Joe Pignatano, RIP: The vegetable man

Joe Pignatano

As a player, Joe Pignatano was a reserve whose career ended with an unlucky three. As a coach, Pignatano grew bullpen vegetables while keeping the nuts from going completely squirrely.

According to outfielder Art Shamsky, Miracle Mets bullpen coach Joe Pignatano had one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.” According to starting pitcher Jerry Koosman, “Piggy was [manager Gil] Hodges’ spy.”

According to Mets history, Pignatano—who died this morning at 92 following a battle with dementia, the last living member of the Miracle Mets coaching staff—was once a reserve catcher who made an indelible impression in what proved his final major league plate appearance on 30 September 1962.

Piggy took over the catching from Choo-Choo Coleman in the bottom of the sixth in Wrigley Field against the Cubs. After the Cubs scored a pair of unearned runs off Mets reliever Craig Anderson in the bottom of the seventh, Pignatano came up to the plate in the top of the eighth with nobody out and back-to-back base hits from Sammy Drake and Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn setting a lovely table for him.

The man who eventually became fabled for growing a vegetable garden in the Shea Stadium bullpen couldn’t eat the meat that might have left the Mets as close as a single run behind. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either.

Pignatano ripped a bullet to the right side and right at the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year-in-waiting second baseman, Ken Hubbs. Hubbs went to first at once to nail the once-fleet Ashburn before Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, the big bully, whipped one to shortstop Andre Rodgers to bag Drake. The Cubs held on to win.

“It mattered not that the New York Mets won or lost, or even how they played the game today before 3,960 fans at Wrigley Field,” said the New York Times‘s lead. “For the record, though, the season’s final, for which Casey Stengel asked and obtained volunteers, went to the Cubs, 5-1.” Volunteers, indeed.

The Original Mets may have been baseball’s precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but even they couldn’t have made this up. In the final game of that surrealistic 40-120 season, Pignatano became the only major league player ever to end his playing career by hitting into a triple play.

He became one of Hodges’ coaches when Hodges ended his own playing career to become the manager of the Washington Senators’ second edition. He had the pleasure there of giving Hodges one of the best laughs of his early life as a manager, even if it was serious business to the serious skipper.

“In spring training one year,” Hodges remembered to Times writer Joseph Durso (for Amazing: The Miracle of the Mets), “I was standing across the street from the hotel when I saw four of my players leave.”

It was about ten minutes before curfew. I hung around for a half hour, and they didn’t come back. The next day in the clubhouse, I made a little speech. I told the club that I knew some of the players had broken curfew, and I was going to give them an opportunity to save some money. If they wanted to pay fifty dollar fines right now, the case would be closed. If the money wasn’t in by the end of the day, I’d hold another meeting and name names. The only thing was that the fines would then be one hundred dollars apiece.

I told them to leave their checks on the desk in my office. About an hour later, Joe Pignatano, one of my coaches, walked over to where I was hitting fungoes. He had a great big grin on his face and said, “You made a smart move. You offered four guys a chance to admit they broke curfew. Seven guys have paid the fines already.”

As the Mets’ bullpen coach, Pignatano did have to preside over a kind of psych ward. “[Ron] Taylor could be very funny,” he remembered to Maury Allen for After the Miracle: The Amazin’ Mets Twenty Years Later, while back in uniform at a Mets dream camp. “Just a lot of one-liners for the moment, getting on a guy about something.” Which was nothing compared to known flake Tug McGraw:

The day McGraw got that waiter in a white suit to bring trays of ribs and chicken and hamburgers to the bullpen and started heating everything over a sterno can really was something. It wasn’t the food that annoyed me. It was that the guy said I had to pay the bill.

Go ahead, say it. Piggy and the Stooges.

Pignatano enjoyed the Miracle Mets ride as much as anyone. He also suffered more than most when Hodges suffered his fatal heart attack in April 1972, after a round of golf in West Palm Beach. “We finished playing on a real fine day,” Pignatano told Allen.

Then we sat down with Jack Sanford, the old Giants pitcher, who was the club pro, and had a couple of beers at the nineteenth hole. We began walking back to the hotel, maybe fifty yards away. We were talking about the golf as we walked across the grass to the concrete path leading to the hotel rooms. [Third base coach Eddie] Yost and [pitching coach] Rube [Walker] were off to the left, and Gil and I had rooms to the right. Just as we reached the walk where the paths split, I turned slightly to Gil and asked, “What time do you want to meet for dinner?” He never answered. He just fell over backwards on that path and landed on his head. You could hear the crack as his head hit the sidewalk.

“Pignatano got up from his chair in that Florida dream camp clubhouse,” Allen wrote. “He shook his head. There were tears in his eyes. The interview was over.”

Hodges and Pignatano went back to Piggy’s first season as a Brooklyn Dodgers player and remained besties even after the team moved to Los Angeles and Pignatano moved on to the Kansas City Athletics, the Giants, and finally the Original Mets. As a catcher, Pignatano caught the final Dodger game at Ebbets Field, 29 September 1957, including eighth inning relief from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax against the Phillies.

He remained the Mets’ bullpen coach until 1981, then coached for Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre in Atlanta a spell before leaving the game but returning with the Braves’ organisation as a minor league pitching coach in 1988. Much later in life, Pignatano enjoyed associating with the Mets again, particularly relief pitcher John Franco, who rooted for the Miracle Mets as a boy in Brooklyn.

