Sal Bando passed away over the weekend. The unquestioned leader of the Swingin’ A’s team about which I wrote in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, his viewpoint and memories was essential to my ability to tell that tale. What kind of guy was Captain Sal? He picked me up from the airport in Phoenix, hung out with me for a day, answering all my questions—even the difficult ones—then returned me to the departure gate, saving me the price of a rental car.
On a team studded with Hall of Famers, Bando experienced the most in-sport success of any Athletic, following his 11 years with the A’s (four All-Star appearances, three top-5 MVP finishes) with five years with the Brewers. In 1974, when Bando was 30, he was mentioned as a possibility to become player-manager of the A’s after Dick Williams stepped down. That never happened, in Oakland or anyplace else, which mattered little in light of the fact that he spent eight seasons as the Brewers GM in the 1990s.
As Reggie Jackson wrote in his 1984 autobiography, “Sal Bando was the godfather. Capo di capo. Boss of all bosses on the AOakland A’s. We all had our roles, we all contributed, but Sal was the leader and everyone knew it.”
One of my favorite passages from Dynastic pertained to Bando’s influence on the 1973 playoffs against Baltimore:
Vital to the A’s was Bando’s presence in the field. Not his fielding—his presence. Prior to the series, Bowie Kuhn issued an edict aimed squarely at Dick Williams, banning a repeat of the manager’s traveling roadshow from the ’72 World Series. Managers would be restricted to one mound visit per inning the Commissioner said; any more would automatically trigger a pitching change. Williams took it in stride, saying with a wink, “That doesn’t mean my third baseman can’t go out there.” He meant it, too. Bando visited the mound multiple times each inning to work his particular brand of magic on Catfish Hunter, reminding the right-hander to concentrate on the first pitch of a given at-bat, to not be afraid to waste a pitch, to maintain his arm slot, to watch his mechanics or to just focus goddammit. It was not so different than the moment in Game 2 of the 1972 World Series when Bando stomped toward Hunter and screamed, “What’s wrong with you? Are you trying to lose this game?” Williams went so far as to laminate the team’s scouting report for the third baseman to carry in his pants pocket for easy cross-checking. It was an unnecessary gesture. “I know them backwards and forwards,” said Bando after the game. “We’ve had so many meetings about Baltimore I know it by heart.”
“Take [Bando] away and that team was nothing,” the A’s former traveling secretary Jim Bank said shortly after Bando left the team. Pitching coach Wes Stock agreed. “If there was one guy who made a difference,” he told me, “there’s no doubt in my mind it was Sal Bando.”
Gaylord Perry passed away yesterday at age 84. The Hall of Famer played 22 years for eight teams, winning 314 games, earning two Cy Young Awards, and sparking endless conversations about his propensity to load up the baseball with Vaseline. He learned the pitch in 1964, three seasons into what was to that point a pedestrian career, from Giants teammate Bob Shaw, and used the pitch for the next two decades to great effect, in the process becoming one of the sport’s most colorful figures.
Given that The Baseball Codes devoted an entire chapter to cheating, Perry’s presence loomed large in the book. Here, in his memory, is an excerpt of the most noteworthy passage.
In April 1973, Yankees outﬁelder Bobby Murcer exploded to the press after facing Cleveland’s greaseball king Gaylord Perry in the pitcher’s second start of the season, yelling: “Just about everything he throws is a spitter. . . . The more he knows you’re bothered by him throwing it the better he is against you. He’s got the stuff behind his ear and on his arm and on his chest. He puts it on each inning. I picked up the balls and they’re so greasy you can’t throw them.” Murcer went so far as to call commissioner Bowie Kuhn “gutless” for refusing to respond—and this was after the outﬁelder had recorded a three-hit game against Perry. When the pitcher was confronted with Murcer’s accusations, however, he said that Murcer hit “fastballs and sliders,” not spitballs. It would have been a more credible excuse had Perry been on the same page as his catcher, Dave Duncan, who in a separate, contrived denial said that Murcer had hit “off-speed stuff.”
To further the argument, The New York Times hired an unnamed Yankees pitcher to chart Perry’s every pitch throughout the game, marking those he thought to be spitballs. When the resulting pitch chart was compared with a replay of the game, the Times noted that, before every pitch identiﬁed as a spitter by the Yankees operative, Perry tugged at the inside of his left sleeve with his right (pitching) hand—an action he did not take for the rest of his repertoire. Yankees second baseman Horace Clarke, according to the chart, struck out on a spitter that, on replay, was seen to drop at least a foot. In the fourth inning, Thurman Munson asked to see the ball twice during his at-bat—during which, said the chart, Perry threw four spitters.
