Tag Archives: baseball

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

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Strat-o-Matic: my chronic illness

No, it’s not as bad as diabetes. It only now and then costs me too much money for too little product which, even then, delivers me enjoyment out of proportion to the dollars spent. It’s probably not classified as an addiction, mainly because I can go for years without engaging in it. But it’s always still there waiting for the next outbreak cycle, like malaria or elective politics. I prefer to think of it as a chronic disorder.

The 1970s: a time when baseball cards were toys, not investments. The era in which kids read comic books rather than investing in them. The era in which we thought American government could not possibly get more corrupt or evil than the Nixon administration.

Even our adults had naive, childish notions, didn’t they?

Then again, in those days loaded open-end mutual funds were taken seriously as investments by persons who could do arithmetic.

In those days, if you lived in an isolated place, the Sears, Ward, and Penney catalogues were your nearest approximation to something like Amazon. Companies seeking kids’ money had to advertise where the kids were looking, and that meant comic books. The most common ads:

  • An offer to get catalog rewards by selling seeds. “Send no money…we trust you!”
  • Sets of cheap plastic toy soldiers in some theme: Revolutionary, Roman, modern, etc.
  • “Sea monkeys,” essentially brine shrimp, which in the flesh didn’t look much like the joyful anthropomorphic nudists in the ad.
  • BB Guns. I try to explain this to kids today, and they don’t believe me: we had BB gun wars. No aiming high–you could blind someone.
  • The Charles Atlas transformation exercise manual (I think it was a book), with the proverbial nerd getting sand kicked in his face and girls rejecting him until he kicked some ass.
  • Strat-o-Matic Baseball.

I have no idea what they marketed to the girls, but I’m sure it was sexist. Back then, life was sexist.

When I first saw the SOM ads, circa about 1972-73, I had no idea how the game could back up its brag. All major league teams, with players who played significant time, performing realistically? Before that, my sports simulation mind had involved spinners and kiddie games. Still, $10 (or whatever it was they wanted) was a hell of a lot of money, almost a couple months’ allowance. It would buy a lot of baseball cards and comic books, known quantities of enjoyment. I didn’t go for it. You couldn’t be too careful; you knew most of these ads were a load of bullshit.

We moved, and before he became a mortal enemy, I got to know the neighbor kid as sort of a friend. He had Strat-o-Matic, the 1971 season. Turned out it was completely legit: every player got a card, reflecting his performance. Half the results came from pitchers’ cards, half from batters’ cards, so that would average out. Sophisticated stuff, big-boy sports gaming. I absorbed the homebrew pen-and-paper scorekeeping method that I would desire to use (but not even dream of trying) when I would one day be an official scorer for a local baseball league. I had to have my own game, of course, and in 1975 I sprang for the current (1974) set. A few years later, my enemy sold me his 1971 cards for a song, one of the few times I got the best of him.

I didn’t buy or need any more annual card sets in my youth. I attempted ill-fated season replays with statkeeping, a ludicrous proposition with pen and paper solitaire. Even though I never even came close to finishing one, it kept me somewhat sane through seven years of hell. Between D&D, Strat, and books, I avoided doing all the retributory things that were morally justified but would be life-limiting.

Come the 1980s, I escaped to college, and my chronic SOM pattern continued: remission, outbreak, remission, outbreak. Remissions lasted a year or two. Then I graduated, and I had real money and was independent of my parents, and could buy whatever the hell I felt like. I bought the then-current cards, 1986. They still looked just like what I’d known as a kid: comforting, clean, often irregularly cut, black on white with blue on white reverses (the reverses were for if you were playing with the lefty/righty rules).

Here my memory gets a bit hazy, but sometime around 1990, Strat came out with a computer version of its baseball game. Adult time is different from kid time: even with my Atari ST and a pirated spreadsheet program to calculate batting averages and ERAs, it just wasn’t practical to replay whole seasons with the cards and dice. I lived in Seattle, worked six days a week, spent thirteen hours per day working or commuting, slept maybe seven hours a night, leaving four hours each day to call my own. When the computer version matured a bit, I bought a copy. I had assumed there would be Great Evolutions.

Nah.

