Greetings, all. It’s been over two months since my last post, as work and a myriad of other projects continue to take precedence (and somewhat of a shortage of ideas, I admit. Wait, a shortage of baseball stuff to write about? Nah, that’s only an excuse. Digressing now.) On this final day of 2019, I figure it is a good time to pen something – another odd coincidence in over 150 years’ worth of them in our game.
“If I could teach myself how to play baseball with one arm, I sure as hell could handle a rifle.”
– Pete Gray, 1941
Pete Gray was no stranger to challenges.
A right arm amputee following a childhood accident in 1923, Gray was told repeatedly throughout his life that he would never make it as a professional ballplayer. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was told he’d never be a soldier, either.
Breaking into professional baseball in 1942, due, in part to the manpower shortage from the war effort, Gray began to produce immediately. While it may have been easy for some to say he was playing due not only to the limit of available players – but also to boost ticket sales – he was in reality a lightning fast base runner with excellent outfield range. He was more than a capable hitter as well, amassing a lifetime minor league average of .308.
He eventually broke into the majors in 1945 with the St. Louis Browns, hitting .218 in 77 games. During those years, Gray bashfully became considered something of a stateside hero. The continuation of baseball served to be an important boost to national morale, and something for the troops overseas to hold onto, and Gray was a not-so-small part of that.
1944 was a big year for Pete. As a member of the Class A Memphis Chicks, he was awarded MVP of the Southern Association, after a season in which he batted .333 with 68 stolen bases. He was also recognized as the “Most Courageous Athlete” by the Philadelphia Sports Writers, to which he immediately replied with “Boys, I can’t fight, and there is no courage about me. Courage belongs on the battlefield, not the baseball diamond.”
Stoic almost to a fault, Gray would still achieve one singular personal milestone that season.
Visiting Chattanooga, TN to take on the rival Lookouts at historic Engel Stadium, this was to be a highlight, if overlooked, day for Pete Gray. With the score tied 3-3 in the eighth, Gray stepped into the box to face Bob Albertson, a career minor leaguer who never made the show. Albertson uncorked a fastball, and Gray dropped the barrel of his club on the pill, launching it over the 20-foot high right field fence, 330 feet away from home plate.
Pete Gray, the one-armed ballplayer from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, had finally hit his first career home run as a professional ballplayer – another thing they told him he could never do.
Outside of the attendees at Engel Stadium that day, few people knew of this feat, and even fewer cared, even though this was the only professional ballgame played in the country on this particular date. After years of unwanted attention and suffering endless ridicule, nobody cared what Pete Gray did during this game. It was ironic.
All other pro games had been cancelled, with flags everywhere flying at half-staff.
“…but a very complex one. A swamp with many levels of political overtones and resonances that can’t be fathomed at the present time; but need the distance of the future to give it a proper perspective, so you can truly have a point of view – and realize the viscosity of that quagmire. And the only way to understand this is to realize that it’s incomprehensible.”
– Robin Williams as Jack Dundee in The Best of Times
Such could be likened to the Cubs’ hiring of David Ross as their new manager.
Some fans and critics think its a great hire. Others think its bad. The truth is, neither is the case – at this exact moment. We won’t know if it’s a good or bad hire for a few years, at least. So, following the wisdom of Mr. Dundee, we will see how it looks down the road a bit.
Ten days ago, I penned a short piece explaining how Ross might be Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s guy, and lead the northsiders in the 2020 season. That content wasn’t intended to advocate, but rather to shed some light on why Ross could be selected over other worthy candidates, Joe Girardi among them.
Cutting to the chase here, there had been enough circumstantial evidence and expert analyses done to believe that the Cubs front office wanted a manager who is young, will do the job for not a lot of money, and won’t push back on baseball decisions.
Ross checks all those boxes.
All things being equal, (obviously not the resumes of the candidates, where Ross literally does not compare), if it came down to three big things, those are they. Added to which it’s an internal hire since Ross never actually left the payroll. He assumed a very Craig Counsell-ish special assistant to the GM role in 2017, which may very well have set this whole thing in motion.
In his short but distinctive time with the Cubs, he was in many ways a coach on the field. No doubt he is a smart baseball guy, and his impact within the organization and with the fans likely set off some light bulbs in the front office to hire him as a coach one day – soon. How soon is now?, The Smiths once asked. Well, it’s today.
Fans and writers have offered up two highly common – and valid – points of criticism about Ross regarding his managerial hiring.
He has no experience. That is true. However, there is plenty of modern precedent for first time managers finding success. Of recent ilk, Counsell, Aaron Boone, Alex Cora and Bob Brenly come to mind. There are many other examples going back through the history of baseball as well. With so many baseball decisions being made in this era by the front office and on-field coaches, the role of the manager has been reduced somewhat. However, navigating through a 162-game regular season is different than the quick and crucial strategizing that is required in a critical postseason series. Ross and the Cubs aren’t there yet but that will no doubt be a fascinating test.
He is too friendly with a lot of the players. This is a valid concern, too. But plenty of managers have coached recent teammates. It’s not like that’s a new situation. Furthermore, if you haven’t read Ross’ book, or gleaned enough insight from these friends of his – namely Jon Lester, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward – he has angrily lit these guys up more than once. The now famous moniker of ‘Grampa Rossy’ was created largely in part to him being somewhat of a curmudgeonly grumpy guy who would get on players’ cases. If he can temporarily turn the friendship off to light a fire by choice as a teammate, should we doubt that he will be able to do so by right as a manager? Time will tell on this also.
We’ll see how it plays out. Whether you feel its a good, bad, or lazy hire right now, no doubt it’s a popular one. If it actually turns out to be good or bad, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it’s a new and exciting era for the Cubs beginning in 2020.
From the legendary Cap Anson to Joe Maddon 140 years later, the Cubs have had more than their share of unique personalities at the top step of the dugout.
Hall of Fame gentlemen like Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance (yes, that Tinker to Evers to Chance group), Rogers Hornsby, Joe McCarthy, Gabby Hartnett, and Leo Durocher all had their tenures as north side skipper.
Of course, only in Chicago could a manager lead his club to the first World Series title since Chance was at the helm, end the honeymoon before it even began, become a polarized figure and turn into non-surprising news when his contract wasn’t renewed nary three years later, right?
But thanks, Joe. Seriously and sincerely.
Thus begins the search for who will lead the Cubs starting with the 2020 season.
While the list is pretty short at this stage, the purported front runner, David Ross, is somewhat polarized himself. But should he be?
If strictly comparing resumes to other candidates like Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Joe Espada is the main factor, then Ross literally does not compare – he simply hasn’t coached before. Despite having a reputation for most of his playing career as a coach-on-the-field for his knowledge and quick thinking, he has never held an official seat. Much less one that is on par with someone like Girardi, who has won a World Series as a manager.
But does that really matter?
Aaron Boone had no managerial experience when he took over the New York Yankees in 2018. They won 100 games and reached the ALDS. This year they won 103 and are currently in the ALCS.
