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.”
“Can the Mets Survive Respectability?”
By Joe Flaherty
If in a moment of campy whimsy Susan Sontag and Salvador Dali decided to have a love affair and conceive a child without sin, he would be destined to grow up and become a New York Met. In a dastardly age when we are accused of genocide at home and abroad, the Mets remain as innocent as a feather boa or a Busby Berkeley musical.
Admittedly, baseball, in Red Smith’s phrase, is still a game played by little boys, but it also is a serious business. One has only to remember the fabled exodus of Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers from loving Brooklyn to lush Los Angeles. The shacks of Mexican peasants were torn down to erect (as the Hollywood press agents call it) O’Malley’s Taj Mahal of sports arenas. And when his edifice was complete, it was discovered that there wasn’t a water fountain in the place. O’Malley in his countinghouse realized soda pop cost money and water was for nothing. So those poor bronzed blond darlings of Southern California, those objects of adoration of all the Humbert Humberts among us, were being subjected in that land of wheat germ and blackstrap molasses to sugary cavities. But these devious machinations have nothing to do with the Mets.
In their six-year history (1968 is their seventh) the Mets not only gave away water but a torrent of ball games as well. Their pitching staff had the marksmanship of Sergeant York-they hit every damn bat in sight. Their batters were as aggressive as flower children, and their baserunners circled the pads as though Mack Sennett and Richard Lester were coaching on first and third. The Mets’ defense was so feeble it could make Nasser feel like a Prussian general. Yet they were loved.
In six years they finished last in the National League standings five times and next to last once. Their unbelievable dramatic ninth-place finish in 1966 (28½ games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers) was relegated to a freak of nature when in 1967 they returned to form and finished last, 40½ games behind the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
But these were the innocent years. What could be expected of a club that paid $125,000 for Don Zimmer and Lee Walls and $75,000 for the likes of Ray Daviault and John De Merit? And who gave a hell about winning when their manager of three-and-one-half years, Casey Stengel, could combine jabberwocky and Finnegans Wake and convert tragedy into comedy? After Stengel’s heady reign, the Mets went into their Eisenhower years. Under Wes Westrum, the ex-Giant catcher, the Met fans mistook boredom for serious stewardship. For nearly three seasons the Mets slept.
But precociousness is a fragile commodity. What is adorable in adolescence is contemptible in adults. 1968 was the year the Mets were supposed to grow up. And the reason for their maturity was the hiring of Gil Hodges as manager. The feeling was that Hodges, the gentle giant, the solid man who was adored as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman for ten years, would bring stability to the Mets.
New York was always a National League town. The aristocratic Yankees are only tolerated here; the real action was always the Giants and the Dodgers. And Hodges was the embodiment of the golden years, the late forties and early fifties of the Dodgers. He was so unique as an individual he was never even jeered by the enemy Giant fans. In a borough that canonized the image of the “regular guy” Gil Hodges was a saint.
One remembers the elegance he brought to playing first base. His massive hands seemed to span the right side of the Dodger infield, making it impenetrable. And who could forget the 370 home runs-or, as Red Barber called them, “Old Goldies”? Then there was the human saga, the 1952 World Series in which Hodges batted 0 for 21, and on a Sunday every church in Brooklyn offered up prayers that Gil would end his slump. Indeed, Hodges always seemed to be a character in a morality play. One recalls the great confrontation between Hodges and Giant pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie. The blue-eyed Hodges at bat, who always had trouble hitting the curve ball, looking like Billy Budd facing the swarthy, unshaven Maglie as Claggart doing the unmentionable to the instrument of our national pastime-spitting on it-magnificently curving the hero to his death, while the faithful of Flatbush hissed the hairy villain. Even now Hodges says with a self-deprecating smile: “Sal would have to make a terrible mistake for me just to hit the ball.”
Hodges, who also was one of the original Mets, retired from active ball in 1963 because of a crippling knee injury. In 1963 he became manager of the last place Washington Senators of the American League. Within five years as the Senators’ manager Hodges raised the club from the cellar in 1963 to a respectable tie for sixth place in 1967. Then in ’68 the Mets summoned Hodges home, though in a way he had never left since he has lived on Bedford Avenue with his wife and four children (a boy and three girls) since 1948.
