Category Archives: Baseball

Baseball from a left-wing Bay Area perspective.

No No: Not a Rockumentary, But a Dockumentary

There aren’t many documentaries about individual baseball players, at least if you don’t count the ones I don’t see that probably air on cable TV. No No: A Dockumentary is a recent theatrical release, but probably won’t be seen by a whole lot of people due to its niche subject matter, detailing the life of one of the most colorful players of the 1970s, Dock Ellis. I saw it last night at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it does a pretty good job of covering the mercurial career of a good-but-not-great pitcher who’s still most notorious for proclaiming he threw a no-hitter under the influence of LSD.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

The highlights of Dock’s career – that 1970 no-hitter, his unabashed use of drugs and drink, wearing curlers in his hair on the field, getting into conflicts with the baseball establishment for his outspoken opinions on racial injustice, starting the 1971 All-Star game for the National League, and his post-baseball life as a drug counselor – are fairly well known to serious baseball fans. They’re decently Doc-umented in No No (with a good soundtrack of obscure vintage soul-funk), so this post will focus on some of the more surprising things that cropped up in my viewing.

With the passage of decades since Dock’s heyday, other players from the era are also becoming frank about the widespread drug use within the game. Fans already knew it existed after pitcher Jim Bouton wrote about the ingestion of amphetamines, known within baseball as “greenies,” in his classic Ball Four diary of the 1969 season. That was one of many things about the book that infuriated the baseball establishment, but in retrospect, it seems that if anything, Bouton might have toned down the reality of the situation. After all, he felt their benefits were limited, making you think as though you had better stuff than you did, and didn’t quite state that virtually every player used them.

But in No No, a number of other players (and quite a few, interestingly, are interviewed throughout the film) from Dock’s time do. They even give percentages. One, pitcher Scipio Spinks (one of the great baseball names) — a very promising hurler who won just seven games in a career cut short by injury — even put the percentage of users at 95 or 96 percent. There’s been much outrage over steroid use by ballplayers (and other athletes) in the early twenty-first century, but this reminds us that the history of drug use in the sport far predates our own era, and was not just present, but prevalent.

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport's greatest names, though not one of baseball's greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport’s greatest names, though not one of baseball’s greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Ellis, however, was an outsize drug user even by these standards. He claimed to have even taken sixteen or seventeen pills at once. No harm done if he wasn’t a pusher, some might say; his two wives, both victims of horrifying instances of domestic abuse, would say otherwise. When he was on these substances, observes one of his spouses, “I think he thought he was taking them over, but it was the other way around” — one of the most concise, on-target summaries of drug abuse I’ve ever heard.

Despite and sometimes because of his excesses, Dock was generally beloved by his teammates, friends, and family. The early-to-mid-1970s Oakland A’s are generally remembered as the most colorful of the period’s major league teams, but this movie also reminds us that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave them a run for their money. Pitcher Bruce Kison even goes as far as to remark that Pirates hated getting traded away because it was so boring being on other teams. (For a good portrait of the young Kison – speeding to his wedding just hours after helping the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, Santana blasting on the car stereo – see the chapter on Bruce in Pat Jordan’s fine book The Suitors of Spring.)

Pat Jordan's first book, The Suitors of Spring, collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers.

Pat Jordan’s 1972 The Suitors of Spring collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers, including a young Bruce Kison.

The Pirates were also notable for not just featuring more blacks than most teams, but fielding the first all-black lineup in major league baseball history on September 1, 1971. A few of the Pirates remember the occasion in No No, one of them claiming that the Buccos fell behind 7-0 in the first inning, not even thinking about the all-black personnel as they needed all their focus to pull out a 9-7 win. That wasn’t quite how it happened: they did fall behind to the Phillies (with Ellis on the mound) 2-0 and 6-5 in the early innings, but did indeed win 10-7. And they won the World Series the next month, though Ellis was sidelined by an arm injury after losing the first game.

Not everyone was as enamored of Ellis as his fellow Pirates, all of whom (including Kison, Steve Blass, Al Oliver, Gene Clines, and Dave Cash) speak of him in glowing terms in No No. Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg’s impression of Ellis when the pitcher was on other teams: “I don’t want to meet him in an alleyway.” After Ellis was traded to the Rangers, Sundberg, who did not indulge in drug use, kept their relationship strictly professional.

