On self-appointed Yankee security censors

Yankee Stadium

Yankee fans let the Astros have it Tuesday night. Did stadium security eject some protesting fans under false pretenses?

The worst kept secret in baseball opening this week was Yankee fans liable to let the visiting Astros have it, but good, when they visited Yankee Stadium for the first time since the 2019 American League Championship Series. The second-worst thing about that worst-kept secret was Yankee Stadium censorship.

The first-worst thing was this not-so-little red flag raised in the account by Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein, about a fan costumed like Oscar the Grouch in a trash can, and who only thought he’d gotten assurance from stadium personnel that there’d be no issue with him wearing it at Tuesday’s game:

When [David Taub] arrived wearing the costume and carrying a sign reading YOU AIN’T STEALING THIS COSTUME TRASHTROS, he drew laughs and cameras. Unfortunately, he also drew attention from security. “Our policy changed,” he said the guard told him. He said the guard added that the Astros had complained to MLB about fans in other cities, and MLB had told the Yankees to tighten their rules. (Officials from the Astros and the commissioner’s office said they were unaware of any such complaints or directives.)

Censorship at Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly virgin territory. Ask any frustrated Yankee fan present in the 1980s who had an anti-Boss placard or sheet banner confiscated under George Steinbrenner’s orders. Or, such frustrated Yankee fans who had their placards and banners confiscated before they were ejected from the stadium themselves.

Ask especially the Yankee fan who won a Banner Day contest by wearing the garb of a monk and carrying a Grim Reaper’s scepter from the scythe of which hung a large placard pleading, “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does.”

If Yankee Stadium personnel purging David Taub for a non-destructive demonstration against Astrogate and its most questionable net result (no players disciplined in return for spilling about the scheme) is bad enough, what would you suggest we call the possibility that stadium security lied through their teeth while censoring him and other fans?

“I hope the Yankees fans smell blood tonight,” Taub told a reporter. “I hope we don’t do anything irresponsible, but I hope we give our shares of boos and let them hear it. We definitely got robbed of a World Series. There’s no question about that.”

Other fans brought inflatable trash cans to the park, similar to the one that fell onto the right field warning track at Angel Stadium when the Astros played a set there last month. Two of them were confiscated by stadium security, too.

Apparently, Astros manager Dusty Baker is a little more sanguine and a lot less censorious about the reception he knows his team can expect when they’re on the road this year. “It sounded like a packed house tonight even though it wasn’t,” he told reporters after the Yankees trashed the Astros, 7-3. “We kind of expected that reception. We’ll probably get more of that tomorrow and the next day.”

“I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that,” said Yankee outfielder Giancarlo Stanton of the fans’ night-long booing, catcalling, and occasional swearing (F– Altuve! F–Altuve!) after the game. “They brought some heavy.” (And, a lot of funny, including a placard depicting Altuve the Grouch in a somewhat battered metal trash can.)

Stadium security brought heavier. This was a look no better than that ancient Banner Day ejection.

Last year’s pan-damn-ically inspired, cutout-occupied stands kept legions of fans from letting the Astros know just how they felt about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s singular take on sign stealing. Unless they bought cutouts showing imagery against it, there was little they could do other than whoop, holler, and catcall if they saw the Astro team bus pulling up to the ballpark.

But fans are back at the ballparks now to whatever limited extent continuing safety protocols allow. Unless their racket includes true violence, or throwing debris on the field (as a few reckless Angel fans did throwing a real, not inflatable trash can onto the right field warning track), or attacking Astro players or personnel physically, Yankee Stadium’s security was way out of line.

Whether they like it or not, the right to protest comes with the purchase of a ticket. Fans can boo truly bad plays, truly bad plate appearances, truly bad umpiring to their hearts’ content. They can even boo visiting teams verified for all time as barely-apologetic illegal  high-tech cheaters.

Even if their own team got caught trying a little high-tech hijacking once upon a time? Not so fast. The Yankees got caught only with someone in the dugout using an AppleWatch to steal signs. They weren’t accused of or proven to have either a) altered an existing camera off its mandatory eight-second transmission delay, or b) installed another, illegal, real-time camera to steal signs.

Realistically, the Yankee fans made one mistake that everyone else continues to make. There are only five actual Astrogate team members left on this year’s edition: Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers. Chanting “Mother Tucker!” at hapless outfielder Kyle Tucker isn’t fair to a guy who wasn’t even there to be part of the 2017-18 can can.

Unfortunately, if it isn’t fair to hold the entire 2021 Astro roster responsible for what the 2017-18 edition did, it’s also unlikely that the Astros will be done hearing the protests until the last man standing from the Astrogate team doesn’t wear their uniform any longer.

Not every security force in every ballpark practises fan censorship at all. Never mind claiming the visiting team complained to baseball’s government and baseball’s government told the home team “to tighten their rules.” I suspect Apstein meant that to mean, “to quash the anti-Astrogate protests.”

The Astros have had enough bad looks since Astrogate’s exposure and official consequences. Would they really be stupid enough to compel baseball government to strong-arm road teams into censoring road fans bent on letting them have it over a script they and nobody else wrote in the first place?

