Quoting another poet, Vin Scully once eulogized a dying Los Angeles Dodger rally with the observation "The saddest words of tongue and pen are these: What might have been."
Sports are full of such mournful speculation, and so we say, "Herb Score woulda broken all the records" or "You shoulda seen the one that got away" or "I coulda been a contender." Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda. If only....
Life, the joke goes, is a microcosm of baseball. And so, too, is life a game of inches. If only Fate were recalibrated by a fraction, we wouldn't have to wonder what might have been in the alluring but abbreviated baseball careers of Ken Hubbs and Louis Sockalexis and J.R. Richard. But, alas, destiny claimed these men.
Other men claim their destiny. Yogi Berra likes to say, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." But most of us must choose a single route to travel in life. As a young adult, Casey Stengel was faced with finishing dental school or pursuing a pro baseball career. What would have become of Casey the dentist? We'll never know. You can't look it up. We can only wonder what might have been had Stengel gone the other way at the fork in his life. The same goes for outfielder/author Zane Grey or pitcher/revolutionary Fidel Castro. We can only ask those saddest words of tongue and pen: What might have been?
July 18, 1993
The Chicago Cubs last won a World Series in 1908 and haven't won a National League pennant since '45. They came sadistically close to a Series berth in '69, but even with Hall of Tamers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ferguson Jenkins, those Cubs fell short. One man short, perhaps.
At age 20, Ken Hubbs went directly from Class B to Wrigley Field. In his rookie season, 1962, he hit .260, set two major league lie/ding records for second basemen and was named National League Rookie of the Year on 19 of 20 ballots. On a February day following his sophomore season, Hubbs was killed when the single-engine Cessna he was piloting crashed near Provo, Utah. He was 22. As his father, Eulis, said at the lime, "We will never know what might have happened...."
There was a time, believe it or not, when the sports fans of Chicago lived under the burden of the town's nickname, the Second City. The labels of "second-place" and "second-rate" seemed affixed to the entire populace. That all began to change, of course, with the Cubs of '69.
The seeds of success had actually been sown five years earlier. With an infield of Ernie Banks at first, Kenny Hubbs at second and Ron San to at third, and an outfield that included the silky Billy Williams and the swift young Lou Brock, the Cubs were so confident of their future that they passed up a tempting trade offer from the St. Louis Cardinals in June '64: Chicago would have received veteran starters Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz in exchange for Brock. The astute Cub management chose not to tinker.
It took a bit more time, but by the spring of "69 the powerhouse had been assembled, and the Cubs started fast. By July 8, though, the New York Mets had cut Chicago's lead to five games going into a three-game set at Shea Stadium. Fergie Jenkins was the Cub starter, and he took a one-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning. Met pinch hitter Ken Boswell then lofted a short fly to right center. Hubbs, who was in the midst of a sensational season, came out of nowhere to snare it. The Mets sent up another pinch hitter, Dorm Clendenon, who whacked a pitch deep into left center. Brock, who had turned and dashed for the wall at the sound of the bat, grabbed the ball just before he crashed into the boards. Chicago won 3-1 and went on to sweep the series. The Mets never recovered.
The '69 World Series was no contest. The Baltimore Orioles had no answer for Brock's speed. He stole a Series-record seven bases in Chicago's four-games-to-one victory. Banks was named the MVP of the Series, though many felt that Hubbs, with his flawless defense and 11 hits, was the real key.
The best, of course, was still to come. Alter a brief decline in 1970 and 71, the Cubs came roaring back. From 72 to 74 Chicago swept the Oakland Athletics in three consecutive World Series, living up to their slogan, "Straight A's." (Oakland manager Dick Williams, who had copyrighted that phrase. made a small fortune on the Cubs' feat.) It had been 21 years since a baseball team had won three titles in a row, and now it had happened in, of all places, Chicago.
If the Cubs could win it all again in 1975, they would join the New York Yankees as the only team to win four consecutive World Series. "Quad Squad, Quad Squad" rose the chant at Wrigley Field. And, indeed, Chicago beat the Boston Red Sox in six thrilling games in the 75 Series. (Life is indeed a game of inches: Imagine how different history might have been had Boston's Carlton Fisk been successful in waving his loud foul ball fair that night.) The Big Blue Machine now had their place in the record books, and that was enough for Ken Hubbs, who announced his retirement. Although only 33, he had played 14 years and acquired five championship rings.
