Bob Gibson, RIP: Disabusing prejudice and pretense

Bob Gibson gets the better of fellow Hall of Famer Al Kaline during the 1968 World Series.

How terrible is this? Bad enough for the St. Louis Cardinals that were sent home for the winter by the San Diego Padres Friday night, when  former Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side all called in the top of the ninth Friday night.

Worse: The greatest pitcher in Cardinals history lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at 84 concurrently, on the anniversary of setting a record striking out seventeen Detroit Tigers in Game One of the 1968 World Series. Losing a Bob Gibson who was at least as good a man as he was a pitcher on such an anniversary stings even deeper.

Calling Gibson a tenacious, relentless, intimidating competitor on the mound is probably the first way he’s remembered, complete with the gags and exaggerations that have long since been both cliche and deceptive. Remembering that he was an intelligent man who was his own kind of sensitive and suffered fools no more happily than plate-crowding batters should be equal.

We remember the peculiar elegance of Gibson on the mound even past the severity of his otherwise handsome face as he began a pitch. It only began with the full back-swing of his long arms starting his windup and the leg kick that bent and lifted his knee even with the lettering on the front of his uniform.

There was that half turn that showed half his number 45 on his back, the slight incline of his body as he actually began to throw, then, especially, that whip-like arm movement down and across his body, glove arm extending up behind his shoulder like an eagle’s wing in flight.

There were his legs looking a split second as though they’d give way until he swung his right leg over and across his left, almost in a football punter’s kick, landing to keep him from sprawling to the ground as he finished his delivery in three steps but still keeping him erect enough to field a ball batted back toward the mound if need be.

Like his fellow Hall of Famers and contemporaries Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, you could remove Gibson’s uniform and still identify him immediately, even from the highest seat in the park. A notoriously swift worker on the mound, Gibson at full delivery speed often seemed like an armada of men aiming to paralyse hitters and a solitary man rushing to catch the last train before he’d be late for work.

“Bob Gibson pitches,” Vin Scully once said of him, “as though he’s double-parked.”

Said his longtime Cardinals catcher and life-long friend Tim McCarver, who learned how to tease for positive effect from men like Gibson himself, “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He’s always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Gibson did pitch 53 lifetime shutouts in 482 lifetime starts, and he did lead the National League three times including with thirteen during his out-of-the-box 1968, the year of his spectacular 1.12 earned run average. In the Year of the Pitcher, that was both a staggering achievement and only somewhat flukish. (His lifetime ERA pre-1968: 3.12, His lifetime ERA post-1968: 3.01.)

“You can’t say it was flukish, although some people have said that,” Gibson told Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell, during Angell’s visit to his home outside Omaha that produced a remarkable 1980 New Yorker profile. (It’s been republished twice, in Late Innings and Game Time.) “Just say it was totally unusual. Everything I threw that year seemed to go where I wanted it. Everything was down, all year.”

Baseball imposed a few rule changes including a lower mound after that Year of the Pitcher. “The next year,” Gibson admitted, “was a terrific struggle. I had a good season, but I never worked so hard in my life, because so many of my breaking pitches were up. I’ll never know, but I doubt seriously I’d have had another 1.12 ERA, even if they’d left the mound where it was. I’d like to think I’d really perfected my pitching to that point, but I’ll never know.”

Off the mound, Gibson was both a gentle, friendly needler on the days he didn’t pitch and a self-aware man who found some of the gentlest and wittiest ways of deflating racial prejudice when it confronted him directly or made itself manifest in his presence.

“In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest,” he wrote in his memoir, Stranger to the Game. He chose to fight it on human terms and not on the terms of the rioter, the vandal, or the vigilante. Coming to the Cardinals as they were still feeling racial growing pains as the 1950s crossed into the 1960s, Gibson and his fellow black teammates chose to tease and teach at once, not inflame.

McCarver, the son of a Memphis police officer, once got a very solid taste of such teaching, as described in David Halberstam’s October 1964. “Hey, Timmy,” Gibson hailed, “do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson drew in Curt Flood as his straight man, played the role of the white boy, then shook hands with Flood—and immediately looked at his hand a moment before wiping it on his pants.