I came to realize a thing about SOM, a mighty strength and crippling weakness all at once: it was hopelessly, comically, defiantly retro. When SOM wanted to make computer games, it hired a programmer. Not multiple programmers; a programmer. He’s still working there, same guy, all this time. Unfortunately, the game reflected a user interface only a programmer could love, but I had learned that was what happened when one let programmers design the UI. In the programming mind, if there is a way to do it and it doesn’t crash, that’s good enough; on to the next issue. In spite of an amazingly clunky setup relative to other computer games, I still enjoyed SOM’s computer baseball. I could replay past seasons and let the game record the stats. It had zero arcade quality, but arcade games were for the insufficiently hardcore.

The boardgame finally did away with a deck of twenty numbered cards, in favor of a twenty-sided die à la D&D, about twenty years after D&D came out. I marvel that they got around to acknowledging the Internet before 2000. Just. Barely. Before. 2000. But they did, fair’s fair. They liked it a lot better when it gave them a better form of copy protection, and Strat is all about the copy protection.

Came the CD-ROM era, and several years into it–when the CD-ROM had since became the norm on all DOS/Windows PCs, SOM breathlessly announced its great innovation: CD-ROM Baseball! It was sort of like being the last car company to market a hybrid vehicle, and making it sound as if they’d invented the concept. Now, this was a spendy game. If you didn’t want the cards as well, it cost about fifty bucks a year, two-thirds that if you kept upgrading every year. Past season disks cost about $20 each. Want modern color ballparks? That’ll be another $20. Want past season ballparks? Another $20, please. Buy both of those plus three past seasons, and you’d lay down $100.

About this time, SOM changed the cards’ basic look. Reverses got blue and red sides for the handedness. Ink on the front went a horrible dull navy blue, harder to read and uglier than a clutch of bigoted facial expressions. No more mis-cut cards–they came in sheets of nine, and you had to separate them yourself, though at least they were all the same size. I looked at these cards and realized my days of wanting new physical cards were over. These weren’t SOM cards, at least not for me. The ones I liked, they no longer would make.

How’s that for comedy? For once the ultra-conservative, change-resistant company makes a legitimate change, and now I don’t like that either? Honestly, I’d have been fine had the fronts stayed the same. As a kid, I’d only played with the fronts anyway.

I settled into a pattern that continues to this day. Every few years I’d miss SOM, and spend some money for a new copy of the game. As the Internet came along, SOM developed very stiff copy protection, requiring your machine to contact their server and authenticate the program and any features in use. I’d have to relearn the clunkiness of the whole UI all over again, at least for starting new seasons, but I would bull through to relearn it. Now and then something would go wrong, and I learned that what one did was write a real letter to Mr. Hal Richman, owner and founder of the company. I always received a fair resolution. SOM is old school in every way, including the potential to write politely to the top person and make one’s case.

Must I even mention that they’re still in the same building as ever on Lon Gisland? Don’t laugh. Every year, when the new cards come out, there are people who go to Glen Head, NY and freeze their butts off waiting in line for Opening Day–the day they can pick up their cawd awhdahs.

And yet for years, and I think still to this day, Strat refuses to fix its weaknesses, or to get with the times. The guy working shipping seems indifferent. They charge by the minute for phone tech support. You can email for tech support, but I didn’t get any answers either time. Worst of all, since seasons are installed from the current version’s CD or from the website, a legitimately purchased past season may become incompatible with the current game. That may force one to purchase that season again. Which may then force one to update the game, in spite of the cold reality that the annual updates deliver less value for the dollar than one can find outside Microsoft (where updates provide negative value and thus the company should actually pay users to accept them). The UI has only minimally evolved in all this quarter century. They were lauding the “VGA Ballparks” as a big deal long after VGA became a bare minimal display standard. If you hate change for the sake of change, fair is fair: SOM is your kind of outfit. It may teach you to ask yourself how much you really do hate change for the sake of change.

And I do. I’m change-averse enough that some of what I’m presenting, which sounds to most people like faults, comforts me. At least with SOM, when I have to relearn everything after a few years off, the everything I must relearn will probably not have changed much; it’s my memory that is the weak point. Far as I know, the arcade action is still limited to watching the flight of a ball in one of several designated azimuths/trajectories tailored to the ballpark image in use. If there is a company in this world that is not going to fix what is not broken (except for that horrible blue ink; that’s broken), it’s Strat-o-Matic.

