If cheaters don’t belong in Cooperstown . . .

Babe Ruth

“That’s a plug! This bat’s corked!”—Dave Henderson, handling one of Babe Ruth’s bats in a traveling exhibit. Soooooo . . . in the interest of keeping “cheaters” out of the Hall of Fame, do we purge the Sultan of Swat, hmmmm?

The evidence means nothing. There’s still a crowd fuming that that “cheater” David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame on Tursday. Enough of that crowd fumes concurrently that “cheaters” have no place in the Hall of Fame.

Enough of them probably don’t remember, if they ever knew, sportswriting legend Heywood Broun pronouncing in 1923, in the New York World, “The tradition of professional baseball always has been agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, ‘Do anything you can get away with’.”

Let’s take them up on the idea. Let’s start removing cheaters and their actual or alleged abetters from the Hall of Fame. Since I don’t want to be accused of even the thinnest strain of bias, I’m going to run down the list of defendants in alphabetical order.

Is everybody ready? Let’s play ball.

Richie Ashburn—The Shibe Park grounds crew did Ashburn a favour in the 1950s: sculpting the third base foul line into a kind of ridge to prevent Ashburn’s deft rolling bunts up that line from rolling over it into foul territory. Now, we don’t know if this was Ashburn’s idea or theirs, but . . .

Mr. Putt Putt’s out of the Hall of Fame on cheating grounds. If he didn’t suggest it, we’ll call this the Ashburn Rule: guilt by association, whether allowing it or enabling it in fact or by attempt. Just the way so many PED puffers snort often enough that those who played in the PED era are automatically guilty just for playing in it, regardless of whether they actually indulged.

Leo Durocher—Masterminded the from-the-center-field-clubhouse, hand-held telescopic sign-stealing scheme that helped his New York Giants come from thirteen games down to forcing a pennant playoff they won at home. (Fair disclosure: When Durocher asked his players who wanted the pilfered intelligence, Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays demurred.)

The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Therefore, loose the Lip from the Hall of Fame.

Bob Feller—The pitching great brought a little souvenir home from World War II: a hand-held spyglass. His 1948 Indians took it into the scoreboard to steal signs down the stretch and may have been stealing signs that way during the World Series they won against the Boston Braves. (First baseman Eddie Robinson blew the whistle in his memoir, Lucky Me.)

So wouldn’t you now agree? Rapid Robert should be rousted out of the Hall rapidly for providing the inappropriate apparatus.

Whitey Ford—In the later years of his career, and by his own subsequent admissions, the brainy Yankee lefthander became a sort-of Rube Goldberg of pitching subterfuge: mud balls (“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Jim Bouton wrote of it in Ball Four), ring balls (“It was like I had my own tool bench out there,” Ford once said of the wedding ring he used to scrape balls), buckle balls. (When the ring was caught, Ford had catcher Elston Howard scrape balls on his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Bouton wrote, “sang two arias from Aida‘.”)

The Chairman of the Board is hereby deposed. From Cooperstown, at least.

Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg—Their 1940 Tigers cheated their way to a pennant, using the scope from pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle to steal signs from the outfield seats and relay them to hitters. Greenberg eventually admitted the scheme in his memoir. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what was coming,” he once said.

Hammer down upon your heads, Mechanical Man and Hammerin’ Hank.

Rogers Hornsby—In 1962, when there seemed a move from baseball government to crack down on sign stealing, Hornsby published an article in True defending sign-stealing through scoreboards . . . which opened by denouncing then-White Sox relief pitcher Al Worthington after Worthington quit the team rather than abide by its scoreboard sign-stealing scheme.

“In my book,” wrote Hornsby, “he was a baseball misfit—he didn’t like cheating . . . I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated or watched someone on my team cheat. You’ve got to cheat.” Hit the road, Rajah.

Connie Mack—Mack was on the 1910-1914 Philadelphia Athletics bridge while they had a novel for the times sign-stealing plot: someone standing atop a tall building beyond the ballpark fences wielding a telescope to steal signs and turning a flag one way or the other depending on the pitch to be signaled to the batter.

