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Baseball legends, going, going...gone?
1 of the great things about baseball is, if it’s a good story, it’s OK if it isn’t true. Like when Shoeless Joe Jackson emerged from the courthouse after testifying to a grand jury regarding the 1919 World Series fix, which implicated Jackson and would lead to his lifetime banishment from the game. An urchin tugged on Jackson’s sleeve and when Jackson looked down, the urchin, looking up, spoke the words that have endured in baseball legend, for nearly 100 years:
"Say it ain’t so, Joe."
Jackson walked away without responding and always claimed afterward it never happened.
Charlie Root claimed the same thing, regarding the Babe’s called shot in the 1932 World Series. The words were the same but while Jackson spoke them with sadness, for Charley, it was with indignation. Charlie maintained until the day he died it never happened and can you argue with a man who was just 60 feet, 6 inches away from the Babe when the Babe maybe pointed to the centerfield bleachers with his bat? Well, you can if you’re a Supreme Court justice.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was a 12 year old boy there at Wrigley Field for Game 3 of the 1932 World Series and Judge Stevens says yes, the Babe did in fact point to centerfield with his bat, just before he deposited a 450 homer out there. 450 feet. The Babe always did things in a big way and maybe pointing to centerfield with a bat doesn’t mean you’re intending to hit the ball out there but get into an argument over it with a man who’s career, whose entire lifetime, has been spent arguing, and you’ll probably lose.
And how about Casey Stengel and the bird?
Casey was a Brooklyn Dodger before he got traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and the first time he returned to Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, in a Pirate’s uniform and knowing the fans would razz him, the wily Stengel sequestered a sparrow beneath his ball cap. Casey stepped to the plate and with the crowd getting on him pretty good, Casey doffed his cap and out flew the bird, to the delight of the folks, who cheered wildly, never mind they’d just got the bird from an opponent.
Casey may have seemed clownish but he had a world of smarts. Not only was he 1 of the most successful managers in the history of baseball, he was 1 of the first men to sink his money into oil wells and he had the good sense to invest in a company that came along touting a new wonder drug - penicillin, all of which made Casey a very rich man
Casey had a run of success like no other baseball manager. From 1949 to 1960, his Yankees won 10 American League pennants and 7 World Series, including 5 in a row, something no other team, or manager, has ever accomplished.
Alas for Casey, if his Yankees were the most successful dynasty in baseball history, his Mets, 1962-65, weren’t so good. They were dreadful cellar dwellers and Casey, who had to somewhat hide his, uh, gregariousness with the corporate-like Yankees, didn’t feel the same restraint with the Mets. Anything to entertain the folks, and Casey did it with antics and with enough quotes to fill a book, quotes that may have seemed redundant on the surface but actually underneath said something profound. Or at least sensible.
And as wretched as Casey’s Mets were, they at least allowed Casey to be himself.
Sometimes Casey was funny without intending it.
Like the time he was snoozing in the dugout during a ball game and there came a roar from the crowd that woke him up just in time to see 1 of his players circling the bases and the outfielders chasing the ball in the alley. The player, and I won’t mention his name, OK, it was Marv Throneberry, arrived safely at third with an apparent triple. Safe, that is, until the second baseman walked over to second and stepped on the bag and appealed and the umpire called Marv out for missing the base. Casey went onto the field and kicked some dirt on the umpire and berated him and the umpire from first came over and told Casey to save his breath, the runner missed first too.
Casey was flummoxed, but not for very long.
"Well," he said, "you can’t tell me he missed third. He’s standing on it!"
Did it really happen? Does it matter? Maybe not to Marv, who didn’t, like Jackson and Charley Root, claim otherwise.
And speaking of unfortunate base running, how about Dazzy Vance, huh? With a name like that and a teammate of Casey’s long before Casey’s association with the Yankees or the Mets, Dazzy must have been a clown too, right? Well, Dazzy was a bit of a flake, and a darn good pitcher, good enough to make the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he had the misfortune of being involved in a freakish play that has become a baseball legend, and not in a flattering way, and let me see can I get this straight, it’s kind of confusing -
First and second, and the batter hits a long ball. The runner from first comes around second base and he’s heading for third and the third base coach yells at him to go back to second, since the runner from second, Dazzy, thinking the ball might be caught, had got a late start and was just a short way ahead of the runner from first. The runner from first doesn’t hear the coach and keeps going but ol’ Dazzy, just getting around third and hearing the coach yelling for someone to stop and thinking it’s meant for him, puts on the brakes and retreats to the bag. Now there’s 2 men standing on third. Or lying there in the dirt, if, as it was reported, both men slid into the bag, simultaneously and from different directions.
The third man, the fellow who'd hit the ball to get the whole thing going, is running with his head down and imagine his chagrin when he arrives at third and sees 2 of his teammates waiting there for him. 3 men on a single bag, not quite how Alexander Cartwright diagramed it, and the third baseman was having a good old time, just tagging everybody, and it could have been the easiest, as well as the weirdest unassisted triple play in baseball history except Dazzy wasn't out. He was standing on third and according to the rules of baseball, it was his bag. And besides, there was already 1 out.
If Dazzy and Casey and Marv were funny without intending it, such was not the case with Al Schacht. Al had just 3 years as a big league player before becoming a coach. It was while coaching third that Schack developed the comedy routines that would make him famous, make him "the Clown Prince of Baseball." Schack did some pretty hilarious comedy routines with another coach, Nicky Altrock and wouldn’t you know it, the 2 men despised 1 another. They didn’t speak for years, but that didn’t stop them from doing their routines, mostly pantomime, including a re-enactment of the Dempsey-Tunney championship boxing match, a re-enactment that was maybe more than pantomime. For decades after his coaching days were over, Al would entertain folks at ball games, and in his restaurant too, and for the troops overseas in World War II.
You look around today and it seems the characters have all gone away. Today's game is about proficiency; some very skilled automatons have pushed out the goofballs and that's too bad.