It'll be midnight in the hotel bar when they start telling Billy Scripture stories. One baseball man will set down his margarita and say, "Remember when ol' Billy Scripture stormed out of the dugout with a gun and shot that seven-foot rattlesnake on the mound in Sarasota?"
"Yeah, and he turned up the next day wearing a snakeskin belt and hatband!"
Another will say, "Did you hear about the time in Columbus when Billy climbed the tower in rightfield and did chin-ups from the light rack?"
The laughter will bring the waitress over to find out what's so funny, and a baseball man will say, "Sweetheart, we're talking about a fellow who was so tough he used to bite the covers off baseballs. He was so strong you could put six 200-pound ballplayers on a table and he'd lift the whole load on his back."
May 3, 1987
"I've heard of him," she'll say. "Paul Bunyan, right?"
And that'll prompt them to tell the original Billy Scripture story: How when he was an All-America outfielder at Wake Forest University, he heard that cutting wood was the best exercise for a hitter, so he went out into the North Carolina woods and felled giant white oak trees by moonlight. Chunk...chunk...chunk....
"You talk about hot water! By the time they caught him, Billy had cut down half the hardwoods in the campus preserve."
"He couldn't pay for the damage, so as punishment they made him cut the trees into firewood for the faculty. He about got expelled!"
Billy Scripture: baseball manager, woodchopper, world-class trapshooter, hunting guide, champion cusser. Spent nine years as a player in the Orioles and Mets organizations; became a minor league manager for the Royals, got fired; joined the Pirates organization, didn't like the contract they offered and disappeared. "Think he's got a gun shop in Virginia Beach," says a writer covering the International League. "Last I heard, he was managing someplace in New Hampshire," says an ex-player, "but he may be out of baseball now."
And still the stories. How Scripture would straddle home plate and let a pitching machine bounce fastballs off his chest. How he would have several ballplayers hold one end of a fungo bat while he twisted the other end till the bat splintered.
A major league general manager says, "I once saw him bite a piece out of the bench, just to show how strong he was." A big league trainer says, "You know how they bundle up newspapers with heavy-gauge wire? Billy would pick up a stack and bite the wire off."
Scripture, you might decide, is a myth. Indeed, The Baseball Encyclopedia, which lists all the players who ever played major league ball, has no entry for him. You won't find his name in an Orioles, a Mets, a Royals or a Pirates media guide. Directory assistance in Virginia Beach, Va., never heard of him. ("I show an Earl Scripture. Could that be your party?")
You have to dig. There is a tiny SCORECARD item in the July 7, 1975, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about the manager of a last-place Southern League team who took out his frustration by chewing the covers off baseballs. ("Only lost one molar so far, and that's a whole lot less expensive than an ulcer operation.")
If you don't mind dust, there are old organization books in a back room at Royals Stadium in Kansas City. They show that an Earl Wayne Scripture Jr. ("nickname—Bill") was once the Royals' minor league coordinator of instruction; that he was a 5'9", 200-pound man of Scottish-English descent, born in Pensacola, Fla., who trained Labrador retrievers as a hobby; that he played a summer of semipro ball for the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks; and that in 1967 he led the Eastern League in times hit by pitched balls.
And somewhere in the vaults of the National Broadcasting Company there is probably still a videotape of a flaky coach showing baseball announcer Joe Garagiola how to bunt holding the bat vertically instead of horizontally. ("Hey, the ball can't hit your face. The bat's in the way.")
But those who knew him don't have to dig for memories of Scripture. "He's about on the edge of folklore," says Royals trainer Mickey Cobb. "The first time I saw him, I was visually stunned by the way he was built. He looked like he was etched out of stone. Massive jaw structure, flat stomach, thick hands...a shaved head. He was very fastidious. His uniform had a crease in it, and his helmet had to be just so.
"He was tough, maybe the toughest I've ever seen. I remember a time when he had 19 blisters on one hand from hitting. He just came in and poured alcohol on it. No Band-Aids. Other times, he would deliberately have someone hit flies out to the warning track so he could practice running full speed into the chain-link fence."
A crazy man? A sociopath? "Naw," Cobb says. "Personally, I found him to be a great joy."
"He wasn't a giant," recalls Pirates player development director Buzzy Keller, "but you talk about wound tight. I've seen him take a fungo bat and break it on his chest."
A show-off? A hot dog? Keller shakes his head. "He wasn't a kook by any stretch of the imagination. He was a very, very dedicated instructor."
"The most consistent thing about him," counters Royals general manager John Schuerholz, "is that he got fired all the time. His priorities in life were: one, shooting skeet; two, dogs; and then baseball. He's not so remarkable—just bizarre." Schuerholz shrugs. "He was a good baseball man, I'll give him that."
