Joe and Ted
Mostly, I've been lucky. I came of baseball age in the late 1940s, when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were at the height of their powers. My family lived in southern Connecticut, in New Haven, a train ride away from Boston and a train ride away from New York. You could get the Red Sox games on the radio. But the Yankee games you could get -- if you actually had one -- on TV. We had a DuMont TV, black-and-white, about the size of a breadbox; my father, a frugal New Englander, had won it at a raffle at a Polish Catholic church in New Haven. I rooted for DiMaggio's Yankees, much to my father's chagrin. His team was the Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack. "Rooting for the Yankees," he'd say, "is like rooting for General Motors." The Red Sox, anchored by Williams in left, embodied the New England spirit: frugal, never flashy, successful, but not wildly so. When the Sox and the Yankees played, our little world slowed down. How many hits for DiMaggio? How many hits for Williams? Who won? Up and down Orange Street, where we rented the first floor of a three-family house, that's what people wanted to know. All the ballplayers were heroes, and these two men were the giants among them. They were in your dreams at night, on the sports page the following morning, they followed you up to the plate in our sandlot games as we tried to imitate their batting stances.
Later, I became the commissioner of baseball. As I say, I've been lucky. Forty years after Orange Street I was the commissioner of baseball and Williams and DiMaggio were still alive and well and active in the game I was charged with running. I found myself with a legitimate role in their lives, which, even as an idea, took some getting used to. When I became commissioner -- after the death of my great friend, Bart Giamatti, late in the 1989 season -- I remember walking on the grass at Wrigley Field and having the feeling that somebody would chase me off, that somebody would realize I was an interloper. But nobody did, and in fact people were very nice to me: I was the commissioner of baseball. And because I was the commissioner of baseball, I got to know DiMaggio and Williams, the heroes of my boyhood. The title came with remarkable privileges.
One day, I was able to spend several hours with them in a Washington hotel room, talking baseball. The two men respected each other, but they were never pals, they were not close friends, and now I had the two of them in a single room. As far as I know, it was the longest conversation the two of them ever had, the most time they had ever spent together. When this remarkable session was over, I did something smart: I got out a notebook and started writing things down as fast and as accurately -- I'm blessed with a good memory -- as I could.
I had met DiMaggio first, a few years earlier, in Baltimore, at a meeting of the Orioles board of directors. Eli Jacobs, the owner of the Orioles, did a smart thing: People he liked, he put on his board in ceremonial positions. DiMaggio was on that board. Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader. George Will, the writer. An interesting group. I was invited to attend a meeting, as commissioner. I met DiMaggio and sat next to him during the game that followed. I knew enough to know that one had to be very careful, very respectful, when approaching DiMaggio on any subject.
"May I ask you a fan's questions?"
"You are the commissioner of baseball. You can ask me anything you want, Mr. Commissioner. I'll answer."
I warmed him up with some innocent questions. But then:
r"How come you never hit 400?" I asked.
"Now that is a question almost nobody asks me," he said.
"They're afraid. I know you won't yell at me."
"It's a good question," DiMaggio said. This was a pleasing thing, to be able to ask DiMaggio -- the great DiMaggio, as Ernest Hemingway called him in The Old Man and the Sea -- a good question. "In 1939, I was going to hit .400. Right around the first of September, we clinched the pennant. We always clinched around the first of September. Right about then, I was hitting .408.
"I was going to hit over .400 that year. Then I got an eye infection. Couldn't see out of the infected eye. Our manager was Joe McCarthy. Every day, McCarthy puts me in the lineup. Commissioner, that guy made out a lineup card in April and he never changed it. Every day I'd go to the ballpark, every day my eye is getting worse and worse, and every day I'm in the lineup. I couldn't hit. My average starts falling. Finally, the eye gets so bad they have to give me an injection in the eye. And McCarthy still has me in the lineup. I wouldn't say anything to him. Now I did not have a bad year, Commissioner. I batted .381. But with my eye amost closed I had to open my stance. The infection was in my left eye, the lead eye. So I had to swing my left foot around to try to see the ball, but I couldn't. I had trouble and my average fell. That was my year to bat .400 and I didn't do it."
My little interview was going all right, so I asked the follow-up question: "Joe, did McCarthy ever tell you why he kept you in the lineup every day with the eye infection?"
"Yes, one time," Joe said. "We were in Buffalo, speaking together. He says, 'Joe, did you ever wonder why the hell I kept you in the lineup that year, when you had the bad eye?'
"I said, 'Yes, I did.'
"He says, 'Because I didn't want you to be a cheese champion.'"
"Cheese champion?" I asked. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know, Commissioner," Joe said. "I never asked."
From then on, I loved talking to Joe because he seemed interested in talking to me. This was all a function of my job, and I was grateful for it -- about the greatest unexpected benefit a job could have. My office was in New York, where Joe spent a lot of time. Every so often, my secretary would say, "Mr. Vincent, Mr. DiMaggio is here. He wonders if you could see him." I would say, "There is always time in the commissioner's life for the Yankee Clipper." He loved that. He would say, "I was in the building and just stopped by." He was around a fair bit, because he had a great friendship with his old teammate Dr. Bobby Brown, the American League president who was also a physician.
With DiMaggio, all the great questions were long-simmering, and he went to his grave with many of them unanswered. Bobby had the same fascination with Joe that I had, that a great many of us of my generation had. Bobby used to tell the story of a game in which Joe hit two long shots to deep center -- it might have been Joe's brother, Dom, of the Boston Red Sox in center, I'm not sure -- and both times the centerfielder made the catch. Now he comes up a third time, same thing. Three huge blows, three outs, Joe comes into the dugout and there's an ice bucket. He kicks it as hard as he can. But the ice bucket is jammed up against a pole in front of the dugout. The bucket doesn't budge. "Every heart in the dugout stopped because he's our meal ticket," Bobby said.
"Now I'm in medical school. I know he has to be hurting like mad, he's probably broken at least a toe. But he shows no emotion. We don't say a word and he doesn't say a word. He just walks down the dugout and sits down. Doesn't rub his foot, doesn't touch it, nothing.
"Years later, we're in Japan together. I say to him, 'Joe, there's a question I've been wanting to ask you for years. Do you remember the game where you hit those three shots to center and made three outs, came into the dugout, and kicked the ice bucket?'
"'Oh yeah, I remember. My foot hurt for weeks. Jesus, I thought I had broken it. But I couldn't let you guys know I was hurting. I couldn't do that.' When someone asks how Joe led that team, that's the story I tell."
I once said to DiMaggio, "People are always asking you about your successes. May I ask you a question about failure?"
We had been talking about All-Star games.
"What's the biggest failure you ever had in an All-Star game?"
"My first one, 1936," DiMaggio said, without pausing. He knew his career like nobody's business, the good times and the bad, not that there were many of those. "I was playing right field, at Fenway. Earl Averill, from Cleveland, was in center. He was senior to me. I was a rookie. Schoolboy Rowe was warming up along the right-field foul line for us. Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs' catcher, comes up to bat for the National League.
"I hear Rowe saying to me, 'Back up, kid, this guy hits out here.'
I backed up a little bit. 'Back up, rookie. He's gonna hit it out here.' I knew how to play the outfield, and I didn't like to play deep, but I backed up a little more. I'm a rookie, I'm not going to show up Schoolboy Rowe.
"Hartnett hit a shallow line drive. I went charging in for it. I never dove for a ball in my life, Commissioner, and I didn't dive then. The ball went right under my glove. The ball got by me, went to the wall, and we lost. Everybody ripped me, except one guy. Commissioner, do you know who that was?"
"Damon Runyon. Runyon was the Yankee beat writer. He was the only guy who didn't rip me."
In 1991, the All-Star game was to be played in Toronto and I invited President Bush -- the first President Bush, older brother of my high-school classmate and friend Bucky Bush -- to be my guest at the game. The president's son, George W., was then the president of the Texas Rangers.