It was one thing when the worst Yankee fans rained nasty upon Astros pitcher Zack Greinke during the 2019 ALCS—based on Greinke’s very well known battle with clinical depression. Those fans were ejected properly for assaulting a human being verbally over an illness for which he takes prescribed medication and through which he works and lives with courage his assailants probably lacked.

Ejecting fans protesting a team’s well-exposed and (in more ways than one) institutionalised cheating? That demands a formal MLB investigation. Post haste. No waiting. The Yankees themselves should have no issue with cooperating. If they do, they should be sanctioned heavily.

The House That Ruthless Built isn’t private property. The ballpark’s official ownership is listed as the New York Industrial Development Agency, a subsidiary of the city’s Economic Development Corporation whose board is appointed by the city’s mayor. Government or government-overseen agencies at any level, from the village up to the nation, have no business trucking with or allowing censorship.

If Yankee Stadium security people spoke out of line while confiscating Yankee fans’ properties and/or ejecting them from the stadium, because they took it upon themselves to neutralise or silence Astrogate protests, they need to be held accountable. Strictly.

Sixty springs later

Roger Maris, driving Babe Ruth to one side, 1 October 1961.

Met fans since the day they were born, among whom you’ll find me, may forget they had Roger Maris to thank for one-third of the Mets’ original broadcast team. When Maris teed off against future Met pitcher Jack Fisher to hit his 60th home run in 1961, nineteen thousand fans in Yankee Stadium were joined by one grandmotherly society matron listening at home over her radio.

Bob Murphy was behind the Orioles microphone to call the blast. Hearing Murphy call Maris tying ruthsrecord (yes, that’s really how they said it in 1961), Joan Payson invited him to join Lindsey Nelson and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner as the broadcast team for her embryonic Mets. Bless his soul, Maris may or may not have had a clue. It was probably the least important thought on his mind as that season wound to its finish.

Exactly sixty years ago, there was Maris in spring training, his first as the defending American League Most Valuable Player and his second as a Yankee. It may have been the simplest time of the season to come for the plainspoken right fielder who suffered few fools gladly and broke a revered sports record to earn the violent lash of the superstardom he never sought.

It took Maris eleven games and 42 plate appearances before he faced Tigers reliever Paul Foytack in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees holding a three-run lead, and hit one into Tiger Stadium’s right field seats.

If you want to get technical about it, let’s re-set Maris’s 1961 home run clock to begin with that 26 April game, and he broke ruthsrecord in two games less than a commissioner with a conflict of interest—and a New York sportswriter who ignored the conflict while offering as disgraceful an idea as baseball ever broached—proclaimed must be done for the new record to be “legitimate.” (Maris also needed five fewer plate appearances than Ruth did to hit number 60. Yes, you can look that one up, too.)

I grew up hearing the controversies and arguments around Maris even though I wasn’t a Yankee fan. Then and now, the Yankee fan’s sense of entitlement put me off. I respected what the team accomplished. I admired particular Yankees. (Not just Maris and Mickey Mantle but Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and pre-ruthsrecord manager Casey Stengel, whose final baseball act was managing the early, calamitous Mets.)

But we Met fans knew straight from the crib what too many non-Yankee fans knew for otherwise full lives. You’re entitled to nothing, no matter how deep in resources, no matter how broad in reach. Even the Almighty Yankees proved only human (every American League season from 1903-1920; 1923-25; 1929-31; 1940; 1944-46; 1948; 1954; 1959) in at least 31 seasons prior to Maris’s season in the broiling sun.

You’re certainly not “entitled” to break a revered sports record, either, though with different intentions that’s just about what then-commissioner Ford Frick and enough Yankee fans believed in 1961.

Frick would rather have been caught en flagrante indicto with Medusa than see the man for whom he once ghostwrote knocked out of the record book in any way, shape, or form. Dick Young—the longtime New York Daily News sports emperor, who would do his level best to help run Tom Seaver out of New York a decade and a half later—would rather have been caught likewise than fail to suggest the infamous asterisk that Frick had no power to impose* except in the public imagination, when he spoke of it on 17 July.

Yankee fans believed that, if Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record must fall in due course (and they couldn’t bear to utter those final three words), it was nothing less than Mickey Mantle’s birthright.

Because, you see, among other things, Mantle was the face of the Yankees and had been since just about the beginning of the Korean War, even if he wasn’t always beloved. Mantle’s pre-1961 was one of grand achievement and the concurrent sense—inadvertently provoked by Stengel, who always thought and said aloud that Mantle’s raw talent should have made him Superman (Can you imagine what John McGraw would have said if he could have seen this kid? Stengel once mused)—that he wasn’t quite great enough, and the fans let him know it.

But in 1961, Mantle could and did tell reporters at last, “It’s a new feeling and it’s nice. Those fans, they’ve changed.” By mid-summer, abetted by Frick, Young, and others, they’d had a new Yankee to despise. To them, Mantle earned his stripes. He was a “true Yankee,” born and bred.

Who was this interloper from the Kansas City Athletics (from whom Maris was traded near the end of 1959) and where did he get off horning in on Mantle’s entitlement? Maris had the inadvertent effect of making Mantle as beloved at last as he’d always been impossible to miss.

