The Infinite Inning podcast asks, “How do you progress through life when you can’t get the third out?” Baseball’s Brief Lives: Player Stories Inspired by the Infinite Inning explores that question by examining 100 players of the past in a series of biographical essays featuring analysis, eyewitness reactions, and the interconnectedness of baseball and the greater world. From celebrated athletes such as Henry Aaron, Pedro Martinez, and Pee Wee Reese to obscure but no-less-memorable players like the ejection-prone Bad Bill Dahlen, spinach-obsessed second baseman Ski Melillo, and worst-ever Yankees shortstop Pee-Wee Wanninger, Steven Goldman’s profiles find the sweet spot linking the marvelous complexities of baseball and life.
From Chapter One: Team of Greats
DON DRYSDALE, RHP 518 G, 1956–69 209–166, 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+), 67.1 WAR
Imagine dying in an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper’s most famous piece is Nighthawks, his depiction of a noirish nighttime diner, but he often painted people alone, whether on trains, in apartments, restaurants, hotel rooms, or even a movie theater. Sometimes there is more than one person in the painting, but it’s clear they’re alone together, not connecting. Some of the solitary occupants of these rooms are men, and some are women. They vary in states of dress and undress, but the nudity isn’t erotic or an expression of freedom, it’s a concession to loneliness: If no one sees you, you have nothing to conceal. Occasionally, as in his Macomb’s Dam Bridge or House by the Railroad, even buildings are alienated. The bridge depicted in the former is adjacent to Yankee Stadium (old and new), but Hopper chose an angle that didn’t include that welcoming edifice. Not every Hopper painting conforms to this theme, and the painter himself liked to deny there was a theme at all, but the bulk of his work exists in the penumbra of human warmth.
After Don Drysdale retired in 1969, he stayed in the game as a broadcaster, bouncing through Montréal, Texas, Anaheim, and Chicago before finally landing back in Los Angeles. He had a wife and four children but nevertheless pursued a peripatetic life. That life no doubt had its comforts and amenities, but the vagabond’s existence has certain risks, whether one sleeps in a suite or on a park bench. On July 3, 1993, Drysdale suffered a fatal heart attack while alone in a Montréal hotel room. He was less than three weeks away from his 57th birthday.
I did a pre-game interview with him recently and I remember thinking how good he looked. How healthy and strong. I guess you never know what’s going on inside a person. —Dusty Baker.
There are no further details to give because the ex-pitcher was alone when he died; Drysdale had had some heart problems, and they caught up with him at a moment when aid was impossible. He saw the Dodgers beat the Expos, probably had dinner, then retired for the night. Fans take for granted the high status enjoyed by ballplayers and the other participants in major-league baseball and often use that to claim that the players owe them something— say, not striking for better pay or improved conditions, or playing through a pandemic. Never let it be forgotten that baseball is a grind, and it can exact a price from all involved, whether players, front office members, or broadcasters. They sacrifice home and family for your entertainment, and every once in a rare while, the last thing they see on this earth is the hotel minibar or the thin comfort of an alien pillow.
Drysdale still holds the modern NL record for hitting batters, with 154. “The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid,” Drysdale told Dave Anderson Team of Greats 51 of The New York Times in 1979. “And if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter he’s timid.” He picked up the philosophy from veteran pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie, who was with the Dodgers when Maglie was 40 and Drysdale was 19. Maglie only hit a few batters per season, though; his point was about intimidation, pushing the batter off the plate so he could drop a curve on the outside corner. Drysdale took it to an extreme, hitting up to 20 batters a season. A number of pitchers have since hit more batters than Drysdale (the closest active pitcher, Charlie Morton, has 148 (through mid-season 2022) and may pass Drysdale’s total in less than half as many innings), but few of them were criticized for being headhunters, because they didn’t proselytize on behalf of intimidation like he did.
Drysdale led us in wins that year . He threw hard and he threw sidearm and he was mean enough to knock people down, but the big guy was just a kid at the time and wasn’t a smart pitcher or sure of himself…. Driz, as I called him [was] a very volatile guy. He had a hair-trigger temper. He was a good guy, but he could be as mean as [Koufax] was clean. —John Roseboro
From Chapter Three: Yankees of Varying Quality
HORACE CLARKE, 2B 1272 G, 1965–74 .256/.308/.313 (83 OPS+), 15.6 WAR
It used to be fashionable to call the period between the last pennant of the Yankees dynasty in 1964 and the team’s return to the postseason in 1976 the “Horace Clark Era.” That was supposed to suggest a contrast: The Yankees once had greats like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but then they had Horace. This was unfair in a number of ways. Clarke was hardly the worst Yankees regular in the history of the team (Tino Martinez as a Yankee: 16.7 WAR; Clarke: 16.0). He was just a glove-first middle infielder, who, well, sometimes had a few problems on defense. He in no way exemplified the level of talent the Yankees had, because, during his years as an everyday player (1967–73), the team regularly received huge seasons from position players such as Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, and the vastly underrated Roy White, as well as strong contributions from pitchers such as Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson, Al Downing, and Lindy McDaniel. The problem, then, wasn’t that they had no players better than Clarke, but that they didn’t have enough who were better, and did have several who were worse.
