The Screwball: the bid for immor(t)alityby Azure Texan
September 12, 2013
As a collector of sports memorabilia, you were no doubt disappointed when, on May 13, Gray Flannel Auctions removed from the block a corked bat that Mickey Mantle allegedly used. But pout no more, ye keeper of cheater collectibles. We at the Big League Cheaters Auction House (BLCAH) are here to announce an exciting new catalogue of notorious tools of the baseball trade.
Preacher Roe’s saliva
Granted, you wouldn’t think a man named Preacher could ever indulge in the dark arts of baseball chicanery, but if Elmer Gantry taught us anything, and I’m pretty sure he did, it’s that preachers can be as unscrupulous as the rest of us.
(You also wouldn’t think the BLCAH is capable of collecting anyone’s saliva, let alone the spit, drool or sputum of a four-time All-Star who in 1951 went 22-3 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but while BLCAH procurement tactics remain proprietary, I will say that we are not above posing as dental hygienists.)
Born Elwin Charles Roe and nicknamed “Preacher” as a child, the lefty went on to post a 27-24 record for the Pirates in the 1944-45 seasons, using a wicked heater to lead the league in strikeouts in ‘45, but following an offseason skull fracture, he struggled, going 7-23 over the next two years and rendering help-wanted ads a likely target of his reading attention.
A 1948 trade to the Dodgers, and, moreso, a secret consultation with the spitball gods, revived his career, as Ol’ Preach went 90-33 over the next six seasons and helped Brooklyn to World Series appearances in 1949, ‘52 and ‘53.
Like a man of the cloth, Preacher was honest about the source of his late-career success. “Clean livin’ and the spitball,” he would say. In 1955, a year after retirement, Preacher admitted to Sports Illustrated that he’d been guilty as sin, even if baseball codes of conduct recommended his absolution.
I threw spitballs the whole time I was with the Dodgers,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I? (L)ook at the batters. They can put anything they want on the bats. Molasses and soda. And nobody says nothing, but we’re supposed to pitch a brand-new ball all the time.
“Conscience? Hell, it never bothered me none throwing a spitter."
Suggested opening bid: $7.41, the starting price on eBay for Saliva, the self-titled debut album of post-grunge band Saliva.
Display suggestion: If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, place the spit at least two cubits—i.e., at arm’s length—from your first-edition copy of The Fielding Bible.
New York Giants’ telescope
In the summer of 1951, with their pennant hopes at the event horizon of a 14-game black hole, the Giants established something of an observatory at their home field of the Polo Grounds. In it, coach Herman Franks would take his position at the telescope, stationed at a window in the Giants’ center field clubhouse, and, with apologies to no one, peer at the distant crotch of the man behind the plate.
Upon determining the nature of the upcoming pitch—heater? slider? curve?—Franks would trip a buzzer connected to the dugout, and there a co-conspirator would relay the information to the man at the plate.
It worked. At season’s end, the Giants had erased a 13.5-game deficit to pull even, at 96-58, with crosstown rival Brooklyn, forcing a three-game playoff for a World Series berth.
In the bottom of the ninth in Game Three, with Brooklyn up 4-2 and runners on first and second, Dodgers reliever Ralph Branca peered in to catcher Rube Walker for the sign. So did Herman Franks.
On an 0-1 fastball, Bobby Thomson had launched the most famous suborbital flight in history, and the Giants had won the pennant.
SOB: $2.13, the combined average prices of movie and major league tickets in 1951.
Collector tip: Upon purchase, you can gaze at the likes of Wally Moon, Blue Moon Odom and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, but what you can’t see is the corked bat of The Commerce Comet.
Joe Niekro’s emery board (with bonus sandpaper)
We’ve all seen the footage, right? It’s Aug. 3, 1987, in Anaheim, and Twins knuckleballer Joe Niekro unleashes a pitch that takes a path normally reserved for the scariest rollercoaster at nearby Disneyland. Plate umpire Tim Tschida, not born yesterday, tells Niekro to empty his pockets.
Niekro empties his pockets, all right, and in moments the infield grass resembles the littered carpet of a sloppy nail salon.
Niekro would later claim innocence, saying he’d pocketed the paraphernalia in order to groom his nails between innings, but league honchos, also not born yesterday, wouldn’t buy it, suspending the pitcher for 10 days.
SOB: $6.95, the price of a T-shirt honoring post-hardcore band Emery, purveyors of the aptly titled album I’m Only A Man.
Auction caution: If bidding online, mark the box labeled “nails” and not “Nails,” as you might otherwise pay the $1,000 that Lenny Dykstra still owes porn star Monica Foster for escort services.