The mid-‘70s Cincinnati Reds probably held no great love for Dock either. In an incident almost notorious as his LSD no-hitter, he began the first inning of a May 1, 1974 game against the Big Red Machine by intentionally hitting the first three batters. Joe Morgan, it’s remembered, thought Ellis wouldn’t hit him because Morgan was a “brother.” On the mound, though, all opponents were equal, Ellis plunking Morgan when the Hall of Famer took his turn at bat. Dock went on to walk Tony Perez with the bases loaded before getting removed from the game.

As an aside, one of the oddest things about No No is its use of clips from a way-obscure promo film of the early 1980s, Dugout. Though it’s hard to tell from the brief excerpts, it seems to have been a short designed to scare Little Leaguers away from drugs. Ellis doesn’t appear in it, but, even more unexpectedly, Bo Belinsky — another talented pitcher who threw a no-hitter early in his career — does. Unlike Ellis, Belinsky never had much other success in the big leagues, finishing with a 28-51 lifetime record. Despite that 1962 no-hitter for the Los Angeles Angels (as they were called then), Belinsky was regarded as never fulfilling his potential, largely in part not to drug use, but to being a playboy, dating Mamie Van Doren (to whom he was briefly engaged), Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens, and Tina Louise, as well as marrying Playboy Playmate of the Year Jo Collins.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

From what little we see of Belinsky in the excerpts from Dugout used in No No, he seems to be warning kids away from drugs, in the wooden manner common to charismatic non-actor celebrities. The kids seem to be taking his cautions seriously, but here’s betting that no one could successfully warn aspiring big leaguers to stay away from the likes of Ann-Margret and Tina Louise. As it happens, Pat Jordan’s The Suitors of Spring also has a fascinating profile of Belinsky, who seemed to living it up just as hard right after getting out of the big leagues as he did in his brief peak.

Like Ellis, Belinsky would become a counselor (for alcohol abuse). One of Ellis’s clients, if that’s the right word, came as a surprise to me. Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett, Sr., as his son reveals in the movie, was an alcoholic. Ellis remained friendly with Corbett after his brief time in Rangers uniform, and helped Corbett with his drink problem, Dock spending (according to at least one account in the film) almost all of his post-baseball life sober before his death in 2008.

It was a productive comeback of sorts considering how poorly Ellis, like many athletes, handled the sudden loss of his skills and end of his career. I’d forgotten that Dock briefly returned to the Pirates to finish his career at the end of 1979. The Pirates were fighting for a playoff spot (which they got, going on to win the World Series), and picked up Ellis with just a week or so to go in the season. He didn’t pitch too badly in his three games and seven innings, going four frames and getting a no-decision in the one game he did start, the second game of a September 24 doubleheader. (I’m guessing that doubleheader is probably the reason he got picked up, to make an emergency start to help out a heavily worked staff.) He confessed to Bruce Kison, however, that his arm was shot, and never appeared in a big league game after the regular schedule was over, being ineligible for the postseason roster. A five-hour session of abusing his second wife — including holding a gun in her mouth, and afterward demanding she have sex with him — was, she says in the film, fallout from his anger over getting released shortly afterward.

Lots of athletes have similarly ugly falls from grace when the cheering stops, even in a time when high salaries would seem to make post-career financial security a given. Not many athletes make something from themselves after the worst of it, as Ellis did, judging from that documentary. Which might have been the greatest saving grace of a man who, in another of the film’s surprises, received a letter of admiration from Jackie Robinson shortly before Robinson’s early-‘70s death. In many respects, Robinson was not nearly as controversial a figure; he was not a substance abuser, did not call attention to himself with antics like wearing hair curlers on the field, and even supported the Republican Party after his playing days had finished. In those ways, they weren’t kindred spirits. But in refusing to back down against a world in which racial discrimination was too prevalent, they were very much united.

1972-topps-dock-ellis-ia

A Tale of Two Ballparks

About a month ago, it was reported that the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s might share the Giants’ stadium, AT&T Park, for a while in the future. That might happen if the A’s build a new stadium in Oakland (not at all certain since ownership has looked at relocating to San Jose, the East Bay suburb of Fremont, and other options over the last few years) and need a temporary home in the meantime. Why not just keep playing at their current home (the Coliseum, now officially O.co Coliseum) in Oakland, you ask? Well, would you want to play in a ballpark where sewage backs up in the clubhouse, as it did yesterday during a rainstorm canceling the A’s’ last exhibition game?

