This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 20-Jan. 26, 1962by Richard Barbieri
January 25, 2008
On Jan. 13, 1962 a San Francisco attorney—representing himself—won a lawsuit against the Giants over his seating at the ballpark. That attorney and his lawsuit make for quite the story.
How does this sound for the beginning of a column: Gorgon, an evil alien who nearly convinced a group of children to take over the starship Enterprise until being foiled by Kirk and Spock?
Or maybe this one: a man who would claim to be the “King of Torts,” and raise a pirate flag and fire an antique cannon to celebrate his courtroom triumphs?
Or if neither of those grabs your fancy, how about the story of the attorney who represented Jack Ruby, later earned FBI surveillance ordered by J. Edgar Hoover and once was fined for referring to his wife as “El Trampo” during divorce proceedings?
Finally, what if all those were the same man, a man credited with helping revolutionize the way civil trials were conducted? And what if that same man—Melvin Belli—had one of his triumphs over the San Francisco Giants, merely by proving his seat was cold? Sounds like a pretty good story. So let’s tell it.
Belli began his career as an attorney in the 1930s, after leaving a career that involved posing as an undercover hobo to establish the effects of the Depression for the WPA. Belli’s cases were varied, though largely of the personal injury variety. He was among the first attorneys to regularly use physical evidence—models, charts, photographs, etc.—as part of his cases.
Over the course of his career, he argued a number of notable cases. In Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling, he established the precedent that a manufacturer was liable for negligence any time its product causes injury. Belli’s theory was that only a defective product would cause injury, so even if no specific negligence could be cited, any producer was liable.
But Belli did not spend all his time on quite such esoteric elements of law. In 1964, he represented, pro bono, possibly the second most famous murderer in America, Jack Ruby. (The most famous murderer being Ruby’s victim, Lee Harvey Oswald.) Belli described Ruby as an “intense, tragic, emotional man,” and led an insanity defense. It was unsuccessful, but Ruby died while waiting for a new trial after his conviction in the first was overturned on appeal.
During the course of the Ruby trial, and thereafter, Belli was extremely critical of the FBI director. Hoover, who didn’t take well to such things, ordered his office to investigate Belli. The agency would end up accumulating 367 pages of files on Belli.
I’ve only skimmed through the files, but they mostly reflect that Belli was an attorney who liked to talk and had several wives, neither of which exactly constituted big news. (There is, though, an especially laughable section implying Belli might be a Communist sympathizer because he signed a letter in 1941 expressing admiration for Soviet efforts against Hitler.)
By the end, most of Belli’s wives probably were no bigger fans of his than was Hoover. He married several times, the last coming just weeks before his death. Belli’s divorce from Lia Triff was especially vicious. Belli was 64 when he met the 23-year old Triff, who misidentified him as F. Lee Bailey. Belli probably should’ve taken the hint, but instead the pair ended up getting married.
It was during his divorce from Triff that Belli characterized her as “El Trampo” and accused his wife of throwing their pet dog from the Golden Gate Bridge. In the end, Belli paid Triff a substantial sum of money, generally believed to be in the millions. She is now married to a man who claims he should be Prince of Romania.
When he wasn’t finding and divorcing new wives, being investigated by the FBI or representing a client in court, Belli dabbled as an actor. In addition to his aforementioned work as an evil alien on Star Trek, Belli also appeared as a judge in Murder, She Wrote and appeared as himself on programs like Hunter.
Now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with baseball. The answer actually begins when then-San Francisco Mayor George Christopher took Giants owner Horace Stoneham around Candlestick Point to show him the space where his team’s new park would be. Stoneham loved the site, not knowing that a sunny, warm day would be the exception rather than the rule for Candlestick.
Stories about the cold in Candlestick Park are legion. The stadium was designed with a boomerang shape (largely concealed when the park was enclosed to provide football seating) to reduce the winds, but that proved a failure.
During the 1961 All-Star game, the Giants' Stu Miller was literally blown off the mound, which earned him a balk. During batting practice in 1963, Casey Stengel reported, the wind picked up a batting cage and relocated it 60 feet to the pitcher's mound.
As if the wind were not enough, the park also was notorious for its evening chill. The Giants issued a Croix de Candlestick to those fans who sat through an entire extra-inning night game.
It was this chill that ties Melvin Belli to the franchise. In 1962, Belli purchased a box in Candlestick Park. The Giants promised a “radiant heat” system would warm the box. Feeling chilly, Belli sued the Giants.
After a trial during which Belli apparently produced an Army sergeant in order to demonstrate different types of clothing deemed necessary for different temperatures, Belli won, and was awarded nearly $1,600, the equivalent of roughly $10,000 today.
ESPN’s Page 2 believes that Belli was not satisfied with his lawsuit victory and has instead maintained “The Curse of Melvin Belli” ever since, stopping the Giants’ from ever achieving World Series success.
I don’t know if I would go quite that far, but Belli clearly affected whatever aspect of America life he touched, from the Law of Torts to boldly going where no man had gone before.
I imagine that when the Giants began selling boxes for SBC Park they made sure they were able to follow through on all advertised promises. Just another Belli legacy.
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