But Perry wasn’t just a practiced spitballer—he was also a practiced spitball deceiver. One of the strengths of the pitch, according to virtually everybody who has been suspected of throwing it, is that making a hitter believe it’s coming is nearly as valuable as actually throwing it. “The more people talk and write about my slick pitch, the more effective I get,” wrote Perry in his autobiography, Me & the Spitter. “I just want to lead the league in psych-outs every year.” To this end, Perry turned into his era’s version of 1950s spitball artist Lew Burdette—all ﬁdgets, wipes, and tugs once he stood atop a mound.
“Perry’s big right hand started to move and people started to boo,” wrote Gerald Eskenazi in the Times, about its charted game. “First he touched his cap, sliding his ﬁngers across the visor, bringing them down along the right side of his head, stopping behind his ear. Then the hand went across his uniform, touching his chest, his neck. Was all this to create a diversionary action? Was he simply having fun? . . . ‘I did the same things I always did,’ Perry said later, suppressing a smile. ‘If people want to read things into it, so be it.’ ”
Partly in reaction to the uproar Perry caused, a rule was implemented in 1974 that removed the mandate for hard proof in an umpire’s spitball warning, saying that peculiar movement on a pitch provided ample evidence. It didn’t take long—all of six innings into the season—before Perry earned his ﬁrst warning under the new rule. Not that it mattered; by the end of the season he had won twenty-one games, was voted onto the All-Star team, ﬁnished fourth in the Cy Young balloting, and was thrown out of exactly zero games for doctoring baseballs.
It wasn’t until 1982, when Perry was forty-three and in his twenty-ﬁrst season in the big leagues, that he was ﬁnally disciplined for loading up a baseball, when he earned a $250 ﬁne and ten-day suspension after throwing two allegedly illegal pitches as a member of the Mariners—the ﬁrst such punishment for this type of activity since Nelson Potter in 1944. By that point, Perry had become the most frequently accused spitballer in big-league history, and did little to dispel the notion: Not only was his autobiography suggestively titled, but it came out in 1974, nearly a decade before he retired; his North Carolina license plate read SPITTER; when his ﬁve-year-old daughter was asked by a TV reporter in 1971 whether her daddy threw a greaseball, she quickly replied, “It’s a hard slider.”
Although Perry claimed, upon his book’s release, that he didn’t throw the spitter any more, Twins manager Gene Mauch was quick to respond, saying, “But he doesn’t throw it any less, either.”
In 1991, after 314 wins over twenty-two seasons, Perry was inducted into the Hall of Fame. George Owens of the Utica Observer-Dispatch described the ceremony: “When Rod Carew was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, Panamanian ﬂags waved. When Ferguson Jenkins was inducted, Canadian ﬂags were ﬂown. When Gaylord Perry was inducted, it began to rain.”
Jerry Remy passed away on Saturday, far too early at age 68, after battling cancer for decades. He was a Boston institution and an endless supply of great baseball stories. We interviewed Remy for The Baseball Codes during a Red Sox trip to Oakland, and he did not disappoint. One of the great stories he told that day recounted a 1975 game during his rookie year with the Angels, against the Red Sox, of all teams.
It was the top of the eighth inning and the Angels led, 5-2. An error, a walk, a single and two bunts—the latter a squeeze—increased the lead to 7-2, and brought Remy to the plate with runners at second and third. I’ll let him take it from here:
Dick Williams was the manager. We had a big lead, but he wanted to rub it in a little bit and called for another squeeze. I knew that it was the wrong thing to do, but you do what the manager says. So the next day they tried to hit me with the first four pitches of an at-bat. They missed all four times.
After the game, Dick said to me, “I guess I got you thrown at.”
I said, “I guess you did.”
What was Williams’ motivation? His first managerial gig had been in Boston, and despite winning the pennant his first time out, he’d been fired midway through his third season. He wanted to rub it in, and sacrificing a rookie or two along the way was a small price to pay. For Remy, the good soldier, it was just another thing one does on a baseball diamond.
Remy was deservedly beloved by the Red Sox and their fans. RIP.
Ray Fosse passed away yesterday after a 16-year battle with cancer. The thing is, nobody in Oakland knew anything about it until August, when, facing renewed assault from the disease, the ex-catcher could hide it no longer and had to step away from his broadcast duties for the team. Even his colleagues had no idea. I last spoke to Ray in June for a feature I was writing, and he offered no clue about having to endure what must have been a considerable personal struggle.
