Sid and Murray Talk Baseball

Sid and Murray used to meet in a park and play catch while talking baseball.  Not long toss, mind you. They were both pushing 80, so they stood about 50 feet apart and lobbed the ball in that slow, nonchalant manner of professional ballplayers.  “Shoulder high, Muhray,” Sid would shout.”  C’mon, you can’t hold a proper conversation when the throw comes in at the knees.”  “Yeah, yeah, I know, shoulder high, glove side,” Murray would respond as he caught Sid’s return toss.

They argued a lot, in a congenial way.  Murray liked Mays over Mantle.  “Mantle was the greatest, Sid, you gotta admit it.  He was faster than Mays until he screwed up his knee on that goddamn irrigation gizmo.”

“Bull crap” said Sid.  “Mantle mighta been faster, but Mays was more agile.  Mantle would never have snared Wertz’s drive, even before the gizmo got his knee.”

“Maybe so, but remember, Mantle was a switch-hitter, the greatest ever.  We can agree on one thing, I bet—Snider was not in their class.”

“Jesus, Muhray, that’s a little harsh.  But you’re right.  The Duke played in Ebbets Field.  What a friggin bandbox.”

And so on they would banter while tossing lazy lobs under the sun in the park.  One day, Murray said, “You know, I had a dream about us last night.”

“Oy, now I gotta listen to your dreams all of a sudden?  Have you turned into a woman?”  Sid threw the ball back to him, shoulder high.

“C’mon, Sid, men dream, for chrissake.”

“Sure, but they keep it to themselves.”

Ignoring Sid, Murray continues.  “It was a baseball dream.  I dreamed that we made an agreement.  Whoever dies first, he comes back and lets the other know if there’s baseball in Heaven.  Well, I died first in the dream.  So I show up here in the park and sit next to you on that bench over there.  You say, “Well, is there baseball in Heaven?”  I say, “I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is there is baseball in Heaven; the bad news is you’re pitching tomorrow.”

“Jesus, Muhray, that gag’s got whiskers it’s so old.  Still, I love it.”

Sad to say, neither Murray nor Sid made it to the pearly gates.  They ended up in hell.  It turns out both had violated several religious laws, including consorting with ladies of the night in their youth and repeatedly taking the lord’s name in vain.  Oh well, they thought, Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company, as Ambrose Bierce once put it.

But of course, company notwithstanding, it was quite hot down below.  One day as they were out for a grueling walk, Sid complained about the heat for the umpteenth time.  “Goddamn, it’s hot, my feet are killing me.”

“Stop whining, Sid, for chrissake.  You’re wearing a friggin’ t-shirt.  I gotta wear this wool sweater.  ‘Don’t forget to wear a sweater Murray,’ Rose says when I left the house that day.  Oy.”

Suddenly, the temperature in hell plummets to 20 degrees below zero.  Sid and Murray stop in their tracks, turn to each other and shout in unison, “Holy Cow, the Cubs just won the World Series!”

Sid and Murray used to meet in a park and play catch while talking baseball.  Not long toss, mind you. They were both pushing 80, so they stood about 50 feet apart and lobbed the ball in that slow, nonchalant manner of professional ballplayers.  “Shoulder high, Muhray,” Sid would shout.”  C’mon, you can’t hold a proper conversation when the throw comes in at the knees.”  “Yeah, yeah, I know, shoulder high, glove side,” Murray would respond as he caught Sid’s return toss.

They argued a lot, in a congenial way.  Murray liked Mays over Mantle.  “Mantle was the greatest, Sid, you gotta admit it.  He was faster than Mays until he screwed up his knee on that goddamn irrigation gizmo.”

“Bull crap” said Sid.  “Mantle mighta been faster, but Mays was more agile.  Mantle would never have snared Wertz’s drive, even before the gizmo got his knee.”

“Maybe so, but remember, Mantle was a switch-hitter, the greatest ever.  We can agree on one thing, I bet—Snider was not in their class.”

“Jesus, Muhray, that’s a little harsh.  But you’re right.  The Duke played in Ebbets Field.  What a friggin bandbox.”

And so on they would banter while tossing lazy lobs under the sun in the park.  One day, Murray said, “You know, I had a dream about us last night.”

