A baseball owner who put the little guy first ... and even sent one to the plate
Bill Veeck was that rarest of birds, now feared extinct, a baseball man with a sense of humor. The antithesis of the modern billionaire owner, Veeck was an incorrigibly fun-loving promoter who liked nothing better than to goose the Pooh-Bahs of baseball while affording the average Joe a laugh. The exploding scoreboard? Veeck's brainchild. The ivy in Wrigley Field? Veeck planted it. He was the first to hire baseball clown Max Patkin (who was pitching in the minors when Veeck discovered him) to entertain crowds during games. Names on the back of uniforms? Ballpark giveaway days? Cow-milking contests between games in a doubleheader? Grandstand Managers Day, in which fans dictated strategy by holding up YES and NO placards? Veeck's babies, one and all.
Veeck believed that baseball was entertainment, not religion. The son of William Veeck Sr., who was president of the Chicago Cubs, Veeck's first baseball job was selling peanuts at Wrigley Field. He put together enough money to buy the Cleveland Indians in 1946, when he was 32, and the next year signed Larry Doby, the first black ballplayer in the American League. Veeck may have been baseball's P.T. Barnum, but he was no clown. The Indians won the World Series in 1948, the year Veeck signed the oldest rookie in baseball history, 42-year-old Satchel Paige.
After the Indians were mathematically eliminated in 1949, ending their reign as league champs, Veeck took down the pennant, put it in a pine coffin and buried it in centerfield at Municipal Stadium with full military honors. Reacting to a letter to the editor from a fan named Joe Earley who wondered why rich ballplayers needed special nights to honor them when they retired, Veeck held a Good Old Joe Earley Night, at which the Chevy-factory night watchman was given a new Ford convertible, a washing machine, a refrigerator, luggage and other gifts.
Financial problems, which plagued Veeck throughout his baseball career, forced him to sell the Indians in 1949, but he scraped together enough to buy the hapless St. Louis Browns in '51. That happened to be the 50th anniversary of the American League, and as part of a promotional celebration Veeck unveiled his most famous gag: sending 3'7" midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate to pinch-hit. Gaedel, wearing uniform number 1/8, walked on four pitches. The next day furious league execs essentially banned midgets from the game. Veeck responded by asking if Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was a short ballplayer or a tall midget. "I knew it would delight the fans and outrage the stuffed shirts," Veeck wrote in his autobiography, VEECK--As in Wreck. "I have always found a stuffed shirt to be the most irresistible of targets." A garrulous man of the people, Veeck, who died in 1986, spent his final summers watching Cubs games while sitting in the outfield bleachers, drinking beer--shirtless.
Bad News was good news for anybody who needed a quote
MARVIN (BAD NEWS) Barnes was ahead of his time, which is ironic, because during his short pro basketball career, he had trouble keeping track of it. Punctuality was not his forte, and even when he did arrive on time, he often found it hard to grasp clock-related matters. In 1975, during his rookie year in the ABA, Barnes showed up for a team flight from Louisville to St. Louis and was told that because of the time zones, the arrival time would be roughly the same as the departure time. Bad News was aghast. "I ain't getting on no time machine," he said.
Reviewing Barnes's wildly entertaining but ultimately disappointing career is like going back to the future, because he was a forerunner of the modern-day athlete as antihero. Even in the near anarchy of the ABA, Barnes was a happy outlaw, legendary for his blithe disregard of most rules. Bad News was skipping practices when Allen Iverson was a baby. He was self-absorbed and materialistic before Deion Sanders bought his first gold chain. He was partying until game time when Dennis Rodman was in grade school. But he carried his flaws to such cartoonish lengths that it's impossible to recall him without a certain fondness. Bad News once decided to sleep in rather than join his team on its morning flight. Later that day Bad News chartered a plane and arrived at the arena 10 minutes before tip-off. He sauntered into the locker room wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a full-length mink coat, carrying a bag of fast food. "Have no fear, BB is here," he said, opening the coat to reveal that he was wearing his uniform underneath.
Though Barnes had a dark side--he assaulted a college teammate with a tire iron, and legend has it that he once snorted cocaine while on the Boston Celtics' bench--he had a sweetness to him as well. In 1975 his team's radio play-by-play man was a promising young broadcaster named Bob Costas. One night Costas was late for tip-off and after the game was worried that the transgression would cost him his job. Bad News was there to comfort him; he assured Costas that if he was fired, he wouldn't be unemployed long. "I've been looking," he said, "for a little white dude to drive me around in my Rolls-Royce."
