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September 17, 2007
You Could Look It Up
The Elmer Flick in All of Us
At this time precisely 100 years ago, Cleveland outfielder Elmer Flick was putting the final touches on his last great big league season. I wrote briefly about Flick's Hall of Fame merits about two years ago. A slugger whose career began at the turn of the 20th Century, Clay Davenport once put Flick in the Bobby Abreu class of right fielders. Flick's translated career line of .311/.400/.568 with good speed does suggest Abreu in his prime, albeit with a little more power. Flick cheats a bit in this regard—as with Shoeless Joe Jackson, he never got the chance to have a decline phase to his career, so his peak and career values are almost one and the same.
Not very well remembered today, Flick was born in 1876 and died in 1971, just two days before his 95th birthday. Keep his long lifespan in mind. Flick Wally Pipped his way into a job with the Phillies as a 22-year-old in 1898. Flick was best-suited defensively for one of the outfield corners, but the Phillies seemed to be set in both left and right with two players who would later be deemed worthy of spots in the Hall, sluggers Ed Delahanty (another player whose decline phase was cut short, in his case by a short walk off a long bridge) and Sam Thompson. Flick was meant as insurance, as Thompson was 38 and had missed almost all of 1897 with a bad back. The back acted up early again in 1898, and Flick grabbed the playing time and ran with it, batting .302/.430/.448 in a league that hit .271/.334/.347.
From then on, Flick was a star, one of the real impact hitters of his day, annually finishing in the top ten in all the most important offensive categories, and putting up six seasons of nine or more wins above replacement (WARP) in 11 years. In 1902 he jumped to Connie Mack’s Athletics in the new American League, but the same injunction that more famously prevented second baseman Nap Lajoie for playing for the Mackmen also applied to Flick. American League President Ban Johnson was only too happy to shuffle Flick off to Cleveland with Lajoie—Johnson had a financial interest in the Cleveland team.
Flick’s 1905 season used to get some play because his .308 average was the lowest average to lead a league until Carl Yastrzemski came along and won a batting title with a .301 average in 1968. As with Yaz’s title, the low average doesn’t tell the whole story—the dead ball was especially inert that year, with the American League batting .241/.299/.314. Flick dominated, also leading in slugging (.462) and finishing second in on-base percentage (.383).
By that time, Flick was 29. He put up two more excellent seasons in 1906 and 1907, batting .302/ .386/.412 (good for a .319 EqA and 10.2 WARP1). Around this time, Detroit asked for Flick in a straight-up trade for Ty Cobb. Cobb was just 20, but the Tigers organization was pretty sure he was going to kill someone, either a teammate or himself, and even if that didn’t happen, they figured he’d be a basket case within a few years. Cleveland felt the same way, and said no; Cobb was just too weird, and Flick just too good.
Irony packs a pretty hard punch, because that was the exact moment when things came to a crashing halt for Flick. His career was stopped in its tracks by an injury—to his mind. Flick’s stomach began to hurt and didn’t stop. “I don’t know what it was exactly,” Flick told the Sporting News on the occasion of his 1963 elevation to the Hall of Fame. “Acute gastritis is what many doctors called it. I still have to take pills. There was a time in 1908 I was positive I wouldn’t live another week. And here I am, 87.” Flick missed all but nine games of the 1908 season. He tried to come back in 1909, but hit just .255/.322/.315 (.264 EqA). He seldom played in 1910, and called it quits for good that July. He slowly faded from the game until the Veterans Committee remembered him in 1963.
We can never know for sure, but there is all kinds of superficial evidence that Flick’s illness was psychosomatic. “Gastritis” is one of those vague, catch-all diagnoses a doctor gives when you have stomach pain but there’s not an obvious cause. It seems unlikely that Flick would have a 55-year (as of 1963) stomach infection and that, in the absence of antibiotics (production of which didn’t ramp up until the 1930s; Casey Stengel was an early investor), doctors found him some kind of long-lasting placebo. This was 1908, and modern psychology was still in its early stages. Freud would not give his galvanizing American lectures until 1909. There were no antidepressant medications until the 1950s. Doctors were still kicking around vague, pseudo-psychiatric catch-all diagnoses like “neurasthenia.” Anxiety disorder or any other kind of psychological disability was not something baseball, or society, had the knowledge or the tools to cope with.