But for those looking for the Met image to change drastically the spring season didn’t offer much hope. The Mets compiled their worst loss record ever, and the zany stories were still getting into the press. Ron Swoboda, the team slugger and the sibling with the Chinese stepfather, was reported to heed a call from nature during an exhibition game and missed his turn at bat-once again, the Mets were caught with their pants down. Then there was the story of relief pitcher Hal Reniff urging Phil Linz, infielder and owner of the East Side swing spot Mr. Laffs, to come to spring training for a tryout. In typical Met fashion Reniff had a horrible spring and was cut, and Linz, playing brilliantly, made the team. In fact, Linz was so impressive that Daily News sportswriter. Dick Young was moved to write that Linz was one of the best prospects in spring training. Linz, upon reading the accolade, was moved to comment: “I know that’s not right.”
But these stories, which were the substance of Stengel’s existence, don’t amuse Hodges. Sitting in his office at Shea Stadium, Hodges solemnly said: “I used to enjoy Met stories as much as anyone else, but I don’t appreciate them anymore. We have to get away from the image of being a funny club.” But the old image didn’t have any major revision during the first two weeks of the season. The Mets blew their opening game to the Giants in the ninth inning and managed to lose six one-run ball games in their first twelve games through spotty relief pitching and horrendous fielding. In fact, if to err is human, to be a Met is divine. In the first seventeen games the Amazin’ Ones made nineteen miscues.
But loving the Mets is not a rational thing; it’s more like life with a drunken husband. He curses you, abuses you, beats you, and then every so often the lousy bastard does something so spectacular that passion overrules reason and your bed of nails once more becomes the arena of conjugal bliss. So it was with the Mets as they staggered home from their road trip, like Hickey the salesman, to their opener at Shea.
All the regular hoopla was present: marching bands, flags flapping everywhere, and a horseshoe wreath wishing Gil good luck. Then, in one loving swoop, all was forgiven. The current ace of Hodges’ staff, twenty-five-year-old Jerry Koosman, not only struck out the Giants, but struck out Willie Mays with the bases loaded. But such treats are rare. The same weekend the Mets threw away a doubleheader to the Dodgers, and Hodges sat in his office, his massive hand shaking, holding a filter cigarette, unable to talk to the reporters. He seemed to be suffering the frustration of so many talented participants who are now relegated to the sidelines to manage the ineptitude of others. The best he could mutter was “We’re beating ourselves, and that can be corrected.” When one looked at the pale blue eyes vacuous and washy, the face from our boyhood now lined and looking prematurely haggard, one thought of John Lindsay after managing a couple of tough summer seasons in this city.
But after a day off, Hodges looked refreshed at a Tuesday morning batting practice. Here one catches the real essence of Hodges. Essentially, Gil Hodges is a father. Young ballplayers treat him with respect but not awe. His jokes are mild-not clever, not cutting, just a touch of chastisement in them. He was hitting ground balls to first baseman Art Shamsky, taking particular glee when he drove one by him. Shamsky sheepishly smiled at the past master of the position he was trying to conquer, and then Hodges, grinning broadly, would hit him an easy grounder to make him look good. Hodges’ coach, Yogi Berra, was pitching batting practice. Berra is the only man alive who can make a baseball uniform look like a zoot suit. His low-slung pants seem pegged, his hat slouches over his eyes be-bop fashion, and his bouncy walk evokes the street corner. Tommie Agee stepped into the batting cage, and Hodges stopped smiling. Hodges traded away .300 hitter Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher to obtain the White Sox center fielder. Agee, who was suffering a terrific batting slump, couldn’t even hit the ball in practice. Hodges eyed him intently, looking for some flaw in the swing that might bring Agee around. When asked about the wisdom of giving up the Mets’ only .300 hitter for Agee (who later went on to tie the Mets’ record for most hitless times at bat—0 for 34), Hodges in his usual gracious manner said: “Certainly I’ll take credit for the trade. Tommie will come along just fine.”
But all is not bleak for Hodges and his Mets this year. Relaxed in his office after practice, he talked about the positive side of the Mets. “Our pitching is our strong suit,” he said. “These young boys are fine.” Indeed, the Mets do have a fine young staff in Koosman, Tom Seaver, who won 16 games last year, and Nolan Ryan, whose speed has been compared to that of Koufax and Feller. And Ron Swoboda is off to the finest start of his career. But there are the others, the nameless mediocrities who fill out the roster. Hodges has set a goal of winning 70 games this year and perhaps playing .500 ball next year. “These boys have it in them. They’re fine boys.”