Giving golfers the yips, one glare at a time
The second-oldest golf club in the world, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a.k.a. Muirfield, was run for years by a formidable white-haired Englishman known to Americans as Captain Hanmer. If you were a tourist looking to play the Scottish shrines, Muirfield was on your list. But to get on that venerated--and private--links you had to first get past Paddy Hanmer, the club secretary. This required planning, a nimble mind and steely resolve. Many good people failed in the quest.
Hanmer, a retired naval officer, was a slave to procedure. His cramped office contained a single chair on which he rested his plumpish self, as well as a desk with a telephone and binoculars upon it and a dog below it. The club has a small membership and gets little play, but if you hadn't written a proper letter before landing at his desk, you had no chance of getting on. He'd pick up his binoculars, peer mockingly at his empty course and say, "I couldn't possibly allow you to play today. You've not made the proper arrangements." The dog would not growl. It did not need to.
American corporate chieftains would quake in Hanmer's presence; you stood before Hanmer as you stood before your father after you'd wrecked his car. And you could not grease your way through his gate. He catered in no way to the rich or celebrated. Payne Stewart once tried to play the course unannounced. He played the neighboring course instead. "I could see Muirfield from the hilltops," Stewart said later. "Not a soul on it."
Hanmer was wildly understated. A Canadian visitor, approved for two rounds in a single day, sought out Hanmer after his morning game. The golfer prattled on and on about how he had just played the round of his life, shooting 80. He excitedly placed a Muirfield club history under the late club secretary's nose and asked him to sign the book. Hanmer obliged: "Better luck this afternoon, Captain P.W.T. Hanmer."
As sweet as pecan pie, but he was the man you'd turn to in a pinch
YOU'LL NEVER SEE a Smoky Burgess again. Guaranteed. A pie-faced car mechanic with a potbelly, graying temples and a retreating hairline, scrubbing away the grease from his North Carolina gas station each March and heading to the big leagues to come off the bench cold in the ninth inning and hit line drives. For 18 years. Waddling those 200 pounds to the left side of home plate, straightening to his full 5 feet and 71/2 inches, planting those size 61/2 cleats and hacking at the first thing that breezed by, as long as it breezed 'tween his eyebrows and his ankles. Three times out of 10 the ball would leave Smoky's bat and find greenery, and the pinch runner popping out of the dugout to replace him would damn near beat Smoky to first base. Funny, that nickname. It came by way of his fleet-footed father, a semipro player who was said to be smoke on the base paths.
No, sir, he wasn't your run-of-the-gin-mill, carousing, cantankerous baseball character. He was sweet as pecan pie, never smoked, never drank. Smoky was so determined a Baptist, in fact, that in his 38th winter he told Chicago White Sox G.M. Eddie Short that he wouldn't be summering at Comiskey Park in 1965 because Baptist services in the Windy City ran from 11 a.m. to noon, making it impossible to reach the ballpark in time for Sunday-afternoon games. Short found a suburban Baptist service that began at 9 a.m., or invented one, and kept his .295 lifetime hitter around for three seasons more.
Razzed? How could he not be, this portly elf who needed a cutoff man to throw to second and up to a gallon of milk a day to cool his ulcers? But the abuse rolled right off him. "If they get on me," he'd say, "that means they're leaving somebody else alone." The chortles died when he stepped to the plate, first for the Cubs, then for the Phillies, the Reds, the Pirates and the Sox. He hit over .300 five times, unfurled a .368 season in 1954 and set the then major league record with 145 career pinch hits. "The feeling was, if Smoky could have played every day, he would have been recognized as one of the greatest hitters of all time," said former Reds outfielder Gus Bell. "I still say he was."
Every sportswriter's dream: tall tales told in a droll drawl
YOU COULD never be sure if Abe Lemons was telling the truth, but nobody who jotted down Abe-isms cared all that much. The story Abe told about his name was that he was just plain A.E. growing up, and "the A didn't stand for anything, and the E didn't stand for anything." When he signed up for the Merchant Marines, he was told that he had to have a whole name, so "I went back and stuck a B between the A and the E," although in a later version of the story it was his fifth-grade teacher who started calling him Abe. Either way, Lemons regretted the choice when he realized that he could just as easily have been Ace. He was an ace on the bench, though. He led the lightly regarded Longhorns to the 1978 NIT championship and shared two other SWC titles before he was fired in '82. The party line was that Texas underachieved under Lemons, but he never fit the school's style. One night during an SWC game at Mississippi State, Lemons ordered his player to shoot a technical foul with his back to the basket because he thought the rule that had rewarded him the T (a Bulldogs player had dunked during warmups) was stupid. Abe was at his loosey-goosey best at Oklahoma City University and Pan American, where he concocted a schedule around the cities he wanted to visit. He once called Miami to set up a home-and-home series, and said, "Let's play 'em both at your place."
