also thought it was smart when riding a train to open a window, stick his head out and catch soot from the smokestack. In his eyes. He thought that made his eyes water and cleaned out his sight."
"Wow," I observed. I had not observed "wow" in a number of years.
Pete Browning stories! Oh, I knew Browning was the guy who got Hillerich and Bradsby into the bat business when he brought them a wagon tongue or something and asked them to see what kind of old Betsy they could turn out on their lathe. It was the birth of the Louisville Slugger. But I had never heard any other Pete Browning stories.
"Neat," I observed, nearly aloud. The last time I had observed "neat" nearly aloud was when I took my son John to the Hall of Fame and he stood in Babe Ruth's actual locker and he observed "neat" aloud. It isn't easy to get young people to observe "neat" aloud about something that you think is just as neat as they do.
Now I am not in Babe Ruth's locker, but I am in a place just as wondrous. I am in the cubbyhole of Paul (Mac) Mac Farlane, 66, official historian of The Sporting News. I am unscrolling the Bible of Baseball. And as I do so, it is annotated by a high priest.
Mac Farlane used to pitch batting practice to Joe Cronin!
Mac Farlane had hung around with Hugh Duffy! One of the first things I remember learning in life, on my own, was that Hugh Duffy hit .438, the alltime major league standard, back before the modern era. Never in my wildest dreams—even when those dreams included being a baseball immortal myself—did I expect to hang around with anybody who had hung around with Hugh Duffy!
Mac Farlane has a stack of three-by-five cards, on which is recorded every time anybody hit for the cycle in the big leagues before 1977! Mac Farlane thinks all this is as neat as I think it is.
"Look at this," he says. He shows me a photograph taken around 1879, of the Providence Grays and the Boston Nationals lounging in shallow rightfield at the Messer Street baseball field in Providence. He points to one of the Grays.
"Paul Hines," he says. "Got hit by a pitch in the ear and turned deaf as a haddock. Invented the electrical acoustical cane. Sometimes, in the dark, deaf people have trouble getting their balance. Hines invented the electrical acoustical cane [Mac Farlane repeats this term with pleasure] so he could get a feeling of where he was. I don't know whether I ought to tell you how he died."
"Oh, come on."
"Got caught shoplifting. He was teched at the time and had the walk-arounds. He was as old as the hammers of Hades. He didn't know what he was doing. Shock of it killed him."
I'd never heard anybody say "old as the hammers of Hades" before. I am in a place where baseball is as old as the hammers of Hades, and as fresh.
I am in heaven.
March 17 is the 100th anniversary of The Sporting News, the weekly tabloid published in St. Louis that stood for decades as the Bible of Baseball, but in recent years has restructured itself into a condensation of the week's news in all major sports. For 91 years The Sporting News was owned by the Spink family, who devoted it to the idiosyncratic gratification of themselves and everyone else who was obsessed with baseball. In 1977 it was sold to the Times Mirror Company, which has more than doubled the paper's circulation, to 711,000, by appealing (in the words of Sporting News chief executive officer Richard Waters) to "the yuppie group and on up." The Sporting News is still baseball's publication of record: Every major league box score since 1886 has been printed—with strict triple-checked accuracy—in its pages. There is talk now of dropping the box scores so that the eight pages they take up will be available for (in editor Tom Barnidge's words) "really dynamite feature stories."
But who wants to dwell for long upon contemporary publishing practices when we can contemplate mythological figures? Recently I spent a week in the offices of The Sporting News on Lindbergh Boulevard in St. Louis and I kept gravitating toward its historical storehouse, where Mac Farlane keeps the sacred relics, the temple jewels, the idols' eyes.
It doesn't look like a shrine. Things are lying around or stuffed away and Mac Farlane has to dig them out for you. But that is exactly what Mac Farlane loves to do, when the moment arises.
The Ty Cobb letters, for instance. I was deep into 1908. "Here's a great Cobb story," I said.