I was in my office when the phone rang and the White House operator said, "Mr. Vincent, the president would like to speak to you. Are you available?" When the president of the United States calls, your heart skips a beat. Of course you are available. A minute later, George Bush was on the phone. His voice was very upbeat. He said, "I have an idea. You've invited me to the All-Star game. Why don't you come here with Williams and DiMaggio before the game, we'll have a ceremony midday in the Rose Garden, I'll give them the Presidential Medal of Freedom and then we'll all fly to Toronto? I'll meet with the Canadian prime minister. It will be the first time a president has ever gone to a ballgame outside the United States and it could be the first time a ballgame has been used for a diplomatic meeting." I could hear the excitement in his voice. It was wonderful.
We agreed that he would call Williams and I would call DiMaggio. A couple of days later, the president called again. "We have a problem. DiMaggio has already received the Medal of Freedom. Williams doesn't have it but DiMaggio does." I had already called DiMaggio, who neglected to mention that fact to me. I said to the president, "Go look in the closet. There must be another award you can give him." He laughed. "That's exactly what we'll do," he said.
When I called DiMaggio, I received a tremendous insight into his world. The moment I asked him if this was something he'd like to do, DiMaggio said, "Do you want me to come, Commissioner? Is it personal to you?" He was making a mental note, depositing a chit from me into his account. Now he'd have a favor in the bank if he ever needed one from me. I realized that he lived in a world where he would do you a favor, but in doing so you created a debt. If I was having a problem with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, and I had plenty of those, Joe would say, "Mr. Commissioner, I think I can be helpful to you." And he tried to be, but all the while he was depositing a chit in his account with me. Maybe the whole world works that way, but with DiMaggio it was more evident.
Anyway, we began to make the arrangements for our day at the White House and our trip to Toronto, and nothing is easy when you're traveling with the president of the United States, to say nothing of the Yankee Clipper. He gave the impression of not being excited about doing anything. That was central to his character. At one point, I was telling Bobby Brown of our plans. Now Bobby had known DiMaggio for decades. He said to me, "Fay, let me tell you how the day will go. Joe will do everything you would like him to do. He will have a great time. When it's all over, he will say, 'I had a good time, I enjoyed myself, it was a very nice day. I will never do it again.'"
The night before the Rose Garden ceremony, I went to Washington, spent the night in a beautiful, large suite at the Madison Hotel. The next morning at about half past seven, the telephone rang. It was DiMaggio, asking if I'd like to join him for breakfast. I invited him up to the suite for breakfast; he said he'd be up in fifteen minutes. I put the phone down, it rang again. It was Williams. I told him that DiMaggio was coming up for breakfast and asked if he would do the same.
He had his son, John Henry, with him. I said John Henry was welcome, too.
We were due at the White House around noon. We had the entire morning. I knew then it was, for a serious baseball fan, a historic occasion: two of the greatest ballplayers of all time, two players who defined a generation, sitting together and talking baseball in more detail and at greater length than they had ever before. I can see the table in my mind, the four of us sitting at it, eating eggs and bacon, as clearly as I can see my hand in front of my face. DiMaggio was dressed beautifully as he always was, tailored sport coat, pressed pants, each of his perfect silver hairs in place, nails neatly manicured. Williams looked much more like a professor of hitting. If the barber had had an off day the day he was working on Williams, Ted didn't care. DiMaggio was calculated, reserved, always "on," soft-spoken, measured. Williams was effervescent. Williams took the lead. He brought DiMaggio out.
He said, "Joe? Joe! Did you ever use a lighter bat when you got older? Jesus Christ, I did, and it made such a difference. How 'bout you, Joe? Did you ever use a lighter bat?"
And DiMaggio answered, "No, you know, I never did that, Ted."
And Ted was surprised. "Really, Joe? Because I did, and it made such a difference." It was Williams as an expert interviewer, on his favorite subject, hitting.
"Well, maybe, once. In the World Series, in 1951. My last season."
DiMaggio was talking now, and you could hear a breakfast spoon drop on the plush Madison carpeting between his carefully chosen words.
"Fifty-one series, and I couldn't get a hit. Hitless in the first three games against the New York Giants. We trailed, two games to one. Game Four was rained out. I spent that day with Lefty O'Doul, my manager from my minor-league days in San Francisco. O'Doul told me to use a lighter bat. I had used a thirty-seven-ounce bat my whole career. This one was thirty-four. I did what Lefty told me. Had a single and a homer in Game Four, which we won. Few more hits in Game Five, which we won. Few more in Game Six, which we won. The Series was over and I was done. The only time I ever used a lighter bat."
Williams was wonderful, drawing DiMaggio out, but it wasn't always easy. Williams's intuitive understanding of DiMaggio was extraordinary. I had the strong sense that the two men, these two greatest living baseball icons, hardly knew each other, and here I was, playing a role in getting the two of them together. At one point, Ted said to Joe, "Do you remember Ned Garver, that little righthander for the Browns?"
"I remember him," DiMaggio answered.
"I had trouble with that son of a bitch. He could throw anything up there and get me out."
"I think I did all right against him," DiMaggio said.
At one point Williams said, "At Griffith Stadium, Joe, did you feel like you were hitting uphill? Did you feel like the whole park was tilted against you?"
"No," said Joe. "I never noticed that, Ted. I liked that ballpark, hit very well there."
Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, I was ready with a question. I asked, "Could you guys hit the knuckleball? When you guys played, didn't Washington have five knuckleballers?"
"Of course, Commissioner, I could hit the knuckleball," Williams said.
"That's right, we could hit the knuckleball," DiMaggio said.
"Hitting a knuckleball is like swatting a goddamn fly, dancing around," Williams said. "You don't lunge at it, you wait. You're going to miss some, and you're going to hit some."
"How about knockdown pitches," I asked. "Did guys throw at you?" Williams jumped at that question.
"Oh, it was stupid to throw at us. The one thing you didn't want was for Joe or for me to get mad. Not smart." I thought it was very charming, the way Ted included Joe, speaking for Joe in the least presumptuous way. "You hoped that we didn't feel good, that we had a cold, that for some reason we didn't care. The one thing you don't want to do is get us mad. Now you throw a ball at me and I am going to go down, but I'm going to get back up. And now I'm going to be angry. You don't want me angry. You want me daydreaming, you want me not caring. Now I'm angry. The next strike you throw, I'm going to hit it."
I was like a kid in the candy store, knowing he can eat all the candy he wants and that he will not get sick. I asked them, "Did you guys guess? Were you guess hitters? Did you try to guess whether the next pitch would be a fastball or a curve?"
"That's not the way I would put it, Commissioner," Joe said. "I calculated the odds, what you think is going to happen, which is not guessing. You're pitching to me, you've got me a little behind in the count, a ball and two strikes. You have a really good fastball and you've got a curve. I can't afford to take the chance that you're going to slip the fastball by me. So I've got to look for the fastball and be ready to adjust to the curve. On the other hand, if I'm ahead in the count, I know you're going to throw me a fastball and that gives me a terrific advantage, because I can hit a fastball. I can hit it quite hard if I'm expecting it. It's all a case of expectations."
Bart Giamatti used to say that you had to be really smart to be an excellent hitter, that a Williams or a DiMaggio had an enormous, calculating brain. At that moment, I understood exactly what he was talking about. I had the feeling that if you gave these guys an IQ test that was geared toward sheer intelligence, the ability to come up with the correct answer on the basis of presented data, they would both be off the charts. Being with them in that room, for three uninterrupted hours, was one of the great experiences of my life.
