Sacred cows are worth one thing—steak

Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain

“Spahn (left) and Sain (right) and we don’t need the rain . . . really . . . “

In the too-often-factually challenged film Quiz Show, about the late-1950s scandal centered on the infamously fixed television game Twenty-One, John Turturro’s Herb Stempel is unamused when his wife, Toby, proclaims he should worship the ground upon which she walks. “You want to be worshipped,” Turturro’s Stempel snaps back, “go to Bombay, stand in the middle of the street, and moo.”

Of course, the reference is to the manner in which Hindus regard the common cow. By dictionary definition, specifically the Oxford Languages edition, the sacred cow is “an idea, custom, or institution held, especially unreasonably, to be above criticism.” And if there’s one sport whose fans continue worshipping sacred cows, it’s baseball.

Letting facts get in the way of juicy stories is as old as the game itself. You’d have almost as hard a time isolating the first such sacred cow in baseball as you’d have discovering the precise human being who invented the wheel. You can know the when and where (approximately 3,500 B.C., Mesopotamia) but as for the who only God knows, and He isn’t available for an interview as I write.

It works with juicy doggerel, too. Baseball’s loaded with it. A social media baseball group yielded one this morning when he proclaimed the Boston Braves once had a motto: “Spahn and Sain and a day of rain.” That wasn’t their motto, but it was a pleasant little doggerel dreamed up by Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern in 1948:

First, we’ll use Spahn,
Then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day,
Followed by rain.

Back will come Spahn
Followed by Sain
And followed,
We hope,
By two days of rain.

Hern dreamed it up during a 7-10 September stretch during which the Braves didn’t play because of bad weather, presumably. As Frank Jackson observed four years ago in The Hardball Times, sportswriters get awful creative when there are no games on their beats. Often as not, they’re more awful than creative.

“One suspects the Braves’ other starters were less than enthusiastic about Hern’s little ditty,” Jackson wrote. “Certainly, none came close to having the season that Johnny Sain had in 1948, and none had the career that Warren Spahn had. But that doesn’t mean they were a bunch of humpty-dumpties.”

Sain didn’t exactly do terribly for himself. After his pitching career ended he became one of the game’s most respected pitching coaches—by the pitchers he coached, if not always by the managers to whom he reported. Spahn, of course, became a Hall of Famer against whom future lefthanded pitchers would be measured, if it hadn’t been for a few to follow him named Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, and Randy Johnson.

But Jackson was right. The rest of the pennant-winning Braves’ 1948 starting rotation wasn’t exactly two pounds of baloney in a half-pound sack. Sain led the starters with his 2.60 earned run average and 3.41 fielding-independent pitching rate . . . but Spahn was actually last among them with his 3.71 ERA and second to Sain with his 3.64 FIP. Vern Bickford’s 3.27/3.99 and Bill Voiselle’s 3.63/4.21 would, as Jackson noted, get them both sweet contracts as free agents in today’s game.

As a matter of fact, Spahn and Sain may have inspired Hern to channel his inner Ogden Nash but Bickford started six games down that September stretch—and got credit for four wins, no losses, and one no-decision game in which he pitched well enough to beat the Phillies in the nightcap of a doubleheader—nine innings, eight scattered hits, one run surrendered, and five strikeouts (scattering four walks). But he came out after nine, the game went thirteen innings, and the Braves scored what proved the winning run on a fly out. (The sacrifice fly rule wasn’t in effect then.)

Bickford was a rookie in 1948, his arrival at 27 delayed by World War II service, yet he wasn’t exactly the kind of pitcher who’d really make you pray for rain between Spahn and Sain in 1948-50. Two years later, he’d pitch the seventh no-hitter in Braves history. He was through after 1954 (injuries provoked inconsistency after 1950, it seems); he died of cancer at 39 in 1960.

How about baseball’s most famous previous piece of doggerel? It was written by Franklin P. Adams of The New York Evening Mail in 1910. If not for that, Adams might be remembered best as one of the regular panelists on radio’s long-running brain-food quiz Information, Please. (The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn was the son of a teacher who may actually have originated the idea behind the show.) Here was Adams in the 12 July 1910 Mail, writing doggerel he called “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”:

These are the saddest of possible words
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble
Making a Giant hit into a double
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance

Those ruthless prickers of gonfalon bubbles . . .

“As the story goes,” wrote Tim Wiles in The New York Times in 1996, “Adams was told that he needed eight lines of filler for an empty spot on the sports page. Thus, the ‘Sad Lexicon.’ Never mind that some baseball historians have observed that Tinker, Evers and Chance did not dazzle as a double-play combination. After being forever linked by Adams’s poem, the three men were elected to the Hall of Fame together in 1946.”

Assessed objectively, Joe Tinker was the best defender of the trio by far, Frank Chance was the best hitter among them, and it’s entirely possible that there but for the grace of “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” would the trio have been forgotten as a double play combination that didn’t really dazzle that often. The Old-Timers Committee elected the three to Cooperstown despite at least one double play combination—Joe Cronin (SS), Buddy Myers (2B), Joe Judge (1B)—proving far better between 1929-34.

Cronin-to-Myers-to-Judge doesn’t quite have the same rhythmic grace as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. They also have something else in common with TEC: they’re not even among the top 25 double play combinations of all time. They were prime in their times, of course, but they’ve been eclipsed thoroughly by several combos that followed. Even if reciting “Tram to Whit to Evans” ain’t got that swing.