I’ve listened to Fosse on A’s broadcasts since the 1980s, and got to know him while researching Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, & Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. I traveled around the country to interview most of the team’s players for the book, but not Ray, who was happy to repeatedly carve out time for me before games at the Oakland Coliseum. Over the course of that summer I found myself repeatedly headed to the ballpark to hunker down for 30 or 45 minutes in Ray’s office, talking about the good old days.
Fosse was an interesting cat. He played in the big leagues for a decade and was a two-time All-Star. He won a pair of World Series with the A’s, but is best known for the collision with Pete Rose during the 1970 All-Star Game that resulted in a separated shoulder that hampered him through the rest of his career.
As a prep, the Marion, Illinois, native had turned down Bear Bryant’s pitch to play football at the University of Alabama in favor of baseball at Southern Illinois. Fosse was eventually selected seventh overall by Cleveland in the first-ever player draft in 1965, six slots after the A’s took Rick Monday. A power hitter with a rocket arm, he won Gold Gloves and made All-Star appearances his first two full seasons, in 1970 and 1971. The most notable moment of his career, however, was also its least fortunate. During the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati, with the score tied 4–4 in the bottom of the 12th inning, Pete Rose decided to win the game in front of his hometown fans. Taking off from second base on Jim Hickman’s single, Rose didn’t break stride around third. The throw home from Royals center fielder Amos Otis sailed wide, forcing Fosse several steps up the third-base line to field it. Rose led with his left shoulder as he barreled into Fosse, knocking the catcher backward and sending the ball ricocheting toward the third-base dugout. Rose scored, the National League won, and Fosse said his shoulder “felt as though it had been mangled.” When X-rays came back negative, Fosse, despite being unable to raise his left arm, opened the second half behind the plate for Cleveland, batting cleanup. The catcher, who collected 16 homers and 45 RBIs before the injury, accounted for only two and 15, respectively, in the second half. The following April, eight months after the injury, further X-rays detected the fracture through which Fosse had been playing.
Fosse ended up being an excellent defensive catcher for many years to come, but was never able to recapture the hitting touch he lost in that collision.
That wasn’t Fosse’s only notable injury. While helping to break up a clubhouse fistfight between Reggie Jackson and Billy North in June 1974, he was thrown backward into a locker partition and ended up with injuries to his C6 and C7 vertebrae, which impacted a nerve in his throwing shoulder. Misdiagnosed at first as having a separated cervical disc, he spent a week in traction at Merritt Hospital, 20 hours per day with a strap wrapped around his jaw and neck, pulling his head upward in an effort to alleviate pressure on his spine. Then he took six weeks off, hoping to heal naturally. Then he had surgery—which he scheduled himself at UCSF—to fix the problem.
After coming back that August, Fosse batted .185 with only one homer in 32 games. This led to one of my favorite comeback stories from those A’s teams. Charlie Finley wanted to omit Fosse from the playoff roster against Baltimore, but manager Alvin Dark, understanding the importance of a stout defensive presence, was adamant about his inclusion. (In the three months Fosse spent on the disabled list Oakland’s team ERA was 3.21; after he came back, it was an even 2.50.)
Fosse responded by hitting a game-sealing homer (after having already singled and doubled) in Game 2, which the A’s won behind a complete-game shutout from Ken Holtzman. (Notably, Holtzman’s 2.19 ERA when Fosse caught was nearly two points lower than it was with everybody else.)
This set the scene for the postgame press conference. From Dynastic:
After the game Fosse was shepherded to a media session in the exhibition hall between the Coliseum and the adjacent Coliseum Arena, home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. As usual, the Owner did his darndest to turn it into The Charlie Finley Show, bursting into the room and screeching, “Yeeeeeeah, Fosse—that’s my boy,” almost as soon as the questions for the catcher had begun. In his hand was a glass that had until very recently been filled with champagne. Once every head in the room had spun his way, Finley enthused, “It wasn’t the bat, it was the Fosse that swung it!” There was no moment, it seemed, beyond opportunity for the Owner to draw attention to himself. Fosse was incredulous. “Then why didn’t you want to play me from the beginning?” he yelled. It was an instinctive response. Finley didn’t even bother to answer. He didn’t have to. He’d already taken what he wanted.
The A’s won their third straight championship that season (and their second with Fosse). Finley sold him back to Cleveland after the 1975 campaign.
Fosse had worked on A’s radio broadcasts since 1986, and on their TV broadcasts since 1988. He will be missed by Bay Area baseball fans, and especially so by those who got to know him even a little.
Tommy Lasorda’s passing wasn’t much of a surprise—he’s been in failing health for years now—but it was nonetheless shocking. Knowing that the baseball world is without one of its longstanding, premiere personalities will do that. Lasorda died Friday at age 93.
