The Applegate factor

People in baseball will do anything to win. That has been a truism since the time when ballplayers wore handlebar mustaches (I mean the 19th century, not the 1970s), if not before then. That driving ambition is part of the culture of the game, and you’ll find observers who’ll say it’s a defining part of American culture, or of human nature itself.

Spitballs, cork, groundskeeping shenanigans, greenies, HGH: all those and more have been used to give one side or the other, one player or another, an edge over the rest. Paying the ultimate price is often just one more step along that well-beaten path. That’s how more people in baseball than anyone would like to admit have ended up selling their souls to the Devil.

Today I’m going to examine the long-ignored role of the Prince of Darkness (no relation whatever to Prince Fielder) in our favorite pastime.

Sidebar: explaining all this

Right now you’re probably asking me a question. “Shane, what in the He—” you begin, before rethinking your choice of words. “Shane, what on Earth possessed y—” No, that doesn’t work either. “Shane, are you on dope?” Needlessly accusatory, perhaps, but it does carry your strength of feeling on the matter. Okay, you’ll go with that.

In reply, let me first say that I resent the accusation. Second, I have a perfectly reasonable explanation for this sudden swerve into the supernatural.

The short explanation: I lost a bet.

The longer explanation: Iiiii looooost aaaaa beeeeet.

The longer explanation that doesn’t rip off a classic Taxi scene: I wagered on a certain personnel decision by a certain franchise, and lost in spectacular, multi-year, multi-million dollar fashion. As my penalty, the winner of the bet got to assign me a topic to write up for The Hardball Times. Actually, he chose three topics, and I got to select the one I thought I could write with maximum enthusiasm and minimum embarrassment.

I’ll be managing the former here. I suspect the latter is beyond my powers.

The ironic part is, eventually I’ll be writing up two of his ideas. I had expected a somewhat different tone from the ideas he offered me, something more analytical, but analyzing a part of the game some might consider utterly silly. When I told him so, he effectively said “Like this?,” and threw out just such an idea. A really, really good idea. An idea you’ll be seeing me explore here within the next couple of months, probably over more than one article.

For now, though, you’re getting this idea. I’m going to give it my all, but if anybody here takes reading it as seriously as I’m going to take writing it, I’m not responsible for the outcome.

The ultimate reserve clause

There has been corruption in baseball nearly as long as there has been baseball. Secret professionalism predated actual professional leagues by some time, and games were probably being sold starting around the same time. For the Devil to start purchasing souls, however, required a critical mass of popularity in the sport, so that it was more tempting to buy yourself excellence at baseball than to sell someone else your incompetence.

This threshold was probably crossed no later than the earliest years of the National League, but as with so much from baseball’s early days, knowledge is fragmentary. Rumors abound from the roughneck years of the 1890s, involving virtually everybody except Billy Sunday. (We’ll talk a bit more about him later.) Nothing is sure, though, until we reach the 20th century.

The earliest confirmed pact in baseball history was with Hal Chase. Prince Hal wanted to be, not just a big-leaguer, but the acknowledged best first baseman in the game. He got what he bargained for, maintaining the reputation long after he began selling out ballgames. This corruption wasn’t a direct part of the deal, but Chase, once he realized he had nothing left to lose, started angling for all the short-term gains he could manage.

Hot on Chase’s heels, so to speak, was Ty Cobb. He had the perfect temperamental profile for a client of the Devil: driven to dominate, willing to pay any price, yet massively insecure about his ability even when it was clearly superb. Cobb got top value out of his deal; the Devil got great amusement out of the end of Cobb’s life, watching him fight like fury (as usual) to put off the day when he’d have to pay up. He’d refine this enjoyment in later decades, as you’ll see.

Satan kept a fairly strong business going throughout the Deadball Era, though he ended up passing on the kid who would bring that era to an end. Babe Ruth was poles apart from Cobb in his self-confidence. He didn’t need the Devil’s blandishments, fully expecting he could gain stardom and all its trappings on his own. The Devil stepped aside without chagrin, suspecting that with Babe’s enormous appetites of several varieties, he could eventually claim him through the traditional seven deadly sins.