"Cobb, you know, was the Joe Namath of the American League," said Mac Farlane. "There was no denying it was a major league, with Cobb in it."
"I never thought of that," I said. I read aloud from the Cobb story, which appeared on Jan. 16, 1908.
WILL WATCH COBB. OFTEN SNEAKED IN EXTRA BASE LAST SEASON.
Tricks Can Not Be Turned if Members of Fielding Side Are Always on the Alert.
A safe bet is that when the several American League teams get down to training, each manager will take his first baseman aside and tell him in no uncertain tones that he must watch Ty Cobb more closely this year. The champion batsman of the league had a habit last season, when on first base, of going from that sack way around to third on a bunt or slow infield grounder.... Let an infielder or a pitcher fumble a bunt ever so little, and Ty was sure to attempt to take two bases. Let the first baseman be pulled off the bag a trifle in making the catch, and Ty was certain to go the limit. This year, however, all the first basemen will be watching out for just this play and Cobb will be lucky if he pulls it off as regularly as he did in 1907.
"Did I show you these?" Mac Farlane asked. He handed me a thick handful of handwritten letters. They were written to the late J.G. Taylor Spink, from 1914 to 1962 the publisher of The Sporting News. They were written by Cobb.
"Wow," I said. "Have Cobb's biographers read these?"
"Nah," said Mac Farlane.
I started reading them: "Anything I write you can be assured no one will know where it comes from...I will throw up a phoney story to hide real source."
This was dated 1955. Cobb was filling Spink in on Wahoo Sam Crawford, who had not yet been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I knew Crawford hated Cobb during the years they played together. But I had never realized their non-speaking terms went as far as this. Crawford, Cobb wrote to Spink, "never helped in the outfield by calling, plenty of room, you take it, Etc." Not only that, but when Cobb tried to steal second to get into scoring position with Crawford at bat, Crawford would foul the ball off so Cobb would have to go back and the first baseman would have to hold him on, giving Crawford a bigger hole to hit through. According to Cobb, "I ran hundreds of miles in all and had to return to first."
However, Cobb urged Spink to support Crawford's Hall of Fame candidacy. Cobb said he had written on Crawford's behalf to Grantland Rice and other influential sportswriters. "Sam has had copies of my letters. I like the decent way, I like to return good for what I considered say evil. So I have been his booster and he knows it from me."
How Crawford must have hated that.
"Cobb was a bastard," said Mac Farlane. "But he was a factual bastard."
"And a fast bastard," I said.
"Mm," said Mac Farlane. "Did you see this?" He pointed to a handwritten quotation tacked to his wall:
"IF You Don't Live to get Old,
You Die Young!"
—Cool Papa Bell
"Ah, yes," I said. "Talking about fast." I had heard about Cool Papa Bell, the great star of the Negro leagues long before blacks were admitted to the teams that The Sporting News covered. Bell was said to be so fast he once hit a line drive up the middle and the ball hit his foot as he was sliding into second. "How fast was he really?" I asked Mac Farlane.
"Clocked in 12 seconds around the bases."
Mac Farlane's expression seemed to say, "What do you think I deal in here, but 'really'?"
"I mean..." I said, "I'd always heard Mantle had the fastest time, at 13.1 or something. Although I guess Vince Coleman and some of these later guys.... Twelve seconds?"
"Jamie will tell you himself," Mac said.
I tried to think who Jamie was. Must be somebody I ought to recognize. "I wish I could talk to Cool Papa himself," I said.
"Jamie," said Mac Farlane. "That's what I call him, but that's family. You should just call him Cool Papa at first." He picked up the phone, and the next thing I knew I had an appointment to visit Cool Papa Bell in his house on James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue in St. Louis.