Rick Honeycutt’s thumbtack
So, you’ve purchased Joe Niekro’s emery board. Now what? Well, if you need to secure that notorious scuffer to your bulletin board, either as an avant-garde memorabilia display or a prudent grooming convenience, then look no further than Rick Honeycutt’s equally scandalous tack.
On Sept. 30, 1980, during a road game against the Royals, the Seattle lefty taped the tack to the middle finger of his right hand and pushed the tip through the leather in order to doctor the ball in his glove, just the sort of resourceful, everyman solution that MacGyver himself would have retroactively admired. But hey, like MacGyver, Honeycutt had to do something, because, like MacGyver, the dude was in dire straits. The 26-year-old had enjoyed a 6-0 record on May 8 but by now had fallen to 10-17.
Said Honeycutt: “I figured, ‘What did I have to lose?’”
Answer: Ten games (the suspension), $250 (the fine), and a bit of forehead skin, lost when he wiped his face while arguing with plate umpire Bill Kunkel, he of the ejecting thumb.
SOB: $3.59, the price of a 400-count box of OfficeMax tacks.
Collector tip: It’s possible that you will inadvertently dump the Honeycutt tack into a box of other, non-collectible tacks, resulting in a kind of needle-in-a-needlestack challenge that makes Where’s Waldo look like a Kidzone Alphabet Recognition game. But keep in mind that given the pitcher’s forehead swipe, you can always test the tack for Honeycutt DNA.
Gaylord Perry’s Vaseline
Sure, you can go to Costco and buy a 12-pack of 1.75-oz. Vaseline jars for $15.16, thus guaranteeing that when the apocalypse arrives, you’ll have enough petroleum jelly to last until the Kardashian-Bieber Alliance results in the steady repopulation of Earth.
Or you can own a piece—albeit a slippery piece—of history.
It’s no secret that Perry, a 314-game winner and two-time Cy Young recipient, used Vaseline, hair tonic and every other foreign substance short of Salvador Dali’s mustache wax to doctor the ball, getting so much movement on his pitches that they could have pulled U-Haul trailers down Route 66.
In fact, so famous—or, rather, infamous—was Perry’s illicit pitch that he often employed psychological warfare in lieu of simply using it, licking his fingers, tugging his belt and adjusting his cap in an elaborate ritual designed to make the hitter think he was loading the ball, even if he wasn’t. But, of course, he often was.
Perry admitted as much in his autobiography, aptly titled Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. “I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping,” he confessed.
Published in 1974—four years before he won his second Cy Young and nine years before he retired—the book gave opponents ample time to absorb the information and, thus, to suffer spitball paranoia, the same obsession that in 1973 had inspired Yankees manager Ralph Houk to charge the mound, snatch the hat from Perry’s head, toss it to the ground and kick it, in case his point had not been made.
Of course, Perry also claimed that he had been reformed, the spitter now a part of his successful but checkered past. “I’m a pure law-abiding citizen,” he wrote, probably with a wry grin.
Indeed, on Aug. 23, 1982, some three months after notching his 300th career victory, Perry, now 43 and pitching for Seattle, suffered the only ejection of his 22-year career when plate umpire Dave Phillips tossed him for a pair of forbidden pitches, each slicker than snot on the proverbial doorknob. Gene Tenace, Perry’s catcher on the ’78-’79 Padres, would confirm the facts of the legend, admitting that at times, “I couldn’t throw the ball back to him because it was so greasy.”
SOB: $92.73, the price of one share in Exxon Mobil, descendant of Exxon, culprit of the second-largest oil slick in U.S. history.
Collector tip: When handling Perry’s Vaseline, it helps to use George Brett’s pine tar.
Wilton Guerrero’s cork
On June 1, 1997, the Dodgers rookie led off the game with a broken-bat grounder to second base. Instead of sprinting to first, however, he scrambled to pick up the pieces of his shattered bat, as if beset by compulsive neatness.
Having not lately fallen off the turnip truck, plate umpire Steve Rippley said something like “Heyyy, waiiittt a secccond” and beat Wilton to the choicest cuts, those that proved a violation of Rule 6.06(d), which reads, in sum, “Dude, you can’t cork your bat.”
But who, besides ejection-minded crew chief Bruce Froemming and suspension-minded commissioner Bud Selig, could blame the poor guy? After all, Wilton’s younger brother, Vlad the Proto-Impaler—younger by four months, mind you, but that’s another story—was in the midst of his own rookie campaign, in which the Expos right fielder would put up a 1.6 WAR to Wilton’s 0.1.