I’ve still never had a no-hitter, never had anyone hit for the cycle. I read recaps of big tournaments where they talk how so-and-so threw a no-no and such-and-so hit for the cycle. Guaranteed one of each per recap, it seems. I don’t believe them. Never have. What do they take me for? Someone fudged, that’s what I think. It’s a shibboleth, but I don’t much care. What are they going to do?

So here we are, and after all these years I’m still experiencing the chronic condition that is Strat-o-Matic. In a couple of months, it’ll go into remission. By the next acute outbreak, I’ll have a new computer, which will mean I didn’t formally recall the authorization from my old one, which will mean I have to write to them and beg to have my codes reset, which will mean that by the time I install it, some of my past seasons will no longer work because they’ve updated them, which will mean I’ll be annoyed, which may or may not mean I decide to repurchase them, and which will at least shorten my outbreak because it’ll irritate me. Solely because it reminds me of youthful joy, with SOM I tolerate obstacles that would make me dismiss nearly any other company.

The core people at the company have been the same for so long that it’s hard to imagine life without them. Hal Richman must be 80. Everyone else has to be at least looking at retirement sometime in the reasonable future. And yet they’ve brought on some very worthy help. Glenn Guzzo, a fan as long as I have been and a really nice fellow, is working there now. So is Chris Rosen, a longtime secondary market vendor of SOM stuff, great reputation. One supposes that eventually the firm will pass into their hands, and that one day I’ll have my outbreak and find that the company has begun to evolve at a swifter pace than metamorphic rock formations. Both are historic innovators who got things done. I can see them doing that at Strat.

I had an attack earlier this morning, but it’s under control now. It’ll probably hit again this afternoon. I’m replaying the 1956 season as the Boston Red Sox, because I wanted to find out how hard it would be to manage a team whose shortstop (Don Buddin) couldn’t field, bunt, or hit in the clutch, and without one single legit pitching ace. The answer: it’s frustrating, especially when we lose to the Kansas City A’s, but I’m at least seeing what they went through, experiencing a variant of baseball history.

This is without question the most anomalous vendor relationship in my world. Forty years in.

Passing knowledge on, Baja Canada, and eating a bag of Dick’s

Now and then I take an authentic business trip, defined as travel that can without question be construed as related to my work. I am allowed to enjoy them, though, and I did this one. On Friday I headed north from Portland toward the forests south and east of Tacoma to visit a couple of my favorite clients: Shawn Inmon and Heidi Ennis.

Heidi recently released her first book, a nuanced and well-researched Native American historical fiction tale set just before 1800. I liked everything about working with her. She is a homeschool mom with a background in education, and her daughter and son are outstanding young people. Walking past the Latin declensions on the whiteboard headed toward her kitchen, I can see why. I love history, and any time children are interested in history and reading, I become a teacher on the spot. We had lunch, then spent several pleasant hours in questions and answers. Had it been feasible, I’d gladly have stayed longer.

I spent most of the weekend with Shawn, who owes his success to a combination of work ethic and willingness to market. Marketing is a problem for authors (and not a few editors, ahem). To market well, you have to be ham enough to enjoy taking the stage, and you must not be embarrassed to stand up and announce an event or a giveaway or a new release. I would have a hard time doing that because I would find it mortifying to put myself out there that way in the assumption that anyone should care. Good marketers do it without the slightest embarrassment, and if Shawn thought that the best way to market his work was to base jump naked off Columbia Tower, he’d probably do it. (I may regret giving him that idea. Well, actually, he kind of prompted it himself, though not in quite that form.)

After a very pleasant dinner out with Shawn and Dawn, we spent the rest of the evening chez Inmon talking about his current projects and some issues we must overcome. In short, there are a couple of situations in the story that we can agree need to occur, but we cannot determine how to make them flow naturally. I’m a big opponent of ‘showing the strings;’ I consider contrivance to be a bad odor, and it emanates from so much self-published fiction. We are still working this through.

The next day, Dawn had a prior commitment, but Shawn had planned for he and I to attend a Mariners game at ‘The Safe.’ That’s a good name for a stadium with a big sliding roof that can close over the top of it, which I consider an engineering marvel. The Blue Jays were in town, so I knew to expect a veritable Hoserama. Yes, the Canadians outnumbered the USians, as they had the last time I’d seen a Jays@Mariners game. (It had been a while. I had watched it in the Kingdome, which was imploded quite some years back.) I hate the company who sponsors the Ms’ field, so I will not use their name, but The Safe is a very nice place to watch a game and I’d never been there. It felt a bit like a hockey game, with the playing of both national anthems (everyone stands up for both).

