This annotated week in baseball history: March 2-March 8, 1939

On March 8, 1939, Jim Bouton was born. He would go on to fame as a Yankees pitcher and even greater fame as the author of Ball Four. He is one of many baseball writing talents to have a birthday this week.

Being that I was born on March 8, I have something of a special fondness for the day. It’s not a bad day historically. It features the birth of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the founding of the New York Stock Exchange.

From a baseball perspective, it marks the birth of Jim Rice, who probably will gain entry to the Hall of Fame next year. Sadly, it also marks the death of a Hall of Famer, Joe DiMaggio.

March 8 is also notable for being the birthday of Jim Bouton. After a .500 season with the Yankees in 1962, Bouton had a fine 1963, going 21-7 for the Yankees. The next year he was 18-13 and won two games in the World Series. In 1965, however, his arm gave out and by 1969 he was struggling to hold on as a knuckleball pitcher for the expansion Seattle Pilots.

It was in Seattle (and, after a trade, Houston) that Bouton produced Ball Four, one of the most famous baseball books. Although intensely scandalous at the time, the book seems tame by modern standards.

It holds up extremely well. It is true that Bouton’s description of arguing over whether his salary after 1963 would be $20,000 or $18,500 seems slightly dated. But the situation—a young player believing he is worth more than the salary his team is offering—has played out this week with Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon all playing the Bouton role.

Some of the best parts of Ball Four concern Bouton contemporaries who have moved on to bigger things. New Dodgers skipper Joe Torre describes, in graphic detail, the aftermath of one of his roommates picking up a girl in the lobby of a hotel during spring training.

Joe Morgan, previewing the analysis he would provide on ESPN in the future, explains the difference between a curve and a “m—–f—– curve.” Lou Pinella is described as “sensitive as hell” about whether his manager says good morning to him.

Another notable baseball writer with a March 8 birthday was Enrique Kerlegand, born in 1938, a year before Bouton. In 2003, Kerlegand was inducted into the Mexican baseball Salón de la Fama for his contributions as a writer.

Based on what I can gather from Kerlegand’s biography—bearing in mind that I don’t speak Spanish—he worked for a number of publications covering Mexican baseball. He also served as president of the Mexican equivalent of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

It is not just March 8 that has some notable baseball writers this week. Two of the most famous winners of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award—the Hall of Fame’s honor for baseball writers—were born this week.

On March 5, 1888, Fred Lieb was born in Philadelphia. In 1909, Lieb was working, so the story goes, as a railroad clerk when he began submitting player biographies to magazines. (Jobs with a lot of free time apparently inspire great baseball writing; Lieb’s experience is evocative of Bill James working as a night watchman many years later.)

The biographies were apparently pretty good: Lieb spent the next quarter-century writing for papers with names that are redolent of 1920s journalism like the Telegram and Morning Sun.

Lieb was a inexhaustible collector of baseball stories—some, if not most, apocryphal—and published a number of books. His Baseball As I Have Known It remains in print to this day. Lieb is believed to be the man who termed Yankee Stadium “The House That Ruth Built” and is the inspiration for the reporter character in The Pride of the Yankees.

The final baseball writer birthday this week was of a man who created many, many characters of the screen. Born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner on March 6, 1885, Ring Lardner shortened his first name as soon as he was old enough to do so.

Like Lieb, he achieved his dream of being a sportswriter at a young age, working for the Chicago Inter-Ocean and by 1910 he was editor of The Sporting News. In 1916 he published a series of short stories that would be collected as You Know Me Al.

Al was a series of a letters from a baseball “busher,” Jack Keefe, back to his friend Al. The book won Lardner nearly instant fame and praise from the likes of H.L. Mencken (“a contribution of genuine and permanent value to the national literature”) and Virginia Woolfe (“Mr. Lardner… lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives with us”).

Lardner used the Keefe character for years, including a period with Keefe fighting in World War I. Those were collected in the regrettably titled Treat ‘Em Rough: Letters from Jack the Kaiser Killer.

Lardner, along with Hugh Fullerton, was suspicious of the 1919 World Series long before most were. The eventual scandal was a strong blow against Lardner’s love of the game and his baseball writing was more limited thereafter.

Just as every not ballplayer born on March 8 can hope to have the talent of Jim Rice, not every writer can hope to achieve the highs reached by the likes of Lieb, Bouton, Kerlegand and Lardner. Nevertheless, just as Mike Moriarty can consider himself a kindred sprit to Rice, it is nice when I sit down to write each week to feel the connection to the great early March birthday baseball writers of the past.

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