RIP

RIP Joe Morgan

A stunning autumn of terrible baseball news, lowlighted by the passing of Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford, just got worse. Joe Morgan has died at age 77.

Morgan is best remembered as the sparkplug for Cincinnati’s unstoppable Big Red Machine, which won back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976 behind Morgan’s back-to-back National League MVP Awards. He was small (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) but strong, hitting 289 homers while stealing 689 bases over a 22-year career. Remarkably, Morgan’s reputation was cemented prior to the time when on-base percentage was truly appreciated, even though that was a key part of his offensive game. Morgan batted better than .300 only twice in his career, but topped 100 walks eight times and led the league in OBP four times. To judge by Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, Morgan’s 1975 season was among the 20 best campaigns of any player ever, at any position.

Speaking personally, growing up as a Giants fan in the early 1980s, I got to see up close what a guy like Morgan could do for a foundering ballclub. The Giants of the late 1970s, when I achieved baseball consciousness, were more or less terrible until Morgan joined the team as a free agent in 1981. This was awesome for 11-year-old me; I’d been imitating his back-arm batting-stance flap for years, and was excited to see it in orange and black.

In 1982, his second season in San Francisco, Morgan kept the Giants in contention until the schedule’s final week. They wouldn’t win, of course, because back then the Giants never won. For me, Morgan’s lasting impact came on the season’s final day. I wrote about the moment just last week for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club.  

The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is among the best in sports, but from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s it was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Dodgers were a much better team, frequently in the playoffs and occasionally winning it all, while the Giants seemed to be perpetually in fifth place.

Really, all we Giants fans had was beating the Dodgers, and even that did not go well. In 1980, The Sporting News ran an entire feature about the Giants having won only 15 of 60 against LA to that point since Tommy Lasorda took over as Dodgers manager in 1977. Willie McCovey once said that he’d rather lose to a college team than to the Dodgers. One can only imagine his particular anguish.

Then came ’82. Even after the Giants dropped out of the race, they were in prime position to affect the outcome. The Dodgers, battling Atlanta for the division title, closed their season with three games at Candlestick Park. We Giants fans were ready to play spoiler.

So what happened? The Dodgers roared into town and won the first two games by a combined score of 19-2. That put everything into play for the season’s final day, when, with the Braves losing to San Diego, the Dodgers needed one more victory to force a divisional tie.  

I was 12 years old, at the stadium with my father, sitting in the grandstand along the left field line. I remember how packed Candlestick was—a rare occurrence for a stadium used to hosting fewer than 10,000 fans at a time—and how the energy was downright palpable. It was my first real taste of meaningful baseball, even though, win or lose, San Francisco’s season would end that day.

Giants starter Bill Laskey, wrapping up his rookie campaign, gamely matched Fernando Valenzuela into the sixth, each pitcher giving up a pair of runs. (Even then, the teams’ methods of scoring seemed to represent the franchises as a whole, the Dodgers scoring on a two-run homer by Ron Cey while the Giants leveraged a bases-loaded walk and a double-play grounder.)

This is where the magic happened. This is where Joe Morgan happened.

The seventh inning started hopefully, with Bob Brenly singling and Champ Summers doubling him to third with nobody out. On the broadcast, Vin Scully called Candlestick Park “a chamber of horrors.”

Then Greg Minton, the Giants closer who was for some reason already pitching in the seventh inning, was allowed to hit for himself. He struck out. Of course he struck out. Then Jim Wholford also struck out. It was turning into a very Giants inning in every imaginable way … until Morgan stepped to the plate.

Reliever Terry Forster worked the count to 1-2, and then hung a slider that Morgan pummeled over the right field fence for a three-run homer. We fans at Candlestick lost our damn minds. The seemingly insane move of letting Minton bat with the winning run at third paid off when Moon Man held LA to two hits over the final two innings, cementing a 5-3 win and ending the Dodgers’ season.  

That home run—Morgan’s home run—is my first meaningful baseball memory, an event for which I can firmly place the date and situation. It is what I recall first when thinking about prime baseball moments early in my life. It showed me what a truly great player, even one at the end of his career, can bring to a ballclub.

Joe Morgan was only a Giant for two years, but those years were utterly influential in cementing me as a baseball fan, and for that I am grateful.

Rest in peace.

Morgan’s homer at 2:27:35.

RIP

RIP Whitey Ford

Yankees great Whitey Ford, one of the final remaining ties to New York’s amazing championship teams of the 1950s, has passed away at age 91.

The guy is all over The Baseball Codes, partly because he was so darned good, but mostly because he was so open about the various ways he tried to game the system during his career. As a young man, Ford had no need for cheating, but as he got older and began to lose his stuff, he realized that a little extra-curricular help would benefit him greatly.

Some of this help came courtesy of a stainless steel ring he wore, which featured a small rasp—about a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide—welded onto one side. Ford put a Band-Aid on top of it to make it less visible, and wore it on his glove hand to escape notice. He kept the rasp turned toward his palm so that when he rubbed up the ball, he could easily gouge the surface. “One little nick was all it took to get the baseball to sail and dip like crazy,” he wrote in his book, Slick. (Catcher Elston Howard would do similarly for him, using a sharpened shin-guard buckle, prior to returning the ball to the mound.)

Ford would also use tacky substances to lend extra spin to his breaking pitches. His go-to was a concoction he came up with himself, made of turpentine, baby oil and rosin, which he said looked like white glue. Ford stored it in a roll-on deodorant container so as to freely brandish it in the dugout during games. (One story has Yogi Berra mistakenly trying to use it under his arms after emerging from the shower, necessitating that his armpit hair be cut away to free him from the stuff.)

Ford’s chicanery was not limited to ball doctoring. He would, on occasion, pitch from several inches in front of the rubber in order to get closer to the plate. “If you covered the rubber up with dirt, it was easy to do,” he wrote in Slick. “It’s just something nobody’s ever looking for. When I coached first base for the Yankees, I never remember checking to see if the pitcher had his foot in contact with the rubber when he delivered the pitch. Some­times you could stand with both feet on the rubber, get your sign, and then when you pitched, your first step could be about three feet in front of the rubber. Talk about adding a yard to your fastball.”

My favorite Ford story, however, leads off Chapter 7 of The Baseball Codes, Don’t Show Players Up:

It was a simple question. From the batter’s box at Candlestick Park, Willie Mays looked at Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and, pointing toward Mickey Mantle in center field, asked, “What’s that crazy bastard clapping about?”