He also remained friendly with other old Dodger teammates such as Koufax, with whom he once roomed on the road. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, the pair attended a Baseball Assitance Team dinner in New York and Pignatano found an empty seat next to Koufax. “Hey,” Leavy recorded a voice asking almost demandingly, “how come he gets to sit there?” Koufax smiled. “Roomie seat,” he replied.

“On the surface,” Leavy wrote, “Pignatano is everything Koufax is not—paunchy and balding, indifferently dressed in the manner of baseball men who never had to decide what to wear when they got up in the morning, his accent Brooklyn thick. In fact, they are not so  different. Piggy is who Koufax aspires to be—just another guy happy to be on this side of the grass.”

“And all the lot is what I got/It’s what I wear, it’s what you see/It must be me, it’s what I am/vegetable man,” went a lyric by Pink Floyd’s ill-fated founding guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett.

That haunted soul self-shorn from the heights couldn’t know his words fit a guy happy to be on his own side of the grass, whether keeping the nuts from cracking in the bullpen, mourning the loss of his best friend after a time check on dinner, growing vegetables in the pen, relaxing with a Hall of Fame teammate.

Pignatano had two great loves in his life, baseball and his wife, Nancy, who died two years ago. His sons and grandchildren’s mourning may be cushioned only by knowing that he and she are reunited serene and happy in the Elysian Fields.

Sixty years on, an eyewitness remembers the Original Mets

1962 Mets Yearbook

The first Mets yearbook, 1962, drawn by cartooning legend Willard Mullin—whose creation of the Brooklyn Bum in the 1930s proved he knew absurdism when he saw it.

In February 1962, Casey Stengel gathered his sort-of brand-new major league baseball team together, pointed toward the spring training field, and said, “Them are the bases.” Two months later, sixty years ago today, broadcaster Bob Murphy crooned from the booth in St. Louis, “Yes, sir, the New York Mets are on the air in their first great season.”

This year’s Mets awoke this morning after beating the Nationals in Washington three straight before losing 4-2 Sunday afternoon. Their ancestors of sixty years ago awoke that 11 April to lose an 11-4 blowout to the Cardinals in ancient Sportsman’s Park, freshly re-named Busch Stadium.

It began a life-opening nine-game losing streak. And, the birth of a legend. When they recorded their first-ever regular-season win, a handy 9-1 final against the Pirates, the immediate gag became, “Break up the Mets!” No such team setting a record for getting destroyed on the field ever seduced a locale as profoundly as the Original Mets seduced New York.

Still smarting from the exodus West of the Dodgers and the Giants (in whose ancient, rambling wreck of a Polo Grounds home the Mets played awaiting Shea Stadium’s birth), and probably saturated by what seemed decades of Yankee success and its attendant hubris, New York embraced the Mets with a season-long bear hug and a kind of pre-countercultural hysteria in the stands.

If the British played baseball and fielded such a team as the Original Mets, they’d have been considered the game’s progenitors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But the National League awarded New York the Mets in its first expansion, their original owner having been the lone stockholding vote against the Giants leaving town. The Mets became . . .

Well, I’ve said it before, but who can resist repeating it? Abbott and Costello performed “Who’s on First” several hundred times before they ended their partnership. Little did they know. The Original Mets seemed to have Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want To Think About It’s at shortstop.

One minute, the outfield was reasonably competent (and often included Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn at the sunset of his fine career) and the infield (including future Hall of Famer Gil Hodges at first base, before knee injuries put paid to his playing career) was at minimum not bound for infamy. The next, they were the Three Stooges and the Four Marx Brothers.

Except when otherwise genial Marv Throneberry played first base. “This,” wrote then-New York Herald-Tribune writer Jimmy Breslin, “was like saying Willie Sutton works at your bank.” He was a former Yankee prospect now a gangling Charlie Chaplin for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. When he didn’t hit the long ball now and then (he once ruined the Pirates and relief legend Elroy Face with a game-winning three-run homer), he either made things unravel or things unraveled through him.

The bullpen could have been mistaken for a flock of ducks. (Daffy, that is.) The bench could have been mistaken for the Keystone Kops. There were those convinced that Ernie Kovacs was raised from the dead to take the managing job in the aging Stengel’s stead.

The Mets were impregnated of the bold but ultimately doomed Continental League project in 1959, a third major league brainchild of former Dodgers mastermind Branch Rickey, that attracted several wealthy men and women to buy franchises, including in New York. The majors surrendered. They agreed to expand, for the first time, two new teams each.

They also agreed not to let the new teams get their meathooks to within ten nautical miles of solid talent, and not to let them raid the established rosters without paying through their noses and their ears. (Paul Richards, general manager of the National League’s incoming Houston Colt .45s—you know them today as the American League West’s ogres, the Astros—said it most memorably, if coarsely, to his front office: “Gentlemen, we’ve just been [fornicated]!”)

Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel, on the dugout steps in the ancient Polo Grounds. He may or may not have been asking was he really there when all that happened.

One of the wealthy incomers was Joan Payson, the aforementioned Giants stockholding holdout. She was awarded the National League’s new New York franchise. Some believed she’d really bought herself a zoo with the animals holding the keys.

Among their earliest fans was a certain six-year-old boy in the north Bronx, whose firm but kind and generous maternal grandfather (himself a displaced Giants fan) consented to take me to the Polo Grounds to see the madness. For giving his grandson such a gift, there were those who might have accused Grandpa Morris of child abuse.