The year before Flick’s breakdown, Chick Stahl, player-manager of the Red Sox, committed suicide during spring training. Later, there would be Willard Hershberger’s in-season suicide (1940), Jimmy Piersall’s breakdown (1952), and the emotional problems that forced Tony Horton from the game at the age of 25 in 1970, as well as numerous other incidents, some reported, many not. Baseball never developed procedures for counseling troubled players. In the 1950s, Bill Veeck hired the first team psychologist for his St. Louis Browns, but he meant it as one of his many novelties. This thin gesture aside, the attitude maintained by baseball was not unlike that expressed by Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.” To paraphrase: “There’s no breakdowns in baseball!”
More than 60 years after Flick’s career ended, Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller forced the game to confront the issue. In 1971, outfielder Alex Johnson had fallen out with Angels management and many of his teammates. An All-Star in 1970, the winner of the batting title that year (he beat Carl Yastrzemski, .3289 to .3286), Johnson had hit .300 for three consecutive seasons, but was non-communicative and seemed to have lost his desire to play, not running hard in the field or on the bases. His batting average, the main source of his offensive contributions, dropped as low as .230. He claimed that teammate Chico Ruiz had threatened him with a gun in the clubhouse; this turned out to be true, but the Angels' general manager, Dick Walsh, suppressed the facts, so the accusation was seen as further evidence of Johnson’s instability.
In late June of 1971, the Angels fined Johnson a record 29 times for lack of hustle; the fines totaled $3,750. On June 26, the Angels finally put Johnson on the suspended list for “failure to hustle and improper mental attitude.” In a baseball first, Miller argued that Johnson should have been placed on the Disabled List, arguing that being emotionally incapacitated was no different from being physically injured. American League president Joe Cronin refused to intervene, arguing that if a player was allowed to be disabled for psychological reasons, the precedent would allow legitimately punished players to claim that they weren’t loafing, but suffering from a medical condition. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did intervene, but only to move Johnson from the Suspended List to the Restricted List—transmuting Johnson’s sentence from a 30-day maximum to an open-ended ban.
Perhaps inevitably, arbitration eventually ensued, during which it became apparent that the Angels had lied about the Ruiz incident, and that Johnson, both from his own erratic testimony and that of expert witnesses, was clearly ill; he was diagnosed with severe reactive depression. In an odd decision that lamely attempted to satisfy both sides, the arbitrator ruled that Johnson should have been placed on the Disabled List and that he be given credit for service time retroactive to his suspension, but he allowed the fines to stand.
Johnson resumed his playing career in 1972, but never again came close to hitting as well as he had in 1968-1970. However, an important precedent was established, and mental illness in baseball lost some of its stigma. During the 1980s and early 1990s, team psychologists would establish themselves with many clubs. When John Smoltz consulted a sports psychologist after a dismal start to the season in 1991, it was a big story. “Everybody is going to look at going to a psychologist and say ‘Geez, he's gone crazy,’” Smoltz said at the time. Today, it’s better understood that sometimes a player can be something less than crazy but still require some emotional assistance. When Zack Greinke of the Royals was forced to miss all but three games of the 2006 season because of emotional problems, the news elicited not condemnation, but sympathy.
As we head into the postseason, into the time of year which creates great heroes and even greater goats, it’s worth remembering Elmer Flick. There are players who can stand alone on the field, castigated by 50,000 voices, yet they can draw strength from that abuse. There are others under the same circumstance who respond with something like Flick’s stomachache clawing at their innards, trying to break their spirit. You can’t tell which is which from the outside. You can’t tell the days that they feel strong, and the days they don’t. Fear lives within us, and though most of us are able to sublimate it, even forget it exists for long periods of time, it can be set free with a word. We’ll never know what loosed Flick’s demons, but it’s possible, very possible, maybe even likely, that that word was “boo.”