Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.

Joe Grzenda, RIP: Holding a riot ball

2019-07-17 GeorgeWBushJoeGrzenda

Joe Grzenda (right) with President George W. Bush, handing Bush the baseball Grzenda saved since the final, ill-fated Washington Senators game in 1971.

It took almost 34 years for a certain baseball to be pitched to home plate in RFK Stadium, Washington. And when it finally was thrown to the plate, it didn’t sail out of the hand of the pitcher who’d kept the ball all those years, despite having been invited to throw it.

The ball would have been thrown on 30 September 1971, by Washington Senators lefthanded pitcher Joe Grzenda, with two out in the top of the ninth and the Senators about to bank a season and Washington life-ending 7-5 win, assuming Grzenda could erase Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke.

Despite the invitation to throw it up to the plate when Washington re-entered the majors by way of the Montreal Expos moving to become the Nationals, Grzenda handed the honour instead to President George W. Bush, clad in a Nats jacket, who threw an admirable breaking ball to Nats catcher Brian Schneider.

Grzenda, who died 12 July at 82, two days after his 60th wedding anniversary, never got the chance to throw the ball on that surreal September 1971 afternoon. He ended up keeping the ball in a drawer in his Pennsylvania home, in an envelope marked, “Last baseball ever thrown as a Washington Senator, baseball club. Sept. 30, 1971. Murcer grounded out to me.”

That would be Bobby Murcer, Yankee outfielder, who grounded out to Grzenda for the second out of a save attempt that never got consummated thanks to a fan riot that kept Grzenda from pitching to Clarke.

Nicknamed Shaky Joe because of a few nervous habits he had on the mound, Grzenda became a Senator in 1970 after a trade from the Minnesota Twins, who’d been the original Senators until moving for 1961, which prompted the expansion birth of the second Senators in the first place.

Shaky Joe finished 1971 with a magnificent 1.92 earned run average, a 2.00 fielding-independent pitching rate, and a 1.01 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He was a sharp middle-to-late relief pitcher finishing 46 games in 1971 and credited with five saves every one of which was two innings or more. In his next-to-last major league season, he averaged two innings per gig and was, arguably, the Senators’ most reliable relief pitcher.

Several hours before he erased Felipe Alou and Murcer on back-to-back ground outs, Grzenda sat in the RFK Stadium stands well before game time and reflected. “I don’t want to leave this place,” he said. “This year has been the best I’ve had. It’s been like a beginning for me.”

Major league baseball was leaving the capital again because Senators owner Bob Short decided he couldn’t make it work in D.C. any longer—after he’d done just about everything within his power to guarantee it wouldn’t work.

Short wouldn’t sell the team to local interests or at least to buyers willing to camp in Washington, either—unless they were willing to pony up a minimum of $12 million, that is. The Washington Post‘s almost mythological sportswriter, Shirley Povich, compared that to the guy who buys a $9000 car, abuses it, spends $3,000 to repair it, then claims he has a car worth $12,000. Is that so Washington, or what?

“His fellow club owners let go unrecognised Short’s continual mistakes that got him into the mess that, he says, threatened to bankrupt him,” Povich wrote 23 September 1971.

They paid scant heed to the fact that Short foolishly overborrowed to buy the team and then pleaded poverty, and to the stubborn refusal of this novice club owner to hire a general manager, and his record of wrecking the club with absurd deals . . . [T]he impoverished Senators were the only team in the league billed for the owner’s private jet, with co-pilots. The owners had ears only for his complaint that he couldn’t operate profitably in Washington.

Publicly and to his fellow American League owners, Short promised he hadn’t bought the Senators on shaky financial standing in order to move them. According to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators, 1901-1971, Short indulged the nation’s other national pastime: litigation, threatening just that against his fellow owners unless they let him leave.

After authorising then president Joe Cronin to find a solution, the American League owners were stunned at Short’s admission he’d been talking to Texas and other areas. Short was also in hot water with the Armory Board, which owned RFK Stadium and to which the Senators owed six figures worth of back rent. That’s rather Washington, too.

When the Armory Board threatened to turn off the stadium lights, Short relished the feud. At first the board seemed to cave a bit, offering Short free rent for the first million admissions per season and the revenues from stadium billboard advertising. What the board wouldn’t do, however, was forgive the $178,000 back rent. Along came Washington’s city council to sue the Senators and the Armory Board, for failing to pay and collect rent.

That swung into action commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose boyhood included working as a scoreboard operator at old Griffith Stadium. Kuhn ordered Short “to keep his yap shut,” Deveaux wrote, while hitting the road soliciting potential buyers for the Senators. It proved to be only slightly less futile a road trip than many taken by the Senators themselves.

