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.

RIP

RIP Irv Noren

Irv Noren died over the weekend, just shy of his 95th birthday. He played for 11 big-league seasons, notably winning World Series with the Yankees in 1952, 1953 and 1956, and earning a spot on the American League All-Star team in 1954.

He was significant to me as the third base coach for the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s under Dick Williams, and, for a time, Alvin Dark. I visited his home in Southern California as part of my research for “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” and he regaled me with detailed stories of his time in the Bay Area. (As I departed, he handed me a copy of an old photograph, taken during his minor league days with the Hollywood Stars, alongside a teenage batboy named Sparky Anderson.)

From the book:

“Noren was Dick Williams’ guy. The two had grown up together in Pasadena, and though they were separated by four years as schoolkids, they stayed close through their professional lives. Both were signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Noren in 1946 (following a one-season stint in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA) and Williams a year later. When Williams was assigned to Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1948, he moved into Noren’s house. Noren advanced to the big leagues with Senators and then the Yankees, where he was an All-Star and won three World Series. After four more stops as a player, he became player-manager of the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League (where he implemented a $50 fine for any player irresponsible enough to show up too sunburned to play). After Williams was fired as manager of the Red Sox in 1969, he promised Noren that he would reserve a spot for him on his next coaching staff. Sure enough, when Finley hired Williams in 1971, Noren was one of the manager’s first calls.”

Actually, only part of the above made it into the final copy. I detailed a fair amount of Noren’s journey with the A’s, but much of it—mostly having to do with the team’s transition from Williams to Alvin Dark—was cut for reasons of length. Noren’s tenure in Oakland ended with a mid-season dismissal in 1974, and the old coach was insistent on making sure the record was correct when it came to his perception of things. So I give you an unpublished excerpt from “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic”:

Despite having played with Noren on both the Cardinals (1957-58) and the Cubs (1959), Dark got off to a rocky start with him at the beginning of the [1974 season]. Noren had been one of the front-runners to replace Dick Williams, and it was assumed that Dark’s hiring would not sit well with him. (The reality, of course, was that Noren’s long friendship with Williams virtually eliminated him from the competition before it even started.) Noren’s case was not helped when he was nowhere to be found upon Dark’s arrival in Mesa for spring training. It was easy to leap to conclusions, but Noren said that hurt feelings had nothing to do with his absence.

“I was really sick the day that spring training opened,” he said, looking back. “The doctor didn’t want me to fly or drive. I called Alvin and [A’s owner Charlie Finley] and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t report—I’m in bed.’ Alvin thought I wanted his job, and that I was pissed off because I didn’t get it. I had no inkling at all about wanting his job. I was just sick. I had the doctor write me out a note and reported three days later.”

Over the season’s first six weeks, Dark’s suspicions of his third-base coach ballooned to the point that he thought Noren was ignoring signs in order to make the manager look bad. Dark’s instructions for bunts and stolen bases were summarily overlooked to such a degree that he took the problem to Finley. The Owner, seeking solutions, theorized that perhaps Dark’s signs were too complex. He asked for a demonstration. 

Dark explained to him about things like the indicator sign, before which everything else is subterfuge, and the complex methods with which the indicator can be utilized. Finley asked for the entire routine. Alvin did it, wiping across his chest, tapping his way down his arms, touching his wrist, his chin, his ear. It was all standard fare—but not for Finley.

“No wonder he misses signs,” said the Owner. “Your signs are too complicated. Make it simple. Touch your hat for a bunt. Touch your earlobe for a steal.” With a sigh, Dark explained that signs—his and every other manager’s—must be complex lest they be too easily deciphered.

Noren’s explanation, offered decades after the fact, was a bit different.

“Alvin came in and wanted me to use his signs, not my signs, so I had to learn a whole new set in a very short amount of time,” he said, looking back at Dark’s crash-course introduction to the club. “He also wanted me to relay signs to the guy on deck, which made things especially complicated. I missed the sign on the hit-and-run one time, and Alvin got mad. I said, ‘Alvin, I’m doing the best I can.’ ”

Noren paused to think about the lunacy of it all. “I’m going to do that to players?” he said, referring to the reports that Dark thought he’d been missing signs intentionally. “These guys won two World Series and I get along great with them. I’m going to screw them up because I don’t like the manager? Come on.”

Nonetheless, Dark was so disillusioned with the coach that he eventually tried to shift first base coach Jerry Adair to Noren’s position on the third base line. Adair demurred, pointing out that he was not a third-base coach, never mind that the team had won two straight championships with Noren giving the signals.

Noren appeared doomed from season’s start. He was popular with the players—a number of whom, including Bando, Hunter, Rudi and Lindblad, came out for a promotion at his liquor store in Arcadia, Calif., timed to coincide with an A’s trip to nearby Anaheim—and many were upset by his sudden departure. (The fact that he owned a liquor store may also have soured him in the eyes of the teetotaling Dark, despite the fact that Noren did not drink, either.)

