The Screwball: What about Bob Lemon?by Azure Texan
October 17, 2013
On Aug. 12, when word came that the banana that had landed near Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones was not a symbol of racial bigotry but, instead, a token of one fan’s deep frustration with the sorry performance of his favorite team, baseball learned to its great relief that brazen displays of racism are still the property of soccer hooligans and celebrity chefs. What baseball has unlearned, however, is that its fans have a long and colorful history of launching harvested fruit at big-league ballplayers. No, seriously!
Size matters, sometimes
Throughout the course of his eight-year career, outfielder Kevin Mench boasted the biggest head in big-league baseball. How big was it? Funny you should ask. It was so big that Saddam Hussein, certain that there was oil in there somewhere, once tried to invade it; so big that England, certain that there was tea in its eastern regions, once tried to colonize it; so big that a team of Russian climbers nearly summited the thing before turning back due to exhaustion; so big that, for a brief time in 2004, it had its own moon.
It came as no surprise, then, that on an August night in 2005, Mench turned in left field to see a melon rolling his way—a commentary, surely, on the magnitude of the melon that crowned his neck. Equally unsurprising was what happened the following day: Having kept the melon as a symbolically cranial keepsake, Mench handed it to the Rangers’ batting-practice pitcher, who, in turn, threw it low and outside to their slugging second baseman.
The result? You guessed it: Soriano swung and missed.
The fruits of his loins
Before there was Derek Jeter, there was Bo Belinsky—a player so utterly gifted with a womanizin’ skill set that it’s a wonder he never spent time on the disabled list with lower-back pain and pelvic inflammation. A hard-drinking, hard-throwing lefty who, apart from his 1962 no-hitter against the Orioles, pitched woo considerably better than he pitched baseballs, Belinsky was a notorious playboy whose conquests included Connie Stevens, Ann-Margret, Mamie Van Doren and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Rumor has it that between games of a doubleheader in New York, Belinsky bedded all the Radio City Rockettes and the vast majority of their understudies. Rumor also has it that The Most Interesting Man In The World once called Belinsky for dating advice even as Belinsky seduced the man’s sisters, The Most Interesting Twins In The World, and an intriguing cousin once-removed.
Given his libertine history, Belinksy was hardly surprised to see the fruit that soared from the stands and onto the mound one warm spring night in L.A.
“It’s a date!” he observed, grinning at the wordplay.
Inscribed on it were the words “Tonight, Beverly Hills Hotel, 8 o’clock.”
After throwing a first-pitch ball, Belinsky saw a passion fruit come bouncing to the mound. On it, in different handwriting, was this sentiment: “We shall surrender ourselves to the winds of desire! Tonight, Griffith Park, 7:30.”
After throwing a second ball, Belinsky looked down see yet another fruit rolling to the mound, this one stopping, perhaps ironically, on the rubber.
It was a pawpaw.
On it: “Today, L.A. General Hospital: 7 pounds, 9 ounces.”
Not so sweet
For a time in the mid-2000s, pitcher Kris Benson was the envy of baseball—not because of his fastball but because of his wife. A former stripper who once sexed up her husband in the parking lot of Three Rivers Stadium, Anna Benson made other WAGS look dowdy in comparison. Her big smile and bigger chest seemed custom-crafted for the cover of FHM, and her bawdy statements—most famously her vow to sleep with every Mets teammate should her husband ever cheat on her—made most men stand at attention.
Thing of it was, her husband—tall, lanky, a bit uncomfortable in his skin—looked less like a highly-paid athlete than a decently paid accountant, a guy who satisfies his wife’s every whim in efforts to close the attractiveness gap between them. For that reason, the pitcher would always see a familiar fruit come bouncing out of the wives' section whenever he took the mound.
Taped to each honeydew was a handwritten directive:
—“Do the dishes.”
—“Do the yard work.”
—“Knock three times, then say you’re here to clean my pipes.”
Mild-mannered to a fault, the pitcher would obey each directive, always muttering “honeydew” beneath his breath. Not until July 10 of this year, when his now-ex-wife burst into his Atlanta home armed with a handgun and an expandable baton, was Benson heard to shout, “Honey, don’t!”
The laryngeal prominence, a protrusion in the neck formed by the angle of the thyroid cartilage surrounding the larynx, is much larger and more visible in men than it is in women. This is the lesson—as valuable a lesson as there is—that pitcher Dave Stewart should have learned before he invited transvestite hooker Elson Tyler, aka “Lucille,” into his car on January 13, 1985.
Indeed, along with ear hair and five o’clock shadow, the anatomical feature known otherwise as the Adam’s apple has long ranked high on the pre-lovemakin’ checklist of any savvy solicitor of illicit female companionship.
After all, they’re called ladies of the evening for a reason.
In any case, the episode proved a great embarrassment to Stewart, who, upon returning to Texas for the 1985 season, found that he could no longer watch syndicated reruns of Bosom Buddies on the clubhouse TV without being ruthlessly taunted by Rangers teammates, many of whom would then gather to perform word-for-word reenactments of La Cage aux Folles and Some Like It Hot. When he sought refuge on the mound, things only got worse.
