RIP

RIP Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson
Paul Tepley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Robinson, an inner-circle Hall of Famer and one of the very best outfielders ever to lace up spikes, passed away today after a battle with bone cancer. His career saw an MVP with the Reds in 1961, and another with the Orioles in 1966. When he retired in 1976, his 586 career homers ranked fourth all-time, and even after the steroid era still rate as the tenth most ever.

Just as notably, Robinson was the first African American manager in big league history, with Cleveland in 1975, and went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals. It was the latter tenure—during his final season as a big league skipper, in fact—that brings us one of my favorites stories of the man, and a fitting coda to his managing career. From The Baseball Codes:

Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players in baseball history, a guy who during his Hall of Fame playing career exhibited virtually no mental weakness on a ballfield, the perfect example of an indestructible personality. As a manager, however, at the helm of the Washington Nationals in 2006, he once broke down completely. Over the previous weeks the seventy-year-old Robinson had watched help­lessly as his catchers went down to injury, one by agonizing one. Starter Brian Schneider was disabled with a hamstring strain. Robert Fick, who was primarily an outfielder/first baseman anyway, missed the first six weeks of the season with elbow damage, and finally came off the disabled list to be used as a pinch-hitter, not to play the field. The only other guy on the club with catching experience was Wiki Gonzalez, who by that point wasn’t actually on the team—he was due to be outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans the following day and had already appeared in what would be his final game for Washington.

Desperate before a game against the Astros, Robinson turned to one of his favorite players, Matt LeCroy. LeCroy came up as a catcher but had primarily been a designated hitter to that point in his seven-year career, and spent all of one inning behind the plate the pre­vious season. Also, he was battling bone spurs in his throwing elbow. LeCroy was willing to catch, but he’d effectively be taking one for the team—and both he and Robinson knew it.

The Astros stole a base against the injured catcher in the second inning, and another in the fourth. By the sixth they had homed in on his weak­ness and began a slow, painful process of exploitation, swiping four more bags in the frame. In the seventh, Morgan Ensberg stole Houston’s sev­enth base of the night, advanced to third on LeCroy’s second throwing error of the game, then scored on Preston Wilson’s single, to close what had been a 7–1 Nationals lead to 7–5. At that point, Robinson couldn’t take any more. In the middle of the inning he instructed Fick—who had started only twenty games as a catcher over the previous four seasons— to strap on some shin guards, and walked slowly toward the plate to replace LeCroy.

Robinson knew the Code [against removing players in the middle of an inning for any reason except injury], but, as repugnant as he found it, he felt he had no choice. He wasn’t angry at LeCroy, but sorry for him. Sorry that he was exposed as being so vulnerable, sorry he couldn’t get the job done, sorry circumstances dictated that he had to be out there in the first place. LeCroy took it well, saying, “If my daddy was managing this team I’m sure he would have done the same thing,” but when Robinson was asked about it after the game, one of the hardest men in baseball was unable to maintain his composure. As he talked, tears streamed down his cheeks.

“It’s not LeCroy’s fault,” he said. “We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That’s my responsibility. I put him in there. . . . That’s on my shoulders.” In protecting his player from one evil—the base-path assault of the Houston Astros—Robinson exposed him to another: potential ridicule from fans and players alike. The man­ager was forced to choose between two barely palatable options, and ulti­mately decided to put the good of the team ahead of the good of both LeCroy and, to gauge by his analysis of the situation, himself.

Robinson, as fierce a competitor as the sport has known, will be sorely missed.

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RIP

RIP Willie McCovey

Willie Mac

I drew the above picture in 1980, when I was 10 and Willie McCovey was 42, shortly after he’d hit his final home run, number 521, tying him with Ted Williams on the all-time list. I was a kid, and he was my baseball hero, the last vestige of a classic Giants era that wrapped up before I was old enough to take notice. Willie Mays was long gone—first to the Mets, and then to retirement—but McCovey was still around, still doing great things even after he had long passed the point of being great himself. Mays was legend, but McCovey was tangible, something to grasp. He was right there, the wizened elder whose feats of strength, while increasingly rare, were still, on occasion, majestic. I remember my father explaining to me in the Candlestick Park grandstand that year how the slugger, wobbling atop arthritic knees that would eventually leave him wheelchair-bound, might be the only man in baseball to smack a ball off the right-field fence—as he’d just done—and never even consider advancing to second base.

McCovey died yesterday at age 80, succumbing to a panoply of health issues that began piling up before his career even ended.

By the time I came up as a sportswriter in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, Willie Mac was a regular at what was then known as Pac Bell Park, joining Mays to frequent the office of clubhouse manager Mike Murphy to such a degree that the duo effectively became part of the tableau, just another wondrous aspect of clubhouse culture. I spoke with him on occasion, but only when I had specific questions for a story I was working on, and always at a remove. Hanging out with McCovey? That was something Willie Mays got to do, not mortals like me.

As pertains to this space, when McCovey’s name came up during interviews for The Baseball Codes, it was almost universally under the same subject heading. The guy was known for his abundant power—it earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959, and the MVP a decade later—but people who played against him also remember how he leveraged his strength while tagging runners at first base. Lou Brock once said that leading off against the Giants was the worst experience a player could have. “He slapped that big ol’ glove down there, hard,” said Chris Speier.

“Willie would slap you so nicely,” recalled Dusty Baker. “He’d smile, then drop that hammer on your head, on your ribs.”

Did anyone hold it against him?

