June 8, 2010
Baseball Truly is a Funny Game
It was Art Linkletter, one of the great personalities from the early days of television, who created quite a franchise through a show and book entitled Kids Say the Darndest Things. Linkletter would talk to grade school-aged kids and draw out some classic responses. Cover baseball for a while and you find out that isn’t only kids who say the darndest things.
Of all the athletes, baseball players have always been by far the best at coming up with classic lines. Maybe it’s all the time they have to think of things to say, but it was probably more as Roy Campanella, the great Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, pegged it when he noted, “you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball.”
It didn’t start with Babe Ruth, but the Bambino was the first to make us cognizant of the fact that baseball players can be a funny bunch. Someone once pointed out to Ruth that the $80,000 contract he was seeking from the New York Yankees was more than President Herbert Hoover made, moving Ruth to utter the now famous line: "I had a better year than he had.”
Not that anyone should have been surprised, for Ruth earlier had a ballpark meeting with President Calvin Coolidge and remarked, “Hotter ‘n hell, ain’t it Prez?” That might have been when Coolidge became “Silent Cal.”
Things hadn’t changed much by the time Pete Rose came along, once receiving a call from President Ronald Reagan by saying, “How ya doin’, Ronnie?” Through a long career of covering major-league baseball, including a decade with Rose, a man who never was at a loss for words, you come to learn that humor can come from anywhere or anyone, star or bench warmer, manager or coach. And all of them, like the Yogi Berra lines that Joe Garagiola compiled, were hilarious, even if not remembered throughout history.
For example, there was the day that Al Ferrara made his debut with the Cincinnati Reds after he was obtained in a trade with the San Diego Padres. Put into left field, sure enough a fly ball soon came soaring his way. A character in his own right who spent his days at the racetrack, his nights at the ballpark, and his mornings who knows where, Ferrara circled under the fly like a Rush Street drunk at 4 a.m., finally flopping to the ground while somehow managing to catch the ball.
Naturally, after the game, a gaggle of writers approached the talkative Ferrera to ask him how he turned the most routine of plays into a Red Skelton comedy act. His retort should have been etched into the history books. “What’d ya expect for Angel Bravo? Willie Mays?”
Perhaps the greatest example of classic lines coming from unexpected places brings us to Alex Johnson, who was known as a surly, difficult player to deal with. But in 1969, while playing left field for Cincinnati, he had a wonderful moment. The Braves' Bob Tillman had sent a towering fly to deep left, Johnson backing to the fence. A notoriously bad outfielder, no one expected Johnson to catch the ball, including himself. He simply leaped and took a swat the ball and somehow batted it back into play. Standing there was his center fielder, the ever-present Rose, who had Charlie Hustled over and made the catch.
Fast forward to the 10th inning, Braves with bases loaded, one out, the outfield drawn in close and Sonny Jackson batting. As you can guess, he hit the ball to Johnson, a line drive right at him. Catch it and the winning run never would have been able to score, as shallow as he was playing. However, the ball hit Johnson in the worst place—his glove—and fell harmlessly at his feet. Immediately, Johnson turned and looked toward Rose, who was glaring at him. “Where were you?” Johnson asked, making even Rose laugh.
Oddly, Johnson is responsible for another great moment that year. A future batting champion, he showed improved power early in 1969, a season when his home-run total would jump from two to 17. Early in the year, after hitting his seventh home run, one of my brilliant sports writing colleagues asked the probing question, “Alex, you hit two home runs last year and have seven now. What’s the difference?” Johnson looked at him deadpan and answered, “Five.”
See, sometimes getting a humorous response comes from a rather feeble question. There was a minor-league Pittsburgh pitcher named Willie Smith, who came from a small town in North Carolina. In an effort to get some information for a story, I asked him “How big is your high school?” He answered, "Two floors." What more need be said?
Baseball humor sometimes is well thought out. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Reds and the Phillies had developed a very friendly rivalry, perhaps played out best by the two shortstops, David Concepcion in Cincinnati and Larry Bowa in Philadelphia. The Reds came into Philly one day and Bowa approached Concepcion around the batting cage during BP.
"Hey, Elmer, how you doing?” Bowa said to Concepcion.
Concepcion, biting at the bait, replied, "Why do you call me Elmer?"
Because every day I look in the box score and it says ‘E_Concepcion.’ I figured your name had to be Elmer,” Bowa said, laughing at how well that had played out.
And if you are a fan of Berra’s humor, you have to love some of Andy Van Slyke’s proclamations. Once, while in a deep slump, Van Slyke dubbed his year as “The Summer of 4-3.” Another time when he wasn’t hitting, he explained he had “an Alka Seltzer bat. You know, plop, plop, fizz, fizz. When a pitcher sees me walking up there he thinks ‘Oh, what a relief it is.’” And, of course, his most famous line was the one he came up with to explain his early days as a third baseman before moving to center field. “They wanted me to play third like Brooks, so I did play like Brooks— Mel Brooks.”
Now, to get serious for a moment, what bothers me is that much of this is leaving the game of baseball. With the emphasis on statistics and not people in baseball reporting, with a lessening of contact between players and reporters both in the clubhouse and off the field, relations are not the same and because of it this deep vein of American humor is being lost.
Oh, just to hear Pete Rose one more time describe himself this way: “I’m just like everybody else. I have two arms, two legs... and 4,000 hits."