As a San Francisco resident, I’d kind of like having both teams in AT&T Park, at least for a year or two. That wouldn’t make my East Bay friends happy, as they’d have a lot farther to travel for games, and likely have to pay higher prices. But it would be convenient for me, and the tickets would likely be at least a little less expensive and more obtainable for the A’s games than the Giants contests, if unlikely to be a bargain. And I could wear my Giants/A’s hat, a giveaway years ago at one of their interleague series.

GiantsAshat

Though odd, two teams in the same city (or at least metropolitan area) sharing the same stadium isn’t unprecedented. The Giants and Yankees shared New York’s Polo Grounds from 1913-1922; the Yanks played in the Mets’ (now-extinct) Shea Stadium in 1974 and 1975 while Yankee Stadium was being redone; the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns were both in Sportsman’s Park from 1920-53. The Braves (when they were in Boston) and Red Sox shared Fenway Park for part of 1914 and 1915. There may well be other instances of which I’m unaware.

As you’d expect, this has led to some unusual situations, even though games were scheduled, naturally, so that one of the teams was playing at home while the other was on the road. My favorite happened in 1944, when the St. Louis Browns, to the shock of everyone, won their only American League pennant. They were a legendarily inept team during most of their approximately half-century instance, but with World War II on, they had their window of opportunity to grab a flag, as many of the best major league players were in the military. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals won their third straight pennant, and suddenly the city would host the entire world series, all to be played in Sportsman’s Park.

Even the Browns, the best account of baseball during World War II.

Even the Browns, the best account of baseball during World War II.

As William B. Mead’s 1978 book Even the Browns: The Zany, True Story of Baseball in the Early Forties reports:

The first clash between managers Luke Sewell [of the Browns] and Billy Southworth [of the Cardinals] was over a place to sleep. With housing short in wartime, the Sewells and Southworths had shared an apartment all season. The closet was for men, with Sewell’s clothes at one end and Southworth’s at the other. The Browns and Cardinals were never in St. Louis at the same time. As Sewell would be leaving with the Browns, Mrs. Sewell would entrain for the family home in Akron, and into the Lindell Towers apartment would come the Southworths.

However admirable this display of interleague cooperation might have appeared during the season, it would never do for the opposing managers to sit in the same living room after a World Series game, sipping bourbon and chatting politely with their wives. Besides, Sewell wanted to invite his mother, and Mrs. Southworth could hardly be expected to put up with a mother-in-law from the wrong family and, indeed, the wrong league. To the relief of both couples, another resident of the building was out of town in October and graciously let the Southworths use his apartment.

The Giants and Yankees ended up playing not just one but two World Series against each other in the same ballpark in 1921 and 1922, the final years they were sharing the Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, or else they would have staged the entire series there a third straight year, as both teams won pennants again. Babe Ruth likely would have hit even more home runs than he did if the Yanks had stayed in the Polo Grounds, though as it was he didn’t do too badly, totaling 714 homers in his career.

Neither the Yankees nor the Mets made the postseason when they were sharing Shea, though the Yanks came close in 1974. I was only twelve then, but the one issue I remember flaring up as a result of the co-tenancy was with star Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer. The dimensions at Shea Stadium were different than Yankee Stadium, of course, and Murcer suddenly had a lot more trouble hitting balls in the seats. After averaging about 25 homers in 1969-73, his power plummeted, and he hit just ten—only two of them at Shea. As we would say now, the park probably “got into his head,” and I remember some national broadcasters making a big deal out of the power outage. Uncoincidentally, the following year he was traded to the Giants (now in San Francisco) for another superstar deemed to be underachieving, Bobby Bonds.

Bobby Murcer, thrilled to be out of Shea Stadium and playing in that other noted hitter's paradise, San Francisco's Candlestick Park.

Bobby Murcer, thrilled to be out of Shea Stadium and playing in that other noted hitter’s paradise, San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

As one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors, AT&T will likely be as hard a place for Oakland hitters as the Coliseum—also one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors, in large part due to its sizable foul territory. As to whether we’ll see them calling AT&T home for a while, that remains as indefinite a proposition as the A’s even staying in Oakland, their ballpark situation having dragged on for years with no resolution in sight.