Lemons, who died in 2002, had the same wife (Betty Jo) for 56 years and the same debilitating disease (Parkinson's) for 15. Writers who visited him after he'd retired found a man with quivering hands and a slower gait but with his wit intact. Reflecting on the five-dollar price tag of his breakfast eggs during a long-ago road trip to New York City, Abe said, "I shoulda left four players home and brought six chickens."
In a field surfeited with self-importance, a First Team Self-Deprecator
On a dreary afternoon in 1999, the day after a third-round match at the U.S. Open, Todd Martin lumbered into a postmatch press conference. His appearance--a graying hairline in the midst of a recession, an ice bag strapped to his right elbow, knees wrapped--indicated that he was having a rough time. "Where," a journalist asked, "do you think you are physically right now?" Martin paused, and with perfect deadpan delivery said, "I think, physically, I am right here. Would you like to know where I am metaphysically?"
Martin's comic timing is infinitely better than his tennis timing. Had he come along in any other era, he would have been a bona fide star, at least in this country. Eight titles, more than $8 million in prize money, two Grand Slam final appearances and a long-term tenancy in the Top 10 are the makings of a damn fine career. But grouped with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang--the Greatest Generation in American tennis--Martin has spent his 15 years as a pro with status akin to that of the fifth Beatle.
And this is a shame, for Martin represents what it is we want a professional athlete to be. We want our jocks to try like hell and compete at an otherworldly level. But we also want to feel that they relate to us, that they realize their good fortune, able as they are to play a game for a living. We want them to be both hero and mortal. This is Martin. To use the job interview cliché, he takes his work seriously without taking himself seriously.
You will not find an athlete who has more respect for his sport, for his opponents, for honest competition. Unlike other players we could name, he always makes himself available for Davis Cup, he plays doubles capably, and for years he's tried to outwit all the surfaces. In the tennis subculture Martin is also known for an almost pathological tendency to play--and win--five-setters. (On 39 occasions his matches have gone the distance, 11th alltime.) Pressed for an explanation, he says dryly, "I'm very evenly matched with everybody." There are some alternative answers: he is superbly conditioned even at age 34; he is deeply invested in the outcome; he is adept at making mid-match adjustments, a lost art for many of his colleagues.
Yet for all Martin's spirited play, he knows that, finally, he's just batting a ball over a net. At a time when some athletes act as if they labor in Dickensian sweatshops, Martin says things like, "A bulletin for all those folks who think we have real jobs: We've got plenty of time to relax during the course of the day." At a time when athletes have become increasingly insular, Martin invites rookies out for dinner, apologizes to players he beats and until recently served on the ATP's Player Council, sitting in boardrooms on behalf of colleagues who were poolside. At a time when narcissism has almost become an occupational requirement in sports, Martin is a First Team Self-Deprecator. Recently, as his ranking has fallen and he's gotten into draws by virtue of wild cards--denoted W.C. on tennis draw sheets--he's taken to referring to himself as Mr. Fields.
This failure to cocoon himself from reality, this refusal to treat match results as life-or-death propositions hasn't always served him well. Self-awareness has made him susceptible to pressure. The ability to think conflicting thoughts has messed with his concentration. In the 1996 Wimbledon semifinal Martin memorably blew a 5-1 fifth-set lead to MaliVai Washington. "That one hurt," Martin said later, "but I felt better after I egged Mal's house."
Martin lost his first-round match at this year's U.S.Open, then announced that he was retiring. In all likelihood they will clear no wall space for him at the Hall of Fame, but Martin brought to tennis the perfect ratio of professionalism and perspective and, in his own way, made a mark on the sport every bit as meaningful as his more accomplished contemporaries. You know, metaphysically speaking.
You have to be crazy to be a goalie, but not necessarily this crazy
GILLES GRATTON was a throwback, a man who belonged to an earlier time: the 16th century. A goaltender whose past was always more intriguing than his future, Gratton claimed he had been a Spaniard of noble birth in one of his previous lives.
Gratton made a few stops on the hockey trail--he played for the Ottawa Nationals and the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association and later appeared in 47 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers--but in his fertile mind he got around more than Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Of course, reincarnation can be a delicate business at times. Once Gratton begged off a start, telling his coach that a leg injury would be keeping him out of the crease that night. When the coach asked when Gratton had hurt the leg, he responded, "Eighteen-seventy." He had been wounded during the Franco-Prussian War.