Naturally, the Mets lost to the Cubs, 6-3. Only the Mets could make that generation of Cubs resemble contenders. The 1962 Cubs finished 59-103, good for ninth place. (This, children, was before the age of divisional play.) Their saving grace was my Mets finishing 40-120. It may have been one of the few times That Toddlin’ Town offered thanks for the Big Apple.

I saw a game featuring six future Hall of Famers. Four of them played for the Cubs. One of them (Ernie Banks) cracked a two-out home run in the top of the fourth to cut an early Mets lead in half, then slashed a two-run single an inning later to finish overthrowing that early Met lead, and finished the Cubs’ scoring with a seventh-inning sacrifice fly.

Among the Hall of Famers on my Original Mets that day, only Ashburn factored in the scoring, coming home from a leadoff single in the third aboard former Dodger Charlie Neal’s one-out triple. An inning earlier, future Cub Jim Hickman singled Sammy Taylor home with the first Met run of the game; three innings later, Taylor returned the favour by singling Neal home for the final Met run of the game.

As Original Mets games go, there was none of the slapstick that dominated that first surreal season. The lone error of the game wasn’t all that hilarious, outfielder Frank Thomas merely mishandling a drive. There was a lot of the fast-famous LET’S GO METS! chanting during the game, so I couldn’t really complain. I got enough of the slapstick watching the Mets on WOR-TV that summer when not in day camp.

Maybe the more apt comparison should have been to The Ed Sullivan Show, where you were liable to see an elegantly passionate performance of classical music followed immediately by a wild animal act. The Original Mets were much like that. One inning of baseball that might plausibly compare to Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun would be followed by twenty that compared plausibly to the clown cars of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Stengel Circus.

“Come an’ see my amazin’ Mets,” Stengel often hectored the incoming Polo Grounds customers. “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet.”

Stengel managed the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons. With him at the helm, and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees actually had a kind of human side. With successor Ralph Houk at the helm, the Yankees merely became efficient and boring, other than occasional uproars such as the 1961 Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run chase. Their fans reflected it as a sense of entitlement that’s been handed down through subsequent generations.

The Mets simply played off that Yankee hubris and let the city soon to be called Fun City know there was nothing wrong with having mad fun. The madder the better. Stengel’s triple-talking wit, which some mistook for disengagement, did the invaluable favour of keeping his hapless Mets from indignation and himself from going mad.

Marv Throneberry

“Marvelous Marv does more than just play first base for the Mets. He is the Mets.”Jimmy Breslin, in Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

Perhaps the closest Stengel had to a kindred spirit was Ashburn, a longtime Phillies favourite (and one of the 1950 pennant-winning Whiz Kids) before coming to the Mets by way of the Cubs. “I don’t know what this is,” Ashburn observed of his Mets at one point during 1962, “but I know I’ve never seen it before.”

The downtrodden Dodgers of the 1930s inspired comparable loyalty but nothing much funnier than New York World-Telegram cartooning legend Willard Mullin drawing a caricature of circus legend Emmett Kelly, Jr.’s Weary Willie character to represent the Bums. The eternally downtrodden St. Louis Browns were about as funny as a tax audit until Bill Veeck got his hands on the team when it was too little, too late.

The likewise-downtrodden Washington Senators (who managed to win a pair of pennants and a World Series, somehow) had a legend—Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League—that wasn’t quite as true as it was iambically clever. (In sixty seasons before moving to Minneapolis, the Ancient Nats finished last in the American League exactly ten times.) And, occasional laughs.

“New York,” Veeck would write in The Hustler’s Handbook, “had nothing to prove to anybody. New York had the Broadway theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, the best art museums, the tallest buildings. New York had everything except a lousy ball club.”

Presented with as lousy a team as the most optimistic rooter could hope for, the city responded [to the Mets] with frightening passion. The more inept the club showed itself to be (and it reached pinnacles of ineptitude previously undreamed of), the closer the city hugged it to its ample bosom . . .

The Yankees always took the attitude that they were doing you a favour by permitting you to watch them perform. They would no more deign to court their customers than the Queen would deign to court her subjects when she grants her annual audiences . . .

It has only been with the rise of the Mets and the fall of the House of Houk that they have found it polite to provide entertainment. [1964] is the first year, I suspect, that they have seen a fan close up.

At this writing, it hasn’t worked. The Mets are a trip to the Fun House. The Yankees are still a board of directors meeting. I don’t know about your neighbourhood, but it had been years since anyone rioted on my block to attend a board of directors meeting.

Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel leaving the field for the clubhouse after the Mets’ final home game at the Polo Grounds, 18 September 1963. The original Eddie Grant memorial monument stone stands in front of the center post supporting the building housing offices and clubhouses. The Mets’ clubhouse is on the right; the visiting Phillies’ clubhouse, on the left. Rheingold Beer sponsored the Mets’ broadcasts from 1962-1973. The Rheingold sign blinked the ‘h’ for a hit or the ‘e’ for an error after official scorers ruled on close or tough plays. The Polo Grounds came down in early 1964; Rheingold died in 1976. Sad irony: the original Brooklyn brewery, like the Polo Grounds, was succeeded by an apartment complex.

The method behind the madness was Mets president George Weiss (Stengel’s general manager in those dominant Yankee years) stocking the Original Mets with names familiar enough to National League fans and a few unknown, untried entities to hold fort while men such as farm director Johnny Murphy built the organisation that ended up in a miraculous World Series triumph. With Original Met Hodges on the bridge as the manager. That’d teach them. Some thought something perversely precious was lost forever.