Cool Papa, who will be 83 on May 17, sat nonchalantly on his living room couch and told me how fast he was. In 1948, Satchel Paige talked him into playing against some barnstorming major league all-stars in Los Angeles. Bell didn't want to play because he was out of shape and hadn't felt quite himself since somebody practiced witchcraft on him and poisoned his food when he was in the Mexican League. But he agreed. Then he had to drag Paige out to the park and by the time they got there they had no time to loosen up. Bell hit a single off the all-stars' pitcher, Bob Lemon, and Paige laid down a sacrifice bunt. Bell had studied Lemon on television, so as soon as the pitcher looked over at him hard once and then turned back to the plate, Bell took off. Everybody converged on Paige's bunt except the shortstop, who covered second. By the time catcher Roy Partee started to throw to second, Bell was rounding it. And nobody was covering third. So Partee ran toward third. By the time Partee got to third, Bell was rounding it. And nobody was covering home. As Bell scored, Partee was running down the line hollering "Time! Time!" But you can't call time when the ball is in play, even against Cool Papa Bell.
"I got that on paper," Cool Papa said. "All on paper's not true, but that's true. I was sick, I was 45 years old when I did that. I did that a gang of times. They clocked me going around the bases in 12 seconds, but then another time I went from home plate to third in eight seconds. They wanted me to break my 12-second record but then it rained. And the league broke up."
What if The Sporting News had covered Cool Papa the way it covered the Georgia Peach? Bell doesn't let it bother him. "We never had no reading lessons in school, in Mississippi," he said. "Sitting on a hill, that's the only way it was a high school. I had to learn myself. I'd read The Sporting News, about Babe Ruth, Bill Terry, Chuck Klein. Seemed like everything it was, Chuck Klein was leading in it. I just liked a ballplayer."
I returned to Mac Farlane. "Cool Papa says he ran from first to third in eight seconds," I said. "That's..."
"Jamie," said Mac, "is factual."
Mac Farlane can be a factual bastard himself, at least from official baseball's viewpoint. Five years ago he uncovered evidence that in 1910 somebody altered the batting records of Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie. His research established that Lajoie, not Cobb, had won the batting championship that year and that Cobb's lifetime batting average was .366 instead of .367, and his career hit total was 4,190 instead of 4,191. But .367 and 4,191 are sacred numbers. Bowie Kuhn, then baseball's commissioner, refused to allow the new figures to be etched in stone. Mac Farlane can't get over this. "Baseball could never live with facts!" he says.
Mac Farlane can. There are no books of baseball statistics, except the ones painstakingly produced by The Sporting News, that Mac Farlane can't find mistakes in. He pulls out a copy of the Official American League Batting Averages for 1973, corrected by him in ink. Sal Bando hit .287, not .286; Brooks Robinson hit .257, not .256; it was George Brett, not Ken, who hit .125; Larry, not Fred, Haney hit .500 (1 for 2), not .000 (0 for 1), and so on. I must say I found this unsettling. What if I had been Haney? I would have turned to Mac Farlane.
In the May 24, 1886 issue, I read the following story filed by a Cincinnati correspondent but headlined in St. Louis:
AKIN TO REAL DEMONS.
That is What They say of the Saint Louis Browns.
All Cincinnati Jealous of the Club that Beat the Coming Champions
If it is any satisfaction for a player to maim or cripple a brother player, then let him continue in his good (?) work. If not then cry a halt before disastrous results ensue. The game that was lost to us [the Reds] Friday was due to Comiskey's throwing himself
against McPhee, causing Bid to throw wild to first....
The Browns personally are a clever set of men, but on the field they are akin to demons.
Oh, my! Oh, my oh!
"I thought these old guys were tough," I said. "Here's Charley Comiskey being called a 'demon' for going into the second baseman hard enough to break up a double play."
"Who's the second baseman?" asked Mac Farlane with asperity.
"Bid McPhee," I said. "I think I've heard of him."
Mac Farlane looked at me with an expression he was not reluctant to use when I fell short of his expectations. "Bid McPhee should be in the Hall of Fame," he said. "Wouldn't you let into the Hall of Fame a man who was voted by his peers the greatest second baseman up to 1900?"