“You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. McCarver thought twice and realised Gibson was right, and admitted as much. That routine and other subtleties were Gibson’s ways of encouraging whites willing to know him as a man to be better friends as well as teammates. “For him,” Halberstam wrote, “friendship was based not just on ability, it was based on what kind of a man a teammate was; how he treated others, what he really believed in.”

He also knew how to disabuse fans of their pretenses. Asked once why he disdained the idea of himself or any baseball player as a role model to a fan’s son, Gibson answered the inquiring father, “Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid.”

Gibson gave Angell another, more telling take on such disabuses. Fans, he told Angell, “always know so much, to hear them tell it, and they always think baseball is so easy.”

You hear them say, “Oh, I was a pretty good ballplayer myself back when I was in school, but I got this injury . . . ” Some cab driver gave me that one day, and I said, “Oh, really? That’s funny, because when I was young I really wanted to be a cab driver, only I had this little problem with my eyes, so I never made it.” He thought I was serious. It went right over his head.

It was remarkable in its own right that Gibson could use an eyesight problem in a joke aimed at deflating an annoying fan. Considering his fatherless boyhood of too much illness too often—rickets, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma (one of Gibson’s few known commercial product endorsements was for Primatene Mist)—the wonder may be that he lived to pitch his way into the Hall of Fame at all, never mind life as full a life as he lived until pancreatic cancer struck him in 2019.

“Bob Gibson is a nice man, but he’s quiet,” McCarver told Angell for that 1980 profile, “Distance.”

He doesn’t enjoy small talk. He doesn’t like to waste his time with anything that’s weak or offhand. He wants to deal from strength all the time . . . He’s very proud, you know, and he had a ghetto upbringing, so you could understand why he was so sensitive to bigotry . . . Any relationship you get into with Bob is going to be intense. He’s a strong man with strong feelings.

Bob Gibson and his wife, Wendy, at the unveiling of a statue honouring Gibson in his native Omaha.

Gibson retired to his native Omaha, where he helped start a successful bank that did most of its business in Omaha’s black community but was governed on his impetus by an inter-racial board of directors. He also opened a successful restaurant (Gibby’s) near his alma mater, Creighton University, which hired inter-racial workers and managers.

His enduring—and very exaggerated—image as a hard-throwing kind of baseball samurai who treated the game as total warfare was belied when Angell asked him about late-career changes to his approach. “Pitching,” Gibson replied, “is about ninety per cent thinking.”

I threw hard when I was younger, but I didn’t know how to get people out. I don’t care how hard you throw, somebody’s going to hit it if you don’t think out there. It’s not all that detailed—you don’t think three or four pitches ahead. But one pitch might set up the next two you throw—it depends on what the guy does with it. You know. If he misses a fastball by a foot, then he’ll see another one. If he fouls it off or just misses it, he’ll probably get a breaking ball next. It isn’t exactly scientific, or anything.

Still, Gibson’s image as an executioner has never really dispelled. In the hour after his death, a social media friend of mine referenced what he thought was Gibson once having said he’d knock his own grandmother down at the plate. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron actually said Gibson would do just that. Another Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn, once did say, unapologetically, that he would do just that.

Gibson might talk about batters he’d knocked down and why. He also once admitted his competitive spirit included making sure his daughters as little children could still never beat Daddy playing tic-tac-toe. But never even in jest did he suggest he’d knock one of his children, one of his wives (his first marriage produced two of his daughters; his second marriage produced his third and endured until his death), his mother, his grandmother, or any other relation.

Angell once called Gibson a compulsive truth teller. Such a man would understand the one-time lament of one-time Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their histrionic press coverage in the 1960s: “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?”

I finally lost my own patience with the exaggerations when I saw a forum entry insisting flatly that anyone hitting a home run off Gibson (he surrendered 257 lifetime and averaged surrendering 17 a year) was guaranteed to take one in the ribs, the back, the shoulder, or any other extremity Gibson could reach.

Aside from having seen Gibson pitch often enough when I was growing up to know how exaggerated the image was, it was very much like a trans-decade version of the classic party telephone game—where you whisper something to the person next to you and, by the time it comes back to you from around the circle of friends, it’s nowhere near what you said in the first place.