Case in point: During a game in Seattle, Stewart looked up to see a green-and-red fruit bounce to the mound. On it was a message: “This is a Lady Apple. Next time you pick up a bona fide, 100 percent female hooker, just have her swallow it, making sure that it lodges visibly in the front-most portion of her throat so as to render your experience a bit more familiar.”
They clearly meant it as a compliment, but when Oakland fans tossed a hardy kiwi at A’s closer Grant Balfour this season, the sturdy Aussie chalked it up to the U.S. public school system and its woefully underfunded geography programs. After all, Australians aren’t called Kiwis. New Zealanders are. Ironically, when Balfour made a subsequent monetary donation to the local public-school system, it somehow went to Auckland.
What a pear
Whenever he saw a pear come soaring out of the stands, pitcher David Wells understood the implication: He was pear-shaped, heavy, fat. He was, to be charitable, Ruebenesque, a man to be mocked because he seemed so much like a female fertility figure or a sex symbol from the days prior to Zumba.
Wells had his revenge on May 17, 1988, when, as a member of the Yankees, he got Twins shortstop Pat Meares to fly out for the final out of a perfect game. And what do you get when you take the p-e-a-r out of Pat Meares?
That’s right: meats. You get meats.
So score one for the carnivores, the omnivores, the David Wellses of the world, gluttons for anything but punishment of pyriform proportions.
Orange you self-aware?
With a skin tone typically reserved for Oompa Loompas and creatures known as Snooki, the player we call A-Rod looks to be the love child of the Great Pumpkin and Sesame Street’s Ernie. Indeed, only a bizarre lineage consisting of fictional characters whose skin tones fall between red and yellow on the light spectrum could explain the Jersey Shore-ish color associated with the embattled third baseman of the New York Yankees.
For that reason, A-Rod has long been accustomed to seeing oranges—often Valencia, sometimes Mandarin—tossed in great arcing salvos toward his super-radiant self. What he never expected to see were all those miracle fruits, elderberries and raisins—the first a commentary on his Biogenesis connection, the second on his advancing age, and the third on his manhood, or what might be left of it, if indeed the steroid allegations are really true.
Homonym, homonym, homonym . . . batter, suhhhh-wing!
It started late last June, when the Texas heat first caused Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison to remove his cap and wipe his head with his sleeve. Until then, many fans had never known that Harrison, affectionately known as Harry, boasts a head like a naked mole rat. Which is to say, he’s bald.
Shortly thereafter, Harrison began to notice all the reddish oval fruits that came rolling toward him whenever he took the mound. Hardly an avid reader, he had no way of knowing that the fruits derived from the genus Nephelium and the species xerospermoides. And while it is true that Nephelium xerospermoides sounds like a jazz-fusion band from northern Denmark, it is actually the taxonomic name of the hairless rambutan, a fruit closely related to the popular Indo-Thai fruit known as the rambutan. As for the word rambutan, it is derived from the Malay/Indonesian term for “hairy.”
And so the hairless rambutan translates to “hairless hairy.” And there you have it, Mr. Harrison. Look up the word “homonym” and you’ll understand.
In the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Byung-Hyun Kim looked up to see dozens of reddish fruits come soaring toward the bullpen.
“명. (식물) 석류?” asked the Arizona closer.
“Yes,” said a conveniently located translator. “Pomegranates.”
Of course, Kim didn’t know why fans were launching pomegranates. He wasn’t hungry. Even if he was, who could eat at a time like this? After all, Curt Schilling had just given up a leadoff homer to Alfonso Soriano, putting the Yankees up, 2-1. A short time later, when the Yankees’ David Justice stroked a one-out single, the pomegranates came at an even greater rate.
“무슨 문제가 있습니까?” asked Kim.
“What gives? I’ll tell you what gives,” the translator replied.
Looking on as Arizona manager Bob Brenly replaced Schilling not with Kim but with right-hander Miguel Batista, the translator then explained the myth of Persephone. Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone was out gathering flowers one day when Hades abducted her into the underworld. Demeter, who doubled as the harvest goddess, then began searching in earnest for Persephone, but in her desperation she neglected the earth. Crops failed, and the people grew hungry. In response, Hades complied with divine request by releasing Persephone to the upper-world, thereby restoring the vigor of the crops, but not before tricking her into eating pomegranate seeds. By Hellenic ground rule, Persephone was then obliged to spend one third of the year in the underworld, during which time the crops would go fallow.
“나는 아직도 이해하지 못한다,” replied Kim.
“You still don’t understand?” replied the translator. “Dude, you gave up the game-tying and game-winning homers in Game 4, and the game-tying homer in Game 5—a game that your Diamondbacks went on to lose.”
“그래서 어떻다는 것인가?”
“So? So, what they’re saying is that whenever you enter the game, everything goes to hell.”
“Oh, indeed, my friend. Oh, indeed.”
