Week of March 27, 2020

Happy birthday to my brother, Sean, who has been there for me since Day 1, and turns FORTY today. I love you, big bro! -TOB


This Week’s Best from Posnanski’s Top 100

No. 11, Mickey Mantle:

A journey into how terrible Mickey Mantle’s father is:

Mickey was his father’s life’s work. His mother, Lovell, would say that when Mickey was 12 hours old, Mutt showed him a baseball for the first time and felt just a little bit heartbroken when Mickey turned toward milk instead. Mickey said he was taught baseball player positions before the alphabet and his nightly lullaby was the radio broadcast of St. Louis Cardinals games.

At this point, I’m laughing because I know it’s a little crazy…but also, I can absolutely relate to all of it. 

His mother, Lovell, was distant and detached. Neither of Mickey’s parents said, “I love you,” throughout his childhood.

I’m now socially distancing myself from Mickey’s parents. I know it was a different time, but god damn. That’s awful.

The love, as it was, came through daily baseball workouts. Mickey would come home from school, and Mutt would come home from the mines, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, exhausted from his day, and the sessions would begin. They were long and intense and inescapable no matter the weather.

“Dad, I’m hungry,” Mickey would say when dinner time hit.

“Your belly can wait,” Mutt would growl, and that’s when he might throw one at his son’s head to get the point across.

“When his Dad would pitch to him for hours,” Merlyn wrote, “out of a hundred pitches, Mick would be in terror of missing one and looking bad and having his father frown or criticize.”

Mickey Mantle wet his bed until he was 16 years old.

Christ. My oldest loves playing sports (My youngest is getting there, too). All sports. He’s voracious. But he’s the one begging me to play after I get home from work. And once we play, he’s the one begging me to keep playing. But the second he is done, I’m done. 

When you read this story, you will feel so bad about the obvious pain Mantle had to deal with his entire life because he had terrible, un-loving parents. -TOB

PAL: Posnanski deserves a sports writing award for these essays. What a feat, for real. Aside from the novelty of the countdown, I love the anecdotes within so many of these stories. Mantle’s is the best yet. Publish this book already!

This particular passage caught me: 

He won the Triple Crown in 1956. He was even better in ’57. He played 18 years in the big leagues, and his Yankees went to the World Series in 12 of them. He hit 536 home runs and won three MVPs and along the way, he inspired the hopes of countless kids. Singer/songwriter Paul Simon was one of those kids, and when he wrote “Mrs. Robinson,” he really was thinking, “Where have you gone, Mickey Mantle.” But “Joe DiMaggio” had the right amount of syllables.

This serves as an important reminder that greatness is not always measured in sum. Longevity is just one measure of greatness, and – outside of a couple examples – it might be the least inspiring. Bill Simmons will tell you Karl Malone was a very good player, but he’s not great, even though his numbers will tell you he’s a top-10 NBA player. Simmons is right, and anyone who watched the NBA in the 90s would tell you the same. 

Bob Costas described Mantle as, “[T]hat baseball hero. And for reasons that no statistics, no dry recitation of the facts, can possibly capture, he was the most compelling baseball hero of our lifetime.” 

By any account, prime Mantle was the Mike Trout of his time (rather, Mike Trout is the Mantle of his time), and Mantle went to the World Series 12 times, winning seven rings! Can you imagine Trout on the Yankees and winning 7 times. Oh, and by the way, Mantle was a switch-hitter and holds the following World Series records: 

  • Home runs
  • RBI
  • Extra-base hits
  • Runs
  • Walks
  • Total bases 

And then there was life for Mantle. This paragraph from Posanski got me. It’s just such an incredibly sad notion: 

Mantle himself couldn’t understand it. I saw Mantle a few times late in life — at events, at baseball card shows — and his body was destroyed by injuries and alcohol and all those late nights, and people would approach him with tears in their eyes as they tried to find the words to explain the role he had played in their lives. And, more often than not, he would turn away from them, as if he couldn’t tolerate their affection or, more likely, as if he felt entirely unworthy of their love.

For Mickey Mantle, living was the hard part.

But on the field, in his prime? Good grief, he must’ve been a sight to see.  

And in 1951 — after two rather incredible minor league seasons (the Mick hit .383 in Joplin, Mo. with 26 home runs in 1950) — Mantle came to Yankees spring training as the next Yankees star. The team was so sure about it that they gave him uniform No. 6, to put him next in line.

Uniform No. 3: Babe Ruth.

Uniform No. 4: Lou Gehrig.

Uniform No. 5: Joe DiMaggio.

Uniform No. 6: Mickey Mantle.

And then he struggles, and then there’s the scene between father and son after Mantle gets sent down to the minors… Read this essay.

Finally, show me a switch-hitter, and I’ll likely show you an asshole dad.

