RIP

RIP Whitey Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Whitey.

Celebrations

Showmanship Showdown in NLDS: Why Would Anyone Ever Listen To Manny Machado?

To judge by yesterday’s game, Manny Machado, a guy known for overt displays of showmanship, is less tolerant when the other team does it. Or maybe it’s that he approves of bat flips—even the excessive kind, the kind where regular bat flippers go, “Hoooo, that sure was something”—but not when a pitcher gets into the act. Or maybe Machado thinks celebrating his own feat is cool, but Dodgers pitcher Brusdar Graterol celebrating teammate Cody Bellinger is not.

So what’a a little hypocrisy between ex-teammates?

Machado is no stranger to this type of nonsense. Remember when he kept hitting A’s catchers in the head with his backswing, almost certainly with intention, then reacted poorly when the A’s threw at his knees in response? Remember when, while playing for the Dodgers, he rammed into the heel of stretching Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, again almost certainly with intention? Remember when he spiked Dustin Pedroia? Remember when he threw a hissy fit over an entirely ordinary tag? Remember when he tried to trip a catcher circling under a pop-up?

All of which to say is that Machado, a guy with maybe the worst reputation of any big leaguer—in a players’ poll last year, referenced in one of the links above, 65 percent of his colleagues rated him as the dirtiest player in the sport, with the runner-up garnering less than 10 percent—doesn’t have much in the way of moral authority when it comes to this kind of stuff.

That doesn’t keep him from talking, of course.

A recap of last night’s action:

* With the Padres trailing 4-1 in the sixth, Machado hit a leadoff homer, then went all Jose Bautista:

* With the Padres trailing 4-3 in the seventh, two outs and a runner on second, Fernando Tatis Jr. smoked Graterol’s first pitch—a 99-mph sinker—407 feet to center field. Unfortunately for the Padres, center field at Globe Life Field is precisely 407 feet from the plate, and Bellinger made one of the great catches in playoff history.

* In that moment, Graterol went from goat to hero. Tatis was the first hitter he’d faced. He’d already balked the tying run into scoring position. Now he was facing the prospect of surrendering the lead altogether.

When Bellinger came up with the ball, Graterol lost his damn mind.

Let’s give it to the guy. Sure, we haven’t seen anything like this from a pitcher pretty much ever, but the fellow was excited. When Machado was excited earlier in the game, he had a bat to throw. From the mound, Graterol threw the only things available: his cap and his glove.

This was a series-winning celebration, not an I-just-escaped-the-seventh-inning-of-Game-2-by-the-width-of-a-nose-hair celebration. It was more Little League than Major League. It was the kind of thing that you can easily see an opponent getting ticked off over.

Just not Manny Machado. Maybe if it was Eric Hosmer—Tatis’ Code-whisperer back in August—Graterol would have responded differently. But Machado has no right, now or ever, to lecture a fellow player about on-field comportment. Hell, he likely inspired Graterol with his own actions earlier in the game. When Machado, on hand in the on-deck circle, started yelling at the pitcher—a triple “fuck you” followed by “I’ll be waiting for you”—Graterol offered a perfect response: He waved and blew kisses.

Various Dodgers, primarily Max Muncy, emerged to shout Machado back to his dugout, and the confrontation more or less ended there … for the time being. Maybe Machado will be waiting. Maybe some of his teammates are willing to take up the cause. If anything does happen, it’ll probably go down next season, when every inning isn’t quite so fraught.

If so, it’ll be the dumbest fight in baseball history, two guys overreacting to each other’s overreaction on the field. Let the kids play.

Retaliation

Today’s Lesson: You Can’t Slow Acuña, But You Can Wake The Braves

Ronald Acuña homered on the second pitch of yesterday’s Game 1 of the NLDS and pimped it, and the Marlins drilled him in response. How stupid is that? Let’s count the ways.

* Miami plunked Acuña with nobody on and one out in the third inning, while holding a 4-1 lead. It was still anybody’s game, and gave the Braves a baserunner with the heart of their order coming up.

