If cheaters don’t belong in Cooperstown . . .

Babe Ruth

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

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

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

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

Is everybody ready? Let’s play ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaylord Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The more things change . . .

2019-09-05 JimmieFoxxFrankieFrisch

Generational debates on player “toughness” and baseball conditions didn’t end with Jimmie Foxx (left), Frankie Frisch, and a group of fellow Hall of Famers in 1954. They won’t end ever, really.

“Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

If I gave you that quote without attribution, you’d think it came from one of today’s old-school fans or analysts who think, erroneously, that baseball today lacks “toughness.” But it doesn’t come from one of today’s grumps. It comes from Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. And he said it to Sports Illustrated in 1954.

A present-day SI writer, Jon Tayler, exhumes it for a kind of state-of-the-game address. And it might be fun to look at what the other Hall of Famers still alive in 1954 said about the state of the game then. The title of that piece: “Are Today’s Baseball Players Sissies Compared to The Old Timers?” You may or may not be surprised at who said what.

“Baseball is a more aggressive game today,” said outfielder Paul (Big Poison) Waner, answering clearly in the negative. “The players can’t let up a bit. In my day we could. Today the pitcher has to throw hard to every man in the line-up. That’s the reason for so many substitutions. There are many more home-run hitters playing today. And there are cracker-jack fielders.”

Waner should only have been able to see the kind of hard throwing that was yet to come. In 1954, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were playing basketball on college scholarships (Koufax at the University of Cincinnati, Gibson at Creighton University), Sudden Sam McDowell was in middle or junior high school, minor league legend Steve Dalkowski was still in high school, and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were still in grade school.

Rogers Hornsby (second baseman), who wasn’t exactly baseball’s Mr. Congeniality (when he was canned as the St. Louis Browns’s manager in 1952, Browns players led by pitcher Ned Garver presented owner Bill Veeck with an engraved trophy), answered the headline in the affirmative. Feel like a little wager that without knowing it was Hornsby this could have been said by Goose Gossage?

“[I]t’s the fault of the managers, not the players,” Hornsby said. “They change men too often. A pitcher will be removed for one bad pitch. A left-handed batter will be removed for a right-hander, for the percentage. Would they ever have taken out Cobb, Speaker, Wagner or Frisch?”

You wonder if Hornsby wasn’t taking a jab at Casey Stengel, a product of the John McGraw school when all was said and done, but who made a dark and successful art out of changing men, playing percentages, manipulating relief pitching—and kicking the American League’s ass for most of a decade plus while he was at it—during the era Hornsby lamented.

Al Simmons (outfielder) demurred from Hornsby’s assessment. “It was soft for us,” said Bucketfoot Al. “We had no Sunday games. Besides double-headers, today’s players have to play day, night and Sunday baseball.” The doubleheader today is the exception, not the rule, but players in 2019 also have to play night, Sunday, and day baseball. Often while traveling from one coast to the other or north to south.

I bet you think the following remark could be said by any reporter, columnist, or analyst today: “Many of the players today are fully as good as most of the old-timers. But comparisons are difficult to make. One of Ty Cobb’s great assets was base-stealing; in the 1915 season he stole 96 bases . . . With the rabbit ball today, why risk an out? It’s better to wait for the long hit.”

And I bet you’re wrong. That was actually Carl Hubbell, he who wore the silks of the New York Giants while striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bucketfoot Al, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game. And Hubbell had a point if you consider it to be that there were (and still are) those who considered 1950s baseball, which some of today’s old schoolers still think was the game’s Golden Age, to be too little more than a big power game. (In 1954, Little Looie Aparicio was just about to start the real return of the stolen base.)

To the question in the 1954 headline Cy Young (there’s a pitching award named in his honour, I think, wink wink) said, “Yes. They can’t take it. I’ve seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It’s the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month.”

I don’t suppose it crossed Young’s mind that in the dead ball era pitchers such as himself weren’t oriented or taught all that much to try throwing the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves, or that dead-ball pitching’s number one orientation was inducing contact, the more the better, and that the lack of power pitchers in the dead ball era normally meant that getting hit by a pitch wasn’t liable to leave a welt or a splitting headache.