“There was never a team like the old Mets and there will never be another,” wrote Leonard Shecter—maverick sportswriter/editor, future editor of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and the writer who first forged a veteran first baseman almost washed up from underuse into the myth of Marvelous Marv—in Once Upon the Polo Grounds, his reminder to those going even madder over the 1969 Miracle Mets that the Polo Grounds Mets were only too real and not to be forgotten. Ever.

Now it is all different. Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things. [The manager not long ago suggested to a newspaperman that he need not have blabbed in the public prints that the Mets scored their winning run on a bunt.] And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.

Today’s Mets play in a lovely playpen most of whose architecture evokes the memory of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. The green seats are the team’s homage to the Polo Grounds, which also outlined its field box seats with dangling chains. It’s the only reference to the Original Mets in the park, other than Casey Stengel’s retired uniform number 37.

This year’s Mets look competitive, seem entertaining, seem engaging. But their 1962 ancestors are too ancient a memory for today’s attention deficit baseball fan. The Original Mets have been long doomed to repose in the pages of books, the archives of newspapers, the artifacts in the Hall of Fame. And, in the memories of those who still don’t know what it was but knew they’d never seen it before.

Miñoso, O’Neil reach Cooperstown, but Allen’s still excluded

Minnie Miñoso, Hall of Famer at long enough last—but posthumously.

There’s a bit of poetic justice in the first black player for the White Sox and the first black coach in the entire Show with the Cubs becoming Hall of Famers together. But only a bit. Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil should have been voted the honour while they were still alive, not posthumously by the Early Baseball Committee.

So should Dick Allen have been voted the honour while he was still alive. But Allen missed out by a single vote with the Golden Days Era Committee on Sunday. The committee elected Allen’s great contemporary Tony Oliva, but Oliva is still alive to accept the honour.

Miñoso died at 89 in 2015; O’Neil, at 94 in 2006; Allen, at 78, almost a year ago. Nobody ever said things were entirely fair even disallowing the races of these three men, but it’s not so simple to say better late than never for Miñoso and O’Neil; or, for Allen, who’ll surely be voted the honour in due course without having lived to accept it.

Cuban-born Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Miñoso didn’t get his chance in the Show until he was 25, thanks to baseball’s segregation until Jackie Robinson emerged. When the seven-time All-Star finally arrived in 1951—eight games with the Indians before his trade to the White Sox—Miñoso posted a season that should have earned him both the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honours.

Award voters in those years had already come to terms with non-white players, but they were still distant enough from the idea that a league’s most valuable player didn’t necessarily have to be on a pennant winner. Miñoso’s season eclipsed the two Yankees who won those respective awards, Gil McDougald (Rookie of the Year) and Yogi Berra (Most Valuable Player), at least at the plate.

Berra’s award probably came as much for his handling of the Yankee pitching staff as for his team-leading runs scored and runs batted in. McDougald had a solid season, but Miñoso out-hit him, out-scored him, and out-stole him. (Miñoso led the league with 31 stolen bases and could be argued as the real father of the Show’s stolen-base renaissance his eventual Hall of Fame teammate Luis Aparicio kicked off in earnest later in the decade.) He also walked more often, struck out less often, and played more field positions competently than the multi-positional McDougald did.

Miñoso put up a lot of MVP-level seasons without winning the award, even though he might plausibly have won three such awards if voters then looked beyond assuming pennant winners automatically carried the league’s most valuable players. He was also (read very carefully) the first black Latino to crack the Show.

In the years that followed after his career ended, there came a few who looked deeper and concluded that Miñoso might have been the most deserving player not to reach Cooperstown for a very long time. When Allen Barra wrote Clearing the Bases in 2002, he devoted an entire chapter to Miñoso and drew that very conclusion, even if he had Miñoso’s age as a Show rookie wrong. (Barra said 29; Miñoso was 25. But still.)

“His 1951 season,” Barra wrote, “taught a lesson to Latin players for the next forty-odd years: you will have to do better than the non-Latin player just to be noticed, and far better to win an award . . . Minnie Miñoso was a better ballplayer than several white players of his time who are in the Hall of Fame. He was also better than [several] black players from his era that are in the Hall of Fame.”

He was also an effervescent personality who used it to win White Sox World over emphatically, while he played and for decades to follow. Chided once because his English was rather halting, Miñoso is said to have replied, “Ball, bat, glove, she no speak English.” At least as classic as the day black Puerto Rican first baseman Vic Power, told by a Southern server that the restaurant didn’t serve black people, was said to have replied, “That’s ok, I don’t eat black people.”

John Jordan O’Neil won one Negro Leagues batting title, made three Negro Leagues All-Star teams, and was known to be swift and slick at first base, but his stronger metier was as a leader and a manager. In fact, O’Neil managed the legendary Kansas City Monarchs to three pennants before baseball’s integration began to mean the death knell for the Negro Leagues themselves.

Buck O’Neil—pennant-winning Negro Leagues manager, groundbreaking Cubs coach, nonpareil baseball ambassador—and Hall of Famer at long enough last, albeit posthumously, too.

As a Cubs coach and scout O’Neil was immeaurable in his mentorship of Hall of Famers such as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. In due course, he discovered Hall of Famer Lou Brock and World Series hero Joe Carter. As a baseball ambassador, both concurrent to his work with the Cubs and beyond it, O’Neil was even more immeasurable for helping to keep the Negro Leagues legacy alive.