* Plate ump Andy Fletcher warned both dugouts, which pissed off Braves skipper Brian Snitker, but more importantly seemed to fluster Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara—and almost certainly affected his willingness to work inside. Sure enough, two batters later, Marcel Ozuna doubled Acuña home. The next hitter, Travis d’Arnaud, doubled home Ozuna, reducing Miami’s lead to 4-3.

* With Alcantara still on the mound in the seventh, Acuña continued to be angry. With one on and nobody out, he singled sharply to center field. That ended Alcantara’s night and began a six-run rally that iced the game for Atlanta.

There is, of course, a history here. In 2018, Acuña homered eight times in eight games, including five straight—three of which came leading off against the Marlins. Miami pitcher Jose Urena responded by drilling him in the elbow. Earlier this season, Urena hit Acuña again, making five times in all that Marlins pitchers have drilled the guy. Nobody else has done it more than twice.  

Alcantara’s ensuing claims of unintentionality are believable (Snitker himself, “guarantee(s) he wasn’t trying to hit him”), but it comes with a caveat. To counter a guy who is hitting .318/.414/.645 with 17 homers and 44 RBIs against them—by far his best numbers against any team—Miami has taken to pitching Acuña consistently inside. In their view, hitting him on occasion simply comes with the territory.

That doesn’t mean that the Braves have to like it. Pitchers who play inside must have the control to do so effectively, especially during the postseason, when issuing free baserunners frequently ends badly. Acuña is clearly fed up with it, and while he had the presence of mind yesterday to avoid getting tossed from the game over it, there are sure to be repercussions.

One of them involves the Marlins being down a game in the series. They’ve been pitching Acuña inside for years, and he continues to pummel them. Maybe try something different in Game 2, Miami.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Is The Ninth Inning, With A Big Lead, The Time To Steal A Base? Gleyber Torres Thinks So

After Gleyber Torres stole second base last night with Yankees leading Tampa Bay, 9-3, in the ninth, some people, including Pedro Martinez on the TBS broadcast, intoned that he was disrespectfully trying to run up the score. In order to determine whether this is actually the case, we must first identify a key component of the play: Was Torres just playing hard, was he being a boor or was he sending a message? All three options are in play.

Playing hard
Tampa Bay went 8-2 against the Yankees this season, accounting for nearly all of their seven-game division lead at season’s end. None of those eight wins were laughers, though the Rays scored the winning run in the eighth two times, and once in the ninth. Late-game comebacks are possible, and in a five-game series, every run counts.  

Being a boor
The Yankees don’t like the Rays, and the Rays don’t like the Yankees. Kevin Kiermaier said so. This dates to at least 2018, when CC Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Austin Romine with a half-million-dollar fastball, then kept up the antagonism the following season. More recently, this past September, New York and Tampa Bay traded inside pitches and HBPs to the point that dugouts emptied and Aroldis Chapman and Aaron Boone were suspended.

Could Torres have stolen the base because he doesn’t like the Rays? Of course. Did the fact that he did it against Shane McClanahan, a guy making his major league debut, serve to further roil the Tampa Bay dugout? Could be.

Sending a message
The game was tight until the ninth, when Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam off of Rays reliever John Curtiss gave the Yankees their six-run cushion. Curtiss—who by that point had given up two singles, two walks and Stanton’s homer, five runs in all, while recording only one out—threw his second pitch to the next hitter, Gio Urshela, high and tight. Torres, batting next, got a similar treatment.

Were those pitches intentional, borne of frustration? Given Curtiss’ struggles, that’s a strong possibility. The right-hander is coming off the finest season of his short career, during which he issued three walks all year. It’s reasonable to think that walking two guys in the span of four hitters during his first-ever playoff appearance, followed by a back-breaking homer, might have jumbled his emotions at least a little bit.

It’s also reasonable to think that Torres might have taken it precisely that way.

On the broadcast, Martinez did not hide his feelings, calling the steal “a terrible mistake” and intoning the maxim about “respect the opposition because you expect them to respect you.”