"Oh, I would," I said hastily. "I guess I...don't go any further back, in second basemen, than Lajoie."
There was a pause. I had pronounced it—just as I have been pronouncing it in my mind since I was nine years old—La-jo-ey.
"He pronounced it La-jho-ay," said Mac Farlane, who then began speaking in French! Something about...lanceurs.... I couldn't follow it—oh, my, oh. Maybe I had no business in this sanctum after all. French. Was I being tested? I turned, meekly, from the microfilm machine. Mac Farlane was reading a letter aloud. A request for information.
"When letters come from France," explained Mac Farlane, "I translate."
"How did you learn such good French?" I asked.
He smiled like an owl in pleasant recollection. "Mm," he said. He looked over his glasses. "I'd rather not repeat it."
Mac Farlane will repeat many other things, however, such as what Hugh Duffy once said about what it takes to hit .400. Only I can't repeat that. I know an unprintable story about Hugh Duffy!
I also know, on Mac Farlane's authority, that Babe Ruth once described Lou Gehrig as "built like a four-car garage with five buses in it." I hadn't realized that Ruth ever said anything about anybody except himself. "You know, Ruth's favorite dessert was eels and ice cream," said Mac Farlane.
"It was?" I answered.
"Yes," said Mac Farlane.
But there is plenty of Ruth lore in circulation. Mac Farlane has Hugh Duffy lore. Duffy, a Hall of Famer whose career ended in 1906, was a scout for the Red Sox in the 1940s. Mac Farlane's father was a minority stockholder in the Sox, and Mac grew up around the team—talking to Harry Hooper while Hooper shagged flies, and getting to know Duffy "very well. You know he worked Jackie Robinson out before the Dodgers did. Thought Robinson was a little old to be a rookie and the Red Sox..."
"The Red Sox?"
"...and Duffy thought he was excessively ding-toed at the time."
"You mean pigeon-toed?"
There was a pause such as might follow were an eminent jazz historian to describe Count Basie as cool and you were to say, "You mean groovy?"
"Ding-toed," said Mac Farlane.
The true story of baseball's color line has never been told, according to Mac Farlane, and it involves actual exclusionary legislation that has never come to light. He has been trying to get people to listen to the whole story, but they won't. Now he hopes to develop a TV documentary on the subject. "Branch Rickey was interested in Robinson as a gate attraction," he says. "My description of Rickey is a Bible-quoting thief."
Once, when Mac Farlane was a semi-pro player at Arlington, Mass. in 1937, he batted against Satchel Paige. "The ball looked like a ribbon," he says. "I struck out on three pitches."
Mac Farlane never batted against Walter Johnson, but he knew plenty of people who did. "From the tip of his finger to his wrist was 14 inches. People say he came over the top, but he threw sidearm. And he'd whip those long fingers around.... Three guys gave up and left the plate against him with only two strikes."
I don't remember how Johnson came up, but we got into Rube Waddell when I was reading "Gossip of the Players" from 1908. During the off-season in those days The Sporting News had four great tidbits columns: "Gossip of the Players," "Scribbled by Scribes," "Tips by the Managers" and "Said by the Magnates." I find it interesting that the money men have always had an important place in Sporting News coverage. This headline appeared on Nov. 24, 1910:
O, YOU MAGNATES! CONTINUE TO OCCUPY LIMELIGHT WITH THEIR TROUBLES.
But "Gossip of the Players" was by far my favorite. I was reading some 1908 quotes from Waddell, whom I always loved as a kid because his legend had to do with his chasing a fire engine or playing catch with kids or wrestling alligators when he was supposed to be pitching. As recorded by some period scribe, this is what Waddell was saying in 1908:
I have had good luck fishing, so far, and ought to be satisfied, but since I have been associated with that advanced financier, Jack O'Connor, I have developed a hankering for lucre. Jack has drilled it into me that I owe it to myself to go get the money. He may be right, but it is not clear to me how a fellow can owe himself anything in any way.
