Stan Isaacs, the acerbic, funny, and bright newspaper columnist, died on Tuesday. He was 83.
I met Stan at a session of The New York (baseball) Giants Nostalgia Society in the Bronx close to ten years ago. We exchanged e-mails periodically and he was terse and amusing. I’m proud to offer you, with Stan’s permission, two columns that he wrote in the 1960s. It will give you a small taste of his fine work.
In the meantime, our thoughts go to his family, friends, and colleagues. May he rest in peace.
By Stan Isaacs
That’s a love affair flowering between the Met fans and Marv Throneberry. It’s not quite apparent right now because Throneberry is the only Met player the fans at the Polo Grounds boo regularly. The perceptive mind, however, can read beyond mere outward appearances. Just as love and hate are the opposite sides of the same coin, so is this passion for Throneberry building up among Met rooters. At the rate he was booed on the last home stand, he may turn out to be one of the most popular athletes New York ever had.
Right now, the love affair is in the stage where the lovers snap at each other. They already suspect they might be liking each other and that intensifies the bickering—until the whole thing flowers into true love. I have already moved to be one of the first on the bandwagon by forming a press box chapter of the “I Love Marv Throneberry Club.” I am not disturbed that only one other has agreed to join—as membership secretary, because there would be no work. I can see other potential members whose expressions of exasperation with Marv’s work indicate that they are potentially fervent club members.
A prime recruit would be the reporter who used the name, “Marvelous Marv,” by which Throneberry is known in the press box, as a form of scorn throughout a story about a game in which Throneberry figured prominently: Marv forgot to touch third base on a triple and he made a costly interference error.
Met clubhouse man Herb Norman took that as a cue and substituted the sobriquet, “Marvelous Marv,” for “Throneberry” on the namecard above Throneberry’s locker. “Other players might not go for that,” Norman said. “But I can do it with Marv, because he has a good sense of humor.”
Marv appreciated the gag. He even pointed the sign out to the man who wrote the story and told him before a doubleheader: “Hey, I’ve got good news for you—I’m playing in only one of the games today.”
Marv is too big a man to be upset by bad writeups. “You once wrote something bad about me,” he said to the president of his fan club, “but I never said anything, did I?” He didn’t. The piece, which the president is sorry for because it kicked a man when he was down, knocked Throneberry for his seeming lack of spirited movement.
It is that lack of outward hustle and bustle that makes Throneberry a target for boos. Of course, his fielding and hitting failures have helped, but other Mets err and hit badly without becoming such a target. “These are my natural movements,” Throneberry said. “If I were to start dashing about like little Elio Chacon just to look as if I were hustling, it would be phony.”
Marv says, “They’re not going to run me out of New York the way they did Norm Siebern.” He points out that Mickey Mantle used to be booed. He is also able to comfort himself that some of the boos are directed at him because he plays instead of the No. 1 Met love, Gil Hodges.
The other day he even twitted Casey Stengel for going out to the mound to take out pitchers. “Every time you go out there, they start booing you. Are you trying to take away my fans?” Marv promises that one of these days, when the time is right, “I’m going to surprise them; I’m going to doff my cap to them in a big way, the way Stengel does.”
If he does it at the right time, he should wow them. There have been some hints already of what will happen when the love affair does turn into the mad thing it is destined to be. The other day Throneberry ran a long way for a foul pop, then caught it with a deft stab just as he almost hit the field boxes. An ovation followed, and it seemed then that the time was ripe for Marv. All he had to do was make another good play or two, hit a few homers, and he would have them eating out of his glove.
Alas, he missed that chance. Shortly afterward, he not only fumbled a grounder, but then, as the pitcher came to take his toss, he threw an underhanded lob that went over the pitcher’s head. “Gene Conley (a six-foot, eight-inch pitcher) would have had it,” was the remark of one potential member of the fan club. This was the same chap who refused to admit that Marv made a good play on the foul pop-up, saying he had overrun the ball. Which just goes to show how much this bloke is going to love Throneberry when the time comes.
People react negatively to Marv because they regard him as the prototype of the “losing ballplayer.” Marv has been with the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles so far and hasn’t realized his slugging potential. Aware of the rap against him, Mary says: “So far I have never had a real chance. Wherever I have been, I have played behind an established first baseman. I feel that this is the first time I’m getting a full chance.
“I think I wasn’t nearly ready to play when I first came to the Mets. I had not played in so long, I was defensive at the plate and not sharp in the field. I’m beginning to feel like an offensive hitter now. And I think my fielding will get better as I play more.”
Those of us whose eyes are ready to see the glory of the coming of Marv Throneberry are aware that the marriage of Marvelous Marv and the Met fans was made a long time ago; the initials of Marvin Eugene Throneberry read M-E-T.
“He Made The Mets Fun”
By Stan Isaacs
The time of Casey Stengel as manager of the Mets has come to an end. While it lasted, wasn’t that a time? Wasn’t that a wonderful time?
By his own lights, Casey Stengel failed as manager of the Mets. He had hoped to build a young, promising team, leaving a legacy that would soon be translated into stirring deeds on the ball field. He left no such team. At best there are half-a-dozen shining prizes of the youth of America on the team, and greatness is nowhere in sight.
But Stengel, of course, didn’t fail. He brought the greatness of his own spirit to the Mets. He made them something bigger than the ordinary story of the won-lost standings. He made the Mets fun—a slice of the humor of American life.
Stengel, as a baseball figure, has been bigger than life, a man larger than the arena in which he operated. There are only a few people in this world who attain that stature. They say of people like this that they walk with kings. Stengel could walk with kings and give them a wink along the way.
When Winston Churchill died, somebody commented that one of the outstanding things about the man was that he spanned so many eras. Churchill was a dynamic figure in the Boer War at the turn of the century and still right in the thick of things during the post-World War II era. In baseball terms, Stengel was that kind of figure, a man whose phenomenal memory enabled him to talk with the same glibness about the old Washington Park in Brooklyn as he did about new fashions in the cut of baseball uniforms.
In the time that Casey Stengel has been managing baseball teams there have been seven Presidents of the United States. In the time since he broke into baseball in 1910, there have been 10 Presidents.
It was possible to shoot almost any topic at Stengel and be confident he would relate some experience to it. When there was a Maine Day celebration at Shea Stadium for Met pitcher Carl Willey, a Maine native, Stengel reached into his background for entertaining stories about Maine that nobody had ever heard him tell before. He cited a ball player named Chief Sockalexis as a Maine native, and sure enough, everything Stengel said about him was true. He so often astounded people with his recollections it was perhaps inevitable that he would adopt the phrase “You could look it up.”
Casey Stengei is too big for any one essay. There is a need here, though, to say that to be around him has been to bask in him, to experience an exaltation of the spirit. The feeling of joy captured in the last scene of the movie Zorba the Greek—when Anthony Quinn leads the young poet in a dance of exultation on the beach—is the kind of ecstatic warmth generated by Stengel at his best.
I would daresay that if somebody set out to make a good movie about Casey Stengel, Anthony Quinn would be a wonderful person to play this craggy-faced minstrel of joy and unflagging hope. At first, it might seem an unlikely casting, but perhaps not if you chew on it for a moment.