Baseball been berry, berry bad to him
Poor Quintin. With a K% of 24.2, outfielder Quintin Berry took a lot of fruitless hacks in 2012. Still, he could never figure out why dozens of tiny fruits would come flying from the stands each time he returned to the dugout, head drooping, after yet another strikeout. Sometimes the fruits were red, at other times green, at still other times purple, but what they had in common, apart from their size, was their target: Quintin Lonell Berry.
After one particularly poor performance, in which he provided little more than a refreshing breeze for third-base coach Gene Lamont, Berry gathered a few of the fruits and took them to a botanist. After a brief study, the botanist determined that the fruits came from a deciduous tree in the genus Celtis.
“Colloquially,” he added, “it’s called the hackberry.”
“I see,” muttered Berry.
“Yes,” replied the botanist, “but perhaps not well enough.”
When hundreds of small red berries began landing all over the field at Rangers Ballpark in 2012, the Rangers were confused. The berries would land at first base, at catcher—in fact, at the feet of every position player.
“Who, me?” a player would ask, shrugging toward the stands.
“No, you!” the fans would shout, pointing in another direction.
“Me?” another player would ask.
“No!” they’d scream. “You!”
At long last, the players thought they had figured it out: Rangers fans were throwing each berry, known as the yew, toward beloved pitcher Yu Darvish.
And yet when Darvish bent to pick one up, the fans waved him off.
“No,” they shouted, “not Yu.”
They pointed toward the dugout. “You!”
As it turned out, they were directing the berries, famous for their lethally toxic seeds, toward designated hitter Michael Young, he of the 25 GIDPs.
No need to call Dr. Pepper
The man was hardly bubbly—“daring to the point of dementia,” is how the Detroit Free Press described his spikes-high style of play—but Ty Cobb definitely understood the significance of carbonated soda. Among the initial investors in Coca-Cola, Cobb actually appeared in a 1917 newspaper ad for the drink, lending his name and image to a beverage that by contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic would eventually inspire thousands of 12-year-olds to believe, quite wrongly, that they were the next David Wells.
As stilted as it is long, the ad copy is best read in an early-days-of-radio voice—high-pitched, nasally and quick, as if you’re announcing that Charlie Chaplin has just stepped aboard a dirigible: “On days when we are playing a doubleheader, I always find that a drink of Coca-Cola between the games refreshes me to such an extent that I can start the second game feeling as if I had not been exercising at all, in spite of my exertions in the first.”
Which of course sounds exactly like something Cobb would have said.
In any case, given his connection to the Coca-Cola Co., Cobb was hardly surprised to see a volley of cola nuts—and yes, the cola nut is technically a fruit—come flying out of the stands at the Polo Grounds on May 15, 1912.
“It’s a fine tribute,” he said to himself. “Since a drink of Coca-Cola between the games refreshes me to such an extent that I can start the second game feeling as if I had not been exercising at all, I rightly can be called a cola nut!”
Alas, it wasn’t a tribute. Having watched Cobb climb into the stands to attack handless heckler Claude Lueker, the fans were actually trying to pelt him into submission. In the end, however, Cobb proved a bit too spritely.
Because there isn’t a fruit called “ridicule Darryl”
The derisive chant, launched into popular consciousness during the 1986 World Series, shadowed Darryl Strawberry for the rest of his long career. In time, however, its easy refrain and rhythmic cadence had formed such a familiar piece of the cultural currency that some fans refused to voice it.
In efforts to save their vocal cords for other fun activities such as shouting death threats at Bill Buckner, many fans came to the stadium armed with a fruit that functioned as a wordless proxy for their withering scorn. Known taxonomically as Potentilla indica, the fruit owed its common name to its resemblance to a more popular fruit, one that had inspired the surname of baseball’s No.1 villain. And thus did the right fielder become the frequent target of the mock strawberry, his figure in mock strawberry fields forever.
An ugly display
In the midst of an old-timers game last summer, the players looked up from their positions to see dozens of rough, wrinkly, greenish-yellow fruits come bouncing onto the field. Left fielder George Foster, who, it must be said, looks like the accidental offspring of Seth Brundle and Jocelyn Wildenstein, glanced at second baseman Marquis Grissom, who, it should be noted, resembles the less-attractive twin of Mr. Potato Head, and shouted, “Yo, Marquis! What’s with all the rough, wrinkly, greenish-yellow fruits?”
Shrugging, Grissom looked to catcher Ron Karkovice, whose mask had done him a favor by obscuring a face made for AM radio, and shouted, “What gives?” Equally clueless, Karkovice then looked to starter Randy Johnson, whose party-in-the-back mullet had done nothing to distract from a face apparently fashioned from the razed track of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
In the dugout, manager Yogi Berra looked to the field and shouted, “Hey, why are you boys just standing around? This ain’t no beauty pageant!”
At which point bench coach Don Mossi turned to his equally homely friend.
“Uh, Yogi?” he said.
“Those things on the field?”
They’re ugly, he said.
“Yeah, I know,” said the manager. “Not everybody’s Bo Belinsky.”
“I mean the fruits. They’re ugli. That’s what they’re called. It ends in an ‘i.’”
“Starts there, too. That’s why we have beholders.”
Azure Texan is a writer living in Austin.