Lasorda was a gigantic figure, in bulk and presence alike. He reveled in his rotundity, to the point that his pasta-borne figure seemed almost necessary to constrain the force of his personality—that if he’d somehow been a slender man, he might have exploded from the pressure of his own id.
It’s not overstatement to say that Tommy Lasorda was the most important figure in the Dodgers organization since the time of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the heyday of Walter O’Malley. He gave his life to that team, spoke endlessly about bleeding Dodger blue and talking to the Big Dodger in the Sky. He wanted to live no place but LA, work for no team but the one for which he worked.
So significant was Lasorda that when I set out to write a book about the Dodgers’ 1981 championship season—They Bled Blue was published in 2019—I came to realize that no part of the story could be told without a full understanding of the man. That’s why Chapter 1 is titled The Manager, and why it tells Lasorda’s story starting from the moment he joined the franchise as a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in 1949. The man set the tone for everything to come, especially once he gained some power, and demanded requisite attention. There was simply no other way for me to approach this story. It had to be Lasorda.
The chapter begins like this:
Tommy Lasorda was always a shill. Long before he became a fount of managerial enthusiasm and brand fealty, he was a shill. Back when he was a career minor league pitcher, and then a scout, and then off to manage in remote minor league outposts like Pocatello and Ogden, in the employ of the Dodgers nearly every step of the way, even then he was a shill. The guy loved his team and wasn’t shy about letting the world know it.
I have heard from some people who take offense to the word “shill” in this context, who view it as a pejorative. Not me, not here. To me, the word shill is a complete sentiment, describing somebody wholly given to whatever he may be selling, and Tommy Lasorda never stopped selling the Dodgers. I could think of no more apt term to describe the genuine fervor behind Lasorda’s love for his ballclub, which came to define him in so many ways.
Lasorda is remembered for being a rotund ball of energy whose embrace of LA’s celebrity culture brought new levels of glitz to the Dodgers’ clubhouse. This is fine, but it also helps obscure the fact that he won two World Series and four National League pennants and two Manager of the Year Awards and helmed four All-Star teams. More even than that, to me, was the depth with which he cared about the players in his charge. This passage, from They Bled Blue, describes a period during the 1976 off-season, shortly after Lasorda was hired to manage the team:
To make sure his players knew precisely where he stood, Lasorda wrote each of them a letter explaining the privilege he felt in having a team like the Dodgers under his direction. The players had never seen anything like it. He followed the letters with phone calls to discuss his expectations for the season. He spoke to Bill Russell about stealing more bases. He told Garvey that he wanted to see more power. He suggested to Davey Lopes that an uptick in walks could make him the game’s best leadoff hitter. He informed Dusty Baker that a poor 1976 season—Baker’s first with the Dodgers, in which, hampered by a knee injury, he batted only .242 with four homers—had no bearing on 1977, and that the left field job would be his for the duration. He even telephoned reserve players, reminding them that any club with championship aspirations needed contributions from across the roster, and that players without starting roles had to become the best backups they could be. The guy long known for surface enthusiasm showed just how deep he could run. Lasorda wanted to reach his players at gut level, and this was an effective first step.
As a chapter, The Manager runs more than 6,000 words, far too long to excerpt here, so I will instead offer select passages, many of them taken from footnotes, that illustrate Tommy Lasorda in an economy of words:
During his playing days, when Lasorda protested the decision to send him to the minors, GM Buzzy Bavasi asked who should be cut instead. In what would become one of the manager’s favorite stories, Lasorda named a fellow rookie. “If I was in charge,” he proclaimed, “I’d cut that Sandy Koufax kid.”
As a player, Lasorda fought so much that in 1956 he received a telegram from American Association president Ed Doherty, reading: “Dear Tom, the exhibition you put on last night was a disgrace to baseball. You’re hereby fined $100 and, furthermore, my advice to you is, if you want to fight, join the International Boxing Congress.”
The brawls sparked by Lasorda’s relentless hail of knockdown pitches raised such cumulative furor within the Dodgers organization that in 1960, Bavasi effectively excommunicated the pitcher, kicking him off the Montreal roster with instructions to never return. Lasorda was devastated. Entirely unprepared to do anything else with his life, he pled for another chance. He could reform, he said. He would pitch nicely, toe the company line, do whatever it took. It wasn’t enough. When Bavasi refuted his entreaties cold, the almost-ex-pitcher fired the lone arrow remaining in his quiver and urged his boss to read a letter he’d sent to then-scout Al Campanis years earlier in which he proclaimed undying loyalty to the organization, long before such loyalty was a prerequisite for sustained employment. The GM may have been exasperated, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. Bavasi still wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more of Lasorda’s shenanigans as a pitcher, but he was sufficiently swayed to hire him on as a scout. At age 33, Lasorda’s pitching career was finished.
