November 11, 2011
The BP Broadside
The Ramos and Rhem Kidnappings
Wilson Ramos has been kidnapped in Venezuela, and I am, as I assume most baseball fans are, eagerly awaiting news and hoping that he will be released unharmed so that he can return to the United States and continue a promising career that saw him hit .288/.342/.471 in the second half. This is an unusual story for me to write about, because it’s not a baseball problem you can analyze. There are no statistics to point to, no Babe Ruth story for me to use by way of analogy. There is only waiting and the hope that the criminals make clear their demands, get what they want—or better, get caught—and Ramos gets away without a scratch.
The lawlessness of Venezuela is strange for us to contemplate, and yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Americans experienced a similar kind of uncertainty in their everyday lives. The Great Depression unleashed a wave of bank robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes in our own country. All of the criminals that we now make movies about—Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and the rest—were at large in the land because of the twin scourges of prohibition and economic deprivation. Kidnappings were not uncommon, the most prominent of them the 1932 abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. The heightened sense of danger that arose from this and other crimes helped spur the rise to prominence of the FBI.
It was this environment—when it was possible that one might encounter a gangland hit going off in the local drugstore on the way to work—on which Flint Rhem intended to blame his own failings. Charles Flint Rhem pitched for the Cardinals in the 1920s and ‘30s. He threw a powerful fastball, a curve, and used a knuckleball as a change of pace. He was a good pitcher at times—in 1926, he led the National League in victories (20) with a 3.21 ERA compiled in a hitter’s park against a league average ERA of 4.54. He was also a problem drinker and, therefore, often unreliable.
There are many stories of about Rhem’s drinking, as there are about other baseball alcoholics such as Pete Alexander and Hack Wilson. It seems odd to us now, but in decades past, the lovable lush was a figure of fun and, in equal amounts, condescension. Most of the Rhem stories end in fines and suspensions and are essentially par for the course given what we might expect of someone with his addiction. After the 1928 season, the Cardinals (meaning manager Bill McKechnie and general manager Branch Rickey), had tired of Rhem’s disruptive lifestyle and indifferent results and had removed him from the roster. He was waived out of the league and spent the 1929 season pitching—badly—for Texas League and American Association teams.
The Cardinals still had hope for Rhem, and they reinstated him for the 1930 season. It would be a momentous year for the Cardinals. In early August, they sat in fourth place, 12 games behind the league-leading Dodgers (technically the Robins in those days, but we’ll stick with the more familiar nomenclature). From that moment on, the Cards were a best-in-baseball 39-10 (.796). They tore past the Giants, Cubs, and collapsing Brooklynites to take the pennant by two games. Rhem was a key player down the stretch, pitching in 10 games and going 8-0 with a 3.80 ERA. That last number doesn’t sound like much, but this was 1930—the greatest offensive season in baseball history—and the league average was 4.97. Overall, this was not atypical of the Cardinals, who had an unspectacular offense but also boasted an excellent pitching staff that had two future Hall of Fame pitchers in Burleigh Grimes (acquired at the trading deadline) and Jesse Haines, as well as hard-throwing lefty Wild Bill Hallahan, who led the league in both walks and strikeouts.
There is an important caveat to be offered to Rhem’s strong finish. In mid-September, the Cardinals and Dodgers were tied for first place. The two teams were to meet for the last time that season for a three-game series at Ebbets Field. Hallahan was supposed to start the first game, but someone had slammed his pitching hand in a taxi door. Rhem was tabbed to go in his place. There was just one problem: Rhem never showed up for the game. Hallahan dragged his injured paw out to the mound and somehow held the Dodgers hitless into the eighth inning, eventually settling for a 1-0 win in extra innings.
Rhem materialized at the team hotel after the game, disheveled and obviously drunk, and claiming that he had been kidnapped. He was waiting to take a cab to the ballpark, he said, when a car full of armed men pulled up and forced him inside. He was then taken to a house in New Jersey and, on threat of being shot, forced to drink glass after glass of whiskey. Rhem theorized that these were gamblers with money on the Dodgers. “It was terrible,” Rhem supposedly repeated again and again to his manager, Gabby Street. “It was awful.”
The story was tough to believe. Rhem was a notorious drinker and dissembler. Gangsters who forced a drunk to drink seemed more like wish fulfillment than threat. Rickey told the National League not to bother to investigate. Years later, Rhem admitted the story was a hoax, though he would not take credit for concocting it. And yet, despite the almost certain transparency of the lie, Rhem was not disciplined at the time. Perhaps it was that, in those more tolerant times, Rickey simply felt that there was no use in trying to stop Rhem from being Rhem, or—the country being in the state that it was in, crime being what it was—even the flinty Rickey had to admit that there was the tiniest hint of plausibility to the tale.
The Rhem affair was harmless to everyone but Rhem and his liver. We must hope that the Ramos affair has a similarly benign ending. If it does, it won’t have a punchline, and it won’t travel down the ages as Rhem’s story has, but we would gladly trade that possibility for a safe return and a case of amnesia affecting the memory of such events and the knowledge that the real world is capable of intruding on baseball in this way.
One would hope that Ramos’s kidnappers soon make their demands and his return can be safely transacted. Until that time, his story is one of deadly seriousness. Now that I think about it, Rhem’s tale isn’t funny either; the antics of an addict seldom are, or at least they shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, it’s the best we can do in such inhuman times.