Opening Day is a time to celebrate the game. It’s a time to bask in our appreciation, or perhaps we can even say our love, of the sport that is so much a part of the lives of the writers and readers at web sites like this.
I particularly enjoy the personalities and the back stories of baseball. What better way to ring in a new round of Opening Day games than to remember some of the most audacious and unusual characters the game has ever seen. These are the guys who give baseball its extra zest, those who supplement the on-field game with a dash of color and eccentricity, and sometimes a large helping of aggravation.
So to celebrate the start of the 2011 season, let’s lay out a few stories involving three of the all-time wackiest figures: a flake from the 1950s and ’60s, a count from the ’70s, and an animal from the 1980s.
Although he journeyed endlessly through the National and American leagues, Jackie Brandt had legitimate talent. He was good enough to be included on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1961 baseball preview issue. Brandt enjoyed a solid rookie season split between the Cardinals and New York Giants, won a Gold Glove in 1959, and made the All-Star team in 1961. In achieving the latter honor, he put up career best numbers (with an OPS of .815) as the Orioles’ starting center fielder. The off-beat Brandt was flanked in the Baltimore outfield by two of the game’s most intelligent players, Dick Williams and Whitey Herzog. The two future managers must have scratched their heads repeatedly as they watched Brandt’s unusual act in center field.
As he wandered through the outfield, Brandt played the game with such a nonchalant style that critics targeted him as indifferent and uncaring. With his speed and power, he sometime flashed enormous ability, but too often appeared to be daydreaming on the field, resulting in a tendency to make careless mistakes. Given such characteristics, it’s understandable why Brandt became known as the “Marvelous Flaky One.”
When Brandt tried to explain his on-field haplessness, he sometimes offered unusual explanations, to the point of appearing clownish. “I’m far out, you know,” Brandt admitted to sportswriter Milton Gross in 1965. “My nickname used to be ‘Flakey,’ but I’m shrewder than most of (my teammates) think. I guess maybe I’m just unpredictable and they never know when they’re going to get it. I usually come up with something not normal that leaves them laughing.”
Brandt often left them bewildered as well. He once played 36 holes of golf on the same day he was scheduled to play in a doubleheader, and somehow lived to tell about it. An unnamed Phillies teammate provided another example of Brandt’s quirkiness in a story for The Sporting News. “He begged me to drive 20 miles to a certain ice cream stand,” Brandt’s teammate explained in a 1966 interview, “because it was the only one that carried 29 flavors—and then he ordered vanilla.” Yes, Brandt could be as exasperating away from the ballpark as he was during his carefree strolls through the outfield.
In what can only be described as a monumentally unexpected development, Brandt became a manager after his playing days. He worked as a skipper in the minor league systems of the Astros and Padres before leaving baseball to become a driver for the United Parcel Service.
Now 76, Brandt is retired from UPS and lives in Omaha. I hope he can still take those leisurely strolls, and I hope he still has plenty of time to daydream, too.
Beginning with his earliest major-league days in San Francisco, John Montefusco established a reputation for brash words and flamboyant behavior. He loved to make bold predictions, which he sometimes fulfilled—and sometimes failed miserably to achieve—earning himself the nickname, “The Mouth that Roared.” Before a 1975 game against the eventual World Champion Reds, he predicted that he would strike out Johnny Bench four times and shut out the “The Machine.” He fell short on both counts: He allowed seven runs in a third of an inning, with three of the runs scoring on a home run by Bench.
Regardless of his failure that day, Montefusco made strong impressions as a rookie. With his 97 mph fastball and 90 mph slider, he earned National League Rookie of the Year honors and had some San Francisco followers proclaiming him the heir apparent to Juan Marichal. Earning the nickname “The Count” from Giants play-by-play broadcaster Al Michaels (a pun on his last name’s similarity to the words Monte Cristo), Montefusco seemed destined for cult status in the Bay Area. In his second season, he pitched a no-hitter, once again gaining himself national attention.
Unfortunately, Montefusco couldn’t avoid injury. Pitching with an undiagnosed broken bone in his ankle, Montefusco hurt his elbow late in 1977, forcing him to make the early-career adjustment from power pitcher to sinkerball specialist. Montefusco adopted an unusual motion: He appeared to hunch his back while delivering the ball from a three-quarters arm slot, but he remained mildly effective in stints with the Giants and Padres.