TOB: One thing, though (and this is the second time I’ve had to correct Posnanski for telling an apocryphal story as truth – the last being his retelling of a previously disproven story about Roberto Clemente). Posnanski’s bit about Paul Simon using DiMaggio instead of Mantle is very likely not true. When I read it, it seemed suspicious. So I did a little digging. It was easy, though; there’s a whole Wikipedia section about it in an article on the song. Posnanski gets his story from this:

References in the last verse to Joe DiMaggio are perhaps the most discussed. Simon, a fan of Mickey Mantle, was asked during an intermission on The Dick Cavett Show why Mantle was not mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Dick. It’s about how many beats there are.”

But from all other evidence, it seems Simon was joking when he said that to Dick Cavett:

Simon happened to meet DiMaggio at a New York City restaurant in the 1970s, and the two immediately discussed the song. DiMaggio said “What I don’t understand, is why you ask where I’ve gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven’t gone anywhere!” Simon replied “that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night”. In a New York Times op-ed in March 1999, shortly after DiMaggio’s death, Simon discussed this meeting and explained that the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio’s unpretentious and modest heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes. He further reflected: “In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence”. Simon subsequently performed “Mrs. Robinson” at Yankee Stadium in DiMaggio’s honor shortly after his death in 1999.

Simon’s words about DiMaggio seem sincere and ring true. The story about Mantle seems like a joke.

No. 10, Satchel Paige:

Paige was one of the greatest pitchers, and characters, in baseball history. I’ve long read stories about him, but it’s nice to have them all in one place.

Paige was a natural showman. You had to come to the ballpark and see what he might do next. Sometimes, he would catch fly balls behind his back. On occasion, when he was feeling puckish, he would tell his outfielders to sit down because he was just going to strike out this sucker anyway. Sometimes he would purposely load the bases and then strike out the next three batters, just to give the fans a thrill.

He usually guaranteed to strike out the first six or first nine or first 12 batters he faced. The first time he made the guarantee, it was in Birmingham. He said he would strike out the first six, and there was much shouting and abuse from the Birmingham Barons’ bench. But after he struck out the first five — while the crowd lost their minds — the Barons players stood up in unison and waved their white towels in surrender.

Ol’ Satch took pity on them and let the sixth guy pop out.

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts faced Paige in an exhibition and, in Roberts’ memory, he got a hit. Years later, when Roberts was inducted into the Hall of Fame (as a pitcher; he actually couldn’t hit much), he saw Paige and reminded him of the hit.

Paige shook his head. “Roberts,” he said, “at home, I have a book with the names of all the great hitters who got a hit off me.”

He paused.

“You ain’t in it,” Paige said.

In 1965 — at age 58 (at least; the papers called him 60 years old) — Satchel Paige pitched one last time in the Major Leagues.  You know, Paige had a pretty successful big-league career even if he didn’t get there until he was 41 (at least). He posted a career 124 ERA+. He was 10 wins above replacement.

To give you an idea of how good that is, he ranks eighth all-time in WAR after age 41, ahead of many other celebrated old pitchers including Jamie Moyer, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry and Grover Cleveland Alexander. How good must the young Satchel Paige have been?

His last game was a publicity stunt. Paige knew it. “I’m a gimmick,” he said. The Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley was looking for a big gate at the end of another dismal season, and most people saw through it — there were fewer than 10,000 people at the ballpark in Kansas City that day. A rocking chair was set up for Paige and there was a woman dressed as a nurse who stood by him as he rocked.

Paige didn’t mind. He was, after all, a great showman. And he felt like he had a surprise left for people. “I got my fastball and my famous hesitation pitch,” he said. “I can go three innings for sure. I got as good a chance as any of those young boys out there.”

He did just that. He pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit, a double off the center-field wall. Here’s a good bar bet: Who got the one hit in Satchel Paige’s last big-league game? It was Carl Yastrzemski, who celebrated after the game by hugging Paige tight.

“I don’t know how old he is,” Yaz said. “But that man can still pitch.”

Yep. One hit in 3 innings at age 58 against the fuckin Red Sox with 25-year old Yaz and 20-year old Tony Conligiaro.

“How do you do it?” he was asked many times about that control, and he always shrugged. Of all the extraordinary things he did in his life, working up through poverty and racism and becoming a legend, throwing strikes seemed like the easiest part of all.

“Home plate don’t move,” he said.

Haaaaaaaaaaahahahaha. Fantastic.

PAL:

“I want,” Paige said not long before his death, “to be the onliest man in the United States that nobody knows nothin’ about.”

Goddamn, that’s a great tombstone. 

“Even if you’re only seven, eight or nine, it eats at you when you know you got nothing and can’t get a dollar,” he said. “The blood gets angry. You want to go somewhere, but you’re just walking. You don’t want to but you got to walk.

Heavy stuff right there. And how about this nugget: 

You could argue that the greatest pitcher in baseball history, Satchel Paige, and the greatest hitter in baseball history, Babe Ruth, both began their baseball journeys in reform school.

Paige and Ruth were naturals. Paige’s rock-throwing skills transferred perfectly to the pitcher’s mound. He threw hard. He threw with purpose. And — we will come back to this again and again — he had impeccable control.

“A musician is born with music,” Paige said. “A pitcher is born a pitcher.”