Alex Cora was a first time manager when he was handed the reigns of the Boston Red Sox in 2018. They won the World Series.
Bob Brenly led the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series title in 2001 in his first season as manager.
The point is, a first-time manager finding success is far from unprecedented or unrealistic.
This is not to advocate Ross for the job. This is saying why he could, not should, be the choice. I always liked him as a player and I believe he will make a fine skipper some day, but I certainly have no crystal ball that is locking him in to the Cubs dugout for next season.
All the candidates are sound.
But has this been boiled down to Girardi vs. Ross?
Experience and success-wise, Girardi has no competition here.
There are some other intangibles that may put Ross ahead of the pack, however. One inherent issue with experienced coaches, especially former managers, is the pushback on baseball-related issues they can give to the front office. In today’s sabermetric, analytics-driven game, the old guard baseball guys tend to have some strategic friction with their bosses. Reports of this happening with Maddon and Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were surfacing as far back as the Cubs’ magical 2016 championship season. It is unlikely the Cubs brass will want to invite similar issues back with their new manager.
Furthermore, the actual role of field manager has been reduced somewhat in this modern era. With a lot (some say too much) of data available, many game decisions are made by the front office and crucial personnel – bench and pitching coaches to be exact – to help the manager along.
Youth, money and control are other considerations. Strong hearsay and between-the-lines rumblings indicate that Epstein/Hoyer may want a younger, more passive type of manager who won’t push back with them (too much) on baseball-related decisions, and someone they won’t have to pay a large salary to. Someone like Ross would check all those boxes, where Girardi, although still fairly young, would not. With a World Series title, nearly 1,000 wins and experience managing in a major market under his belt, it is highly unlikely that Girardi would be the pseudo “Yes Man” that the Cubs brass seems to be searching for. They’d also have to pay him a lot more money than any other candidate.
My initial reaction a couple weeks ago was that Loretta, the current Cubs bench coach would be the practical – albeit boring – selection. Added to which I figured Ross’ interest would be a token interview just to appease Cubs fans, and that maybe he would be brought on as Loretta’s bench coach at most. It would seem now, however, that Ross is the likely target, and that Girardi, ironically, has become the token interviewee. ‘Grandpa Rossy’ also has plenty of marketability to consider. The fans adore him, and he has an endearing personality and sense of self-deprecating humor (there was that whole Dancing With the Stars thing, after all) that automatically lends itself to the role. How that may translate into success on the field would be anyone’s guess.
The other blowback from Cubs fans about Ross is whether or not he is still too close to a number of current players. It is well known that his former teammates Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant among others are some of his best friends. Would he be able to put that aside and act managerially? Would he be able to relate to them no longer as a colleague but as their in-game boss? The answer to that, I believe, is yes. Something that is often forgotten by Cubs fans is the ‘Grandpa Rossy’ nickname that Bryant and Rizzo bestowed upon him was more than just a friendly jab at an old backup catcher in his final season of his playing career. It was a sarcastic nod at the fact Ross could be a prick – in a good way – for his ability to light a fire under the players and get their attention. The youngins on the club thought he was being a curmudgeonly old man. They realized after ’16 that he actually always had a point.
If he can continue to do that, and keep his sharp baseball mind in-tune, then maybe Ross would be the right guy after all.
Or maybe it’ll be someone else, in which case you can disregard everything you just read.
Greetings once again from the southwest Chicago suburbs, friends.
It’s been some time since my last post, as work and myriad other projects have leapfrogged the production of any new content here for a bit.
Hey, it happens.
With the 2019 MLB postseason just days away (and without my Cubs for the first time in four years thanks to an epic collapse that brings about confusion, embarrassment and other inexplicable things, but that’s a whole other monster), I felt it we should again touch base on the 1919 World Series.
Plus I didn’t have anything else to write at this time.
As the anniversary of that ill-fated Sox/Reds matchup reaches it’s centennial crescendo, this is an opportune time to point you to an excellent new work by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), appropriately titled Eight Myths Out. This project was orchestrated and edited by SABR’s Director of Editorial Content, and the foremost Black Sox historian, Jacob Pomrenke.
Most casual fans who know anything of the 1919 World Series instantly cite, or quote from the film Eight Men Out – a good one, yes – but largely untrue and unsubstantiated.
In fact, the film and book are mostly glossed over malarkey.
Pomrenke brings this fantastic research project to life with fascinating and newly uncovered facts that debunk virtually everything you thought you knew about that infamous Chicago White Sox team.
As with nearly every aspect of the infamous scandal, most facts uncover even more questions, which ironically mimics the confusion of the original events themselves. Nobody truly knows what happened during that fateful autumn 100 years ago, and probably never will. Research will be ongoing and more light shed on each facet, but Eight Myths Out has established a new foundation, a stronger starting point to uncover the truth than any other over the last century has.
Anyone who has ever held a shred of interest in the 1919 White Sox story won’t want to miss this.
The World Series. The Super Bowl. The Daytona 500.
Every major sport has its own seminal event(s).
On July 2, 1989, the Walker Wiffleball League, still in its infancy, featured its own monumental contest:
The Ultimate Uncles vs. The Nuclear Nephews.
It was an epic game that addressed challenges from both sides head-on and cemented bragging rights for decades to come. The scene was buzzing. An electric atmosphere on the grounds of what would become Hank Gathers Memorial Stadium was theretofore unheard of in wiffleball – highlighted by a live performance of our national anthem, two beer commercials, stunning video production, and shit-talking galore.
In this comprehensive, uncensored 30th Anniversary recap, we will take a close look at the game itself along with input and anecdotes directly from those who participated in the glory of that July day.
A couple years back, we visited with Chris Walker, founder of the WWL (you can view that interview here), to talk about his highly organized 3 on 3 league that featured an authentic mini-stadium, full recordkeeping, night games, and bold player nicknames like ‘Doobie” and “Buttpick” among others.
Although the league was just getting started in 1989, many felt that it needed a special event to really commemorate and celebrate the simplistic joys of wiffleball and summertime.
And settle some scores.
Rumblings of such a game were rampant for over a year, before the gauntlet was officially thrown down and agreed upon. Details are little sketchy, but the actual deal may have been struck during a family Christmas gathering in 1988. (Whether or not the discussion about the game stemmed from a certain gag-gifted toilet plunger is debatable to this day.)
“It may have been brought about at a recent family engagement,” recalls Nuclear Nephews outfielder Shawn Trusty. “It was mutually agreed upon and the Fourth of July seemed the perfect fit.”
Teams were then chosen, and the stage was set for the game as part of the upcoming Fourth of July Weekend festivities.
Ultimate Uncles vs. Nuclear Nephews: The Game
The Ultimate Uncles consisted of a grizzly mix of veteran talent. Trickster twirler William “Rollie” Walker took the bump, flanked by fleetfooted outfielders Larry Walker and Shoeless Paul “Thor” Mackey.