Even Maris’s particular hitting style became part of the outrage. He didn’t hit the Ruthian or Mantlesque parabola. He had in common with Ruth being a powerful lefthanded pull hitter but the similarity ended there. Maris’s specialty was the booming line drive, not the outrageous ICBM, made to order for reaching the Yankee Stadium short right field porch that was built on behalf of Ruth in the first place.

(The porch didn’t quite do Maris so many favours in 1961. Yes, you can look it up: Maris hit one more bomb on the road than at home.)

You almost didn’t want to know what those people would have thought if any one of such concurrent baseball bombardiers not in Yankee pinstripes—Henry Aaron, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews, Jim Gentile, Frank Howard, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson—had smashed ruthsrecord. Which was set in the first place by the “true Yankee” who became a Yankee in the first place following a controversial purchase from the Red Sox.

I don’t know if Maris actually said, commiserating with Mantle in a hotel conversation on the road, “Why can’t they have room for two heroes?” as portrayed in Billy Crystal’s film about the 1961 ruthsrecord chase, 61*. It would have been a very valid question if he had.

But we do know that another long-time myth has long been debunked: Mantle and Maris weren’t exactly mortal enemies, either. “Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate,” wrote Mickey and Willie author Allen Barra in The Atlantic, “and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed.”

After ten seasons of making his bones and coming to terms with New York’s somewhat capricious sports press, Mantle learned how to be glib and let his own wit (mulcted by his odd-couple, Astoria Queens-bred running mate Whitey Ford) join his matinee-idol looks to make him a media star. “Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient,” Thomas Boswell wrote, upon Maris’s death. (First in the Washington Post; it was republished in his 1989 anthology The Heart of the Order.)

With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At twenty-six, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reculsive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he’s painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

The idea of cultivating and managing fame existed long before Maris began taking his swings at ruthsrecord and cringing at the idea that he’d become any kind of star.

Ruth himself mastered the earliest art of public relations, even if it was as much self-preservation as anything else. (The Babe wasn’t exactly a model citizen, something today’s fans fuming over athlete malfeasance forget or ignore.) Mantle learned how to accommodate it. Until his early off-field San Francisco experiences seared him, Willie Mays all but basked in it.

When another Daily News writer, Joe Trimble, broke the ice and asked Maris in June 1961 (when he had 27 home runs already) whether he could break ruthsrecord, Maris answered, “How should I know?” It was a blunt, honest answer. Exactly the answer even those who’d rather have had a castor oil cocktail than see ruthsrecord fall didn’t want to hear.

Maris had at least one fan who didn’t mind him breaking ruthsrecord—in the White House.

Aaron would experience far different, far more grotesque furies when he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list. Maris in all fairness didn’t require the FBI’s attention over the kind of hate mail he received in 1961. The racists came out in force to try driving Aaron off the course. The merely brain-damaged tried with Maris.

The product of a difficult childhood himself (his parents’ marriage was described most politely as “turbulent”; they divorced a year before the ruthsrecord chase), Maris found one way to relieve some of the pressure: he started refusing to answer non-family mail unless it came from children.

With his own children, Maris did his best to be the father his own parents’ incendiary marriage often denied him. His trade to the Yankees from Kansas City meant longer separation from his young family because he didn’t want to uproot them. (The family eventually moved to Florida.)

Saying so honestly didn’t exactly endear him to Yankee fans, either. To his teammates, and numerous sources back it up, Maris was straight, no chaser, more articulate and accommodating with those he considered friends. “He had been burned too often,” Peter Golenbock wrote in Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, “to trust any strangers.”

“I was extremely proud of my father, in every way,” his oldest child, Susan, told a reporter fifty years after the chase heard ’round the world. She remembered the man who was away a little too often for comfort but who did his best to make life special for his children when he was home. “He was a good ballplayer, a great man, a great father . . . The ’61 season meant more to me in later life.”

It was a stricken child who inadvertently provoked one of Maris’s uglier mishaps that season, one that was interpreted vividly but with too much missing in 61*. The film showed New York Post reporter Milt Gross (named Milt Kahn in the film) bawling out Yankee PR leader Bob Fishel over Maris standing him up for a promised interview and, for once, showing Maris little of the empathy he’d been one of the only reporters to show that season.

Mantle’s best biographer, Jane Leavy, uncovered the actuality: Maris spent the morning of Game 154 visiting the son of a former teammate, a boy dying of cancer. Doing so meant standing up Gross. The furious Gross ripped Maris a few new ones in the next day’s editions; the boy died two days after the rip job.

Mantle dropped out of the home run chase after a “vitamin” shot from a doctor named Max Jacobson left him with a hip abscess that ended his regular season days before Maris broke ruthsrecord. (Jacobson would be run out of the medical profession in 1972, after The New York Times exposed his dubious at best drug-making practises.)

After Maris hit the big one at last, he and his wife, Pat, went to a Roman Catholic mass—and walked out within minutes, when the priest told the congregation Maris was there. From there, they visited Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital and then went to dinner with Maris’s friend Julius Isaacson. And, with Gross, burying the hatchet over the Baltimore snub.

“A little girl approached their table [Leavy wrote] to ask Maris for an autograph.”

“Would you put the date on it too, please?” she asked.