Our section of Baja Canada was just in the trajectory of sharp foul balls or bat fragments from a right-handed hitter, close enough to the first base line to discern facial expressions. Most of those in royal blue were drunk but not on their lips, and behaved very well. Props to the eh-team. As we were choking away the bottom of the ninth, I got some laughs by asking if we could pull our goalie.

Afterward, Shawn wanted to take me to lunch/early dinner. We’d originally planned to visit an old Cap Hill favorite, but to our general shock it was closed up tight. As an alternative, Shawn suggested we stop at Dick’s Drive-In. Dick’s is a Seattle staple of many years, well loved by many and with a reputation as a good place to work. Shawn told me about a homeless person whom he had once seen sitting on the sidewalk near the restaurant. “He had a sign that said HELP ME FILL MY MOUTH WITH DICK’S.”

“That’s great. Did you give him any money?”

“Definitely, I gave him a buck.”

“Good man. That deserves a buck at least.”

I hadn’t been to Dick’s in some time, and it was better than I’d remembered. After inspecting the bags to find out whose Dick’s belonged to whom, we sat down to eat in companionable festivity. A lot of people hang around Dick’s, some of whom are even there to have dinner. We spent the drive back southward working on plot issues. We have not yet solved them, but it was a good brainstorming session.

Normally, of course, the client would not be taking the vendor out to such an involved event, but this will tell you a lot about Shawn’s ethical standards. He has written some stories that went into charity anthologies. I edited them, but resisted his efforts to press payment upon me (duh). This arose out of him contacting me to notify me that he was planning to include those stories in some for-profit work, and that he therefore needed to pay me. I wasn’t interested in money, though I respected his punctilious honesty about the situation. He had already invited me to come up and visit, and attend a Mariners game with him, so he proposed to pay for my ticket. That worked out to a lot more than I’d have charged for the editing, but one can hardly say no to such a kind offer, and all senses of right action were thus satisfied all around.

I came home this morning very happy to see my wife again, but with the afterglow of a fine weekend’s business travel. Thanks to all my hosts for their warm welcomes. The best part of my work is the client relationships, and this weekend was a good example of why.

Mistaken for Santa

An armpit-length beard has a way of drawing attention and comment. Some of the discussion is interesting and promotes conversation (“what motivated you to grow it?”) and some of it is high-water-pants dumb and tiresome (“how long you been growing that?”), but the choice to own this facial hair requires some patient acceptance of reactions from strangers. I have heard it described as ‘scruffy’ (that’s uncomplimentary) and ‘kingly’ (that’s pretty nice; thanks, Marcy).

The beard confers the benefit of starting me on at least neutral terms with any big shaggy/bikery/Vietnamy guy, some of whom have potential to be dangerous if offended, so I like that part. One downside is that some women, incredibly, think they can just reach in and play with it, or want to braid it and otherwise diddle around with it. Not enamored of that part. I never know what sort of reaction it’ll bring. The kids on my last baseball team immediately nicknamed me “ZZ” as well as “Badger” and “Scrap Iron,” all of which fit perfectly, except that I had to look up ZZ Top to find out why. I knew they were a Southern band, but that was it.

It wouldn’t be strange to mistake me for Santa Claus, or at least a younger version. When I describe myself to people, I usually explain that I look like Santa in his dissolute middle age. I get shoutouts from mall Santas at the holidays, and near-constant stares from wide-eyed children (whose parents should correct this discourtesy, but there’s nothing I can do…as a boy I was told to stop, and would have been spanked had I kept it up), so it’d be hard to be unaware of the resemblance. But in my baseball uniform?

Before I tore up my knee, I was an amateur baseball player with minimal talent but significant hustle and combative spirit. When my knees could take it, I loved to catch in spite of my mediocre arm to second base. I liked handling pitchers, wearing the gear, and quarterbacking the infield. I even liked catching the knuckleball, which I also threw during my rare mound appearances. Few catchers like catching the knuck. I gained great amusement watching the batter try to follow it.