With Hubbs's retirement, Chicago's reign was over. Though the Hubbs Cubs joined the Yankees, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Celtics as teams synonymous with the word champions. Hubbs cast a long shadow over future Cub second basemen: Since 76, 81 men have filled the position. As journeyman Ryne Sandberg, now of the St. Petersburg White Sox, says, "No matter what I did, it was never enough."
Pearl Zane Grey of Zanesville, Ohio, embarked on a minor league baseball career in 1895, playing as Pearl Zone to protect his eligibility at the University of Pennsylvania, where he roamed the outfield as Zane Grey. After four years in the bushes, when he was on the threshold of making the big leagues, Grey left Newark of the Atlantic League to become an author. At his death in 1939, he had written 89 books under the name Zane Grey. Most of his works were Western novels, though he did write three books about baseball. One of them, The Redheaded Outfield, was inspired by his younger brother. Romer (Reddy) Grey, who played two games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. If only Zane, not Romer, had made it to the majors....
The clackety-clack of the train on its tracks served as camouflage for the clackety-clack of his typewriter. While the rest of the 1901 Brooklyn Dodgers slept, rightfielder Zane Grey tapped out another lurid chapter of Oui, Willie Keeler.
It was sport's first tell-all tome, and Grey was a natural to write it. Long drawn to the rogues of the game, Grey wrote about the men behind the mustache wax. Baseball at the turn of the century was a dusty game of "gunslingers" throwing "horsehide" in the "bullpen," of law-and-order managers like Connie Mack and John McGraw, of men in black hats facing men in white hats—and Grey captured the flavor of it all.
He surreptitiously turned to his teammates for rollicking tales and revelations. Until Oui was published in 1902, who knew that Keeler had once telegraphed the press box to complain about an official scorer's ruling? (Outrageous!) The book caused a furor. Such was the backlash in the Brooklyn clubhouse that newspapermen continued for the next several decades to sanitize the image of ballplayers. The players, in turn, betrayed no more clubhouse confidences until 1970, when Jim Bouton of the Seattle Pilots wrote his derivative but devastating Ball Pour.
Grey, for his part, was forced by his ball-playing brethren to give up his Dodger cap and wear a green eyeshade full-time. He spent the rest of his years banging out his "Grey Matters" column for the sports sections of the Hearst newspaper chain.
Righthanded pitcher Fidel Castro once tried out for the Washington Senators and later turned down a $4,000 signing bonus from the New York Giants. Instead, he led the Cuban revolution and became that nation's communist dictator. Still. Castro pitched in an occasional exhibition game for the Cuban army team. In 1959, while hurling for Los Barbudos (the Bearded Ones), he fanned two hatters in one inning. "When the arbiter called /one/ batter out on a high, inside pitch," reported The Sporting News, "Castro dashed to the plate and shook hands with the ump." Kind of makes you wonder: What might have been had Castro signed with the Giants?
By the time he turned 22, in 1948, Castro had lost the curveball that had served him so well at his Jesuit prep school (where he was named outstanding athlete) and at the University of Havana (where he first attracted scouts). And as former Washington Senator owner Calvin Griffith has said, Castro "didn't have a fastball." So the New York Giants dealt him, even though they loved the fact that he regularly denounced "Yankee imperialism" in the New York papers.
Castro was sent to Cincinnati, where he became the Reds' ineffectual, left-leaning player representative. To distance themselves from their radical middle reliever, the Reds began calling themselves the Redlegs during these, the McCarthyite 1950s. Castro felt betrayed by the franchise.
In flagrant violation of the Redlegs' dress code, he began wearing olive-drab fatigues when traveling. Teammates mockingly called him El Jefe, or the Boss. Firing up one of the White Owl cigars that he favored, Castro set his beard ablaze while savoring a rare victory in the Crosley Field clubhouse in 1954. Four decades after his whiskers cooled, Castro still hasn't extinguished the aftereffects of El Comandante's Inferno, as the incident will forever be known in Cincinnati. The debacle led to the Reds' policy of banning facial hair, a rule that remains in effect to this day.
But it was Castro's nonchalance after losses that most galled his teammates and led to his release in 1960. After each bad outing, Castro would coolly tell reporters assembled at his locker, "History will absolve me." It did not.