So I looked it up. In a seventeen-season career, Bob Gibson only ever hit one batter the absolute next time up after he hit one out off him—Hall of Famer Duke Snider, in April 1961. More to the point: Thirty-six times in 528 major league games, Gibson surrendered at least one home run and hit at least one batter in the same game, and only three times was it the same batter who hit one out against him. He also retired with 102 lifetime hit batsmen. Placing him at number 85 on the all-time plunk list.

For the record, the three bombers who got drilled after homering off Gibson—not their next times up but in much later plate appearances in those same games—were Willie Crawford, Ron Fairly, and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. He also surrendered home runs after hitting batters with pitches in . . . fourteen games lifetime.

If Gibson was trying to hit batters after they dialed nine on his dime, he failed miserably. He was unapologetic about pitching inside and insisted that if a plate crowder got hit inside it was his fault for over-crowding the plate, but he wasn’t exactly trying to drill holes in home run hitters’ bodies or heads. And this was a pitcher with outstanding control of a whistling fastball and a nasty, knee-trembling slider.

As a matter of fact, Gibson hit only two men with pitches more than four times—both light-hitting middle infielders, Ron Hunt and Roy McMillan. In fact, McMillan’s sixth came in a 1965 game, when his career as a fine defensive shortstop was winding down with the New YOrk Mets . . . and Gibson got plunked by Jackson when he batted in the top of the fifth. All things considered, you wouldn’t blame McMillan if he said he wanted to have Jackson’s children right then and there.

Gibson once spent a few seasons working as a pitching coach for another friend and former teammate, Joe Torre, now a Hall of Fame manager but then managing the then-hapless Mets and Atlanta Braves. That didn’t last; he found it difficult to connect with a new generation of pitchers with fat contracts and little else beyond just throwing hard without thinking. His post-baseball business success didn’t satisfy him half as much as playing baseball did.

“Yes,” his second wife, Wendy, told Angell in 1980, “he’s still looking for something, and don’t know if the right thing for him will ever come along. It’s sad.” Told of that observation, Gibson denied sadness.

I just think I’ve been spoiled. When you’ve been an athlete, there’s no place for you to go. You’re much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has been all along. I’m like millions of others now, and I’m finding out what it’s like. I don’t think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball. I haven’t found my niche now that that’s over—or maybe I have found it and I don’t know it. Maybe I’ll still find something I like as much as I liked pitching, but I don’t know if I will. I sure hope so.

I never had the impression Gibson was a spoiled man. I saw him on the mound and, whenever he re-appeared on the public radar, as that perhaps too self-aware man who asked for few things more than that you engage him as a man, that you not insult him by admiring the pitcher while disdaining the man, because of his colour or otherwise, and that you be as straight, no chaser with him as he’d be with you, even teasing you to teach you.

It’s enough to make me wish I’d gone to Gibby’s one night, while I lived in Omaha during my Air Force service, and met the man first and the former pitcher second. I would have liked and respected him without seeing him one more time on the mound, the retired assassin who wore a chain around his neck with a gently bejeweled number 45, the man who mingled around his integrated business and crowds with firm ease.

The man who was wary of the duplicities of the sports press yet was so pleased by Roger Angell’s revelatory profile that he sent Angell a photograph that he inscribed, “The world needs more people like you.”

The Elysian Fields now have Gibson, and the Lord’s angels now end his suffering, grant him eternal peace, and reunite him with such favourite teammates as Lou Brock and Curt Flood, and such favourite managers as Johnny Keane and Red Schoendienst. They also remind us how blessed we were to have had him as long as we did, though it doesn’t make our loss any less profound and sad.

An Angellic centenary

Roger Angell, at his induction as a J.G. Spink Award winner at the Hall of Fame.

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.

At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.

“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”

As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.

This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.

Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.

. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.

The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.

“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”

I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.

The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.

Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .

“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.

Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.

Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)

Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:

He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .

. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”

“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.

Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”

Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.

At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.

Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.