“The date?” Maris asked. “What is today’s date?”

“The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did,” Big Julie replied.

From 1960-1962, Maris played like a Hall of Famer, even if the numbers raw and deep even suggest Mantle and not Maris should have been named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. In 1963 began the injuries that would sap Maris’s line drive power and reduce him to a journeyman-level player who’d finally find some baseball peace (plus two more pennants and another World Series ring) when he was traded to the Cardinals for 1967.

After two seasons in St. Louis, where he was long past his prime power seasons but still a study in right field (he’d retire with 39 defensive runs saved above his league average and had only two seasons that showed him a run or two below the average), Maris retired to Florida and a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship until his death of lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

The injuries ruined his chances of making a full Hall of Fame case. The insanity battering him regularly in 1961 kept him from consistent pleasure in breaking baseball’s most revered single-season record. Nobody really stopped to ponder the raw guts it took for Maris to survive long enough—and he had moments enough where he wanted to surrender—to hit Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard’s fastball into the right field seats.

When Golenbock actually got Maris to talk for Dynasty, outside a club where he was enjoying drinks with his old teammate and longtime friend Clete Boyer, a woman asked Boyer to pose for a photo. Boyer assented gladly and invited Maris to join them. “Do you know who Roger is?” Boyer asked the lady. When she said she never heard of Maris, Maris replied with a smile, “That’s just the way I like it.”

“Heaven protect us,” Boswell wrote, “from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve . . . Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn’t that the moral of Roger Maris’s career?”

His career, not his life.

—————————————

* (pun intended) From Allen Barra:

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick’s denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us in his book that “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” Since practically no one read Frick’s book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.

When Billy Crystal made 61*, the final scene shows an overhead shot of Maris (portrayed by Barry Pepper, whose physical resemblance to Maris remains astonishing) hitting the Big One out, then fading with Red Sox catcher Russ Nixon and home plate umpire Bill Kinnamon (actors uncredited) into slow invisibility.

Over it, near-eternal Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard—immortalised by Reggie Jackson as “the voice of God”—referenced Vincent’s statement before finishing: “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged to him.”

Phil Niekro, RIP: Great pitcher, better friend

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, pitching for the Braves in Wrigley Field.

When Lou Piniella first managed the Yankees in 1986, he was handed an order in spring training that he didn’t want to obey. Owner George Steinbrenner convened a meeting of Piniella and his coaches plus others in the Yankee high command to discuss final roster cuts.

The name Phil Niekro came up. The vote was 11-1 in favour of keeping Niekro, who’d electrified both the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays fans when he landed his 300th career pitching win with a season-ending, 8-0, complete game shutout in October 1985. The only thing amiss was Niekro not landing it for the Braves with whom he’d been a fixture for two decades.

Then The Boss asked his son, Hank, “What do you say?” The younger Steinbrenner might as well have said, “Off with his head,” because his father said, “I agree. That makes the vote 12-11.” Rather conveniently handing himself ten votes. As he would in due course arguing with many an umpire, Piniella exploded.

“What are you even bothering to ask our opinion for? You know what you’re gonna do anyway.” Then Piniella made the long walk to the spring clubhouse, called Niekro in, and told him with the utmost reluctance that he was being released.

“Piniella’s anger over having to release Niekro was understandable,” wrote Bill Madden and Moss Klein in Damned Yankees, from whence the story of the execution springs. “There was no finer person to pass through the Yankees in the ’77-to-’89 period than ‘Father Time’.” (The writers covering the Yankees referred to Niekro that way, affectionately.)

The amiable Ohioan with the knuckleball that inspired some of baseball’s finest wisecracks, and the personality and presence that made you feel he was liable to invite you to a barbeque at any moment, lost a battle against cancer at 81 on Saturday night.

That makes it seven Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields this cursed year, including one hell of a pitching rotation if you think about it. Niekro, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, and Tom Seaver. How many pennants could you win if your rotation was Knucksie, the Chairman of the Board, Hoot, and The Franchise?

The seven set a record they’d surely rather not have set. Their deaths made 2020 a record year for Hall of Fame passings. If the Modern Era Committee elects the late Dick Allen when it meets in 2021, it’ll make for eight. (Allen died earlier this month.) Not nice.

I couldn’t resist looking it up and then imagining Allen giving Niekro a little good-natured grief upon their Elysian reunion. Allen faced Niekro 65 times, picked up nine hits including a double and a home run, walked nine times, but struck out fourteen times. Making the slash line .161/.277/.268.

“Trying to hit Phil Niekro,” Bobby Murcer once said, “is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”  “It actually giggles at you as it goes by,” said another outfielder, Rick Monday, which may have been more appropriate considering Niekro’s birth on April Fool’s Day in 1939. Said longtime catcher Bob Boone, who only ever had to try hitting the Niekro knuckler, “There were times I needed a tennis racquet to hit him.”

Trying to catch Niekro’s signature pitch may have made trying to hit it child’s play. “Catching Niekro’s knuckleball was great,” cracked Bob Uecker, Niekro’s flaky Atlanta Braves catcher. “I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sat behind home plate.”