What that crazy bastard was clapping about only tangentially con­cerned Mays, but the Giants superstar didn’t know that at the time. It was the 1961 All-Star Game, and Ford had just struck Mays out, looking, to end the first inning. The question was posed when Ford passed by Mays as the American League defense returned to the dugout—most notably among them Mantle, hopping and applauding every step of the way, as if his team had just won the World Series. There was a good story behind it, but that didn’t much matter in the moment. Willie Mays was being shown up in front of a national baseball audience.

Under ordinary circumstances there is no acceptable reason for a player to embarrass one of his colleagues on the field. It’s the concept at the core of the unwritten rules, helping dictate when it is and isn’t appro­priate to steal a base, how one should act in the batter’s box after hitting a home run, and what a player should or shouldn’t say to the media. Nobody likes to be shown up, and baseball’s Code identifies the notion in virtually all its permutations. Mantle’s display should never have hap­pened, and Mays knew it.

Mantle had been joyous for a number of reasons. There was the strike­out itself, which was impressive because to that point Mays had hit Ford like he was playing slow-pitch softball—6-for-6 lifetime, with two homers, a triple, and an astounding 2.167 slugging percentage, all in All-Star competition. Also, Ford and Mantle had spent the previous night painting the town in San Francisco in their own inimitable way, and Ford, still feeling the effects of overindulgence, was hoping simply to survive the confrontation. Realizing that he had no idea how to approach a Mays at-bat, the left-hander opened with a curveball; Mays responded by pum­meling the pitch well over four hundred feet, just foul. Ford, bleary and already half beaten, didn’t see a downside to more of the same, and went back to the curve. This time Mays hit it nearly five hundred feet, but again foul. It became clear to the pitcher that he couldn’t win this battle straight up—so he dipped into his bag of tricks.

Though Ford has admitted to doctoring baseballs in later years, at that point in his career he wasn’t well practiced in the art. Still, he was ahead in the count, it was an exhibition game, and Mays was entitled to at least one more pitch. Without much to lose, Ford spat on his throwing hand, then pretended to wipe it off on his shirt. When he released the ball, it slid rotation-free from between his fingers and sailed directly at Mays’s head, before dropping, said Ford, “from his chin to his knees” through the strike zone. Mays could do nothing but gape and wait for umpire Stan Landes to shoot up his right hand and call strike three.

To this point in the story, nobody has been shown up at all. Ford may have violated baseball’s actual rules by loading up a spitter, but cheating is fairly well tolerated within the Code. Mays’s reaction to the extreme break of the pitch may have made him look bad, but that was hardly Ford’s fault. But then came Mantle, jumping and clapping like a kid who’d just been handed tickets to the circus. It didn’t much matter that the spectacle was directed not at Mays but at Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who imme­diately understood the motivation behind Mantle’s antics.

Stoneham had gone out of his way to make Mantle and Ford feel at home upon their arrival in town a day earlier, using his connections at the exclusive Olympic Club to arrange a round of golf for the duo, and went so far as to enlist his son Peter as their chauffeur. Because the pair of Yan­kees had failed to bring golf equipment, their first stop was the pro shop, for shoes, gloves, sweaters, and rental clubs. The total came to four hundred dollars, but the club didn’t accept cash. Instead, they charged everything to Stoneham, intending to pay him back at the ballpark the fol­lowing day.

That night, however, the three met at a party at the chic Mark Hopkins Hotel. Ford attempted to settle his tab on the spot, but Stoneham’s response wasn’t quite what he anticipated: The owner told him to keep his money . . . for the moment. Stoneham then proposed a wager: If Ford retired Mays the first time they faced each other the following afternoon, he owed nothing. Should the center fielder hit safely, however, Ford and Mantle would owe Stoneham eight hundred dollars, double their original debt. Ordinarily, this sort of bet would be weighted heavily in favor of the pitcher, since even the best hitters connect only three times out of ten, but Ford was aware of his track record against Mays. Nonetheless, the lefty loved a challenge even more than he loved a drink, and quickly accepted Stoneham’s terms.

Mantle, however, wasn’t so cavalier, telling Ford frankly just how bad a deal it was. “I hated to lose a sucker bet,” he said later, “and this was one of them.”

That didn’t keep Ford from sweet-talking him into accepting Stone­ham’s terms. In center field the next day, Mantle found himself signifi­cantly more concerned about the potential four-hundred-dollar hole in his pocket than he was about the baseball ramifications of the Ford-Mays showdown. So, when the Giants’ star was called out on the decisive spit­ter, it was all Mantle could do to keep from pirouetting across the field. Said Ford, “Here it was only the end of the first inning in the All-Star Game, and he was going crazy all the way into the dugout.”

“It didn’t dawn on me right away how it must have looked to Willie and the crowd,” said Mantle. “It looked as if I was all tickled about Mays strik­ing out because of the big rivalry [over who was the game’s pre-eminent center fielder], and in the dugout when Whitey mentioned my reaction I slapped my forehead and sputtered, ‘Aw, no . . . I didn’t . . . how could I . . . what a dumb thing.’ ”

Whitey Ford was a 10-time All-Star, the best pitcher on baseball’s best team for well over a decade, and, in one of baseball’s most remarkable records, took the hill for Game 1 one of the World Series eight times.

Rest in peace, Whitey.

RIP

RIP Bob Gibson

Lots has been written since Bob Gibson’s passing on Friday at age 84. That’s what happens when baseball loses an all-time great, even more so when said great carries a reputation like Gibson’s. The guy was a flag-bearer for the pitcher-as-intimidator mindset, standing alongside Don Drysdale as the most ferocious competitors of his generation in this regard, to the point that it has, to varying degrees, obscured what a brilliant pitcher he actually was.

In researching The Baseball Codes—a book with chapters on both intimidation and retaliation—Gibson’s name came up repeatedly in interviews. “Oh, definitely, Gibson was mean,” longtime shortstop and current Astros coach Chris Speir told me in one representative comment. “Oh, hell yeah. I think Gibson was probably, overall, the meanest.” (Speier hit .132 against him in 42 career at-bats.)

When it comes to Gibson’s legacy, however, the distinction that must be drawn is one of motivation. The man did not drill players for the sake of the thing—that would have nothing to do with winning, he said. In fact, Gibson not only never led the big leagues in HBPs, he finished among the top-10 only five times—only once within the top five—and is tied for 85th all time in the category.