Lou Brock, RIP: “First base is useless”

With their son Lou, Jr. in the background, Hall of Fame thief Lou Brock and his wife, Jacqueline greet well wishers on his 81st birthday in June.

Lou Brock’s philosophy on the bases was simple enough. “First base,” he once said, “is useless. And most of the time, it is useless to stay there.” On 1,245 major league occasions Brock attempted grand theft next base. On 938 occasions, he succeeded.

It knocked fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb out of the record book, Cobb having held yet another of those records presumed unbreakable with his 892 lifetime thefts. Yet Brock himself predicted his records for career stolen bases and single-season stolen bases (118, breaking Maury Wills who’d broken Cobb’s old mark) would fall in due course—to the very felon who did break them, fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

A long-enough battle between 81-year-old Brock and diabetes and multiple myeloma ended Sunday afternoon. Swell timing. A week earlier, the pitcher he faced most often in his major league career, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, died at 75 after a battle with Lewy body dementia abetted by COVID-19.

Brock was blessed with a power failure-defying smile and an equally bright if not overbearing confidence in himself and his abilities. He wasn’t a particularly great defensive outfielder, though he worked hard to improve, but the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t pay his handsome for their times salaries because he was where balls hit to left went to die.

They paid Brock to get his fanny on base somehow, any how, and turn a baseball game into six parts track meet and half a dozen parts grand larceny. If he couldn’t snatch the bases, the least he could do was invite himself to live rent free in pitchers’ and catchers’ heads.

“[T]he most important thing about base stealing is not the steal of the base, but distracting the pitcher’s concentration,” the master thief once said. “If I can do that, then the hitter will have a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.” If the hitter swung at that better pitch and connected, that was more than all right with Brock; 53 percent of the time he reached base he took extra bases on followup hits.

Brock was as much a gentleman off the field as he was a larcenist on it. “There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered,” remembers longtime St. Louis Post-Dispactch writer Bernie Mikllasz. “A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man.”

That finer man became a Cardinal in the first place because the Chicago Cubs, who raised him, had no clue what to do with an outfielder who was swift afoot but not exactly the kind of power hitter normally seen on patrol in the ballpark depths. Brock himself may have hurt as much as helped his own Cubs cause by doing the unthinkable in the Polo Grounds on 17 June 1962, in the top of the first inning. One day before Brock’s 23rd birthday.

The Cubs faced the embryonic New York Mets and their stout lefthanded pitcher Al Jackson. Don Landrum’s leadoff walk turned into a stolen base thanks to Marvelous Marv Throneberry at first for the Mets. He misplayed the throw from home on the Ken Hubbs strikeout trying to catch Landrum leaning.

Hall of Famer Billy Williams grounded Landrum to third. Fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks worked Jackson for a walk. Fellow Hall of Famer Ron Santo tripled Landrum and Banks home. (With Richie Ashburn playing center field for the Mets that day, the game featured five Hall of Famers.)

Up stepped Brock. He swung and drove the ball to the same spot near the bleachers on the right side of center field as Santo’s triple traveled. Except that, somehow, some way, Brock’s drive flew past where Santo’s ball was rudely interrupted. Straight into the bleachers. Four hundred and sixty-eight feet from home plate. Real estate previously claimed by only two men in baseball history, Luke Easter in a 1948 Negro Leagues game, and Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.

Only Brock had no clue. He gunned it out of the batter’s box in his usual style, that of a man on the dead run from a process server. Rookie that he was, Brock actually thought the second base umpire giving the traditional home run signal was trying to tell him that at his rate of speed he had a clean shot at an inside-the-park job.

He learned otherwise when he was mobbed back in the dugout and Santo came over to holler, “Did you see where that ball went? I needed binoculars!”

Two years later, in 1964, the Cubs thought themselves in dire need of further pitching help. They also figured Brock could bring it their way in a trade. Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues legend who signed Brock for the Cubs in the first place, suspected the Cubs also feared being seen as “too black” by a fan base not always comfortable with their group of black players, even the popular Banks and Williams.