Adams’s doggerel eclipsed the previous most famous verse, about a particularly colourful and daring 1880s player who caught, played third base, and played right field, though he wasn’t more than fair-to-mediocre in the field:

Slide, Kelly, Slide!
Your running’s a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, Slide!
Stay there, hold your base!
If some one doesn’t steal you,
And your batting doesn’t fail you,
They’ll take you to Australia!
Slide, Kelly, Slide!

Mike (King) Kelly was a terrific hitter who led his league in doubles three times, in on-base percentage twice, and in OPS+ once, while playing on eight championship teams. Kelly  was also considered baseball’s first matinee idol and known to be the first player to write an autobiography.

He was also the game’s highest-paid player at his peak and most popular off-season vaudeville performer, never mind that he died penniless of pneumonia a year after he played his final game, so profligate was he when it came to spending money.

Kelly has another distinction: he may also have been a rather profligate cheater. “He had a large effect on the game,” wrote the Society for American Baseball Research’s Peter M. Gordon in The Glorious Beaneaters of the 1890s.

It was said that half the rules in the baseball rule book were rewritten to keep Kelly from taking advantage of loopholes. He played the game with gusto and looked for every edge he could get to win, and his teams won eight championships in 16 years. We are not likely to see a player like King Kelly again.

The arguable inventor of the hook slide, Kelly also took advantage of the single-umpire presence in 19th century baseball and became infamous for cutting bases—from first to third without going near second; from second home without going near third—when the ump wasn’t looking. “This made him popular amongst fans and teammates,” wrote Sports Stories‘ Eric Nusbaum in November 2019. “It didn’t go over great among opposing players, or the embarrassed umpires.”

Kelly may also have been credited with inventing the thing that eventually became the focus of baseball’s worst cheating scandal of the 21st Century. He may (underline that) have been the first man behind the plate to use finger signals to tell a pitcher what to throw up to the plate.

Players and teams have been stealing signs since, usually on the field, though some have gotten illegally creative about it. See Philadelphia Athletics, 1910s (said to have posted a telescope viewer atop a building beyond Shibe Park’s center field); Detroit Tigers, 1940 (a player or two in the stands using pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle scope); Cleveland Indians, 1948 (hand-held telescopers posted inside the scoreboard); New York Giants, 1951 (Leo Durocher’s infamous telescope-to-bullpen-buzzer posted in the clubhouse/ office building behind the Polo Grounds’ center field); Houston Astros, especially, 2017-18 (the infamous center field camera-to-clubhouse monitor-to-bang the can slowly).

Who would have thought that the multi-position player who showed the world how a baseball player could become a popular idol before Babe Ruth even gestated might also have been the unintended creator—thought he might well have just winked and nodded if he’d known—of that which eventually inspired Astrogate? Slide, Kelly, slide!

Babe Ruth

The Big Fella went out not with a bang but a whisper.

Of course, baseball’s most sacred cow may well remain Ruth, who made Kelly resemble a one-hit wonder as a public sports property. Speak any degree less than reverentially about the Big Fella, and you may lure about a hundred times more people than yourself out to march you on the perp walk toward the stake against which they’ll burn you.

There isn’t enough room to review in full the deets behind the point that Ruth shouldn’t be considered the greatest player who ever was. Suffice to say it’s absolutely fair to call him the greatest player of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night games era—but nothing more. (It’s not the Babe’s fault he played a segregated game, of course, but that doesn’t change the conditions in which he played.)

I’d be hard pressed to think of how many myths surrounding the Big Fella prove to be just that. But there’s one that still stands out particularly, despite its debunking: the myth of Ruth going out absolutely in a blaze of home run glory with the 1935 Boston Braves, who signed him purely as a gate attraction despite his aging, and who may well have reeled him in with a phony promise to make him their manager.

The longtime myth was that—40 years old, showing every year of it, a shell of his old self (as a player; he still looked as though he’d eaten a cow or two, sacred or otherwise)—the Mighty Bambino rose up in one final burst of pride, blasted three home runs in a game against the Pirates, then walked away forever as a player. I saw it referenced that way on a social media group about a week or so ago. If only.

Ruth’s image remains so outsized that it makes perfect sense to think he’d end his playing career with that kind of eruption. In the game in question, he hit a trio of two-run homers in the top of the first, the top of the third, and the top of the fifth. The first pair put the Braves up 4-0. The bad news: the Pirates went on to win the game, 11-7.

The worse news, for the Ruthian myth: those three bombs were the last hits of Ruth’s Hall of Fame career . . . but he played five more games with the Braves and went hitless in all five. He scored two more runs on someone else’s dimes; he got credit for one run batted in . . . on 29 May 1935, when he drew a bases-loaded walk against Phillies pitcher Euel Moore, who’d just relieved Tommy Thomas. The next Braves batter, Wally Berger, smashed a grand slam, giving the Braves a 7-0 lead. (They went on to win—8-6.)

Ruth’s slash line for those final five games: .000/.308/.000. That’s not the way you want to think of an all-time baseball idol going out, of course. They can’t all be Ted Williams on 28 September 1960, inspiring one of the most memorable essays by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The Big Fella wasn’t the first or last of baseball’s giants (or ex-Giants, if you remember Willie Mays’s sad final seasons) to go out not with a bang but a whisper.

But it doesn’t diminish the game, its inspirations, its pleasures, or its true legends, to acknowledge that a sacred cow is still worth what the Big Fella probably put away in over-abundance—steak.

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