The rest of the day was memorable, too. (Every encounter I ever had with DiMaggio or Williams was memorable, as commissioner and in the years after I left the office, too.) At the Rose Garden ceremony, it was obvious what true affection President Bush had for these two men. He awarded them...nothing. Just a nice ceremony on a beautiful July day to honor two baseball icons on the day of the All-Star game. President Bush was a great baseball fan, and a great fan of both players. Everywhere we went that day, the power of DiMaggio and Williams together was staggering. I had been the chairman of Columbia Pictures and saw Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, great stars, in action, in public. The response to DiMaggio and Williams was clearly at a higher and deeper level. As we entered the Oval Office, a tall, crisp Marine officer in white gloves said to me, "Would Mr. DiMaggio and Mr. Williams be willing to sign my glove? I could go to the brig for this, but I don't care. Those two are great heroes." John Sununu, President Bush's chief of staff, asked DiMaggio and Williams to sign four dozen balls, which is a lot. DiMaggio, in his life, probably never signed forty-eight balls in one sitting -- flat objects, yes, many more than that. They were terrific about it, and with every signature and every little conversation they had, their stature just continued to grow. I complimented them on how they handled themselves in public. Williams said, "You work at it. It's not an accident." DiMaggio said, "You have to be very aware of every public thing you do."
But even on that day, I could see the private DiMaggio was different. When Sununu presented him with the balls, DiMaggio looked at me and said, "Is he kidding?"
"He's not kidding," I said.
"I'm going to do it, Commissioner, but I don't like it."
But this was all private, between Joe and me. Sununu and the president had no idea what DiMaggio was thinking.
At some point, I became very aware that I would not likely ever again have a day like this, and that I had better take full advantage of it. After being at the White House, DiMaggio, Williams, and I rode out to Andrews Air Force Base, a forty-five-minute drive, to take Air Force One to Toronto for the All-Star game. I got in as many questions as I could, particularly to DiMaggio. You could always talk to Williams about baseball, hitting particularly. That was his life's work. DiMaggio had to be in the correct setting to want to talk, and this entire day was the correct setting.
"Joe," I said, "could you tell me about Lazzeri?" Tony Lazzeri was a second baseman on the 1927 Yankees -- the greatest baseball team ever, many people think, I among them. Lazzeri was from San Francisco, like Joe, and he was closing out his career when Joe was beginning his. He was a legend, in part because he played with Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio, in part because he was a Yankee. "He was a great second baseman," DiMaggio said. DiMaggio was spare, and not often generous, in his analysis of others, so when he said words like those, it was truly startling. "He had epilepsy," DiMaggio said. "He had a seizure, fell down the basement steps, and died. Did you know that?" I did not.
I asked Joe, "Who is not in the Hall of Fame that should be?"
"Joe Gordon," DiMaggio said. "Joe Gordon never made a mistake. He was a terrific hitter, but beyond that, he always did the right thing. He never made a bad throw. He never threw to the wrong base. Joe Gordon." Gordon succeeded Lazzeri at second for the Yankees. He was a .268 career hitter and a .970 career fielder. In an eleven-year career, he played in the World Series six times, five with the Yankees, one with the Cleveland Indians in 1948.
I asked DiMaggio about Kenny Keltner, the Cleveland third baseman who basically ended DiMaggio's historic fifty-six-game hitting streak of 1941. For what would have been game fifty-seven, Keltner positioned himself directly on the third-base line and stopped two bullets, sure doubles, with two remarkable plays. "Keltner told me later he wasn't trying to stop the streak," DiMaggio said. "He was trying to stop me from getting doubles." What DiMaggio didn't say was the next day he began a sixteen-game hitting streak. He knew I knew. He said what he thought you needed to know, and no more. In his own way, he was an amazing conversationalist, a study in economy.
We flew on Air Force One to Toronto, and Williams was fascinated. He had been a fighter pilot in Korea and he was captivated by planes. "Look at the size of these engines," he said. "My little plane in Korea had two thousand pounds of thrust. I have to find out how much thrust these engines have." We made arrangements for Williams to go up to the cockpit and talk to the pilots; when he came back he said, "Jesus Christ, this plane has two hundred thousand pounds of thrust in each engine. That's a big, big plane."
Later, Williams, DiMaggio, and I were invited to sit with the president, in a conference room aboard the plane. We were at a large table with about fifteen big armchairs all around it, very well appointed, and there was a phone at each seat. We were all in a playful mood and the idea came up that we should have President Bush call somebody. I suggested he call the person who beat one of us for class president in grade school, or the girl who turned us down for the prom, something like that. But I couldn't come up with a name. So President Bush called Ted's daughter in Boston, out of the blue. He said, "Cornelia, this is President Bush. I'm in Air Force One with your father, Joe DiMaggio, and Fay Vincent. I just wanted you to know that he's doing fine and we're off to Toronto to go to the All-Star game." She, of course, thought it was some sort of prank.
The game itself was not as memorable for me. My walking for most of my life has been poor, owing to an injury I sustained in college, so it was very important for me to pace myself. During the pregame ceremonies, I stayed up in the press level, while the president and DiMaggio and Williams went to the clubhouses. I can see the scene in my mind's eye: Jose Canseco and Joe Carter and Lenny Dykstra and Roger Clemens and other players standing in such proximity to three great heroes of the war generation, standing in awe. I know it had to be in awe, because those three men had that effect on most everybody.
When it was all over, Bobby Brown proved prophetic. As Joe and I waited for a car after the game, I turned to him and said, "Well, Joe, that was quite a day, wasn't it?"
"It was a very nice day, Commissioner," DiMaggio said. "But I will never do it again." That was pure Joe.
• • •
a few weeks later I was in Cooperstown, for the annual induction of players into the Hall of Fame, and on a Sunday at 6:00 a.m. I was going down the elevator on my way to an early Mass. The elevator door opened at the lobby level and who should be there? Ted Williams. All the players and officials stay at the Otesaga, so you see everybody if you're there that weekend. Everybody but DiMaggio, that is. Joe had no use for Cooperstown, he was angry at them over something, and nobody could hold a grudge like Joe DiMaggio.
"Commissioner!" Williams said. "How about some breakfast!"
I was happy to defer Mass for an hour or two. When Ted Williams invites you to breakfast on a Sunday morning, you know it's an invitation to the Church of Hitting, and you can't -- or the twelve-year-old in you, anyhow, cannot -- pass it up.
We sat down for breakfast.
"Commissioner," Ted said, "have I told you how stupid pitchers are?"
"Really, Ted?" Williams was past seventy, but sounding still like an everyday player.
"Let me tell you why. Almost every pitcher in American Legion ball has a pretty good fastball. A few of 'em get to the big leagues with that fastball. Nine out of ten big-league pitchers have good fastballs." His intensity was white-hot by this point. "Then Ted Williams comes to the plate. But remember, I got to the big leagues because I could hit that fastball. Pitchers forget that. They throw me a fastball and I knock the hell out of it.
"Then the pitcher says to himself, 'Nobody hits my fastball that hard. I just didn't get it in the right spot. I had it too far up. Next time, I'll get it down.' So the next time it's a little down. I hit it again. I make my living hitting fastballs pitchers think they can get past me. You can't, especially when I've got a pretty good idea that it's coming."
At this point, Warren Spahn entered the dining room. He is the winningest lefthanded pitcher in baseball history, 363 wins. Ted called out: "Hey, Spahnie, I'm telling the commissioner how dumb pitchers are."
"Yeah," Spahn said dryly. "But not as dumb as hitters."
"He wasn't so dumb," Williams said.
Spahn had been through this before. But it was obvious he wanted to hear more from Ted.
"I remember Spahnie at the end of his career. He's in the National League, so I don't see him that much, but I remember this. He had this horseshit screwball." That's the primary epithet for players of that generation, maybe because so many of them came from the farm. "If a righthanded hitter is up with a man on first or first and second with less than two outs, Spahnie always threw him that horseshit screwball. And you can't hit that pitch."
Spahn grinned. Now remember, Williams was describing a pitcher in the other league, from forty or more years earlier, and he's thinking of the whole situation as a righthanded hitter, when of course Williams batted from the left. That's why I say his intelligence was so superior.