A False Spring: The Braves in Embryo

In a recent post, I hailed Jim Bouton’s Ball Four as “the Sgt. Pepper of baseball books.” I’ve found most other baseball memoirs (and there are many) disappointing, even some of the most highly praised ones. If pressed to pick #2 on the list, however, I’d go for Pat Jordan’s A False Spring, published in 1975. Bouton probably agreed, as he called it “the best sports book I’ve ever read” on a back cover blurb.

False Spring

While Bouton’s diary shows some of the funniest (and, occasionally, some of the saddest) side of professional baseball, A False Spring is the largely grim underside. First off, you might be wondering who Pat Jordan is. He not only wasn’t a star (as Bouton was, if just for a couple years)—he never made the majors. But that actually makes him a more typical professional ballplayer than Bouton, and indeed the vast majority of baseball memoirists. Most players who make it to the minors never make it to the majors, and Jordan, despite getting a big bonus from the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, was a spectacular failure, only playing for three years and never rising above the class C league.

Most of his book, naturally, deals with his own struggles. There’s no better illustration of how talent doesn’t necessarily translate into success, in large part because, as Jordan admits with painful self-honesty, he lacked the maturity to effectively use his assets. He threw hard to pile up strikeouts at the expense of control, got into tiffs with managers and players, and quit the game altogether after a discouraging 1961 season in class D. In fact, he quit a few days before the season was over, putting the car in neutral so as not to wake the landlord when he and his new wife skipped out on their last month’s rent.

There’s lots more about his brief and checkered career in the book. Some overlooked aspects of his observations, however, are the idiosyncratic details he reveals about his teammates. Most of them, like Jordan, didn’t make the majors, but a good number of them did. Just like we’d never know some of the quirks of Don Mincher, Fred Talbot, Larry Dierker, Lou Piniella, Steve Hovley, Ray Oyler, and many others if not for Ball Four, so does A False Spring have quite a few odd tidbits about ballplayers who made the big time.

Pat Jordan's first book, The Suitors of Spring, collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers.

Pat Jordan’s first book, The Suitors of Spring, collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers.

One of the most famous of Jordan’s teammates was Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro. For many years he was the ace of the Atlanta Braves’ staff, yet back in 1959, he was a relief pitcher for their class D team in McCook, Nebraska, after getting a mere $500 bonus. Jordan on Niekro:

At first he appeared only in the last innings of hopelessly lost games. He was ineffective because he could not throw his knuckleball over the plate and preferred, instead, to deal up one of his other pitches, all of which were deficient. He seemed deficient. He was tall and blond and affected a deferential slouch. I dismissed him as a timid man. Years later I would realize that what I’d mistaken for timidity was actually a simple nature. Phil Niekro was the least complex man I’d ever met. He devoted his life to mastering a pitch. He had been taught that pitch by his father when he was six years old and had still not mastered it when he reached McCook…

It was at McCook that Niekro first surrendered to the whims of this pitch and shortly thereafter, where his first success began. It is a surrender a more complex man could never make, but one that eventually brought Niekro a success none of his teammates at McCook would ever approach.

Niekro

Jordan’s roommate in McCook was Ron Hunt, a scrappy second baseman who would play for a dozen years in the majors for several teams (though not the Braves). He’s most known for his willingness to take first base by getting hit by a pitch. He still holds the post-1900 major league single-season record in that category, taking one for the team 50 times in 1971. But at McCook Hunt was something of a milk’n’cookies guy, warning Jordan their landlady would throw him out if he came in drunk again (though Pat wasn’t drunk—more about that in a minute). Once Hunt introduced Jordan to his visiting mom and dad; a few weeks later, to Pat’s incomprhension, Ron introduced his roommate to an entirely different mom and dad (it turned out both his biological parents had remarried).

