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December 13, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Random Passages

by Jim Baker

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A while back, I was moving into an apartment in Jersey City. The landlord noticed the copious amounts of books I had and asked, in broken English, if I was "a professor."

This amused me, of course. I was working in book publishing at the time and had developed an animosity towards those who didn't read. My logic was that, if more people read, my job wouldn't pay so blessedly little.

"Imagine being so disconnected from books," I said to my friends, "that one assumes that anyone who has them must be some sort of college instructor." This was invariably followed by a snide laugh.

Then I got to thinking on it. This man was born in another country and not only owned the house I lived in, but at least a dozen more. It was I who gave him money every month--not the other way around. Who was the one who should be condescending? So, I stopped telling my little story.

You might be thinking that at that point, I abandoned the publishing industry and began buying property. No! That's the lesson a smarter person would have taken from the incident. Instead, I'm still renting--probably from somebody who reads at a tenth-grade level--and still carrying around a boxcar's worth of books.

And whoever sees them? Nobody--not even me, who doesn't have time to crack most of them. So, what I thought I would do today is grab random books off the shelf and open them to random spots and discuss what is found there. That way, we can all get something out of my having hauled these damn things around for so many years.

"On June 2, 1892, Benjamin Harrison becomes the first president to attend a game while in office when he watches the Reds beat Washington 7-4 in 11 innings." - from Great Baseball Feats, Facts & Firsts by David Nemec (1987)

Nemec has written some of the nastiest trivia question books ever. I used to take his quizzes and feel that I was the least-knowledgeable baseball fan on the planet. This is not revenge--I swear it as I loved his books in my formative baseball years--but I just checked on Retrosheet and this date is wrong. Washington hosted Cleveland that day and lost 7-6. Four days later they lost to Cincinnati 7-4. That was the game the President attended. The bigger event in Harrison's life that year was the death of his wife in October. The most famous player on that Senators team is probably Dummy Hoy. Charlie Comiskey was on the Reds that year.

When George W. Bush first took office and started having kid's games on the White House lawn, I thought he'd go down in history as the "baseball president" or something like that. I thought he'd go to more games than any president before him--especially once Washington got a team again. A president with low approval ratings wisely doesn't venture out on too many public outings.

"On the sixteenth signal, the pitcher just had to laugh. 'Well that one really takes the cake, doesn't it? That really took brains. Come over here a minute,' he said to the infielders. 'All right,' he called back down to the catcher, 'go ahead, shoe them your new brainstorm.' To the four players up on the mound with him, the pitcher whispered, 'Catch this,' and pointed to the signal that the catcher, in his mortification, was continuing to flash from between his legs. "Hey," said the Lunatic third-baseman, "that ain't even a finger, is it?"
--from The Great American Novel by Philip Roth (1973)
This passage comes from what is still one of the funniest scenes I have ever read in a novel. The Ruppert Mundys, the protagonist team of the book, have ventured to an insane asylum to play a three-inning exhibition game against the patients as a public service. What transpires is hilarious--as is most of the book. Never read it? You can't get into the club until you do. Which club is that? The "I've-read-the-best-baseball-novel-ever Club."

"…the Cubs got off to a slow start. One reason was an ankle injury to Hornsby. Another was the death of Hal Carlson, who was found in his room at the Carlos Hotel on May 27. The cause of death was stomach hemorrhaging, a chronic condition he had developed after being gassed in the First World War. Most of the team traveled 100 miles north to Rockford, Illinois, for the funeral but Hack stayed behind, pleading family responsibilities." - a paragraph on the 1930 season from Hack by Robert S. Boone and Gerald Grunska (1978)

Could you imagine the uproar that would have occurred had, say, Reggie Jackson refused to attend Thurman Munson's funeral or Jim Edmonds had done the same for Darryl Kile? They'd still be writing about it. There were a handful of famous baseball casualties of World War I: Christy Mathewson was gassed and was never the same again. Grover Cleveland Alexander was shellshocked and Eddy Grant was killed. This has left little ink for Carlson, whose wound finally undid him 12 years after it was inflicted.