I really love all the Page quotes, especially:

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were.”


A Timely History Lesson from the Iditarod

I found this gem of a story about the Iditarod on Medium this week. As most of you know, the Iditarod is a month-long dog-sledding race in Alaska. This year, the race took place as the world realized coronavirus was spreading unchecked across continents and oceans. Within 48-hours of the NBA’s Rudy Gobert testing positive, it seemed all sports were put on hold until further notice. The dominos – the NBA, NCAA winter sports, NCAA spring sports, NHL, all high school sports, Soccer, etc., all fell. All except the Iditarod. 

Per Jolene Latimer:

While nearly every major sporting event and professional sports league worldwide did postpone or cancel their events, the Iditarod organizers decided to persist, launching a herculean, constantly changing strategy to keep the race operative.

In reading this story, I learned the ‘origin’ of the race, which is surreal considering our current circumstances. While the competition didn’t begin until 1973, the real race began long before that: 

It has been nearly 100 years now since the famed “Great Race of Mercy” occurred, a feat so epic it has since been canonized in history books and feature films.

You probably know the story but in case you need a refresher, here it goes: Faced with a diphtheria outbreak that threatened to wipe Nome off the map, a sled dog relay that included 20 mushers and 150 dogs transported a lifesaving antitoxin across the Alaskan wilderness to save the town’s inhabitants.

Early Iditarod organizers spent much time during the race’s formative years honoring these original Serum Run mushers. The solidarity they represent permeates the Iditarod’s culture even now.

“We are almost full circle,” Urbach said. “It’s interesting where we are almost 100 years later.”

Don’t that just leave you stunned? I am. Please do yourself a favor and read Latimer’s full story. – PAL 

Source: After Sports Were Cancelled, Only the Iditarod Remained”, Jolene Latimer, Medium (03/21/20)


The Hidden…Potato (?)…Trick

Look, it’s been a long week and it’s late and I don’t want to write a ton. But also, this story tells itself. So I’m simply going to give you the hightlights of the time a minor league pitcher tried to circumvent the rules by using a potato in a modification of the ol’ hidden ball trick.

The idea found Bresnahan in a bar. He was putting down beers with teammate/roommate Rob Swain at a place called Joey’s when they saw a story on TV about pitchers tampering with baseballs. 

Years earlier, Bresnahan had read about a player who somehow deployed a potato during a game, so he mentioned his idea to Swain. 

Then he did his homework. 

He scoured the rulebook to make sure it was not explicitly illegal. He had one of his teammates call a major-league umpire and throw out his hypothetical idea; the umpire said at worst he might get ejected.

Back at his apartment, he peeled the skin and chopped off the ends with a knife. He whittled and smoothed and shaped, and when he was finished he attempted to draw stitches with a red pen (it didn’t work). 

With a runner on third and two outs, Bresnahan asked home plate umpire Scott Potter for time. The netting in his catcher’s mitt was broken, he said, and Potter told him to get a new one.

Bresnahan emerged from the dugout with a fresh mitt and squatted behind home. No one noticed that he’d pulled an object out of the new glove, which he now held in his right hand. He called for a slider, low and away, snagged the pitch — a ball — with his glove and immediately came out firing. 

All along, the plan was for him to sail the throw over the head of third baseman Swain, his roommate and coconspirator. 

But…

“I made a great throw,” Bresnahan told some reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer named Jayson Stark. “He did a hell of a job missing it.”

At that point, the third-base coach for the Reading Phillies, Jim Lefebvre, yelled to the runner on third, Rick Lundblade, to “Go, go, go!” Lundblade took off for home.

Bresnahan threw his mask, to look pissed. At the same time, his teammate, Miguel Roman, picked up the ball in left field. Roman was not in on the plan. He stopped “dead in his tracks.”

And then, right before Lundblade got to home plate, Bresnahan stuck out his glove and said, “You’re out, Rick.”

The stadium was silent. There were 4,000 people there, and no one knew what they’d just watched.  

“Brez,” said Scott Potter, the umpire, “What in the hell did you do?”

Lefebvre, the third base coach, ran to the outfield, then ran toward home.

“Hey Scottie,” he yelled, “it’s a fucking potato!”

Potter was furious.

“You can’t bring another ball on the field!” he told Bresnahan.

“It’s not a ball,” Bresnahan said, “It’s a potato.”

Potter wasn’t having it. The run scored. Bresnahan’s manager, Orlando Gomez, pulled Bresnahan and fined him $50 for “an unthinkable act for a professional.”

“It’s a fuckin potato…it’s not a ball, it’s a fuckin potato.” That killed me. I’m dead. Put it on my tombstone. -TOB

Source: “This Spud’s For You: The ‘Unthinkable Act’ Behind a Minor-League Legend,” Jayson Jenks, The Athletic (03/20/2020)


Video of the Week:


Tweets of the Week:

We got a lot this week, folks!

And, in keeping with the Mantle-theme, but the opposite:


Song of the Week: Guy Clark – “Rita Ballou”


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But then I saved him by glueing his shell back together. 

-Kevin Malone

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