Ah, Rube. Here he was a few weeks earlier.
I want to call attention to the fact that few freak or fool stories were printed about me [during the preceding season] in the papers. Why up to this year I never knew when I got out of bed what I would read about myself.... I am not conservative or discreet, but I am not 'bughouse,' but if I have done all that has been said or written about me, I ought not to be at large.
Did Rube really talk like that? Well, did Samson or Delilah really talk the way they do in the Bible? All we can say is this: that legendary sports flakes have been saying that last thing (if they had really done all that has been said or written...) at least since Rube Waddell. After that winter Waddell pitched only two more years in the big leagues, and six years later, at 37, he was dead of tuberculosis. Cocaine was not a problem among players in those days, but liquor was. I read Waddell's quotes to Mac Farlane.
"One time," said Mac Farlane, "a detective brought Waddell into the hotel lobby and told Connie Mack he was arresting him. Said Rube had been making fresh remarks to ladies and disturbing the peace. Mack asked if there was any way to keep Waddell out of jail. The detective said, well, he supposed if Mack paid the $10 fine.... So Mack did. A little later Mack walked past a saloon down the street and through the window he saw Rube and the 'detective'—he was no detective, he was a friend of Rube's—drinking up Mack's $10."
The Sporting News was founded by Al Spink as a local magazine of all sports. In 1886, there was an item about W.C. Manning, THE CHAMPION ONE-LEGGED WRESTLER OF THE WORLD, which declared, "Manning has never been thrown, though he has met several two-legged men."
But when Al's brother Charles took over The Sporting News in 1887, he concentrated solely on baseball, and made it national. When Charles's son, Taylor, became publisher in 1914, baseball became the publication's holy cause. Taylor Spink was as obsessed with being the driving force behind the Bible of Baseball as Cobb was with being a better player than anybody else. "To Spink," says Mac Farlane, "the word 'vacation' was absolute blasphemy." The staff labored six or seven days a week, and Spink would call them up in the middle of the night to make sure they were thinking about The Sporting News in their sleep. "Pappy Spink drilled into us, Get everything right even if you have to call God Almighty. And if anything was wrong he raised hell."
Most of the writing was contributed by "beat guys," the newspaper reporters who followed the baseball teams everywhere and kept the nation's devotees up to date with weekly reports from the field. These days The Sporting News takes as its purview the whole sporting scene and, in order to make room for what is most topical across that broad scene each week, a beefed-up editorial staff boils down the beat guys' copy. "People today want a five-to-10-minute quick read—so they can go to a cocktail party and sound knowledgeable," says C.E.O. Waters. Editor Barnidge points out that "readers today are not as willing to work at reading." But in the old days, when scribes were paid by the inch and the Bible of Baseball was scripture....
Do you have a few extra minutes?
Oct. 7, 1893. Harry Leach reporting from Chicago (again with one of those St. Louis headlines):
RESULTS OF OVER-EXERTION
How It Effects Some of Chicago's Nervous Scribes
There are times when sobriety of temper is an essential precaution. Too much excitement is detrimental to the gearing of the nervous system. However thrilling an event may be, it is best to be calm. It is a medical fact that over exertion of the aexota, where the nerve center is situated, will, without fail, lead to cataclasm of the semi-colon and watery consummation of the lower lobe of the apocalypse. These facts were secured at the Pan-American congress of physicians after a large outlay of time and money. They are particularly pertinent at this time, because about WOO cranks who witnessed that game of ball between Baltimore and Chicago last Friday are wandering around in the great throbbing world this morning with their semi-colons terribly cataclasted.
For eight innings neither side made a run.
There follows—well, here is some of what follows:
Never More Decker, eager to shatter anything he could, came up. There was a reverberating roar and the ball whistled away through the air in an opposite direction. McGraw and the ball met and stuck together like two lone girls when a tramp is trying to break in through the back door. That retired the side....
