2020: Once more for the others safe at home

Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame election by this year’s Modern Era Committee would make eight Hall of Famers dying in 2020.

Last year—doesn’t that sound like sweet relief already—the passages of seven Hall of Famers added particular extra grief to an already pandemically miserable year. The further bad news is that the Magnificent Seven (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro) were not the only ones Grantland Rice’s Great Umpire called safe at home, unfortunately.

Assuming Dick Allen will be elected to the Hall by the Modern Era Committee later this year, that election will turn the Magnificent Seven into another kind of Eight Men Out. Allen played surrealistically through battling unconscionable racism in Philadelphia before he was dealt out of town at long enough last—for Curt Flood, who refused to report and elected to make his groundbreaking reserve clause challenge.

How sadly ironic. To Flood, the trade meant he was still a piece of property, even earning $90,000 in a year. (What he began, Andy Messersmith eventually finished.) To Allen, the trade was surely his Emancipation Proclamation. He posted a few more seasons of surrealistic hitting (and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award) before injuries finally ground him away, and overcame a few more personal tragedies (especially the murder of his daughter) to become a respected and loved Phillies elder statesman and community outreacher. Life and baseball couldn’t beat him but cancer finally did at 78.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” is what sportswriting legend Dick Young offered when his New York Daily News colleague Joe Trimble was stuck for an opening to write up Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. “The million to one shot came in,” wrote Washington Post legend Shirley Povich of Larsen’s perfecto. When 2020 was the new year, it wasn’t a day old before Larsen expired of esophegeal cancer at 90.

Lucky him. Larsen lived a life that went from randy to responsible and his reward, above and beyond the pleasure (and excuse for friendly needling) he took when fans and writers asked him to revisit his million-to-one game (“You want to talk about my year with the Browns,” he loved to tease), was to miss the pandemic ruination the year to come would yet wreak.

Tony Fernandez was a smart shortstop in the field and at the plate for the 1980s/1990s Blue Jays and a few others. Complications of kidney disease claimed him at 57 with far less style than he played the left half of the keystone. Yet he held a strange distinction during his brief spell in New York: in 1995, he was the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Bobby Murcer . . . two and a half decades previous.

Before Johnny Antonelli became a 1954 World Series hero pitching for the New York Giants, he inadvertently provoked Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain into a contract demand. Antonelli’s $65,000 signing bonus in 1948 was more than the combined salaries of the Braves’ two best pitchers, Johnny Sain and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Sain leveraged Antonelli’s bonus into a $30,000 salary of his own.

Antonelli proved himself as a pitcher after leaving the Braves and the Army and being dealt to the Giants, but when the Giants moved out of New York Antonelli found San Francisco less to his liking. A couple of trades and an expansion draft later, Antonelli retired to his tire business and his family. With his second wife, he also took up extensive travel, reveling in what he couldn’t see while he traveled as a pitcher, until his death at 89.

Jimmy Wynn—compact man, cannon bat.

Jimmy Wynn (78) was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for the compact body that hit screaming, prodigious home runs, even in the indoor death chamber known as the Astrodome. A few too many Astro coaches and managers monkeying around with his hitting style probably did him few favours. Same thing elsewhere, at least until he became a Dodger. Ultimately, Wynn proved you could live and learn tenfold; he became a valuable Astro asset after his playing years especially among impressionable youth who thrived at his Astro-created youth training center.

Glenn Beckert (79) shared the keystone with Don Kessinger for several Cubs teams that looked pennant competitive until their insouciantly ancient manager burned them down the stretch. “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s,” Bill James once wrote, “a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.” Matt Keough (64) was one of the Five Aces burned almost as swiftly as he rose when Billy Martin got hold of the early 1980s Athletics. Mike McCormick (81) pitched himself into the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in 1967, but he was also Mr. 500—for hitting the 500th home run to be hit by any major league pitcher.

Claudell Washington (65) was a likeable, long-serving journeyman whose 1980 free agency deal (five years, $3.5 million) jolted the game enough to provoke Phillies owner Bob Carpenter—who’d extended Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt big rather than lose him to free agency and chased down Pete Rose to sign big—selling out, because he feared fellow owners’ brains had gone to bed. John McNamara (88) barely lived down Game Six of the 1986 World Series (he left ankle-dissipated Bill Buckner in to play first for the bottom of the tenth), but his wife remembered a good, kind, loving man whose life shouldn’t be judged by one egregious mistake. Appropriately.

