Throneberry Agonistes

Brothers who have played major league baseball are not exactly a novelty. Paul and Lloyd Waner, both in the Hall of Fame, are the gold standard. Phil and Joe Niekro, and Gaylord and Jim Perry are also well-known duos. Trios are rarer, but even so, Joe, Dom and Vince DiMaggio; Bengie, Jose and Yadier Molina; and Felipe, Matty, and Jesus Alou have taken their rightful places in baseball history.

In keeping with the natural laws of sibling rivalry, one brother always manages to outshine the other(s). Usually, the greater the achievement differential, the greater the name recognition differential. Best example: Henry and Tommie Aaron. Even the Waners, despite dual recognition by Cooperstown, were not immune from this rivalry. After all, Paul was known as Big Poison and Lloyd answered to Little Poison.

In keeping with their nicknames, when Paul was elected to the Hall of Fame, he was named on 83.3% of the ballots; Lloyd had to wait for the Veterans Committee to kick in before he was elected. Paul got 3,152 hits and had a lifetime average of .333, while Lloyd had to make do with 2,459 and .316. So even when brothers achieve at the highest level , there is inevitably a “winner” and a “loser.” One can almost imagine Lloyd in his dotage muttering, “Mom always liked you best.”

Brother acts in major league baseball, however, are not always at the highest levels of performance. One of the most curious duos in major league history features a younger brother who was truly a legend in his own time and an older brother who has faded into obscurity—even though neither was ever in danger of being named to an All-Star squad.

I refer to the brothers Throneberry.

Now, you’ve probably heard about the exploits of “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, since he was the face of the 1962 Mets, the inaugural edition of that National League franchise. But his brother Faye, two years older, is largely forgotten.

If you’ve squirreled away a shoe box full of Topps baseball cards ranging from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, you likely have as many cards of Faye as of Marv. A careful examination of the stats on the flip sides of the cards reveals that both players enjoyed—if that’s the right word—comparable career statistics. But don’t take my word for it. As Casey Stengel, Marv’s manager with the Mets, might have said, “You can look it up.” On the internet—but Casey never said that.

Anyway, I did look it up, and here are the results:

Both brothers’ careers ended when they were cut from expansion teams—ignominious ends to largely forgettable careers. Yes, it’s time to call it quits if you can’t hang onto a roster spot on the 1963 Mets.

That would be Marv, who was sent down to Buffalo by the Mets in 1963 despite his “heroics” in 1962. When he couldn’t hit his weight at AAA Buffalo (.178 vs. 190 lbs.) in 1963, his playing career ground to a halt. Since Marv had led the Triple-A American Association three years in a row (1955-1957) in home runs and RBIs, his 1963 Buffalo experience represented a gigantic step backwards.

At the time of his retirement, his seven-year major league record included 281 hits for a lifetime average of .237. Faye played eight seasons and retired in 1961. He ended up with 307 hits and a lifetime average of .236. Not much to choose from, is there? Admittedly, Marv had a bit more power (49 homers versus 29 for Faye; 170 RBIs versus 137), but he was more of a liability in the field (17 errors in 97 games in 1962).

So why did Marv become a national pastime legend while Faye faded away? The result might seem as arbitrary as the flip of a coin, but there were compelling factors at work behind the scenes.

For starters, Faye had the bad luck to play on mediocre-to-poor teams. If you’re a part-time outfielder on a really good team, you can bask in the exposure your team enjoys. But when you’re a part-time outfielder on a series of also-ran teams, you are not likely to become a media darling. The best Faye could do was a couple of fourth-place finishes with the Red Sox in 1955 and 1956. In the former year, his team finished 12 games out, and that was as close to a pennant as he got.

After he left the Red Sox, it only got worse. He played one game with the Sox in 1957, then he was traded to the Washington Senators, who finished last three years in a row before surging to fifth place in 1960. Marv and the cellar-dwelling Mets were lovable incompetents their first year, but the Senators never received that sort of adulation. To be sure, they engendered the famous joke about Washington being first in war, first in peace, last in the American League, but that hardly energized the fan base.

The Senators moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season. So Faye was in line for a fresh start—but it didn’t happen with the Twins. He was snapped up by Gene Autry’s Los Angeles Angels, an expansion team hastily put together for the 1961 season.

Fresh start or not, after 31 at-bats with the Halos, his major league career was over. Failing to last the season with a first-year expansion team adds no luster to one’s legacy. So it’s no surprise that the name of Faye Throneberry has failed to resound throughout the five decades since he left the stage.

More than likely, Marv would have suffered a similar fate but for his 1962 season with the Mets. (And be it duly noted that Marv was not an original Met but was acquired from Baltimore after the beginning of the season.) Actually, his offensive stats with the Mets were not atrocious (16 HR, 49 RBIs, .244 average in 357 at-bats), but he struck out a lot (89 times) and had a knack for blundering while running the bases or playing first base.

There is no need to enumerate his most famous boners, as they are recounted in books and articles galore. In a sense, his reputation was Ruthian. As with Ruth’s famous called shot of three decades before, people continue to debate if Marv really committed all the misdeeds that were attributed to him. And that, baseball fans, is the mark of a true legend.

True, there was comic relief aplenty during the Mets’ 1962 season, but Marv was the top banana—and his fan club of 5,000 strong secured his status.

Marv’s popularity with Mets fans in 1962 might be hard to comprehend today, but he was in an unusual place at an unusual time. There had been no National League baseball in New York since 1957. Of course, the immediate question was where would the Mets open in April of 1962.