Nobody knows for dead last certain whether the Tall Tactician sanctioned the signs. Nor can it be proven (I think) that that had as much of a hand as pure economics in Mack’s first notorious fire sale. But . . . the Ashburn Rule is hereby invoked, and Mr. McGillicuddy shall henceforth be disappeared.

Gaylord Perry

“I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around.”—Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord (It’s a Hard Slider) Perry—Even now you don’t even have to run down his record. Even if he was frisked like a street hustler but only once or twice arraigned. Just say the old gunkballer’s  name. Visions of sugar-plum K-Y jelly dance in and out of your head. Not to mention that little routine of brushing the bill of his cap, the sides of (what remained of) his hair, maybe a couple of taps on the front of his jersey, just to make batters think he was lubing up.

That ain’t peanuts, Mr. Peanut Farmer. Even if all you ever did was want them to think you had something naughty on the ball (and I can be convinced Perry’s real secret was psychological warfare), that’s a sub-clause Ashburn Rule purge for you. That’s the way the witch hunt hunts.

Frank Robinson—A member of the 1961 pennant-winning Reds whose erstwhile pitcher Jay Hook helped blow the whistle, sort of, on their ’61 scoreboard-based sign stealings during the same spring Hornsby flapped his flippers in defense of cheating. We don’t know if Robinson took stolen signs, but under the Ashburn Rule, the Judge is hereby judged unworthy of  Cooperstown. (Since Robinson is thought to be one of the creators of baseball’s clubhouse kangaroo courts, this seems even more appropriate, no?)

Babe Ruth—During 1983, the Louisville Slugger people sent a traveling exhibit of historic bats around major league clubhouses. Dave Henderson, then with the Mariners, spotted one of Ruth’s bats and saw something odd but familiar at the end of the barrel: the round end didn’t quite match the barrel’s wood. “That’s a plug!” Henderson hollered.  “This bat’s corked!” (The Babe was also once caught using a trick bat—four different wood pieces glued together—prompting American League president Ban Johnson to ban “trick bats” from game usage.)

As I see it, nothing could be more typical of Ruth than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did.

Bill James, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Sorry, Bambino. You might have been a corker in real life, but in baseball that pulls the cork on your Hall of Fame departure.

Casey Stengel—Watching his Yankee lefthander Eddie Lopat dueling Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander Preacher Roe in a World Series game, Stengel marveled: “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

A little of this and a little of that? Swindle? Code for illicit pitches, which both pitchers were suspected of throwing. Suspicion isn’t evidence? We don’t know about Lopat, but when Roe retired he promptly owned up in a magazine article. Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer called Roe the “master of the discreet spitball.”

We’re going after the big fish on this fishing expedition. If we can bar mere suspects using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances from the Hall of Fame, who says we can’t strip a manager admiring a contest between a couple of spitball suspects, either? Oops. The Ol’ Perfesser is stripped of his tenure.

Don Sutton—“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller once told Thomas Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.” We’ll use the file, chisel, and screwdriver to unglue Sutton’s Hall of Fame plaque, instead.

Earl Weaver—Once, with his pitcher Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley in a jam, Weaver counseled Grimsley: “If you know how to cheat, now’s the time.” That should be enough to have Weaver—oft ejected by indignant umpires (“That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places, and that was on days I didn’t throw him out,” Steve Palermo once said of him)—ejected from Cooperstown under the Ashburn Rule.

See what I mean? And those are just some of the ones we know.

But what to do with the freshly-purged actual or alleged cheaters, or with those who merely abetted or encouraged? We can’t just pretend their careers didn’t exist. We can’t just pretend they had as much to do with baseball history as I have to do with quantum physics. We’ve hunted down the witches, now which are the stakes on which we burn them?