Dale Murphy started his major league career as a catcher before he moved to the outfield. As a rookie behind the plate he had the signature honour of catching what threatened to be a no-hitter by Niekro against the Big Red Machine, until Cesar Geronimo managed to float a shuttlecock into left in the ninth.

“We had one out in the ninth, and I mean, I was scared to death,” said Murphy to The Athletic’s David O’Brien. “I mean, I’m trying to keep that ball in front of me. I don’t know what I’m calling. He had said, ‘Just give me a knuckleball sign every pitch; I’ll shake you off if I don’t want to throw it.’ And we ended up with a no-hitter until one out in the ninth, and then Geronimo dunked one in, just flared one over [Jerry] Royster’s head at third base.”

Rarely at a loss, Niekro once remembered Uecker giving him sound counsel early in his Braves career. “Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner,” Knucksie once said, “to throw the knuckleball at all times and he would try to catch it. I led the league in ERA and he led the league in passed balls.” That would have been 1967, when Niekro led the entire Show with a Koufaxian 1.87 ERA and wasn’t even a topic in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Throwing a pitch that places minimal strain at worst on the arm and shoulder, Niekro pitched major league baseball from Lyndon Johnson’s through Ronald Reagan’s presidencies, until he was 48 and the Braves—surely in tribute to the man as well as the pitcher—brought him back to let him suit up for one more start before he finally retired.

The un-straining knuckleball allowed Niekro to pitch 5,404 major league innings. The only pitchers who threw more were Hall of Famers Cy Young, Pud Galvin, and Walter Johnson. No pitcher since the dead ball era spent as much time as Niekro did on a major league mound. No knuckleballer struck out as many as Niekro’s 3,342.

Yet there was always the sense that, no matter how good and successful he was, no matter how he endured pitching long and well for teams that weren’t always as good as he was, Niekro was baseball’s Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect, because he threw a pitch that was tough to master but still seen somehow as a gimmick. “Niekro wasn’t looking to master it,” says another Athletic writer, Joe Posnanski. “It was more like he and the knuckleball were friends.”

“I’ll tell you,” Niekro once told an interviewer, “I’ve been asked that question lots of times, you know, why does a knuckleball does what it does, and what makes it do it, and I have no idea.” It was also more like Niekro and baseball were kindred. The kid from Ohio whose coal-mining father taught the knuckleball to him and his late younger brother, Joe, really did seem as though you’d have to tear the uniform off him at last.

Phil Niekro chatting with Braves fans at a Hall of Fame event. (National Baseball Hall of Fame photo.)

“Warren Spahn will never get into the Hall of Fame,” Stan Musial once cracked. “He won’t stop pitching.” Spahn threw his last major league pitch four years younger and 160 innings short of Niekro’s final jacket.

As a 1964 rookie Niekro’s teammates included Spahn. When he got his wish to throw his last major league pitch as a Brave, his teammates included a rookie lefthander bound for Cooperstown likewise. Tom Glavine joked to O’Brien that he saw Niekro and thought for one moment he’d mixed up his own schedule and arrived at a fantasy camp.

Glavine was only kidding. “It was fun to watch. I mean, look, we all knew Knucksie and what he was and how much he loved being a Brave,” he told O’Brien.

That was a big deal for him to be able to end his career as a Brave. At the time I may not have understood it, but getting to know Knucksie as I did in the years after that, and certainly these last few years in the Hall of Fame, I understand why it was important to him. It was a neat thing to be able to watch him go out there and do that, and kind of have that closure.

Many players following the greats on their teams call them mentors. Niekro didn’t just make disciples, he made friends.

You were a great example for what athletes should aspire to be,” tweeted former Braves infielder Brian Jordan. “Phil had a huge heart to bring joy to others. He cared so much for kids and had a fantastic foundation. Continue to bring the joy in heaven my friend.”

[H]eartbroken!” tweeted incumbent Braves first baseman and National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman. “An amazing pitcher but an even better man! Thank you Phil for all the laughs and wonderful memories over the years!”

“Phil was a man with a perpetual smile and always overflowing with jokes and nice things to say,” wrote pitcher Mike Soroka on his Instagram page. “I will miss seeing him around the stadium as well as getting calls from him after games.”

“[I]n a world where athletes, celebrity, however you want to deem it, there’s always going to be somebody that just doesn’t like you,” Glavine said. “And I never heard anybody say anything like that about Knucksie. And the people who were privileged to know him — I mean, really know him — understand why.”

Niekro’s affection for younger players didn’t stop with the Show. From 1994-1997 he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an exhibition team of young women baseball players who toured the United States playing against men’s amateur and semi-professional players. Niekro brought several former Showmen—including his knuckleballing brother Joe plus Al Bumbry, Johnny Grubb, and Joe Pignatano—to the coaching corps.

The Silver Bullets folded in 1997, after the Coors breweries ended their sponsorship of the team, but their skipper gave them their due when—with most of the Bullets present—he saluted them during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Phil Niekro, not long after the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. (Atlanta Braves photo.)

Niekro also served on the board of directors of Kiz Toys, a Georgia toymaker whom Niekro advised closely on the making and selling of its KizSport line of baseball toys and equipment. He also hosted an annual Ohio Valley golf tournament that raised funds for the high school for whom he pitched, Bridgeport High School. He lost only once as a high school pitcher—when a kid from Tiltonsville High named Bill Mazeroski hit one out.

