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March 5, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Secret Life of the American Ballplayer

by Michael Clair

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Michael Clair is a writer and comic. His baseball writing can be found at Old Time Family Baseball and The Platoon Advantage. Find him on Twitter @clairbearattack

Six months out of the year, a ballplayer knows what he has to do: get up, show up at the park, and smack some dingers. His role is not so clear during the cold winter months, in that time between the World Series and spring training punctuated only by the excitement of Christmas and the drunken disappointment of New Year’s.

Before rising salaries made offseason jobs obsolete, ballplayers would often have to pick up work during the winter. As The New York Times noted, Jim Palmer sold men’s suits, Roy Campanella owned a liquor store, and Stan Musial pushed papers (not surprisingly, he was great at it). Fred Odwell, an outfielder for the Reds in the early 1900s, was an honest-to-god lumberjack. Take that Jim Thome, you fraud.

Richie Hebner even dug graves, leading to the greatest death-related bobblehead on the market:

(image via Amazon)

But players didn’t just have work to fill their offseason hours, they also had passions, loves, and desires that couldn’t be fulfilled while playing 162-game schedules. And while everyone remembers the hilarious and awkward pictures on the fronts of baseball cards, no one remembers the exhaustively researched information on the other side. With Topps as our Virgil, we’ll look to fill in the gaps about what our favorite players did with those idle months, when they stopped being polite and started getting real. (Oddly enough, it is the ’87 Topps set, complete with wood-paneled borders, that seems to have put most of its focus on the personal lives of players. I wish I knew why that was.)

In the end, after combing through binders and boxes at flea markets, I found 73 cards with personal, hobby-focused information. Of these 73, 12 players held offseason jobs, like Dana Kiecker, Red Sox pitcher and sales associate for a Minnesota freight company, or Glenn Wilson, the bespectacled traveling outfielder who owned the Hit and Run Gas Station in Montgomery, Texas. (Click to expand all card images.)

The Hit and Run was the only gas station in the town, and Wilson noted that baseball was his hobby and the gas station his job. That’s a man with his priorities in order.

Terry Mulholland, it should be noted, also worked as a gas station attendant and collected baseball cards. I hope he finds this piece to his liking.

And then there are the Royals, home of the light-hitting, hardworking infielder.

There was Buddy Biancalana, barely reaching the Mendoza line and tending bar, hopefully serving up concoctions like the Flaming Balboni (made of every well drink served in one glass).

And then there’s Bill Pecota, Royals utility man and namesake of Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, who enjoyed sailing, water- and snow-skiing, and worked as an “electonics wave solder operator.”

Because I have no idea what wave solder operators are, I thought maybe electonics had something to do with them. But no, Bill Pecota’s card has a typo. He is an electronics wave solder operator, though that still does little to help me understand just what the hell that entails.

Twenty-one players admitted to loving other sports, mostly racquetball (Bryan Clutterbuck and Mitch Williams) or basketball (Bob Brenly, Rudy Law, Ed Nunez, and also Bryan Clutterbuck), but there are also ping-pong enthusiasts (Jesse Barfield), street hockey fans (John Habyan), and perhaps most fittingly, a sports and model airplanes fan in John Vander Wal.

I like to imagine that in between pinch-hitting appearances, Vander Wal would be back in the clubhouse, his remote control plane zooming around, before he was caught and yelled at by the manager when the device landed on the post-game spread.

And who could forget Bryan Harvey, the 1988 runner-up for Rookie of the Year who was plucked off of the Howard’s Furniture slo-pitch softball team after two years away from the game?

Perhaps most impressive, though, is Rob Murphy of the Reds, who not only bred and raced horses, but developed his own way of handicapping their purchase.  

Perhaps the first baseball-playing horse sabermetrician, Murphy, a former computer science major, invented a computer system called M375 (because it reads “Slew” for Seattle Slew when turned upside down) that uses 50 separate data points to determine whether to purchase a horse or not. The website is still up, complete with Geocities-esque spinning logo and important graphs for anyone looking to buy a couple of yearlings. I just wonder if horseracing writers think M375 is ruining the sport, too.

Thirteen players admitted enjoying music to relax, including Mike Witt, a Billy Joel fan, and the future two-guitars-and-no-bass super band consisting of Ron Guidry on drums with Mike Scioscia and Phil Garner on the ole git-box (or “guitar” for people that aren’t super cool).

No one, though, can touch Thad Bosley in the musical proficiency department. Bosley, a fourth outfielder with the Cubs, also wrote the gospel song “Pick Up the Pieces” for The Wreckin’ Crew.

Sadly, I can’t find that album, but you can get a vinyl copy of Bosley’s 1991 solo record, “Who Can Change the World?”

The record features such chart busters as “I Am Shy,” “I Can Be Me,” and “Are You For Me?” Well, which is it, Thad? Are you shy, or are you comfortable being yourself?

Bosley can also lay claim to a fansite that was created back in the days of Prodigy Online, earning a spot on “Ben’s Pit Stop on the Web.” The site features images of Bosley along with Willard Scott, Gene Shallit, a backdrop of teddy bears, and the information that this Ben likes to eat crackers. On the very likely chance that this website will soon disappear from the face of the Earth, here it is, screencapped in all its glory:

Then there are the weirdos and shut-ins, those with baseball card collections (Dave LaPoint and Scott Chiamparino); the readers (Wallace Johnson and Wade Taylor who specified non-fiction and a love of Chevy Chase and Clint Eastwood); camping fanatics (Bob Ojeda); shoe freaks (R.J. Reynolds), rib contest winners (Howard Johnson, and how I wish there was some kind of newspaper coverage of this) and board game lovers (Charles Hudson). I’d be remiss to not name Shane Rawley, who not only enjoyed writing, but earned his pilot’s license in 1980. He now owns a pizza restaurant. He’s a modern renaissance man.

Perhaps the most frightening member of this category is Dan Schatzeder, a mustachioed left-handed pitcher whose “numerous” interests are “home video.”

Anytime numerous interests begin and end with “home video,” you know there’s going to be something weird on that VHS marked “Family Vacation: DO NOT WATCH.”

In the end, no one can touch the smiling, also-mustachioed Jeff Lahti for his offseason passions. Lahti was nicknamed the “Jam Man,” not for his penchant for getting out of tough spots as a Cardinals reliever, but for being the owner of an apple orchard in Hood River, Oregon, a position he holds to this day.

We can only hope that the jams include flavors like “Baseballin’ Blackberry,” “Run Scored RazzmatazzRaspberry,” “Darryl “The Straw Man” Strawberry,” and “No Playing Hot Pepper Jam.”

While a baseball career is brief, and even shorter if you are one of the many “commons” that fill baseball card wax packs, offseason interests last forever. So keep on pumping that gas, soldering those waves, recording those gospel records, and jarring those jams. Because you only get to live once, and if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. 

Related Content:  Baseball Cards,  Offseason Hobbies

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