“Well, he was so nice, and he was so big, who could get mad at him?”

Which was a huge part of the guy’s appeal. The first baseman’s demeanor allowed him to keep runners close simply by the threat of tagging them, without real repercussions given that they knew it was never personal. His nature was further on display in an incident that had nothing to do with his tags, during a fight between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs in 1973. From Baseball Digest:

“When the scuffle flared to a red-hot pitch, Jose Cardenal, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound fight fielder for the Cubs, bolted directly toward Willie McCovey, the Giants’ 6-foot-4, 200-pound first baseman.

“ ‘I want you, beeg man,’ Cardenal shouted as he leaped to launch a swing at McCovey. His punch missed by a foot. McCovey laughed and declined to squash his antagonist.”

The guy was beloved. He ran the team’s kangaroo court during his playing days, and now has a statue memorializing the same swing pictured above gracing a cove named after him beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park. (Had McCovey played there, the theory holds, he’d have slugged untold balls into that water.) So deep is the respect for him that the Giants’ annual honorific for the player who displays the most spirit and leadership, as voted upon by teammates, is called the Willie Mac Award.

It’s a sad day for Giants fans. We’ve lost a legend.

RIP

RIP Donald Hall

Dock Ellis cardDonald Hall died on Saturday. Best known as a poet, he was also a baseball nut who wrote two books about the sport—Fathers Playing Catch With Sons, a book of essays; and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, an illuminating portrait of one of the most charismatic and enigmatic ballplayers of his time.

From Country of Baseball:

“In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”

And another:

“The old first baseman, making the final out of the inning, in the last year he will play, underhands the ball casually toward the mound, as he has done ten thousand times. The ball bounces over the lip of the grass, climbs the crushed red brick of the mound for a foot or two, and then rolls back until it catches in the green verge. The ball has done this ten thousand times.”

The book is best known for breaking the story about Ellis pitching a no-hitter on LSD—a detail so taboo that in the original pressing Hall wrote that the pitcher had merely been drunk. (“I wrote ‘we made some screwdrivers’ instead of ‘we took some tabs,’ ” Hall later clarified. “I substituted ‘about noon the next day, I realized I was pitching,’ for the more astonishing ‘I might have slept maybe an hour. I got up maybe about nine or ten in the morning. Took another half tab.’ When he arrived at the clubhouse, my bowdlerized story had Dock drink a lot of coffee. Instead he swallowed Dexamyl and Benzedrine. ‘When I took those greenies,’ he had told me, ‘that knocked that acid out of there. Had a couple of bennies, too.’ ”)

There are many, many other worthy stories:

When [Pete Rose Jr.] was three, Pete asked Dock under the stands to pitch to the boy. “He’s just like his father,” Dock says with admiration. “He stands just like him.” Dock asked him where he’d like the pitch. “Get your shit over the plate,” the boy said. “Get that damned shit over.”

And …

In the lobby of the San Francisco Hilton, as we head out for dinner after a game, we see a Pittsburgh Pirate sitting alone in a large, pretentious chair. This ballplayer is white, mustachioed, elegantly dressed, and he sits upright, cool, handsome, and dignified. “What’s happening?” says Dock.

“Oh,” says the ballplayer, sophisticated and detached, “I’m waiting for someone to pick me up for dinner.” He pauses minutely, and just as Dock is about to speak, he continues, “I don’t know who she is yet, but she’ll be along.” Then he squints down the dark hallway at a young woman registering. The squint is theatrical and exact. “No,” he sighs. “Not her. I’m too beautiful.”

Less poetic but just as interesting is Ellis detailing his reason for wearing hair curlers in the early 1970s, a fashion statement that elicited derision from fellow players but which came with a purpose:

I find myself curious about the curlers . . . Although I spend a good deal of time with Dock, I never see him wearing curlers around the house. I wonder why he wore them just before games. I ask him.

“That’s when I was throwing spitballs. When I had the curlers, my hair would be straight. Down the back. On the ends would be nothing but balls of sweat.”

“Spitballs!” I say. . . . “So you wore curlers for the sake of pitching?”

“Oh, yes! Just one touch at a time. It was something I experimented with. I do well with them.”

“Do you still throw them?”

“No. Every once in awhile, I want to load up. I don’t fool with it. I throw it sometimes to left-handed hitters, when I get two strikes on them, if a man’s on first, to get them to hit into a double play.”

“When did you start throwing spitters?”

“In nineteen seventy-two, at the end of the year. I threw it four consecutive games. Natural sweat. When it gets wet, at the end of my hair there are balls of water. Before every pitch, I would get it.” Dock would reach to the back of his head, and load up his fingertips. “Then I pick up the resin like this.” He looks as if he wipes his fingers on the resin, but really he keeps his fingertips from touching the bag, then he appears to wipe his hand across his shirt. “I go across my chest like this. I wipe my hat. I get my thumb dry—but I would have it. I threw ninety-nine percent spitballs when I was throwing spitballs, July and August, nineteen seventy three.”

“What makes a spitball drop? How do you throw it?”

“One of the real heavy spitball dudes broke it down for me. You drop the ball on the mound, get a rough side on it. You get the spit or sweat or Vaseline—whatever you use—on the balls of your fingers, and put your fingers on the fat part of the ball, the rough side for more traction. Then you release it from the balls of your fingers, and it’ll slow, it’s got to go down, it’s the only place it can go.”

Hall was 89 years old. Baseball has lost a longtime supporter.