This annotated week in baseball history: March 26-April 4, 2009

April 1 was April Fool’s Day. Richard did not pull any big pranks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good ones in baseball history.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked April Fool’s Day. On my old blog, I ran an elaborate Fidel Castro-themed April Fool’s entry, which was, I believe, my first piece ever linked to from The Hardball Times.

That’s the closest I have ever come to pulling a really excellent prank, whether on April Fool’s Day or not. (The best of all-time, by the way, is the BBC’s hugely brilliant “Spaghetti Harvest.”) Nonetheless baseball has seen a remarkable number of pranks over the years. The quality is, of course, uneven, but in honor of the day we’ll look back at a handful.

During the strike-delayed 1995 spring training, Lou Piniella took to the batting cage to watch his Seattle Mariners face live pitching for the first time. After some bantering with Ken Griffey Jr., Piniella bet his center fielder a steak dinner that Griffey could not hit the next pitch out of the batting cage.

Though Griffey was leading with the league with 40 homers when the strike ended the season in 1994, he could not connect with the next pitch, failing to even make contact. But Griffey was not going to let his manager off easy.

When “Sweet Lou” arrived in his office on April 15, a little less than a week later, he discovered that his steak dinner had arrived. Or rather, several steak dinners had arrived, prepared very, very rare. Griffey arranged for a 1,200-pound Hereford to be placed in his manager’s office.

Piniella took the prank with good humor—more than I probably would have managed if presented with half a ton of smelly, confused animal—and the apparently loose Mariners ended up going to the ALCS that year.

Of course, some pranks are far more intricate than one player pulling one on another. Such as the prank that Brett Myers organized to fool teammate Kyle Kendrick at the beginning of last season. Early in spring training, Kendrick was called into manager Charlie Manuel‘s office and told he had been traded to Japan.

Among those in the prank were Manuel, then-assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., (who helped prepare the “documents” for the trade) and Kendrick’s own agent. More impressively, Myers convinced the media covering the Phillies to go in on the prank, leading to a surreal press conference where Kendrick asked, among other things, “Do they have good food in Japan?”

Kendrick was relieved when Myers finally revealed the prank, and the Phillies, like the Mariners, enjoyed success with their World Series triumph. Poor Kendrick, however, remained apparently shook up, posting an ERA over five and failing to appear at all during the Phils’ postseason run.

Early baseball pranks tended to involve any one player doing something to the equipment of the game. During a trip to Japan, Rabbit Maranville—whose antics and demeanor on the field make Manny Ramirez look like Joe DiMaggio—decided to “soap” the bat of Al Simmons and see what happened. As it turned out, what happened was that Simmons hit a number of foul balls before someone clued him in.

(Later in the same trip Maranville managed to get himself arrested for marching in a Japanese military parade. If that happened today, it would be the story on SportsCenter for a month.)

Bats were not the only thing that could be altered, as Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri proved. In Lazzeri’s case, the manipulated object was the ball. Lazzeri spent a good amount of time doctoring a baseball until it had more or less the same look and feel as a rock. Then he covered it with white shoe polish and waited for the right moment.

That moment would come late in the season when Bob Johnson (another practical joker, about whom more momentarily) came to bat in an irrelevant game. Lazzeri switched the actual game ball for his tricked one and the Yankee pitcher obligingly sent one down the pipe. “Indian Bob” put a home run swing on it, and was therefore dismayed to see the ball go off foul.

Although some later stories would claim the umpires enjoyed the prank sufficiently to cover for Lazzeri, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The pitch was ruled void and contemporary coverage implies Lazzeri would be fined for his tampering. Probably a small price to play for a good prank.

Completing the equipment trifecta was Johnson himself, with a prank he pulled on his own brother, Roy Johnson. The Johnsons were playing against each other, at a time when convention was for the fielders now at bat to leave their gloves on the field. Bob spied his brother’s glove and—even better—a small bird nearby.

Somehow, in the course of manning left field, he managed to trap the bird in his brother’s glove and leave it, seemingly undisturbed. Roy came out for defense and was significantly taken aback when he opened his glove and the bird flew out.

Glove pranks continue to the modern age. Jay Johnstone—arguably the finest modern prankster—once took a brownie sent by fans, let it melt in the sun for a few innings and then placed it in Steve Garvey’s glove. Garvey was doubtless perturbed the next time he caught a ball in warm-ups.

This was roughly par for the course with Johnstone who, among other things, locked Tommy Lasorda in his office, cut out the crotch portion of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear and, during his time as a broadcaster, covered his microphone with rotten eggs before heading out to do interviews.

Due to the current schedule, baseball is mostly quiet on April Fool’s Day as teams travel from their spring training camps to the site of their early season exhibition games. This means the possibility for pranks, at least widely disseminated ones, is cut down considerably. Nonetheless, as the history of baseball pranks proves, it need not be a day for pranks to have one take place within the confines of the clubhouse.

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