Gibson’s was a strategic bullying, far more reliant on knockdowns than HBPs. His general philosophy went like this: the outer half of the plate belonged to him. The right-hander would allow hitters to make their livings on the inner portion, but the moment that they began to crowd him, or leaned to reach pitches on the outside corner, his response was assured. Inside pitches would back them away. Should a leaning hitter get drilled in the process, so be it. “It was a matter of doing what was necessary to get the batter out,” he once said. “If that made me mean, then what the hell, I guess I was mean.”

Take Bill White, a teammate on the Cardinals from 1959 to 1964 and one of Gibson’s best friends in the sport. White was traded to Philadelphia in 1965, and in his first at-bat against Gibson, the left-hander leaned across the plate to pull an outside offering sharply down the first base line, just foul. With his next pitch, Gibson drilled him in the elbow.

After Duke Snider homered after leaning to reach to an outside pitch at the LA Coliseum in 1961, Gibson brushed him back in his following at-bat, and ended up breaking his elbow. Snider missed more than a month. “As far as I was concerned, he had named the tune and there was no need to apologize,” Gibson said later.”

The pitcher went into great detail about his philosophy in his book, Stranger to the Game, which came out in 1994 (and which now sells for absurd prices on Amazon and eBay). “It was said that I threw, basically, five pitches—fastball, slider, curve, change-up, and knockdown,” he wrote. “I don’t believe that assessment did me justice, though. I actually used about nine pitches—two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman.”

An event that helped to cement Gibson’s reputation as a head-hunter came with the first pitch he threw to the first batter he faced in St. Louis’ first spring training game of 1968. It was against the Mets, and Tommie Agee was batting leadoff in his debut as a National Leaguer after being acquired from the White Sox, with whom he had stolen 72 bases over the previous two seasons. Gibson hit Agee in the head, a warning, said many of those in attendance, for the bright young star to mind his manners in his new environs. Agee was carted off on a stretcher.

Gibson addressed the moment in Stranger to the Game, writing: “I didn’t apologize for the scare—that wasn’t my style—but the fact is, I had no reason or desire whatsoever to hit Tommie Agee on the first pitch of the spring. If I’d wanted to hit him, or anybody, I wouldn’t have aimed at the head. It’s strange how stories circulate, but the newspapers made quite a to-do about the incident, surmising that it was my bullyish manner of introducing myself to the new kid on the block. What a crock. The story has taken on greater proportions as the years pass, becoming a popular tale to describe what a surly, unforgiving son of a bitch Bob Gibson was on the mound.”

That wasn’t entirely true. Longtime big leaguer and longer-time coach Dave Nelson relayed a slightly different version of the story.

“I’ve often talked to Bob about this, because Bob is a buddy of mine,” Nelson said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Gibby told me, ‘I didn’t want to hit him in the head, but I was going to drill him just to let him know that he ain’t coming over here to steal all these bases off me.’ ”

Whichever version is more accurate, the pitcher’s reputation only grew in the aftermath.

One of Gibson’s opponents, Dodgers outfielder Von Joshua, was intimidated for a different reason. “Jerry Doggett, one of the Dodgers announcers, made a statement on the radio show that Gibson had been accused of throwing at black ballplayers,” he recalled. “He asked Bob if there had been any truth to that, and Gibson said, yeah, it was true—because they were the only ones dumb enough to think they could hit me. So in other words, the white guys were already intimidated, and the black ballplayers thought that they had a chance.” Joshua, an African American, took the message to heart.

My favorite Bob Gibson story has to do with his memory for events that he felt merited response. It doesn’t line up with his intimidation-as-strategy methodology, but it does line up with the rest of his reputation. From The Baseball Codes:

Gibson felt entitled, after giving up a grand slam to Pete LaCock in 1975 [on a pitch he felt should not have been reached], to knock the hitter down. The only problem was that Gibson, two months shy of his fortieth birthday, faced exactly one more batter, left the game … and retired. So, fifteen years later, the Hall of Famer did what he had been unable to do as an active player: When he faced LaCock in an old-timers’ game, he hit him in the back with a pitch. (“Bob Feller was throwing when I came up to the plate,” LaCock recalled. “All of a sudden, Gibson comes running out of the dugout and makes his own pitching change. He sends Feller back to the bench and starts warming up, and I’m thinking, he’s not really going to hit me. Sure enough, first pitch—whammo.”)

The amazement with which LaCock recounted that story for me, more than a decade after the fact, was apparent. The guy was left in befuddled awe by Gibson, which in that regard, made him just like everybody the great pitcher ever faced.

Gibson’s era is long gone, and with his passing, its principal practitioners nearly are, too. Baseball won’t see his like again.

RIP

RIP Jay Johnstone

“There are a lot of people in asylums who are saner then Jay Johnstone.” — Tommy Lasorda

Photo by Rich Kee

Jay Johnstone passed away Saturday from COVID-19, contracted while living in a Granada Hills, CA, nursing home while suffering from dementia. He was 74 years old.

I covered Johnstone in all three of my books (he’s the only member of a Swingin’ A’s championship squad to have played for the 1981 Dodgers), and while reporting They Bled Blue I got to spend a glorious afternoon with him in Los Angeles, during which I learned precisely how committed the man was to his prankster persona.

My goal for the meeting had been to talk about Johnstone’s Dodgers, of course, and we did that, but the subject he returned to repeatedly was the pranks he was known for playing. Johnstone’s oddball reputation was hard earned, through 20 years of terrorizing teammates on eight clubs by doing things like building a mini locker inside of Ron Cey’s actual locker to emphasize the third baseman’s diminutive stature. So what if it took a trip to the lumber yard and two hours of construction before Cey arrived at the ballpark? To Johnstone, the payoff was worth it.

When it came to the 1981 Dodgers, Johnstone helped even the mood on a club with plenty of natural tension. His take-no-prisoners approach to clubhouse levity—doing things like shoving brownies into Steve Garvey’s glove and nailing teammates’ equipment to the clubhouse floor—involved neither politics nor malice, and was thus one of the unifying forces on a roster prone to division.

Johnstone’s most impactful moment came during the World Series against the Yankees. LA had lost the first two games, and found themselves in a 6-3 hole in Game 4, on the precipice of a 3-games-to-1 deficit. Johnstone helped turn the tables. I used the moment in They Bled Blue to illustrate not only Johnstone’s impact on that game, but on the club as a whole:

With one out in the sixth, Ron Davis walked Mike Scioscia, at which point Lasorda sent up Jay Johnstone to pinch-hit for Tom Niedenfuer. Johnstone was 35 years old and over the course of his career been sold once, released twice, and traded three times. He was a 16-year vet but had collected as many as 500 at-bats in a season only once. By the time he reached Los Angeles as a free agent in 1980—he accepted a $20,000 pay cut to move closer to his hometown of West Covina, about 20 miles from Chavez Ravine, the first free agent ever, it was said, to lose money on his new deal—he’d settled into something of a Svengali-like pinch-hitter role. (“Svengali” in this instance being defined as “crazy person put on the planet to drive Tommy Lasorda batty.”) The guy was an inveterate prankster, unable to stop himself when it came to stirring the Dodgers’ pot.