But another former Cardinal pitcher, Lew Burdette, obtained earlier that season, did his level best to talk the Cubs out of the trade. The Cubs’ target was righthander Ernie Broglio. Once a pitcher with formidable promise, the Cubs saw only the pitcher who’d finished third in the 1960 Cy Young Award voting (it was a major league award then, not one for each league) and won eighteen games in 1963. Burdette tried to warn them otherwise: Broglio had an elbow issue  and was taking more than one cortisone shot.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, general manager John Holland chose to ignore the word Burdette passed via then-College of Coaches head coach Bob Kennedy. The Cubs delivered the trade and learned the hard way just how badly damaged Broglio’s goods were. (For the record, the full trade involved Brock, relief pitcher Jack Spring, and spare starting pitcher Paul Toth going to the Cardinals for Broglio, veteran pitcher Bobby Shantz, and outfielder Doug Clemens.)

Not that the Cardinals were thrilled about their new toy. Broglio may have been struggling with his elbow but he was personally popular with his teammates. “Our friendship,” catcher Tim McCarver once said, “blinded us to what kind of effect Lou would have on the team — until we saw him run.” Said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, “We thought it was the worst trade ever.”

They thought so until they proved the last team standing after that wild final weekend on which they won the pennant at the last split second, practically, following the infamous Phillie Phlop. When they noticed Brock in 103 games for his new team stole 33 bases, scored 81 of his season-long 111 runs, rolled up a .387 on-base percentage, and threw 21 doubles, nine triples, and twelve home runs into the mix for a .527 slugging percentage as a brand-new Cardinal.

Brock only looked cheerful, bright, and happy as the day was long during a game, and it caused enough people to misunderstand his commitment. “Some in the press and in the stands considered him too casual about his job,” wrote David Halberstam in October 1964, “but that was a misperception. In fact, he was driven, not merely by a desire, but by a rage to succeed.

As a Cub, Brock was seen as too intense and self-critical for his own good. “He’d break out in a big sweat,” then-Cub pitcher Larry Jackson observed, “just putting on his uniform.” As a Cardinal, he finally turned that intensity into progress without losing his natural joy in the game. He became so devoted to his craft that he started filming pitchers to study their tendencies for his on-base advantage. (Hall of Famer Don Drysdale: “I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!”)

Brock pitched in on the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series conquest but became a first class pain in the ass to the 1967 Boston Red Sox in that Series. When it wasn’t Gibson tying the Sox into knots from the mound, it was Brock hitting .414 and stealing seven bases. A year later, the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games but it wasn’t Brock’s fault—that time, he hit .464, stole another seven pillows, and broke Bobby Richardson’s record for World Series hits with thirteen.

“Ernie is top of the charts,” Brock told ESPN’s William Weinbaum about Broglio in 2011. “He is a good man, a man with integrity. We have a good relationship because we laugh, we talk, and people, for whatever reason, are still interested.” Interested enough that you’d have thought Ernie’s real surname was Brockforbroglio.

Born to Arkansas sharecroppers, Brock’s family moved to Louisiana when he was two. “Jim Crow was king,” he once said of his youth, “and I heard a game in which Jackie Robinson was playing, and I felt pride in being alive.” He also learned a few lessons about conquering fear at home—when he told his father he feared animals were running under his bed, “[Dad] solved the problem quickly—he cut the legs off the bed.”

Just the way no few enemy pitchers, catchers, and infielders probably wanted to cut the legs off Brock before he swiped their clothes for good measure with the bases. What they couldn’t do, diabetes finally did in 2015, at least to part of his left leg.

After baseball (Cardinals owner Gussie Busch forgot all the animosities of earlier players’ union actions and dropped a sumptuous yacht on Brock as a retirement present), Brock prospered as a St. Louis florist and the inventor of a unique small umbrella hat (the Brockabrella) aimed at letting fans stay by their seats instead of fleeing to the indoor concourse during rain delays.

He saw his son, Lou, Jr., play football at USC and in the National Football League as a cornerback/safety for two seasons before becoming a Sprint/Nextel executive. He and his wife, Jacqueline, also became ordained ministers of the Abundant Life Church who frequented numerous Cardinals games and special events over the years.

