DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY #18 (Bill Doak Edition)

This Has Nothing To Do With Baseball

Since my father was taken ill, I’m having a hard time getting back into the flow of writing about baseball. It might be the daily visits to the in-patient rehab center that he’s currently in as he works to recover some of the stamina and agility he had before his heart attack put him in bed for a couple of weeks. At his age, you lose more from that kind of inactivity than you or I would. Otherwise, he retains all his faculties.

This supposedly well-reviewed facility strikes me as a combination of Dickensian orphanage and U-Store-It for senescent seniors. “Have a vegetating relative? Uncle Bill no longer have anything on the ball? Mom lose her bladder control along with memory of her address? Stick her in here and forget about her! So will we! We make the Medicare bucks, you get your life back, and if he or she dies, well, who’s to say it wasn’t natural causes anyway? You say we missed a blood pressure pill, we say she was 85! Fahgedaboudit!”

The building is beige. The people are beige. The halls are hung with beige artwork in a style that reminds me of Pierre Auguste Cot crossed with N.C. Wyeth by way of a plastics factory—lovers in baroque attire slumped closely together. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to suggest; perhaps the owners think the patients are so old that they date from Second Empire France. Each set of halls has the same layout—on one end, a large tank with fish staring like spaced-out people, at the other end a nurse’s station around which are clustered women in wheelchairs staring like spaced-out fish. The fish and the women receive about equal attention, which is to say none; the difference is that the fish are silent. The women cry out. One moans continuously, a wail of bewilderment. She doesn’t know where she is and no one will tell her. Tears stream from her eyes. Near her, an ancient black woman compulsively undresses herself; beneath her pants she wears a diaper. When she unbuttons her shirt, it disconnects a monitor and a screeching alarm sounds, finally summoning the nurses, who have been but a few feet away this entire time. They button her back up, but then she starts all over again.

You have to try to avert your eyes from all of this, to give the sufferers their dignity, but the problem is that wherever you look there is more, and if you can spare them your eyes it is harder to avoid the smell, or the sounds. Walking the halls over the weekend, I heard, from far down the corridor, a woman crying: “Let me out! I want to get out!”

“You shut up and sit down!” someone answered. “You’re causing a problem!” I hurried towards the sound, thinking that if someone was being abused I was morally obligated to help. As I moved down the hallway, the crying stopped and I could not identify who had been begging for rescue. Moments later, a young blonde nurse, rolls of fat rippling angrily beneath her uniform, passed me on the way to a door, knocking a cigarette out of a pack as she stomped by. I looked up at the clock, wanting to note the time, as if I would be called upon to testify at an inquest. I had forgotten that none of the clocks in this place are accurate. Why should they be? None of these people have any use for time. Day or night they are here, like the fish. The time of day doesn’t matter, but the period: sudden-death overtime.

Driving in yesterday, it struck me that the exterior of the building was designed like an old-style motor-inn, the Howard Johnson’s on the interstate to Purgatory. I was walking to my father’s room when one of the women in the wheelchairs came to life and said, “Could you wheel me to my room?”

I glanced towards the nurses, who were gossiping to each other. They had taken no notice of either of us. The woman sensed my hesitation. “It’s that first open door over there.” She pointed about 15 feet away. “Sure,” I said at last. “Happy to.” I got behind the wheelchair, grabbed the handles, and pushed towards the door she had indicated. As I turned into the room, she said, “No, wait. This isn’t right. It’s not my room.”

“Is it the next one?” I asked.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“That’s okay. Just let me take you to the right one.” How did I get dragged into this?

“I don’t know which one it is. I’m so sorry.” I thought she might cry.

I backed up and wheeled her up the hall, hoping that she at least had the right ballpark. “What’s your name, ma’am?” All of the rooms listed the occupants on the doorway. I prayed that she knew her name.

“Joan,” she said confidently. I scanned the doors as we rolled along. I found a Joan. “This one?” I asked.

“I think so.” As we crossed the threshold, her roommate called out to her. We were in the right place, but Joan had been absent an abnormally long time. Apparently Joan had been stranded by the nursing station for some time and the roommate had wondered if she had vanished. I guess no one had bothered asking her if she wanted or needed to go anywhere. As I left her by the bed, the roommate called out to me. “She can’t get into bed by herself.”

“I’ll fetch a nurse,” I said, and got out of there as quickly as possible before I was asked to assist with a sponge-bath of a bedpan or any of a million other things I would feel dreadfully uncomfortable doing for a complete stranger. I informed a nurse of Joan’s plight, watched long enough to make certain that she was on her way, and then hurried off in search of my father, vowing to get him out of there that very day if possible.

Of course, it wasn’t possible. I still go each day, each day I pray for each of us to have a long and healthy life, pray that if I must end that I go with my faculties intact, and not linger in decrepitude to be treated like a defecating houseplant in one of these vile places, unaware of everything except that I’m not who I was, that I’m lost, confused, and alone.

Bill Doak RHP 1912-1924, 1927-1929 (1891-1954)

Coincidentally, Bill Doak went quickly. Had a heart attack in his bathtub and that was that…

There have been 218 individual ERA titles since 1900. A little more than half of them were won by pitchers who never led the league again. The repeat ERA title-holders:




Lefty Grove


Roger Clemens


Walter Johnson


Pedro Martinez


Sandy Koufax


Christy Mathewson


Pete Alexander


Randy Johnson


Greg Maddux


Carl Hubbell


Johan Santana


Tom Seaver


Warren Spahn


Dazzy Vance


21 Pitchers


113 Pitchers

As the table shows, every pitcher who won more than two ERA titles and is eligible for the Hall of Fame is in, and barring some unsuspected PED revelations, Maddux and Randy Johnson are sure things. Winning just one ERA title doesn’t provide the same guarantees. Of the 113 pitchers with a single title, only 11 are in (not counting Babe Ruth, who led the AL in 1916, but was inducted for other reasons).  