Stengel’s departure at the hotel press conference yesterday was sad. The old man came into the room limping on his cane, nervous and misty-eyed. He brightened later when he could talk about the team and when he could answer questions with a touch of his old finger-pumping belligerence. But it still wasn’t vintage Stengel.
His last press conference as a Yankee, when they fired him, was better. He went out kicking and screaming that day, and you had fair reason to believe he would return someday, if you were inclined to want to reason that way.
When somebody asked him yesterday to select which of his tenures in New York he enjoyed the most (he played for the New York Giants, and managed the Brooklyns, Yankees and Mets) it seemed as if he would have liked to cite the Mets, but couldn’t because he didn’t succeed at what he set out to do with them. “Well, you’d have to say,” he started out, then switched his thought in midsentence by adding, “You couldn’t feel good if you are losing.”
He would rather be remembered for his success as manager of the Yankees, when he won 10 pennants in 12 years and astounded baseball people with his unorthodox moves. Of course, he had the material then—his years with the Mets showed he couldn’t do anything without the material—but he nevertheless made revolutionary moves with the Yanks that influenced the new generation of managers.
Age showed on the thinking of the Connie Macks and Jimmy Dykes and Charley Dressens; Stengel commanded respect of his peers to the end. “He still can beat you from the dugout,” a young lion like Gene Mauch would say.
A comic definition of the difference between a master and a grand master in chess captures for me the Stengel managerial genius.
“A master,” said chessman Arthur Bisguier, “cogitates carefully, perhaps a half-hour, on a move. Finally, he chooses the correct square for the correct piece and places it there. A grand master is much more skillful. He hardly thinks at all. He throws the piece into the air and it just falls on the right square.”
Our pal Pete Richmond remembers Roger Ebert:
Unlike many of my social-media colleagues who were lucky enough to meet Roger Ebert, I never did. I only knew him a while back as a guy on a TV show, with another guy in the other chair, presuming to tell me whether a movie was good or not. He and Gene Siskel’s relationship had a comforting vibe, but I, a bristly pseudo-artist-critic from the City of New York, home of the Yankees uptown and birthplace of Damn Yankees downtown, with Woody’s Manhattan somewhere in between, I always felt as if I were being ever-so-slightly lectured by an ever-so-slightly professor about a subject far too subjective to be bandied about by a couple of Midwestern white guys. (On top of which, the thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing creeped me out: flashes of the emperor in his Coliseum luxury box deciding the fate of a gladiator, on a whim.)
Truth is, I never decided whether to go to a movie because of what Roger Ebert said about it. What could a guy for the plodding Trib know about the essence of a film, its nuance, its art? Real movies only aimed to capture the hearts and minds of we sophisticates on the East Coast (the Philistines who made them out in Lemming Angeles? As if.) But Carl Sandburg’s big-shouldered meatpacking town telling me whether Terrence Malick and David Lynch were frauds or geniuses? Please. Canby! Kael! Real salon-sambuca-sipping Critics! The Second City could teach me a lot about architecture…but movies?
Then I grew older, and the world grew snarkier, and Siskel died, which was sad-making, but still, if their pairing had made for such immortal TV, why go on with the show with a replacement? Roger and the other guy lost me for good.
And then, in 2010, a few years ago, apparently long out of the loop, I read about Ebert’s health. About how thyroid cancer had left him with no jaw, and after three reconstructive surgeries had failed, leaving him looking grotesque, he refused to try any more, because, in his own words, “This is what I look like.” He said he thought that as a culture we are very bad at dealing with sickness, and, in one fell swoop, he did a whole lot to change that.
And then I read that he was a master chef, even though he could not taste – indeed, took nutrition through a tube. And that while he couldn’t talk, he had a text-to-message program that allowed him to give interviews. And I started paying more attention to his movie reviews, He saw 306 movies last year.
And no, he wasn’t the best movie critic out there, not by any means. He was not Anthony Lane (although he was better than Denby, if I have to flash my prejudices.) But he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t attitudinal. He never let his ego get in the way of his criticism.
And when he announced yesterday that he was taking a Leave of Presence, because cancer had reappeared, but he announced about 11 different other things that he was going to be backing, I thought: Man, you did it. Ill, you’ve aged gracefully. Here comes a third act that the rest of us will admire, and enjoy: Selfless Roger Ebert projects all over the place: an arsenal of artistic sanity in a world gone angry.
Then he died. And I instantly knew what was up with that prolific message that had offered 24 hours earlier so much hope for the future: He was subtextually telling us: “This is the possibility of the future of what I have envisioned, but won’t see. A day or so from now, I’ll be gone. I hope you guys will take some of the good I hoped to create, express and exemplify, carry on.” Unlike any other writer (except for Updike), he didn’t even hint that he was on his way out. No one has ever died with more grace. We owe him this: to look at the insane good fortune with which we’ve been blessed, and to go to the movies.
It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ’65, never even came close.
There was Elvis, dressed up in this ridiculous white suit which looked like some studded Arthurian castle, and he was too fat, and the buckle on his belt was as big as your head except that your head is not made of solid gold, and any lesser man would have been the spittin’ image of a Neil Diamond damfool in such a getup, but on Elvis it fit. What didn’t? No matter how lousy his records ever got, no matter how intently he pursued mediocrity, there was still some hint, some flash left over from the days when…well, I wasn’t there, so I won’t presume to comment. But I will say this: Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.
I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates. That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many. And this after a decade and a half of crappy records, of making a point of not trying.
The Boston Phoenix, the once-great alternative newspaper is gone. Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce remembers the old days:
I mean. Jesus Mary, where do you start with the newspaper at which you grew so much, and learned so much, and came to respect the craft of journalism with a fervor that edged pretty damn close to the religious? What memories have pride of place now? The fact that T.A. Frail, now at Smithsonian, suggested you might just like Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and it wound up changing your life? The day that Doug Simmons, now at Bloomberg News, snuck up behind you and stuck a pair of earphones on your head, cranked Black Flag’s “Six Pack” up to 11, and taught you that rock and roll had not calcified when you graduated from college? What’s the song that plays when you realize that you’re young when you thought you were growing old? What’s the prayer of thanksgiving for a hundred days of fellowship, drunk on words, all of us, as though there were nothing more beyond the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph locked into place? Please say that the muse is something beyond the balance sheet, something beyond technology. Tell me that she’s alive the way she once was when you’d feel her on your shoulder as one word slammed into the other, and the story got itself told, and you came to end and realized, with wonderment and awe, that the story existed out beyond you, and that it had chosen you, and you were its vehicle, and the grinning muse had the last laugh after all.
God, it was a carnival. I saw the publisher twice get into punch-ups, once with a staffer and the next time with a janitor. And, in both cases, it was at a Christmas party. We never got paid much, but we did get paid, and we were able to write about what we wanted to write the way we wanted to write it. We were a legitimate institution of Boston eccentricity, and we were proud of the fact that we were recognized for being that very thing. In 1982, when the 76ers beat the Celtics, and the Garden erupted into a chant of “Beat L.A.!,” the great Bob Ryan interviewed Darryl Dawkins and found Michael Gee, then covering the game for us. You have to have this quote, Ryan told him, because we can’t use it. Ryan had asked Dawkins what he felt like when he heard that chant from a Boston crowd.