The Yankees’ 1965-75 term in purgatory was once nicknamed the Horace Clarke Era, but it wasn’t the fault of the smooth-fielding second baseman from the Virgin Islands who wasn’t much of a hitter but handled the right side of the keystone with sure hands and feet. Clarke (81) was proud to be a Yankee to the end of his life. He was also the poor soul who didn’t get to hit against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda with two out in the top of the ninth—when heartsick Senators fans rioted on the field and forced a forfeit in the Senators’ last game before leaving for Texas.

Bob Watson (74) was a sharp hitting first baseman and, in due course, the first black man in baseball to be the general manager of a World Series winner. Lindy McDaniel (84) was a long-serving relief pitcher of above-average excellence for lots of below-average teams and a devout Christian who became a minister after throwing his final pitch. (He’s also the last American League pitcher to homer before the league introduced the designated hitter.) Fellow reliever Ron Perranoski (84) held down the back end of the Dodger fort in the early-to-mid 60s and for two World Series championships before becoming a long-serving pitching coach.

Jay Johnstone (74) was a solid outfielder with a flair for periodic big hits (especially Game Four of the 1981 World Series) and a bigger flair for mayhem—one of the greatest flakes in the game. Over three engaging books, the fun-loving Johnstone wrote his own eulogy:

Tommy Lasorda once fixed up Ernie Broglio on a date with a female impersonator.

Mark Fidrych talked to baseballs.

Don Stanhouse shared his post-game beer with monkeys and frogs.

Mickey Hatcher left a pig in Lasorda’s office.

Bert Blyleven gave his Little League team chewing tobacco.

John Lowenstein likes to attack cakes with a baseball bat.

Richie Zisk filled Rene Lachemann’s hotel bed with Jell-O.

Ross Grimsley once snapped a losing streak by consulting a witch.

Billy Loes once refused to pitch unless Buzzie Bavasi bought him a new dog.

Joaquin Andujar was known to shower wearing his uniform.

Rick Reichardt stole razor blades, forgot he had them, and sliced his own hand when he reached into his pocket.

Dizzy Dean placed a cake of ice over home plate to “cool off my fastball.”

And I’m over the edge?

Steve Dalkowski—what might have been, if he could have controlled his thunderbolt fastball and his off-field life.

Steve Dalkowski (80) once joined Bo Belinsky in the minors in a plot to help their teammates get good looks at a comely South American Miss World contestant when he mother proved bent on keeping her away from those rapacious ballplayers: drilling holes in the wall separating his and Belinsky’s room from hers. The plot succeeded until one bozo brought a flashlight so his viewing wouldn’t stop after dark. Oops.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski fought demons from his own surrealistic but uncontrollable fastball (Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off, Red Sox infielder Dalton Jones once said of him) to alcohol and all the way to COVID-19 when he died last April. After decades in the post-baseball wilderness, his sister brought him home to Connecticut where he lived with some dignity and a lot of his memory from the almost three decades between baseball and his homecoming wiped out.

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” That’s all his loving sister wanted for him, and it proved enough for himself, as well. When invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards, Dalkowski tossed the ball, then threw his arms up in triumph from his wheelchair. Only his body and face showed the net result of a lost life. The arms up showed the spirit resurrected.

Now Dalko and all who played the game and passed last year—including such other once-familiar souls as Frank Bolling, Ted Cox, Ray Daviault, Ed Farmer, Damaso Garcia, Lou Johnson, Eddie Kasko, Phil Linz (baseball’s unquestioned master of the harmonica), Denis Menke (he was once Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s slick double play partner with the Astros), Bob Oliver, Les Rohr, Tony Taylor—truly are safe at home, in the Elysian Fields, suffering no more, and may they bask in the light, love, and game of the eternal sunshine.

Don Larsen, RIP: Elevated

2020-01-01 DonLarsen

Don Larsen, captured mid-delivery during his World Series perfect game.