Gratton probably is best remembered for going au naturel--he streaked one Toros practice, clad only in skates and mask--but he should be hailed for what he did wear. In the Rangers' 1976-77 season Gratton, an accomplished classical pianist and guitar player with a strong artistic bent, wore a mask painted with a snarling lion, a precursor to the limited school of goalie art that thrives today. When asked about the inspiration for the mask, Gratton said, "I'm a Leo. This mask becomes me." Alas, he mentioned nothing about unfortunate Christians or the Colosseum.
Even in the 1970s, the only decade in which archly conservative professional hockey put on a fright wig and danced on the table, Gratton was considered a curiosity. His teammates poked gentle fun at his belief in his many personal histories, but he explained it all neatly once in the mid-1970s at a dog-and-pony show for Rangers' corporate sponsors at Madison Square Garden.
"Goaltending," Gratton declared, "is all about payback."
"Payback?" said Marv Albert, emcee for the proceedings.
"See, one of my favorite things when I was a conquistador was to mistreat the commoners," Gratton explained. "I would line them up and storm them. Now they're getting back at me by shooting pucks at me."
From the Negro leagues to the NBA, he always made the right call
In the long-running sitcom that was the 20th century, Charley Eckman was a recurring character, a kind of sports Zelig. He was a batboy in the Negro leagues. He played some shortstop in the minors, where he was briefly a teammate of Hoyt Wilhelm's. As a major league scout he unsuccessfully urged the Philadelphia Phillies to sign a Baltimore high school kid named Al Kaline. He was a deputy sheriff, a tax investigator, a full-fledged judge of an orphans' court, a pool hall operator in Yuma, Ariz., and the most popular radio personality in his native Baltimore, regaling listeners with reports like this, of the circumcision ceremony for the son of a local fight promoter: "First time I've seen a clipping without a 15-yard penalty!"
It's as a pro and college basketball referee, however, that Eckman is best remembered. "I let 'em all know I was going to be there all night, and they weren't going nowhere without me," he said. "Then we had some fun." He once obliged the request of the Philadelphia Warriors' Joe Fulks that they get into a rhubarb because the game was being televised and Fulks wanted a close-up for his family back in Kentucky. When North Carolina went into a delay offense one night, Eckman hauled a chair from behind the scorer's table and took a seat on the court. Late in another ACC game, after whistling a foul, he confessed that he had blown the call--sort of. "Look, kid, there's two seconds to play, and my feet hurt," he said. "I'm not walking 94 feet for a lousy free throw."
In 1954 Fort Wayne Pistons owner Fred Zollner scandalized the NBA by hiring Eckman, then 33, as coach, though he had no basketball experience except as a ref. Zollner knew that Eckman had what even today are the two essentials for a successful NBA coach: a rapport with the players and a feel for matchups. The Pistons won the division, and Eckman was named coach of the year. As the only person to have coached and officiated in an All-Star Game, he's now the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. And he remains immortal for his response to the Piston who once asked him what play to run: "Kid, there are only two plays: South Pacific and put the ball in the basket."
The rarest creature in boxing--a character with character
NONE OF EARTH'S other creatures look quite like Lou Duva. His eyes are hooded slits; his mouth, a sparrow's butt; his teeth are splinters; his jowls have pockets of flab so thick they hang almost to his knees. The belly of this 82-year-old boxing trainer is independently suspended, a nose cone of flesh cantilevered out from a perilously low-slung belt. Usually it sits in a succession of garish shirts and sweaters. The electric-puce golfing sweaters, he buys at Bob's in Totowa, N.J., a mere 3,472 miles from Savile Row. Very loyal is Lou.
For three decades the Titan of Totowa, where he's lived for more than 50 years, has hovered over boxing like a lead zeppelin. In a sport full of thieving managers and shadowy promoters, Duva's a standup guy with a sharp eye, a clear mind and a touchable heart. We know Duva has a heart because it almost stopped beating in 1996 after he watched one of his fighters, Andrew Golota, get disqualified for repeated low blows in a heavyweight title bout he was winning handily. Duva left the ring on a stretcher, his weak ticker racing as a riot swirled around him. To prepare Golota for the rematch, Duva stitched together two pairs of trunks and hung them on a heavy bag. "So you don't go low," he told Golota. It didn't work. While coasting to victory late in the second fight, Golota went low again and got DQ'd again, prompting Duva to mutter, "Maybe next time I'll have him fight a midget."