There remains confusion and uncertainty about the Devil’s role in the Black Sox scandal. The Eight Men Out sold themselves for money, which didn’t really need diabolical involvement, though with all the shady characters part of the fix, he could easily have slipped in as a middle-man. The strongest argument that the Sox sold their souls in 1919 is that, had they still had title to them, at least one of them would have dealt it away for reinstatement.

The strongest counter-argument to that, aside from anecdotal evidence from the Iowa farmlands, is Kenesaw Mountain Landis. If anyone could refuse to facilitate a freshly-signed contract or eight with Satan, it was he. The stern rule of the first commissioner brought a long recession to Old Nick’s baseball soul trade. It wasn’t so much Landis’ probity as it was pure intimidation: he scared the Devil out of a lot of people.

The business revived after Landis’ death, though with hiccups. The expected windfall of soul-selling to take advantage of the breaking of the color line barely materialized. Negro League stars had apparently had long enough to realize they wouldn’t do literally anything to make the bigs. There was also a disguised expose of his business practices in 1954, which I’ll touch on later.

The larger problem was that people weren’t believing so much in him any longer. (This was matched by fewer people believing in his Opponent, but that didn’t fully compensate.) The primary cause was the rise, and only sometimes fall, of the great totalitarians, slaughtering millions and terrorizing the world. Keyser Soze was only partly right: the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was making people think of someone else, named Hitler or Stalin or Mao or whatever, as the Ultimate Evil.

This was great for business in general, but not for Faustian pacts in particular. Even baseball could pale before the larger picture. When the time came to offer a deal to a young pitcher named Fidel Castro, the Devil didn’t dangle a baseball career before his eyes, he dangled a whole country. Wholesale work is so much more profitable. If an abiding love of baseball was the only corner of his soul Satan allowed Fidel to keep, maybe it was so he could always be wracked by thoughts that maybe he sold out for the wrong thing.

He has kept up the business to this day, being rewarded with a recent rebound. He also amuses himself with the occasional possession, slipping into a ballplayer’s body to inflict atrocious behavior and horrifying, Exorcist-style bodily contortions. The former covers the entire career of A.J. Pierzynski. The latter explains the pitching styles of Luis Tiant and Johnny Cueto. (Tiant definitely made no pact: if hopeless perdition were acceptable to him, he would have stayed in Castro’s Cuba.)

By the book

Nobody would believe things like this happened if it weren’t for Douglass Wallop. His 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was a window into the Devil’s dealings, if a sensationalized and slanted one. The transformations Satan works are rarely as total as Mr. Applegate turning middle-aged Senators fan Joe Boyd into young Senators phenom Joe Hardy. Also, he scarcely ever gives out the escape clauses that allowed a happy ending to the novel: He knows too well from experience how humans tend to slip through them.

The best-seller did cramp Lucifer’s business for a time, with many players suddenly made wary about how far they might have to go to beat the New York Yankees. The musical and movie that followed did him no favors either. Indeed, by spreading the claim that he was a Yankees fan, Damn Yankees may have cost him a scared-off Mickey Mantle just when he was ready to deal to get his legs healthy again.

One intriguing question about Wallop’s book is whether it was a roman a clef, whether there was a real-life model for Joe Hardy. Suspicions immediately fall upon the Cleveland Indians, who did lay the Yankees low, or at least into second, the year the novel was published. Their most plausible candidates for the ur-Hardy are third baseman Al Rosen and left fielder Al Smith.

Rosen had his progress to the majors blocked first by three years of Army service and then by Ken Keltner, the third sacker whose dazzling defense had helped snap Joe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. The attendant frustrations would have made Rosen an attractive target for Ol’ Scratch. He did have a monster 10-WAR season in 1953, won the pennant in ’54, then had back ailments cut his career short, which does suggest he had gotten all he’d contracted for.

Smith is less famous as a player, but may fit the Hardy pattern better. After a pro career that began with the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes, he finally reached the Indians in 1953 for a truncated, replacement-level rookie season. His 1954 was far better, individually and as part of the pennant winners. Especially intriguing is that he was on the Chicago White Sox in 1959, when they became the only other team to take a pennant from the Yankees between 1949 and 1964.