Johnstone once enlisted Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse to help him replace the desk in Lasorda’s office with a makeup table bearing a mirror ringed by white lightbulbs, to better suit the TV-friendly manager. In another prank, he removed every one of the dozens of photos from the wood-paneled walls of Lasorda’s office—even those of Frank Sinatra—and replaced them with publicity shots of himself, Reuss, and Stanhouse.* At Vero Beach one year, Johnstone broke into Lasorda’s room while the skipper was out and removed the mouthpiece receivers from the telephones. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, he and Yeager cinched a rope as tightly as possible between Lasorda’s doorknob and a nearby palm tree, preventing the manager from pulling his door open. Unable to escape or call for help, things truly hit home for Lasorda when he realized that he might have to miss breakfast. The manager knew exactly who to blame. During that day’s game in Orlando he stole Johnstone’s street clothes and forced him to ride home in his underwear.

The prank for which Johnstone is best known occurred in September 1981, a month before the World Series. Back in 1979, Reuss and then-Dodgers pitcher Ken Brett donned groundskeeper outfits and helped drag the infield during a game. Ever since, Johnstone had desperately wanted some of that action for himself. So before a game against the Pirates at Dodger Stadium—Los Angeles had long since clinched a playoff spot—he convinced Reuss to revisit the stunt. The players copped some coveralls and proceeded to serve as members of the four-man infield crew that went to work in the fifth inning. Because it was Reuss’s off-day and Johnstone rarely started, nobody missed them.

That’s not the same as going undetected, of course. Rick Monday made sure that scoreboard cameras were trained upon the duo so that everybody in the stadium could see what was happening. Upon finishing their dragging, the ballplayers received a full ovation. The only man in the building who didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture was Tommy Lasorda, who issued $250 fines before the players had even returned to the dugout. Johnstone was still in a side room, pulling on his uniform pants, when he heard the manager bellow, “Where the fuck is Johnstone?” As comeuppance for his childish behavior, Lasorda wanted him to pinch-hit for pitcher Terry Forster, posthaste. Johnstone was still buckling his belt as he made his way to the plate—and proceeded to bash a home run.

By the time Lasorda called upon him to bat for Niedenfuer in Game 4 of the World Series, Johnstone was in the throes of a deep tailspin, having hit .095 over the last three weeks of the regular season and .205 overall. He’d collected only three at-bats through LA’s first two playoff series and was still looking for his first postseason hit. That pinch homer against the Pirates had been his only longball since May.

Facing Davis with one out and one on and his team trailing by three, Johnstone—whose entire persona seemed to revolve around doing the unexpected—pulled his grandest trick to date: he homered. The Dodgers’ bench, which had to that point resembled the LA County morgue, came suddenly to life. “Here we are,” thought Johnstone as he rounded the bases. “That changes the whole game.” The two-run blast pulled the Dodgers to within one, at 6–5.

LA tied the game two batters later, and took the lead for good in the seventh, holding on to win, 8-7, and won the series in six. Wrote Jim Murray in the next day’s Los Angeles Times: “Jay Johnstone is not supposed to be winning World Series games, he’s supposed to be pouring cayenne pepper in the coffee.”

When I met with Johnstone at an LA diner, he brought with him all three of the books he’d authored, each centered around baseball pranks (primarily his own). He paged through them with me, one by one, to make sure he didn’t miss anything while recounting the havoc he’d wrought. I’d already read them, of course—the first, Temporary Insanity, was a staple of my teenage years—and had long appreciated the lengths Johnstone would go to to mix things up. When he told me those stories, I was like a kid again. Take this one, in Johnstone’s own words from that day:

“[Dodgers publicity man] Steve Brenner would let me, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse know when Lasorda had a speech. So we’d call up and say, ‘Hi, I understand our skipper is coming out there. Would you like us to come out and say a few words?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you!’ So we’d show up and would be sitting in the audience. Well, Brenner gave us scripts of all Tommy’s jokes. So Jerry Reuss would get up to the dais and tell one of Tommy’s jokes. Tommy would look at him funny, and cross it off his list. Stanhouse would get up and tell another one of his jokes, and Tommy would cross that one off his list. Then I’d get up and tell one of his jokes. We told all his fuckin’ jokes. He was pissed. He was laughing, but he was pissed.”

The prank that stuck with me as a kid, and which made my own kids giggle when I recounted it for them yesterday, was recounted in that first book:

My favorite medical gag came one day at the Dodgertown dispensary during spring training. Instead of a urine sample, I had filled my vial with apple juice from the Dodgertown cafeteria. Then I walked into the dispensary and placed in front of the nurse.

“Gee, that’s awfully cloudy,” she said.

“Yeah, it sure is,” I answered.” Here, let me run it through again.”

With that, I chug-a-lugged the apple juice, and the nurse started screaming.

“Wait right here,” I said. “I’ll run out and bring another sample back. Should just take a second.”

By now, she had lost her glasses. I was afraid she might have a heart attack. The doctor got really mad at me because she was elderly. In fact, she retired soon after that.

Another moment for which Johnstone is remembered is being caught by Dodgers general manger Fred Claire in a concession line at Dodger Stadium in full uniform, waiting to buy a hot dog. I’d heard the story many times, including from Claire himself, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Johnstone that I was able to gain some context. From our discussion:  

“The reason behind that is that Lasorda brought a Little League team from where he lives out to Dodger Stadium at 10:30 a.m., and we had them on the field till 4 o’clock. We had them on that field for what seemed like eight hours, and there was no freaking food. None. And when the game started, I was hungry. So I walk upstairs, get right in the hot dog line, and who walks by but the general manager, Fred Claire. I didn’t expect that one. I said, ‘Hey, Fred! How you doing, buddy?’ So he calls Lasorda and says, ‘Dammit, your guy’s up in the hot dog line.’ ”

To make matters worse, Johnstone said, in the middle of the clinic somebody brought Lasorda a plate of pasta, which he ate in the dugout, in front of his starving players.

Jay Johnstone was 71 years old when I interviewed him for They Bled Blue, and was as vibrant as a teenager when it came to discussing his career. He’s gone far too early, and will be sorely missed.