RonHunt

When the landlady thought Jordan was drunk, he’d actually gotten into a fight with teammate Elrod Hendricks. Hendricks eventually became catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and was part of three consecutive pennant-winning teams in 1969-71 (and a World Series champion in 1970). Back in 1959, he was charged with warming up a nervous Jordan in his first minor-league start. Impatient with Elrod’s lazy throwbacks and dilly-dallying stabs at his throws, Pat ran to the dugout to get another catcher. The next morning he was reading a newspaper on a bench when, to his shock, a smiling Hendricks pummeled him to the ground. Hendricks thought Jordan had made him look bad to the manager.

After a decade or so in the majors, ironically, Ellie later became bullpen coach for the Orioles for 28 years. Wonder how he reacted when catchers warmed up Orioles pitchers with less than wholehearted enthusiasm, or when he might have had to do the job himself.

Elrod

The next season, one of Jordan’s teammates was Rico Carty, later a Braves outfielder (and batting champion in 1970), but then a scuffling catcher in C ball. The Dominican was beginning the difficult process of adjusting to US life, and Jordan invited him out for a couple beers, after which Rico fell asleep right at the counter. This was Davenport, Iowa, not the Deep South, but as Jordan wrote:

The next time I entered that bar the bartender complained about my friend. I apologized for his behavior, assured him that it wouldn’t happen again, that my friend was just awfully tired…

“‘That’s not the point,’ he said. “My customers don’t want no buck nigger in here. Not even awake. You understand?’

“‘Sure,’ I said, a little stunned. Then he asked for proof that I was 21 years old, and when I couldn’t produce any he said he was sorry but that I’d have to leave.”

RicoCarty 

Also in the Braves’ farm system, Jordan came across Tony Cloninger. Cloninger would have a fairly lengthy career in the bigs, though only one real star season, 1965, when he won 24 games for the Braves. He was something of an overworker, and:

“When his fastball disappeared a few years later, he refused to accept the fact. He simply threw harder—that is, with greater effort. I remember seeing him pitch against the Montreal Expos in 1969. His career was all but over then. He lasted three innings. After he was relieved he walked to the right field bullpen and began firing fastballs to his bullpen catacher. He threw for five innings, as if punishing himself would redeem his career…

“I talked to him after the game. He told me he needed just a few more wins to achieve his hundredth major league victory. Nothing would stop him from reaching that goal, he said, not even the sore arm he now suffered. He just pitched with it, he said, and didn’t tell his manager, because if he did his manager might drop him from the starting rotation.”

Cloninger did get his 100th win late that year, by the way—and, the next season, he’d pitch for the Reds in the World Series, though not too well, starting and losing game three to Elrod Hendricks’s Baltimore Orioles.

Cloninger

Jordan’s most fateful encounter with a teammate involved another future Hall of Famer. Eager to ingratiate himself with a manager, Pat offered to pitch batting practice one day in spring training in 1960 though his arm hurt. His catcher was Joe Torre, who angrily told him to “Put something on the damn ball!” When Joe turned his back Jordan threw the ball at his head, and they almost came to blows before the manager separated them. And that manager, Billy Smith, demoted Jordan to a lower classification after the incident—an incident that, in retrospect, the author felt saddled him with a reputation as a troublemaker.

There’s a happy ending of sorts, as dismal as Jordan’s career was. By the 1970s he was establishing himself as a top sportswriter, due in no small part to A False Spring. In 1996, he’d even write a story on that same Joe Torre, now manager of the New York Yankees, for The New York Times magazine; the pair had buried the hatchet, Joe having no problem with being interviewed by Jordan. And in 1997, at the age of 56, Pat pitched a scoreless inning for the Waterbury Spirit in the independent Northeast League, a comeback that formed the basis of a subsequent memoir, A Nice Tuesday.

Torre

Arnold Earley: No Wins, One Loss, No Saves

I didn’t start looking at baseball cards until I was six years old in 1968, but going through those soon got me interested in gazing at some pre-’68 cards that were still lying around the house in older brothers’ collections. There were a lot from 1966, yet barely any from 1967. One of the few ’67 cards, however, still strikes me as one of the strangest of all time:

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Seldom have I seen a photo, on a baseball card anyway, that looks less like a major league baseball player. Or what we think of major league players as looking like, anyway. He looks more like the guy whose job it was to yell at you not to splash too much at the local swim club.