But Wallop and the Indians’ good fortune misdirected us. His fictional Senators were flailing in the second division deep into July before Boyd became Hardy, totally unlike Cleveland, which was on top or very close most of the way. Wallop’s model was the ultimate comeback team: the 1914 “Miracle” Boston Braves, who were dead last on the Fourth of July before driving through the whole pack to win the pennant going away, then sweep the Series.

Who sold his soul to make that happen? One intriguing candidate is Johnny Evers, that walking nervous breakdown who had just left the Cubs. But the case doesn’t really coalesce. If he had needed another World Series win that badly, he wouldn’t have left Chicago for the fifth-place Braves after 1913. (Had he known the Cubs’ fate, he definitely would have been fleeing Chi-town: see below.) His personal performance didn’t rise that much in 1914, either.

Wallop covered his tracks better than that. His real model for the player who sells his soul was a pitcher, who’d had a 6-10, negative-WAR rookie year with Boston in 1913. He’d soar to 26-7 and 5.6 WAR in the miracle year, then pitch fewer than 75 innings of sub-replacement ball the rest of his career. His name was Bill James.

This is where I’d like to say “Yes, there was a Bill James in baseball before our Bill James.” But I can’t, because there wasn’t a Bill James pitching in the majors in 1914: there were two. The one in question is “Seattle Bill” James. The other, “Big Bill” James, was pitching for the St. Louis Browns in 1915. They traded him the next season, presumably before he had to bargain himself out the hard way.

So a century ago, Bill James was directly involved in winning the World Series for Boston. We can also say that about nine years ago, and six years ago, and this year. As I will soon relate, the Devil had a finger in those championships as well, though this time no Bill James was harmed in the making of the titles.

This wasn’t the only mixture of baseball and creeping doom on the shelves in that era. Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural was another such novel, with its anti-hero Roy Hobbs briefly rising to the summit of the baseball world before destroying himself, again. However, while Malamud was borrowing generously from real life, there was no connection to the netherworld necessary. Human fallibility, and persistence of fallibility, was enough to underpin his book. The movie was a different matter.

I’m not speaking about Robert Redford inverting the character and the climax to make it a better Robert Redford vehicle. That’s standard Hollywood stuff: Old Scratch doesn’t even notice it anymore. I’m talking about Redford, portraying the aging but still potent slugger, playing opposite Wilford Brimley as “Pops” Fisher, the sagging, white-haired, superannuated manager who just dreams of retiring on top.

Redford was three years younger than Brimley. Still is, in fact.

Extended youth, or the illusion of it, is by now a boilerplate contract for the Devil, and you can imagine its popularity in Hollywood. He scarcely needs to do anything: they come to him.

You can’t test the Devil

Organized Baseball doesn’t tolerate this interference from below, or at least it doesn’t care to be seen as tolerating it. However, their gestures toward detecting performance-enhancing diabolism (PED) have been gestures and little else. The central problem is that reliable testing remains a pipe dream.

The best idea the majors have along those lines is something developed way back in the 19th century: using particularly saintly personages as “Devil detectors.” Theoretically, putting the two in close proximity would cause such a strong reaction in one or the other that the demonic influence would be revealed. Finding someone involved with baseball who was sufficiently beatific has always been a problem. Getting the theory to work in practice has been a bigger one.

The majors had high hopes when they sought out ballplayer turned evangelist Billy Sunday as a PED detector around the turn of the 20th century. He ended up a bust, despite the time that his presence caused a young Ty Cobb to burst into flames at a range of 17 feet. This test was ultimately ruled inconclusive, as outside observers could not confidently distinguish Cobb’s reaction from his usual emotional state.

Fleeting hopes for other people have come and gone. Stan Musial and Brooks Robinson received brief, unsuccessful trials. MLB did substantial classified work with Buck O’Neil, but results have never been revealed and must be assumed to have been negative. Mariano Rivera was the most recent fizzle in this long line, and as you’ll see below, the Devil got back at him for even trying.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Devil’s defenses are just too strong. If anyone was going to have a great firewall, it’s him.