“Man,” Dawkins said, “when I heard that, my dick got stiff.”
If I recall correctly, that was Gee’s lead.
Writing in the New York Times, check out Jacob Bernstein’s takeout piece on his mother’s final act:
At 10 p.m. on a Friday night in a private room on the 14th Floor of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital on 68th and York Avenue, my mother was lying in her bed hallucinating, in that dream space people go on their way to being gone.
She spoke of seeing trees, possibly a forest. And she mentioned to Nick, my stepfather, that she had been to the theater where her play was showing and that the audience was full. In reality, she had not left the hospital in a month, and the play, “Lucky Guy,” was nearly a year away from opening.
My brother, Max, and I stood there in disbelief. Though it had been weeks since her blood count showed any sign of improvement, the gravity of the situation had crept up on us. Mom’s housekeeper, Linda Diaz, who had worked for her for 25 years, was in the corner sobbing.
At some point, a team of doctors and nurses arrived to assess the situation, and Mom became slightly more lucid.
“Can you tell me your name?” one of them asked.
“Nora Ephron,” she said, nodding.
“Can you tell me where you are?”
“New York Hospital.”
“Who is the president of the United States?”
At this point, my mother looked annoyed, gave a roll of the eyes and refused to answer the question, which later on was the source of some debate between Max and me about whether her sarcasm and humor remained even as her memory and focus faded or whether she was simply irritated at being treated like an infant.
[Picture by Bags]
Ed Koch, the former mayor of our city, and a bona fide character–among other things–passed away this morning. He was 88.
Larry L. King died last month and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to mention his passing in this space. Terrific writer. Confessions of a White Racist is a must-read. For more on King, check out this fine appreciation by John Spong. When you are done, treat yourself to one of King’s best stories, “The Old Man.”
It’s great (and kudos to Harper’s for making it available on-line):
Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.
The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.
[Photo Credit: Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman]
From his fine collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, here is John Schulian on Stan the Man:
Of all the heroes I encountered, though, the one who best fit the description was Stan Musial, who managed to be a regular guy even with a statue of him standing outside old Busch Stadium, just as it does now in front of new Busch. In 1982, with the Cardinals on their way to the World Series, it seemed fitting that I should write about him. We met at the restaurant that bore his name, and as soon as I mentioned an obscure teammate of his—Eddie Kazak, a third baseman in the forties—it was like we were old friends.
When I finally ran out of questions, Musial offered to drive me back to my hotel. We made our way through the restaurant’s kitchen, pausing every few steps so he could say hello to a cook or slap a dishwasher on the shoulder. At last we reached the small parking lot in back. The only other people in sight were two teenaged boys with long faces. Musial was unlocking his Cadillac when one of them said, “Hey, mister, you got any jumper cables? Our car won’t start.”
“Lemme see, lemme see,” Musial said. He repeated himself a lot that way. It only added to his charm.
He opened his trunk and started rooting around, pulling out golf clubs, moving aside bags and boxes until, at last, he found his cables. By then, however, I was more interested in watching the boys. One of them was whispering something to his buddy and I could read his lips: “Do you know who that is? That’s Stan Musial.”
The statue in front of the ballpark had come to life.
Here’s a bit of Weaver for you, the chapter I wrote about the 1974 American League East for It Ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over:
Lou Piniella rounded second base with a full head of steam. He was a big, handsome man in a square-jawed Nick Nolte kind of way, only with dark hair. It was almost the end of spring training in Florida, and Piniella was pissed off. He had been running hard for weeks and had hated every minute of it. First-year Yankee manager Bill Virdon ran the most disciplined camp that Piniella had ever been a part of. He was now completing a running drill that Virdon used to end practice sessions, in which each player would run from home to first, then first to third, third to home, home to second, second to home, home to third, and to cap it off, a last turn all around the bases.
When new Yankee general manager Gabe Paul traded for the 29-year old Piniella in the off-season, the outfielder came with a reputation as an indifferent fielder. Virdon firmly believed in conditioning and drilled his outfielders particularly hard. He knew he could make Piniella into a competent fielder and base runner.
Piniella rumbled around third as Virdon stood with his arms folded behind home plate. Then Piniella lost his footing, wobbled, and finally wiped-out. His face was red when he picked himself up off the ground and yelled at his manager. On all fours, Piniella crawled the rest of the way to the plate, cursing loudly. Virdon laughed, but later said, “as hard as I made Lou work, he never refused to do anything I asked him to do. And he became a very good left fielder.” That spring, Piniella displaced Yankees veteran Roy White as the team’s left fielder.
Virdon, 42, wore wire-rim glasses and had the bland but sturdy good looks of a career military man; he was unafraid to show off his physique in the clubhouse as a means of intimidation, a tactic that did not sit well with many of his players. Virdon had been a wonderful defensive center fielder in the major leagues. As a manager, he led Pittsburgh to a division crown in his rookie campaign in 1972, but was fired the following year with two weeks left in the regular season when the team underachieved.
When the Yankees hired Virdon he was clearly their second choice. That off-season, owner George Steinbrenner—who less than a year earlier declared that he was not interested in the day-to-day operations of the team—very publicly courted newly available skipper Dick Williams, winning manager of consecutive World Series with the 1972 and 1973 Oakland A’s. It was a boffo move by the Yankees, the first of many for Steinbrenner. But Oakland owner Charlie Finley successfully argued that Williams was still under contract and demanded lavish compensation in the form of the Yankees’ best prospects. The teams were unable to come to an agreement and the Williams deal was nullified. Explaining the Yankees’ decision to hire Virdon, Paul said, “We had to do something.”
In spite of his status as a consolation prize, Virdon brought a sense of organization and purpose to a Yankee team that featured some outstanding players but was chiefly comprised of likable guys who weren’t particularly caught up in winning. The previous year, the team made a run for the division title only to be physically exhausted in September. “We died,” said infielder Gene Michael.
The arrival of Steinbrenner, now in his second season as owner of the Yankees, had already sent manager Ralph Houk, a franchise fixture and player favorite, packing. Michael Burke, the public face of the team during the CBS years was gone too. Fresh flowers on the secretaries’ desk were a thing of the past. Virdon was the ideal man to enforce Steinbrenner’s Spartan new order on the field. Yankee players hadn’t been put through this kind of rigorous spring training in years.
The Yankees were going back to school, but the Orioles were already the most fundamentally sound organization in the game. The class of the American League East, the Orioles were coming off four division titles in five years. In five-and-a-half seasons as manager, Earl Weaver, an irascible and brilliant stump of a man, averaged 99 wins a year and three-and-half packs of cigarettes a day. Weaver never made the big leagues, but he became a part-time player/manager in the minors by the time he was 26. Harry Dalton, the assistant farm director for the Orioles, liked what he saw in the feisty young manager, who, in 11 full minor league seasons, finished either first or second eight times.
During the off-seasons, Weaver toiled in construction before landing a job as a loan officer. “Between my blue collar jobs and minor league baseball, I have been with every kind of person,” Weaver told Terry Pluto years later. “I know people. All types. I have heard all the sob stories about the checks being in the mail or waiting just one more week until payday. Listen, I could look into people’s eyes and see if they would pay.”