Winning two titles puts a pitcher in a grey area. Of the 21 pitchers who won two ERA titles, two, Kevin Brown and Jake Peavy, are ineligible (Brown will be voted on for the first time next year). The remaining 19:

Ten Men In: Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Addie Joss, Hal Newhouser, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Ed Walsh, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Nine men out: Bill Doak, Mike Garcia, Ron Guidry, Ray Kremer, Dolf Luque, Gary Peters, Luis Tiant, Bill Walker, Bucky Walters.

The unelected nine were all excellent pitchers, and you can hang an interesting story on just about all of them—Bill Doak, for example. As the nickname “Spittin’ Bill” suggests, Doak was a spitballer, one of the handful grandfathered after the pitch was outlawed. Doak came up with the Reds in 1912 at age 21. Manager Hank O’Day—better known as the umpire who screwed Fred Merkle for all eternity (O’Day is simply ubiquitous in early baseball history)—didn’t think he was much of a prospect and sent him packing. The Cardinals picked him up for 1913. This was during the organization’s formative years, before Branch Rickey got them cooking in the mid 1920s. Manager Miller Huggins didn’t think the skinny Doak had great possibilities either, and so he suggested that the righty add a spitball to his arsenal.

The spitter saved Doak’s career. In 1914 he went 19-6 and led the NL with a 1.72 ERA. The problem was, he wasn’t consistent at that level or anywhere near it. The next year his ERA was 2.64, which sounds good, but was only a little above-average for the time. In 1917, his ERA rose to 3.10. The league average was 2.70, and Doak went 16-20. He rounded in 1918, was below average again in 1919, won 20 games with a good ERA in 1920—his whole career was like that. He picked up his second ERA title in 1921, 2.59 against a league ERA of 3.78. Doak was also the Steve Trachsel of his time, pitching a slow and thoughtful game with plenty of pauses in an era in which the typical contest sped by to be sure of getting it in before dark.

In June of 1924, Rickey swapped Doak to the Robins for a nonentity named Leo Dickerman; Rickey was a great man and a great general manager, but not a great trader. Doak initially struggled with his new team, going 1-4 in his first five games, but then reeled off 10 straight wins in 15 games (11 starts), at one point winning three games in six days, two of them complete-game shutouts. He retired after the season to go into Florida real estate, which was then in the midst of going through a massive bubble period. The boom attracted several notable baseball personalities, including Joe Tinker and John McGraw. The bubble burst in 1925-1926, and perhaps not coincidentally, Doak was back with the Dodgers in 1927. He pitched decently in a part-time role for the Dodgers for a couple of years, made on encore appearance for the Cards, then retired for good. His 144 career victories for St. Louis still ranks fifth on the club’s career list, while his 32 shutouts ranks second to Bob Gibson.

Doak had three one-hitters. In the first, in 1920, the only hit resulted when he failed to cover first on a ball hit between first and second which had caused the first baseman to range off the bag. The second baseman stopped the ball, but Doak wasn’t there to receive it. Approximately two years later, Doak was pitching against the Giants. New York’s leadoff man, Dave Bancroft, bunted down the first base line. Neither Doak nor the first baseman went after the ball. Doak didn’t surrender another hit. Later that same season, he again failed to cover first on the same play and again did not allow another hit. Besides “Spittin’ Bill,” Doak had another nickname, “Lumbago Bill,” and maybe it was the back issues that stopped him from covering. (For more on the one-hitters, see Stephen Boren’s article in the 31st issue of SABR’s Baseball Research Journal.)

Doak ‘s enduring contribution to baseball is the invention of the modern fielder’s glove. In 1919 it was his insight to build up the thumb on the glove and add webbing between the thumb and index finger to create a pocket for fielding. This was so successful that Rawlings’ Doak model glove, introduced in 1920, was available until 1953, one year before his death, and the royalties helped make Doak’s retirement a comfortable one.   


One more plug for “The Shortstop Song,” inspired by the Kansas City Royals and good players trapped on bad teams everywhere, now available for streaming and download at Casual Observer Music.

Thank you for reading

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I've been to a few similar facilities in my life, and your anger is justified. It's depressing to look at how the elderly are treated at many facilities in this country. My wife used to be an activity director for one of these facilities, and she left the industry due to poor experiences in a couple of the communities she worked for. However, she does still volunteer at one of these places, which she claims is a 'beacon of dignity' in an otherwise classless industry. Thanks for your insights, as always.
Hey Steven,

I remember meeting your father at one of those BP signing events at the Yogi (maybe as long as 4 years ago?) and I remember having a nice conversation with him. I hope he is feeling better soon.

As a child I remember visiting my grandmother at the nursing home every other week in Great Neck, NY. It was a four story building with the most ambulatory patients on the first floor and getting worse as they went up. My grandmother was on the 4th floor. Alzheimer's. In any case those places have an aura of hopelessness no matter how good they are. The bad ones--and it seems abundantly clear that your father has found one of those--I just get ill thinking about them. Which I guess is why I'm commenting on your always excellent writing. Made me think of my own childhood and visiting my grandmother in a place that, honestly, I don't think anyone ever wants to end up in. Even if it's only for a visit.

Hoping things get better soon.

I wish you and your father all the best. You obviously feel strongly about thsi - you should file a complaint regarding the facility.

Thanks for the notes on Lumbago Bill - hard to imagine something like that, these days!
Glad your back with these, they are a joy to read. Perspective comes in all shapes and sizes. Hang in there, your constant attention will make things alright.