Would it be fair to have asked Young if he would have flinched pitching against, say, Bob Feller, and had to face retaliation from Feller if Young had knocked down or drilled one of Feller’s Indians? Would it have been fair to question Walter Johnson’s “toughness” because the legend has it that whenever the gentlemanly Big Train did hit a batter he’d be almost apologetic about it and genuinely hopeful that he didn’t injure the poor guy?

“Players today like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and [sic] Pee Wee Reese are as rugged as any of the old-timers,” said third baseman Pie Traynor. “The trouble is that they are handicapped by having to play day and night baseball. This shortens their careers.”

Brushing aside that Rizzuto proved to have the shortest career of the players Traynor named, and that with the exception of Mantle and Mathews all those players had playing careers interrupted by World War II service, Traynor was probably right about their toughness but not quite right about the day/night conundrum. Night ball shortened a lot of Hall of Famers’ and others’ statistics more than their careers; injuries tended to shorten their careers more.

Williams (nineteen seasons) and Musial (22 seasons) would finish very long careers the majority of which seasons were played in the night ball era. So would Feller (eighteen), Mathews (seventeen), Mantle (eighteen), Snider (eighteen), and Reese (sixteen).

In due course you would see such protracted, predominantly night ball careers, from such Hall of Famers as Mantle (eighteen years) Henry Aaron (23 years), Ernie Banks (nineteen), Johnny Bench (seventeen), George Brett (21), Lou Brock (nineteen), Chipper Jones (nineteen), Willie Mays (22), Willie McCovey (22), Joe Morgan (22), Mike Schmidt (eighteen), and Jim Thome (22) among others among the position players.

Among the mostly- or exclusively night ball-era Hall of Fame pitchers? Hello, Warren Spahn (21; “He’ll never get into the Hall of Fame, he won’t stop pitching,” Stan Musial once cracked about him), Robin Roberts (nineteen), Whitey Ford (sixteen), Bob Gibson (seventeen), Juan Marichal (sixteen), Tom Seaver (twenty), Steve Carlton (24), Ferguson Jenkins (nineteen), Dennis Eckersley (24), Greg Maddux (23), Tom Glavine (22), Randy Johnson (22), Mike Mussina (eighteen), and Mariano Rivera (nineteen), among others.

But baseball’s rolls also include too many players whose careers were compromised or shortened by injuries, especially by being foolish enough to try playing through them regardless. That kind of “toughness” gets you some immediate admiration but costs your team a useful-or-better asset and you a career.

They still talk about Mickey Mantle’s what-ifs (forgetting that what was was impossibly great regardless) despite almost his entire career being an orthopedic experiment. And, to this day, baseball fans of long standing lament the what-ifs regarding a lot of players whom injuries compromised or finished: Pistol Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (who came back too soon from one injury too many), Butch Hobson, and Kirby Puckett (who made it to the Hall of Fame anyway), among others. They’re liable to do it regarding David Wright, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey, too.

Funny that Hornsby should have mentioned his fellow second baseman Frankie Frisch. Frisch had something to say about whether players in 1954 were sissies comparied to players in his day or earlier. Which might surprise those today who remember how Frisch (and his running mate/successor Bill Terry) were so convinced nobody was as good as the good old days’ players that they corrupted the Hall of Fame by ramming as many of their Cardinals’ and Giants’ cronies into the Hall of Fame as they could get away with.

“It’s tough to say who are the tougher,” said the Fordham Flash. “Night games and the rabbit ball have changed everything. The managers seldom play for one run. And the players swing from the end of the bat. But baseball is a nicer game today. They meet you at the train and drive you to the park. TV has them hamming”

If only Frisch hadn’t concluded by adding, “But we got more fun out of the game.” Fun is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But Frisch and company in 1954 should remind us that a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson would prove right when, continuing his mastery of the double (or more) negative, he’d say in due course, “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

And the more things in baseball change, the more most of them stay the same.