And here is some more:
The air thumped like a volcano with the crater plugged up. Many a horny tongued son of toil on the bleacheries buried his teeth in the soft pine boards and pulled out knots in sheer anguish....
Reitz seized himself passionately and bore down on the plate. Irwin shot the ball in with a scream of triumph and Reitz died....
And then, finally, at the end of the 12th long paragraph, comes the end of the story, which is also the first mention of the final score:
That was the run of the game. It was to exciting too tell about.
And I believe it.
Have you ever wondered how ballplayers joshed in the early days of the 20th century? Here is how the Baltimore Orioles joshed in 1908, according to J.M. Cummings in the May 28 The Sporting News, under this headline:
ORIOLES' OFF DAYS. PASSED PLEASANTLY IN LOBBY OF HOTEL
"Waiter, remove these peas," he [manager Jack Dunn] demanded. "They won't stay on me knife. Bring me some split in half, that will.... Boys," he began. "I am seriously thinking about organizing the Baltimore Club into a minstrel troupe at the end of the season. Prithee, what thinkest thou?...Dessau and Pearson could figure as the P.-C.-M. kids in a knockabout comedy I have in mind to be called 'The higher up we go the better we like it, because it's so different, yet it ain't.' "
Hearne rose at this thrilling juncture, threw up his hands and in a stage whisper remarked: "I'm getting foolish."
"Not 'getting,' " replied the manager, and "Hughie" fell under the table.
"How do you feel, Pfyl?" inquired the manager. "Do you feel as though you could feel your way through some minor f-e-e-1-ing-in part? Just some little piece eloquent in -er-er-er its silence, for instance. Methinks thou wouldst fairly shine in some thinking part."
"Aw, quit your joshing, you distract my attention from my victuals," was all that could be got from the ambassador from the New York Giants.
In those days, Baltimore was in the minors. The Sporting News covered the minor leagues almost as thoroughly as it did the majors, hence headlines such as this one, from Wilkes-Barre:
BARONS STRONGER. LEZOTTE HAS WEEDED OUT DUMB ELEMENT.
And nine long paragraphs from Keokuk headlined UNJUST TO OSKALOOSA, all about the inequities of the Central Association schedule. Such coverage made The Sporting News not only the Bible but the Variety of baseball, and what is left of that coverage is still a big reason why players can be seen reading The Sporting News in clubhouses—checking up on their friends in the bushes.
An operation called Baseball America provides the most comprehensive coverage of the minor leagues, and USA Today prints a wealth of big-league statistics five days a week. By the time box scores come out in The Sporting News they are as much as 10 or 11 days old. It's a great thing for baseball writers to know they can always lay their hands on the season's box scores if they save The Sporting News. "But I don't know how many of our 700,000 readers are baseball writers," says Barnidge.
The Sporting News's advertising revenues have doubled since 1981. It's a considerably more accessible and professional-looking product now than it was as holy writ under Taylor Spink. Old hands on the staff, who remember Pappy Spink the way old soldiers remember General Patton, say that the paper got better when Taylor died in 1962 and his mild-mannered son, C.C. Johnson Spink, started making some of the changes that the present owners have accelerated.
But there are several up-to-date sports publications. Only The Sporting News has 100 years of baseball fever behind it. Only The Sporting News can show you in its pages an endorsement of Coca-Cola by Hughie (Ee-yah) Jennings, in which he maintained that "the hardest thing a ball player has to contend with is thirst, because if you try to satisfy it with water, you either get loggy or lose your 'Ginger' or it makes you sick, while alcoholic beverages are fatal to good ball."
The newsstands are loaded with analyses of how baseball has been affected by artificial turf and free agency. Only The Sporting News can take you back to the days when scribes speculated that base stealing was on the decline because catchers were wearing "the fat glove of the modern type.... When the catchers took the force of the fiercely projected ball on the thin glove of years ago their fingers gave way, forming a sort of spring box to receive the shock. So heavy was the impact that the hand naturally unconsciously recoiled, and the ball was delayed a fraction of a second before the catcher would gather it up and shoot it down to second.... It's different with the big glove, the ball whangs into the great fast cushion and its shock is killed instanter." (To counteract this development, a beat guy proposed in 1899 that second base be moved eight feet closer to first when a runner was on first; then if he reached second, second would be moved eight feet closer to third.)