Of all the guys to have played for at least parts of half a dozen seasons in the ‘60s, Earley had one of the most faceless careers. The stats on the back of the card are missing his final year, but he would indeed finish his career with a 12-20 record. His lifetime ERA was 4.48; he only started ten of the 223 games in which he pitched; and he never played a key role on any of his teams, racking up 14 saves and only once breaking the 100-inning barrier. His minor-league record wasn’t even any great shakes, as he lumbered his way to a 41-62 mark over nine years.

51Mo2YmEQuL._SY300_

One of those lines in his career record jumps out at you, however. In 1965, he appeared in 57 games for the Boston Red Sox – the most games he ever logged in a single season. You’d think he couldn’t have avoided seeing some significant action, right? But in those 57 games, he recorded an 0-1 record, with no saves.

Think about it. All those games, and just one decision, even counting saves. And that decision was a negative one. Is that some kind of record for least-meaningful-result-per-appearance?

That depends on how you measure what’s most meaningful, I guess, but it’s certainly up there. It took some doing to scrape up the record for most games pitched with fewest won-loss decisions, but there was only one guy who exceeded 57 games. That was Trever Miller, who managed to appear in 76 games for the Houston Astros in 2007 without logging a single win or loss:

Miller’s “record,” however, is “tainted” by a solitary (one) save. So he got one positive marker that Earley lacked. The “record” for most appearances without a win, loss, or save belongs to Scott Aldred, who took the mound in 48 games for the 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays (when they still had “Devil” in their name). Let’s give an honorable mention, too, to Erik Plantenberg, who appeared in 61 games in his career over three seasons without a win or loss, though he managed a single save.

All these guys, however, were left-handed relief specialists who often pitched to very few batters: LOOGYs (left-handed one-out guys), in the modern parlance. Earley wasn’t, hurling 74 innings in 57 games, finishing 11 of them. He actually had the second-lowest ERA on the Sox staff, but must have been used in what are now called “low-leverage” situations almost exclusively, to put it mildly.

What’s yet more amazing, however, is that Earley very nearly went 0-0-0. In a Charlie Brown-like capper on this most futile of seasons, he was tagged with his one loss – the one decision of any sort he accumulated in 1965 – on the very last day of the season.

The Red Sox were losing 4-2 to the Yankees on Sunday, October 3 when Earley was called in to relieve Earl Wilson, finishing the third inning. In the bottom of the frame, the Sox tied the score 4-4 on a homer by future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. One has to think that Red Sox manager Billy Herman saw this as a golden opportunity to give Arnold his last-minute victory, avoiding going home with a stat line that made it look as if nothing had happened, 57 games or no 57 games.

What did happen, however, looked more like a Sunday Peanuts comic strip, with hard-luck king Charlie Brown on the mound. In the top of the fourth with two out and no one on, Earley gave up two singles, putting men on first and third. Elston Howard then lifted a flyball to right field, apparently getting Arnold out of the jam…but Tony Conigliaro muffed it, and both runners scored. That was also a lousy capper to the season for Conigliaro, who lead the American League in home runs that year at the age of 20, though he would not have the great career that many predicted:

Despite leading the American League in home runs in 1965, Tony Conigliaro had a far more ill-fated career even than Arnold Earley. After getting hit by a pitch in 1967, he almost lost vision in one eye, missed the entire 1968 season, and never got back to full health before retiring in 1971. A brief comeback attempt in 1975 was unsuccessful. After a stroke in 1982, he was in a coma for eight years before dying in 1990.

Despite leading the American League in home runs in 1965, Tony Conigliaro had a far more ill-fated career  than even Arnold Earley. After getting hit by a pitch in 1967, he suffered severe eye damage, missed the entire 1968 season, and never got back to full health before retiring in 1971. A brief comeback attempt in 1975 was unsuccessful. After a stroke in 1982, he was in a non-functional state for eight years before dying in 1990.

Earley stayed in a couple more innings, Billy Herman and the bench no doubt rooting for him to somehow hold on while they rallied to give him a chance for victory, or at least not to suffer a loss to blemish his goose egg-stat line. The score was still 6-4 with two out and no one on in the top of the sixth, only for Earley to give up a single, followed by an Elston Howard double that scored Tom Tresh all the way from first. Earley was taken out for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the inning. It’s likely he and the Red Sox couldn’t have pulled a win out of the hat even if Conigliaro hadn’t made that error, the Yankees ending up on top by an 11-5 score.