One fine July Saturday afternoon in my late thirties, I had just caught a full game at Roy Johnson Field in Kennewick. If you have never done time behind the dish, you may not be aware of the filthiness involved. The mercury exceeded 100° F. Most home plate areas are full of powdery dirt called ‘moon dust,’ which clings to all moisture. Soaked with sweat, and squatting down frequently amid clouds of moon dust for nearly three hours plus batting and baserunning, I was disgusting. I always refused to wear the skullcap. The catcher’s correct gear involves wearing your regular baseball cap backward as the gods intended, and doesn’t include a helmet, so my cap was also gross from the frequent need to toss aside the mask. I wore a royal blue jersey and cap, grey pants, and beige dust which had turned to tan salty mud on the numerous sweaty spots. Each cleated shoe contained its own miniature sand dune. I didn’t need a shower; I needed hosing off.

I’d gathered up all the gear (I assume that we lost, as was our custom) and was leaving the field. My knees ached, and heavy bags of gear hung from my shoulders: one for my regular equipment, and one for the Tools of Intelligence, as the catcher’s gear ought to be called. As I walked behind the backstop toward the parking area, two pleasant-looking African American girls aged maybe seven and five blocked my path. They gazed up at me in wonder, even adoration. Kennewick has a very small black population, less than 2%*; it is 1/4 Hispanic, by comparison. If I had spent my morning coffee time imagining “stuff I expect will happen to me today,” “be adored by young African American girls in my filthy, smelly baseball uniform” would not have made the list. I assumed the kids must be related to the opposing shortstop, a good guy named Taylor who gave us fits as a fielder, hitter and baserunner. With him being the only black player present on either team, this wasn’t a reckless presumption.

I stopped, looked down and smiled. On rare occasions, little kids would ask for autographs, having no idea how insignificant we were in the grand scheme of the game. Not this time. The older girl began with “I want…” and started reciting her Christmas list.

I don’t remember what all she asked for, but most of it didn’t sound too exorbitant. The pony might have been a little over the top, but I doubt I was the first ‘Santa’ who ever fielded a girl’s request for an horse. When she finished, the younger gal took her turn.

Since I wasn’t in my ideal mental frame of mind thanks to aches, fatigue and disgustingness, I was glad it took them a while to finish telling me what they wanted. It gave me time to decide how to react. I decided to play along, with a sidelong wink at their adult relatives wearing amused smiles in the nearby third-base bleachers. When very tired (or drunk), I tend to drawl. “Okay. Well, a couple of things for ya. First of all, please make sure y’also tell your parents, because Ah’m kinda off duty and tired, and don’t have anything to write with, and my memory isn’t what it once was. Also, remember that in order to even have a chance at any of this stuff, you need to be real good for the rest of the year, and mind your parents. Especially no going cattiewhompus in the restaurant. Everyone understand?” Both nodded, still gazing up in wonder. “Good to meet you young ladies. You have a good day now,” I finished. I don’t remember the rest of their reactions, but it was probably the big moment of their day.

Nothing more came of it, though I had a chance to talk with Taylor about it a few weeks later, either before or after another game. They were his nieces. Evidently the incident had amused everyone, which gratified me because any time I’m taken by surprise and manage not to say anything dumb, I count it as a win. In hindsight, it amuses me too. Those girls must be near adult womanhood now, and I wonder how they’re doing. Well, I hope.

If they never got all the stuff on their list, I hope they forgave me.

===========

* Thanks to Kennewick’s deeply racist history as a sundown town, with racially restrictive covenants still technically on the books (albeit unenforceable, and in fairness, it’s unlikely anyone would try to enforce them), few black people choose to live in Kennewick. Same for nearby Richland, which was a different type of sundown town: with the whole townsite run by Westinghouse, one had to work there to live there. By hiring very few African Americans, segregation was de facto if not de jure. Most of the black population of the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco) lives in Pasco. Many older black Pasconians much dislike Kennewick to this day, and I can’t blame them.

Not that race mattered here; I just resent Kennewick’s efforts to shovel its odious past under the rug, and have made a decision to remind the city of it online every excuse I get until some official acknowledgement is forthcoming, ideally in the form of an exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Museum. Perhaps they thought me moving to Idaho would make me stop this. Nah. All that has done is put me beyond retaliation. If they can put an exhibit in the museum about the Asatru Folk Assembly’s claim that Kennewick Man (ancient bones found along the Columbia) might have been a proto-Viking, piously stating that they respect all viewpoints on the issue, they can find a photo of the sign on the old green bridge to Pasco that said something like ‘All Blacks Must Be Out By Sunset,’ and talk about those years honestly. The civic spirit of Kennewick is ‘stuff it into the closet until all the eyewitnesses die out.’ To quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”

By the way, any live witnesses to those sordid days are welcome to get in touch and tell me their stories, that they may be recorded. I offer you any terms of confidentiality you wish, and consideration that the memories not be pleasant to recall. If you are younger but have older relatives who remember, it would be a service to history if you could persuade them to speak with me. Memories do not last forever. You may contact me as tc_vitki at yahoo dot com.