The coach knew something was wrong before the game, when sportswriter Jim Street of the San Jose Mercury News, who was married to Noren’s daughter, Debbie, informed him that he had seen A’s minor league coach Bobby Hofman getting off a plane at the Oakland airport that afternoon. Throughout the game, Noren said, Dark refused to so much as glance in his direction. “Every pitch I’d look into the dugout for a sign, and he’d just look away,” he said. After the bottom of the seventh inning, Noren’s wife beckoned him to her seat in the stands. She was sitting with Debbie, whose husband had just confirmed the news. “It’s you,” she said. “You’re getting fired.” Noren’s rage was given two innings to build, and when Dark called him into his office after the game to deliver the news, the coach unleashed a bitter tirade. “I’m not a fighter, but I was ready to fight,” he said, looking back. “I tore into him. Alvin just sat there and didn’t say a word.”

Sure enough, Noren (who was fired along with fellow coach Vern Hoscheit) was replaced by Hofman. It was his last big league coaching job.

Baseball lost a good one this weekend.

RIP

RIP Ron Fairly

Longtime big league player and broadcaster Ron Fairly passed away on Wednesday at age 81. He played for six teams, primarily the Dodgers, starting in 1958, making two All-Star teams over a 21-season career (including in 1977, at age 38) and being a part of three World Series winners.

Fairly sat for an extensive interview for The Baseball Codes in which he proved himself to be unyieldingly old-school. The conversation took place in 2008, four years before Yasiel Puig’s debut with the Dodgers, back when bat flipping and excessive posturing was still relatively taboo, when Barry Bonds was more outlier than influencer. Even by those standards, Fairly’s outlook provided a charming glance into the way comportment once was held within baseball, and the type of man for whom such things mattered.

You don’t embarrass, you don’t show up the other team. And you don’t make fun of them by hitting a home run and flipping the bat and doing a twirl or jumping up in the air. … It used to be that when you hit a home run, you didn’t do anything—you just ran around the bases. By hitting the ball out of the ballpark, you’d done all the damage you needed to do. You’d hit a home run, so run around the bases and get off the field. That’s changed. Today it’s a more fancy, more showboat-type of play. Take an easy play and make it look a little tougher than it really is. That changed probably when they started doing the sports highlight shows. They don’t put routine plays on the air—only if someone makes a fancy play of some sort. It’s become habit with a lot of players. Instead of just making the play and throwing the guy out, they have to do something to make the play appear to be more difficult than it really is. The best example I can give you is, if you think back just a few years ago, watching Alan Trammell field a ball at shortstop and throw somebody out, versus watching some of the same type of plays today. I thought Alan Trammell’s fundamentals were as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He was a fantastic shortstop. And he didn’t feel the need to be fancy.

He also offered some philosophy about pitchers intentionally throwing at batters.

There has to be a reason to knock you down. Good golly, if you’re making out after out after out, why in the world would they throw at you? You’re an out man! Why would they throw at you and wake you up? It’s when you’re doing something against the opposing team like hitting the ball out of the ballpark, like getting base hits with runners in scoring position, when you’re doing something to hurt them like driving in runs—then they’ll turn around and say, “Well, let’s find out a little bit more about this guy.” Then you’re liable to be knocked down. The idea is to see how you react to being knocked down. If it doesn’t bother you, they’ll turn around and say, “Well, if it doesn’t bother him, we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way to get him out.” …

Don Drysdale was the best at protecting his hitters. Don said, “You go up and swing as hard as you want to, because if they throw at you they’re only going to do it once. I’ll take care of it.” Don always said it was two for one—two of theirs for every one of ours—so I never had to say a word to anybody, ever.

In addition to playing alongside one of the sport’s great enforcers in Drysdale, Fairly played against the only guy in Drysdale’s class when it came to that sort of stuff:

I talked to opponents all the time [while playing first base]. There were some guys who didn’t like it, like Bob Gibson. I said, “Hi, Bob. How are you tonight?” And he says, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” That was the last time I talked to Bob at first base.

In the years since that interview, I’ve used the phrase “He’s an out man!” countless times. From a personal standpoint, I remember Fairly best as a Giants broadcaster in the late-1980s and early 1990s. He was a capable describer of game action, even though his stories—and there were a lot of them—tended to be about the Dodgers. (Then again, why wouldn’t they, considering that he spent his first dozen seasons in LA, which included four World Series.)

Baseball lost one of its good ones.

RIP

RIP Charlie Silvera

I want to take a moment to remember Charlie Silvera, best known as Yogi Berra’s backup on the Yankees, but known to me as the crusty old scout who I loved talking to over the years in the press box of Oracle Park. Charlie, who was already a notably old man when I first met him nearly 20 years ago, died on Saturday at age 94. On one hand, this is longer than any reasonable human could hope for, but on the other it is still shocking for a guy who I assumed would live forever.

“They hated the Yankees,” he once told me. “They respected us, but they hated us.” That hatred might have had something to do with the fact that New York won six championships during Silvera’s tenure with the team, including five straight from 1949 to 1954. (He was the final survivor of the dozen men who played on all five clubs.) He spent nine years with the Yankees, during which time he started only 114 games, accumulating 484 plate appearances and a single home run. (Berra, after all, rarely took days off.) After a single season with the Cubs (and 13 more games started), Silvera followed Billy Martin to three teams—the Twins, the Tigers and the Rangers—where he served as a coach under his former teammate.