The former Teamsters boss has a truckload of such anecdotes--many profane, all wildly funny. The tale that's hardest to swallow involves an Italian sub. Some years ago an opponent disappeared after a weigh-in, and Duva plowed through the crowd for a stand-in. He enlisted a retired New York City policeman, renamed him Angelo Garafolo and said, "Just dance 'round and don't get hit." Garafolo danced until Round 4, when he not only got hit but also knocked unconscious. When the pretend palooka came to, he was grilled by a suspicious sportswriter. Garafolo said nothing. "Angie's Italian and don't speak no English," Duva rasped above the din. So the reporter began questioning the cop in perfect Italian. Garafolo just stared and shrugged--he knew no Italian. "Angie speaks an obscure regional dialect," Duva more or less explained, his voice only slightly louder than his shirt.
A frosty Iron Curtain maiden who grew into a winning social pioneer
back in the early '70s, when she was habitually whining on the tennis court and putting up an Iron Curtain during interviews off it, Martina Navratilova was typecast as a cold war antihero. But then the Chubby Czech started throwing plot twists at us--she defected to the States, got buff, brought flair and aggression to a mostly docile women's tennis tour, became the best female player in the world, came out as a lesbian and, finally, came out of retirement to thrive as an icon for the middle-aged. As she marched into the Athens Olympic Stadium with the U.S. team during last month's opening ceremonies, Navratilova did so as arguably the most accomplished and significant athlete of her generation.
We've seen other great performers grow up before our eyes, and we've seen champions transcend sports, but we've never witnessed a megastar who's shown more class or bravery than Navratilova.
The stats show that she's the greatest women's tennis player in history. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, nine of them at Wimbledon, including six straight from 1982 to '87. She won an unprecedented 167 singles titles and once won 74 consecutive matches. She was the best player in the world as early as 1978, and when she first stepped away from the tour in 1994, she had outlasted her chief rival, Chris Evert, by half a decade. The year that she left, she still had a No. 4 world ranking, had made yet another appearance in the Wimbledon finals, and had only recently been supplanted at No. 1 by Steffi Graf. And now? Evert runs a tennis academy, Graf is a tour wife and mother, and Martina Hingis--a Czech-born champion who was named after Navratilova--has already completed a career that included five Grand Slam singles titles. The original Martina, meanwhile, began playing doubles again, won her 40th Grand Slam doubles title in 2003 and, just for the heck of it, won a singles match at Wimbledon earlier this past summer.
At the U.S. Open this year, Navratilova got to the quarterfinals in doubles and made it to the semifinals in mixed doubles. Twenty-nine years earlier, at this same tournament, Navratilova spent most of her time off the court locked away in a hotel room with FBI and U.S. Immigration officials, as she prepared her escape from the Soviet Bloc. This time, a month shy of her 48th birthday, the well-toned American was classy on the court and engaging at her postmatch press conference.
How she fared on the court this year was almost incidental. The courage she has shown in charging the net, both literally and figuratively, makes her a winner.
He was the Willie Mays of scribes, a five-tool writer with a lethal wit
YOU DIDN'T HAVE to be a sports fan to get Jim Murray. He was a stand-alone pleasure, whether he was writing about Willie Mays's glove ("Where triples go to die") or the Indianapolis 500 ("Gentlemen, start your coffins"). His nuggets were, at once, funny and sad, but above all true. A knocked-out fighter was "a complicated blood clot." You didn't have to be a ringsider to be struck by that idea.
In fact it seemed most of the time he wasn't even writing about sports. He came to my attention in 1961, when my hometown baseball team unwittingly and unnecessarily drew him to the banks of the Ohio River. Finding Cincinnati's urban renewal insufficient to his West Coast standards, he opined in his syndicated column that it must have been "Kentucky's turn to use the cement mixer." I carefully refolded our Cincinnati Post (my father preferred the illusion of first-read in our household) and sat a little longer in wonderment. You could write like this?
Years later it was my luck to join him on the staff of the Los Angeles Times. Anybody who knew him at the end of his career was protective of him, especially of his reputation, which never seemed sufficient to what he had done. The Pulitzer announcements produced an annual gnashing of teeth on our side of the country; every year somebody from the East Coast was named in his place. Finally, he did win. Oddly, this didn't seem to do too much for his self-confidence. After 50 years of covering big events, he was still reassuringly vulnerable to deadline anxiety. It was my distinct pleasure to sit next to him at championship fights, and when the action suddenly confounded the script in his head (one-liners right out the window), he would become wildly (outwardly, anyway) desperate. "What am I going to do now, Hoffer?"
At times like those I would remind him that his 1-0 Pulitzer lead over me was razor-thin. "Jimbo," I'd say, "you're very catchable." We'd laugh at that. In truth, he was about as catchable as Carl Lewis with a 10-meter head start, Secretariat with a two-furlong lead. Not catchable. Not catchable at all.