Weaver applied his intuitive psychological skills to managing. “Everything Earl did was calculated,” remembered Pat Gillick, a star pitcher for Weaver in Fox Cities. He wouldn’t ask players to do something they weren’t capable of, and was an avid believer in platooning. Weaver was also careful not to become emotionally attached to his players. He had no qualms about getting in their faces and berating them, ensuring that no mental mistakes went unnoticed. “I knew Earl would not be afraid to make moves,” said Dalton, who became the Orioles GM in 1966 and held the position for six years. “He is an aggressive guy who doesn’t back down for anyone.”
“I can’t be friends with players,” Weaver said later. “How can I when I may have to bench them or send them to the minors?”
And often, his players didn’t like him in return. Jim Palmer, Doug DeCinces, and Rick Dempsey would have celebrated rifts with Weaver over the years. “He doesn’t say much to anybody,” recalls Kiko Garcia, who played for Weaver from 1976 through 1980. “He talks a lot to everyone in general, but it is rare to have a conversation with him.” Second baseman Bobby Grich, remembers that during his rookie year in Baltimore, Weaver didn’t say more than five words to him all season.
“I never miss anything about the Orioles,” Grich said later. “The only thing I liked about Maryland was the crabs.”
Weaver was usually irritated once a game began and didn’t stop grumbling, then yelling, until it was over. “You do get this negative feeling from the start,” Garcia said. “But I’ll say this for the man, he doesn’t talk behind your backs. If he has something to say to you, he says it. And Earl let’s you say whatever is on your mind. You say it and then it is forgotten.”
“Earl does not have a shithouse like some managers,” says Mark Belanger who played for Weaver in the minor and major leagues. You can argue with Earl for six hours and call him every name in the book. But if he thinks you’re going to help him win, you’ll play the next day.” Weaver would have his favorites over the years—Belanger, Don Buford, and later, Eddie Murray and Ken Singleton—but playing for Weaver was never easy. When Oriole players were once asked what they would give Weaver for his birthday, one said, “One day in the big leagues so he’d find out that it’s not so easy.” Another said, “Nothing. He didn’t give me nothing on my birthday,” while still another teammate said, “An umpire crew which is his size so he could argue with them eye-to-eye.” (186-187, Earl of Baltimore)
Weaver had a rabbinical knowledge of the rulebook, and while he could abide growing pains in young players, he would not tolerate novice mistakes made by the umpires. Weaver’s run-ins with the men in blue became the stuff of legend. One year in Elmira, Weaver was so upset with a call that he carried third base off the field, then locked himself and the bag in the clubhouse. It took 10 minutes before a member of the grounds crew could get it back.
In the winter of 1961, the Orioles gave Weaver the task of designing the spring training regimen for the minor league program from double-A down; his system was later adopted throughout the entire organization. Weaver was the first manager in the team’s brief history to rise through the ranks, and he firmly believed in promoting coaches too, rewarding performance and, more importantly, maintaining a sense of continuity throughout the system. Many of Weaver’s greatest players, including Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, and Boog Powell, were from the team’s farm system. They were so well-versed in the fundamentals of the game—particularly the importance of mental focus—that they virtually policed themselves.
Yet for all of their success, the Orioles had only won the World Series once for Weaver. They were perceived as a bland, even boring team, certainly one without a national following. Even in Baltimore, they were distinctly second class citizens to the Colts. Attendance, which had peaked at 1.2 million in 1966, had dropped to just under 900,000 in 1972 and refused to pick back up again. One night, a streaker ran across the field. He was subdued by the police and brought before the Orioles’ GM, Frank Cashen, who said, “Give him $50 and tell him to come back tomorrow night.”
Virtually everything about Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant was funny: he looked funny, sounded funny and even pitched funny. The only ones not in on the joke were opposing hitters.
Tiant, listed at 32 but believed to be as old as 40, was a stocky, dark-skinned man, with long side-burns, a Fu Manchu mustache, and a bulldog mug right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. He had a high, piercing voice to match. When he pitched, his cheek, stuffed with chewing tobacco, puffed into a ball, emulating his ample pot-belly.
Tiant’s delivery was all of a piece. He twisted into a pretzel, completely turning his back to the hitter while looking out into center field. He then jerked back around and whipped the ball to the plate, throwing from three-quarters, over-the-top, as well as sidearm. Tiant had several different fastballs, a curve ball, palm ball, knuckle ball, forkball, and a hesitation pitch. Depending on the hitter and the situation, he could be deliberate, taking a long time between pitches; other times, he would sneak in a pitch before the hitter was ready. He also had a wicked pick-off move.
Oakland slugger Reggie Jackson gushed, “It’s not the dancing that gets you, though. That’s show business. It’s the fastball on the inside corner. That’s what kills you. While he’s turning around doing his dance, that ball is coming in on the black.”
Tiant smoked eight-inch black cigars everywhere but on the mound—sitting at his locker, in the whirlpool, even in the shower. He would stand in the clubhouse, naked except for his black socks, holding court and busting chops in a way that only few players can. Even Carl Yastrzemski, the team’s undisputed star was not immune to Tiant’s needle, and was accordingly dubbed “El Polacko.” Outfielder Reggie Smith once said that Tiant was “a guy who wakes up every morning of his life with something funny to say.” After Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper played a poor game, Tiant reassured him, “Tommy, don’t worry because you played like shit and looked like shit. You only smell like shit.”
Boston had signed the aging star pitcher Juan Maricial for $125,000 in the off-season, hoping to provide depth behind Tiant and Bill Lee, their two most reliable pitchers. Rick Wise came over for Reggie Smith, as did starter Reggie Cleveland and reliever Diego Segui. Rookie manager Darrell Johnson had a mix of veterans in Yastrzemski, Harper, Rico Petrocelli, and youngsters like Rick Burleson (shortstop), Cecil Cooper (first base), and Juan Benequiz and Dwight Evans (outfield), with the organization’s two prize prospects, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn waiting in the wings at Triple-A. But Maricial and Wise were hurt early on, and Carlton Fisk, the team’s All-Star catcher was lost for the season in June to a knee injury.
Tiant rebounded from a sluggish start and the rest of the team followed. Yastrzemski had a strong first half (.331/.431/.502), as did Burrelson (.317/.352/.431), about whom Bill Lee later said, “I had never met a red ass like Rick in my life. Some guys didn’t like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied.” After starting the season 2-5, Tiant went 18-4 with a 2.22 ERA over his next 22 starts. He completed seventeen of those games, tossing five shutouts in the process. The Red Sox reached first place on July 14th and remained there throughout August. Even when the team slumped, Tiant was there to save them—he won nine straight times during that summer following a Red Sox loss.
On August 23rd, Tiant faced Vida Blue and the World Champion Oakland A’s at Fenway Park. He was gunning for his 20th win of what The Boston Globe referred to as, “the happy season.” The paper also ran a “This Day in 1967” feature each day, a reminder that miracles really do come true. The Sox were six-and-a-half games in front of Cleveland, and seven games in front of both the Orioles and the Yankees (with Milwaukee and Detroit under .500 at the bottom of the division). For Sox fans, it was “a midsummer night’s dream brought to life,” wrote Leigh Montville in The Globe.