Branch B. Rickey, minor league director for the Pirates, says of Scripture, "There were people who would complain that he was tough to work with, but there was never any question about his competence as an instructor or manager. Almost everybody remembers him fondly. It's just that Bill's singularness of purpose sometimes clashed with the aims of individual minor league franchises. With Bill, there was not a lot of accommodation to the owner's needs."
Actually, the most consistent thing about Billy Scripture is this: Baseball people talk about him as if he were dead.
But he's not. Here he is now, in fact, working in a closet-sized room in the steel and cinderblock shellhouse at the Orange County Trap and Skeet Club in Orlando, Fla. Black cowboy hat, blue jeans, boots, a polo shirt stretched over massive shoulders and a no-longer-flat stomach. A 20-diamond gold bracelet engraved with his nickname, "Billy."
It is four in the afternoon, and the 45-year-old Scripture has been at it since before dawn, 12 hours straight, and he will continue till near midnight, keeping targets flying for prosperous snowbirds competing in a week-long trapshooting tournament, Orlando's link in the Florida Chain Shoot. Neither the muffled blasts of nearby shotguns nor the news that he is 400 boxes short of targets for the weekend shakes his calm. Unlike the old days, Scripture is not about to eat a baseball or climb a light tower.
"Hey, I'm sane and sober now," he says, striking a match to light a thin cigar. The tiny phosphorus flare illuminates the labels of cans on a shelf by his head: BALL POWDER...SMOKELESS POWDER...FLAMMABLE. He shakes out the match. "Someone's always runnin' in here sayin' there's a problem." He blows a cloud of smoke. "There's no problem. I haven't an idea where I'm gonna get 400 boxes of targets, but I'll get 'em. I'll get 'em if I have to effing invent 'em."
There's nothing in Scripture's manner to suggest he has been exiled, though you might expect it from a man who has been living in a hotel since May of '86, when he took over management of the gun club. "I didn't get tired of baseball," he says. "I wasn't burned out. I just wanted to shoot full-time." He nods toward the storeroom door, on which is written: THERE IS NO SECOND PLACE...EVER. "You have to have a hell of a lot of determination to win in this game, just like baseball. You line up toe-to-toe and put your money on the line."
Plus, there's something to be said for a life free from organizational inertia and red tape. "Sometimes I thought baseball was just an effing game of perpetual ignorance. You could come up with a better way to do something and they still wouldn't change their minds. 'Cause that's the way it had always been done. Baseball is full of people who manage scared, play scared and lose scared."
He pushes his hat back on his head. "I probably couldn't manage in baseball today, because I'm probably the most hard-nosed s.o.b. in the world. A lot of managers are basically excuse makers. That is an effing weakness. A character flaw. I love shooting, because this is a no-excuse environment. You either hit that sucker or you don't."
The door opens and Glenda Scripture, Earl's wife, steps in. She is down for the week from their home in Virginia Beach to serve as a tournament cashier, taking entry fees and paying out cash prizes to the daily winners. Behind her is a red-faced, beefy shooter with a complaint about a scorekeeper/puller. In the nearby clubhouse, cardplayers laugh raucously.
Scripture calmly takes care of business and then heads for his red pickup truck. "You think the damned baseball players are crazy," he says with a grin, "you oughta see some of these people!"
Another shooter, who has just come from the scoreboard, watches with admiration as Scripture hops into the truck. Scripture is the winner of that afternoon's 50 pairs doubles, an event in which the shooter fires at pairs of targets released simultaneously in different directions. His score: 99 out of 100. "Earl put the hurt on 'em, didn't he? Ninety-nine, that's damn good shooting."
The next afternoon, Scripture competes in the daylong singles championship—200 targets at 16 yards on eight different fields. The gun club's layout and ambience are that of a golf driving range, except that these shooting sticks are made by Perazzi and Ljutic and cost $3,000 to $4,000 each. Expensive campers and RVs crowd the gravel lot behind the firing line.
"There's no poor people in this game," Scripture explains, cruising in a golf cart behind the shooters. "You have to have a lot of money and freedom to pursue it. Otherwise, you're just a local club shooter."
Scripture is no local club shooter. His Amateur Trapshooting Association classification is the highest, AA-27-AA. The double A's mean he averages at least 97X100 in singles competition and 93X100 in doubles: the 27 means he shoots from 27 yards, the longest distance, in handicap events. From 1981 to 1983, during a sabbatical from baseball, Scripture won four Virginia state championships—two singles and two all-arounds. (He took the 1982 singles trophy with a perfect 200X200.)
It's difficult to translate these scores into dollars. Unlike professional golfers, serious trapshooters put up their own money for tournament prizes in a complicated wagering system. There is no official earnings list, and it's anybody's guess who is making how much.