The new year wasn’t a day old, and the million-to-one shot expired. The month of Sundays turned Mondays. The imperfect (unperfect) man who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series lost his battle with esophegeal cancer at 90 on New Year’s Day. And Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got to take a flying leap into Don Larsen’s arms one more time, this time in the Elysian Fields.

From Joe Borden (of the pre-historic National Association) in 1875 through Justin Verlander at the near-last minute of the 2019 season, major league baseball pitchers including 35 Hall of Famers have thrown 303 no-hitters. That’s eleven percent of all no-hitters, including perfect games, thrown by Hall of Famers from John Montgomery Ward through Roy Halladay.

Baseball being a game that enables the modest or the miscast to become the immortal even for one day, Larsen was of a perfect piece on 8 October 1956. As his career shook out he was more and better of a relief pitcher than starting pitcher. He was tall, threw hard enough, but as Joe Posnanski described memorably, “[his] wildness on the mound fairly well represented his wildness off the field.”

“Larsen was the greatest drinker I’ve known,” said Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once upon a time, Mantle being a man who knew great drinkers when he saw them having been one himself for too long. Larsen lived enough in the wild before he married in 1960 that his teammates nicknamed him Gooney Bird.

But the greatest drinker Mantle ever knew went to a no-windup delivery for Game Five and wound up flying into Series history singularly, remaining there to this day. The nearest anyone’s gotten to Larsen for postseason pitching perfection was Halladay, pitching a no-hitter in his first ever postseason assignment to open a division series in 2011—the same year in which Halladay pitched a regular-season perfect game.

Larsen hadn’t previewed his World Series grandeur quite so grandly: he was lifted from Game Two of the ’56 Series in the second inning, despite still being ahead five runs, and his relief Johnny Kucks surrendered all five tying runs—four unearned—on a bases-loaded single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese) and a grand slam. (Hall of Famer Duke Snider.)

He steamed over the early hook regardless. Publicly, he told reporters he had “not a thing” to say after the early hook and the Yankee bullpen surrendering what turned into a 13-8 loss. But he was otherwise recorded as thinking oh, would he never again pitch for Casey Stengel even if the Ol’ Perfesser begged him. He kept that vow right up until the moment he saw the old traditional manner in which a pitcher was informed of his day’s starting assignment, a baseball resting comfortably enough in his shoe.

So the legend went. The reality may have been a little different. For one thing, Larsen himself admitted years later that if he’d been his manager he wouldn’t hand him the ball again any too soon, either. And Stengel told the press the day before Game Five that Larsen would be his man to get the ball rolling. Whether Larsen himself saw it is open to conjecture: he’d gone out on the town and tied on a big one the night before Game Five.

Stengel held no grudge against Larsen for his post-Game Two fuming, obviously, Larsen having two qualities the old man admired: 1) He’d beaten the Yankees twice in a 1954 during which he earned credit for only three pitching wins. 2) Stengel recognised a champion booze hawk when he, too, saw one.

“It was between Larsen and (Bob) Turley,” said the Perfesser. “We decided it would be better to have Turley in the bullpen today and tomorrow.” Turley, of course, ended up having one of the best seats in the house for what was to come. Larsen decided to go back to what he’d abandoned in Game Two, the no-windup delivery Stengel loved to encourage in those among his pitchers who experienced control issues.

As Posnanski puts it, the Dodgers entered Game Five with the same plan they had for Game Two: “Be patient and let Larsen blow himself up the way he had in Game 2. It was a reasonable strategy; indeed, it seemed nearly foolproof. Larsen, over his career, walked about as many batters he struck out. He lost more than he won. He did not let the rigors of baseball interfere much with his thirst for living.”

You know the ancient saying about the best-laid plans, right?

With absolutely no reason to think it was entirely possible, Larsen prior to Game Five had told a friend, who turned out to have been sportswriter Arthur Richman, that he had “one of those crazy feelings that I’m gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.” Richman suggested a four-hitter would be plenty enough. “Nope,” Larsen’s said to have replied. “It’s gonna be a no-hitter, and I’m gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Don’t ask. Larsen never explained it. Any more than anyone could explain how Game Five began in Yankee Stadium, with both Junior Gilliam and Reese looking at called strike threes to open before Snider lined out for the side. Or, how Larsen, always prone to the walk (his walks per nine lifetime: 4.2; his strikeouts per nine lifetime: 4.9; his strikeout-to-walk ratio lifetime: 1.17), surrendered not a one while striking out seven on the day, with only Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson plus outfielders Sandy Amoros and Carl Furillo avoiding the strikeout.