The younger, piss and vinegar-filled Nuclear Nephews, never ones to miss an opportunity to make a statement, countered as an elite trio. The Trusty brothers – Brian and Shawn – along with league founder Chris Walker comprised a team chock full of speed, power, and attitude.
Ok let’s face it. They were being dicks.
A perfect summer day greeted the attendees at the David Avenue grounds. As the holiday festivities that included a cookout, swimming and beer drinking gave way to an afternoon haze, the game was set to start. Opening ceremonies commenced, as Rollie Walker thrilled the throng with a stirring, Hendrix-esque rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Rollin and Rose Walker each threw out ceremonial first pitches, and the teams were ready to square off – save for a preordained delay whilst the Nephews cockily dashed off to the clubhouse to don their faux-Boston Red Sox uniforms.
Umpire John Trusty and cameraman/commentator Bruce Darin, himself a legendary third baseman in his day, rounded out the gameday crew.
The ground rules were explained well ahead of time, but it didn’t take long for some tempers to flare over misunderstandings regarding the provided statutes.
Umpire Trusty wasn’t about to deal with any quibbling over the rules, though.
Prior to first pitch he loudly and proudly delivered his simple edict (which was also printed on the back of his shirt): “When the ump says you’re out, you’re fucking OUT!”
“I didn’t want any questions or bullshit. I would rather have sat around and drank beers all day but fuck it.” John Trusty said.
Starting pitcher for the Nuclear Nephews, Brian Trusty, was incensed from the jump.
“I hated the way the Uncles ignored the rules, even though we gave them copies hours before the game,” he said.
Rumors that the physical copies of the rules given to the Uncles were defiantly used as kindling for the grill went largely unsubstantiated, but it nonetheless seemed to fuel a different fire – that of the game.
As the game began, it was clear that any ignorance or breaking of the rules wouldn’t matter. The Nephews set the tone early and exploded for seven runs in the first inning. Rollie Walker struggled to get outs, as the three-pronged attack from the Nephews was just too heavy. His effort ended after four innings, surrendering 18 earned runs on 19 hits.
Facing a large 18-2 deficit, it seemed the Uncles were doomed. Defensive struggles added to their uphill battle, despite the perceived outfield prowess of the L. Walker-Mackey duo.
Like the hull in Red Beckman’s boat, there were just too many holes.
Yet somehow, the light turned on and the Ultimates began to stage a furious charge.
Either their beer was getting warm, or they started to figure Brian Trusty’s pitches out, but the Uncles roared back with four runs in the fifth and five more in the sixth. Led by Mackey’s seven home run, eleven RBI barrage, (often one-handed, with a koozie’d Bud Light occupying the other), the score was now an interesting 23-11 heading to the seventh. In WWL games, even a 12-run lead was never safe.
The Uncles had officially boarded the comeback train.
“Uncle Paul was a great softball player in his day. He had a swing that generated a lot of power. His softball abilities transferred to the wiffleball field and he hit some bombs!” Shawn Trusty recounts.
Southpaw Larry Walker, on in relief for the Uncles since the fifth, had his struggles but kept the game from getting too far out of reach for the time being. The Nephews’ bats came back to life in the bottom of the seventh however, putting a five-spot on the board to once again establish comfort with a 28-11 lead.
Trusty’s day on the hill ended after 7.2 innings, having surrendered 21 hits and 12 runs. Chris Walker took the mound for the final 1.2 innings and completely shut down the Uncles; his unique submarine delivery an utter bafflement to the weary and buzzed veteran squad.
The late surge ended, and the miraculous comeback attempt was squeezed.
When the final out was recorded, the Nuclear Nephews were the 28-13 victors.
Fast-forward thirty years, and with some effort, we were able to gather an esteemed panel comprised of those who made this game happen – the players and officials.
In this special no-holds-barred, tell-all segment, sparks fly.
Alright, let’s cut the shit. How did the idea for this game really come about?
Chris Walker: My memory is fucked but we played 27 games of wiffleball in ’88 where we kept stats, so the league was operating by then. I really don’t know who is responsible for this, but I definitely would like to thank them because the fact that we did it and have video to document it is almost as cool as feeding squirrels.
Shawn Trusty: I don’t recall. It might’ve been brought about at a recent family engagement. Christmas probably.
Rollie Walker: We were challenged.
What was the process for team selection?
Shawn: Team representation was agreed upon quickly. 3 on 3 was the standard.
Chris: My guess is my dad and Uncle Larry were automatic because of the Walker name and they needed a third. Uncle Paul was the best player available. I suppose we could’ve let them bat four or five by adding Uncle John and Uncle Bruce and we could’ve had Angela and Kevin play on our team, but that was never discussed.
Rollie: We were challenged and just picked the team. You can’t have four against three, and it was at my house, so I was going to play!
Nephews – what was your strategy going into this game?
Shawn: We knew we were the better team and it was just a matter of us playing ball. The only chance the Uncles had is if one of us got injured.
Chris: Brian took it seriously and so the rest of us followed suit.
Shawn: I was and still am a very competitive person. When I’m in the midst of an athletic competition, I compete physically and verbally.
Why the Boston Red Sox-inspired uniforms?
Shawn: We had to pick an AL team as each of us were fans of the Cubs or Cardinals and all hated the Mets. We decided on the Red Sox because of players we liked. The Cleveland Indians were also considered.
Brian Trusty: Our Red Sox jersey numbers were based on their outfield of Mike Greenwell (39: me), Ellis Burks (12: Chris) and Dwight Evans (24: Shawn).
How were the umpire and cameraman chosen?
Chris: I’d like to know that as well. Like I said, I’m hazy on this being 30 years ago and really just being a 17-year old wiseass at the time.
Shawn: The roles had to be filled and there were two logical spots for the remaining uncles who weren’t playing.
John Trusty: (Shrugs). I had to do what I had to do. So fuck it.
The gameday atmosphere was extravagant, complete with an incredible rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and not one but two beer commercials.
Chris: My dad always had something planned. How else would he have had the guitar, wig, and attire?
Brian: Grandpa [Rollin Walker] doing the Bob Uecker Miller Lite commercial was awesome.
Bruce Darin: Anything involving Pop that day was great.
Shawn: That might’ve been the 20th anniversary homage to Hendrix at Woodstock. Guitar supplied by the umpire. Grandpa impersonating Bob Uecker’s commercial was an awesome part of the day where he did his own thing, going way out into the field.
Rollie: It’s baseball so you got to have the Star-Spangled Banner to start a game. I just thought the Jimi Hendrix recording would be what I’d play. I had a wig and a guitar, so I improvised. Just acting goofy.
Rick Zelko’s “Miller Man” ad put Budweiser’s iconic “Bud Man” to shame, with him slamming a cold High Life and simply instructing viewers to go buy it.
Shawn: I like Rick and always have, and that commercial was hilarious. He was having a good time that day.
Chris: It was legendary and spontaneous which is Rick in a nutshell. I can watch that again and again (laughs).
Uncles – how did you plan to defend against the Nephews’ powerful bats, especially with a shoeless Paul Mackey roaming the outfield? Was that a hindrance at all?