For his undistinguished service, Arnold earned a grand total of $12,500 in 1965. As low a salary as that was even in those days, the Red Sox got less bang for their buck than any team did for any player that year, at least as measured by dollars-per-decision.

Take another look at the back of his 1967 baseball card, this time focusing on the typically pithy text at the top:

51Mo2YmEQuL._SY300_

“The lefty appeared in 13 games last season and figures to be a mainstay for Chicago in ’67.”

Not so. Earley didn’t appear in a single game for the Cubs that year, taking the mound just twice in the big leagues, for the Houston Astros. He was pounded, giving up four earned runs and five hits for a 27.00 ERA. He’d never pitch in the majors again. His record for the season: no wins, no losses, and no saves.

Arnold_Earley-1967

Ball Four and the Beatles

The relationship between rock music and baseball is an odd and not especially fruitful one. There haven’t been any guys who excelled at both making records and major league ball, though more players have cut records than you might guess. A great many hip rock fans are big baseball fans; not many, if any, big leaguers are into hip rock. Page through the back issues of Chin Music, the fine and unfortunately defunct fanzine that interviewed ballplayers about rock (and indie bands about baseball), for the amusing evidence.

Ball Four, the Sgt. Pepper of baseball books.

Ball Four, the Sgt. Pepper of baseball books.

Spring training just having sprung, I had the urge to look back at what the diary I once called “the Sgt. Pepper” of baseball books had to say about the matter. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, still the finest first-person account of playing major league (and, for a bit, minor league) ball over an entire season, doesn’t for the most part deal with music. His nearly day-by-day log of the 1969 season talks about baseball a lot, of course, but also almost everything else, from sex and politics to Howdy Doody. In those infrequent passages where music plays a part, it says as much about his marginal role on his teams as it does about his taste.

As a liberal, caustically funny guy not afraid to speak his mind, Bouton didn’t fit into the mainstream of clubhouse culture, to understate it. That wasn’t such a problem when he was a 20-game winner and World Series hero, but it became more of an issue when he was a relief pitcher with the expansion Seattle Pilots, fighting for the last place on the roster. Pragmatically realizing (especially with a family to support) that every little bit helps, he did his bit to try to be “one of the guys,” even if he couldn’t quite pull it off. Here’s part of his entry from May 26, a month after he’d been recalled from a brief banishment to the minors:

I’m trying to so hard to be one of the boys I’m even listening to country music. And enjoying it. The back of the bus is the country-music enclave, and most of the players are part of it. So far, though, we’ve not been able to swing over city boys like Tommy Davis, Tommy Harper and John Kennedy. I think we’ll get them in the end, though. Maybe with a bull fiddle.

Bouton was a city boy himself, however, having grown up in the New York area and Chicago. Maybe he would have been more comfortable in other parts of the bus:

The middle of the bus is dominated by Tommy Davis and his groovy tape machine, and the quiet guys sit in front, guys like Gus Gil and Freddy (Poor Devil) Velazquez. Mike Marshall also sits in front looking for somebody to play chess with him. I’ve played with him a few times…

That reference to a tape machine’s interesting. These days, if someone doesn’t like another player’s music, I imagine it’s not much of an issue. My guess is most music on player buses is heard through iPods, allowing each listener to vanish into his own world as much as they do on a typical mass transit journey.

Like Jim Bouton, Tommy Davis would play most of 1969 with the Seattle Pilots, but end the season with the Houston Astros.

Like Jim Bouton, Tommy Davis would play most of 1969 with the Seattle Pilots, but end the season with the Houston Astros.

What kind of tape player would Davis (a former National League batting champion who’d gotten a key hit against Bouton in a 1-0 1963 World Series game the pitcher lost) have been using? Cassette machines were on the market by the late 1960s, but they were pretty clunky and not noted for high-quality musical use in their early days. There would have been a limited selection of commercially available cassette tapes, and making cassettes from vinyl releases was likewise far less widespread than it would be just a few years later. Maybe he was even lugging around a reel-to-reel player? One assumes, though, he played whatever he was hauling onboard loud, if the machine “dominated” by middle of the bus.