Doubled off second on an infield fly

In my thirties and early forties, I played adult baseball. Most of the people I played with were younger than me, which made it challenging, but for the most part I had a great time. Well, except for the torn cartilage, and the ruptured achilles, and a few other bummers. There were two comebacks, sort of similar to Jim Bouton’s career. I even learned to throw a knuckleball, as did Bouton, and in my last go-round wore his #56 as well.

You can’t play very much baseball for very long without seeing some humorous situations on and off the field. There was the time Frenchy, desperate for a toilet at Bellevue CC (which didn’t even have sani-cans), climbed atop a stack of old tires and had a particularly disappointing bowel movement in them. The league almost got kicked off using BCC’s field. There was Riggs, an old fellow and a great baseball mind who looked a little bit like Burleigh Grimes, especially when his face got all red and he complained to umpires. We would all be in the dugout making the Riggs complaint face and laughing. There was the time I got my very first print credit in a book, and told my team at practice. A couple of them spat sunflower seeds or chew, and I think one muttered, “Will it help you hit a good curveball?” They didn’t care. This was a baseball dugout.

One funny story had a tragic coda, and I wouldn’t have laughed about it in the same way for years had I known. When I was on the Rattlers in my early forties, we had a kid named Andy Hyde. Andy was one of those unpredictable loose cannons, and was not especially popular. He had a way of saying things that stung, making petty complaints, ignoring direction. He once tailgated me most of the way home on his motorcycle, so close that I had to resist the temptation to tap the brakes. One time I was watching July 4 fireworks with our catcher, Josh Langlois, and some of his friends. As we were walking back, we saw someone on a motorcycle being arrested. It was Andy; for what offense, I never learned.

Andy resisted base coaching. I don’t mean that he listened, then did something else. I mean that he yelled at you to shut up, complaining that he couldn’t run the bases and listen to a base coach at the same time. Well, in baseball, you kind of have to accept some coaching. Now, in case you aren’t familiar with the rule, in baseball there’s an infield fly rule. If there are less than two out with a force play at third base, and the batter pops up a fair ball in the infield, an umpire bellows: “Infield fly! Batter’s out!” It doesn’t matter whether anyone catches the ball; the batter is out. No runners are forced. If someone does catch the ball, however, the runners may tag up and advance at their peril, just as with any caught fly ball. (If they let it drop, the runners don’t have to tag up.)

One day I was coaching third base, with someone on first and Andy on second. Thus, if our batter popped up in the infield, this rule would apply. In such a case, the runners should hold if a fielder even looks like he might catch the ball. Sure enough, our hitter popped one up to second. The umpire called the infield fly rule–but Andy had taken off for third base on contact. He got 3/4 of the way to third base before finally paying attention to my very colorful exhortations to return to second. While a speedy base runner, not even most major leaguers could have come that far and then gotten back to second in time. Their second baseman made the catch, flipped it to the shortstop covering second base. Andy was out by at least five feet. Double play! It was one of the dumbest plays I’d ever seen. Perhaps the very dumbest.

Andy didn’t stay with the Rattlers that long, and we didn’t hear much about him after that. A few years later, our self-adopted daughter called with some very sad news. Not too far from her home in Burbank, late at night, Andy had driven his car up to a fenced transformer. He’d scaled the fence, climbed over the inclined barbed wire at the top, walked over and grabbed the transformer. As I recall, she wasn’t the one who had found him, and gods be thanked for that. There was no other plausible explanation except suicide.

I hadn’t really considered Andy a friend, but I felt someone from the league should be at his funeral. I wore my jersey. I learned that he had been a star athlete in school, but had battled mental problems in young adulthood. He heard voices, did erratic things, perceived dangers that didn’t actually exist. He had gone into the Navy, and it had worsened his condition to the point where they discharged him. For years he had struggled to see the world with basic clarity, hold some form of employment, and avoid letting his demons lead him into trouble. As for whether he climbed into the transformer intent on suicide, or simply perceived it as something other than thousands of volts of live current, that we can’t ever know. We didn’t know the world his mind knew. His family grieved him, though years of trying to help him had worn on them. He had been just functional enough to get himself into serious predicaments, without the clarity to extricate himself. Nice family, compassionate people; one could not watch and hear them without feeling some of their pain.