Two years after losing that part of his leg, Brock was also stricken with multiple myeloma, the cancer that begins in the plasma cells. He didn’t let them keep him from savouring life or welcoming socially-distancing visitors to his home with his Jacqueline on his 81st birthday this past June.

“You have a great smile,” Brock once told then-ten-year-old Jeff Kurkjian, the son of writer Tim Kurkjian, in Cooperstown. “Let everyone see it. A great smile can disarm people like nothing else. Smile as much as you can. We don’t smile enough in the world today.”

I hope that was Ernie Broglio slipping his way to the front of the line awaiting Brock at the Elysian Field’s gates and handed him a cold beer and a bear hug. Unless his longtime manager (and Hall of Famer) Red Schoendienst beat Broglio to the front with a cold one—and a mock arrest warrant signed by the Lord for grand larceny. One and all smiling.

Tom Seaver, RIP: Gravitas

The Franchise.

When Tom Seaver’s family announced his withdrawal from public life in March 2019, thanks to his battle with dementia, I wrote that it would not be untoward for those who love baseball to pray that The Franchise received any kind of miracle. He’d helped fashion one that inspired one of the classic lines in 1970s film comedy.

“Oh, every now and then I work a little miracle just to keep My hand in,” George Burns as God told a skeptical John Denver in Oh, God! “My last miracle was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea. Aaaaah, that was a beauty.”

I saw Oh, God! in a Long Island movie house when it was released originally, and that line got the heartiest laughs of the entire film. Loud enough that you had to sit through it again to hear the part about the Red Sea. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I remembered Seaver’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, covering the 1969 World Series for NBC, interviewing Seaver during the set.

“Tom,” Koufax began, “do you think God is a Met fan?” Seaver didn’t miss. “I don’t know, Sandy,” he replied, “but I think He rented an apartment in New York this week.”

Now the miracle may be that Seaver suffers no longer, shepherded to the Elysian Fields by the God who embraces such of His works as elegantly, intelligently competitive pitchers. The first genuine Mets superhero, after their infancy chock full of super anti-heroes, Seaver died in his sleep Sunday at 75, following a battle against dementia incurred through Lyme disease for which COVID-19 is reported to have delivered the final pitch.

Met fans thought their team hit the lottery when Seaver arrived in 1967. How literally true it was, after the Atlanta Braves made a huge mistake signing him out of USC. The Braves ran afoul of the rule that college pitchers couldn’t be signed after their season began. Seaver also ran afoul of the NCAA, which ruled him ineligible for USC despite his not having taken so much as a nickel into his pocket yet.

Commissioner William (The Unknown Soldier) Eckert voided the deal. Then, he offered Seaver to any team willing to beat the Braves’ $40,000 bonus offer. Three teams offered. (The Mets, the Indians, and the Phillies.) Eckert put their names into a hat. He just so happened to draw the Mets. They’d soon learn that coming up with Seaver out of a hat was like reaching into a bowl of marbles and pulling up the Hope Diamond. So would at least one of his would-have-been Braves teammates.

When Seaver made his first All-Star team, as the National League’s Rookie of the Year-to-be in 1967, he couldn’t wait to introduce himself to Hall of Famer Henry Aaron. “Kid,” Aaron replied, “I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.” Thus spoke the Hall of Famer half of whose hits against Seaver were extra-base jobs—eight out of sixteen lifetime hits in 89 plate appearances.

Examing Seaver statistically is child’s play, even discovering that he’s one of only two major league pitchers ever to strike out more than three thousand batters and retire with a lifetime earned-run average below 3.00. (The other: Hall of Famer Walter Johnson.) Or, the only man in baseball history to strike out ten straight. Examining him as the mound artist with unlikely and uncommon endurance (only nine post-1920 pitchers have more complete games than his 231) is likewise.

After Gil Hodges settled in as the Mets’ manager in 1968, he and his pitching coach Rube Walker saw they had a host of talented young pitchers and a concurrent need to nurture them properly.

“[T]o protect Seaver and [Jerry] Koosman, as well as up-and-comers Nolan Ryan and Gary Gentry,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci in 2019, “Hodges and Walker used their young starters in a groundbreaking five-man rotation in ’68 and again for most of ’69. Moreover, the coach instituted Walker’s Law: No Mets pitcher was allowed to throw a baseball at any time, even for a game of catch, without Walker’s permission.”