The acronym for performance-enhancing diabolism invites confusion, but the similarity in terms is not wholly a coincidence. Like most large businesses, the Devil believes in diversification. If fewer customers are coming to him through the traditional direct channels, he branches out into new avenues of temptation. Modern baseball, with exponentiating money and fame flowing through it, does not lack for temptations.

Barry Bonds is the most obvious example of Satan’s new business methods, but interestingly the case is not that typical. There are precious few baseball records with the grandeur of the home run marks, alluring enough to bring the modern ballplayer to sign on the dotted line. Observe also that Bonds got both the single-season and career records out of his negotiations. Today’s players have learned to be tougher negotiators, even without their agents in the room.

The Devil did pay out for the Bonds deal, but didn’t repeat the pattern often. There aren’t that many grand prizes like that to give away, and offering the same ones up to be broken over and over brings quick devaluation. The McGwire example proved that: the lowered value of a three-year-old record gave Bonds the leverage to demand Aaron’s mark as well. Don’t expect to see many more records falling with diabolical assistance. He needs their value built back up. When you have all eternity to work with, it’s just good sense to plan for the long term.

(And Bonds should have heeded the example given by the man he chased down. Hammering Hank showed you don’t have to go through the Devil to win glory; sometimes you just have to go through hell.)

With the brute-force method circumscribed, Satan conducts chemical warfare today with more subtlety. Steroids and such are not his personal instruments for meeting his part of a contract. He lets the players come to them of their own volition, with a nudge here and there. It’s once they are riding the tiger’s back (again, not a Prince Fielder reference, certainly not after the trade to Texas) that he makes the offer they so often cannot refuse.

These deals take two forms. First is the masking. Once the drugs have them hooked, at least psychologically, he offers protection from positive tests. He knows humans quite well: We think that if nobody knows about our sins, they didn’t really happen. That’s at least as strong an impulse as dodging suspensions and lost salaries, and it’s done well for him.

Sometimes he needs to set up an example to encourage the fence-sitters, which explains the original Ryan Braun incident. Not only did Satan arrange the positive test, he arranged the little slip-up with the courier and the overnight shipping office being closed. Braun leaped at the offered technicality so fast, he forgot to bargain for more than acquittal on that single charge. Once Biogenesis brewed up, he had no bargaining power left. It was one of the Devil’s slickest loophole maneuvers ever.

(Of course the Devil is a good lawyer. He learned from the Daniel Webster case, didn’t he? Just because you’re evil doesn’t mean you can’t be smart. He knows, of course, that the reverse is also true.)

His second method comes post-exposure. The busted PED cheat is a desperate man, primed for the Devil’s methods. It’s usually not the lost money he ends up chasing, but the lost reputation. The worst fate a baseball player can suffer is being despised by his own team’s fans. You can take the boos and sarcastic chants from opposing fans: It’s almost a badge of honor to be worth the mockery. Having it pour down from your own grandstand is like have a personal black cloud above your head, raining on you alone.

The Devil can make that go away, and they usually pay his price. Think of how seldom you hear post-suspension players being booed in their home parks. Bartolo Colon didn’t get razzed in Oakland while helping pitch his A’s to another division title. Jhonny Peralta got cheers at Comerica during the 2013 playoffs, right after his Biogenesis suspension elapsed. And remember the adulation Bonds got, and still gets, in San Francisco. (That was part of his original deal. Give Bonds his due: he was a whale of a negotiator.)

There is one notable exception to the rule that PED users still hear cheers at their home fields: Alex Rodriguez. I would like to report that it’s because one, Rodriguez never signed away his soul and two, Yankees fans have high enough standards to boo their own cheats. The second may be true, but it’s incidental. Rodriguez inked his contract years before, in exchange for the 2009 postseason. Busting the “choker” reputation and winning the World Series was enough for him.

This only highlights how poor a negotiator A-Rod is, at least compared to Bonds’ gold standard. Especially since he was going to get the ring anyway, if not that year then very soon—as I will be explaining, also very soon.

Upper ranks, bound for the lower

A baseball figure doesn’t have to be on the field to catch Lucifer’s eye. Some of the ripest fruits he’s plucked from the sport have come from the dugout and the team headquarters. If there are fewer of those names in the ranks of the bought and paid for, that’s only because the upper echelons of the clubs have offered fewer targets. With the expansion both of coaching staffs and front offices, that may be changing, for the uglier. The spectacle of fresh college graduates selling their souls for unpaid internships in the analytics section is not a pretty one.