Larry Walker: I tried to cover as much ground as possible. I was probably the speediest defender.
Paul Mackey: (Shrugs) I was faster than Larry because I was shoeless.
The Nephews started the game with a blistering seven-run first frame and never looked back. Talk about that initial assault.
Chris: We dominated. Those guys are fags (laughs.)
Shawn: Hard hit balls and aggressive baserunning were the keys.
Larry: Our outfield was speedy, but I didn’t expect the Nephews to come out with so much passion. Shit, I was just drinking beer at a picnic.
The Nephews plated runs in every inning but the eighth when Mackey came on in relief. Did you call off the dogs by then or was he legitimately fooling you?
Shawn: By that point he was feeling pretty good. We weren’t trying to slam more runs on the board. I’ll give Uncle Paul credit for that scoreless inning, but had he started the game, the final score wouldn’t have been any different.
Chris: No clue. He may have been mad because I was bragging about trying to buy Red’s boat.
Shoeless Paul did some serious swatting for the Uncles, with 7 of his 9 hits being home runs – many while holding a beer. What made him so tough to get out?
Brian: I could not get Uncle Paul out no matter what I threw him (laughs).
Paul: I was a tough out with my patented one beer/one-handed swing.
Chris: He had great shoeless footwork and the power became prodigious as the liquid gold continued to flow. He was a dominant softball player in those days too.
Paul: I was putting on a show for Bob Uecker in the front row (laughs).
Chris, you ended the game in relief with 1.2 innings pitched of no-hit, shutout ball, a rare feat in the WWL.
Chris: Basically, Uncle Paul was hammered by that time and my dad and Uncle Larry were probably tired and had just kind of given up. Everyone was ready to go eat potato salad.
Cameraman/commentator Bruce Darin had some salty takes throughout the game about both teams and the umpiring. What did that add to the narrative of this epic game?
Bruce: I mean, you have to have commentary to keep things interesting.
John: He did his job and I did mine. Fuck it.
Chris: It adds more than I think anyone realizes. It baffles me when I think of how it all happened but being unable to recall why it all happened that way, know what I mean? The commentator certainly wasn’t biased. Everyone was open game to his criticisms.
Shawn: The commentary was…weak. It reeked of a guy projecting his odd humor that was dripping with irony. But it was still great (laughs).
The comparison of Darin’s cinematography and gameday production to that of the legendary Arnie Harris was high praise.
Chris: Complete and utter bullshit, but it sounded good and funny at the time though (laughs). But he completed the job and I am extremely grateful that he was able to do it.
Bruce: I learned a lot from watching Cubs games on WGN in those days.
The commentator was also a big proponent of the squeeze play, which was an interesting idea given the short basepaths. Was that even allowed per league rules? Could strategy get as granular as regular baseball?
Bruce: I learned a lot from listening to Bob Uecker, too.
Shawn: Impossible for a squeeze play when all runners had to keep their foot on the base.
Chris: It would have to be a safety squeeze since you couldn’t run until contact was made. I think Doobie tried to squeeze in Buttpick from third once, but it was disallowed.
Why the hell wasn’t there ever a rematch?
Chris: I’ve always wondered why we didn’t do it (shrugs).
Shawn: Considering the shape we are in we’d probably lose a rematch.
Author’s note: I’d play this time.
Well, there it is folks. One tremendous ballgame many moons ago, and for three decades some of the goofy jabs have stuck around like a fart in a space suit. You may recall that Apollo Creed once told Rocky Balboa there wasn’t going to be a rematch.
But we all know how that turned out…
Special thanks to all who participated, and to Chris Walker for providing the official box score, and recent special edition interview content with William “Rollie” Walker, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHFX4yFOBjc
Our nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The Centennial Exposition, essentially the first World’s Fair, was held in Philadelphia, drawing as many as 10,000,000 visitors (1.)
The National League was officially formed. And in Chicago, a young lad named Herman “Germany” Schaefer was born to German immigrant parents.
Growing up on the city’s south side, Schaefer was drawn to baseball, where his fine defensive skills began to the draw attention of pro scouts by the time he was 18. After stints in semi-pro ball and upward through the Western League, he finally made his Major League debut in 1901 with the Chicago Cubs.
He would go on to become a valued player throughout his 15-year MLB career, playing with the Cubs, Detroit Tigers (where he was an important factor on two World Series-appearing teams in 1907 and 1908), Washington Senators and New York Yankees. He was a defensive wizard, with great range and hands that befitted a sharp baseball mind and brilliant sense of timing. He was a master of deception and grace, even successfully pulling off the hidden ball trick in the 1907 World Series.
But it wasn’t just his solid play that earned him notoriety in the big leagues; it was his antics. In short, Germany Schaefer was an absolute clown.
Some of his well-known goofy highlights include:
Wearing a raincoat and galoshes to the plate during a drizzle
Hiding and scaring a drunken umpire at a bar as a voice from above – only to be ejected from a game later by that umpire when he fessed up
Sporting a fake mustache to the plate, possibly in an attempt to re-enter a game, pretending to be another player
Homering off a fellow jester, Rube Waddell, only to carry his bat around the bases as if a rifle and pretend to “shoot” the pitcher repeatedly, with both men laughing at the skit
Changing his nickname from “Germany” to “Liberty” when World War I began
Additionally, Schaefer was an adept trash-talker and sign-taker. But perhaps his two greatest hits, were his called shot off Doc White in Chicago in 1906, and his stealing of first base in 1911.
On June 24, 1906, Schaefer and his Tigers were in Chicago to play the White Sox. Detroit was down 2-1 in the top of the 9th with a man on first and two outs. Detroit skipper Bill Armour inserted Schaefer to pinch-hit for pitcher Red Donahue. After storming back to the dugout, upset that he’d been taken out, Donahue watched as salt was poured into his wound by the stunt Schaefer pulled. What happened next is best, (if perhaps hyperbole’d), accounted for by Tigers outfielder Davy Jones, in Lawrence Ritter’s excellent The Glory of Their Times:
Just as he was about to get into the batter’s box, he removed his cap and faced the grandstand, bellowing “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at Herman Schaefer, better known as Herman the Great, acknowledged by one and all to be the greatest pinch hitter in the world. I am now going to hit the ball into the left field bleachers. Thank you.”
Much to the dismay of the chagrinning Chicago crowd, Schaefer blasted the second pitch from Doc White into the left field seats. Just like he said he would.
He stood there watching the ball, and after it left the yard, he sprinted to first and slid head first into the bag. He leaped up, yelling “Schaefer leads at the Quarter!” Then he took off and slid into second and yelled “Schaefer leads at the Half!” as if he were a prized race horse. He did the same thing at third and finally home, where he declared “Schaefer wins by a nose!” He walked over to the grandstand again, saying “Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention.”
In the Tigers dugout, every player was laughing so hard – except Donahue – that it was a chaotic scene (2.)