"Now Commissioner, when he throws you that horseshit screwball, there's only two things you can do with it. You can hit a grounder to second, in which case Spahn gets a double play. Or you pop it up to right. There's nothing you can do with that horseshit pitch. Now you tell the commissioner, Spahnie, am I right?"
"He's right. I had the screwball. I threw it to righthanded hitters only when I had men on base. It was a good pitch for me," Spahn said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they'd hit a grounder to second or pop it up."
Williams was pleased with himself. He understood Spahn's tactics as well as Spahn himself did. Almost. Spahn had to add something to get the last lick in.
"But I would have never thrown him that horseshit screwball."
When I was a kid, growing up in Connecticut, worshiping the Yankees but never really despising the Red Sox, I had the idea, mostly from the newspapers, that Williams was a curmudgeon, nasty, aloof. Spending time with him, I had a totally different impression. Williams himself was aware of how different his image and his actual self were.
Every year at Cooperstown, there's a private dinner for the returning Hall of Famers -- DiMaggio was very seldom, if ever, among them -- and the commissioner of baseball. Nobody else is allowed in the room. They take turns speaking, and in this setting, Williams is clearly the pope among all his cardinals. One year at the dinner, Williams stood and told a fishing story.
"You guys will like this story," he said. "You guys all know I like to fish down in the Florida Keys, and when I'm down there, I don't use my real name. So I check into this hotel under the name Al Forster, our old groundskeeper at Fenway, who you all know. He's been there forever.
"Now I'm checking into the hotel and the clerk says, 'Are you really Al Forster? Because you look a lot like Ted Williams.'
"So I say to the desk clerk, 'Who the hell is Ted Williams?'
"The clerk says, 'You've never heard of Ted Williams?'
"'Well, Ted Williams was a great ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox, great lefthanded hitter, batted .406,' the clerk says.
"I say, 'Never heard of him. I don't follow baseball. Too slow.' So we talk a little more, he's being nice to me and I'm being nice to him. And as I'm walking away, the clerk calls me back. 'You know, Mr. Forster, I realize now you can't be Ted Williams.'
"'Oh yeah? Why not?'
"'Because you're really a nice guy and Ted Williams is a real pain in the ass.'"
With Williams, you could ask anything and not be afraid to do it. One year at Cooperstown, I asked Williams to give me his all-time starting eight, at each position. He had Bill Dickey of the Yankees catching, the greatest defensive catcher he ever saw and a superb hitter, too. He had Lou Gehrig of the Yankees at first. Williams said nobody hit more line drives than Gehrig. "He always hit it right on the button. No lift, like Joe or me." He put Charlie Gehringer of the Tigers at second, the smoothest-fielding second baseman Williams had seen and a superb hitter. (DiMaggio once told me he copied his swing from Charlie even though Gehringer hit lefthanded.) He put his teammate Joe Cronin at shortstop, although Cronin was also his manager. He put Jimmie Foxx, also a teammate, at third, although he played more first in his career, but Ted said he had to get him in there somewhere. His comment on Foxx was that, had it not been for Jimmie's battles with alcohol, he would have broken just about every hitting record there is. In right, he put Babe Ruth, of course. In center he put Joe DiMaggio, but he might have been tempted to put his teammate Dom DiMaggio there, because he loved Dom like a brother and thought he was a better fielder than Joe, thought he was one of the best centerfielders ever. But Joe was superb at everything. When he got to left field he said, "Modesty forbids," and moved on. Clearly, he had reserved left for himself, and properly so.
parAnother time at Cooperstown I asked Williams about the foul pop he hit that gave Allie Reynolds, the great righthander on Casey Stengel's Yankees, the last out of his second no-hitter in the 1951 season. He was the first American League pitcher to throw two no-hitters in the same season.
"Tell me about Reynolds's second no-hitter," I said to Williams. Whenever I was around him, I felt like a cub reporter.
"Oh, you want me to talk about that, I hate talking about that."
Just then Yogi Berra came by. Yogi played a crucial role in the second no-hitter, so Williams called him over.
"Hey, Yog," Williams said. "I'm telling the commissioner about that goddamn pop-up. You know what happened."
Now Williams dwarfs Yogi, but Yogi's his own man. Still, he fulfills Williams's demand. Ted said, "Commissioner, Allie Reynolds was a tough cookie. He already had the one no-hitter. Now he's going for the second one at Yankee Stadium. He gets two outs in the ninth and now I'm up. I'm supposed to be the last out. I step in on him and say to myself, 'That son of a bitch is not going to get his no-hitter on me.' Now he's got a great fastball, but I can hit it. I was sure I would get a hit.
"Yog, you tell the commissioner if I'm wrong. I never swung at bad pitches." At this point, he grabbed my cane and used it as a bat, recreating the at bat. "That son of a bitch throws me a high fastball right here" -- he points under his chin -- "and I swing at the goddamn pitch. I don't know why. I hit this lousy high pop, straight up, in foul territory. And the little Italian here" -- he's pointing at Yogi, of course -- "he drops the thing. I can't believe it. Now I've got another chance. I say to myself, 'I'm going to hit him this time.' Then he throws me the exact same pitch, in the exact same place, maybe a little harder, and I do the same damn thing, pop it straight up. This time Yogi staggers around and around and catches it. I'll tell you, in my life I don't think I ever swung at two bad pitches like that in a row. Yog, you tell the commissioner, am I telling the truth?"
Now it was Yogi's turn.
"Commissioner, you want to hear my side? He's got it right. He popped up the first one, and I dropped it. What you don't know is right after I dropped it, Reynolds stepped on my hand. He was mad at me, and he steps right on my hand. Casey motions me to go to the mound to talk to him, to calm him down. But not me. There's no way I'm going out there. He was really hot. Next pitch, Ted hits the same pop-up. I'm getting under it and the whole while Reynolds is screaming, 'You better catch this one, you fucking dago, or I'll kill you.'"
• • •
after that ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Bush still wanted to give Williams the Medal of Freedom. DiMaggio had it, and the president felt Williams should have it. I know this because one day I received a call from John Sununu, the president's chief of staff.
"Commissioner, we need a favor from you," Sununu said. "It's about Williams."
I asked how I could help.
"The president wants to give him the Medal of Freedom. Ted doesn't have it, and the president feels he should. We wrote him a letter, inviting him to lunch and the ceremony, but he hasn't answered. There's a bunch of other people who will receive it that day, too. Why he won't answer, I don't know. Maybe you can reach him and find out what's going on?"
"John," I said, "what is the dress code for the ceremony?"
"Dress code?" the chief of staff said. "We don't care what he wears. I don't care if he comes in a T-shirt. We just want him there."
"Because you know he has this thing about wearing a tie," I said. "He hates ties."
"We want to honor him and the president will not care if he's not wearing a tie," Sununu said.
So I called Williams. I said, "Ted, do you have a letter from the White House -- "
"Oh, Commisioner, I figured somebody would call about that," he said.
"Ted, come on, the president of the United States wants to give you the highest civilian honor he can and you won't answer the letter?"
"Commissioner, I'm sure this is going to be one of those black-tie deals and I can't do those things."
"Ted, this is not black tie. It's lunch. Have you ever seen a black-tie lunch?"
"Well, I'd still have to wear a tie."
"You would not have to wear a tie."
"Then I'll go, but you have to go, too."
I said of course.
I called back Sununu, told him Williams was coming but without a tie. Sununu said the president would be delighted.
The morning of the ceremony arrived. I had told Williams I'd meet him at the White House, and we made arrangements for a good friend of mine, John Dowd, to pick up Williams at the airport and bring him to the White House. Dowd was a lawyer who worked for baseball on the Pete Rose investigation and also did some work for Williams, who admired him. Dowd was also, just like Williams, a retired Marine Corps captain. As Williams came off the plane, Dowd was there to meet him. Williams later told me what happened.