“Oy, now I gotta listen to your dreams all of a sudden?  Have you turned into a woman?”  Sid threw the ball back to him, shoulder high.

“C’mon, Sid, men dream, for chrissake.”

“Sure, but they keep it to themselves.”

Ignoring Sid, Murray continues.  “It was a baseball dream.  I dreamed that we made an agreement.  Whoever dies first, he comes back and lets the other know if there’s baseball in Heaven.  Well, I died first in the dream.  So I show up here in the park and sit next to you on that bench over there.  You say, “Well, is there baseball in Heaven?”  I say, “I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is there is baseball in Heaven; the bad news is you’re pitching tomorrow.”

“Jesus, Muhray, that gag’s got whiskers it’s so old.  Still, I love it.”

Sad to say, neither Murray nor Sid made it to the pearly gates.  They ended up in hell.  It turns out both had violated several religious laws, including consorting with ladies of the night in their youth and repeatedly taking the lord’s name in vain.  Oh well, they thought, Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company, as Ambrose Bierce once put it.

But of course, company notwithstanding, it was quite hot down below.  One day as they were out for a grueling walk, Sid complained about the heat for the umpteenth time.  “Goddamn, it’s hot, my feet are killing me.”

“Stop whining, Sid, for chrissake.  You’re wearing a friggin’ t-shirt.  I gotta wear this wool sweater.  ‘Don’t forget to wear a sweater Murray,’ Rose says when I left the house that day.  Oy.”

Suddenly, the temperature in hell plummets to 20 degrees below zero.  Sid and Murray stop in their tracks, turn to each other and shout in unison, “Holy Cow, the Cubs just won the World Series!”

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October Surprise

In early September, 1929, Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had a problem.  His team had pretty much clinched the American League pennant, but his likely opponent in the World Series, the Chicago Cubs, featured a lineup of hard hitting right-handed batters, including three future Hall of Famers (Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Kiki Cuyler).  Mack’s problem?  Two of his three best starters were left-handed (Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg).  The third was a righty (George Earnshaw), but Mack wanted to pitch him later.

Looking over the schedule for mid-September, Mack noticed that the Cubs would be in Philadelphia playing the Phillies at the same time the A’s were hosting the White Sox.  An idea popped into his mind:  In the first game of the World Series he would start Howard Ehmke, a journeyman in the twilight of his career.  Ehmke, was a right-hander with a tricky sidearm delivery that just might bamboozle the Cubs.  Mack took him aside and laid out his plan:  He would provide Ehmke with tickets for the Cubs series—good seats with a view of the Cubs’ batters.  Ehmke, unnoticed in the stands, would study them and take notes.  By the time the series was over, he would see approximately 12 at bats from each hitter.

Howard Ehmke was not a great pitcher, but he was a smart guy.  He was expected to enroll at Brown University after high school, but instead chose a career in baseball.  After several years with the Tigers and Red Sox, during which he did pitch a no-hitter and won 20 games one year, he came to the A’s in 1926.  Now, three years later at the age of 35, he was a spot starter who pitched only 54 innings with the Athletics.

When Connie Mack announced Howard Ehmke as his starting pitcher in Game One of the 1929 World Series, it shocked the baseball world.  Sportswriters and fans could not believe that Mack bypassed the likes of Grove (20-6), Walberg (18-11), and Earnshaw (24-8), for Ehmke.

On October 8, 1929, in front of 50,000 fan crammed into Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ehmke beat the Cubs, 3-1.  He pitched a complete game, striking out 13 batters (a World Series record at the time), including two strikeouts each against those three future Hall of Famers, Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Kiki Cuyler.  The A’s went on to take the Series 4-1.

Ehmke retired the following season.  He started his own business in Philadelphia—manufacturing tarpaulins.  He’s credited with developing the first canvas tarps that covered baseball infields.  Howard Ehmke died on March 17, 1959.  He was 65.

Note:  Information for this post is from an article by Gregory H. Wolf in Baseball-Reference.com and the SABRE Bio Project.

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Bonehead’s Hex

In the late afternoon of September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie with the New York Giants, playing in his first full game in the big leagues, stepped into the batter’s box at the Polo Grounds.  The Giants were locked in a torrid pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, who had swept a double-header against them the previous day, cutting the Giants’ lead to one game.