As the only one able to outdo himself, Schaefer would launch another gem in 1911, also against the White Sox. Only this one was so profound that it would prompt a rule change: He stole first base.
Schaefer had one of the best seasons of his career in 1911. The 35-year old hit .334 with an .809 OPS in 125 games. And on August 4th, he would change baseball. It was the bottom of the ninth in a scoreless tie at Griffith Stadium in Washington. Clyde Milan was on third, with Schaefer on first. He stole second, in an attempt to draw a throw to get Milan to break for home. Fred Payne, the Sox catcher, didn’t take the bait and now it was second and third.
On the next pitch, Schaefer led off in the other direction and broke for first, swiping the bag back and drawing confused looks from everyone.
Hugh Duffy, managing the Sox that year, came out to argue with the umpire. Since play hadn’t been officially stopped, Schaefer took off for second again, this time getting caught in the rundown that he originally wanted. But Milan was pegged at the plate, the plan having backfired. In typical Schaefer-esque comedy, he and his teammates tried to argue that it should’ve been a dead ball since the Sox had 10 men on the field when Duffy came out to protest the play (2.)
In the end, the Senators would win 1-0 in extra innings.
Needless to say, a few years later MLB introduced the rule that you could not steal a previous base once you advanced.
All things considered, Schaefer had a remarkable career. Though his statistics weren’t flashy (they were far from bad either), he provided immense worth to each team he played on. Not only for his defensive prowess and quick-thinking, but for the immeasurable intangibles in the forms of humor, wit, and silliness.
With 2019 marking the 100th year since the infamous Black Sox scandal, a lot of content is expected to be pushed out on the interwebs throughout the upcoming baseball season about the dark tale and bring up endless, unanswerable questions.
Hey, it’s a fantastic and fascinating debate, after all.
Inevitably, movies like Eight Men Out and of course, Field of Dreams will be discussed as well. While both are excellent in their own right, there are some inherent issues that come with book adaptations – largely the famous curse of being “Hollywooded up.” It happens. Eight Men Out is based on Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book that, while largely true, was even more largely unsubstantiated. A significant portion of that book and film in fact, is about as fictional as Field of Dreams. That film, based on W.P. Kinsella’s tremendous novel, Shoeless Joe, has been revered by millions since it’s release 30 years ago. As a diehard fan of both book and film, I’ve read and seen each countless times and neither ever tires. Obviously, many more people have seen the film than have read the book, however, and while I wish every fan of the film would read Shoeless Joe, one can still get a good enough grasp of things without – because the film is pretty amazing.
It’s a beautiful story, blending some fact with a lot of dreamscape fiction, outstanding performances from the cast and accompanied by a score from James Horner that was so impactful it was virtually a character itself. The movie follows the book rather closely (which is often a rarity in adaptations), with baseball of course being one of the central themes. But does that make it a pure “baseball movie?”
In my (probably unpopular) opinion, no.
At least not quite.
Yes, there are baseball scenes. And baseball players. And baseball dialogue throughout most of the movie. There is talk about baseball mere seconds into the prologue. Hell, James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann delivers a powerful speech about baseball that will never not be quoted by current and future generations. Despite the obvious and very central theme of baseball, it is not fully a baseball movie in the vein that others like Major League and it’s sequels, Bull Durham, The Natural or even Eight Men Out, were. Baseball, here, is just one of the many big themes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really a “baseball movie.” There are a lot of other things going on with the story that are just as, if not more vital. If you’ll expand your mind a bit, I’ll throw out a few reasons why:
It’s a movie about taking a leap of faith
Ray hears a voice, and while he technically misunderstands it at first, he believes so strongly in what it means that he takes immediate action. The Kinsellas were barely making a profit from their farm as it were, and to remove crucial acres of your main crop to build a baseball field would not be very wise. But Ray believed in the power of faith, and went ahead with his endeavor nonetheless. Annie did too, for she could have tried harder to talk him out of it (in the book she doesn’t talk him out of it whatsoever), but she, too, believed because Ray did. Ray actually took the message from the voice the wrong way, but he felt strongly enough in it’s direction to risk everything else.
It’s a movie about destiny
Each character has their own path, yet something out there is orchestrating it all to where they become intertwined. Ray’s destiny is to reconcile with his father, help others find their way and create a slice of Heaven on earth for others to partake in. Terence Mann’s destiny (no, he didn’t die when he disappeared into the cornfield) is to experience something so profound it will ignite his passion to write and influence others again. Shoeless Joe and his seven teammates were granted their heavenly wish to resume playing ball. Even Mark, depicted as the bad guy, is really just being the practical anti-Ray out of love for his sister and keeping her livelihood intact.
The truest depiction of destiny at work in the film falls with Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. When Ray inexplicably finds himself in 1972 and meets the aging Dr. Graham, he is told that his biggest wish was to get an at-bat in a big league game, hopefully knocking a triple after winking at the pitcher. When Ray later picks up the ghost of a young Archie Graham hitchhiking his way through the Midwest, he believes it’s an obvious solution to Graham’s plight. Things fall right into place as Archie plays a game that very night at the Field, and hits a (metaphorical as we’ll see) sacrifice fly.
The next day, Graham is in the lineup again, but races off the field to rescue Ray’s daughter Karin who fell from the bleachers and was choking on a hot dog. After saving her, Ray realizes that Archie cannot return to the field to keep playing. He had literally and metaphorically crossed over into who he was supposed to be. The hesitation by Archie to take that last step, and later reassuring Ray that it was perfectly OK that he can’t return, implies that Archie knew his destiny all along – to be a doctor, not a ballplayer. Archie’s character theme, when applied to his own path, was sacrifice. He first sacrificed continuing pursuit of his baseball dream to become a doctor. He later sacrificed his second chance at it to save Karin by way of that profession. (Remember that SAC fly he hit? It fits now, doesn’t it?) With that final selfless act, he was able to help fulfill Karin’s immediate destiny, which was to come up with an idea to keep the Field and her family’s land.
Side note: Sadly, it is not known if Archie Graham ever got to play a full game. If his SAC fly was his only plate appearance the night he arrived at the Field (he could’ve been pinch hitting or was pulled before his next time up), and if he crossed over to save Karin before batting the next day, then he still never technically got his official big league at-bat. Though he did at least get one appearance at the dish, plus his wink at the pitcher, so perhaps that was good enough for him.
It’s a movie about second chances
The eight White Sox players, and many others, get to play ball again. Moonlight Graham gets his plate appearance and pitcher wink. Terence Mann will return to writing. Ray and John get another shot at their relationship – this is the arguably the whole point of the film. The Japanese poster (famous for spoilers) for the movie nailed the plot, describing the movie as being about a man on a quest to meet with the ghost of his father. What all storylines in the movie boil down to, is really just that. Ray hears three messages from the voice and he incorrectly assumes them to be about Shoeless Joe, Terence Mann and Moonlight Graham, in that order. While he was able to positively affect each person, and was probably supposed to, all three messages were actually intended to be about his father.