* Bonus material, from my interview with Johnstone, regarding the purloined celebrity photos from Lasorda’s office walls: ‘We hid them in the locker room. Now he comes into his office, he has Frank Sinatra, he has Jilly [Rizzo, Sinatra’s body man], all these people—there may have been 15 or 16 people in the room, maybe more, and he’s screaming, ‘Get them fucking guys in here!’ He’s just ranting and raving. Don Rickles was there, and he said, ‘Now wait just one minute. How many games have those other guys ever won for you?’ ‘Shut up, Rickles!’ We just broke out laughing. It took us a while to get the pictures back up, but we got ‘em up.”

For what it’s worth, to this day Reuss denies any involvement in the scheme.

Stanhouse, Reuss and Johnstone. Photo by Rich Kee.

RIP

RIP Betty Caywood

News came down yesterday that Betty Caywood, who briefly worked as a broadcaster for Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics, passed away earlier this month at age 89. I wrote the following about her for The National Pastime Museum, a site that no longer exists, back in 2017.

When Charles O. Finley bought the Kansas City Athletics in 1960, he was ambitious, energetic and focused, but he was not a miracle worker. Not yet, anyway. The last-place club he acquired actually managed to fall in the standings, dropping from eighth out of eight teams to ninth out of 10, thanks to the introduction of two teams—the Angels and the Twins—to the American League in 1961. Even that indignity, however, would be superseded in 1964, when the Athletics tumbled to 105 losses and a last-place finish, a whopping 42 games behind the league champion Yankees.

It was impossible to note at the time, but that 1964 team showed the first vestiges of the championships that would be won in the decade to follow. The roster included rookies Campy Campaneris, Dick Green and Dave Duncan, as well as a 19-year-old with a wondrous sinkerball named Blue Moon Odom. Those players represented the first guard of the Swingin’ A’s to come, but were at that point too raw to be much good. Kansas City struggled with low attendance, barely scraping 500,000, and Finley grew desperate for solutions. Without the short-term ability to fix the product on the field, he exerted his influence in other ways.

Monte Moore had been the A’s lead broadcaster since 1962, and was so good that Finley kept him through the team’s move to Oakland in 1968, right on through to 1980. Quality, however, wasn’t the issue. Mostly, Finley wanted attention. His quick fix was Betty Caywood.

Caywood, in her early 30s, was a TV weather girl in Finley’s hometown of Chicago, with a master’s degree in speech pathology from Northwestern University. She knew next to nothing about baseball, but was capable in front of a camera, which was practical for Finley’s purposes, as was the fact that she was pretty, for he greatly enjoyed the company of pretty women. Finley lured her, she said later in an interview with KCUR radio, with “an amount of money that I couldn’t believe.”

Caywood was introduced to the team’s broadcast crew about three weeks before the end of the season, when the Athletics traveled to Boston for a three-game series. Shortly after the team checked into its hotel, Finley called Moore with instructions to meet his new colleague in the lobby.

“Who is he?” asked Moore.

He is a weather lady from Chicago,” Finley informed him, adding that he wanted Caywood on the air that night, alongside Moore and his partner, George Bryson.

Finley tried to spin her ignorance about the sport as a positive. The A’s weren’t drawing much of an audience anyway, he figured, so why not try to interest a demographic that was otherwise indifferent to his product? “The idea,” he said in announcing the appointment, as reported in a contemporaneous account in The New York Times, “is that by putting a woman on the staff we’ll appeal to the dolls.” So ignorant was Caywood about the machinations of baseball broadcasts that when Finley informed her she’d be doing color work, she had no idea what he meant.

Caywood might not have been the ideal standard-bearer for women in sports media, but she nonetheless faced many of the same hurdles that the coming generation of more qualified females would soon encounter. On her first day on the job she was refused admittance to the Fenway Park press box, necessitating Moore call Finley, who in turn called Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey to straighten things out. Even after Yawkey made sure Caywood could get in, she was still barred from the press lounge, which forced Moore to deliver her dinner to the radio booth. Of course, such attitudes didn’t stop at least one member of the press from hounding Moore about setting him up on a date with her.

So deep was Caywood’s baseball ignorance that on the team’s next stop, in New York, Red Barber asked her into his radio booth to introduce himself. The Yankees were hitting, and it became apparent that Kansas City’s new broadcaster was at a loss when it came to their identities. “He asked me who was batting,” Caywood recalled on KCUR. “I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s a Yankee, and I’m not familiar with their lineup.’ He said, ‘It’s number 7.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I still don’t know.’”

No. 7, of course, was Mickey Mantle, 14 years and three MVP Awards into his career.

Things got no better on the Athletics’ next road trip, when a game in Minnesota went into extra innings. Kansas City scored in the top of the 15th to take a 7–6 lead, at which point Caywood, on the air, clapped her hands and exulted about being able to go home.

“What could I say to that?” asked Moore, looking back. “I said something like, ‘Well, Betty, you know that we’re playing in Minnesota, and because they provide all the baseballs, they get to bat one more time.’ She didn’t know that.”

By that point Bryson was no longer with the team, having been hospitalized in Missouri, about a week after Caywood’s debut, for a longstanding heart condition. He died some three weeks later, the result, members of the local media darkly joked, of having to tolerate Caywood’s entry into his booth.

Hiring the sport’s first female broadcaster worked out well for Finley in at least one regard: The attention he predicted Caywood would bring to the team panned out as expected. She appeared as a mystery guest on CBS TV’s What’s My Line, and the New York Times ran a front-page picture of her and Moore in its international edition.

Still, opinion against Caywood was so virulent—her nearly complete lack of knowledge being even more egregious than her gender, even to the hard-liners—that, combined with Bryson’s untimely death, Finley opted against bringing her back in 1965. He never found out whether his plan to attract female Midwesterners would have worked.

“I’m sure that everybody got a big laugh out of me, and I didn’t mind being laughed at,” said Caywood, looking back. “I figured I was laughing all the way to the bank.”

RIP

RIP John McNamara

John McNamara passed away yesterday at age 88. Remembered primarily as the skipper who led the 1986 Red Sox to their epic World Series collapse against the Mets, my own interaction with his story primarily has to do with his tenure with the A’s. McNamara’s first major league managerial job was in Oakland, working for Charlie Finley in 1970 (plus the final few games of 1969).