This friendly, soulful man who was a people person first and foremost told all who’d listen that, regardless of the disgrace that kept himself and his fellows from their warranted tastes of what was then considered the only major league baseball life, those who played Negro Leagues baseball managed to have fun, live reasonably, and savour the good in life.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball would have been like trying to take the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. “People feel sorry for me,” O’Neil once said. “Man, I heard Charlie Parker!” Referencing, of course, the virtuoso alto saxophonist who helped change jazz irrevocably with his running mates Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Thelonious Monk (piano, composer), and Kenny Clarke (drums, the first to shift timekeeping to a ride cymbal away from the bass drum) by inventing the smaller-lineup, freer-wheeling style known as bebop.

O’Neil was a jazz nut who linked the musical art to baseball unapologetically and seamlessly. “Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what,” he told Joe Posnanski for the invaluable The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.

It’s like baseball. Baseball is not racist. Were there racist ballplayers? Of course. The mediocre ones . . . They were worried about their jobs. They knew that when black players started getting into the major leagues, they would go, and they were scared. But we never had any trouble with the real baseball players. The great players. No, to them it was all about one thing. Can he play? That was it. Can he play?

O’Neil made his way into his country’s complete consciousness once and for all time when he factored large in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, Baseball. Others of his generation who endured with him made fans, but O’Neil made friends. He became what Pete Rose only claimed himself to be, the single best and most effective ambassador for the game ever seen—and that’s saying a lot.

He missed being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, by the Committee on African-American Baseball. There was much speculation that his exclusion then had to do with a dispute between O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, Larry Lester, over policy issues. But I’ve never forgotten the sweet grace with which O’Neil accepted the result.

“I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!” he exclaimed, while saying it showed America itself was growing up and getting better even if the growing pains continued to be  too profound.

God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.

O’Neil accepted when invited to induct the seventeen in Cooperstown. His speech evoked living history, deep love, and concluded when he got the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawns to hold hands and sing a line from his favourite gospel song, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

Three months later, that irrepressibly active and life-affirming man died under the double blow of bone marrow cancer and heart failure.

Dick Allen, who should have been elected to the Hall while alive, and fell one vote short posthumously by the Golden Days Era Committee Sunday.

I have long argued that Tony Oliva deserved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and I’ve found no evidence to change that conclusion—but Dick Allen, whose career dovetailed completely to his, was over twice the player Oliva was, especially at the plate.

I saw both of them play while growing up and beyond. Oliva was a smart batsmith and run-preventive right fielder. Allen was a wrecking machine at the plate and a brain on the bases in all regards; his Rookie of the Year season compared favourably to Joe DiMaggio’s and he didn’t just hit home runs, what he hit should have had not meals and stewardesses but astronauts on board.

I once did an analysis that concluded a fully-healthy Allen might have finished his career with about 525 home runs, while a fully-healthy Oliva might have finished his with about 315. Neither man reached the Sacred 3,000 Hit Club; hell, neither of them reached 2,000 lifetime hits. But the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity or compilation. Allen and Oliva were Hall of Fame-great, but only one is now a Hall of Famer.

Allen’s unwanted war with 1960s Philadelphia’s racial growing pains, the city’s carnivorous sports press, and isolated bigots on his own teams too often eroded the memory of just how great he really was. So did the injuries that kept him (and Oliva, in all fairness) from having a more natural decline phase than he (and Oliva) should have had.

But I’m going there again. Line them up by my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—and Tony Oliva’s going to be holding Dick Allen’s coat, in peak and career value.

First, their peak values:

Player, peak PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-72 5457 2592 685 120 33 11 .631
Tony Oliva, 1964-70 4552 2090 303 82 38 36 .560

Now, their career values:

Player, career PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1963-77 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva, 1962-76 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537

I wrote more extensively about Allen when he lost his battle with cancer last year. And it’s also fair to mention that, in his later years, Allen not only made peace with the Phillies organisation but became one of the most popular members of the team’s speakers’ bureau.

But one more time, here, I’ll hand Jay Jaffe the last word—the best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, and by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—from The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

The next Golden Days Era Committee meeting will be five years from now. Allen waited long enough while he was alive. He damn well deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, even if his family alone can now accept on his behalf.

It’s an absolute wonderful thing to see Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil get their due even posthumously. It’s a wonderful thing to see elected Bud Fowler (arguably the first black professional baseball player); Gil Hodges (the great Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman/Miracle Mets pennant-winning manager); and, Oliva plus his great Twins teammate Jim Kaat, pitcher, whose Hall case is really a) borderline at beat and b) could be seen by re-arranging his best seasons. (Kaat tended to pitch his best baseball too often when someone else was having an off-chart career year.)

But Dick Allen’s continuing exclusion remains a disgrace.

Traded for Gil Hodges, then to hell and back for Bill Denehy

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“Met fans who remember me ask, ‘Oh, Bill Denehy. You’re the guy who was traded for Gil Hodges, aren’t you?’ ‘I am,’ I tell them with great pride.”—Bill Denehy.

With eleven games left in the 1967 season, Mets manager Wes Westrum, who’d succeeded Casey Stengel, resigned. Third base coach Salty Parker took the bridge to finish the season, but the Mets had a permanent candidate in mind.

They wanted Gil Hodges, the much-loved Brooklyn Dodgers icon, who finished his playing career as a knee-injured Original Met before becoming the manager of the expansion Washington Senators. But it would cost the Mets to get Hodges, since he’d signed a contract extension that would take him through the end of 1968.

So the Mets traded righthanded pitcher Bill Denehy—who shared a 1967 Topps rookie baseball card with future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—to the Senators. If you ask Denehy today whether any Met fans who remember him ever suggested he could be called the man who really made the 1969 Miracle Mets possible, he says no . . . while laughing heartily.