At the end of the film, we of course see the emotional reunion of Ray and John. Baseball was just the means to that end. It was the one thing the two of them had in common, and the one thing that reunited them. All other characters got their second chances with baseball being the catalyst – but not the focal point – and it’s important to know the difference.
Nitpicking to the Nth degree
OK, OK, OK, I just can’t help this. Humor me for a minute. I’m the first one to say that in most films, especially this one, you have to suspend your disbelief and just flow with it. 30 years later this movie wouldn’t be so provocative and debatable if you didn’t. But if it were a true baseball movie, some details would have been cleared up and others expanded upon. Bear with me…
The real Moonlight Graham played his half inning in 1905. In the movie it was 1922. Insignificant detail, but still. Later in the movie you see what looks like a few Philadelphia Athletics players on the field, only their uniforms have green sleeves and socks. When the A’s were in Philly their colors were white and blue; they didn’t adopt the green until they moved to Kansas City in 1954. I suppose those could’ve been minor league or other non-MLB players though.
Eddie Cicotte yells at Chick Gandil, saying if he hustled more he “would have won 20 games that year”, which Gandil retorts was 68 years ago. The season he’d be referring to then was 1920, where Cicotte actually won 21 games, and Gandil didn’t even play in because he had retired. In the same conversation, Gandil horribly mispronounces Eddie Cicotte’s name, calling him “Chi-coa-tee” instead of the correct “Sea-cott.”
If this was a movie intended to be squarely about baseball, then you might think little details like this would be smoothed out, more historical players mentioned, and more intricate scenes of the game itself shown to appease the purists of the game.
Alas, while baseball is obviously and profoundly present throughout the movie, there is a lot more involved than just that. Let’s also not forget that the movie is based on a wonderful novel, in which even more elements and themes are present. Baseball in Field of Dreams is a huge backdrop, but not the full picture.
Admittedly, there is not really a wrong answer. It’s all how you see it.
This year’s World Series will mark the 100th anniversary of the famed Black Sox scandal, in which eight (really six) members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The ’19 Sox were considered by some to be one of the best teams of all time, at least of the deadball era, and heavy favorites to win the nine-game series over the Reds.
The rest is history.
Exceedingly gray history, that is.
The eight accused members of the Sox were officially banned from baseball in 1921, and ever since, countless investigations and unending research have been conducted to try and determine what really happened that fateful October a century ago. Eight Men Out, the famous 1963 book by Eliot Asinof (and the resulting 1988 film by John Sayles), once considered gospel, has been largely discredited as more thorough facts have been uncovered over the years. The book and film, while both entertaining and well done, paint a broad, and often unsubstantiated, stroke of the story. By comparison, and grandly accepted by historians and researchers, Gene Carney’s 2006 book, Burying the Black Sox, is a far more authoritative and factual piece than Asinof’s effort could ever claim to be.
Some believe that the entire series was fixed from the start. Others ascertain that after the players did not receive their promised money somewhere around the third or fourth game, they began to try to win. Yet others still would say that one of the chief tragedies (among many) in that series, is that proper credit has never been given to the Reds for being a great team – or for simply beating the White Sox.
The truth, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in the middle. In any event, there is much evidence to show that the Cincinnati Reds were no fluke, and very well could have been better than the mighty White Sox.
Cincinnati took the National League pennant with a sterling record of 96-44. They were a balanced team with an excellent infield and consistent, if not spectacular, starting pitching. The odds were highly in Chicago’s favor prior to the start of the series, before evening out before Game 1 due to rumors of the fix. It’s important to remember that in that era, fixing games and betting on baseball were nothing new, with rumors of such foul play surrounding virtually every big game. Several players had already been banned by 1919 for such acts as well, so some precedent was there.
While statistics don’t always tell the full story, especially in baseball, the Reds and White Sox draw some very interesting comparisons in several categories.
As a team, the Sox were better hitters than the Reds and their star power gave them the edge in terms of prestige. Despite the fact that very star power contributed to the team being divided and despising one another, they carried three Hall of Fame players on the roster in catcher Ray Schalk, second baseman Eddie Collins and pitcher Red Faber. That number could’ve been as high as eight, however, if the ban didn’t happen. Shoeless Joe Jackson was a lock, an argument could’ve been made for Eddie Cicotte, and if career trajectories stayed course, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch and Lefty Williams may have entered the discussion too. The Reds meanwhile had just one future Hall of Famer on their club, outfielder Edd Rousch, but even without the vanity and splendor, they were a hungry, well-rounded club.
American League teams had won eight of the previous nine World Series’, including the White Sox in 1917, so that likely added to their reputation of superiority which gave folks the impression that they may have been better than they really were.
One of the biggest keys heading into the series of course was the starting pitching – advantage to the Reds here. They were able to attack the Sox with a strong five-man barrage of Dutch Ruether, Slim Sallee, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring and Hod Eller. Having a healthy and consistent five-man rotation is pretty crucial in a best-of-nine in any era. On the season, the Reds staff cached a team ERA of 2.23, compared to the Sox’ 3.04. Furthermore, while the Reds had a full rotation, the Sox had to rely on Cicotte and Williams to carry the burden, with each man making three starts in the series. Faber was injured and unavailable, which had a significant impact on this series and isn’t often mentioned. Had he been able to go, the complexion of the whole rotation changes instantly. Instead, young Dickie Kerr, theretofore a bit unproven in big games, despite having a strong regular season, had to step up big time. He did just that, winning two games and keeping the Sox in it, but it wasn’t enough. The fact that Cicotte and Williams were in on the fix notwithstanding, Cincinnati had more, better, and rested arms.
Defensively, the Reds were better than the White Sox. On the season, Cincinnati had fewer errors and a higher fielding percentage than their Chi-town counterparts. Additionally, the Reds compiled 23 shutouts to the White Sox’ 14. This easily can be attributed to a combination of both great pitching and defense. While the Sox certainly had both, they often relied on their ‘big inning’ offense to bail them out of many games. The Reds on the other hand made evident the time-honored belief that good pitching beats good hitting…most of the time. Advantage Reds here, too.
Heading down the pennant stretch into the series, the Reds were also the hotter and hungrier team. They went 47-16 in the second half compared to the Sox’ 40-26 mark, and only lost twice in September vs. the other pennant chasers (Giants, Cubs, Pirates). The Sox meanwhile, were just .500 in that same month vs. the Yankees, Indians and Tigers, who were competing for the American League flag. Season-long against the top contending teams in their league, Cincinnati wound up 38-22, whereas the White Sox went 35-25 in their version. The Reds took the National League pennant by 9 full games over the New York Giants, while the White Sox won the American League by 3 1/2 games over the Detroit Tigers.
The snapshot of what this means is that the Reds played better against the best teams in the NL than the White Sox did against the best in the AL. They showcased better pitching and defense throughout the year, and had a full staff of capable arms at their disposal in October.