Fine boys. The phrase is slightly square for a paid athlete. But then Hodges is slightly square. But then again baseball, like Hodges, is square—but in a nice sort of way. It is a game that is meant to be played under God’s sunshine, as Phil Wrigley used to say. Unlike football, it has no snob appeal. It’s a game for kids, cabdrivers pulling long night shifts, and the old Jewish men who stand on Flatbush Avenue outside Garfield’s Cafeteria. It’s a beer drinker’s game, where the fans do corny things like sing fight songs and take seventh inning stretches. And Gil Hodges fits perfectly into this milieu.
For all his size (6 feet 2, 210 pounds), one could never picture Hodges in pro football where everyone uses war game parlance as if they were bastard sons of Robert McNamara. Or where the season ticket holders are the ad boys with their plaid-covered flasks holding their Ambassador Twelve, snobbishly talking about “Z-outs” and “zig-ins,” as if they were talking about Kama Sutra positions instead of a ball game. Hodges seems content to settle for the glitter of Abner Doubleday’s diamond.
But one wonders if his team should be the Mets. One remembers the hand shaking, the soft drink on the desk, the pale face, and the hesitant speech. Then one thinks of Stengel, booze in hand, regaling sportswriters with sidesplitting tales of his clowns’ ineptitude. Hodges can’t play the buffoon; he takes his “boys” seriously. This may be the sadness of his homecoming. The Mets still look like a team to be run by a tipsy Falstaff rather than a sober, brooding, fatherly Lear.
May 27, 1968
From Gayl Heinz comes a letter that Howard Cosell once sent to her father, Bill (better known as W.C. Heinz). It concerns a Mets game back in 1962.
The handwritten P.S. from Cosell reads: “The gist of the mail and calls was…at last we understand Stengelese.”
Chapter Two from “Forging Genius”
By Steven Goldman
(Part Two of Two; click here for Part One)
In 1841, the United States had three presidents. In the Bronx, 1946 was the year of three managers. McCarthy’s replacement, veteran Yankees catcher Bill Dickey, refused to finish out the season under MacPhail. The season was completed under interim manager/organization man Johnny Neun. Neun “had let it be known after about a week that he knew now what McCarthy and Dickey had been talking about and, by God, he didn’t have to take that from anybody either.” The second-division Cincinnati Reds seemed a better option, and off he went.
That September, Stanley Raymond “Bucky” Harris was hired to serve in an undefined executive capacity (MacPhail acted as his own general manager, and Weiss, the club’s farm director since 1932, was on hand to take care of anything that might escape his notice. Barrow, ostensibly a consultant to the club, was also available, though MacPhail never called) and asked to evaluate the team. Almost a quarter century earlier, Harris had been the twenty-eight-year-old “boy manager” who had guided the Washington Senators to consecutive pennants in his initial seasons at the helm. After that the going was not nearly so smooth. Harris’s initial command of the Senators lasted until 1928, at which time owner Clark Griffith terminated him, in part for not following up on his earlier success, and in part for failing to recognize the talents of second base prospect Buddy Myer.
Harris moved on to Detroit, where in five seasons he failed to produce a first-division finish. Still in demand, in 1934 he became the first manager hired by Tom Yawkey as owner of the Boston Red Sox. The team’s 76–76 record was its best since 1918, but Harris clashed with general manager Eddie Collins and was dismissed. He returned to Washington, where sentimental Senators owner Clark Griffith was never loathe to reemploy an old pal. In the following eight seasons, the club finished fourth once and otherwise could be counted on for a sixth or seventh place finish. Harris made way for another Griffith buddy, Ossie Bleuge.
Harris then briefly managed the Philadelphia Phillies under owner Bill Cox, whose own term was foreshortened by Commissioner of Baseball Judge Landis after it was revealed that Cox had bet on his own club. Cox fired Harris after ninety-two games, claiming that he had called his players “a bunch of jerks.” In fact, the players threatened to strike when informed of Harris’s termination. Said Harris, “If there is any jerk connected with this ball club, it’s the president of it.” That seemed to have been the last encore for the graying, forty-six-year-old, non-boy manager. When MacPhail hired him, Harris had been serving as the general manager of the International League’s Buffalo club. This was actually fine with Harris; after two decades on the managerial merry-go-round, he desired to become an executive—preferably with the Detroit Tigers, but if their general manager’s job wasn’t open, a job with the Yankees would have to do.