For that notion to hold water, Torres’ motivation would have to fall under one of the first two headings above. If what he did was actually a response to those inside pitches, however, the idea of respect is muted. Martinez, one of baseball’s prime intimidators during his Hall of Fame career, understands this as well as anybody, though he speaks from the perspective of someone who dished out far more in this regard than he took.

Should Torres ever decide to talk about why he did what he did, then perhaps we’ll know more. Until that point, it’s mainly a matter of waiting to see if the Rays respond, and how.

RIP

RIP Bob Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrations

Break Out the Camera, MLB, It’s Selfie Time

Last year I talked about a minor leaguer doing push-ups at second base to celebrate a double, and how it fit into the modern landscape of Let the Kids Play.

It was inevitable that, after the league office built a marketing campaign around celebrating players doing celebratory things, the envelope would get pushed. In the link above, it was a kid who didn’t draw much notice given that he was playing in the Single-A Florida State League. Yesterday it was Marcel Ozuna, who carries a somewhat more robust public profile.

Just a couple of years ago, somebody stopping in the middle of his home run trot to take a pantomime selfie, especially during the postseason, would have earned a brushback pitch—at minimum—in future at-bats. When Ozuna did it yesterday (and when half the Braves roster got into the act after Adam Duvall homered three batters later) … well, we’ll have to wait until next season for a response from the vanquished Reds, but anything they offer beyond a shrug of the shoulders will be a surprise.

Really, what else could we expect? This surely isn’t what baseball had in mind when it officially blessed on-field celebrations, but they must have known that when the outlandish becomes normalized, players will search for the next extreme. Now we have touchdown dances mid-trot.

Within that context, it’s difficult to argue with Ozuna. Or with Fernando Tatis … or Manny Machado … or Luis Robert … or Tatis AGAIN, all of whom did some celebrating of their own yesterday.

These guys and the rest of their cohorts are bringing life to the sport, and there’s lots of benefit to that. If an angry Reds pitcher decides to exact some revenge on Ozuna next season, or a member of the Cardinals takes some issue with Tatis today, we’ll deal with that fallout then. Chances are, they’ve already forgotten everything, in which case baseball will get along just fine.

It’s the possibility that a pitcher hasn’t forgotten that would throw the entire machine off kilter. Because how does baseball as an institution handle somebody feeling disrespected by a celebration that the league itself has tacitly endorsed? Suspension has always been the discipline of of choice (with the latest example coming just last week, against Robert’s White Sox), but the inherent tension between old-school pitchers behaving in traditional ways, and the new-school mentality telling them to just get over it, is not going away. (To be fair, some pitchers fully embrace swag of their own.)

MLB, of course, could easily legislate this level of celebration out of existence if that was truly its concern. But it’s not. The league likes the attention, not to mention that there’s nothing inherently bad about guys getting their fun on.

Which leaves the holdout ranks of red-asses to adapt or get suspended. Something will eventually give, it’s just a matter of when.

RIP

RIP Jay Johnstone

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

Photo by Rich Kee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanhouse, Reuss and Johnstone. Photo by Rich Kee.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

All-Time Bat Flip Draws Old School Response From Team That Proclaims To Be Beyond Such Things When It’s Their Guy Doing The Flipping

To judge by Friday’s game, the White Sox aren’t so big on the golden rule. Willson Contreras did unto them, unleashing a monster bat flip after homering in the third inning, and they responded by drilling the Cubs catcher in the back four innings later.

Sure, every party on the South Side denied intent. Manager Rick Renteria said that the pitch got away from reliever Jimmy Cordero. Cordero said that “the ball sunk a lot” and “was just a bad pitch.”

Said “sinker,” of course, was 98 mph and connected with Contreras’s upper back. It came with nobody on base, in the seventh inning of a game that the White Sox trailed, 7-0. There was no tail to it, just straight-line execution. It looked intentional from the moment it left Cordero’s hand.