The Sporting News has another unique resource. "The FBI uses this," says Mac Farlane. It's a huge card catalog containing the transactional careers of everybody who ever signed a professional baseball contract, major or minor. "Everybody? Are you sure?" I asked Mac Farlane. His expression, while kindly, suggested that if there was anything he was unsure of, it was whether I knew what "sure" meant.
So I looked up the best player I ever threw batting practice to, the only kid from my high school team who signed a contract, Bobby DeFoor. And there he was: William Robert DeFoor, who kicked around a couple of years and then was put on injured reserve. (After that, I knew, came the Baptist ministry, but that was for a higher card catalog.)
You might think it struck me with a certain finality that I myself was not in that card catalog, what with my being 44 now and not gaining any steps. But it didn't. I was too busy turning over in my mind the possibility that Johnny Evers and I might have a lot in common.
I had been reading "Gossip of the Players" for Nov. 12, 1908. Johnny Evers had been giving a lot of thought to this whole problem of what to do when the other team has men on first and third. This is a problem that may seem primitive to fans of big-time baseball today. But it is a problem never resolved, very firmly, at any level of ball that I myself attained. As Evers put it: If the catcher threw to second, the man on third would race home and the throw was too long from second to get him. Then the trick of the second baseman running in behind the pitcher on such occasions and stopping the throw and shooting it back to the plate was started. This worked for a while, but then the runner on third got to sticking to the bag, and as a result the man going from first to second would be safe at second.
Exactly. What was Evers's solution?
With much practice, I was able to run in on such plays, thus holding the runner at third, and with a good throw from the catcher I could take the ball and with the same movement pass it between my knees back to second base in time to nab the other runner. The catcher, of course, must make a good throw for the play to be a success.
Here we have Johnny Evers. The Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. The Evers who stole a pennant from the Giants in 1908 by calling for the ball when Merkle failed to touch second base. Here we have Johnny Evers with his thinking cap on, figuring out a way to avoid either going all to pieces or sitting there sullenly when the other team has men on first and third.
Exactly the kind of thing I worried about when I played ball. And if I had ever been able to do more than one thing—or even one whole thing—in the same movement, I think that I might have come up with this same between-the-knees trick!
I have problems identifying with contemporary baseball stars. They are so much richer than I am, and their gloves are so much better. They play in and on sleek synthetic fibers. They have got the other-team-with-the-guys-on-first-and-third problem licked. And if they're so great, where were they when I was a kid?
I know where Johnny Evers was. He was in my head, in undying verse ("pricking our [the Giants'] gonfalon bubble"), in a glove as scruffy and a uniform as baggy as mine.
A baseball fan, no matter how old, is always a kid, right? If only we could get back to baseball that kids and old guys—as opposed to yuppies and on up—can identify with.
Then again, in the bright lexicon of baseball, why should there be any "if only"? What happened when I told Mac Farlane I wished I could meet Cool Papa Bell? And what did Cool Papa himself reply, when I asked him the obligatory question: Did he regret having been excluded from the white majors? With a calm assurance not unlike Mac Farlane's, Bell replied: "People say, 'Isn't it a shame you couldn't play in the major leagues?' Unh-uh. I could play. Like they used to say, 'You can't eat in this place.' And I would say, 'I can. Maybe you're not going to let me in there. But I can ear anywhere.' And I could play."
I thought of that as I peered at faint but enduring microfilm. Mac Farlane was saying, "Johnny Evers. A very brainy player. There haven't been many brainy players. Lots of smart players, but...."
You know what I was reminded of? One of those movies where there's a kid and there's this old guy who knows karate mysteries or can train your foal to be Seabiscuit or has a time machine.