A nice thing about baseball is that, with scores of past seasons, thousands of past players and hundreds of thousands of past games — in the majors alone! — there’s always backstory to catch up on and extended universe to fall into.
So this year, while we were enjoying the drama, superlatives and weirdness of the 2019 season, we were also continually learning new bits of drama, superlatives and weirdness from baseball’s long past.
Here are nine totally unexpected things I learned about baseball this year:
1. In its first few years as home of the San Francisco Giants, Candlestick Park was blamed for as many as 19 fatal heart attacks.
The team’s owner, Horace Stoneham, liked Candlestick Point for his new stadium in part because of how much room there was for parking. But those parking spaces (as well as the public transit drop-offs) were a long incline from the main entrance, and until the team built giant escalators, fans had no choice but to climb. Within weeks of the stadium opening, writers noticed a lot of people were dying at it. Among the fatalities, according to the book “Death At The Ballpark”:
Leo Reardon, 68, who collapsed and died while walking to a first-aid station on May 4, 1960. He was the fourth victim in the stadium’s first nine games.
Donald Durbin, 45, who died just after completing the slope on April 11, 1961. He was the first victim of the 1961 season and the eighth overall.
Joseph Costa, 56, who “was under a physician’s care for a heart problem.” The Associated Press reported in 1962 that “Costa collapsed prior to Sunday’s San Francisco/Cincinnati game while walking up the hill. Costa was the eighth person to die this year from the climb.” The report counted Costa as the 18th victim in three seasons.
Columnist Herb Caen is generally credited with giving the slope its name: Cardiac Hill.
Before that park opened, the Giants had already hosted one fatal cardiac arrest: Francis Ahern, the city’s police chief, died of a heart attack in the stands that might have been caused by a 15th-inning rally. According to “Death At The Ballpark,” Ahern “had a heart attack while cheering a close play at the plate during the 15th inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Giants and Dodgers at Seals Stadium on Sept. 1, 1958. With the score tied at 4 and the bases loaded for the second consecutive inning, Ahern stood with the crowd to yell as the Giants’ Willie Kirkland raced for home. Just as the player was called out on what would have been the winning run, Ahern collapsed to the floor in front of his seat. After being administered last rites by two priests, the chief was taken to a first-aid station where he was pronounced dead.” The Giants won in the bottom of the 16th.
2. Mickey Mantle sometimes cried when he struck out.
It’s not uncommon to read of the sadness of retired athletes: Fame and mission dissipate, their marvelous physical machines break down, and long-term effects of pain and medication and surgery accumulate. We rarely get the glimpse of how sad great athletes are while they’re playing — but, of course, they sometimes are, just as we all sometimes are. Mantle cried when he struck out, according to his manager Casey Stengel, quoted in a Sports Illustrated profile in 1959. When the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series, Mantle “couldn’t stop crying.” And Jane Leavy writes in her Mantle biography, “The Last Boy”: “Frank Petrillo kept him company one evening after a particularly trying day at the ballpark. ‘He was actually crying,’ Petrillo told his son. ‘I can’t perform any better than I’m performing, and it’s not good enough.'”
Like every kid, I sometimes cried when I struck out. And I felt ashamed that I cried in front of teammates, that I’d been caught being sad. Then one time our best player, who seemed so much more confident and grown-up than I felt, also cried after he struck out. What a relief that was. And now Mickey Mantle, too! And, for that matter, in his own way, Babe Ruth. This is how he reacted to a disappointing 1922 season, according to Leigh Montville’s biography, “The Big Bam”: “He wondered if the critics were right about 1922 and if he was indeed finished. He was afraid 1923 wasn’t going to be any better. He thought that people hated him, despite the attention and the cheers.
“He said he pretty much hated himself.”
3. Hideki Matsui asked his hitting coach to listen to his swing over the phone.
That’s from Robert Whiting’s book “You Gotta Have Wa”: Matsui “was such a perfectionist about proper form that he once telephoned his former manager and mentor Shigeo Nagashima back in Tokyo to have him listen to the sound of his bat as Matsui swung it. Did it cut through the air with the proper ‘whoosh,’ he wanted to know.”
Nagashima — perhaps the most popular player in Japanese baseball history; his wedding, in 1965, was “the most-watched TV program in Japan that year” — was a perfectionist in his own right. He built a room in his house just for practicing his swing.
4. The pitcher known as Toothpick Sam for his omnipresent toothpick chewing actually pitched with a toothpick in his mouth.
This is just terrifying to me. Toothpick Sam Jones wasn’t some knuckleballer or control lefty who threw with 70 percent effort. He was a hard thrower who led the league in strikeouts three times in the 1950s (and in walks four times), and he did it all while a potentially lethal dagger was balanced about two inches away from his throat.