Then, he tells the backstory, which begins with his having left an impression on the parent Senators when he pitched well against their minor league teams while rising through the Mets’ system. To get the Hodges deal done required a little Yankee panky—specifically, former 1930s teammates Johnny Murphy (relief pitcher) and George Selkirk (outfielder), now major league general managers.

“The Senators were trying to extract as much as they could for giving up Hodges,” Denehy says by telephone from his Florida home.

They got $100,000 in cash and they wanted a player. Johnny Murphy was then the general manager of the Mets, and George Selkirk was the general manager of the Senators, but they didn’t really like each other. Selkirk was pushing for the additional player. Mr. Murphy told me they offered three additional players to choose instead of me, but Selkirk insisted it be me. What the Mets didn’t tell them was that I hurt my arm in May and was sent to the minor leagues and got a couple of cortisone shots.

The injury in question occurred when Denehy threw a hard slider to Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his fourth major league start. “It felt like someone stuck a knife in my shoulder,” he once said. Back in the minors in Florida during ’67, he underwent a procedure to have a dye shot into his arm and shoulder and it showed the torn muscle. The Mets’ then-team physician, Dr. Peter LaMotte, didn’t affirm that diagnosis; the Mets also failed to pass the information to the Senators.

Going to the Senators for Hodges may have been the least among strange, sad deals Denehy has seen, handed himself, and been handed in the decades since.

Bill Denehy today is legally blind. It began when he awoke one morning in January 2005 unable to see through his right eye, thanks to what proved a torn retina. Caught frozen without medical insurance, since he was two weeks from beginning a new job after leaving his incumbent job, Denehy needed help from a church group to undergo the surgery at a University of Florida eye facility.

Surgery performed by the same doctor who operated on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard’s torn retina proved unsuccessful. “He said my retina tear was worse than Sugar Ray’s was,” Denehy says, adding that he’s since incurred two more retina holes, a macular hole, and required a stent for his left eye.

Friendly and sounding far younger than his 73 years, Denehy believes up to 57 cortisone shots in 26 months that he was given as a young pitcher caused his eventual visual loss. As he wrote (with Peter Golenbock) in his memoir, Rage: The Legend of Baseball Bill Denehy (Central Recovery Press; 280p, $16.95), “I didn’t know any better.”

This was before the dangers of cortisone were made public. I knew Sandy Koufax was taking them for his arm, and Sandy was my hero, so I figured what was good for Sandy was good for me. I found out years later that nobody should take more than ten cortisone shots in a lifetime. I was later told that if you take more than ten shots in a lifetime, your corneas will go weak and you risk going blind. I wish someone had said something back then.

“I have my hand out in front of me a foot, and I can’t see my fingers,” Denehy says on the phone. “If I bring them in, if I stuck my thumb on my nose, and then just turn my hand where my palm is facing me, I can see my fingers there.

“But I can’t read or write,” he continues. “I’ve got the television on mute right now, and all I see is whiteness and black things moving. I don’t know whether it’s a person or it’s a game or whatever on there. I can’t go to the computer. I can’t read any type of thing. Telephone numbers are difficult for me. I used to have five by seven cards with big numbers written down for telephone numbers, but that’s gone by the wayside now. I’m in the final stages now of what we call in blindness—darkness.”

Administered to excess, cortisone is also linked to glaucoma, the disease that put paid to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s playing career in 1996, ten years before his premature death from a stroke. Puckett isn’t known to have taken cortisone often if at all during his twelve-season career, but it was revealed that glaucoma ran in his family.

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Short-lived Senator Denehy, following The Trade.

Does Denehy think baseball’s medical personnel during his career simply didn’t know the full extent of cortisone’s potential dangers? Or does he think they saw players then as mere commodities to hustle back to the field posthaste, regardless of actual or long-term health? “Great question,” he replies. “I think it was a little of both.”

He once joined a 2004 legal action involving the cortisone issue, filed by former White Sox catcher Mike Colbern, who died in March. “Baseball gave us illegal drugs and too many cortisone shots,” Colbern told Douglas J. Gladstone for A Bitter Cup of Coffee, “but never kept medical records in order to keep us playing.”

Denehy is one of 634 still-living, short-career former major leaguers who were frozen out when a 1980 agreement between baseball government and the Major League Players Association re-aligned the game’s pension plan to vest health benefits after one day’s major league service time and a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time. The deal didn’t include players whose careers occurred between 1949 and 1980.

Colbern, one-time Met shortstop Al Moran, and former Houston second baseman Ernie Fazio (who died in 2017), the first signing by the Astros’ franchise (born as the Colt .45s), led a 2003 class action suit against baseball, after a 1997 agreement to provide $10,000 pensions to select former Negro Leagues players who saw some Show time but still didn’t qualify for the 1980 pension re-alignment.

The suit accused baseball of discrimination (Colbern stressed the players didn’t want to deny the Negro Leaguers) and also charged battery and negligence against baseball for allowing team doctors and trainers to administer multiple cortisone shots without informing players of cortisone’s risks. Several hundred players including Denehy joined the suit.

It lost on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. Baseball government, ESPN said at the time, “argued that the former players were essentially looking for a handout they didn’t deserve.”

Denehy still hopes to help change that for players such as himself. Players such as David Clyde, the mishandled Rangers pitching phenom of the 1970s. And, Jim Qualls, the Cub center fielder remembered if at all for busting Seaver’s bid for a perfect game in the ninth inning in 1969. And, Carmen Fanzone, a third baseman frozen behind Hall of Famer Ron Santo with the Cubs but who made a second career as an in-demand jazz trumpeter.