"I don't like to talk about the money," Scripture says. "You alarm some people and tick others off. I'll say this: The average shooter, if he takes a leave of absence from his job to try this full-time, he'll be back in 30 days. Very few people can truthfully say they make a living shooting. There's a handful of men making very good money, maybe 9 or 10."
Is Scripture one of them?
He pulls his hat down over his eyes. "I ain't sayin'."
He does not hesitate, however, when asked whether he was better at baseball or shooting. "Much better shooter. Baseball was hard for me. I had some good college years and all that, some All-America years that don't amount to a hill of beans. But I had very limited ability. I was proud I got as much out of my ability as I did." Shooting came easier to Scripture, who grew up on a South Carolina tobacco farm surrounded by woods and game. "My dad could shoot, and he taught me most of what I know."
Scripture parks the cart at Field 3 for the next round of 25 targets. The firing is brisk, each man yelling "Pull!"—or in Scripture's case, grunting "Yeuhhmph!"—firing and reloading. Shooters change stations five times per round; the various stations, combined with the 72 angles in the "fan" of the trap launcher, simulate the unpredictability of real birds rising from the brush. Spent shells surround the shooters; target fragments litter the field.
Scripture misses three targets in this round. "I'm not shooting anywhere near my potential now," he says, returning to the cart. "It's the same as golf. If a guy wants to be a good tournament shooter, that's got to be his first priority."
Guiding the cart to another field, Scripture pulls up behind four burly adults and a curly-haired kid in jeans and T-shirt who is barely a hand taller than his shotgun. The boy is Scripture's 13-year-old son, Jason, vacationing from Virginia Beach so he can embarrass his elders. "I really believe Jason's gonna be an outstanding shooter," his father says. "He's already won a couple of major handicaps. Shot their asses off." He watches approvingly as his son shatters 24 out of 25 targets. "Of course, he doesn't know what pressure is yet, 'cause I'm paying for everything. He's just farting around."
As shooters gather around him and exchange gun talk, it's plain his reputation as a teacher has followed him from baseball. "He can teach anything," says Cynthia Sutton, a young woman who has just come off the firing line. Scripture shrugs off the compliment. "Teaching is such a simple damn thing. I've never understood why people in baseball have so much trouble with that. You must slow it down, break down the mechanical motor skills, then you put it back together."
He learned that lesson first in the Orioles farm system, playing for managers like Cal Ripken Sr., Joe Altobelli, Darrell Johnson and Billy DeMars. The lesson was reinforced at the Royals' short-lived but innovative Baseball Academy in Sarasota. Scripture studied and taught baseball fundamentals there alongside the late Charlie Lau.
"I loved the Academy environment. Charlie and I sat and talked for days, watched tapes, broke everything down. That's what made him such a great batting coach." Scripture stops the cart. "Baseball would do well to make sure they have the best people at the rookie league level. That first manager makes a hell of an impression on those kids."
It's Scripture's turn to shoot again, and this time he hits all 25 targets. After he returns to the cart, an obvious question arises: Which is the easier target, a baseball or a clay pigeon?
"Well, I tell ya," he says, reaching for a cigar, "I can hit these, and I couldn't hit a curveball, so these must be easier."
Couldn't hit a curveball?
Although he played five seasons in Triple A, Billy Scripture never had the proverbial cup of coffee in the majors. "It was an effing struggle to play," he concedes. "The ball always fell a foot short." His lifetime average was .252.
His managerial record, measured in wins and losses, was similarly undistinguished. The sign on the door may say, "There is no second place...ever," but second place is the highest a Billy Scripture-led team ever finished.
"He was always into self-improvement techniques," says Rickey. "He jumped into psychocybernetics and then into visualization, and I can't remember what else." Rickey recalls a restaurant dinner with Scripture years ago.
While they talked, Scripture's eyes remained fixed on a candle in the middle of the table. "He would perform eye exercises like that—following the tip of the flame, trying to hold his concentration while talking normally."
Scripture trained and toughened his body, too, with weights and old-fashioned calisthenics—thousands and thousands of push-ups, sit-ups and knee bends. Like Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who tested himself by holding his palm to a flame till the flesh was scorched, Scripture abused his body, saying, "If you're going to be a great athlete, you've got to withstand pain." He established a high standard of personal courage. Says the Royals' Cobb, "I never saw him duck away from a pitch. He would simply move his head out of the way as the pitch went by his nose." Others remember his killing the rattlesnake, not with a gun on the mound, but with a fungo bat at the warning track, or even with his bare hands by the locker room.
Scripture encouraged players to follow his example. He would pay the player who broke up a double play at second. He would put catchers in full gear and hit line drives at them from 40 feet. "He absolutely scared them to death at first," says Keller. "It was his way of getting their attention." Once he had their attention, it was a different story. "He had incredible patience and compassion," says Rickey. "You just didn't see him blow up with players, just as he didn't with his own children."