They enforced such rules all 1969 until the crucial stretch drive. Then they turned those arms all the way loose. Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher burned his key pitchers starting and bullpen alike, plus most of his regulars, and the National League East title they once looked to have in the bank. (He also said it was almost everyone else’s fault at the time.) Hodges and Walker worked their pitchers with care and brains and had them still fresh for crunch time.

Now, marry that to the manager’s insistence upon using his entire roster deftly, keeping veterans and young sprouts alike prepared to step in with perhaps minus two seconds’ notice, not to mention some staggering defense and unlikely clutch hitting. That’s how the Miracle Mets won the East, dumped the Braves sweeping the maiden National League Championship Series, and won four straight (including Seaver’s ten-inning Game Four triumph) after losing Game One of the Series to the behemoth Orioles.

Unless, of course, you asked legendarily flaky Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver once said. “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) “When those astronauts walked on the moon,” McGraw would say in due course, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Seaver’s pitching greatness is in the records. Baseball Reference ranks him the number eight starting pitcher in baseball history. He won three National League Cy Young Awards and probably should have won two more. He pitched his best baseball despite anchoring teams that could barely get him an average 3.6 runs to work with lifetime.

But there was something else always about Seaver that left impressions. On the one hand, his prankishness and wit (he almost got away with posing as a lefthander for his first non-rookie baseball card, his wicked grin the giveaway, but the card was pulled fast) are as legendary as his greatest pitching performances. On the other hand, he had the gravitas that made the ordinary and the extraordinary alike comfortable with and around him.

When absolutely necessary, Seaver knew how to deflate the self-inflated. Verducci remembered that Seaver wandered into the legendary Toots Shor restaurant later in the off-season evening on which he was presented his Rookie of the Year award. He bumped into Yankee manager Ralph Houk, whose team was well enough along in its own Lost Decade (1965-75). The time just so happened to be 1:30 a.m.

“You’ll never be a big league pitcher keeping hours like this,” Houk barked, with all the righteous Yankeehood he could muster despite his team’s deflation, at the fresh young Met. Seaver summoned his own bark: “If you had 25 players like me, you wouldn’t finish 10th.”

That wasn’t braggadoccio cutting the harrumphing Houk back down to size. It was self-assurance that stopped about ten city blocks short of arrogance. The son of a top amateur golfer who spent a little time in the Marines in his early baseball seasons, Seaver knew only too well that the line between knowing yourself and inflating yourself was a line too fine for many to walk and too simple to forget existed in the first place.

Long before A. Bartlett Giamatti became a baseball executive, he discovered how well Seaver walked that line. Giamatti chanced to attend a gathering at the Connecticut home of a literary light who’d invited Seaver and his wife, Nancy, to the gathering. “Seaver had . . . dignitas, all the more for never thinking for a moment that he had it at all,” Giamatti wrote, after the Mets threw New York into a soul-wrenching depression by trading Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977.

A dignity that manifested itself in an air of utter self-possession without any self-regard, it was a quality born of a radical equilibrium. Seaver could never be off balance because he knew what he was doing and why it was valuable . . . With consummate effortlessness, his was the talent that summed up baseball tradition; his was the respect that embodied baseball’s craving for law; his was the personality, intensely competitive, basically decent, with the artisan’s dignity, that amidst the brave but feckless Mets, in a boom time of leisure soured by division and drugs, seemed to recall a cluster of virtues no longer valued . . .