The largest crowd in 18 years packed Fenway Park. Tiant treated them to a vintage performance. He threw mostly breaking pitches in the early innings, saving the hard stuff for later. The A’s put men on base, and had their chances, but they could not score. Tiant got out of every jam, dazzling Oakland with his repertoire of pitches and deliveries. “With Luis, it’s not the stats, it’s the show,” noted Bob Ryan after the Sox won 3-0.
With just over a month left in the season, Boston was flying high. “The Red Sox fan had forgotten his inbred pessimism,” wrote Monteville several weeks later, “his rooting heritage. He had stuffed it in a drawer.” But there were signs of trouble. Tommy Harper’s first inning home run was the first Boston had hit since August 9th.
The Orioles found themselves in unfamiliar territory as well. Their ace pitcher, Jim Palmer, a twenty game winner in each of the past four seasons, was lost for a bulk of the summer with an arm injury, and would post the first losing record of his career (7-12, 3.27 ERA in 178 innings). Pitchers Ross Grimly and Dave McNally were outstanding, but Baltimore’s offense was a dud. Other than second baseman, Bobby Grich, nobody was having a better season than the year before. Left fielder Al Bumbry, who had been the league’s Rookie of the Year award winner in 1973, dropped from .337/.398/.500 (.321 EqA) to an unproductive .233/.288/.304 (.240 EqA). Another 1973 rookie, outfielder Rick Coggins, had hit .319/.363/.468 (.299 EqA). Now he slumped to .243/.299/.319 (.253 EqA).
Instead of concerning themselves with World Series shares, the Orioles were worried about surviving. The veteran players revived the Kangaroo Court in attempt to jump-start the club. The Court had been a staple feature of the Orioles locker room during Frank Robinson’s heyday with the team. The purpose of the court, which convened only after victories, was the issue fines for infractions both real and imagined.
“The court gets everybody to relax and brings us closer together,” said outfielder, Don Baylor. “It keeps guys from showering real quick and running out of the clubhouse.”
Fines were one dollar. Veteran catcher Elrod Hendricks was appointed Judge by his teammates. He objected but was overruled. In short order, Tommy Davis was fined for wearing a Chicago Cubs T-shirt, Paul Blair was nabbed for jogging to the outfield with a bar of chocolate in his back pocket and Earl Williams was called-out for hotdogging it around the bases after hitting a home run against the Twins. Williams said he wouldn’t mind paying the dollar fine if it meant he’d keep hitting home runs. But in spite of the newfound looseness in the clubhouse, the Orioles continued to flounder.
Five days after Tiant’s gem against the A’s, the Orioles held a team meeting at Paul Blair’s house. Baltimore had just dropped their fourth straight, and their record was 63-65. Brooks Robinson and Blair led the meeting but all of the veterans, spoke. They talked about doing “the little things,”—stealing, sacrificing, putting on the hit-and-run—playing a brand of baseball generally disdained by their manager. Weaver had been mixing and matching combinations of lineups and platoons for weeks to no avail. The players felt they couldn’t just wait around for Weaver’s cherished three-run home runs. Boston’s grip on first place wasn’t insurmountable. If they had to defy Weaver, so be it. Most importantly, it was agreed, if they were to have any success, the players would have to be unified. After all, Weaver couldn’t fight the entire team.
Don Baylor, an imposing young player who possessed both speed and power, admired the veterans on the team, and didn’t dare object, but later admitted, “Deep down inside, though, I was scared. There I was, my third year in the big leagues and about to enter into rebellion against Weaver and take orders from Brooks, Blair and Palmer.”
The next night, with the Orioles down 2-1 in the fourth inning, right fielder Enos Cabell singled. Belanger, the number nine hitter, bunted, and reached on an error. Baltimore scored three times in the inning and won the game, 6-2. The following night, Cabell reached first on a dropped third strike leading off the top of the second inning (the O’s already had a 3-0 lead). Belanger sacrificed him to second. In the fifth, with the Orioles ahead 5-1, Robinson singled and Blair bunted him to second.
The O’s reeled off four straight wins since their team meeting, including one by Palmer fresh off the disabled list, and trailed Boston by just five games when the two teams met in Baltimore for a double-header on September 1. “I don’t know which is harder,” Weaver told reporters, “to be behind and trying to catch up, or to be ahead and always worrying about losing your lead.”
“This is bad on the heart,” Paul Blair said. “I’m afraid someone will hit a ball to me and I’ll mess it up.” “The pressure and emotional strain are exhausting,” added Brooks Robinson. “I’ve never been through anything like this except during the playoffs and World Series.”
Luis Tiant pitched the first game and had no trouble until the fourth when he threw Bobby Grich a hesitation pitch with nobody on base. Grich was looking fastball but adjusted, and flat-footed, hit the ball just right, launching his 18th home run of the year. It was all the run support Ross Grimsley would need as the Orioles beat the Sox, 1-0. Mike Cuellar and Bill Lee pitched in the second game. In the third inning, Robinson and Cabell led off with singles. Utility catcher, Andy Etchebarren bunted poorly up the first base line and the runner at third was forced out. Belanger followed with another bunt—a sound play considering how terrible a hitter Belanger was, and reached first on a single. Blair followed with a sacrifice fly, giving the O’s a 1-0 lead. Later, in the sixth inning, Belanger reached on a bunt single. Blair bunted into an out, before Grich slapped into a double play. The players’ small ball strategy of playing for one-run was accomplishing just that. Grimsley was sensational and Baltimore won again, 1-0. Boston was devastated.
“That evening I lashed my hands to the bathroom sink,” Lee later wrote. “My hotel room was on the eighteenth floor, and I did not want to risk the temptation of walking near an open window.”
After a day off, Palmer shut-Boston out again, this time 6-0. “If we have Palmer, we’ll win,” Grich told reporters. The Red Sox managed a total of eight hits for the entire series, and had lost their last six games while Baltimore won it’s seventh in a row. Then Boston dropped the next two games to the Brewers and fell into second place behind the hard-charging Yankees.
The Orioles shut out the Indians in their next two games. The following night, George Hendrick doubled off Grimsley in the fourth inning; it was the first extra base hit against the O’s in a whopping 71 innings. Grimsley held a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning before allowing a two-run homer. The O’s won again, their tenth in a row. The scoreless streak, 54 consecutive innings, was a major league record. Weaver later called it “the most amazing pitching performance by a staff” that he had ever seen.
Gabe Paul, dubbed “Dial-a-Deal” by Yankee players, worked diligently to upgrade the team during the season. He used the Yankees’ deep pockets to purchase outfielder Elliot Maddox, and infielders Jim Mason and Sandy Alomar, all valuable contributors. Maddox was the team’s best outfielder, and loved the manager’s fly ball drills. “He’d wear out the other guys, but I would still yell for more,” Maddox recalls.
When the Yankees best pitcher Mel Stottlemyre tore his rotator cuff in June—an injury that would end his career—Paul bought veteran lefty Rudy May, who went 8-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 17 games for New York. But Paul’s biggest move came at the end of April when he shipped four pitchers, starters Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, and relievers Fred Beane and Tom Buskey to Cleveland for first baseman Chris Chambliss, and pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. The quartet of Yankee pitchers was enormously popular in the clubhouse and the team was livid.