One of the earliest confirmed cases of a manager or executive selling his soul actually covers both bases. John McGraw not only managed the New York Giants but was effectively his own general manager, before that term even existed. His blazing personality was a natural acquisition, but the method was both a total surprise and utterly obvious.

McGraw didn’t sell himself for success on the ballfield. A man with his confidence doesn’t believe he needs the help to win—a common hazard for the Devil when dealing with such a competitive field as baseball. He didn’t do it to take the umpires he loathed down with him, either. He was convinced, along with most of his colleagues, that they would be getting there all on their own.

(Satan’s record with big-league umpires is surprisingly poor. Self-identifying as righteous authority figures, they’re psychologically primed to resist his deals. The closest recent shave was in 2010, when he offered Jim Joyce the prospect of Bud Selig overturning the blown call that took away Armando Galarraga‘s perfect game. Joyce made the right call when it really counted. The trick, as often with players, is to use promotion to The Show as the lure.)

Instead, McGraw traded away his soul for pure revenge—against the Chicago Cubs.

It was the Cubs who caught Fred Merkle‘s boner, turning a Giants win into a tie that was replayed into a loss, snatching the 1908 pennant from McGraw and handing it to Chicago. McGraw didn’t sell his soul to win the replay, counting on his boys, plus reportedly an attempted bribe of the umpires, to handle that. The umpires were honest, Christy Mathewson‘s arm was worn out, and McGraw had to watch the despised Cubs win the pennant on his home field, and then the World Series a week later.

People today wonder why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908. I now invite you to put two and two together. And when you smack your forehead, don’t do it too hard.

The Cubs’ pennant drought since 1945 is a different matter, though it springs from the same source. Legend has it that a fan tried to bring a billy goat to a 1945 Series game at Wrigley Field, had it turned away, and cursed the Cubs to permanent also-ran status over the slight. And who do you think the goat was, in one of his most classic disguises? He wanted to enjoy his handiwork as the Cubs lost another World Series, and thanks to some officious usher—well, let’s just say this one’s on the house.

The more standard diabolical method is to offer personal success, not an enemy’s ruin. This can be a dull, predictable transaction, but sometimes the Devil livens it up for his personal amusement. (The Devil amusing himself is a constant theme, quite illustrative of his methods and motivations.) There’s no better example of this than the long tale of George Steinbrenner.

Oh, come on. You knew this was coming.

Steinbrenner fancied himself a master deal-maker, a notion he hadn’t disproved in buying the New York Yankees for a song. (A number-one, multi-platinum song, perhaps, but a song.) So after a couple years passed without instant success, he thought he’d roll the Devil. The deal was for seven World Championships (an aptly mystical number), which Steinbrenner assumed would come in a gush like the pinstriped dynasties of yesteryear. After that, he could sell the Yankees for a mint, swing some buy-back plan for his soul, and probably have enough money left over to buy some other team.

There’s no bigger pigeon in the world than someone who thinks the other guy is the mark. Infinitely so when that guy is the Prince of Darkness.

After a tease in 1976, the Devil began paying out the next two years, but he didn’t make it easy on Steinbrenner. His main instrument in the torture, unsurprisingly, was Billy Martin. Satan does like his irony, and he got rich stuff out of the clashes between two men with the exact same goal: win titles running the New York Yankees.

Not only did Satan hold the deed on Martin, so to speak, but he dabbled in possession. Nothing obvious; often nothing Martin himself would notice. One extra drink here or there—as I said, Martin wouldn’t notice—got him to the “One’s a born liar and the other’s convicted” or the marshmallow-salesman fighting stage. Just to keep the cauldron bubbling.

Martin almost gave up permanently on the Yankees after 1979, before the Devil gave him his word: the Yankees weren’t going to win the Series without Billy, as long as he lived. So the reunions continued, time and time again, each man a burr under the other’s saddle. Humans make it so easy sometimes.