The score was tied 1-1 in the final inning.  With a man on first Merkle sliced a hard liner down the right field line, sending the runner to third.  Merkle held at first base.  The stage was now set for the play that would propel Merkle into everlasting infamy.  Al Bridwell entered the batter’s box.  Years later Bridwell remembered what happened next:  “The first pitch came in to me, a fast ball, waist high, right over the center of the plate.  I promptly drilled a line drive into center field.  The runner at third raced home, but Merkle didn’t go all the way to second base.  Instead, he went halfway down and cut off and started running for the clubhouse.”

Mass confusion followed.  Thousands of fans ran onto the field, thinking the Giants had won.  Which is why Merkle and the rest of the Giants raced to the clubhouse; they always did after a game—to avoid the fans.  But Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, or acquired another ball, and stepped on second base while appealing to the umpire for a force-out of Merkle, which would nullify the apparent winning run.  After a long delay the umpire called Merkle out and the game a tie.  The next day officials stated that if the two teams ended the season tied in the standings, a replay of the game would be necessary.  As fate would have it, they ended the season tied.

The replay game was set for October 8, 1908, precisely 116 years ago to the day when the Giants and Cubs take the field on Friday.  The Cubs won the replay game, 4-2.  The Giants lost the pennant.  Fred Merkle was forever haunted.  He was booed mercilessly; the press crucified him. Even in retirement he found no peace.  People would recognize him and yell, “There’s Bonehead!”  The name stuck.  A new word even found its way into the American lexicon:  To “merkle” was to not arrive, or to make a grievous error.  Merkle put in 16 years of first rate baseball but could never escape his mistake.  He died on March 1, 1956.  He was 67.

But his ghost lives on inWrigley Field.  The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series.  But it would be their last.  The Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino.  Will the Cubs break the Curse of Fred Merkle?

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Mike and Jim Bow Out

One of the great broadcast duos in the history of baseball—Mike Rafoni and Jim Kullerman—are retiring after 40 years in the booth.  Rafoni, the eminent play-by-play man, and his analyst/lame humorist (his words), announced their retirement before tonight’s road game, the last game of the season.  It’s the top of the ninth and their team is losing, 12-0.  Let’s listen as they return from a commercial break:

MIKE:  Mike Rafoni and Jim Kullerman here, back in the Lowe’s Broadcast Booth—“Let’s Build Something Together.”  Garcia slips a fastball past a helpless Martinez, one and two the count.  That was Garcia’s fifteenth pitch since coming into the game in the eighth inning.  Fifteen minutes can save you fifteen percent on your car insurance.  Call 1-800-GOT AUTO and talk to a GEICO representative now.

JIM:  Garcia lit up the gun, Mike—a hundred and one.  He may be 23 years of age now, but he can still bring it.

MIKE:  The ninth inning is brought to you by SeeAlice, the Official Erectile Dysfunction Pill of Major League Baseball—“SeeAlice—She’ll turn your blooper into a frozen rope.”

JIM:  I don’t’ know about that, Mike.  See, Alice doesn’t live here anymore.

MIKE:  Ha, Ha, a good one, pal.  You’re still a helluva card after all these years.  I forgot you were a movie buff.  And there’s strike three on Martinez, who remains mired in a slump.  One out.  Rodriguez steps into the batter’s box.

JIM:  For some reason SeeAlice reminds me of Bush—the senior Bush.  Remember that line about his privileged upbringing—born on third base and thinks he hit a triple?

MIKE:  I sure do.  My good pal Tweeter Bobbitz came up with a follow-up line regarding junior Bush—born on third base and thinks he hit a double.

JIM:  I love that!  Jesus, poor W.

MIKE:  Garcia, like the artist he is, paints the corner with a slow curve.  Just like our listeners can paint like artists with Sherwyn-Williams Paint—“We Cover the World.”  There’s a ball inside to Rodriguez, one and one.  Any scores from other games, JIM?

JIM:  According to the Toyota out-of-town scoreboard, the double-header between Miami and Colorado is over.  In the first game, the Fish scaled the Rockies, 6-2; in the second the Rockies scaled the Fish 4-0.  “Toyota: Let’s Go Places.”

MIKE:  (Groans) Hardy friggin’har, Jim.  You should be PUNished for that.  Rodriguez singles to center.  We got a man on and one out.