“How can we trade half a pitching staff?” said Stottlemyre.
“At this rate, the Indians are going to have a pretty good ball club soon,” moaned center fielder Bobby Murcer.
During the 1974 and 1975 seasons, the Yankees played their home games at Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was undergoing massive renovations. “It was like we were guests there, and every game was an away game,” said Doc Medich, the team’s best starting pitcher. The field, shared by two clubs, was in horrible condition, and bored Met fans occasionally showed up simply to heckle the Yankees.
Nobody on the team suffered more than Murcer. Unable to pop home runs over a short fence in right field, as he did at Yankee Stadium, Murcer instead hit countless fly balls to the warning track at Shea. Over the previous two seasons Murcer had hit 55 home runs. In 1974, he hit just ten, eight on the road.
At the end of May, Virdon moved Murcer to right field, replacing him in center with Maddox. It was a courageous move for Virdon, displacing the heir to Mickey Mantle. Murcer was better suited to right (his 21 assists led the league), but his ego was bruised and he was miserable: he could not sleep, and refused to speak to Maddox.
Despite Murcer’s bitterness, the move seemed to spark the Yankees, and the team flourished in the second half. Sparky Lyle, who, like Ted Simmons two years earlier, was playing without a signed contract, was again brilliant (9-3, 1.66 ERA in 114 innings); Graig Nettles hit 11 home runs in April and was coming into his own as a fielder, and both Piniella (.305/.341/.407) and Roy White (.275/.367/.393) were solid contributors. Maddox was a surprise offensively (.303/.395/.386), establishing career highs in doubles, and on-base percentage. Before and after each game, he played the song “Band on the Run,” the song by Paul McCartney & Wings that had reached the top of the charts in June.
The biggest trouble for the team involved their not-so-absentee-owner. On Friday, September 6th, George Steinbrenner was ordered to sever all contacts with his club by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Steinbrenner had been found guilty earlier in the year of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Now Kuhn, in an uncharacteristically assertive move, made a public example of Steinbrenner forcing him to cut ties with the team.
The Yankee owner was partial to addressing his players as if they were a college football team; he had spoken with them several times after losses earlier in the season. Now, he was forced to send them pre-recorded pep talks. Virdon was instructed to play the cassettes for the team in the locker room. “Goddamn it, you’ve got to go balls-out all the time,” Steinbrenner implored on the tape. “You’ve got to have balls!”
The Yankees and Sox were tied for first when New York arrived in Boston for a two-game series on September 11th. Baltimore was just a game back. The Yankees had lost 20 of their previous 21 games at Fenway Park. “It’s a little bit scary,” Piniella confessed, but the Yankees won the first game, 6-3. Tiant was on the mound the following night when Boston needed him most. “Some guys can’t pick up the pot,” Gabe Paul told Sports Illustrated, “but Luis’ nostrils dilate when the money is on the table.”
Tiant held the Yankees scoreless through eight innings, the Sox clinging to a slim 1-0 lead. Lou Piniella drew a one-out walk in the ninth and was replaced by pinch-runner Larry Murray, who raced home when Chris Chambliss’ line drive bounced around the right field corner. By the time right fielder Dwight Evans returned the ball to the infield, Chambliss was on third. Evans rushed in from right and screamed for fan interference. The umpires huddled and eventually sent Chambliss back to second with a ground-rule double. But they also allowed Murray to score, a dagger for the Sox.
Before Chambliss could return to second, he felt a thud in his arm. He looked down and found a steel dart embedded in it. A half a dozen more darts lay on the ground next to him, thrown from the third base stands (Chambliss would need a tetanus shot, but remained in the game). Alex Johnson, a veteran slugger purchased by New York a day earlier, hit a solo home run off Diego Segui in the twelfth inning and the Yankees were suddenly two games ahead of the Sox.
The following day, the Band on the Run Yankees split a double-header in Baltimore, losing the first game in 17 innings. Grimsely surrendered just two runs in 14 innings and Boog Powell, finally swinging a hot bat, singled home the game-winning run. A week later, they were still in first place, 2.5 games ahead of the Orioles, three-and-a-half in front of Boston, with Baltimore in town for a three-game series.
“If we win two out of three from Earl,” Piniella told Murcer, “we win this thing.” Murcer advised his teammate to stay away from the Orioles manager. Piniella had a past with Weaver, who he played for in Elmira, 1965. They got into a fight the first time they met and then grew to dislike each other. Before the end of that season, Weaver suspended Piniella for insubordination. According to Weaver’s memory, Piniella had to pay for thee water coolers, four doors and at least fifteen smashed bating helmets that season. The tension between the two would continue throughout the years. It’s just that Weaver could not resist tweaking such a red ass as Sweet Lou Piniella, who ironically would always hit very well against Weaver’s teams. That’s why Weaver busted his chops. Weaver would give Piniella a piercing whistle whenever Lou popped-up or grounded out.
“Lou may be like the proverbial pile of dogshit,” Weaver wrote years later. “It never bothers you until you step in it. He has to be one of the best damn ‘guess’ hitters I’ve seen. And he’s a patient hitter too.”
One day in 1976, Piniella almost charged Weaver, who refused to stop baiting him while he was hitting (“Don’t hit a home run.”). After striking out, Piniella moved toward the Orioles dugout only to be restrained by teammates. Weaver darted towards the clubhouse. Years later, the writer Dick Lally asked Weaver why he ran. “Did you know he was the kind of guy who would chase you?” “Worse,” Weaver replied, “he’s the kind of guy who’ll catch you.”
As the Yankees took batting practice, Weaver approached Piniella, took off his hat and scratched his head, tilting it to the side. He looked directly at Piniella and said, “I keep reading the papers about your great catches and great throws. Why didn’t you do that for me in Elmira?”
Piniella smiled and then got into the cage and took his hacks. When he was finished Weaver was still standing there and he said, “You know what, I’m going to jinx you. I know damn well there’s going to be a play later on this season and you’re going to screw it up and miss a ball in the outfield, and that will give us the damn pennant.”
“You’re crazy,” said Piniella.
The Orioles proceeded to sweep the Yankees, jumping into first place, with Palmer and McNally tossing shutouts. The Baltimore players congratulated themselves, feeling their rebellion had worked. Initially, Weaver was confused as to why his signals were being ignored, but he caught on soon enough. Don Baylor came to bat one night with runners on first and second against the White Sox and ignored third base coach Billy Hunter’s signal for a sacrifice (issued by Weaver). Brooks Robinson, waiting on the on-deck circle, made eye-contact with Baylor and indicated that he should swing away. Baylor smacked a run-scoring single to left, his third hit of the game. When he returned to the dugout Weaver snarled at him, “You had better be glad you got that hit.” Still, as the veterans had predicted, Weaver couldn’t jump the whole team.
“Knowing Earl,” Baylor later wrote, “he probably thought it was funny. He loved defiance. He probably said under his breath, ‘Those sons of bitches…I know what they are doing, but they’re winning.’ And that’s the only thing that ever really mattered to Early anyway.”