About that trade—which climaxed a bitter feud between Seaver and the Mets’ patrician to a fare-thee-well chairman M. Donald Grant, who thought Seaver forgot his place when the pitcher criticised the Mets for failing to both rebuild the farm system and enter the freshly-minted free agency market reasonably—Giamatti was just as unequivocal:

Of course Tom Seaver wanted money, and wanted money spent; he wanted it for itself, but he wanted it because, finally, Tom Seaver felt about the Mets the way the guy from Astoria felt about Seaver—he loved them for what they stood for and he wanted merit rewarded and quality improved. The irony is that Tom Seaver had in abundance precisely the quality that M. Donald Grant thinks he values most—institutional loyalty, the capacity to be faithful to an idea as well as to individuals. Grant ought to have had the wit to see a more spacious, generous version of what he prizes so highly in himself. Certainly the guy who had watched Seaver all those years knew it, knew Seaver was holding out for something, a principle that made sense in one who played baseball but that grew from somewhere within him untouched by baseball, from a conviction about what a man has earned and what is due him and what is right. The fan understood this and was devastated when his understanding, and Seaver’s principle, were not honoured. The anguish surrounding Seaver’s departure stemmed from the realisation that the chairman of the board and certain newspaper columnists thought money was more important than loyalty, and the fury stemmed from the realization that the chairman and certain writers thought everybody else agreed with them, or ought to agree with them.

Seaver and his wife sustained a solid, loving marriage through and beyond the baseball years, raising two daughters successfully. Verducci repeats the tale so often told when the subject is Seaver: Seaver’s brother-in-law asked him what he’d do when he finally left baseball permanently. (He worked as a Met and Yankee broadcaster for a time after his pitching days.)

“I’ll move back to California,” Seaver replied, “and grow grapes.”

The Fresno native bought 116 acres worth of arid, embracing land in the west Napa Valley, discovered it was perfect for growing Cabernet grapes and bringing a man to peace, and spent the rest of his life tending and growing those grapes and a large winery. It was there that a group of 1969 Mets visited him for what they feared and did prove the final time, in 2017.

Outfielder Art Shamsky arranged and led the trek, which also included Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson (himself battling Alzheimer’s disease, alas), and outfielder Ron Swoboda, and wrote about it lyrically (with Erik Sherman) in last year’s After the Miracle. Shamsky recorded a poignant moment when he had a spell alone among the vines with Seaver, and Seaver admitted his bout with Lyme disease left him prone to heavy anxiety attacks.

Eighteen months ago, Seaver’s family announced the dementia that arrived as a Lyme after-effect meant he would no longer appear in public, costing him the formal anniversary celebrations of the 1969 Mets and his usual trip to the annual Hall of Fame inductions. “Tom will continue to work in his beloved vineyard at his California home,” the family statement said, “but has chosen to completely retire from public life.”

Now we see Seaver one more time, the boyish-looking young man wise beyond his years but unafraid to keep enough boy in him. We see him winding up into that long-familiar downward, leg-driving delivery. We see him surveying the aftermath with Gentry, their uniforms askew, walking around what remained of Shea Stadium’s field, after delerious fans mauled it celebrating that surreal World Series triumph.

Now we see Seaver at the end of his brilliant career, still looking boy enough as the hair started to turn and the body began losing its taper, accepting one final bath of love from Mets fans as he said goodbye by bowing to all sides of the park from the mound. Until such hours as when he became the first Met player whose uniform number (41) was retired, or when he joined his fellows and those who followed saying goodbye to Shea Stadium over a decade ago.

Now we see Seaver’s second act, the vintner at peace with his family and their tall, shading, rich vines; the pitching icon who relaxed every July at the Hall of Fame, the single greatest Met at ease and at peace with his person, his meaning, his life.

When he was traded to the Reds, a heartsick fan in Shea Stadium hung an iambic banner:

I WAS A
BELIEVER
BUT NOW WE’VE
LOST
SEAVER

“I construe that text, and particularly its telling rhyme,” Giamatti wrote, “to mean not that the author has lost faith in the Mets’ ability to understand a simple, crucial fact: that among all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.”

So he was—cherished, that is—by fans and the game’s intelligentsia alike, both of whom know baseball is as spiritual as it is viscerally embracing, both of whom joined former teammates and competitors crowding the Twitterverse and other social media with messages of gratitude and grief alike at almost the split second the news of his death arrived.

None cherished The Franchise greater than his beloved Nancy, their daughters Sarah and Anne, and their grandsons Thomas, William, Henry, and Tobin. We should thank the Lord for blessing baseball with him and welcoming him home gently to the Elysian Fields; and, them, for allowing us to share even a piece of a man who transcended even the great and glorious game.