There really was no end to Lasorda’s shtick. He taught Bill Russell’s infant daughter Amy her first word: “Dodgers.” After a physical examination, Lasorda mentioned that doctors thought they found a spot on his heart, but soon realized it was actually a Dodgers logo. Sample ramble from the manager: “You’ve heard about the ‘Blue Fever,’ ‘Great Dodger in the Sky,’ ‘Dodger Blue,’ and how Dodger Stadium is Blue Heaven? Well, when nine people died in LA last year, their last words were, ‘Did the Dodgers win?’” Lasorda then labeled the fact that the Dodgers had in fact won “a great Blue coincidence.”
When Lasorda was a coach under Walter Alston, the Expos made him a lucrative offer to become their manager. He turned them down, saying, “I just couldn’t see myself telling people about the big Expo in the sky.” When Alston finally retired, Lasorda signed a one-year pact for $50,000, called it “the greatest day of my life,” and noted that the Dodgers had botched the negotiations. “If you’d have waited just a little longer,” he told Walter O’Malley, “I would have paid you to let me manage.”
When Lasorda finally became manager in LA, someone noted that he had already received more ink than Alston had in 23 years on the job.
I’ll close with a quote from longtime Dodgers trainer Herb Vike, who worked with Lasorda in Spokane and Albuquerque before joining him in Los Angeles. “Tommy believed,” Vike told me. “He believed all the time. He went around the clubhouse and all over the field, saying, ‘I believe, and you gotta believe.’ Everything was Dodger blue. He said his blood was Dodger blue. He would preach to the ballplayers and he would preach to the crowd. He had everybody believing in the Dodgers.”
He most certainly did. Here’s to Lasorda getting to see one last championship before he departed.
In the wake of Dick Allen’s death yesterday, it seems worth noting that recent months have seen the passing of an undue number of his African American contemporaries. Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have all died since September, not to mention the passings this year of Horace Clark, Lou Johnson, Bob Oliver, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn. As these men have departed, so too has their era.
Baseball in the 1960s and ’70s is impossible to consider without those guys, plus Mays and McCovey and Robinson and Aaron and Stargell and Parker and Carew and Vida and Dusty and Reggie (J.) and Reggie (S.). We can ask ourselves where such players might fit within the current structure of baseball, and the answer is more likely than at any time since the mid-1950s that they wouldn’t. Sort of.
The above players would make a major league roster in any era that allowed it. Today, though, given the lack of infrastructure to shepherd minority kids—particularly urban American minority kids—through baseball’s ranks, they might opt to do something else instead.
More difficult for me than the luminaries are players who fell somewhere between bench guy and superstar, men who scrapped their way onto rosters and forged admirable careers. Guys like Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, Jim Bibby, Oscar Gamble, Johnny Jeter, Dave Nelson, Thad Bosley, Willie Horton, Dave Cash, Horace Clark, Larry Hisle, Chet Lemon, Tommie Reynolds and Ken Singleton. End-of-bench roles went to white players in overwhelming numbers back then, so the Black men who seized those positions showed particular resolve.
These aren’t original thoughts. Baseball has long been reckoning with its athletes going off to the NBA or the NFL or careers outside of sports. Initiatives like MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program exist, and are fantastic. In researching They Bled Blue, I met Ken Landreaux at the MLB-sponsored Compton Youth Academy—one of eight such academies across the country—which offers amazing facilities, training and opportunities for a host of kids that would not otherwise have access to that level of attention. These places are vital.
But there’s no getting around the fact that while U.S. cities were once a source of low-cost prospect acquisition—a place where unknown and underserved talent could be signed for a song—that designation has shifted to Central America and the Caribbean. Exploitation of desperate prospects is a subject for another day, but it does show just how much MLB has lagged in filling the domestic void, to its own detriment.
As of last opening day, the Diamondbacks, Royals and Rays didn’t have a Black player between them. Nearly half of major league teams had two Black players or fewer. According to SABR, in 1984, more than 18 percent of all MLB players were African American. Last year that number was around 7 percent.
This isn’t about minority representation, which has blossomed thanks to increased Latino participation. This is about the loss of Black players (especially, as pertains to recent obituaries, Black stars), and how it reflects a profound loss within the sport.
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.
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.
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.
“There are a lot of people in asylums who are saner then Jay Johnstone.” — Tommy Lasorda
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.