As mentioned earlier however, the stats don’t always tell the full story. This is where intangibles come in, and the White Sox clearly had much worse to deal with than the Reds. In fact, the Sox had long been destroying themselves, well before the gamblers’ influence in fixing the series became the gas thrown on the proverbial fire.
What makes deciphering the scandal such a mess (100 years later or not), was that it was a mess in itself at the time. Nobody will ever know the real truth because, as has been reported, even the players themselves didn’t fully know what was going on. It was always unclear who was really trying and who wasn’t, and who was double-crossing who. That level of uncertainty alone would presumably cast major mental anguish on a ballplayer. Not to mention the constant barrage of questions from teammates, manager Kid Gleason, owner Charles Comiskey, reporters and fans, which must have added to the clubhouse distractions.
Individually, the clean Sox players, plus guys like Jackson and Weaver, who were grouped in on the fix but their excellent play indicates they were trying to win, must have gone through hell trying to play while not knowing their teammates’ intentions. This gives rise to the belief in a case of the Sox beating themselves, though that does not discredit Cincinnati’s efforts.
The Reds had to deal with none of this internal strife, by comparison. They just had to go and play their own game, and, as heavy underdogs, really had nothing to lose. These things alone could conceivably lighten the challenge.
Questions of course will always remain. Did the Reds catch the Sox at the worst possible time as they were tearing themselves apart from within? Or were they simply the better team?
The truth, again, is probably somewhere in the middle.
No matter what, the Reds of 1919 were no slouch, and that should not be forgotten.
Photo credit: Original photographer: Unknown Jam22smith [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
If some Cubs fans considered the 2017 season to be disappointing, then, by comparison, 2018 was an unmitigated disaster.
It certainly feels that way mere hours after a disappointing 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card game, but it’s not really like that. Or is it? Yes, there were plenty of injuries to deal with. Yes, there were 42 games in 43 days to close the season. Yes, they were tired. (Newsflash: All teams are tired by the end of September.) The simple fact remains that the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire in the final weeks, and the better team won the division. With the St. Louis Cardinals also having an excellent stretch run, the Cubs played like a 3rd place team in the last month, going 17-13 in their final 30 games. Although that seems decent enough with a sizable division lead like they had entering the month, each loss proved crucial with those two teams hot on the heels. Still, 95 wins and a trip to the postseason despite major issues first with the rotation, later with the bullpen, and throughout the season with the lineup, shouldn’t necessarily be something to bemoan. And yet the eye test all year was at best mercurial and at worst, awful.
So what went wrong?
Typically, most fans wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) gripe too much about a 95-win campaign that had their team as the best in the National League for the majority of the season and make the playoffs. Unless of course, expectations are so high that anything other than a division title and deep postseason run feels like failure. Such is now the state of the Cubs and their fans. Did the players just fail to execute? Were there poor coaching decisions made? Are some of these guys just not what they were expected to be? Did the league adjust? All the above, perhaps. But while the lack of a sustained power run had the Cubs and their fans feeling stuck like a duck in a pen, the issues that led to this quick playoff exit more or less began last year.
0 for the offseason
Winning the offseason seems kind of cool when you’re slated to dominate, but it doesn’t always translate to success. Pitching was addressed last winter by Theo Epstein & Co. in a big way but the moves as a whole failed monumentally. Closer Brandon Morrow was a risk to take on given his injury history, and overuse of him in the second half by Joe Maddon compounded the chances for a problem. Sure enough, what started as elbow pain led to a season-ending shutdown. Yu Darvish was the big splash for the Cubs, but he was awful from the get-go before, aptly, a season-ending injury. Tyler Chatwood was a flier taken by the front office and despite having promising stuff, was even worse than Darvish. Although the team seemed to win games he pitched, he had an amazing inability to throw strikes with any consistency whatsoever. If Chatwood was attempting a pre-spectacles Rick Vaughn impersonation, he nailed it something fierce. The big moves made by the front office in the offseason backfired, no question. (The acquisitions of Cole Hamels and Daniel Murphy later on however, were excellent. But that’s another story.)
That’s how many (39 in the regular season) games the Cubs scored 0 or 1 run. That’s just about every fourth game. That number put them second in MLB, just one behind the hapless Baltimore Orioles who had 40. Now for a team with a powerful, well-rounded and deep lineup, this simply shouldn’t happen. The Cubs still managed to finish 4th in runs scored in the NL, but the biggest dents came before the All-Star break when starting pitching was erratic. After the break, there was a noticeable downslide in production that didn’t level off when the starting pitching got dialed in. They were always fighting a level of disparity there. Nobody expected this hitting crisis though, and yet here it is. Injuries again played a part, as Kris Bryant missed significant time and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward among others all spent time on the DL at different parts of the season as well. Hey, it happens. But that still doesn’t explain scoring just two runs in the final 22 innings of the season – at home – in crucial games. Not to mention very sporadic run production all throughout September, including splitting a key four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates when they may has well have went to the plate batless during the first two games.
Changes should at least be coming somewhere in the lineup for 2019. With the exception of a major jump from Javy Baez that put him in MVP consideration, the only consistency was found in Rizzo and 37-year old Ben Zobrist who eclipsed the .300 mark for the first time in his solid career. Heyward and Albert Almora were real good in stretches, but not sustained. Willson Conteras fell off massively in the second half. Daniel Murphy was outstanding when he first joined the club in August before going largely silent in the final couple weeks. There are plenty of adjustments to be made there. Murphy is not likely to be back in ’19, and it may very well be time to move on from some others despite their upside. The twist here is figuring out how to navigate the roster with regard to the checkbook, as entering 2018 the 25-man roster was essentially locked up for the next three years.
As for the staff, that’s another issue altogether. In addition to “Panic Joe’s” (Maddon’s questionable in-game alter-ego) strange tactical style, he also added Jim Hickey and Chili Davis during the offseason to handle the pitching and hitting duties, respectively. The latter of whom is under scrutiny after an offensive season, especially on the vital stretch run, that left a lot to be desired.
“As an offense we need to mature a little more and develop a little more,” Rizzo said. “At times we did this year as a unit. And at times, not so much.”
In the end, the players must execute. But some things are open to further inspection. The offensive struggles, even if indirectly related to Davis’ tutelage, point to another debatable move by Maddon. Coupled with his celebrity manager status and occasional disagreements with Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the usage of his bullpen (which directly led to key injuries), not all may be coming up roses in the clubhouse.
Yet the Cubs wasted little time today announcing that Maddon would return in 2019, the final year of his contract. While quelling any speculation before it got out of hand, this still sets up two subtexts for next season: If the team starts out hot and wins consistently, they’re “playing for Joe.” If they struggle early on, then “Joe must’ve lost the clubhouse. Fire him.” This may or may not affect the simple desire to just play baseball, but it’s worth noting.