Meanwhile, Fulgencio Batista remained in power in the vacation paradise of Cuba until his death in 1973. Professional baseball, of course, flourishes on the island. Spring training's Sugar League has attracted thousands of fans from the U.S. each season, and baseball fever in Cuba has reached epidemic proportions in this expansion season of '93, as the National League's new Havana Sugar Kings have drawn sellout crowds since Opening Day. (What's more, under manager Mike Cuellar, the former Baltimore Oriole—who in fact pitched for Batista's army team in 1955—the Sugar Kings have played well enough to outdistance the Mets and stand clear of the cellar at the All-Star break.)
As for Castro, he has not attended a ball game anywhere since 1986. That summer, in yet another curious display of personal politics, he was arrested outside the ballpark in Houston for allegedly trying to paint a C in front of the word ASTRODOME.
Charles Dillon Stengel was newly released from high school in 1910. That spring he signed with the minor league Kansas City Blues, but in the offseason he enrolled in dental school. For the next two winters Stengel attended Western Dental College in Kansas City. "If Casey had not made it as a ballplayer," writes Robert Creamer in Stengel: His Life and Times, "he almost certainly would have been a dentist." Hmmm. What might have been had Stengel not played and managed for 39 years in the major leagues but become a dentist instead?
While his dental smocks bore the lyrical monogram C.D.S., D.D.S., Dr. Stengel became known more familiarly as the Of Periodontist. The frustrated outfielder and armchair manager had no plaque in Cooperstown, but he had no plaque, either.
As a student dentist, Stengel enjoyed operating on the jaws of cadavers, occasionally wedging cigars between their teeth. Robert Creamer quotes him as saying, "This was a serious business, naturally, but once in a while fellas would fool around with those bodies when nobody was looking, and the first thing you knew you'd find an extra thumb in your pocket."
But in his later years Stengel seemed to lose his sense of humor. A lefthanded dentist in a world of righthanded dental implements, he felt ever the outsider among his colleagues in the American Dental Association. This explains why his was the one dissenting vote whenever four out of five dentists recommended anything.
Still, he achieved a certain status among his peers for his clever turns of phrase; Stengel invariably concluded his lectures at dental conferences with the line "You could look it up," though he is much better remembered for his famous "You can rinse now."
Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine, was a boy of rare athletic ability. His right arm was a gun, he ran like a gale. He so electrified Maine's summer leagues that opposing manager Gilbert Patten, who would later write books under the name Burt L. Standish, modeled his Frank Merriwell character after the adolescent Sockalexis.
An outfielder, Sockalexis played college ball at Holy Cross and Notre Dame. At South Bend in 1897 he was spotted by Cleveland Spider star and future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, who arranged a tryout. The Spiders signed him on the spot, making him the first Native American in the majors. The Sock was a sensation in Cleveland, hitting .328 with 16 stolen bases as Independence Day 1897 rolled around. Alas, he celebrated the Fourth with "an all-night carousal, " as his manager, Patsy Tebeau, put it, and Sockalexis somehow spilled out of a second-floor window, badly injuring his foot. He played in only 21 games in '98, and just seven in '99, on a Spider leant that lost 134 times and has been called the worst major league team ever. By 1900 Sockalexis was out of baseball. Yet Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings, a contemporary, once wrote of the Sock: "Yes, he might have been the greatest player of all time." He might have been....
April 22, 1949, was a day of celebration at Spider Stadium. It was not just another Spider Opening Day; it was Louis Sockalexis Day. Nearly every one of the 86,288 fans on hand was wearing the eight-legged logo that has become ubiquitous in this part of the world (even today Spider merchandise is second in popularity in baseball only to that of the Atlanta Crackers—though the sales of both, of course, pale in comparison with those of the perennial merchandising titans, the Washington Pigskins of the NFL). On this day the Cleveland faithful had packed into the huge stadium to salute the greatest Spider of them all.
The agenda for the ceremony included the presentation of World Series rings to the 1948 Spiders, who had defeated the Boston Beaneaters four games to two, But then the stage was turned over to those Spider greats who had come to honor Sockalexis. The last speaker would be the 77-year-old Hall of Famer himself.
Jim Thorpe spoke first. "Every Native American who has ever played in the major leagues owes a debt to Louis Sockalexis." said Thorpe, who had been elected to the Hall of Fame six years alter the Sock. Sockalexis's old friend Jesse Burkett took the podium next. He talked of the time on June 16, 1897, when the Spiders, who were still in the National League then, faced the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. When Sockalexis stepped to the plate in the top of the first, "a group of ne'er-do-wells in the bleachers stood up and started chanting derisive war whoops." recalled Burkett. "Sock dug in and hit a home run that landed deep in the scats in right. You can bet that was the last time anyone ever mocked Native American culture in a major league ballpark."
