May 25, 2010
Growing Up with a Future Big Leaguer
Let me tell you about the best hitter I ever saw, and in 30 years of covering major-league baseball, I saw a few pretty good hitters. Guys named Aaron, Rose, and Bonds, to begin with. I was there when Pete Rose collected the hit that broke Ty Cobb’s record, and I was there when Barry Bonds hit his first home run and there when Hank Aaron hit his 714th to tie Babe Ruth.
But they couldn’t hit like Janet Murk. That’s right. Janet. A woman.
I will introduce you to her as a way to get around to another pretty fair hitter, a wonderful character named Richie Scheinblum, who should have hit his way into the Hall of Fame but could not get past April. It was the early 1950s when I came across Janet Murk. She was a Little League coach in Englewood, New Jersey, long before women were making their mark in sports. She had played a couple of games for the local high school until they passed a rule that women couldn’t play on the men’s team.
She wound up playing a year in a women’s league after graduating, then became a Little League coach. I know about her because I played for her as a 10-year-old. My teammate was Richie Scheinblum. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
Richie Scheinblum and I originally played for a team named Hughes Auto Electric. It was the best team in the league, but it had one weakness, a kid just learning how to catch in his first year. Me.
I woke up one morning and read in the local newspaper—honest, in those days they ran stories on the local Little League—that I had been part of a 10-player trade. The paper noted that the reason for the trade was that Hughes had to improve its catching. I cried for a week.
Janet Murk had an awful team that season. It was in its first year in the league and we were no-hit more often than we won, which was exactly once. But she shaped the team, worked with it, and by the time we reached 12 years old, we were champions.
Perhaps Janet Murk’s biggest contribution was to turn Richie Scheinblum into a switch-hitter. Oh, the man could hit. We would practice all the time, all summer. I threw pretty well then. As we got older, I’d move closer and closer, throwing harder and harder, as Richie Scheinblum would never—never—swing and miss.
We graduated from Little League, but not before I beat Scheinblum out for the home run championship by one, something he neither forgot nor admitted to, always wanting to count the one homer he had had rained out, but that wouldn’t be. I had the trophy.
By high school we were both pretty fair players, good enough to have a shot at a couple of tryouts that we went to together. The first was held by the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose famous scouting brothers, Rex and Joe Bowen, came to town. First thing they had me do was warm up this really wild, hard-throwing left-hander. We were on a field with one of those overhanging backstops. Well, this kid let one fly and the ball slipped. I looked up, it hit the top of the backstop, came down and smashed into my nose. It was a bloody mess, broken. I went to the hospital, end of that tryout.
Then there was the day we headed to Jersey City for a tryout with the Jersey City Reds, the Triple-A farm team of the Cincinnati Reds that had just moved there from Cuba when Fidel Castro and his communist regime overthrew the government. We were gassed, driving to Jersey City way ahead of schedule. We came upon a batting cage and decided we’d pour some quarters in it to get ready for this Triple-A pitching. We cranked it up to full speed and hit for about a half an hour. Bring on the heat. We were ready.
Arriving in Jersey City, we got ourselves into uniform, dressing in the locker room, then going out for batting practice. Scheinblum stood in. First pitch, he swung. Oops. It was a 60 mph batting practice fastball. He could have swung again before it got there. It took about 15 minutes for him to adjust and hit one hard. The way I hit, it didn't matter. A while later we’re taking infield practice, Richie in right field, me catching. Scheinblum’s first throw was the equivalent of his first swing—sailing 20 feet over my head and into the seats.
Scheinblum wound up signing with the Cleveland Indians. Maybe they thought that was the only way to get back the cost of the jersey he pilfered from the locker room. It took a while, but Scheinblum became a great minor-league hitter who earned a place in the major leagues. Somehow, he could not find a way to hit in April. In 1969, for example, he started the season 0-for-34 for the Indians.
Only once did he capture the magic. He became the Kansas City Royals’ starting right fielder in 1972 and in mid-July he was leading the American League in hitting at .341 and was selected to the All-Star Game. In September, he was still very much in the batting race but was hit on each foot by a pitch, one from Blue Moon Odom, the other by Catfish Hunter. He continued to play and lost 18 points off his batting average, finishing second to Rod Carew, .318 to .307.
The next year Scheinblum he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds with pitcher Roger Nelson in one of the best trades the Royals ever made, as they got pitcher Wayne Simpson and outfielder Hal McRae, who became one of their greatest hitters.
Oh, by the way, covering the Reds that year was a young baseball writer who once beat Scheinblum out of a home-run championship. And what was the first thing he said when he came to Cincinnati?
“Whatever you do, I’m a year younger than I really am,” he pleaded, having knocked a year off his age somewhere along the way.