As a minor league manager, it was McNamara who shifted Gene Tenace from outfield to catcher. (As a former catcher himself, McNamara was well suited as a tutor.) While managing at Double-A Birmingham, McNamara earned respect for his refusal to patronize the segregated restaurants his team frequently encountered on the road. It was McNamara who brought his old Army pal, Charlie Lau, to be the hitting coach in Oakland. (Lau transformed the swings of Joe Rudi and Dave Duncan, among others.)

Despite leading the A’s to 89 wins in 1970—their most since 1932—Finley fired McNamara after the season to make way for Dick Williams. The manager wasn’t much hurt by the decision—he ended up managing in the big leagues for six teams over 19 seasons—but there was no mistaking the genuine weirdness with how the dismissal went down. I wrote about it for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, very little of which made the final edit. Today, the affair seems worth revisiting. From the cutting-room floor:

Despite the successful season, everybody braced for McNamara to become Finley’s annual managerial sacrifice. The manager himself wasn’t exactly averse to the idea. After being forced to participate in the protracted embarrassment of Reggie Jackson—going so far as to convey Finley’s threat to demote the young star to the minor leagues, not as a developmental tool but as a means of embarrassment—not to mention the daily phone calls and lineup demands, McNamara was prepared to quit even if Finley unexpectedly decided to retain him. His mistake was making this known.

Two Bay Area newspapers had reported on McNamara’s dissatisfaction during the season’s final week, and when Oakland Tribune columnist George Ross dedicated his season-ending feature to players’ opinions of the situation, some of them took the opportunity to sound off. One opinion in particular struck a chord with the Owner.

“It doesn’t matter who manages this ballclub,” Dave Duncan told Ross with surprising candor. “There’s only one man who manages this club: Charlie Finley. And we will never win as long as he manages. We had the team to win it. But because of the atmosphere he creates, there’s no spirit, no feeling of harmony. We should be close like a family, but it’s not here.” Duncan had been especially angry since the team’s annual mid-season cookout at Finley’s ranch in La Porte, where the Owner introduced him as “the best third-string catcher in the league,” and then saw his playing time cut to next to nothing. But Duncan wasn’t finished.

“Everybody’s always worried about Charlie Finley,” he continued. “You can’t say that, you can’t say this, or he’ll be mad. Nobody will speak out. But how can they with their jobs to protect?”

With that, Duncan presented the Owner with one of his favorite oratorical weapons: a scapegoat. Until Ross’ column, McNamara’s firing had been based on the manager’s inability to meet Finley’s needs. But now? Now the Owner had something else. Instead of his original plan, he instead called a press conference the day after the season ended, and got right to it. “As of two days ago at 2 o’clock, Johnny McNamara had just as much of a chance of managing this ballclub as anyone else,” said Finley to a room that didn’t believe a word he was saying, as reported in Ron Bergman’s book Mustache Gang. “But when the Dave Duncan story broke, that was the end of his chances.”

Then the Owner opened up on his catcher. The story was no longer about McNamara—had a just-fired manager ever become old news more quickly?—and was all about Finley’s spat with Duncan. Over the course of 30 minutes Finley criticized the player’s maturity, lack of perseverance and gutlessness. It was a brutal assessment by any measure, let alone a team owner talking about one of his employees. Things got truly weird when Finley said that the catcher was sleeping with Charlie Lau.

His exact words: “One day I found out that Duncan was sleeping with coach Charlie Lau.” Pause. “By that, I mean they were rooming together, sharing expenses. When I found out about this, I called it to their attention, asked them to break it up immediately, because as we all know, in the Army, troops don’t fraternize with officers.

It was a valid criticism. Duncan himself said as much later. Duncan and Lau were both going through marriage separations and decided to save money by sharing a roof. But Finley’s word selection—he was a master salesman, after all, trained to choose his verbiage carefully—left a different impression. “It was another cheap shot, typical Finley,” said Duncan, looking back. “He was a cruel guy. He had no respect for anybody. Pretty soon you got to the point with him where nothing surprised you.” The Owner went on to say that Duncan and Lau ignored his orders to de-couple, and that Lau—despite his success working with Duncan and Rudi (or maybe because of it)—would be joining McNamara on the unemployment line.

First, Finley hurt his team by cutting Reggie Jackson off at the knees. Then he fired the most successful manager his team had employed in 40 years. Now he was canning a soon-to-be-legendary hitting coach, just to prove a point. The Owner continued to injure himself atop his high horse, but, as would be the case for years to come, he didn’t care.

Finley finally brought the press conference back around to McNamara by saying that the manager could have salvaged his employment had he only denied the front office interference that so clearly existed, and paid Finley the occasional public complement when it came to the helpful things he did do. Said the Owner, “no manager can allow one of his players to criticize unfairly, knowing the facts himself, without getting pinched. John McNamara didn’t lose this job. His players took it from him.”

The final word was left to Duncan, who summed it up neatly. “It’s ridiculous to believe that the reason McNamara was fired was because of me,” he said afterward, as reported in Mustache Gang. “It was obvious to everyone a long time ago that Finley was going to fire him. In order to get off the hook, he found someone to pin it on, and that’s me.”

RIP

RIP Murray Olderman

Murray Olderman, longtime sports columnist and cartoonist, passed away yesterday at age 98. I’m aware of him because—in addition to his decades’ worth of stellar work—he was involved in a barely believable confrontation with Reggie Jackson during the 1974 World Series. The showdown was entirely on Jackson, who was upset about a feature Olderman had written about him for Sport magazine (an accurate portrayal), but Olderman held his own, in the process providing a great example of how not to be intimidated by a blowhard athlete.

I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. Here’s the excerpt:

As the Series moved to Oakland, Monday’s workout day at the Coliseum was supposed to be a low-key affair, a chance to get loose in the sunshine and give the national media access to players. The A’s, of course, had a poor history with workout days. The one in Los Angeles put Rollie Fingers in the hospital and Blue Moon Odom on crutches. A year earlier, the one in New York featured insurgent players wearing Mike Andrews’s uniform number on their sleeves. The one in Cincinnati the year before that was all about the reaction to Campy Campaneris’s bat toss in Detroit. It wouldn’t take long for this one to join the litany.

The drama’s genesis occurred back in mid-September, when Sport magazine published a cover story for which Reggie Jackson posed while wearing military regalia from the movie Patton. He had been interviewed for the issue by the film’s star, George C. Scott, and found the resulting copy to be entirely bland. He couldn’t say the same, however, for the second feature about him in the same issue. That one was by Murray Olderman, a Bay Area–based 52-year-old syndicated writer and cartoonist who had been desperate to schedule an interview with Reggie for his quick-turnaround piece. After doing a five-hour photo shoot for the cover, however, Jackson was in no mood to talk. He agreed only to let the writer informally hang out for a while at his condo in the exclusive Hiller Highlands neighborhood of Berkeley.