Rickey tells the story of Doug Frobel, a former Pirates outfielder who played for Scripture at Charleston, S.C., in 1978. Rickey had made a postgame dinner appointment with the manager, and he remembers watching as Charleston lost a heartbreaker in which Frobel failed at the plate and mishandled several balls in the outfield. Afterward, Rickey waited outside the locker room for 30 minutes before asking a departing player if Scripture was ready. "No, he's out on the field," he was told.
Outside, the stadium lights were still on—a costly indulgence for a minor league club—and Scripture, in uniform, was kneeling in front of home plate, soft-tossing baseballs to Frobel, who tried to drive them to the opposite field.
"I just sat and watched," Rickey says. "There were about a hundred balls in the bucket, and when they had exhausted it, they walked out and picked them all up, talking softly. Then they came back and started again. And over the next half hour, I watched them go through three buckets of baseballs.
"Now it gets to be about a quarter till 12, the lights are still on. Bill picks up his fungo bat, sends Frobel into the outfield and starts hitting high fly balls, as only Bill can hit them. Frobel missed a lot of them, and Bill walked out to talk some more. When he brought the bucket back and started to hit another hundred, I finally yelled, 'Bill, are we going to dinner?' Bill looked at me, and without a word he waved Frobel in and turned off the lights."
Ultimately, Frobel went on to accomplish what Scripture never did: He reached the majors. Rickey gives partial credit to the manager. "I never saw anybody with that kind of willingness to work with a struggling player. That he was missing dinner was of no concern to Bill; the cost of the lights was of no concern to him. Everybody talks about the crazy things, but what attracted me to Billy Scripture was the other stuff."
Willie Wilson, the Royals centerfielder, played for Scripture at Jacksonville in 1976. "He had the most impact of all the coaches and managers I've had," Wilson says. "He was a wild man, but he never did anything to show off. He did it to teach you."
Wilson tells this story on himself. In August that year, Wilson was on the verge of quitting baseball. An injury had put him on crutches for two weeks, and now that he was back. Scripture wasn't playing him. After sitting out the first game of a doubleheader, Wilson had had enough. "I yanked my uniform off and drove home, listening to the game on the radio." Realizing that he had acted rashly, Wilson changed his mind and drove back to the ballpark, only to find that Scripture had put his uniform in the washing machine.
"He made me put my uniform on wet," Wilson recalls. "I sat on one end of the bench while he sat on the other end with this funny smile on his face. And then after the game he took me down the leftfield line for a talk."
During the talk Wilson learned why he wasn't playing: Scripture was keeping him healthy because the Royals were about to call him up for a September trial. "I still look up to Billy," Wilson says. "I never really had a father, but if I had a father, I'd want him to be like Billy Scripture."
Scripture hasn't forgotten that long-ago conversation. He says he remembers everything about it—the exact spot where they stood, the wind, the lights, the temperature, everything. "I remember looking Willie right in the eye and saying, 'Will, if you'll stay, you'll make a million dollars someday.' He was in Double A, strugglin' his ass off, but I had a lot of faith in Willie as a person."
Scripture shakes his head. "I loved my players. That bull—you can't get close to the players? Hey, I argued for 'em, I fought for 'em. Your successful manager always has a way of letting the players know, 'Hey, I'm for you. I'm here to help you.' "
This last is spoken back in the gun club shellhouse, late Saturday night. The shooters are asleep in hotel rooms or watching TVs in campers behind the clubhouse. Scripture sits on a case of shells and lights up another thin cigar. "I'll tell you what it would take to get me back in baseball," he says, tossing the match out the door. "It would take a struggling organization that wanted to turn around its minor league system. I'd just like a hell of a good challenge. I'd like to take a can of worms and piece it together." The distant look in his eye suggests that it will never happen.
"It's a horsebleep statement to say you're the last of a dying breed, but I played like there was no tomorrow. I ran into walls, fell into dugouts. It didn't matter when I played, where I played, how hot or how cold. I played baseball for the sheer effing love of playing. I always felt like if I'd had some ability, I would have been a hell of a ballplayer."
Scripture gets to his feet. "That kind of talk—it's just running away from getting old."
Outside in the dark, he takes a deep breath and looks up at the stars. "I enjoy the hell out of what I'm doing now," he says. "I love it." He crosses the grass to a light tower and pulls a switch. Light floods a narrow patch of skeet field—the spokes and wheel of sidewalk, brown grass littered with target fragments, the squat shape of the trap house. The paint on the sidewalls is green, like ballpark paint. The light is ballpark light.
Scripture looks around and nods contentedly. "It's just like walkin' into an empty ballpark, isn't it? Nothin' left but the pigeons and the popcorn."