My initial hypothesis was that toothpicks in the 1950s must not have been like they are now — surely Jones was gnawing on some flimsy, reedy toothpick, far more benign than the modern little spears we chew today. But that is definitely not true, says Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke and the author of “The Toothpick: Technology and Culture.”
“Toothpicks in 1950s America were much better made than those of today,” he told us. “The older picks were made domestically — almost exclusively in Maine — and the better brands, at least, were of high quality control. Today, virtually all toothpicks sold in America are made abroad, mostly in China. They break easily. Old American toothpicks did not have these deficiencies. … The sharpness of good old toothpicks could be a hazard, as you suggest. I have an entire chapter on the dangers of using toothpicks and relate stories of deadly accidents involving them.” (A researcher in 1984 estimated 8,000 toothpick injuries per year, including some deaths by swallowing.)
Jones did eschew what he considered the most dangerous toothpicks — “those perfumed quill kind,” he told Time magazine; he also never used the gold toothpick the Cubs gifted him, according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig — but his preferred flat-style toothpicks did impale him at least once. Rory Costello, who wrote Jones’ SABR biography, passed along this anecdote:
“Another example of his competitive fire was visible on Aug. 6, 1959. Against Milwaukee, Hank Aaron’s fifth-inning blooper dropped into short left field. Jim Davenport and Ed Bressoud collided, Aaron motored for third, and Jones covered. Aaron came in hard, spiking the pitcher’s right knee — and driving Sam’s toothpick into his throat. Trainer Bob Bauman dislodged the pick, though, and Jones went on to record a 7-1, complete-game win.”
After Jones retired, U L Washington — a speedy utility player — became the toothpick guy: “U L always played with a blade of Bermuda grass in his mouth in high school. He kept up the habit in the minor leagues. Kansas City had artificial turf, so the toothpick was his adaptation to not having a blade of grass available.” According to Petroski’s book, Washington quit the habit because mothers worried their children would emulate him. The most recent example of toothpicking ballplayers is probably the Cuban hurler Jonder Martinez, who was spotted pitching with a toothpick in a 2015 international tournament and in a 2016 exhibition between Cuba and Tampa Bay.
5. In 1974, an umpire called pitches while the manager was on the field, about one foot away, still arguing.
The manager was Jim Marshall, who had just been hired by the Cubs midseason to his first managerial job. The umpire was Shag Crawford, most famous for being the home plate umpire in the Juan Marichal/John Roseboro game. The batter was the Cubs’ Bill Madlock. He and the pitcher, Al Hrabosky, were engaged in a battle of stalls, each one taking long walks just when the other was ready. Crawford ordered Madlock into the box, and Marshall ran out to argue. The umpire told Hrabosky to pitch, and with Marshall standing over him, Crawford called Hrabosky’s high fastball a strike. This set off pandemonium: Jose Cardenal jumped into the batter’s box — the wrong batter — and, as Hrabosky wound to throw another pitch, Marshall moved in front of the catcher to prevent it. Then Madlock ran into the batter’s box, apparently intent on swinging at the pitch, even though his teammate Cardenal was also in the box. The catcher, Ted Simmons, shoved Marshall aside to catch the pitch, which (thankfully) came in too high and tight for Madlock to swing at. The catcher then punched Madlock, and then there was a brawl. Roger Angell wrote about it. It’s wild.
I learned so many good stories about brawls, fights, unprovoked attacks, fan violence, and so on:
In 1981, benches cleared midgame for a fight under Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, in the tunnels. The Dodgers and Pirates left their dugouts and met in the middle, out of sight — players, coaches and managers. “By the time the umpires tracked everyone down, the incident was already over. There were no ejections.”
Rob Dibble once fired a ball at a baserunner for no reason. He got ejected, and charged with the error (and the unearned run that followed).
In the famous Marichal/Roseboro game, Willie Mays protected the Dodgers catcher Roseboro, and got booed by Giants fans for it.
After a Yankees victory, fans exiting the Stadium through the center-field gates mauled Mantle. “In the punching, shoving, grabbing melee that followed, Mantle’s cap was stolen and his jaw pummeled,” Leavy wrote in “The Last Boy.” “Scared he’d be poked in the eye, he bulldozed and elbowed his way to the dugout. … In the aftermath, the Yankee switchboard was flooded with angry calls condemning Mantle and accusing him of accosting innocent children. ‘I hit quite a few,’ Mantle told Stan Isaacs of Newsday, ‘but tell them I got the worst of it.'”
Reggie Sanders charged Pedro Martinez after Martinez hit him with a pitch. The HBP had just broken up a perfect game in the eighth inning.
6. Orlando Cepeda sued a magazine for saying he wasn’t very good.
According to James Hirsch’s “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” the article in Look magazine was based in part on Giants manager Alvin Dark’s “secret grading system” for his players, which involved a series of pluses and minuses for virtually anything Dark could think of. Dark concluded that Cepeda had a lot of minuses, and Look quoted him.