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a re-alignment of the 1980 pension re-alignment: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

“My feeling is that we should get a pension that is indicative of the service time in the big leagues,” says Denehy of the pension re-alignment, for himself and for those among his 634 fellow former players frozen out of the deal. “We earned the time, okay? When they dropped it down to 43 days active service time, every one of us prior to 1980 that had more than 43 days should have gotten a pension.”

One possible reason for the pre-1980 players’ freeze-out? Stressing that it was strictly hearsay, Denehy spoke of a sense that many if not most of the players in question were merely September call-ups, with baseball and the players’ union believing they “didn’t really earn their way onto a major league roster.”

That might have been true for a few of the players but certainly not all of them. Denehy pitched in three major league seasons, for the Mets, the Senators, and the Tigers, and he made each of those teams directly out of spring training.

When he reported to the 1967 Mets’ spring camp, Denehy didn’t figure in their pitching plans until the day Jack Fisher, the one-time Orioles “Baby Birds” rotation member, had to miss a spring start when his little daughter was injured in a fall. Denehy got the start instead, zipping through three innings and posting a strong enough spring to go north with the Mets to open the season.

He got his first major league start on 16 April 1967, against the Phillies, striking out eight including the first Show batter he faced, Johnny Briggs. The eight punchouts matched Seaver for a Mets rookie record that stood until Matt Harvey broke it in 2012. Other than six walks against those eight strikeouts, Denehy’s only other blemish in the game came when Dick Allen blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth.

“That wasn’t a home run,” Denehy chuckles. “That was a moon drive.” The rising liner sailed until hitting a Coca-Cola sign atop Connie Mack Stadium’s second deck. Without the sign, Denehy says, “that ball would have landed in Delaware.”

Three starts later, facing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the Giants, Denehy threw the fateful slider to Mays. The knife in the shoulder the pain resembled would prove nothing compared to the one the quick-tempered, admittedly self-destructive, injury-plagued Denehy would stick into himself a few hundred times over.

The physical pain from his baseball injuries prodded him to more serious drinking plus marijuana and cocaine. Out of baseball, he tried real estate, insurance, and radio broadcasting, before becoming a pitching coach in the Red Sox system. (His charges included the young Roger Clemens.) By 1987, Denehy’s marriage collapsed, unable to bear the weight of his addictions and his furies any longer.

He was the University of Hartford’s baseball coach from 1984-1987. (One of his players was future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.) He rebuilt the team into a potential powerhouse before a bench-clearing brawl with the University of Connecticut brought out the worst of the inner clash between Denehy’s passion to win and his fear of failure, the clash that helped ruin him.

By his own admission a runaway train, Denehy remarked out of frustration after the brawl that he hoped a particular UConn assistant coach got car bombed—he swears he was trying to say he hoped the coach’s car would be blown up “like a balloon,” but he was cut off before he say that second part. After his firing, Denehy tried to pitch once more, in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in Florida in 1989.

But he failed a physical exam, and settled for becoming a colour commentator on league broadcasts, with Lou Palmer—the first on-air ESPN broadcaster—handling play-by-play. His eventual memoir collaborator, Peter Golenbock, in The Forever Boys, said Denehy’s in-game interview of former Mets Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack—pitching for the St. Petersburg Pelicans—drew a threat from former Tiger pitcher Milt Wilcox to slap Matlack with a kangaroo court fine.

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The rookie card, appraised by some collectors’ sites as worth up to $7,000 in mint condition.

Two subsequent road accidents caused Denehy injuries from a dislocated jaw and broken ankle to neck and back issues. He lapsed back into marijuana and cocaine until it throttled his plan to launch a national radio talk show discussing addiction and sports. He sobered up for good and  reconciled with his children and his parents.

“I haven’t really reconciled that well with my ex-wife,” he chuckles, “but my daughters and I, we talk all the time, and it’s really good.” More than good. When Denehy was bilked out of a reported $17,000 (he thinks it may have been as much as $30,000) by his now-former caretaker, Donna Sue Santella, one of his daughters worked with his bank to get the charges Santella’s accused of running up off his accounts.

It was easier facing Dick Allen and Willie Mays than facing the losses Santella admitted in an affidavit to inflicting on him. “Very simply, first of all I feel extremely violated that she worked for me for 25 months and we found out she was stealing for fifteen months,” Denehy says. He now has a new caretaker, thanks to Florida’s department of children and families who steered him toward an agency that bonds and vets its caretakers fully.

“I want to make sure that anyone who has a handicapped person or a senior citizen that’s in their family, or just a good friend, if they need assistance, they go through an agency that is bonded and vetted to make sure that person who’s going to assist them doesn’t have any kind of record or has done this before,” he says.

Denehy admits he’s had “a bad tendency” to trust the wrong people, from his pitching days to the Santella case. “And, again, my message is that you be very, very careful,” he says. “You can’t go on in life without being able to trust people. But, make sure that it’s done over time, and make sure that you can talk to other people, so that you don’t feel people are taking advantage of you.”

He still loves baseball deeply and pays close enough attention to the games and the issues around them. He’s interested especially in proposals to move the pitcher’s mound, an idea now under experiment in the independent Atlantic League. He thinks the mound should be moved back—but not quite in the way the ordinary fan or even the commissioner’s office think it should.

But he prefaces his theory with a challenge, saying that “if you ask a hundred people what’s the distance between the rubber and the plate,” they actually answer incorrectly.