Montefusco found one last return to glory in 1983. After he pitched well for the non-contending Padres, the Yankees acquired him in late August for a pair of players to be named later. Almost single-handedly, Montefusco did his best to help the Yankees win the American League East, winning all five of his decisions while posting an ERA of 3.32. Yet, he didn’t have enough help from the supporting cast of pitchers; the Yankees finished third behind the Orioles and Tigers in a stacked Eastern Division.
Continuing arm problems relegated The Count to secondary status for the remainder of his Yankees days and ultimately resulted in his 1986 retirement. Just as injuries had become a recurring theme, Montefusco often found himself involved in controversy throughout his career. While with the Giants, he engaged his manager, Dave Bristol, in a fistfight. The incident resulted in his departure from the Giants, who traded him to the Braves. Unhappy with his role in Atlanta, Montefusco failed to make the plane for the team’s season-ending road trip to Cincinnati and earned himself a suspension.
More serious controversy followed Montefusco after his playing days. His wife filed charges that he had committed aggravated sexual assault and made terrorist threats against her. Unable to afford bail, he spent two years in jail awaiting trial. All along, he maintained his innocence, claiming that his wife had twisted the circumstances of their marital difficulties. While I don’t know all of the details, the newspaper accounts that I’ve read indicated that many of his wife’s charges may have been “trumped up,” if not completely fabricated. Montefusco was eventually acquitted of all the felony charges and served only probation for criminal trespass and simple assault. For what it’s worth, I tend to believe Montefusco’s side of the story.
A few years back, I met Montefusco as he visited Cooperstown to sign autographs at the local CVS, with most of the proceeds going to a cancer-stricken employee of the company. He was quiet, almost shy, nothing like the brash Count who had become the stuff of legend. As Montefusco met fans in Cooperstown, and stayed after his allotted time to make sure all autograph seekers were accommodated, I heard him discuss his hopes for the future. He said he wanted to return to baseball with the Giants as a minor league pitching instructor. According to some of the people who knew him from his days coaching for Sparky Lyle in independent minor league ball, Montefusco was particularly good at breaking down a pitcher’s mechanics, a valuable skill for any pitching coach. The Count had no interest in becoming a coach at the major league level, but simply wanted to work with the young pitchers in San Francisco’s minor league system.
I don’t think Montefusco received that opportunity; I can’t find him listed in the Giants’ minor league directory. Given what he’s been through, I hope The Count gets that chance someday, if not with the Giants, then with someone else.
Brad Lesley pitched only three seasons in the major leagues, but he succeeded in making a far more lasting impression in both the United States and the Japanese Leagues. Nicknamed “The Animal,” Lesley landed in the national spotlight shortly after making his big league debut with the Reds. Snarling and stomping on the mound, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Lesley pumped his first into his glove uncontrollably after striking out opposing batters.
The oversized right hander also gained a reputation for having an unusual diet, which included the consumption of live frogs. “I eat spiders, too,” Lesley proudly told The New York Times in 1982. “I love to eat critters.” On another occasion, Lesley told a reporter that while he was in Alaska, he pushed a car off a cliff because it happened to be blocking his way.
Lesley displayed his tendency toward tantrums at the ballpark, as well. When the Reds surprisingly demoted him to Triple-A during spring training, Lesley lashed out in the clubhouse. “They screwed up. Case closed,” Lesley exclaimed. “What the bleep is going on?” he yelled out, seemingly not caring who heard him.
Lesley eventually returned to the major leagues with the Brewers, but injuries and a lack of secondary pitches sidetracked his career, leading to a memorable two-year stint in the Japanese Leagues. During his tenure in the Far East, big Lesley, featuring long hair and a large mustache, became a cult figure as a comedic television personality and professional wrestler. He actually went head-to-head against Sumo wrestling combatants. By now a minor celebrity, Lesley launched a film career that included roles in “Mr. Baseball” and “Space Jam.” He was personally asked to appear in the latter film by a fellow named Michael Jordan.
Unlike Montefusco, Lesley has found continued employment in baseball, working as a youth pitching instructor for Rob Andrews’ Youth Baseball Camp, which is somewhat hard to believe given The Animal’s outlandish antics in two different countries.
But that’s baseball for you.