Dowd took one look at Williams and greeted him with, "Mr. Williams: Are you a retired captain of the United States Marine Corps?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"Well that makes two of us. And let me tell you something, Mr. Williams. You are about to go to the White House, to be honored by our commander in chief, and you look like a bum. You are a disgrace to the Corps. So we are going to get you fixed up for our president."
Whereupon Dowd took Williams to a downtown store and bought him a jacket, shirt, and tie. When I saw Williams, he looked resplendent.
"Oh, Ted, may I have that tie?" I asked.
"You're pretty good, Commissioner, but Dowd gets the tie," he said. Williams had been shamed into it, Marine to Marine. It was odd, seeing Williams in a tie, but he was graceful about it. He stole the show as he always did. You could see during the ceremony how much the president, the commander in chief, loved Williams, how pleased he was to be in a place in his life where he could honor a man he considered a great hero. I felt very much the same way. Dowd told me later Sununu asked for and still has the tie!
• • •
It's a very satisfying thing, to get to know an icon and to discover the real human being underneath the shell of celebrity. This was harder to achieve with DiMaggio than with Williams because DiMaggio was an altogether more private, complex, enigmatic person. But no less fascinating. One day, fairly near the end of his life, he told me something I would have never expected to hear from him: a self-deprecating story. I was long out of baseball by this point and Joe and I were having lunch when I asked him about Lefty Gomez, the great Yankee pitcher. Gomez was a Californian, like DiMaggio, who had played in the minors for the San Francisco Seals, like DiMaggio. He was a veteran pitcher when DiMaggio came up as a rookie in 1936. On some very staid, serious Yankee teams, Gomez was a bright spot. He was famous for being a goofball, but also for his wit and his intelligence.
Joe said, "In my rookie year, Lefty and I both lived at the Mayflower Hotel, on Central Park West. Still there. He's a big star and I'm just coming up. He had a car, and I didn't, so he said I could ride with him to the Stadium, which I did, every day. This one Sunday, we're going to play a doubleheader against the Red Sox and there's a big article that morning in one of the New York papers about Tris Speaker."
Tris Speaker was a former Red Sox centerfielder, long retired by this point, in fact a year away from becoming the seventh inductee in the Hall of Fame. On his plaque at Cooperstown it says "greatest centerfielder of his era."
Joe continues: "The article says that Tris Speaker is the greatest centerfielder who ever lived because he played really shallow but still could go back on the ball.
"That day I get in the car with Lefty and I say to him, 'Did you see that story in the paper today about Tris Speaker being the greatest centerfielder who ever lived?' Lefty says, 'Yeah, kid, what of it?' Now I can't believe what I said next, Commisioner, but I said it: 'Lefty, I'm going to make people forget about Tris Speaker. I'm going to be the greatest centerfielder who ever lived.'
"Now remember, I'm a rookie and Lefty's a veteran. He doesn't say a word. We get to the Stadium. Lefty's pitching the second game and the next Tris Speaker is playing center, playing real shallow, just like Speaker. When you're young, you think you can get back for anything over your head. I told that kid Williams for the Yankees that he's playing too shallow -- we all do it.
"Lefty gets himself in trouble, the game is close, the Red Sox get a couple guys on. Lefty looks back at me and he's motioning at me to move back, play deeper, I'm playing too shallow. He doesn't want a ball getting by me for a triple. But I'm the next Tris Speaker, I'm not moving back. He keeps shaking his glove at me to get me back. I stay put.
"Well, wouldn't you know it, some guy hits a shot right over my head. While I'm chasing the ball out there two runs score on a triple and we lose the game.
"Now we have to drive home, Lefty and me. I don't say a word to him and he's not saying a word to me. But I'm thinking to myself, I got to say something to him. So when we're almost back at the hotel, I say, 'Lefty?'
"He says, 'What, kid?'
"'I want you to know I'm still going to make them forget Tris Speaker.'
"Lefty pulls the car over to the curb. He looks at me and says, 'Kid, you keep playing like that, they're going to forget Lefty Gomez.'"
I treasured my relationship with DiMaggio, and not just because he was one of the heroes of my boyhood. You could say he was moody, surly, difficult, easily offended, whatever, and it might all be true, but he was Joe DiMaggio and he did a very difficult thing -- play baseball -- with an ease, a grace, and an excellence that have maybe never been matched. His teams always won, or so it seemed, and when the Yankees needed a big hit it was always Joe who came through.
He was extraordinary at holding grudges, too, and when I became the subject of one, I did everything I could to get back in his good graces. It wasn't easy.
When I was commissioner, I had a young man named Rick White running a division called Major League Properties. White was a very skillful, very smart young man, but one day he did something that was neither smart nor skillful: He insulted Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was visiting the baseball offices on Park Avenue. He went into the Properties office and met with White. For some reason, during a discussion of licensing some DiMaggio products, White said to him, "You are not doing enough for baseball. You should be more helpful to us."
I know this because about two minutes later, DiMaggio was in my office, saying, "I need to speak to you." I knew from his tone this was not the time to trot out my usual line, "There is always time in the commissioner's life for the Yankee Clipper." This was serious business. He pulled a chair around so that it was on my side of the desk and said, "Your guy upstairs just really insulted me. He said I'm not doing enough for baseball. You can't say that to me. That shows no respect. I am furious, at him and at you, because he's your guy."
I tried to apologize. I said it was a mistake on Rick's part to say that. I said that was not the view of baseball as I ran it. I told Joe he was an enormous asset to baseball and I didn't know what White was talking about. It was pretty futile. He left livid and told me I needed to conduct an investigation. And because he said that, I had to, because if you're the commissioner of baseball and you want to be effective in your job, you cannot afford to have Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, mad at you.
My first call was to Rick. He acknowledged DiMaggio had the quotation correct. "He won't give us his permission to license a certain product," White said. It was a situation where baseball wanted something from DiMaggio and DiMaggio wanted something back. I said, "Rick, you can't strong-arm Joe DiMaggio. In the first place, if he goes out and tells a reporter that Major League Baseball is giving him a hard time, you're going to get killed. You can't take on Joe DiMaggio. If you want something from him, you have to do it more subtly. You can't win a fight with Joe DiMaggio. He'll get you fired if he pushes this. So the first thing you have to do is apologize to DiMaggio, which is not easy to do because he's an old tough Sicilian and it's almost inconceivable that you'll get him to accept an apology. There is no forgiveness in that man's church."
Well, DiMaggio simmered down, sort of. He didn't go public with White's quotation. But he said he would have nothing to do with him or his office. In fact, White had a deputy named Frank Simeo, who was in the room when White made his comment, and when Simeo left Major League Baseball to work for the Hall of Fame, DiMaggio stopped going to Cooperstown because Simeo was there. The man was world-class at holding grudges.
Months passed, years passed. I left baseball, White left baseball. More years passed. I'd see DiMaggio from time to time, and I'd always apologize for the White line, but there was very little acceptance from Joe. It was sad for me, because Joe was a hero to me, and even though I knew he was not being fair with me about this issue, fairness wasn't really the issue, because DiMaggio is DiMaggio, he has his ways, and you have to respect them if you want to have a relationship with him, which I did. I had had a relationship with him, it was tremendously gratifying and interesting, and later I did not, and it was frustrating.
DiMaggio and I had a mutual friend, a New York doctor named Rock Positano, a tremendously interesting person, someone who knew everybody, someone genuinely close to Joe. One day I said to Positano, "How can I clear the deck with Joe?" Positano got on the case. He was able to arrange for the three of us to have lunch. We met for lunch in New York, at a restaurant on the East Side Joe (and I) loved called Bravo Gianni.
We sat down for lunch and after just a few minutes DiMaggio said, "Doc, would you excuse the commissioner and me? Maybe you could take a little walk? We have a few things to talk about."