Sibling rivalry, as described by Freud, is an extension of the Oedipus complex, wherein brothers fight for Mom’s favor. Based on Vlad’s lifetime WAR of 59.9, compared to Wilton’s -1.7, it’s safe to assume that Vlad got the bigger bowl of stew whenever they went home to Mamá.
Back in ‘97, however, that history had yet to be written. The brothers were still in a race for the table. So you can hardly rank Wilton among history’s vilest siblings: Cain, who killed Abel; Jacob, who swindled Esau; and Greg Brady, who responded to Marcia’s dating his archrival, Warren Mulaney, by dating her archrival, Kathy Lawrence. (Spoiler Alert: In the end, Greg and Marcia would learn an important lesson about family.)
Alas, Wilton, too, would learn an important lesson about family. For every Cal Ripken Jr., there’s a Billy. For every Hank Aaron, there’s a Tommie. Cork won’t fix what DNA left undone.
SOB: $1245.50, the price of Aer Lingus round-trip airfare from St. Louis to Cork, Ireland.
Auction caution: Mum’s the word if you buy the Guerrero cork. Why? The BLCAH had to steal it from Rippley’s, believe it or not.
Whitey Ford’s wedding ring
On May 26, 1964, in a day game between the Indians and Yankees, several Cleveland players complained that Ford had been doctoring the ball, performing the sort of black-ops surgery that can make a pitch dip and dive in ways that even big-league hitters find disturbing.
Granted, Ford’s wife, Joan, may have been pleased as punch that her husband had honored their marriage by wearing his wedding ring on the mound, but Cleveland hitters, convinced that Ford had been scuffing the ball with the ring’s diamond, hardly shared the happiness.
In retirement, Ford would admit that he had indeed doctored the ball on many late-career occasions, not only with his ring but also with a substance he called “gunk.” But hey, if Norm Cash could cork his bat en route to a .361/.487/.662 slash line in 1961, then by the rules of moral equivalence, Ford could scuff a ball en route to 17 wins and a 2.34 ERA in 1964, right?
The honeymoon would end, you might say, when Ford gave up five runs in a Game Two loss to the Cardinals in the ’64 Fall Classic, a series the Yankees would lose in seven. Even so, his 1974 Hall induction would uphold his commitment to the essence of the diamond, and to the meaning of the ring.
SOB: $53,000, the value of Ford’s 1964 contract.
Auction legend: No, the ring is not accompanied by a three-part, 12-hour film tribute from director Peter Jackson.
Graig Nettles’ Super Balls
It’s not what you’re thinking—if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, you naughty old goat.
Sure, it’s true that Nettles, a six-time All-Star, did father four children with his wife, Ginger, but it’s not as if the veteran third sacker displayed the kind of procreative potency that landed jocks like Travis Henry on the list of all-time paternity greats, potency that supplied the responsible—or irresponsible, as the case may be—reproductive parts with an inflated post-factum value.
And sure, Nettles did hold down the hot corner, a position known to encourage hard-hit balls in such a way that they turn manly men into candidates for the Vienna Boys Choir, but there is no evidence that the two-time Gold Glover deflected crotch shots without the industry-standard use of a strategically positioned athletic cup.
And yes, Nettles did exhibit a great deal of testicular fortitude during the Yankees defeat of the Dodgers in the 1976 World Series, diving for ground balls with reckless abandon and gunning cross-diamond throws without a hint of pressure-induced yips.
But no, the keepsakes in question are not super balls so much as Super Balls, those synthetic rubber spheres with a whole lot of boiiing.
On Sept. 7, 1974, in a home game against Detroit, Nettles stepped to the plate in the second inning and clobbered a solo homer off Tigers starter Woodie Fryman. Then in the fifth, using the same bat, he hit a broken-bat blooper to left for a leadoff single. At first glance, it seemed like any other broken-bat blooper except for one conspicuous thing: upon contact, the top of the bat had come flying off the barrel, a strikingly unusual way for a bat to break.
Alert to the signs of cheating, catcher Bill Freehan scooped up the pieces and showed them to plate umpire Lou DiMuro, who, upon finding that chunks of Super Balls had been inserted into a drilled-out space in the barrel, promptly called Nettles out.
A Super Balled bat—much like the corked bat that Mantle did or did not use—was said to give the advantage-seeking hitter a bit of bonus oomph, enough to turn warning-track power into home-run clout, enough, indeed, to combat the shenanigans of opponents playing for keeps.
SOB: $17,000, Henry’s monthly child support payment.
Auction caution: Sure, it’s a ballsy investment, one for which there is no guarantee of a quick return. And yet, as Nettles himself discovered, some gambles pay, and some don’t. You never know until you give it a crack.
Azure Texan is a writer living in Austin.