The distance is 60 feet, six inches, right? Wrong, Denehy says. “It’s actually 59 feet and one inch from the pitching rubber to home plate. It’s sixty feet, six inches, to the back apex of home plate, where they’ve got a seventeen-inch square that’s cut off the corners to make the lines that go down to first and third base.”

And he would move the rubber back the length of the plate, to make the distance a true sixty feet, six inches. The reason? Not on behalf of more balls in play or artificial pace-of-game concerns—but safety.

If you’re someone like [Aroldis] Chapman for the New York Yankees, he throws over a hundred miles an hour. But—he has a seven-foot stride. So in fact when he’s releasing the ball, he’s not even fifty-nine feet, one inch from home plate, he’s fifty-two feet, one inch from home plate . . . Just look at the number of players over the last couple of years who’ve been hit in the wrist and everything, broke their wrists or broke their arms. Because they don’t have enough time to get out of the way of a pitched ball. 

And if a batter hits a 121 mph liner off a pitch thrown at 100 mph, Denehy says, “anyone who’s ever pitched and tries to throw as hard as you can, when you follow through your glove is at your side and your throwing arm is crossing your opposite hip. At 121 miles an hour, at fifty-two feet, one inch, you don’t have enough time to react to be able to get your glove up to [stop] a ball that’s hit at your face.”

The night before our conversation, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo lined a base hit off the head of Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Tallion. “I’m fine,” Tallion said after the game. “I’m unlucky I got hit and lucky I seem to be OK coming out of it.” It wasn’t the first time Tallion was ever hit by a line drive on the mound.

“Either a batter or a pitcher is going to get killed,” Denehy says. “And that’s going to be too damn late for baseball to come in and make a reactionary change in something that doesn’t have anything to do with batting average or pitching statistics, it has to do completely with safety.”

Like many, Denehy casts an interested eye upon the current trend of teams opening their checkbooks for lucrative, somewhat long-term contract extensions for their best young players, forestalling their first free agency seasons by several years. He thinks the owners have their own pocketbooks in mind, of course, but the players signing such extensions—even if they could have bagged more on the open market—aren’t exactly “heading for the breadlines,” either.

Referring to Bryce Harper’s mammoth new contract with the Phillies, which wasn’t an extension but a free agency signing, Denehy is emphatic. “He wanted to play baseball,” Denehy says. “And not be involved in any more negotiations, no more opt-outs, no more bonuses, he wanted to sign a deal where for the rest of his career he could do the one thing he loved more than anything else, which wasn’t making money, he wants to play baseball, and I say good for him.”

Denehy also cautions against assuming that the highest-salaried player on a team will become the automatic team leader. Often as not, the lower salaried players prove to be the team’s true leaders, though Denehy likes to point to one well-paid Hall of Fame teammate who became a leader quietly but authoritatively—Al Kaline, who once turned a salary raise down because he believed he didn’t earn it.

Kaline was once the highest-paid Tiger and the first to sign a six-figure season’s contract. “Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” Denehy says. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player. But just because you get the most amount of money, doesn’t mean that you’re going to become the team leader in the clubhouse.”

But he hopes most to see baseball finally resolve the 1949-1980 players’ pension issue once and for all. “I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned.

“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continues. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”

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Denehy (left) with Seaver, spring 1967: “We were Prospect A and Prospect A-1. I’m not sure who was which.”

Regretting only that he didn’t think to get a second opinion about his original shoulder injury, Denehy refuses to allow his blindness to interfere with living.

“I’m Irish,” he says, laughing. “I have faith in a higher power. I’ve got some really good friends. I went back to my fiftieth high school reunion in 2014, I was absolutely amazed at the number of classmates who came up to me that weekend and said how proud they were of me, you know, being from our class and getting to the big leagues. And I still stay in touch with a good dozen of them, a couple of them almost every day a phone call to see what’s going on.”

The only other thing to sadden Denehy is the fate of Seaver, who’s retired from public activities following a diagnosis of dementia and isn’t likely to be part of this year’s fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1969 Mets. The two pitchers first met when pitching for the Mets’ then-AAA farm in Jacksonville, Florida, before both made the Mets in spring 1967.

“We went north, we were like Prospect A and Prospect A-1, I’m not sure who was which,” he continues. “Our lockers were next to each other in the clubhouse. I knew [Seaver’s wife] Nancy. Every time I was around Tom, he always treated me, while we were teammates, and even after I was out of the game, he treated me as a friend and a former teammate.”

When Denehy worked as a baseball reporter for Enterprise Radio in 1980, the network assigned him to cover Opening Day in Cincinnati, when Seaver was with the Reds. Knowing Seaver didn’t really like to talk on Opening Day, Denehy arrived a day early with an idea.

“They were having their practise,” Denehy says, “and I went up to him. We all called him Soup back then. I said, ‘Hey Soup, I need a favour from you.’ And he says, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘I’m covering the game tomorrow for Opening Day, you know, for this network, it’s my first job, and I’d like to get an interview from you, but I realise you don’t do it tomorrow on your Opening Day, so maybe we could do it today.’

“And he put an arm around me and said, ‘Hey, listen. You’re a friend and a former teammate. Show up tomorrow at 10:30 in the clubhouse, here, and you and I will go underneath the stands and I’ll give you my comments on Opening Day.’ And he did that, and I was able to broadcast it.”

Denehy pauses a quick moment before finishing his thought. “That’s how much I think of that man,” he says. “I’m very sorry to hear about his illness.”