When Jackson saw the ensuing feature, he was miffed. Olderman described Jackson as “utterly charming or maddeningly harsh, depending on the situation,” and said that he “has more than a little ego, more than a limited belief in his own glorious destiny.” He spent close to a third of the space recounting Jackson’s fights with Epstein, Williams, and North.

For Reggie, though, the crux came in two parts. One was Olderman’s description of a Bible set next to a handgun atop the television, juxtaposed with copies of Penthouse and Playboy strewn around the apartment. In the player’s mind, this insinuated that holiness was subjugated by the baser aspects of his life. The other part was the depiction of former A’s ball girl Mary Barry, who was described as wearing a green bikini and spending hours in the apartment. (It did not explicitly say that the two were dating, but the notion was strongly implied.) Barry’s teenage employment with the team lent negative connotations to the description, but she’d graduated from high school by the time the story came out and was no longer in Finley’s employ. Both she and Jackson were single. “I don’t expect everyone to write nice things about me,” Reggie said after the piece was published, “but I don’t want a sarcastic treatment that makes me look like something I’m not. I’m not a hypocrite, but his story suggests it.”

Reggie’s teammates, some of them, anyway, were aware of his anger. He spoke openly of revenge fantasies, the most prominent of which involved telling Olderman off amid his journalist colleagues, returning some of the embarrassment Jackson felt. The reality, of course, was that Reggie was keenly aware of his public image and what such a plan would do to it. His teammates were somewhat less concerned.

As the A’s worked out, Blue saw Olderman on the field, pointing out various members of the A’s to his 16-year-old son, and got an idea. Grabbing the writer by the hand, he said, “Come with me, there’s someone who wants to see you,” and led him to Jackson. Reggie had decided weeks earlier that it was not in his best interests to pursue a confrontation, but with it thrust upon him, he reversed course. It was the only way to save face in front of teammates who had heard him talk repeatedly about what kind of trouble Olderman would be in the next time they met.

So Reggie began to yell. He profanely told Olderman what he thought of the article, and what he thought of the man who wrote it. And the more he yelled the angrier he became. What started as show became genuine hostility.

The scenario was just how Reggie pictured it. The field was littered with newsmen from across the country, and the moment he began to shout they gathered like pigeons to bread crumbs. Jackson was dressed for battle—batting helmet, batting gloves, dark glasses, windbreaker over his uniform—making him all the more intimidating. He screamed that Olderman was “a horseshit writer who had written a horseshit story,” told him that he didn’t want to see him again, and threatened to “punch him in his fucking mouth.” It was as if Reggie was trying to taunt the scribe into a physical altercation. Olderman did not bite.

“You better never get around me alone, that’s all I can say,” Jackson finally hollered, pointing his finger. “If you do, you’ll be in trouble.”

Olderman, wearing thick-framed glasses and a blazer, was an Army veteran and about the same size as Jackson. He was hardly cowed.

“Are you threatening me?” he asked coolly. Vida stood next to them, gazing sheepishly at the ground.

Jackson clenched his fists and told the writer he was not welcome in the Oakland clubhouse.

“Are you going to keep me out?” Olderman asked.

“Yeah,” Reggie said.

That was when Joe Reichler, MLB’s director of public relations, raced over to separate the men. “Walk away with me,” he sternly ordered Jackson. When Reggie refused, Reichler laid down the law right there: “Threaten him again, or lay a hand on him, and you won’t play the rest of the series.” Jackson backed down.

Things were quiet until the next day, when, prior to Game 3, Reichler approached Reggie as he warmed up in front of the A’s dugout. The Commissioner, he said, was “very disturbed” over Jackson’s behavior. If it happened again, Reichler said, “there’s going to be a problem, a very serious problem, and I think you know what I mean by that.”

Reggie smiled. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “everything is over.”

It was too early for everything to be over, of course. The A’s had already sent two players to the hospital, were still trying to make sense of their best pitcher’s claims that he would soon be playing elsewhere, had to fend off rumors of moving, tried to deflect questions about a lawsuit filed against their owner by one of their own, and lived down one of the most embarrassing pickoffs in big league history. Now they were also dealing with their star player verbally assaulting a member of the gathered media.

In passing, it seemed, the Series was tied, 1–1. It was easy to miss, but there was still some baseball to be played.

RIP

RIP Claudell Washington

Claudell Washington passed away far too young on Tuesday at age 65. He first gained notice as a teenage sensation on the Swingin’ A’s, the man for whom Charlie Finley predicted enduring greatness. I last saw him at an A’s reunion a couple of years back; he was wearing a thick sweater on a warm day, looked strong and conversed easily. The East Bay legend will be missed.

From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The 19-year-old Claudell Washington had been lighting up the Double-A Southern League with stats almost too good to believe: a .362 batting average with 11 homers, 23 doubles, 55 RBIs, and 34 stolen bases in only 73 games. The best part: he was a local kid—a Berkeley High School graduate—and a success story for part-time scout Jim Guinn, the Berkeley policeman who went on to sign Rickey Henderson. Washington didn’t even play for his high school baseball team; Guinn found him via local legend. The kid could dunk two basketballs in one leap, it was said, and was rated among the fastest men in the East Bay based on a single season of prep track. As if to give himself a character quirk, the six-foot, 190-pound Washington swung a comically heavy 42-ounce bat; among big leaguers, only Dick Allen’s had similar heft. “He’s the best player for his age I’ve ever seen or known,” admired Jackson upon taking a gander.

Washington’s first start was not an enviable matchup. It pitted the A’s against Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry, who, after losing his first start of the season, had won every time since. The right-hander was 15-1, one victory away from the American League record of 16 straight. That and half-price Monday tickets produced the Coliseum’s largest crowd of the season: 47,582.

Perry did not reach his mark. Vida Blue pitched ten innings of four-hit ball, and the A’s new prodigy—who had until very recently never heard of Gaylord Perry—made a quick impression. Starting at DH, Washington’s first major league hit was an eighth-inning triple. His second hit, a tenth-inning single off a still-strong Perry, drove in Blue Moon Odom to win the game, 4–3.

For a true feeling about what kind of impact Washington made on the East Bay scene upon his arrival, take a gander at the Oakland Tribune from July 2, 1975. It wasn’t a noteworthy day, per se, but it’s representative of the kind of whirlwind Washington inspired. (It’s also representative of the kind of gold that beat writer Ron Bergman spun daily.):

Claudell Washington has picked up an extra $10,000 on his way to the All-Star game, the Hall of Fame, possible sainthood, and, who knows, perhaps the seat of his own in the United Nations general assembly.