Next up was Nap Lajoie. He spoke of the 1908 season. when the Spiders, by then in the American League, had won the pennant by half a game over the Detroit Tigers, beating the St. Louis Browns on the last day of the season when Sockalexis, now a first baseman, made a diving stop to secure a 1-0 win. Lajoie told tales of the Sock's play during the '08 World Series, which the Spiders won by defeating the defending-champion Chicago Cubs. He ended his remarks by reciting the classic poem, inspired during that Series, about the greatest double-play combination of all time. Penned by Franklin Pierce Adams, a columnist and diehard Cub fan, the poem was chanted in unison by everyone in the stadium:
These are the saddest of possible words,
Trio of Spiders fleeter than birds,
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Cubbie hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Then it was Tris Speaker's turn. The Grey Fagle, 61 years old, told of the legendary season of 1920. Sockalexis had retired by then and was the Spiders' first base coach. The Sock never thought he would play again, but on Aug. 16 fate intervened. Spider shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head and killed by a pitch from New York Yankee Carl Mays. "We were devastated," said Speaker. "We had lost not only our only shortstop but also a leader and a friend. We had nowhere else to turn. I knew Ole Sock was the answer." The ancient Sockalexis, now 48, came out of retirement and filled in at shortstop for the final 32 games of the regular season and helped bring another title to Cleveland.
Finally Sockalexis himself addressed the crowd. He offered just one anecdote: "In 1907 some newspapermen approached me with a proposal. They said they'd like to change the name of the club to the Red Socks, in honor of me." Sockalexis said, "I was polite, but I told them to go peddle that nickname somewhere else. I said, 'There will be only one club in Cleveland as long as I live, and that club will be called the Spiders.' "
With that the crowd erupted in applause. The feeble Sockalexis's final remarks could barely be heard above the ovation. As loud as he could, Sockalexis summoned all his strength and shouted, "I will always be a Spider."
When Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda summoned someone—anyone—on his bench to pinch-hit against James Rodney Richard, strongmen their eyes. Such temporary paralysis was common among Houston Astro opponents in the late '70s whenever the 6'8", 225-pound Richard pitched. Players called the affliction J. R.-thritis.
Joe Morgan has admitted fearing him. Dave Winfield still calls Richard the toughest pitcher he ever faced, Of stepping in against Richard's 98-mph fastball. Hill Buckner once said, "What you do depends on whether you value your life more than you value one at bat."
In midsummer of 1980 Richard was alone at the peak of his profession, a lock for the National League Cy Young Award, a starter in the All-Star Game, with 10 wins and a 1.89 ERA at midseason break, But on July 30, while working out at the Astrodome, he suffered a stroke and never pitched again in the major leagues.
Houston manager Bill Virdon called him "the best pitcher in baseball." And the best pitcher in baseball was, as Astro teammate Enos Cabell noted, "on his way to the Hall of Fame." Given what he already was, what J. R. Richard might have been seems limitless.
In 1979 J.R. Richard won 18 games, and he struck out 300 batters for the second time, something that no other National League righthander had ever done once. He also led the league with a 2.71 ERA. He was 29 years old.
In 1980 he won the Cy Young, as expected.
From 1981 to '85 the Houston Astros had a rotation that would have made the current Atlanta Brave starting pitchers look like slo-pitch softballers. The Astro staff consisted of Richard, a second banana by the name of Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton and a fourth starter who would win 221 games in his career, knuckleballer Joe Niekro. Houston mowed down opponents like a Toro.
In 1983 the Astros acquired a fifth starter named Mike Scott.
In 1986, in a timeless National League Championship Series, Houston beat the New York Mets. The Astros then dispatched the Boston Red Sox in what proved to be a surprisingly competitive Fall Classic. Richard the Lionhearted, 36 years old, started Games 1, 4 and 7 for Houston. Three Red Sox regulars missed those games with "flulike symptoms." (Alas, the aforementioned Buckner was not one of them.)
In 1988 J.R. Richard retired.
In 1989 Ryan was signed by the Texas Rangers and, with the shadow of Richard finally removed, at last received the national attention he deserved.
In 1993 J.R. Richard was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He might have been the greatest pitcher ever.