This bio of Hack Wilson contains one of my favorite baseball pictures. It features Hack, all 5'6" of him, standing next to a stack of children's wagons as tall as he is. They carry his name on them in a bit of product endorsement. They've got white rubber tires and disc wheels. I've always wondered if any of these survived.

"After reading Jumbo's story, I couldn't much concentrate on baseball. No, that's wrong. I dived into baseball like a guy with money worries dives into suicide, to escape what's about to overwhelm him. I played pretty good in our next five games, but their details come back to me only if I check the box score. On the afternoon of our second game against the Seminoles, I tried to return Jumbo his log. I'd had all the lousy copying work I wanted for a while. 'Keep it, Daniel.' He stuck his log into the hold of my school desk. 'Learn all you can about me.'" - from Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop (1994)

And what there is to learn! Jumbo's secret identity is very, very cool. This novel, set in a low-end minor league town during World War II, is predicated on the notion that a famous horror novel was not a novel at all but straight reportage of fact. It's a wonderful device. This would make a very good independent film, a very unique entry in the baseball movie genre.

"Do you know something? If it were possible, if it were permissible, there ought to be one day set aside each year in each park. On that day, if a bum decision came up, the fans should be permitted to leap out of the stands and take after the umpire. Why, if that ever came to pass, there wouldn't be a park in the country large enough to hold the crowds!" - Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis upon watching a bad call at Wrigley Field and the subsequent rhubarb, as quoted in Win, Lose, or Draw by Warren Brown (1947)

Can you imagine Bud Selig saying something like this? Brown was a sportswriter in the first half of the 20th Century who covers a number of sports in this book. Another favorite part is a challenge game between the New York baseball writers covering the Giants during spring training in 1923 and the local scribes in San Antonio, Texas. Fred Lieb was the lefthanded second basemen for the New Yorkers and one of their pitchers was Bob Boyd who, like Carlson above, had been wounded in World War I. In Boyd's case, though, he lost an arm. Maybe the staff of Baseball Prospectus should take a cue from this long-ago contest and play another group of writers. I call first base.

"As the fans waited, many of them thumbed through special supplements of Montreal newspapers, put together so the public could recognize the home-town squad. Not that they helped much. The photography was baseball traditional: portraits shot at high noon when players' peaked caps shaded most of their faces, making them indistinguishable and all but invisible--men know by their chins alone…Infielder Angel "Remy" Hermoso--sponsored by Le Martinique Motor Inn, 1005 Guy St.--was depicted as "an exciting ballplayer who should become a big favourite in the Canadian city with his antics on the basepaths." Angel was to steal three bases during the 1969 season. Even if you conceded four antics per steal, that's still only a dozen antics." - from a description of the very first Montreal Expos home game in The Expos Inside Out by Dan Turner (1983)

Aside from not stealing much Remy Hermoso batted 81 times without an extra base hit. So much hope is embodied in the optimism about Hermoso and it's a microcosm of the hope for the team. Can the Expos really be gone? Who let that happen?

"I wanted to grow up and be the running back of the Oakland Raiders. I was a Raiders man, but first I was an O.J. man. I wanted to run like O.J., I wanted to play O.J., I wanted to be O.J. And I wanted to do it all for the Oakland Raiders." - from Off Base, Confessions of a Thief by Rickey Henderson with John Shea (1992)

Thank goodness baseball won out in this one. Henderson talks about how he felt weird about batting righthanded but throwing lefthanded. The A's scout sent to sign him tried to mollify him by conjuring the name of Cleon Jones. He also convinced Henderson to take a relatively small signing bonus of $10,000, telling him he could make more money if he got to the majors in a hurry. Henderson was there in three years. Henderson also reveals that he almost quit and went home when, while playing for Jersey City in 1978, he returned from a road trip to find all his worldly possessions stolen. Charley Finley wired him some money to buy clothes and he stuck it out.

Maybe he had the same landlord I did.

Related Content:  The Who,  Baseball Books,  Best Baseball Books

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