Larsen would have been the first to credit a couple of fielding jewels that kept the perfecto alive. Including but not limited to Robinson slashing a line drive off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove that deflected to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by a fragment at first in the second inning. Or Mantle running Gil Hodges’s long fly down to the rear latitudes of left center field for a catch he later admitted to thinking he had an easier play on it than he turned out to have.

The Hodges fly, on a hanging slider, was “his one bad pitch” of the afternoon, Berra would remember. And Larsen had one more bullet to dodge immediately afterward. More like a rocket. Amoros hit one into the right field seats that sailed foul by anywhere from two to four to six inches, depending upon who told you the story. Otherwise, Larsen was so in command that he ran a three-ball count to only one hitter (Reese) all afternoon.

He was also calmly aware of what he’d done, more sanguine about it as the years went passing by. If you found his home phone number and wanted to talk a little baseball, he’d likely needle you the way he once needled New York Post writer Mike Vaccaro: “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Larsen’s career began with the Orioles, when they were still the St. Louis Browns. He became a Yankee in one of the strangest trades in baseball history—a seventeen-player swap in November 1954, that made Yankees out of Larsen, Turley, and future major league manager Darrell Johnson, among others. And, that made Orioles out of reliable platoon outfielder Gene Woodling and infielder Don Leppert, among others. He became an ex-Yankee in the 1959 trade with the Kansas City Athletics that made a Yankee out of Roger Maris and ex-Yankees out of Larsen, Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and the future Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

New York Daily News baseball writer Joe Trimble, Vaccaro records, was paralysed after Dodger pinch hitter Dale Mitchell struck out to send Yankee Stadium berserk and Berra leaping famously into Larsen’s arms in front of the mound when the perfecto was finished. Trimble couldn’t think of a single line to open his story. His eventual Spink Award-winning colleague Dick Young, himself bristling to finish a pair of stores related to the game, did it for him: “The unperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

“Mortal men get crushed by immortal deeds,” Thomas Boswell wrote about Roger Maris, who suffered unconscionable abuse for daring to break ruthsrecord in 1961, upon Maris’s death in 1985. Larsen was a mortal man who felt elevated by his immortal deed. “Sometimes, a week might go by when I don’t think about that game,” he once said. “But I don’t remember when it happened last.”

After his long enough pitching career ended, Larsen tried major league front office work and then liquor selling, neither of which agreed with him in the end, before going to work for a California paper company successfully. He even carried a little mojo from the game at assorted old-timers’ gatherings one of which turned rather explosive in its own right.

After Yogi Berra ended his longtime rift with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees gave him Yogi Berra Day in 1999—forty years after he’d gotten one as a player. Larsen and Berra remained lifelong friends, and on the second Yogi Day Larsen was invited to throw a ceremonial first pitch to his old battery mate. Then the interleague game against the Montreal Expos began. And David Cone, the former Met, beat the Expos with . . . a perfect game.

Larsen said later it was the only perfect game for which he’d been present from beginning to end since the one he threw in the ’56 World Series.

The wild Yankee settled himself in due course, of course. He and his wife, Corinne, were married six decades when he died; he found a pleasant life in Hayden Lake, Idaho; he never lost his zest for life despite the emptiness he experienced now and then after realising he was the last man standing from both the starting lineups of his perfect game and his last pre-Baltimore team of Browns.

“That carries a little weight by itself, but I’m just not sure how much,” he told an Idaho reporter two years ago. “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015. It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

We may presume that once Yogi took that welcome-home flying leap into his arms on New Year’s Day, Larsen in the Elysian Fields won’t be entirely lonesome at the top anymore. But our island earth may be a little more lonesome for missing the million to one shot, the nice guy who lived fast enough, settled well enough, and for once in his otherwise ordinary baseball life did what couldn’t be done. And hasn’t been done since.