Yankees manager Ralph Houk exacerbated things by overexposing Clarke. In 1967, Houk parked him in the leadoff spot and left him there. Clarke would not have been a great hitter in any role, but had he batted eighth where he belonged, no one would have complained. Instead, his skipper gave him a job that was not within his skill set and looked away. In 1968, Clarke hit .223/.249/.248 as a leadoff man, which was terrible even for that offensively arid season. It remains the worst season by a regular leadoff hitter in history, but that’s on Houk, who was habitually clueless in this regard until, late in his career, he got to manage Wade Boggs.
About those problems on defense: Clarke was averse to contact with the runner when turning the double play. That is, rather than hang in on a take-out slide, he would bail out while holding the ball. Fans hated it, teammates questioned it, and management lectured him about it. In an era in which the takeout slide has been outlawed, Clarke’s “cowardice” should be revisited. From 1969–71, he played 156 to 159 games a year, and that kind of durability might not have been possible had he allowed himself to be knocked into the outfield on a regular basis. It’s also worth noting that his defensive numbers are quite good, and that he twice led the AL in double plays turned.
One day early this season, Horace Clarke came out of Yankee Stadium…and there was this kid, maybe 11 or 12. “Hey Hoss, how come you can’t make the double-play?” Clarke remembers the kid saying…. He remembers that he said something like, “Well, we can’t all be stars. I guess I’m just a lousy ballplayer.” —Dick Young
The day they traded Clarke to the Padres, the Yankees lost to the Twins. Covering the game in the New York Daily News, Young wrote, “Nobody can blame this defeat on Horace Clarke. [He] was several hundred miles away.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands don’t produce many ballplayers, but Clarke remains the career leader in WAR for players born there:
|Top Five Players Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands|
I don’t care what you do for a living. I don’t believe I am gifted, like Clemente, or Cedeño, or Mantle. About 10 percent of the ballplayers are gifted. For the other 90 percent of us, it is a struggle. —Horace Clarke
From Chapter Four: On the Fringes
EDDIE BROWN, OF 790 G, 1920–21, ’24–28 .303/.334/.400 (98 OPS+), 7.7 WAR
Some baseball nicknames are complimentary (“Hammerin’ Hank”), some descriptive (“High-Pockets Kelly”), some sort-of complimentary but in questionable taste (Mike “Superjew” Epstein), and a few are just vicious. Brown had one of the latter. He was known as “Glass Arm Eddie” because he couldn’t throw. He had reasonable assist totals during his brief career, but that doesn’t prove that the appellation was unfair; sometimes an outfielder will pile up high assist totals because baserunners feel safe testing his arm. He’ll get a few of them, but an above-average number are still safely traveling from first to third on a single.
Brown was tall for the time (6-foot-3) and rangy, but those throwing problems were real and came close to keeping him out of the majors; they certainly damaged his efforts to stay. He spent five years in the low minors without impressing anyone, missed a year serving in the Great War, and didn’t get his first cup of coffee until he was 28. John McGraw gave him a trial as a pinch-hitter in 1921. Brown hit .297 in the role, but all the Giants could see was that throwing arm. “Brown was not a success with the Giants for one reason,” wrote Tommy Holmes. “He certainly could paste the old apple and his fielding, while not particularly graceful, was done in a capable manner. But Ed’s throwing arm was atrocious. Cursed with a weak pegging arm, all McGraw’s horses and all McGraw’s men could not make a big leaguer out of the rangy Westerner in this respect.”
The Dodgers acquired Brown when they were looking for the short side of an outfield platoon. Once he got to play, he proved to be a durable singles hitter who piled up the hits but didn’t do much else to generate offense. He led the NL in games played in both 1925 and ’27. In between, he led the league with 201 hits, averaging .328/.355/.415 (115 OPS+). He hit only two home runs and drew only 23 walks, and it says something that the Dodgers had traded him to the Braves after only two seasons. From the time he got to play, at 32, until he was 35, he had four full seasons of hitting .300, then slumped to .268 and was packed off to Toledo; when you don’t become a regular until you’re 29, you don’t have very long until father time comes calling. Brown was probably hurt by being a .313 hitter in a league that averaged .284. Singles hitters were as cheap then as power hitters are now; think of Brown as the banjo-hitting version of Renato Núñez.
Throwing isn’t everything. Brown’s obituary asserts that, “Throughout his career he was noted as one of the league’s outstanding defensive players.” This is consistent with what was said during his career. On the occasion of Brown’s trade from the Dodgers to the Braves, Brooklyn manager Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson called Brown, “the greatest catcher of long flies [I] ever saw.” Reporter Thomas Rice added, “Brown has not been as spectacular as some outfielders because he runs so smoothly with his long legs that he makes star catches look easy.” Yet, Rice conceded, Braves shortstop/manager Dave Bancroft, “will relay many throws from Brown.” Brown hit only 16 home runs in his career, three of them in a doubleheader against the Phillies at the tiny Baker Bowl in 1924. After his playing days were over, he worked as a carpenter at the Mare Island Naval Ammunition Depot in California. Brown was once traded for a shortstop nicknamed “Binky”; maybe “Glass Arm Eddie” wasn’t so bad.
I’m 31. There’s no use lying about it, I suppose. —Eddie Brown, upon joining the Dodgers five weeks before his 33rd birthday
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