Country music merits another paragraph on August 13:

The country western music got a big workout in the clubhouse after the win. There are four or five different tape players around and they make quite a racket. One of the favorites is “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.” Gene Brabender knows all the words to that one. Another is, “Happy Birthday, Joe Beam.” It starts out, “They’re hanging Joe Beam today…” Seems that Joe Beam killed eleven guys before he was twelve and they said he was an “unruly boy.” And right at the end, when they hang him, they break out into “Happy Birthday, Joe Beam.” Breaks us up.

The players might  have heard “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” from Johnny Cash’s 1968 hit concert LP At Folsom Prison. He performed both songs at that legendary concert. Bouton got the title of one song wrong, though: it’s “Joe Bean” Johnny sings about, not Joe Beam. (I’ll have to check the most recent edition of Ball Four to see if anyone ever caught that.) As “Joe Bean” only made it onto the expanded CD reissue of At Folsom Prison, the Pilots must have known it from its appearance on Johnny’s 1966 LP Everybody Loves a Nut, which also included a previous version of “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” as it happens.

It’s a little strange, incidentally, that Bouton doesn’t cite Cash as the singer. At Folsom Prison was a very popular album, and not just among country audiences, reaching #13 on the pop charts. As Jim wrote his August 13 entry, Cash’s follow-up At San Quentin was on its way to #1, where it would reside for four consecutive weeks starting August 23. Johnny had also started his popular network variety show in June 1969, and Bouton should have been able to catch at least a few of those Saturday night broadcasts, as not all Saturday major league games were played at night.

Johnny Cash's hit 1968 concert LP At Folsom Prison was a big hit in the Seattle Pilots' clubhouse.

Johnny Cash’s 1968 concert LP At Folsom Prison was likely a big hit in the Seattle Pilots’ clubhouse.

A couple weeks after that August 13 entry, Bouton was traded from the Seattle Pilots to the Houston Astros, where Jim quickly befriended young pitcher Larry Dierker, on his way to a 20-win season (his only one, as it turned out). Larry had rather more contemporary musical tastes than Bouton’s Seattle teammates. In the midst of shutting out the San Francisco Giants on September 5, Jim wrote, “Between innings of this great ballgame he pitched, Dierker sat on the bench and sang ‘Rocky Raccoon.’”

“Rocky Raccoon,” of course, came off the Beatles’ White Album, as popular a release as there was in the late 1960s, even though it had been out for almost a year by that time. Perhaps with Dierker’s encouragement—finding out Bouton was writing a book, he started feeding the older reliever possible quotes just days after Jim joined the Astros—the author asserts what were probably his true musical tastes more confidently on September 19:

Larry Dierker and I much prefer the Beatles to country-western music. As a protest against the amount of country-western we have to listen to, we have composed what we consider a typical song of the genre. It took us about two innings.

There follows the 22-line tune they wrote. I won’t reproduce the whole thing here (who knows, it might even be copyrighted), but it begins “I want my baby back again, she done left town with my best friend.” References to waiting by the phone, a broken heart, a murder, a faithless sweetheart, hitting the bottle, a prison cell, “Billy Joe,” and the concluding resolution “but with the Lord I’ll carry on” make it clear Bouton and Dierker had absorbed the principal clichés of the genre.

Larry Dierker, Beatles fan.

Larry Dierker, Beatles fan.

Dierker, incidentally, is portrayed as quite a fun-loving free spirit in the book, as is another Astros teammate, third baseman Doug Rader. Both, oddly, became managers in subsequent decades, Dierker even piloting the Astros, whom he guided to a four Central Division titles in five years between 1997-2001. Wonder if he was playing The White Album in the clubhouse after key victories then.

It’s not clear if any of their fellow Astros were also Beatles fans, but one wonders if Jim and Larry managed to hear Abbey Road before the season ended. The LP was released on September 26, only a week or so before Houston played its last game of the year. The Astros, only a couple games off the Western Division lead when Bouton joined them in late August, had fallen out of contention; Dierker had already won his twentieth game (saved by Bouton); and there wasn’t really much else to distract them as they got ready for the off-season. If so, they could have sung “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” the next day, when Bouton got hammered in Cincinnati, giving up two runs, two hits, and two walks while retiring only one batter.

Jim Bouton, author (with editor Leonard Shecter) of baseball's greatest literary hit.

Jim Bouton, author (with editor Leonard Shecter) of Ball Four, baseball’s greatest literary hit.