Rock left and DiMaggio said, "You know I like you but I'm still pretty angry about that episode." I went into my routine, for the hundredth time: Joe, I'm your biggest fan, I've always tried to be helpful to you, I have great respect for you, I love being in your company, you and I both loved Bart Giamatti, and so on.
And this time Joe said, "I forgive you. It's over. I wanted to have this meeting so that we could be friends again. And now everything is OK." Positano told me later that in his experience, it was the only time DiMaggio had ever let somebody back into the circle.
Several years later, DiMaggio was dead. Everybody knew his death was coming, but when it happened I still felt a great loss. Joe DiMaggio was a link to my own boyhood, to some of the joys of youth, to some sublime baseball moments. He was a central figure in my years as commissioner of baseball. He was the embodiment of excellence and grace. Of course he was a difficult man. That is not the point. He was Joe DiMaggio, a man I worshiped as a boy, a man who became a friend as an adult. When he died I was back in his good graces and that's one of the reasons I say I've been lucky in my life.
Lineup: Other Legends
1. Ralph Branca
2. Johnny Bench
3. Bob Feller
4. Warren Spahn
5. Stan Musial
6. Johnny Vander Meer
7. Hank Greenberg
8. Ralph Kiner
9. Johnny Mize
1. RALPH BRANCA
Ralph Branca, the old Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher from my boyhood, is today a great friend. We enjoy each other's company and talk almost every day. He is one of the truly "good guys" of baseball and remains very active in a charity dear to me, the Baseball Assistance Team, known as BAT, which helps out all manner of indigent baseball people -- there are many of them -- in various life struggles. His son-in-law is Bobby Valentine, another good guy and the longtime manager of the New York Mets.
Ralph's done many things well in his life. He was a basketball star at New York University in the 1940s. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson joined his team, he won twenty-one games as a twenty-one-year-old pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But he is best known for a single pitch he threw in 1951.
The New York Giants, managed by Leo Durocher, and Charlie Dressen's Brooklyn Dodgers finished the season in a tie for first in the National League. There was a best-of-three playoff for the National League title and the Dodgers and the Giants split the first two games. The third game, on the afternoon of October 3, was at the Polo Grounds, the Giants' home field, to see who would have the honor of playing the American League champs, the New York Yankees, in Joe DiMaggio's final season. This is why New Yorkers of a certain age, and those who lived within driving distance of the city, are so haughty about New York baseball in that era. That's about as good as it gets.
In the bottom of the ninth inning of the third game, Ralph came in from the bullpen to pitch to Bobby Thomson. There was one out and two on and Charlie Dressen chose Branca to face Thomson, a solid hitter who went from Glasgow, Scotland, to Staten Island, New York, to the Giants. Ralph threw him a good fastball right down the middle for strike one. The next pitch is among the most famous in baseball history: Thomson clubbed Ralph's offering for a three-run home run. Russ Hodges's call: "The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant...." is still the most famous in baseball history. The Dodgers -- Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Ralph Branca among them -- walked off the field in a daze. Their wait for next year had begun. The Giants, naturally, were jubilant. This was in the glory days of New York newspapering, when there were a dozen dailies in the city. Thomson's blast was grandly called "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." It still is.
Many years later, Ralph was a speaker at a dinner. He gave his talk and afterward a boy rose to ask the following question: "Mr. Branca, what pitch did you throw to Mr. Thomson and why?"
"I knew the kid wasn't setting me up," Ralph once told me. "He was a nice kid and he wanted his question answered. So I said, 'Sonny, let me tell you something. I could always get Thomson out with my curveball, low and away. He couldn't hit my curveball. But at that moment for some reason I decided I'd throw him a fastball up and in so the fastball would move him away from the plate and that would set up the next pitch, the curveball low and away, and I'd get him out.' The kid says, 'Thank you very much.'
"Now I'm at the buffet line loading up my plate and I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's Sal Maglie. All he did for those Giants in 1951 was win twenty-three games. 'The Barber,' they called him, because he'd shave you with his pitches. Chin music. Time passes, and Sal and I got to be pals.
"Now it's years later, and he's heard me answer this kid's question. He looks me in the eye and says, 'Dago, if you're going to get him with the fuckin' curveball, throw him the fuckin' curveball.' For the rest of my life, I realized Sal Maglie had it just right."
It's a tremendous strategic lesson. I use it in business talks. Don't fool with an alternative. If you have a good strategy, follow it. Ever since Ralph told me that story, I've been preaching Sal Maglie's sage advice and trying to follow it as well.
A footnote: Years later, the baseball world learned the Giants were using a spyglass in the center-field Giant office to steal the catcher's signs. Thomson knew he was getting a fastball. But he still had to hit it, no small feat. Ralph bore the knowledge of the cheating for years but never talked about it for fear of being seen as a poor loser. In 2001, a half-century after the fact, The Wall Street Journal broke the story in fantastic detail. Still, Ralph took the high ground. Another reason I love him.
2. JOHNNY BENCH
I was never a fan of the so-called Big Red Machine, the great Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s, led by Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Foster, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey, and managed by Sparky Anderson. They played pugnacious baseball, and I was by then a Baltimore Orioles fan living in Washington, D.C. Later, I got to know some of the players individually and liked them very much. George Foster helped coach a local team in Greenwich, Connecticut, near my home, and later helped start the New England Collegiate Baseball League. I've enjoyed listening to Joe Morgan broadcast games. But the player from that group who has made the deepest impression on me is Johnny Bench, the catcher. I admire his playing career, his excellence behind the plate and while standing at it. He is in the tradition of Yogi Berra that way. Bench was a complete player. Off the field, he carried himself with class. He was big-league in every way. I was in Cooperstown when Bench was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. I was deputy baseball commissioner then, grappling with Pete Rose and the mounting evidence that he gambled on baseball. Rose and Bench had a deep bond, because of the success of their Reds teams and because of their standing in the Cincinnati community. They even shared a lawyer, Reuven Katz. But his deepest bond was with the game, and that is why I respect him so. At Cooperstown that summer, somebody asked Bench if Pete Rose should someday be inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame when he is innocent," Bench answered.
Later, I said to him, "Johnny, you said it all." He said, "I mean it."
He reduced the issue to a single sentence, just as Sal Maglie had done. Bench got the whole debate down to thirteen words. He was able to answer that question so succinctly because he understood the issue innately and believed deeply in the correctness of his position. (No other Red wanted to turn against Rose.) Ballplayers, typically, don't like to be called smart. They prefer the word "crafty." Call it what you will; in my opinion, Bench's answer revealed a certain genius.
3. BOB FELLER
One day in 2001, I spent four hours interviewing Bob Feller, the great Cleveland Indians righthander, for an oral history project I'm involved in for the Hall of Fame. We are pals, so this was a four-hour treat. Feller was raised on an Iowa farm by a baseball-loving father who taught him to pitch at a young age. One day, the father was catching the son. The father called for a curveball. The son, barely a teenager, threw a fastball. The father's rib was broken. Soon after, the boy pitcher was signed by the Indians, for whom he pitched from 1936, breaking in at age seventeen, through 1956, except for four seasons in the prime of his career, which he spent on the battleship USS Alabama in the Pacific, as a turret gunner, during World War II. He won eight battle stars in the Pacific in nearly four years in the service. He has led an exemplary life.
Feller was signed by the legendary scout Cy Slapnicka, who was eager to show him off to the Indians brass. The Indians were playing an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Cleveland. The St. Louis team in those days was known as the Gashouse Gang. Pepper Martin was the third baseman, Leo Durocher was the shortstop, Dizzy Dean was the ace, Ducky Medwick was the leftfielder, and the manager and second baseman was Frankie Frisch. Later, Frisch would take his .316 career batting average to the Hall of Fame; on this day he was facing a teenager he had never heard of, throwing gas the likes of which he had never seen before.