Part of the issue here is the notion of drilling anybody for bat flipping in the modern climate. Contreras didn’t stare anybody down or show anybody up; to the contrary, he was looking directly at his teammates in the first-base dugout when he let loose his lumber.

The other part of the issue is that the modern climate exists thanks in huge part to a guy standing in the White Sox dugout when this all went down. Tim Anderson, of course, was at the center of a massive controversy last April, when he received similar treatment from the Royals for a bat flip of his own. At that time, the White Sox party line included defending Anderson’s rights to celebrate as he saw fit. This did not go unnoticed by the Cubs on Friday.

“All the hype was on the guy on the other side when [Anderson] bat-flipped, and we just let him play, right?” said Cubs manager David Ross afterward, in an NBC Chicago report. “I thought Tim Anderson’s bat flip last year, where he flipped it and looked in his dugout, that’s what you want. And that’s exactly what Willson did. He bat-flipped. It wasn’t to disrespect the other group. … Probably not my style if I’m playing, but these guys need a little bit of an edge. I don’t think he deserved to get hit at all. I don’t think you ever throw at somebody on purpose. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I knew it was coming,” Contreras said afterward, in an MLB.com report, adding that there was nothing wrong with what he did. “I celebrated with my teammates,” he said. “I got pumped up. I wear my emotions below my sleeves. That was one thing that I did. I have no regrets—zero regrets.”

Umpires ejected Cordero, which raised the White Sox hackles, possibly because there had been no prior warning. Renteria and pitching coach Don Cooper ended up ejected, as well.

So now we’re left to wonder where the line is drawn, even against the bat-flippingest team in the land. Not everybody on every roster shares similar feelings about every issue, of course, but even those members of the White Sox with a distaste for that brand of showmanship must recognize that the face of their franchise is also the face of the entire Let the Kids Play movement. And that bears significant weight.

Renteria seemed to spell it out pretty clearly after Anderson’s bat-flip controversy last year, describing his player’s actions in almost the same terms that Ross did on Friday.

“Everybody has those ‘unwritten rules,’ everybody has their own, I guess,” he said last April, in a Chicago Sun-Times report. “Timmy wasn’t showing them up or showing the pitcher up, he was looking into our dugout, getting the guys going.”

But the manager didn’t stop there. Renteria then laid down a rule that his team in no way followed yesterday.

“Get him out,” he said. “You want him to not do that? Get him out.”

In retrospect, there’s nothing golden about that.

Update (9-26-20): Renteria and Cordero have both been suspended.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

The Day That Barry Bonds Learned To Not Bunt During A Blowout Game

Last week, the Athletic published a terrific oral history of Barry Bonds’ time in Pittsburgh. Included in the array of stories was one that took place when the slugger was 20 years old and in his first professional season, with the Prince William Pirates of the Single-A Carolina League.

Bonds himself narrates:

“One game, we were leading by seven or eight, and I bunted and got on base. I heard the other manager over there screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t calculate why. Right before my next at-bat, Bobby [Bonilla] comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. He says, ‘B.B., whatever is gonna happen next, don’t react.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘Just trust me.’

“So, I go up to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it. And I got drilled almost in the head — really high on the back or shoulder. I went down to first base. I didn’t do anything. I came into the dugout and Bobby Bo says, ‘This ain’t college, kid. You can never do that. We’re up by eight runs in the seventh inning. You do not bunt.’ I said, ‘I got that. I’ll never do that again.’ ”

Bonilla, of course, was all of 22, but in his fifth year in pro ball, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Starting in 1988, Bonds went 8-for-14 when bunting for hits over the course of his career (stats are unavailable from before that point), and once told Alex Rodriguez that he could have hit .400 if he’d adopted bunting as a regular strategy.

Bonds had about the highest baseball IQ of his generation, so the smart money’s on him not having repeated that particular maneuver early on. Later in his career, of course, the point became moot: On those occasions that he saw a hittable pitch, Bonds wanted to take advantage in grander ways than tapping it down the line.

RIP

RIP Betty Caywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked Moore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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