Nothing seems impossible for the 20-year-old, who raised his batting average to .306 with two hits last night, scored three runs, drove in another and stole bases number 30 and 31 as the A’s beat the White Sox, 10-1, widening their lead in the American League West to eight games.

In the seventh-inning, A’s owner Charlie Finley climbed up to the press box from his first-base box seat in White Sox Park and announced that he was giving Washington a retroactive $10,000 raise.

This marked the third midseason raise Finley has given his young star, who will reach one year in the big leagues in three days. Last year, Finley gave him a $2,000 raise for wrecking Gaylord Perry’s bid for a 16th straight victory, and $5,000 for going 5-for-5 in Detroit. That left Claudell well past $22,500, the figure for which he signed the past winter. Welcome to the land of $32,500.

Not one of the A’s players resented the raise. Not Vida Blue, who was given a Cadillac in 1971 as a midseason raise. Blue: “All I know is I’m going shopping with him tomorrow.”

RIP

RIP Bobby Winkles

Longtime Arizona State manager Bobby Winkles—who coached on Alvin Dark’s A’s staff in 1974 and 1975, and managed the team for Charlie Finley in 1977 and 1978, passed away last week at age 90.

Winkles’ impact on the A’s stretched far beyond his stints as coach or even as manager. It was at his collegiate position, in which he won three national championships over 13 seasons in Tempe, where he made the most impact. That’s because it was at ASU that Winkles shepherded Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson toward the big leagues. (Monday and Bando were on the 1965 championship team.) In fact, Winkles planned to convert Bando to catcher for his senior season, but the player ended up signing with Finley’s Kansas City Athletics instead.

Winkles went 24-15 in 1978 with an A’s club that had lost 98 games the previous season and made no marked improvements while trading Vida Blue. Unable to stomach the requisite interference from Finley, however, he quit that May and never managed in the big leagues again. “Winkles was going nuts, and one day during the season he quit,” wrote his predecessor and successor as A’s manager, Jack McKeon, in his book Jack of All Trades, “We all tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge.” (After Winkles departed, the A’s went 45-78.)

One player who especially appreciated Winkles was Oakland second baseman Dick Green, whose defense during the 1974 World Series was so spectacular that many said he would have won Series MVP had he gotten even a single hit. (He went 0-for-13.) Green attributes much of that success to Winkles.

“About middle of September, Bobby says to me, ‘Dick, the World Series is coming up and you’re going to have to start taking some infield practice,’ ” Green said in an interview for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. “I say, ‘I haven’t taken infield practice for months.’ He says, ‘I know you can catch the ball, but most people can’t turn it on and off and on again.’ So I started taking infield practice the last couple of weeks. Well, of course, I didn’t make any errors in that World Series, and that extra infield helped me.”

Leave the last word on Winkles to Reggie Jackson, who described him in his book, Reggie:

Bobby Winkles was an Army type guy, a tough little southerner from Arkansas with a crew cut who’d spit tobacco on your shoe if you didn’t watch yourself. He was very regimented. He was the boss, and he let you know that from the get-go. There was no swearing when Winkles was around. You didn’t give him any lip. Ever. And he worked us. If you played for Bobby Winkles, you had to run everywhere, run like an animal. Before we ever took the bat and ball at practice, we would run for 45 minutes every day. His favorite was something called the Floor Drill. Run. Stop. Put your arms straight up over your head and jump straight up into the air. Sprint now. Stop. Jump.”

And, of course he won. Three titles with ASU. One as an A’s coach. Unexpected success with a stripped-down roster several seasons later.

Bobby Winkles may have been wildly underappreciated by outsiders, but those who knew him—and especially those who played for him—are deeply feeling this loss.

RIP

RIP Al Kaline

I didn’t like pitching to (Al) Kaline. Nothing against Al. He was a hell of a guy. I just hated the way umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt on almost every close pitch late in his career. I once threw him five straight strikes and walked him. He took a three-and-two slider that started on the outside corner and finished down the middle of the plate. The ump gave it to him. As Kaline made his way to first, I yelled at him, ‘Swing the bat, for Christ’s sake. You’re not a statue until you have pigeon shit on your shoulders.’ Al laughed at me. After the game I complained about the call to the home-plate umpire. He said, ‘Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.’
—Bill Lee, The Wrong Stuff

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, the man who came to define the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s and ’60s, passed away today at age 85. He was noteworthy for being esteemed within the game as much for his personality as for his ability, which is saying something given that he was one of the best players ever.

For me, the power of Kaline’s mystique was distilled in a story told to me by former pitcher Dick Bosman for The Baseball Codes. It took place in 1974, Kaline’s last year, when Bosman pitched for Cleveland. During the game in question, the pitcher’s Indians teammate, Oscar Gamble, got into a little bit of trouble.

“Oscar hit three home runs in Tiger Stadium,” Bosman said. “He hit them upstairs pretty good, and stood and watched them a little bit. I had a 7-0 shutout going in the eighth inning. Ralph Houk’s managing over there, and he brings in Freddy Scherman, who puts his first pitch right into Oscar’s ribcage. Oscar, he’s a little guy, and it hurt him, boy.”

Bosman, of course — as was the way in baseball those days, felt the need to retaliate.

“The inning gets over with, and I get back out there on the mound,” he said. “And guess who the first hitter is? Al Kaline. The thing was, Al was about three hits from 3,000 at the time. So I’m thinking, where am I going to drill him? I don’t want to break his hand or anything like that. If I hit him in the ribs, that might put him out. The guy was a legend. So I figured I’d hit him in the ass. That’s the way it was supposed to be done.”*

Bosman was duty-bound, but determined to execute his task as gently as possible owing to Kaline’s standing. He ended up merely brushing Kaline back.

Baseball has lost a legend.

* As with many baseball stories from the distant past, the details for this one are somewhat different than memory might suggest. Gamble hit only one homer that day, Sept. 9, 1974, the opener of a two-game series. When the teams had met for a three-game set less than a week earlier, however, Gamble homered twice in one game and once in another, so Detroit’s patience may have been tried. Also, it wasn’t Scherman who drilled Gamble, but Vern Ruhle, in his fourth inning of work. Scherman, who had spent the previous five seasons in Detroit, had been traded to Houston the previous winter. At the point Bosman brushed him back, Kaline was 15 hits from 3,000. He would finish the year, and his career, with 3,007.