In some ways, even despite arguably the best managerial job of his Cubs tenure through most of the season, Joe is further under the microscope than ever before. Should Epstein have let him go, it would not have been unprecedented: The Red Sox, Yankees and Nationals all replaced their managers after making the postseason last year. All the credit in the world can – and should – be given to Maddon for transforming the clubhouse culture and being the ideal ringleader for the new Cubs regime. But it’d be fairly easy to opine that the buck stops there with him. It might be equally easy to draw comparisons to other iconic Chicago coaches who were great with personnel but less so at actual coaching, contributing to a degree of perceived underachievement (see: Mike Ditka). Maybe the $6M on his contract for his final year matters, or maybe Epstein & Co. want to play this second window out with as much common ground as possible. Maybe both.
In any event, some things are due to change, perhaps significantly for 2019.
On a side note, the 2017 and 2018 seasons just go to show how abnormally perfect the 2016 season was for the Cubs in terms of health, production, pitching and defense. It all came together that year in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen. Perhaps that’s why the bar is raised to such a skewed level. But I digress.
Even more so than after the 2017 season, the 2018 winter should be very interesting in Cubland.
“I figure I might be able to find it on a night like this when the moon turns everything silver, and the evergreen trees look like they’re covered in tinsel.”
W.P. Kinsella, The Valley of the Schmoon
October 1, 1970 was a sad night.
Not sad in a truly horrible, end-of-the-world sort of way, but in the way you feel when selling a beloved car or moving out of your childhood home. The way it reminds you of a cherished memory, happy and yet tragic at the same time.
You see, that day was the final game at Connie Mack Stadium, better known as Shibe Park to those of us who grew up nearby lovingly remember it.
Boy, that final game sure was a classic. Even though for the past 15 seasons it was no longer our beloved Athletics on the field, we still cherished every inning played at the ‘ol yard. We had all secretly hoped the game would last extra innings, just to drag out the inevitable end just a bit longer – and it did! When the 10th inning began, for just a second it felt like the game, and the stadium, might last forever. Even after Oscar Gamble’s single drove in Tim McCarver to give the Phillies a 2-1 victory, the echoes didn’t dissipate for what seemed like hours. The looting afterward was not surprising, and even with all that chaos and people running out of the park with everything they could carry – seats, bricks, buckets of dirt and grass, it was still a bit funny to us to see someone running off with…a toilet.
A beat up old toilet with green paint splashed on the tank.
When the four of us – myself and my childhood friends Charlie, Donnie and Slim – saw this shameless toilet thief, none of us said a word. We just shot a smirk at each other and then proceeded to unbolt seats of our own, the same seats we had occupied for over 40 years, since we first started going to watch the Philadelphia Athletics as kids in the late 1920’s. We were all bummed when the A’s moved to Kansas City at the end of ’54, but we continued to go to Shibe anyway. Not because we were huge fans of the hapless Phillies who’d moved in by then, but we were in love with the ballpark itself. It’s history. It’s feeling. It’s meaning. For it meant something to us, it truly did. That final night reminded me of the first time we visited, or rather broke into, Shibe.
Like most neighborhood kids, we grew up loving baseball and loyally following the A’s. If you lived just a few blocks away you were probably a Phillies fan but where we lived, it was the A’s or nobody. Connie Mack was a God and Shibe Park was his Church. No matter where we were out playing in those summers, our paths always seemed to lead us to the ballpark, like an unseen magnetic force. None of us had attended a real game there yet, but we would always be nearby anyway, soaking up the atmosphere. The iconic four-story tower behind home plate at the corner of Lehigh and 21st, where we knew Mack’s office sat at the pinnacle, was the most important landmark to every eight-year old kid in the area. Sure, we would traipse the few blocks over to the Baker Bowl to see what the Phillies were up to on rare occasion, but it didn’t compare to the vibe at Shibe whatsoever.
One of those summer days in ‘25, Slim earned his nickname, and we earned our stripes.
The A’s were on a western road trip (really the Midwest since no team existed further west of St. Louis in those days), so the neighborhood was quiet and largely empty. We were doing our usual thing, hanging around the park, when Slim, aka Mikey Donatelli, noticed that behind the wooden right field wall near where it joined to the first base grandstands, were some damaged boards. A gap. To the four of us, looking through that hole in the wall out at the empty seats and the vast sea of emerald green grass was like peering through a rip in the veil that separates the earth from heaven. As we noticed there were no security guards nearby, we desperately wanted to get inside the park. Not to mess with or take anything – of course not – but just to experience it firsthand. The problem was, the gap was just too small for us to fit through. Except of course, for Mikey.
We hatched a brilliant plan for him to wiggle through the opening and sprint, hugging the grandstands to minimize his profile, to the first base side concourse and let us in one of the locked grandstand doors. It was almost too easy, even to our youthful minds.
To our amazement, the nefarious scheme worked like a charm. As Mikey slid through the gate and made a beeline to the concourse, we decided his nickname was to be changed from “Teapot” to “Slim.” Nobody really knew where “Teapot” came from anyway, though it was suspected it was given to him by an Aunt after some sort of kitchen mishap. But that’s not important right now. When the door on the 21st street side opened to us, the feeling of euphoria was nearly too much to handle. Instead of doing what most kids would do in that situation – go on the field and run the bases, sit in the dugouts, venture down the tunnel to the clubhouse and secret passages under the stadium – we simply sat. We walked halfway up the third base line, picked four random seats and just sat. And revered. And kept quiet. We were mesmerized.
Before we knew it, nearly an hour had gone by and we didn’t feel too guilty or even apologetic when the good-natured security guard shooed us back out the very door we entered from. Nor were we surprised when our secret gap in the fence was repaired the very next day. But we had accomplished something, we felt, that not only elevated us to grand status in the neighborhood but cemented in us a pure love for a piece of architecture that wouldn’t dissipate. In fact, two years later after much begging and negotiating, all our families agreed to purchase four season tickets, in those very four specific seats. Good thing we did, then, because times got pretty tough a couple years later.
As we were being ushered toward the door, Charlie O’Toole, the quietest of our group despite being part of a boisterous Irish-Italian family was walking several paces behind the rest of us when he spied something. The door to a small storage room at the bottom of the rotunda was left open. Peeking inside, Charlie noticed among the clutter a few buckets of used baseballs in the room. Never one to miss out on a souvenir, he pocketed four of them, one for each of us, to mark the occasion. I still have mine today, and I assume the other guys do too. I often stare at it while it’s perched in its case, along with lots of other A’s memorabilia, and next to the seat I left Shibe with that night. It’s impossible to know the true story of each ball of course, but I think it’s better that way. To me, I believed my ball was once in play, right there on the majestic Shibe Park field, and used by the game’s greats. It was once, perhaps more than once, slugged by Babe Ruth. It was a would-be triple robbed by Tris Speaker. It was slung by Walter Johnson and gracefully fielded by Eddie Collins. I’ll always believe all the above are true when I look at the ball that Charlie confiscated for me. Along with the seat, holding on to pieces of Shibe allow her to exist even though she’s gone.
The storage room, Charlie said, also served as a small bathroom. As he pocketed the baseballs, the splashes of green paint he noticed all over the toilet wouldn’t seem significant to us for another 45 years.