Steinbrenner’s dry stretch between titles ran into double-digits and beyond, each year a wonderful frustration. Part of Satan’s motivation for spinning out the agony was Steinbrenner’s ham-fisted attempt to get free after the 1979 season. That was the year Pope John Paul II delivered a mass at Yankee Stadium—plus, at George’s insistence, a secret exorcism. But the Devil wasn’t there to be expelled, the Yankees’ season having already ended, and he got back at George. For a long time.

Then after an enforced hands-off period during the Boss’s second suspension—George probably missed the joke, but others didn’t—the payouts began again. This time they did come in a dynastic flood, quickly running Steinbrenner’s total to six rings. That left one to go—after which, it would be George’s turn to pay up.

This was the stroke of diabolical genius. Steinbrenner had reached the age where death has ceased to be an abstract concept, and by now he had also figured out there wasn’t going to be a buy-back, as valuable as his Yankees might be. Another World Series win was the last thing he needed—and still it was the first thing he wanted.

The Devil played him like a master angler. The oh-so-near miss in 2001 (what, you thought Mariano blew Game Seven of a World Series on his own?), and again in 2003 (using the Marlins should have been the giveaway that something was, er, fishy), were a gourmet delight of psychological manipulation. The years passed, and the conflicted miseries mounted, including two Boston titles for added agony. (Bad news, Red Sox Nation: you were just the means to an end.) Then, at least partly to get the A-Rod thing off his books, came the final one in 2009.

“This one’s for George” was the refrain from the whole Yankees organization. More delectable irony, for an exclusive audience.

Steinbrenner got less than a year to enjoy his final title, which actually seems like a misstep. One would think it’d be a crumb of comfort to George that he died the reigning champ, and Satan’s not in the solace business. Even he can get impatient, though. He had a tiny, cramped box set aside, full of hot pitch and Billy Martin, awaiting its final occupant.

The road ahead, paved with good intentions

Our horned tempter is surely not going anywhere, where baseball is concerned. He’s still exploring the full potential of steroids, with an eye out for the next great innovation in getting baseball players to destroy themselves. (Recall how fast he hopped from cocaine to PEDs as his corrosive substance of choice.) His connection with the A-Rod suspension hearings wound down some time ago. It’s secondary characters who will determine how that turns out, as the two main antagonists are already in his hands.

His main pending project involves the same team, and a familiar surname. The Devil wants Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, to complete the set he began with their father. They’ve been surprisingly resistant, so he’s had to lean on them pretty hard. A rash of injuries reminiscent of Biblical plagues; the arch-nemesis Red Sox winning yet another World Series; getting outbid for Robinson Cano by the Seattle Mariners, even after celeb agent Jay-Z ego-nuked his own negotiations.

Will they crack? Will they sign? The answer may come in next year’s standings.

(Hey, the Steinbrothers cost me the bet. I’m going to zing them however much I like.)

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Comments

  1. Grandpa Boog said...

    Great article.

    About Applegate: Folks, please read “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” and then locate a CD or cassette copy of the musical “Damn Yankees.” Do it in that order (book first, musical second). You’ll love both.

    Players who come to my 88-year old mind who could have used a “deal” with Old Applegate:

    Steve Bilko, Mickey Micelotta, Bert Hambric, Bob Roselli, Bill Bryan, Dick Kryhosky, Steve Dalkowsky,and Mel Roach. Who are they? Look ‘em up. That’s why they are unknowns, other than Bilko, perhaps.

    And, of course, “Watch out for what you wish for…”

    “Get thee behind me, Satin.”

    “Let’s talk about fear, you and I. I am a grown man with great-grandchildren, but I still take great pains as I fall asleep each night NEVER to let my arm or leg hang out over the edge of the bed, lest something cold and dead should reach up and PULL ME DOWN!” (loosely paraphrased from Stephen King).

    “Nothing is but what is not” (Macbeth, Wm. Shakespeare)

    —Stay tuned,

    Grandpa Boog

  2. hopbitters said...

    No offense, Shane, but I hope you lose some more bets – that was good stuff. Interesting how you talked about the Prince of Darkness and the commissioner like they were separate entities. Must’ve gotten to you, too. wink

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