The American League owners took a 21 September 1971 vote on whether to allow the Senators to move. They now feared the National League might move to town if the Senators moved out, giving the nearby Orioles heavier competition than the usually hapless Nats. Short needed 75 percent of the votes to get his wish.

At first, three clubs abstained while the Orioles and the White Sox voted no. World Airways magnate Ed Daly told Kuhn and Athletics owner Charlie Finley—one of the abstentions—he was willing to buy the Senators. The problem was Finley telling Daly the eleventh hour was upon them, and Daly telling Finley he couldn’t decide that fast. That’s so Washington, too.

Thus did Finley and Angels owner Gene Autry (originally a “no” vote, and acting through a representative since he was undergoing eye surgery) change to “yes” votes. Thus would the Senators begin 1972 as the Texas Rangers. And thus would the Senators meet the Yankees at RFK Stadium on 30 September 1971,  an almost 20,000 strong crowd filling the joint, hoisting placards and banners zapping Short up one side and down the other—particularly those displaying his initials.

Grzenda wasn’t the only Senator who wasn’t anxious to leave Washington. The idea didn’t exactly thrill Frank Howard, their power hitting behemoth and star, either. Which didn’t stop the 6’8″ giant known as Capital Punishment for his glandular home runs from giving those heartsick fans one final thrill, when he checked in at the plate to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

With the Senators down 5-1 and Howard being 0-for-1 with a walk thus far, he caught hold of a Mike Kekich fastball and drove it not too far from the upper deck, and the crowd went nuclear in its momentary joy. Nudged out of the dugout for a curtain call, Howard tipped his helmet to the crowd for the first time in his baseball life, blew them a couple of kisses, then wept, as much for sorrow as joy.

The blast started a four-run inning to tie the game at five, a tie broken in the bottom of the eight thanks to an RBI single (Tom McCraw) and a sacrifice fly. (Elliott Maddox.) Then Grzenda went out to try saving it for Paul Lindblad, whose two spotless relief innings put him in line to get credit for a win.

After Grzenda erased Alou and Murcer in the top of the ninth, fans began jumping on and off the field down the foul lines. It looked menacing enough for Senators manager Ted Williams (yes, children, that Ted Williams) to order his bullpen pitchers to beat it post haste. Except that the Splinter forgot to urge them to take the safe path to the clubhouse, under the RFK Stadium stands.

As Grzenda got ready to pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke, the relievers left the bullpen and headed down the field toward the dugout. Oops. “That’s when all hell broke loose,” Deveaux wrote. “The fans stormed back onto the field en masse, yanking up clumps of dirt and grass which might be kept as souvenirs of Washington Senators baseball.”

Howard playing first base had three fans climbing his back, which must have been something like three mice climbing a tree. Grzenda saw a rather large man heading his way appearing at first to have ideas about tackling the pitcher, which Grzenda eventually admitted gave him ideas about throwing his glove—which still had the ball in it—at the guy. But all Grzenda got for that was a pat on his shoulder.

Finally, as fans continued pillaging what they could, including bases, plus letters and numbers from the scoreboard, umpire Jim Honochick ruled the forfeit to the Yankees. By the time the fans got through with the place, RFK Stadium looked as though it was  tattered and torched in a terrorist attack.

Grzenda drove home from the park with his wife, Ruth, and their two children, including his then-ten year old son Joe, Jr., who wept all the way home. The Grzendas met in 1956, when the lefthander was a Tigers prospect and the Birmingham Barons’s (AA) best pitcher, and she was sitting in the stands at Birmingham (AA).

He had a look at the comely brunette and handed the bat boy a note to give her. “I had come to the game with a girlfriend of mine who I worked with at the First National Bank, and her dad,” Mrs. Grzenda revealed after her husband was inducted into the Barons’ Hall of Fame five years ago. “The bat boy brought a note over to me that said, ‘How would you like to meet Joe Grzenda?’ My girlfriend kept hitting me on my leg, saying you’ve got to meet him and her dad said that Joe was the star of the team,” she continued. “I didn’t know anything about baseball.”

The irony abounded when Bush—a former co-owner of the Rangers—threw that ceremonial first pitch with the Grzenda ball. Schneider, known as a memorabilia collector, had ideas about keeping the ball until Grzenda asked to have it back. Schneider obliged happily by all accounts. Grzenda loved two things primarily in his life, and baseball was the second of them.

They first met in Birmingham, he taking her out for hamburgers and shakes after the Barons bat boy handed her his note. They married a year later and stayed that way happily for sixty years and two days. For two thirds of their marriage, they lived and loved with the husband part of capital lore. Maybe it wasn’t quite the way Grzenda would have preferred becoming such lore. But that, too, is so Washington.