In a way, it’s still funny, simply because of the preternatural dumbness of getting doubled up on a play where all one has to do is stay put. But it’s more unfunny than funny, because now I know why he couldn’t listen to base coaches. They were just more voices adding to his clamor. He lived in a world of pain and fear and confusion, one none of us could see.

I guess sometimes we only later come to grasp the rest of the story. What it has meant to me, I guess, is that I should generally try to hold a part of my judgment back. There may be another 2/3 of the story I never knew.

Surfacing from a sea of Tracewskis, Podgajnys and Gedeons

It has been a bit since I posted, and that’s because I have taken on a project which should soon appear elsewhere in the blog. Some years, back, a very capable writer and researcher named Tony Salin authored a book about forgotten baseball personalities. Almost as a throw-in, he included an appendix listing pronunciations (many coming from associates of the persons in question) for oft-mispronounced baseball figures’ names. It was great work, original research, and I’d long wanted to expand on it.

One may not, of course, misappropriate others’ work. One must address intellectual property rights, and this may not be done after the fact. Thus, once I made the decision to proceed, I contacted The Baseball Reliquary to ask if they knew who owned rights to Salin’s work (the man himself being now very sadly deceased). The response was swift and encouraging: TBR owned those rights, and would gladly grant me permission to use Salin’s compilation as my starting point. Thus, in my blog time for the past several days, I have been trying to figure out how players like Chris Cannizzaro and Kiki Cuyler pronounced their names.

It isn’t that easy. Of course, if the player himself is alive, and I can find a Youtube where he says his own name, that’s authoritative. Sometimes I can find a relative or descendant, which is the next best thing. Other information may come from ballplayers who were contemporaries. Last would be media and fans, who often think they know but do not–but I’d rather have that input than nothing.

It should soon be ready to go live (it’ll be linked under ‘About Me, and My Work’), a proud moment for me as the main holdup is twofold. I must conquer some HTML foibles, and I would rather root for the Yankees than mess directly with HTML code. Also, I do not feel right releasing it until I have added enough of my own discoveries and knowledge that the page goes significantly beyond what Tony Salin pioneered.

I harbor the hope that once the baseball nostalgia community learns of it, they’ll help me fill in some gaps. I would have fewer gaps, but until I was about 34, I did not have the ability to watch baseball games on TV, so I actually never heard many names articulated except by those with whom I traded baseball cards. I believe it will be a fun long-term project, and I thank the regular readership for its patience with my non-blogginess of late. No, I’m not losing interest; just got a lot on my plate here and in real life.

Diamond lightning: James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell

Today in 1991, Cool Papa Bell passed away. What remained was a legacy as one of the most storied players in the game’s history.

Cool Papa Bell with the KC Monarchs. Credit to the Mississippi Historical Society.

James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi. You may imagine that environment and time for a part-Indian, mostly black child. He went to live in St. Louis in his teens, mostly so he could go to school. Wasn’t long before his athletic ability began to shine, starting in sandlot ball and working up to semi-pro play–always in all-black teams, of course, the legacy of that old Iowan bigot Cap Anson’s setting of the color bar in ‘major league’ baseball. (It was not always present. It was established. Given more decent human beings in the game, it might not have been.)

Cool Papa began as a pitcher and got his nickname that way, calmly fanning the famous Oscar Charleston in the clutch. Most pitchers who hurt their throwing arms, as Bell did, are done with baseball. Not Cool Papa Bell; the injury might have been the best thing that could happen to him. He taught himself to switch-hit, which is not easy to do well past the early teens, and began taking advantage of the one thing he did better than hit a baseball.

Cool Papa Bell could flat-out run. Like nobody’s business. In a game where speed meant a lot, and where many good players could pour it on, his brand of velocity, audacity and baserunning savvy stood above others.