Had the players’ rebellion really carried the Orioles? The change in play was less than revolutionary. The 1974 team was one of the weakest offensive units the Orioles had put on the field since Weaver had been manager. The team’s production at bat had peaked in 1971, but since then Boog Powell had been weakened by injuries, Brooks Robinson had declined, and slugger Frank Robinson had been traded in what proved to be an ill-advised application of Branch Rickey’s dictum that it’s better to trade a player a year early than a year too late. By 1974, Weaver said, “it had been three years since we’d been paid an extended visit by Dr. Longball.”
Weaver adjusted. Though never a fan of the bunt and run game (“I’d rather have more three-run homers,” he said. “Then everyone can take their time and stroll home. I’ve never had a baserunner thrown out once a ball’s been hit over the fence.”), he recognized that the team could no longer slug its way to victory. The Orioles began running, leading the league with 146 stolen bases—but they did this in 1973, not 1974. They stole 145 bases in 1974, but this was a continuation, not a change of direction. The Orioles did make more sacrifice bunt attempts than they had in 1973, the total rising to 119 from 104.
With the acquisition of Ken Singleton and Lee May in the 1974-1975 offseason, Orioles power production rose and there was less reason for the players or the managers to worry about the bunt. The O’s made 21 fewer attempts in 1975, but were successful a far greater percentage of the time, executing 73 sacrifices in 98 attempts versus 72 in 119. This suggests that even if the players were calling the shots on bunts in 1974, they would have been better off leaving the decisions in Weaver’s hands.
The Orioles stole more bases had had more sacrifice bunts in September than any other month during the season. On the other hand, they had their second-highest home run total of any month, and their highest OBP, and the most amount of walks. The small ball certainly helped jump start the action, but what was likely more responsible for the resurgence of the Baltimore offense were strong months from Blair (.301/.377/.513), Baylor (.400/.441/.600) and Powell (.342/.528/.658).
After New York, the Orioles went to Boston and beat the Red Sox twice in three days. After the third game (a Baltimore win), at 5:05 on Sunday, September 22nd, a young man stood behind the Boston dugout and played taps on a bugle. The Sox were five games out of first place. New York, in the meantime, won their next four games, and were a game ahead of the Orioles when Boston arrived in New York for a three-game set, beginning with a twi-night doubleheader. There was an autumn chill in the air at Shea Stadium as more than 46,000 fans watched Tiant win his first game since August 23rd, as the Sox blanked the Yanks, 4-0. Peter Gammons reported that the ensuing scene at Shea was akin to a “Chilean soccer riot:”
Tennis and rubber balls showered from the upper deck, beer was poured on players, trash littered the field and all the while, fights—street brawls—broke out everywhere. They were on the field, in the stands, and one between a man and the police ended up in the Red Sox dugout. It just hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to go, and the Orioles had beaten Detroit, 5-4 to take first.”
Boston also won the second game, this time 4-2. The following day, the Orioles won another close one, scoring three in the ninth inning after trailing by two. Baltimore simply would not relent. Doc Medich out-dueled Bill Lee at Shea Stadium, 1-0 before a “comparatively quiet” crowd according to Gammons. “The first fight didn’t come until the fourth, the first bottle thrown from the upper deck didn’t come until the sixth and Boston third base coach Don Zimmer didn’t need to his batting helmet until the seventh.” With seven games left, the Red Sox were cooked.
On Sunday, September 29th, the Yankees waited out bad weather in their Cleveland hotel, as they prepared to end the season in Milwaukee. With two games left, the Yankees trailed Baltimore by just one. The Orioles were in Detroit playing the Tigers. Eventually, the Yankees made it to the airport only to find that their flight was delayed. While waiting, many of the players got loaded. By the time they finally reached Milwaukee, back-up first baseman Bill Sudakis and reserve catcher Rick Dempsey, two large but thin-skinned men, were at each others throats. The two got tangled together in the revolving door as the team was checking-in to their hotel, and emerged throwing punches. Their teammates scrambled to separate them. In the commotion, Murcer was tossed to the floor. A teammate stepped on his hand but Murcer was too drunk himself feel the pain. Sudakis and Dempsey were finally subdued, as Murcer lay pale-faced on the ground.
When Murcer woke up in the morning, his hand was in bad shape. The biggest game of his Yankee career and he was unable to play—a fitting end to a misbegotten season (Before the end of the month, Murcer was traded to the Angels for Bobby Bonds). Virdon was forced to start Piniella in right.
That afternoon, the Orioles won yet another thriller, beating the Tigers by a single run. Back-up catcher, Andy Etchebarren doubled home the slow-footed Brooks Robinson all the way from first in the ninth inning.
It was snowing when starter Doc Medich arrived at County Stadium. Hours later, just over 4,000 people sat in the 37-degree cold to see if the Brewers could spoil the Yankees’ playoff hopes. The field was a mess. In the fourth inning, with Piniella on first, Thurman Munson doubled to right. Piniella should have scored easily but slipped in the mud rounding third. Both he and Munson were left stranded as the Brewers’ Kevin Kobel and Medich threw up zeros through the first six innings.
Meanwhile, at the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, the Orioles coaches, a few players, and about a dozen reporters huddled in Earl Weaver’s room. Weaver had been nursing a cold for days but continued to smoke cigarette after cigarette. He had asked Milwaukee owner Bud Selig to place a phone next to a radio at County Stadium so that he could follow the action. With the receiver close to his ear, Weaver listened in, hunched-over and tense, providing a sketchy play-by-play for the rest of the room. When his voice became too hoarse to continue, Oriole trainer Ralph Salvon took a turn, followed by one of the day’s heroes, Brooks Robinson.
The Yankees scored twice in the top of the seventh inning. In the eighth, the Brewers had a man on third with one out when Don Money sliced a fly ball to right-center field. Piniella and Maddox moved after it. “The ball seemed to switch directions in the wind,” Piniella later recalled, “twist and turn and dance—damn that Earl Weaver—and nobody called for it.” Maddox could have reached the ball, but pulled up at the last moment. Piniella made a futile stab for it, but the ball landed behind him. Money scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly one batter later. Piniella got even with Weaver by smashing a water cooler.
Etchebarren relieved Robinson of play-by-play duties as the Yankee game moved into extra innings. Medich was still in the game, but the Brewers loaded the bases in the bottom of the tenth with one out for first baseman George Scott. “How many out, Andy?” asked Weaver, pacing anxiously. “One, skip, and the Boomer’s up.” A moment later Etchenbarren jumped up, dropped the phone, a broad grin on his face. “Base hit! A hit for the Boomer. We win. We win the division!” The coaches and players hugged and shook hands, then left for the bar. Weaver fell to his knees and banged the carpet with his fists. “You mean we don’t have to win tomorrow?” he said, his voice no louder than a whisper. “I don’t believe it.”
The Orioles had won 28 of their final 34 games. In the last 11 games of the season, they were 10-1, winning seven by a single run. Their 40 one-run wins tied a major league record they had set in 1970. “I was never happier to see a pennant race end,” Weaver later wrote. But after a valiant charge, the Orioles were depleted, and were quickly dispatched by the A’s in the playoffs.
Baltimore averaged 91 wins a season over the next four years but failed to make the playoffs. The Red Sox youth movement matured quickly, as Lynn and Rice led them to a World Series berth in 1975. For the rest of the decade, Boston’s rivalry with the Yankees featured an intensity not seen since the late 40s. For their part, once they returned to a newly restored Stadium in 1976, the Yankees hit their stride, winning three consecutive pennants and two championships.