Let’s re-mount their plaques in another otherwise isolated hamlet somewhere. We’ll nickname it Blooperstown. Ashburn’s plaque will be re-written in baseline chalk. Durocher’s, Feller’s, Gehringer’s, Greenberg’s, Mack’s, and Robinson’s will have little telescopes attached. Ford’s name will be re-written in mud. Hornsby’s will be re-written in Morse code. Perry’s will have a tube of K-Y jelly attached. We’ll re-mount Ruth on a cork board. Sutton’s can include a Black and Decker drill, since he once bragged he was accused so often he should get a Black and Decker commercial out of it. (He got one, too.) We still have to decide on Weaver, though.

We’ll re-inscribe their plaques in gold. Fool’s gold. In honour of the fools who think it’s that simple to consecrate a Hall of Fame filled with nothing but altar boys, boy scouts, choir boys, and monks.

And, we’ll re-mount them in George Frazier Hall, named for the one-time Yankee pitcher who responded to accusations of using foreign substances, with righteous indignation, “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”

Rename the MVP for a player, instead?

2020-07-05 FrankRobinson

The late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson proudly displays his two Most Valuable Player Awards—bearing then as still now the name and head image of the commissioner who enforced baseball’s colour line until his death led to the line’s official breakage.

On June’s final day, knowing of a movement afoot to re-name the Show’s Most Valuable Player Awards, I suggested re-naming them in honour of the commissioner who ended “organised baseball’s” disgraceful colour line. That by itself would rebuke the commissioner whose mealy-mouthed segregation enforcement stained and distorted the game.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have brought the criminal gambling elements in baseball to heel with and following the Black Sox scandal, but he absolutely refused to sanction a game open to anyone except white men.

So long as he ran the game with the absolute authority he’d accrued during his term, nobody—not even Branch Rickey, who’d long wanted to break the colour line but knew Landis wouldn’t let him—could even think about it without getting the Landis treatment. The treatment saying verbally that nothing in the rules stopped it, but factually that nobody was going to allow it, either.

It took Landis’s death of heart failure in 1944 to end both his tyrannical reign over the game and the colour line, which didn’t quite end right away. Incoming commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler, elected in April 1945, wasted no time answering when asked by Pittsburgh Courier writers Wendell Smith and Rick Roberts, “I’m for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball.”

Rickey now had his chance. Recall that Chandler refused to take office formally until World War II ended but, a week before he did, Rickey signed Kansas City Monarchs (Negro American League) shortstop Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organisation. Having the power to void any contract, Chandler didn’t even think about voiding Robinson’s.

Robinson went to Montreal to get his feet wet. Rickey concurrently signed another pair of Negro Leaguers, pitcher Don Newcombe and Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. When Rickey brought Robinson up to the Dodgers for 1947, Chandler refused to stop him, promising to fight with him instead. The Show’s colour line was broken formally.

In actual fact, 73 years after Robinson suited up for the Dodgers, baseball’s integration remains an up-and-down thing, in the dugouts and on the coaching lines, and particularly in the game’s front offices up and down the organisations. That, I repeat, isn’t Chandler’s fault.

It’d still be a fine gesture—not to mention the final overdue rebuke to Landis—to remove Landis’s name from the Most Valuable Player Awards and replace it with Chandler’s. But there’ve been numerous comments in the press and around social media suggesting that, well, if we’re going to remove Landis’s name from the MVPs, why not replace it that of a player?

That’s not an unsound thought. But Jackie Robinson’s name went on the Show’s Rookie of the Year Awards in 1987. Appropriately enough, since the Hall of Famer and colour line breaker won the first ROY in 1947—when it was a major league, not an each-league award.

Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s name is on the World Series MVP award. The Roberto Clemente Award honours each year’s most charitably inclined player in memory of the Hall of Famer killed in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s name goes on the award handed to each season’s best hitter. Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s name is on the award handed to the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. And the pitchers are covered nicely by an award named after a Hall of Famer named Cy Young.

Any one of those players’ names would have graced each league’s regular-season MVP. Since they’re covered on very significant awards already, however, there’s a candidate untouched as yet and still too often under-appreciated for just how great he was—despite being a Hall of Famer and the only man in baseball history still to have won MVPs in each major league.

The Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award, anyone?

Robinson died last year after a battle with bone cancer. Three years after his groundbreaking namesake spoke aloud saying he lived for the day when he’d see a black man managing a major league team, Robinson made that wish come true, when the Cleveland Indians named him their player/manager.

As a player, Robinson combined a take-no-prisoners style of play with an often underappreciated sense of humour. Underappreciated outside his clubhouses, that is. Stories abound about Robinson’s wicked wit, including the once-fabled tale of the Baltimore Orioles team bus approaching a junkyard in slow traffic and Robinson asking the driver to stop at the junkyard so less-than-sure-handed outfielder Curt Blefary (whom Robinson nicknamed Clank) could pick out a new glove.

After the Orioles downed the Minnesota Twins in the 1969 American League Championship Series, Robinson hollered in the clubhouse, “Bring on the Mets and Ron Gaspar!” Corrected by catcher Merv Rettenmund—“It’s ROD, stupid!”—Robinson didn’t miss. “Then bring on the Mets and Rod Stupid!”

When he got to manage the Orioles in due course, it came thanks to Cal Ripken, Sr.’s firing as the team’s to-be-infamous 1988-opening losing streak was at a mere six games. Told of a local disc jockey swearing to stay on the air until the Orioles won, Robinson lamented, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” When the streak hit twenty straight losses, he  opened his desk drawer and showed a reporter a button he’d been given: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

The following season, Robinson managed the Orioles to second place in the American League East and himself into Manager of the Year honours. I could be wrong, but he may  also be the only man in baseball history to win two MVPs and a Manager of the Year award.

Not too shabby for a man who was also a fourteen-time All-Star, a Triple Crown winner (in 1966, his first with the Orioles), a Rookie of the Year (National League, 1956, with the Cincinnati Reds), a World Series and All-Star Game MVP, and—persuaded by the Indians’ front office that he should also play in the first game he managed—squared off against New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich and blasted a home run his first time up.

After the Orioles started slowly in 1991, Robinson moved to the front office where he stayed until a shakeup left him open to his hiring as baseball’s vice president in charge of discipline. He got one more chance to manage, shepherding the Montreal Expos’s transition into the Washington Nationals.

Robinson often showed his humane side out of the public eye. As the founder and judge of the Orioles’ kangaroo court in the 1960s, he decreed that the fines collected for 1969 should go to Pat Corrales, a catcher on the Reds, after Corrales’s wife died while giving birth that year. When ESPN writer Buster Olney was an Orioles beat writer, he asked Robinson for advice on handling asking his prospective father-in-law for permission to marry the man’s daughter.

“He shriveled in horror,” Olney writes, “his body folding in a nearby seat as if he were ducking underneath a fastball, and Frank began to cackle, his laughter taking the form of a hiss. ‘Oh boy, you’re in trouble,’ he told me, doing everything he could to exacerbate my anxiety. ‘You’re on your own with that one’.”

Robinson also preferred to break barriers quietly. When he joined the Orioles in 1966, a clumsy reporter honest-to-God couldn’t distinguish between him and the Orioles’s well-established Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, he cracked, “Can’t you see we wear different numbers?” Relentless though he was on the field, Robinson preferred to break barriers with wit, with a first-inning blast, or quiet reflection otherwise.

“Jackie and Floyd Patterson were brave men to go [integration marches], but I couldn’t,” he told those who wondered why he lend his baseball prestige to civil rights battles. “Not now. Not until I’m through with baseball. I don’t believe baseball should be a fight for anything except baseball.”

The Baseball Writers Association of America (which has the power to do so, since they confer the prize) may not see fit to re-name the MVPs after the commissioner who ended baseball segregation formally and officially. Perhaps they’ll see fit to re-name it for the assassin on the field and the gentleman off the field who won every conceivable MVP award baseball has to confer.

If the Albert Benjamin Chandler Most Valuable Player Award doesn’t work for you, the Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award should. Admirably.