JIM:  One more out of town score, Mike.  Hillary beat the crap out of Trump.  Say, how would you describe Trump’s privileged upbringing?  Born on third base and thinks he hit a homer?

MIKE:  No, that’s too obvious.  I don’t think the difference between Trump and the Bushes is one of degree.  Trump is one of a kind.  This is better, I think:  Donald Trump—born on third base and insists he’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Garcia looks in for the sign.  Here’s the pitch.  Gonzales slaps a hard grounder to short, toss to second, relay to first.  Double play—6-4-3—game over!  Our Boys lose again.  Oh, well, they’re young and should be better next year.

JIM:  Don’t bet your house on it.

MIKE:  You’re right, my man.  We gotta be patient, it’s a rebuilding year.  Jim, before we bow out, I just want to express our appreciation to Major League Baseball and to our sponsors for allowing us to work in some play-by-play during the ball games  And Jim, it’s been a pleasure working with you.  Four decades, my friend.  What a ride it’s been!

JIM:  Indeed it has, Mike.  Let’s go pound some Budweiser.

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Strangers to Irony

“I support our players when they want to see change in society.  On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL.”

–Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.

“We decided to play the anthem ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.”

–Spokesperson for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, on the possibility of Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Reign sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in support of Kaepernick.  Rapinoe had done so in a previous game.

I don’t doubt Roger Goodell’s belief in patriotism.  But it seems rigid, narrow, and limited, as if it were wrapped in a protective layer of dogma, shielded from doubt. It fits with his view of the right to protest.  He supports it strongly, but only in the abstract where it lies at rest, atrophied and sterile.  If you actually exercise protest, as Kaepernick has done, it gets battered and bruised but also grows strong and muscular—strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of paper patriots.

As for the fans and friends of the Washington Spirit, my heart goes out to them.  While their delicate sensibilities were spared the horrifying spectacle of Megan Rapinoe not standing for the anthem, they must have heard about in the news and suffered nonetheless.

Or am I wrong?  Maybe Spirit fans are tougher and more thoughtful than the spokesperson gives them credit.  After all, their team is the Washington Spirit.  The name brings to mind the spirit of ’76 and the image of George Washington; it conjures the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Samuel Adams, and the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party.  They all have something in common:  They were protesters; they protested the injustice of the British.  Come to think about it, the United States was founded on the bedrock of protest.

That’s the funny thing about thinking—one thought leads to another.  Before long, if you’re not careful, you could be seized by this thought:  Of the four participants squaring off in the current controversy—Goodell and the spokesperson versus Kaepernick and Rapinoe—which are the patriots and which are the Tories?

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Elysian Fields Quarterly

One evening in 1993 I settled in to read the Nation.  Two words in a display ad caught my eye—“Elysian Fields.”  A baseball nut, I knew about the Elysian Fields.  They were on a bluff in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City.  It was where the Knickerbocker baseball club played the first games of baseball in the early 1840s.  A closer look at the ad revealed, “Elysian Fields Quarterly:  Writing on baseball by fans for fans.”  I immediately subscribed and fell in love with EFQ.

That little magazine, bound in color, each page designed with understated elegance, contained essays, short fiction, poetry, long historical articles, book reviews, and a host of quirky pieces—all written with the clarity of a clean river.

It began as an idea in the mind of Ken LaZebnik in 1980.  He showed a mock-up of a baseball publication to his friend, Stephen Lehman, a fellow resident of Minneapolis.  Energized by their “twin loves of baseball and writing,” they went to work on it.  In January, 1981, The Minneapolis Review of Baseball made its debut with Steve as editor.  In 1992 they gave it a new look and new name—Elysian Fields Quarterly.  By the way, the fields where the first games of baseball were played have another meaning.  In the words of EFQ (printed below the masthead of each issue):  “By the happiest and most appropriate of all baseball coincidences, the name of the site for the ‘birthplace of modern baseball’ is also the name for paradise in Greek mythology.”

Such luminaries as Roger Angel or Tom Boswell never graced the pages of EFQ—it couldn’t afford them. But the journal did publish the likes of Eugene McCarthy, a poet and former Senator from Minnesota, and John Thorn, now the Official Historian of Major League Baseball.  Mostly, one found superb writing by fans, smitten by the twin loves of baseball and writing.   Unfortunately, its financial picture was not so superb.  Losses forced suspension of publication in1995.