But for the moment, they were despondent. After the 3-2 loss, Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto was in tears as he recapped the game. “I had a good season,” Piniella told reporters after the game, “and loused it up on one play. My little boy could have caught that ball and he’s five-years old.”
The next day, before the final game of the regular season, Piniella received a telegram in the visitor’s locker room in Milwaukee. It was from Weaver.
“Thanks. I knew you’d screw it up someway.”
The tributes are rolling in…
“Few men try for the best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.”
Now, I’ve read that sentence, and that story, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” at least twenty-five times, and I’ll never be able to do justice to what makes it so great except to say it’s a handshake of a sentence — brisk, warm, offhand, relaxed, firm, honest, and man-to-man, the kind that accompanies a promise. It’s the sentence of a writer who is himself about to try for the best ever, and is willing both to let you in on what he’s going for and to do whatever’s necessary to make good. What follows is a nearly perfect melding of writer and subject — a story that makes the usual journalistic distinctions between first-person and third-person sound fussy and academic, and does the hardest thing a writer can do, which is to amplify his own voice in order to make his subject roar. “This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust,” Cramer writes of Williams’s simultaneous need for fame and distaste of celebrity, and you can’t read that sentence today without realizing that Richard Ben Cramer was scratching out an impossible line of his own, staking his own claim as a writer by ceding the megaphone to the wounded, uppercase bellowing of Teddy Ballgame.
I didn’t know a whole lot about journalism when I first read “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” in Esquire in the summer of 1986. Before I ever read Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, however, I knew that this was the New Journalism I’d heard about. It wasn’t so much that it “used fictional techniques to tell a nonfiction story,” or that it sounded “like a novel” — it was that it didn’t. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard, before or since, and in that sound was freedom… freedom to sound like yourself, freedom to sound like your subject, freedom to do what it takes to make both a subject’s experience and the experience of a subject come alive. Sure, there were plenty of sound effects and exclamation points, but it wasn’t Wolfean — it was Bellovian, the work of a first-class noticer who knows that writing “like an angel,” or however it is that writers are supposed to write, is a small thing next to writing, well, like a mensch.
Over the last decade or so I have only spoken with Cramer via e-mail. I’ve kept in touch with him mostly through our mutual friend and her husband, two artists with whom he was close. Though he’d been hospitalized for some time, Cramer’s prognosis was kept quiet. When news of his impending death finally leaked out to the inner circle, his message was in character: “Please don’t come. Johns Hopkins doesn’t want to host my farewell party.”
You don’t get into writing to be remembered. Your work has to take care of that for you. You do it because you have to and you hope you’ve made the right choice. Just about the time Cramer was going into the hospital for his final stay, I was invited one morning to the newsroom at the New York Times to meet with a group of talented and seasoned newspaper reporters. Several mornings a week, it seems, they devote some of their precious spare time to participation in a reading club. The story they were discussing? “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”
Of course I will always have his work on my shelf, his blurb on my book, his voice ringing, “You got chops, Sager.” Now that he’s dead it’s starting to leak out: It wasn’t just me. He was really nice to a lot of writers.
All of us know how hard it is to do what we do and how lonely it feels sometimes. Cramer’s work transcended because of who he was. It is one thing to be great; it is much harder to be kind.
It wasn’t Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes that made me want to upend all of my other extensive life plans and instead be a magazine journalist. It was something Cramer wrote long before then. In 1984, I was living in Austin, working in the legislature, pretending to have a career in politics, when just after Labor Day, the October issue of Esquire showed up in the mailbox. The issue had a cover that no magazine would or could have today — eight ugly little head shots of eight big-city mayors, with the cover line: “Who is the best mayor in America…and why is he annoyed?”
Now, being tribal and from southeast Texas, I hadn’t thought deeply about any place much outside of Harris County, much less…Baltimore. Who cared about Baltimore? The cover story that month was about the asshole — I’m not being mean, it was a major throughline of the piece — who by then had been mayor of Baltimore for twelve years. William Donald Shaefer was his name. By then I had read some of the New Journalists, mostly Tom Wolfe, with his brilliant reporting and layers of ironic detachment, but that piece, Cramer’s piece, which just went on forever, was the most glorious piece of journalism I had ever read. It humanized this strange little man, made him a titanic figure, and delivered his world whole and entire. I remember that I rationed the story out to make it last as long as I could. And then read it again right away. It was the story that bonded me to Esquire, bonded me to Cramer, whom I had never heard of, and first made me think: Who gets to make these stories?
I didn’t know it then, but Cramer was one of those few writers, one of those few people, who change everything, and influence scores of people — some extraordinary writers and tons of imitators — in their wake. He wrote with all of the verve and inventiveness of Wolfe, but whereas Wolfe was not above keeping a contemptuous distance from his subjects, Cramer inhabited his people, body and soul. No one had ever humanized on the page they way Richard did. No one.
Steve Kornacki on “What it Takes”:
“He spent just an inordinate amount of time in interviews with me, my friends and my family,” Richard Gephardt, who was also featured in the book, told Salon. “He came down to St. Louis countless times. What he was interested in doing, I think, was psychoanalyzing what, in the end, makes someone run for president.
“It was a slant of presidential politics that went well beyond where Teddy White left it off in the 1960s and early 1970s. And that said, it probably hasn’t been done since.”
One of the reasons no one has attempted a similar project is the level of trust between author and subject that it required. Because the incumbent president wasn’t seeking reelection, the ’88 race attracted an unusually large field – at one point or another, 15 candidates actively sought the Democratic and Republican nominations. Many of them are barely mentioned in the book, but those who made the cut allowed Cramer to witness their most vulnerable moments — key meetings, tense backstage moments, even intimate family conversations.
Gephardt, who began the race as a long shot but ended up winning the Iowa caucuses, said he doesn’t remember exactly how the project first came to his attention or why he agreed to it. But he said he quickly warmed up to the author and came to view him less as a reporter and more as a friend along for the ride.
“He did it well,” Gephardt said. “He didn’t interfere. He knew when to back off. He was a delightful person to be around. He was very funny, very smart. And unlike some writers in the political space, he wasn’t all hung up on politics. He was really interested in the human side of it.
“People on the staff, people in the family, just liked talking to him. Sometimes he’d just ride in the back of the van, telling jokes and stories – not doing interviews.”
…[Gary] Hart described how Cramer slowly earned his trust.
“That was a great part of his methodology. He ingratiated himself in the best sense of the word. He doesn’t push his way into the center, he’s on the fringe, he’s observing, he’s to a degree participating. His style was very rumpled, and almost absent-minded. So you kind of wanted to take care of him.
“He was so gentle and polite to my wife and my kids. My kids liked him an awful lot. And you understand that he’s not doing daily journalism, that he’s not looking for a headline. So as time went on, you just learned to open up to him.”
Here’s more: Ryan Lizza (a dinner with Richard and his wife Joan), Joe Klein, John Avlon, Ezra Klein, and Frederick N. Rasmussen’s terrific obit in The Baltimore Sun.
[Photograph Credit: Librado Romero, The New York Times; Algerina Perna, The Baltimore Sun]