Even if half the stories about his speed are fiction–which is debatable–the other half would certify him one of the speediest baserunners of all time. He played for the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays (the most famous among many other Negro League* teams) from 1922-1946. No, I didn’t botch that dating. He retired from playing baseball at 43, an age where the only major leaguers still playing are junkball or knuckleball pitchers (or today, aging DHs). Negro League statistics are at times incomplete, but according to the records we have, his career average was .341. Against white teams in exhibition games, he hit .391. If you are familiar with baseball, that tells you plenty. If you aren’t, those numbers by themselves are automatic Hall of Fame stuff, no screwing around, first ballot solid lock. Those are Cobblike numbers, except that Ty Cobb would have eaten Cool Papa’s dust in a race. Cobb, flaming racist and overall jerk that he was, would have hated and deserved that snack.

Baseball enthusiasts will spot the obvious relationship between Cool Papa’s baserunning speed and his batting average. But that’s how it is: many great hitters would have had less success but for their speed: Carew, Garr, Henderson, Collins, both Griffeys. The problem defending against Cool Papa Bell was that he would reach first base safely on infield grounders, even when cleanly fielded. This is abnormal. On any sharply-hit, well-fielded infield grounder (they used to retire me even if the fielder bobbled the thing; in fact, he could stop to take a chew and still throw me out), the defense is supposed to put the batter out. Didn’t work that way with Cool Papa. He was like a fuse burning toward explosive charges, causing everyone to hurry just because. This must surely have created many runs simply because of the need for haste and the possibility he might do something impossible. Had he played his full career in the white major leagues, he might well have put up the sorts of numbers that can’t be surpassed, on the level of Cy Young’s 511 pitching wins.

Let’s get to the stories and quotes, already, since those are the best part. I can’t say whether they are all true, though some might not be. Hardly matters. Their collective existence tells us what his contemporaries thought of Cool Papa Bell’s speed.

  • He once stole 175 bases in under 200 games–a pace exceeding that of the greatest base thieves of all time: Brock, Wills, Henderson, Cobb.
  • One teammate said, “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket.”
  • When he would hit the ball back to the pitcher, the infield would urge the hurler to hurry. Normally, the pitcher has all week to throw out the batter.
  • In an exhibition game against white major leaguers, he once scored from first base on a bunt. The bunter? None other than Satchel Paige, the only Negro Leaguer of whom more great stories are told than Cool Papa Bell.
  • He was once clocked rounding the bases in twelve seconds. That’s 120 yards–but track sprinters get to run straight. Cool Papa did it making the necessary three 90º turns. A bit of basic math and physics here will tell you how frighteningly fast this man was: very few even today can run 120 yards in 12 seconds going straight ahead.
  • It is said he once scored from second–on a sacrifice fly. Could be done, especially if the outfielder’s arm wasn’t anything to celebrate. Against a Clemente or a Furillo? Probably not, but against an average left fielder, possible.
  • It is also said he once stole two bases on one pitch. Possible due to sheer shock and daring, coupled with a real good jump and a right-handed pitcher with a motion that didn’t much discourage base stealing.
  • Satchel Paige loved to tell the story of Bell hitting the ball through the mound up the middle, then being called out because the batted ball hit Bell in the butt. That one might be a stretch, but it deserves credit for entertainment.
  • Evidently the story about Cool Papa turning out the lights and getting into bed before it got dark is based on an amusing fluke. The motel room light didn’t go off immediately due to a short, so he just reconciled himself to sleeping with the light on. It winked off after he got into bed.
  • Paige said in his book, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever: “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
  • Bell, speaking for himself: “I remember one game I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they forgot to bring the scorebook to the game that day.”
  • And: “They used to say, ‘If we find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”
  • And: “They say I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”

The white major leagues’ integration came too late for Cool Papa Bell, though he did decline an offer from the Browns. A warm and unselfish gentleman with a charming, ready smile, Cool Papa Bell remained a well-liked figure around baseball for years after his playing days ended. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. This day he is twenty-two years gone, but his legend will live as long as baseball is played. Anyone steeped in the game’s history knows the name and its fame.

Here’s to Cool Papa Bell, who enriched the game just by participating.

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* For non-students of the game, ‘Negro League’ is the correct proper noun, and not considered demeaning. It conjures names of great ballplayers, of whom Bell, Charleston and Paige were among the most famed.

Special thanks to Donald M. Holman, a renaissance man with a fantastic photographic eye, for some cultural guidance. This post is better for his thoughts. You can enjoy samples of his work, and inquire about purchases, at Images by Holman.