So Cepeda sued the publishers of Look for $ 1 million. The original article had come out just before the Supreme Court case New York Times Company v. Sullivan was decided, codifying a much higher standard for libel against public figures, and after that decision Cepeda had a difficult case to prove. Mays and Giants owner Stoneham, among others, testified in court on Cepeda’s behalf, but a jury ruled against him. An appeals court in 1967 agreed. “About the only satisfaction that Cepeda received came when a judge ordered [article author Tim] Cohane to spend 10 days in jail for refusing to answer questions in federal court about the story. Cohane would not reveal the names of his sources, the ones that had criticized Cepeda.”
7. Marshall McLuhan also said baseball was dying.
In his 1964 book “Understanding Media,” the famous media theorist — “The medium is the message,” “Annie Hall” — wrote that baseball was not a suitable sport for television, or for a television era.
“The removal of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles was a portent in itself. Baseball moved West in an attempt to retain an audience after TV struck. The characteristic mode of the baseball game is that it features one-thing-at-a-time. It is a lineal, expansive game which, like golf, is perfectly adapted to the outlook of an individualist and inner-directed society. Timing and waiting are of the essence, with the entire field in suspense waiting upon the performance of a single player. By contrast, football, basketball, and ice hockey are games in which many events occur simultaneously, with the entire team involved at the same time. With the advent of TV, such isolation of the individual performance as occurs in baseball became unacceptable. Interest in baseball declined, and its stars, quite as much as movie stars, found that fame had some very cramping dimensions.”
He goes on from there but, of course, baseball did, too: Attendance per game is more than double what it was in 1964, and TV revenue has made it a $ 10 billion-a-year game.
In the same genre — famous experts trying, with mixed results, to apply their expertise to baseball — here’s the current director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, in 1992. He was then the chief economist for Bear Stearns, and he was forecasting the sport’s doom based on rising salaries:
“In the 1980s nobody thought you could pay too much for real estate, but by the end of the ’80s that bubble had burst. Baseball is not immune to speculative bubbles that burst. Any business that continues to permit high cost increases year in and year out becomes a suspect business. Look at [General Motors], at Ford.” McLuhan’s theory remains arguable today, though changing media obviously didn’t destroy (or necessarily even damage) baseball. Kudlow got it all the way wrong.
8. The fan who showed up at SkyDome in Toronto in 1995 with a loaded handgun and declared she was there to kill Roberto Alomar was banned from the stadium — for three years.
The fan was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison and three years’ probation, and prohibited from receiving a handgun permit for 10 years. The sentence the Blue Jays handed down is fascinatingly forgiving in comparison. If she had violated her probation, she could have been legally imprisoned longer than she was prohibited from seeing Pat Kelly.
I doubt it’s the intentional point, but baseball occasionally makes rather bold decisions that nobody should be deprived of it. In September 1929, the Yankees’ manager, Miller Huggins, died in the middle of a game. (He wasn’t at the game — he was hospitalized with “blood poisoning brought on by an infection beneath his left eye.”) This was an awfully emotional time. The Yankees’ owner said Huggins was less like a manager than a son. Lou Gehrig said he was less like a manager than a father. So it’s the fifth inning, and this beloved manager had just died, and they called the Yankees together to tell them, and they halted the game — for exactly one minute, timed on an umpire’s stopwatch. Then they started playing again!
As the New York Times’ account jarringly put it: “They stood at the home plate, a few fidgeting with their toes in the dust, some with their shoulders or heads quivering but most of them stonily immovable. Then they turned and trudged back to their dugout on the third-base flank of the grand stand. The scene became a ball game again.” The Yankees won in extra innings and, as the next day’s headline proclaimed, clinched second place.
9. One major league baseball will travel as much as 30 feet farther than another baseball in the same batch, based on minute physical differences nobody in the manufacturing process can really control — and which, in fact, scientists still haven’t identified.
It’s not just that the physical characteristics of the baseball used in the major leagues seem to have changed from year to year recently, leading to huge spikes in home run rates in 2017 and 2019. It’s that the ball changes from batch to batch, and from ball to ball within a batch, suggesting that a fair amount of what happens on a particular swing is based on which of five or six balls in his pouch an umpire puts in play. And it has probably always been this way: “That is kind of fundamental to the equipment choice we’ve made,” said Morgan Sword, senior VP of league economics and operations. “I mean, it’s always been the case. The baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport.”
So: Babe Ruth’s called shot might have been merely an embarrassing fly out had the umpire grabbed a different ball. Willie Mays might have had plenty of time to casually flag down Vic Wertz’s fly ball in the 1954 World Series — or no chance to reach it at all if the pitch before had simply been fouled out of play. When Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball was sold for $ 3 million, the buyer didn’t get just a memento of the record, but, perhaps, an actor in it.