Baseball Potpourriby Richard Barbieri
March 22, 2012
One of my great frustrations in writing my previous columns was that I would often come upon stories that, while interesting, simply were insufficient to justify a whole column. I long considered doing this sort of column one week—the “potpourri” type—but that seemed stretching the Annotated Week concept beyond its breaking point. (And I should know, I stretched that concept like it was Reed Richards.)
This week, however, we’ll do just that, touching on many of the stories over the years I had mentally set aside. The first is one from a game at Comerica Park in July of 2001. On that date, the Tigers were hosting the Yankees and while both teams made an error—the Tigers’ made by shortstop Shane Halter allowing a run to score—the worst hands in the park that day belonged to a fan.
While reaching for a foul ball, the fan dropped a Glock onto the field, only to quickly scoop it up. Under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed—particularly in Detroit, a city’s whose decline and Sisyphean efforts at rebuilding has launched a million magazine covers—but at the ballpark it was enough to attract the attention of players who contacted ballpark security.
The story ended up with a happy ending, as it turned out the fan was carrying the gun legally; in fact, he was an off-duty police officer. While perhaps in need of more training on securing his weapon, this was a rare intersection of baseball and guns which was neither tragic—as of Lyman Bostock—or fictitious—as in Roy Hobbs.
I’ve written about this a little bit before, but one of the stranger traditions of early baseball was the devoted passions ballplayers and others had for dropping a baseball from a high point and seeing if it could be caught. Sometimes it could, as in both 1908 and 1910 when balls dropped from the top of Washington Monument—a shade over 550 feet high—were caught by Gabby Street and Bill Sullivan.
In 1938 Indians’ players Hank Helf and Frankie Pytlak managed to snare baseball dropped from Cleveland’s Terminal Tower—more than 700 feet at its peak, though it seems unlikely the pair’s teammate Ken Keltner was dropping the balls from the tippy-top of the flagpole—as publicly for the “Come to Cleveland Committee.” Why establishing that baseballs could be caught when dropped from the city’s tallest building was going to prompt people to pull up stakes and “Come to Cleveland” will, I suspect, forever remain a mystery.
|Roy Oswalt: erstwhile Astro, current bulldozer owner (Icon/SMI)|
Unfortunately for people on the other end of the balls, as often as not they couldn’t be caught. (Even Sullivan’s successful grab took nearly 60 tries.) In 1939, Joe Sprinz attempted to catch a ball dropped from a blimp nearly 800 feet up. The exact details of what happened next are inconsistent, but the end of the story is clear: Sprinz did not catch the ball and ended up with a broken jaw and several missing teeth for his trouble.
In a another famous incident, Dodgers manager Wilbert Robertson decided he was going to attempt to catch a baseball dropped from an airplane more than 500 feet up. Once again exact details are sketchy, but the generally accepted version is that in lieu of a baseball, Casey Stengel provided the “aviatrix,” Ruth Law—herself owner of several aviation records—with a grapefruit. Predictably, a grapefruit does not retain its form as well as baseball and upon impact Robertson thought he had, depending on the version of the story, either lost an eye or had the baseball punch a hole through his chest. Fortunately, neither was the case and Robertson eventually developed a sense of humor about the incident: he was said to refer thereafter to the plane as a “fruit fly.”
There’s a pretty good ad running these days which depicts the city of Chicago after a Cubs’ World Series victory—fans going crazy outside The Wieners Circle, an elderly man finally cutting his beard, that sort-of thing. This got me thinking about the gap since the Cubs actually won a World Series. It is sometimes easy to see the time as an abstract idea. I feel confident saying that not only will no one read this column who genuinely remembers the Cubs’ last World Series victory, but almost no one reading it will even know someone who does.
I could obviously spend a whole column on the history that’s happened since the Cubs last won a World Series. I never did though, as that seems like it might be a trifle dull, and rather cruel to Cubs fans besides. Nonetheless it is remarkable to consider all that occurred in the period since the North Side of Chicago knew glory. No President since Lyndon Johnson was born before the Cubs won their title—and LBJ barely sneaks in there. The Soviet Union was still more than a decade away from establishment in 1909. In the time it took the USSR to rise to one of the world’s two superpowers and then collapse on itself—plus another two decades or so for good measure—the Cubs managed to win zero titles.
And of course, perhaps most galling of all for Cubs’ fans (with the White Sox 2005 success excepted, I suppose) a number of expansion teams have managed to win a World Series in that period, including the Marlins and Diamondbacks, both of whom needed fewer than 10 years to reach the pinnacle of the game.
One might also consider the increasingly strange nature of contract perks that have come about lately. Probably none are topping Roy Oswalt’s “bulldozer bonus,” which was exactly what it sounds like: a bulldozer gifted to the righty from then-Astros’ owner Drayton McLane in exchange for Oswalt earning the victory in the Astros’ pennant-clinching game in 2005. Oswalt was pleased with his new toy, telling reporters that it was “a dozer you can do anything with.”
Ultimately, that’s only a small sample of the many different small baseball stories floating around. For now, we’ll close the potpourri bag, but perhaps it will be re-opened sometime in the future.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com