Eons ago, Braves manager Brian Snitker caught a spring training bullpen session for Niekro. Snitker never got anywhere near the Show as a player but he made a lifelong friend in the genial knuckleballer. He told O’Brien Niekro’s least favourite topic of conversation was his health or himself.

“He’d never let on if anything was bad, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “He’d always call, and I’d always tell the guys, the coaches and everybody, ‘Knucksie’s calling and just checking on everybody.’ I said there wasn’t a bigger Braves fan in the world than Phil Niekro . . . Knucksie, he was a big fan of them guys (the current players) and us and everybody. He was an awesome, awesome man. I’ve never seen a guy that sucked the life out of every day like that guy did.”

Niekro’s reputation for geniality even extended to fans. Stories abound of Niekro meeting fans at the ballpark, at various team events, and even away from the park, and talking to them as if they were his long-lost friends.

The coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on Niekro’s presence with the Braves this year, but it didn’t keep him isolated entirely. Snitker said Niekro would call him every few days to check in on him and the team. Previously, Niekro would bring his wife, Nancy, and their grandchildren to the Braves’ facilities where he’d also pitch batting practise. “If you needed help,” Snitker said, “all you’d have to do is call, and Knucksie would be there, loving it.”

Niekro thought himself a caretaker of a game that belonged to everyone beyond those who play and administer it. “This is America. America is baseball,” he said during his Hall induction speech, pointing to the Cooperstown crowd as the only player inducted in 1997. “This game is owned and it belongs to you. The fan. Cherish it and take care of it.”

Nancy Niekro was a young flight attendant when she first caught her husband’s eye, while he boarded his first flight as a member of the Braves organisation. Niekro told a teammate that so help him he’d marry her soon enough.

He did. They raised three sons together, and became grandparents twice. She, their sons, and their grandchildren lost something even more precious than baseball lost, when Niekro died in his sleep Saturday night. It was as gentle a passing as you could ask for a cancer-stricken man who made life a playground. Surely the Lord welcomed home not just a great pitcher but a better friend.

One more grip of Jim Bouton

Wasn’t it true, Don Vito Corleone wondered while commiserating with a fellow Mafia chief in The Godfather (the novel, not the film), that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward? It proved to be for the late pitcher/writer Jim Bouton, whose sometimes deceptive but nearly-incurable optimism was finally smashed when his youngest child was killed in August 1997.

Driving home in New Jersey, Laurie Bouton stopped short to stay out of an accident in front of her, but a driver behind her didn’t do likewise, smashing into her car. The 31-year-old an uncle described as “Jim all over again” for her free spirit died hours later. It destroyed Bouton’s generally sunny view of life—until it reconciled him to the New York Yankees.

In fact, as biographer Mitchell Nathanson also notes in Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Bouton struggled for months to follow until Laurie’s oldest brother, Michael, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the Yankees to do what had never yet been done and invite his father back for an Old Timers Day. (Father once revealed his son’s essay moved him to tears.)

What nobody including Bouton knew was that his decades-long blackballing from the Yankees—for whom he once starred as a pitcher, before his too-hard throwing style ruined his arm and shoulder, reducing him to the margins and back to a knuckleball he abandoned earlier in his career—had absolutely nothing to do with Bouton’s own longtime prime suspect.

Mickey Mantle was hardly thrilled at Bouton’s Ball Four revelations about him, but six years before Laurie’s death the death of one of Mantle’s sons provoked a sympathy letter from Bouton. That prompted Mantle to call his old teammate to say yes, he was ok with Ball Four at last and, no, he wasn’t the reason for Bouton’s Old Timers Day freeze-outs.

The freeze-outs turned out to be courtesy of former Newark Star-Ledger writer Jim Ogle, whom Bouton zinged in Ball Four for treating players “purely on how much they were helping the Yankees to win. Charm, personality, intelligence—nothing counted. Only winning. Ogle didn’t have even the pretense of objectivity . . . in fact, Ogle’s ambition was to work for the Yankees. But they would never give him a job.”

Until they did. The Yankees hired Ogle to direct their club alumni association in 1975, his duties including, as Nathanson writes, “keeping the Yankees in the good graces of their most iconic alumni and organizing Old Timers Days. In his mind both responsibilities could be best discharged by blackballing Jim Bouton.”

Nathanson’s book unfurls Bouton’s story with both affection and the kind of candor Bouton himself would have appreciated. (And in fact insisted upon, when he and his wife agreed to let Nathanson have access to everything from family doings and undoings to the still-preserved Ball Four notes and tapes that ended up sold to the Library of Congress during Bouton’s final illness.)

It’s the story of an intelligent and sensitive young man who didn’t become a pitcher because he looked to turn sacred cows into steak or to write the book that secured his name and sent baseball and about half the world of sports journalism to the rye bottle, either.

Nathanson’s Bouton is a pitcher who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience to heed, with no malice aforethought but flying in the face of an establishment unwilling to concede the great and glorious game (A. Bartlett Giamatti’s phrase) was only too human. He couldn’t deny the caprices he saw in front of him, whether front office people engaging one-sided, lopsided, deceitful contract talks with players to players themselves proving unheroic often enough while letting the fans in the stands or with their morning after newspapers worship them as gods.