Charlie was at the center of a wonderful story about friendship, which involved growing up in San Francisco and playing against two men at rival high schools who would one day be teammates in New York: Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown. Their relationship ended up spanning 70-odd years.

Charlie once told me the amazing story of Ralph “Pine Tar” Buxton being recruited for the Yankees by Casey Stengel based at least in part on his ability to teach pitchers on the staff how to cheat. That ended up in The Baseball Codes, as did Silvera’s classic quote about backup players receiving less-sought-after positions in the train’s sleeper car: “The stars, the starting lineup would have the middle of the car, and Charlie Silvera would spend his lifetime over the wheels. Bobby Brown says that anybody that rode over wheels for his whole career deserves whatever he got.”

Charlie also told a host of stories that didn’t make the final copy. Among them;

  • “I remember when Allie Reynolds hit Chico Carrasquel with a curveball. It was probably Chico’s first year, and he got all upset. Allie said, ‘You think that’s bad, I’m gonna hit you next time with a fastball.’ ”
  • “The only guy who ever threw at me was Early Wynn, and he would throw at his mother. But that was a way of testing you, to see if you hung in, if you were scared. And with no helmets!”
  • “Whitey Ford didn’t like to switch signs. He had the same signs—one finger for a fastball, two for a curve—with a man on second, or not. He wanted to get the ball and throw. He didn’t want to lose his concentration. [Vic] Raschi used a scoreboard sign: If [the numbers of the count, added together] were even, it was a fastball, odd was an automatic curveball. If you flapped, it changed them. They were tough signs to use, but Raschi wanted to use them.”
  • “[Eddie] Lopat, he had one sign, ‘wiggle finger,’ because he could see when he got to the top of the mound if the batter was going to move up. He was a slowball pitcher, but he could ride his fastball in. It was limited, but it was effective. That was it. Wiggle finger.”
  • “In Chicago, they had a light in the scoreboard, in the circle of the zero [in Sherm Lollar’s #10], that would flash for a curveball. In Cleveland, they would put guys out in center field. Eddie Bockman used to go out there and get the signs from center field. Dean Chance went out there. They used binoculars or a telescope. Chance said he was going to go out and be inconspicuous, then wore the brightest red shirt he could find. In the playoffs in Baltimore, when Minnesota was playing there, [George] Mitterwald was catching and [Johnny] Roseboro was out in our bullpen with binoculars, trying to get the signs, and they caught him. One of our pitchers turned him in, one of our own, because he said that was cheating.” [That pitcher, Al Worthington, is featured prominently in The Baseball Codes.]
  • [Under the heading of professional courtesy]: “Lew Brissie was shot up in World War II, had a bad leg and wore a protector over his shin. Phil Rizzuto still bunted on him, and Brissie would throw at Rizzuto because of this. He went after Phil, threw at his head. He felt that this was taking advantage of a wounded veteran. He was one guy we all knew not to bunt against.”
  • “When you joined the Yankees, you were told the do’s and don’ts about what to do and what not to do. When I joined the club, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio were in the service, so the four policemen on the team, the disciplinarians, were Tommy Henrich (age 33), Johnny Lindell (27), Snuffy Stirnweiss (29) and Billy Johnson (27). They were the ones that said, ‘You don’t get ’em tomorrow, you get ’em today.’ They said ‘Don’t fuck with our money’ to anybody who might be messing up during games.”
  • “[Catcher] Clint Courtney had been in the Yankee farm system, went to spring training with us, and then was traded to the Browns. [Gil] McDougald had played with him at Beaumont, and Courtney had him out in a play at the plate but McDougald kicked the ball out of his glove for the go-ahead run. So Courtney is the first hitter up in the bottom of the ninth, and he hit the first pitch off the screen, kept running and he jumped feet first into Rizzuto, who had the ball at second. Well, that’s the last time Courtney saw anybody friendly from our team, because he was just clobbered from all over. The retribution went on and on and on. Billy Martin tagged him on the face and knocked his glasses off. And Whitey Ford was jumping up and down, stomping on his glasses. Courtney had a little trouble finding his way home.”
  • “I was catching, with Ted Williams hitting and Bill McGowan umpiring. They called McGowan ‘Number One.’ He was a grouchy old bastard, but he was a good ball-and-strike umpire when he wanted to be, and generally, Yankees vs. Red Sox was something big. So we go to a two-and-one count, and the next pitch caught a lot of the plate. I said, ‘Jeez, Bill, that was a pretty good pitch.’ He said, ‘Throw the ball back, you bush bastard. They came here to see him hit, not you catch.’ ”

That was Charlie in a nutshell. Humble, endearing, and salty enough to remain forever intriguing. It was at his house that I got to hold a game-used Ted Williams bat, one small piece among a wondrous array of memorabilia collected over a career spent paying attention to that kind of thing in ways that I wish more ballplayers would have done.

The guy was never a star, but he was baseball, through and through. He will be missed.

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.

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.