Enter Tom Goldstein, a St. Paul sports retailer who loved the Minneapolis Review and EFQ. He persuaded Steve to bring EFQ back to life in 1998. Tom took the helm as publisher, then editor, with Steve serving as associate editor. For the next eleven years Tom worked to increase circulation—it reached over 4,000 subscribers—and hoped that someday “all those pundits and personalities and sportswriters across the land would finally take notice of this wonderful little magazine that’s edgy, rebellious, contrarian, nostalgic—and mostly damn good writing about baseball.”

Unfortunately, it never happened. After years of sacrificing income, losing sleep, and giving the journal every spare moment, he put it on hold, hoping to revive it after a hiatus.  The hiatus continues. The last issue of EFQ came out in the fall of 2008, after nearly 30 years.  However, in a recent email, Tom said, “I’m hoping to set up a Facebook page so the EFQ “family” can communicate with one another.  I still harbor notions of finding some way to bring the journal back.  For some reason, I still haven’t got it out of my system.”

The website is still up for Elysian Fields Quarterly. Google it and you’ll find the story of EFQ in greater detail in About EFQ. Click on Back Issues and you’ll see the cover of every issue, including a synopsis of each issue.  It’s well worth the trip through EFQ-land.

I can be reached through this blog at Bobbitz@comcast.net.

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Team Loyalty

I have a friend, a Yankee-hating Red Sox fan, who sports a cool little tattoo on her ankle—a bright red pair of those Boston Sox with white toes and heels.  She’s not from Boston and she’s never been there.  So how did she latch on to the Hub Nine?  When she was a little girl, her aunt dated a fellow Portlander, Johnny Pesky, for a few years.  My friend met Pesky and fell in love with the Red Sox.  End of story.

Traditionally, a kid becomes a fan of a team because her dad or mom was a fan.  Doris Kearns Goodwin is a classic example.  Her dad loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, so she loved Dem Bums.  When they abandoned Brooklyn for LA, it broke her heart and pissed her off.  So she attached herself to the Red Sox.  Another example:  A friend of mine, who died in 1996, grew up in Brooklyn and also loved the Dodgers.  Unlike Goodwin, when the Bums flew the coop to the west coast, he simply became a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Of course not every kid follows his progenitors’ path.  Some parents aren’t even ball fans.  I knew a guy in high school who became a lifelong Dodger fan after he saw a movie in 1952—”The Jackie Robinson Story.”  One last Dodger case:  A veterinarian in Salem, Oregon cast his lot with the Dodgers when their Triple-A farm team played in Spokane, where he grew up.  The team featured the infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, and Bill Russell—which became the longest tenured infield in big league history.

A lot of Iowans in the late thirties, including my old man, liked the Cleveland Indians simply because of Bob Feller (Rapid Robert), the fire-balling hurler from Van Meter, Iowa.

Geography often plays a role.  The former publisher and editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly cheered for the Washington Senators when he grew up in the DC area.

Geography also determined my loyalty.  In the late 40s and early 50s I liked the Cubs.  But when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and immediately began winning, I fell in love with them and Eddie Mathews their slugging third baseman.  A former boss of mine here in Portland, grew up in Boston and loved his Braves, but ditched them when they lit out for Milwaukee.  I did the same when they pulled up stakes in 1966 for the greener pastures of Atlanta.

I’ve not had permanent loyalty since then.  I follow several old teams—franchises from the first years of the 20th Century, and if a team strikes my fancy by winning a lot, I root with the same passion I had for those Milwaukee Braves.  I loved the Cardinals of the 60s and 80s; the Dodgers of the 70s; the Red Sox in 1986 (I screamed in horror when that little ground ball found its way between Buckner’s legs); the Phillies in 1980 and the early 1990s; the Yankees of Jeter, Mariano, Jorge, Andy, and Bernie; the Cardinals when they beat the Rangers (I screamed in utter joy when David Freese deep-freesed the hated Rangers).

This year I root for the Cubs, like a lot of fans.  But if they meet the Giants in the NLCS, I’ll be torn, because the Giants are my favorite team these days.

Anyway, I guess you could call me a front-runner, and you’d be right.

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