The fun-loving Bouton loved the game but hated its business and duplicities. The longer his pitching career went despite the arm issues, the less Bouton could turn the blind eye. Unlike most players even then, Bouton talked freely when interviewed and didn’t try to hide the sides of him that were unlike the typical jock of his time. Some respected him for it, others rejected him for it.

When his established sportswriting friend Leonard Shecter suggested he keep a kind of running diary on his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, Bouton revealed he’d already begun taking notes. Anyone could do it regarding the old imperial Yankees; who else would have thought about doing it among an expansion team of fellow outcasts just trying to keep their jobs and their sanity?

Many Bouton teammates weren’t sympathetic to his final product. The embarrassments of some kept them from seeing that Bouton humanised them and thus elevated them. He was as observant of their field or mound struggles as their off-field shenanigans, sorrows, and oft-ignored or mistreated injuries. He told the world these were human men when it seemed often enough that baseball ignored or denied their humanness.

Bouton had already stepped beyond the bounds of baseball’s proprieties before starting his Ball Four season. He’d supported publicly a threatened American boycott of the 1968 summer Olympics if South Africa’s then whites-only teams were allowed to compete. He spoke against the Vietnam War whenever asked.

Bouton’s original notes, tapes, and the pages shaped by his editor/friend Leonard Shecter for Ball Four now repose in the Library of Congress.

But with Ball Four he was considered either a revelator by those who loved the book or a traitor by those including then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who tried to suppress it. (Or, in the case of the San Diego Padres, leaving a burned copy of it on the Astros’ dugout steps.) It was enough to seed a followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the controversy, his final pitching days before his first retirement, and his early days as a New York sports reporter.

That book wasn’t quite the hit Ball Four was, of course, but it offered a few more insights into what Bouton thought and felt about becoming an unexpected literary star. Not to mention his further thoughts on the real reason the old guard sportswriters resented him: he’d told the stories they thought they should have told but, for assorted and not always edifying reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Some saw themselves as keepers of the proverbial baseball flame. Others saw themselves as club adjuncts. Jim Brosnan, whose from-the-inside books Nathanson called “tell-some” books, had annoyed them enough. This was too much of enough already.

But Ball Four proved in due course as significant as any other evidence, when it was introduced at the arbitration hearings through which pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what outfielder Curt Flood’s brave but failed prior lawsuit (begun the same year in which Ball Four first appeared) started, ending the reserve era and its suppressions of player pay and rights. Well after its literary stature was affirmed.

The book inspired a rash of further tell-alls from baseball’s insides, from players and collaborators who lacked Bouton’s wit and Shecter’s sensibilities. They hardly understood  that Ball Four‘s success lay as much in Bouton’s ability to show baseball’s humanness as in the, shall we say, steamy revelations on which those subsequent books leaned most heavily. (“More outrageous than Ball Four” was a tellingly typical cover blurb.)

Nathanson goes into fine detail Bouton’s years as a sports reporter, his head-buttings with those who thought sports reporting equaled promoting their teams instead of, you know, real reporting. He also goes deeper into the truest conflict inside Bouton’s psyche and life—the guy who achieved beyond his own expectations but couldn’t resist a challenge because he had something to prove past the challenge itself.

His love of baseball the game prompted him toward a comeback bid in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a spell with the minor league legend Portland Mavericks. He eventually made it back with the Atlanta Braves for a September 1978 spell—he once went mano-a-mano with Houston’s ill-fated howitzer J.R. Richard, pitching him to a draw—then walked away feeling for the first time that he didn’t have to prove a thing anymore.

His first baseball retirement led to the crumpling of his first marriage; Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, had simply grown apart, though Bouton wasn’t immune to the occasional extracurricular activity, with the emphasis on occasional. (They divorced in 1981.) He didn’t really move to do something about it, though, until he met an attractive academic named Paula Kurman unexpectedly at a fundraiser to which both were invited.

Jim Bouton and second wife Paula Kurman, at a Ball Four retrospective.

It was Kurman (a speech therapist with Ph.d in interpersonal communications) who showed Bouton most of all what even his own family couldn’t, that he no longer had to take up quixotic challenges to prove himself to himself. The deception in his optimism until then was that it masked a man who had a difficult if not sometimes impossible time believing in his own worthiness. They married in 1982.

Bouton promoted Big League Chew (his Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson came up with the idea but Bouton sold and promoted it to buyer Wrigley), became a motivational speaker, helped to renovate an old but somewhat storied minor league ballpark, joined his wife learning and becoming a competitive ballroom dancer, continued writing, and eventually also became a stonemason who’d build walls and other supplementing fixtures for their home in the Berkshires.

In other words, this unfairly reputed miserable smasher of icons for its own sake was as normal, life-affirming, and human a man as his critics didn’t or couldn’t see. (Well, not everyone gets dance lessons from stage and film legend Marge Champion.) That 1978 Old Timers Day appearance simply began Bouton’s return from the ranks of the living dead into which his daughter’s senseless death plunged him.