Feller threw two untouchable fastballs past Frisch, who was quickly in the hole, no balls and two strikes. Frisch, the old Fordham Flash, then backed out of the batter's box and headed for the dugout, barking over his shoulder at the umpire: "Fuck this. You hit against that kid. I'm not."
Of the nine hitters he faced, Feller struck out eight. He never pitched in the minors. His legend was born.
4. WARREN SPAHN
The most intelligent pitcher I ever met, for pure baseball craftiness, was Warren Spahn. (The smartest hitter I ever met was Williams.) Spahn got most of his 363 wins for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, he threw a no-hitter as a forty-year-old, he was a tremendous hitter and fielder, and he never threw a pitch without a purpose. He mapped out everything. He said he learned from watching hitters, not other pitchers, and that hitters will tell you what they can hit and what they cannot. He'd come out early to watch other teams take batting practice just to see the hitters show the BP pitcher where they wanted it. In the modern era, Spahn once told me, the only pitcher he saw doing that was Greg Maddux. What a surprise.
Ted Williams thought about hitting the way Spahn did about pitching. They played in different leagues, so Williams and Spahn didn't face each other very often, but when they did it was memorable: the greatest lefthanded hitter of all time facing the greatest lefthanded pitcher of all time. (Koufax fans please note: Sandy was more dominating in his prime than Warren, but his flame, though it burned brightly, burned briefly. Spahn went on and on and on. Only four pitchers -- Cy Young, Grover Alexander, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson -- have won more games, and don't forget those years lost to war.) Spahn once told me a story I love about matching wits with Williams:
"In the '54 All-Star game, I faced Williams," he said. "I got a couple of strikes on him and threw him a fastball up and in and he missed. I was really pleased with myself. Williams hit lefties, righties, he didn't care. Any time you got him out, it was good stuff.
"The following spring training, we're playing the Red Sox in an exhibition game. I'm out in left field running my sprints and out comes Ted. He comes busting across the field to see me. I'm asking myself, 'What does he want?'
"He says, 'Spahnie, remember what you did to me last year at the All-Star game? That was really a good pitch, up and in. That's a hell of a pitch, with two strikes on a lefthanded hitter. You got to keep using that.'
"Of course I make a note of it. Now it's the next year, 1956. I'm facing him in the All-Star game again. I get two strikes on him. I say to myself, 'He doesn't like that pitch up and in,' so I throw it. Williams hits it about 450 feet. Home run. As he's rounding second base, I yell at him, 'You son of a bitch, you conned me!' He just grinned and nodded his head up and down."
One other Spahn story. In Spahn's first months in the majors, in 1942 with the Boston Braves, his roommate was Paul Waner, also known as Big Poison, older brother of Lloyd Waner, Little Poison, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Big Poison was at the tail end of a career in which he would bat .333. One morning, Spahn woke up to see Waner drinking hard liquor, straight from the bottle. No words were spoken.
Soon after, Spahn saw Waner drinking for breakfast again. Waner looked at him and said, "Rook, let's just keep this our little secret. Nobody on the team needs to know about this."
The next time, Waner said this: "Rook, I've got an astigmatism. If I don't have a drink in the morning, I see two balls coming at me and I can't hit either one. If I have a drink, I see just one ball and I can hit the hell out of it."
5. STAN MUSIAL
When baseball fans of my generation speak of the great mid-twentieth-century hitters, the conversation always turns back to DiMaggio and Williams. Really, it was a threesome of greats: Joe and Ted and Stan the Man. At age forty-one, Stan Musial batted .330. He hit as he fielded and he fielded as he played his beloved harmonica, with all the assuredness in the world. He was a folk hero in the Polish-American community, and had his career played out in New York, he would no doubt be on the same New York pedestal as Gehrig and DiMaggio and Berra and Mantle. But he was a modest man who played all his 3,026 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. Throughout the country's heartland, wherever the powerful waves of KMOX can be heard, Musial remains baseball's truest icon.
I've been fortunate to get to know him. Early one Sunday morning, when I was commissioner, I went to church in Cooperstown during the Hall of Fame induction weekend. It was an 8:00 a.m. Mass. Musial was in the back of the church, sitting with his great friend and former teammate, Red Schoendienst. (I can spell that name from memory because I wrote it so many times as a kid on All-Star ballots, in the days when you filled in the names of your favorite players. Today, of course, you punch a hole on your ballot for a computer to read.) The priest recognized Stan and Red and welcomed them to his church.
After Mass, Schoendienst and Musial stood patiently at the door of the church and signed autographs for every parishioner who wanted one. They must have signed hundreds. I signed a few, too, and as I stood beside them I found myself in awe of their graciousness. I complimented them on it. Musial shrugged and Red said, "It's our pleasure." They're old-school gentlemen.
Several times a year, Eli Jacobs and I organize a baseball dinner for friends in New York. A wide range of people come to the dinner, from academia and business and politics, many of them well known, but on the night of our dinners they have only one purpose: to talk baseball. At each dinner, there's a special guest, a baseball person whom we honor. One night, Stan was our guest, escorted from St. Louis by my old friend Bucky Bush, brother of George H. W. Bush. In the company of Jerry Levin, George Will, Stephen Jay Gould, Herbert Allen, Tom Brokaw, and other powerful luminaries, Musial's demeanor was exactly as it was at the church that day: gentlemanly, gracious, comfortable with himself.
Musial was a lefthanded hitter with the most unusual crouched, awkward-looking stance baseball has ever seen from a great hitter. He peered over his right shoulder, coiled like a pretzel; how he hit from that position, both for power and for average, is a mystery. At that dinner, I asked: "Did anybody ever try to change your stance, in high school, in American Legion, in grammar school, anywhere?"
I think he was slightly bemused by the question. "Commissioner," he said, "why would they do that? I was always hitting .500."
The wonderful thing about Stan's answer, of course, is that he was dead serious.
6. JOHNNY VANDER MEER
Baseball fans speak of Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six-game hitting streak as the most untouchable baseball record. I'm not so sure. It is, of course, a mighty record; the second-longest hitting streak is the National League record, forty-four games, by Pete Rose. That's not really close. If anybody reaches even forty-six games, the pressure would mount almost exponentially over the final ten games.
There are records, though, that will never be broken. Nobody will ever again win 511 games, as Cy Young did. The game has changed too radically for that to happen. And I don't think anyone will ever again pitch back-to-back no-hitters, as Johnny Vander Meer did for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938, his second season in the bigs. The first was a 3-0 victory over the Boston Braves on June 11; the second was four days later, a 6-0 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field. It is one thing for a fire-throwing closer to pitch eighteen consecutive hitless innings. It is another for a starter to do it in back-to-back starts.
Vander Meer, of course, did other things in his life. He was a young man, just twenty-three years old, when he became The Dutch Master, Mr. Double No-Hit. But until the day he died, and in his every obituary, that's what he was known for and that's what he was known as. He was the man who threw consecutive no-hitters. It is a baseball feat of the highest order.
I met Vander Meer only once, at a BAT dinner in the late 1990s. He was an old man, about eighty, rail-thin but still tall. He told me his health was poor but he didn't have to. He was wearing a dark suit and smoking. He looked tired. But I was thrilled to be with him and to think about how dominating he had been one June week sixty years earlier, and to wonder what it must be like to carry such an accomplishment around with you for the rest of your days.
We chatted. I asked him what he remembered best from the second game. He said, "The Brooklyn fans. Toward the end, they were standing and cheering for me. They were on my side. They were hoping I'd get it. I'll never forget that."
I was touched by what he'd said. I asked him to sign a ball for me. He seemed pleased to be asked, proud to be recognized for his unique achievement. He died a few years later. I wished I had asked him about the next game. There were many things I wish I had asked him. It was just a brief visit, too brief. But I'll never forget it.
7. HANK GREENBERG
When I became commissioner of baseball, my first move was to hire Steve Greenberg as my deputy. It was also my best move. Steve, one of my closest friends today, had an extraordinary baseball pedigree: He was a star baseball (and soccer) player at Yale; he played minor-league baseball, rising to AAA ball; he was a well-respected lawyer and agent to a number of players; and his father was Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers slugger and Hall of Famer who helped diminish American anti-Semitism and raise Jewish pride with every swing he took through the 1930s and '40s.
Hank Greenberg, the son of Orthodox Jews, was living proof to millions of first- and second-generation American Jews that a Jew could be faithful to his religion and be accepted by Christian America. He was proof that no profession was off-limits to Jews, even big-league baseball. He was among the first major leaguers to serve in World War II, which took nearly five seasons off his career but added immeasurably to his status as a hero. He did not play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. To American Jews, he could do no wrong.
From early 1942 through July 1945 he was an Air Corps officer in China and India, in charge of a B-29 bomber squadron. In other words, he wasn't there to rally the troops, he was there to lead. He returned to baseball in midseason as an Air Corps captain, then helped his team win the American League pennant and the World Series.
For many Americans, Greenberg represented a window into Jewish life. In 1938, he was hitting home runs at a record-breaking pace, trying to pass Babe Ruth's single-season mark for homers, 60. With five games left in the season, Greenberg had 58 homers, but then he got stuck. It was widely reported that Greenberg's mother -- in a scenario likely conjured up by creative newspapermen -- offered to make him 61 baseball-shaped servings of gefilte fish if he reached 61. That may not have been the best incentive. He finished the season with 58 after facing Bob Feller in Cleveland on the last day of the season without being able to catch up with that great fastball.
In the fall of 1934, the Tigers were trying to secure the American League pennant when a question arose: Would Greenberg play on Yom Kippur? In those days, particularly, many Jews chose not to be conspicuous about their religion. Many Jews changed their names to more Anglo-sounding names. If Greenberg didn't play and the Tigers lost, it would be bad for the Jews, many Jews said. Others said if Greenberg did play that would be worse. Debate raged.
Greenberg did not play. Detroit lost. And the country saluted him. A little newspaper ditty of the time, written by Edgar Guest, went, "Said Murphy to Mulrooney, 'We shall lose the game today! We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat. But he's true to his religion -- and I honor him for that!'" It helped that the Tigers, led by Greenberg, still won the AL pennant (but lost the World Series to the Gashouse Gang Cardinals). From then on, Greenberg was a mainstay of Yom Kippur sermons across the country, until Sandy Koufax chose God over the World Series on Yom Kippur, 1965.
I admired Hank Greenberg as a boy. I grew up knowing the legend of the man. He was an important symbol to all manner of observant baseball fans and I was a church-going Catholic. It was not until middle-age that I learned there was more to the story. There always is.
"My father got a lot of credit," Steve Greenberg told me once.
"How so?" I asked.
"For being so religious. The fact is, he was not religious at all. He didn't go to temple on Yom Kippur. When my brother and sister and I were young, he'd take us to the park or a museum on Yom Kippur, but never to a synagogue. That was not something he did."
Nobody knew that. The country didn't know the details of Hank Greenberg's spiritual life. What we knew was that he was not afraid to stand up and be counted, and that was more than enough.
8. RALPH KINER
Hank Greenberg spent the final season of his career with the awful 1947 Pittsburgh Pirates, who tried to make Greenberg a gate attraction by building a short porch -- a bullpen, actually -- in left field at Forbes Field called Greenberg's Garden. Greenberg befriended a young, powerful righthanded-hitting outfielder named Ralph Kiner, and when Greenberg retired Kiner took over as the Pirates' main gate attraction. The Garden was renamed for the kid: Kiner's Korner. Kiner became a spectacular home-run hitter -- in the first hundred years of baseball history only Babe Ruth hit homers at a faster pace -- and after he retired as a player he became a Mets broadcaster for the original '62 team, and still holds that job forty years later. We live in the same town, in Greenwich, Connecticut. He's famous for his so-called Kinerisms. He comes out with some gems, including, "We'll be right back with Mets baseball right after this season is over." But I think he's a very good announcer because he's unpretentious and he knows the game. For years he conducted a postgame star-of-the-game interview program called Kiner's Korner. The player would receive a gift for being on the show, maybe a watch, if he was lucky, and was treated to benign opening questions, such as, "How heavy is your bat?" Whenever I was on his show, we talked cigars first, baseball second. I love the guy.
The night before new players are inducted into the Hall of Fame, the baseball commissioner is the host of a dinner at the Otesaga Hotel for all living Hall of Famers and the new inductees. You might have forty men at the dinner and it's quite a fraternity. There's one long U-shaped table and the commissioner sits at the bottom of the U, able to see everything. Everyone sits on the outside of the table. One year, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kiner and Johnny Mize having an animated conversation. Suddenly, they stood up and started making phantom swings of the bat. Kiner from the right side of a make-believe plate, Mize from the left. In 1947, each hit fifty-one home runs, tying for the National League title. Maybe they were each trying to get in a few more swings from that season. Whatever they were doing, it was a sight, for neither of them had taken a swing at a live pitch, a game swing, in nearly forty years. Yet here they were, two men in their seventies, still at it, even if their home plate was now a dinner plate.
After the dinner, I asked: "Ralph, may I ask you a question? I'm curious to know what you and Johnny were doing during the dinner. Were you working on your swings for the great game in the sky?"
"Commissioner, I've admired Johnny Mize all my life because he could hit inside fastballs to the opposite field and I could never do that," Ralph said. "So during dinner, I asked: 'Johnny, how do you do that?' And, as you know, he's always got an answer, on any hitting question he's always got something interesting to say. He told me: 'Righthanded hitter like you, you got to drop your left elbow way down against your ribs and move your hands so you inside-out your swing. But mostly you got to get that elbow down.' I don't know if I could have done it but he really could and at least now I know how he did it."
The great ones never stop asking questions.
9. JOHNNY MIZE
Johnny Mize was a great big southern country boy with a gorgeous, smooth swing and drawl to match. He was born in Demorest, Georgia, in 1913 -- born, I'd almost bet, talking. He was a Hall of Fame hitter and a Hall of Fame talker, although he wasn't enshrined in Cooperstown until 1981, twenty-eight years after he stopped playing, elected by the Veterans Committee. He had an extraordinary career. In nine of his first ten seasons, he batted over .300 and hit twenty-five or more homers seven times, but never played in a World Series. Then in his last five seasons he never batted better than .277, never hit more than 25 homers, but played in the World Series in five straight Octobers, from 1949 through 1953. That, of course, was because, after a decade with the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants, he was a Yankee for those final five seasons. DiMaggio was his teammate for three of those seasons. Mize was as chatty as DiMaggio was reserved, but they were both students of hitting.
In his days as a Giant, Mize roomed with Bill Rigney, a light-hitting infielder, later a longtime manager. Rigney knew firsthand there was a shrewdness in his roomie that his country ways belied.
"One morning in Pittsburgh I wake up and I see Johnny looking out the hotel window," Bill Rigney once told me. "And I say, 'What are you looking at, big guy?'
"'The flag over there.'
"Now usually he's got more to say than that, but he's just studying. I say, 'Now why would you be doing that?'
"'Wind'll be blowing in from right today, Rig, no pulling the ball today, too tough. Have to go the other way today.'"
At that, of course -- as Ralph Kiner and every smart National League pitcher knew -- Johnny Mize was an expert.
Football takes brawn and basketball takes speed and hockey takes some of both. But baseball, in my opinion, is the best of the four big American sports, the best of all games, because it truly is a thinking person's game. I always knew its best fans were smart. When I got to know the players, I found the game's best performers were smarter yet. You can play it without either brawn or speed. The best play it with brains.
Copyright © 2002 by Fay Vincent