“Looking up in the stands, at all of the family and friends who were there . . . ,” Nathanson writes (they included a contingent of friends bannering themselves “Laurie’s Girls!”), “[Bouton] understood that life could and would go on. It was what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it most.”

The only thing that could and did knock Bouton out permanently enough was the 2012 stroke he suffered on the fifteenth anniversary of Laurie Bouton’s death. It exposed a condition of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and presented him the first and only challenge he couldn’t take on as successfully as he had others. It didn’t rob his intelligence, but his intelligence made him too aware of what he’d lose.

The most famous single line in Ball Four is the one that closed it: “You see, you spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.” On the day of Bouton’s death in 2019, his ability to speak gone, “in the netherworld between life and death,” his wife put a baseball into his right hand.

In his final act of life on earth, Bouton did with that ball what Nathanson’s biography will do to you once you open the covers and start reading. He gripped it tight.

Kim Ng, inside the box

Kim Ng (right) with Don Mattingly, when Mattingly managed the Dodgers and Ng was their assistant GM. Ng is now, among other things, Mattingly’s new boss in Miami.

Whatever you do otherwise, please don’t call Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins’ new general manager “outside the box” thinking. It’s an insult to hers and the Marlins’ intelligence, and it should be to anyone else’s, too.

Yes, Ng is the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold such a job. But yes, she also has three decades worth of experience in baseball operations which only began when she joined the White Sox as a front office intern and worked her way to becoming the team’s assistant director for baseball operations.

The Marlins hired her away from baseball government itself, where Ng just finished her ninth year as the Show’s senior vice president for baseball operations, focused specifically on tightening up and administering MLB’s international baseball reach and operations, working with MLB front offices and international organisations alike, and enforcing international signing rules.

In between her term with the White Sox and in the Show’s government, Ng became the youngest assistant GM (at 29) ever when she took that job with the Yankees, then joined the Dodgers as an assistant GM, her performances of which jobs plus her performance in MLB’s organisation itself put her on several team radars as a GM to be.

Outside the box? Ng is about as inside the baseball box as you can get with her experience and reputation. The only thing outside the box about her is that, well, she’s a lady, and she’s the daughter of a Chinese American father who worked as a financial analyst and a Chinese Thai mother who worked as a banker.

She’s Indianapolis born but New York raised, and she grew up among other things playing stickball on the Queens streets before going to the University of Chicago, earning a degree in public policy, and, oh yes, winning a Most Valuable Player award as an infielder on the university’s softball team.

“[I]t is the honor of my career to lead the Miami Marlins as their next General Manager,” Ng says in a formal statement. “We are building for the long term in South Florida, developing a forward-thinking, collaborative, creative baseball operation made up of incredibly talented and dedicated staff who have, over the last few years, laid a great foundation for success.”

When was the last time you heard terms like “forward-thinking” or “collaborative” or “creative baseball operation” applied to the Marlins? OK, so that might be outside-the-box—the Marlins’ box, that is.

“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly,” she continues. “When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a Major League team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals. My goal is now to bring championship baseball to Miami. I am both humbled and eager to continue building the winning culture our fans expect and deserve.”

It’s a recent enough expectation, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself to gags now that manager Don Mattingly was named the National League’s Manager of the Year for shepherding the Fish to a second-place irregular season finish in the National League East and as far as a division series in the postseason.

Ng has knocked on history’s door more than a few times in her career. With the White Sox, she was the first woman and youngest human to present and win a salary arbitration case, for pitcher Alex Fernandez. When the Yankees hired her as an assistant GM, Ng became one of only four women ever to hold the position, joining Elaine Weddington Steward and Raquel Ferreira of the Red Sox and fellow Yankee Jean Afterman.

She started showing up on team radars as GM material in 2005, when the Dodgers interviewed her. They handed the GM job to Ned Colletti, but Colletti almost immediately kept her as an assistant GM. She’s since been interviewed for such jobs by the Angels, the Giants, the Mariners, and the Padres.

When she left the Dodgers to take her MLB job, there were those pondering aloud whether Ng had a chance to become the first woman ever named as baseball commissioner. So much for that idea, so far. She’s content to have gotten where she is now. But would you really object to the idea down the road apiece?

Ng won’t exactly be wading into virgin territory with the Marlins. Chief executive officer Derek Jeter was en route his Hall of Fame career as a Yankee shortstop while Ng worked in their front office. Mattingly’s playing career ended a few years before the Yankees made her an assistant GM, but he was a coach for them while she was there. And, he managed the Dodgers while Ng was still their assistant GM.

Jeter’s own formal statement cites Ng’s “wealth of knowledge and championship-level experience.” The Yankees won three straight World Series while she worked there; the Dodgers challenged for or won a few NL Wests while she worked in their front-office brain pool. As a front-office executive Ng has gone to eight postseasons total.

“Her leadership of our baseball operations team will play a major role on our path toward sustained success,” Jeter continues. “Additionally, her extensive work in expanding youth baseball and softball initiatives will enhance our efforts to grow the game among our local youth as we continue to make a positive impact on the South Florida community.”

The lady is a champ who just might deliver when it comes to making the Marlins champs. Just don’t accuse the Fish of going that far outside the box by hiring her in the first place.