Yankee Stadium was a highly unlikely venue for a number of reasons, two of which were manager Casey Stengel and general manager George Weiss. Both had been unceremoniously dismissed by the Yanks after the 1960 season despite on-field success dating back to the late 1940s.

Had the Mets played their inaugural season in Ebbets Field, the fan reaction might have been understandable. After all, the Dodgers had a legacy of lunacy with characters such as Babe Herman and the Daffiness Boys, and the Dodgers were affectionately known as Dem Bums long after they became perennial contenders. But Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, so Flatbush was not an option for the Mets.

The Polo Grounds, however, was still standing four years after the Giants had departed. Though not as sacrosanct as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds had seen more than its share of historic moments (14 World Series, Bonehead Merkle’s base running faux pas, Bobby Thomson’s home run) and all-time great players (among others, Christy Mathewson, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Willie Mays, and even a youthful Ruth)—not to mention three decades of John McGraw.

In a sense, the Mets’ presence at the Polo Grounds in 1962 was something of a sacrilege—yet the team was in a state of grace so far as the fans were concerned.

Though New York baseball in the 1950s was synonymous with excellence (in eight seasons of NY NL, the Giants won two pennants, the Dodgers four; ten seasons of NY AL, i.e., the Yankees, resulted in eight pennants—that’s a grand total of 14 out of a possible 18), the 1962 Mets managed to endear themselves to fans while cruising to a 40-120 record. That dismal showing, however, hardly mattered. After a four-year hiatus, the National League was back in town. That was the big story and the results on the field were all but irrelevant.

Much like minor league ball, the whole point of going to a Mets game was to have fun, win or lose—not an attitude one usually associates with New York sports fans. In fact, at the peak of Marv’s popularity, members of his fan club roamed the Polo Grounds with T-shirts emblazoned with “VRAM,” or Marv spelled backward. It is doubtful that anything of this nature would have occurred had Marv put up similar numbers with the other National league expansion team, the Houston Colt .45s.

One can only wonder what Faye, retired from MLB the year before, thought of all this. If he’d ever had any fans in Boston, Washington, or Los Angeles, certainly none was inspired enough to wear shirts saying “EYAF.”

In fact, Faye’s biggest handicap might have been that name. If he had gone to Hollywood to try his luck as an actor, the first thing to go would have been that name.

Imagine you’ve just been introduced to a solidly built (5’11″, 185 pounds or 6′, 190 pounds, depending on your source) young man, a fine, red-blooded specimen of American manhood—a by-God major league baseball player! You look into his eyes, shake his hand, and he says, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Faye…Faye Throneberry.” Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa? You sure there wasn’t some mixup with your birth certificate? Were names like Steve, Rick, and Ed sold out the day you were born?

Granted, Marvin Eugene Throneberry could also be burdensome, but Marv Throneberry isn’t bad. Gene Throneberry might have worked, also.

Actually, Faye was a middle name, and his first name was also an option, but if he had used that, it would have been scant improvement: Maynard Throneberry. Oh, such a name might have been just fine for the owner of a sporting goods store on Mayberry RFD—just imagine a spinoff called Throneberry of Mayberry!—but for a major league ballplayer? Even a spare outfielder? I think not.

Monikers aside, perhaps the most important difference between Faye and Marv was that the former lacked that New York experience. It must be noted that Marv was not exactly an unknown in New York baseball circles. Perhaps his biggest contribution to Yankee success was his trade to the Kansas City A’s after the 1959 season, when he was part of a deal that brought Roger Maris to New York.

For the most part, Marv bided his time on the Yankees bench (hard to believe now, but there were even comparisons to Mickey Mantle) in 1955, 1958 (when he obtained a World Series championship ring), and 1959. For two-plus seasons, Marv had served in Yankees heaven, but he could never have foreseen that one day he would reign in Mets hell.

Stengel had been Marv’s manager during his tenure with the Yankees, so when the Mets acquired Marv, the Ol’ Perfessor must have had some inkling of what he was getting. Given the zany nature of the Mets’ inaugural season, he might have decided that a court jester would add the crowning touch to his roster.

Negative achievements have always had their place in baseball history. The status of “goat” can stigmatize even the lengthiest, must successful career. But a goat is someone who errs on the cusp of a championship and seemingly singlehandedly dashes the hopes of his team. In that sense, Marv was not a goat, since the Mets were firmly entrenched in last place and, thanks to expansion, there were now nine teams ahead of them.

So it would be impossible for Marv to be a goat on the 1962 Mets. In fact, on a team of underachievers, he was the team’s alpha male—as befits a man with the nickname of Marvelous Marv.

“Marvelous,” of course, need not have a positive connotation. In my 1966 paperback thesaurus, “to marvel” means “to feel surprise,” “to be amazed,” and “to wonder.” One need not hit 60 home runs, bat .400 or field 1.000 to invoke such infinitives. Today the adjective “awesome” has become distressingly commonplace, but in Marv’s case it might have been fitting.

Marv’s 1962 achievements had so securely cemented his place in baseball legend that by the late 1970s, his name recognition was still strong enough to net him an invitation to appear in a couple of Miller Lite beer commercials. In 1990, a rock band called Throneberry was formed in Cincinnati. Assuredly, this band was not named in honor of Faye.

But Faye had a consolation prize, if you can call it that. He outlived his younger brother by five years (for the record, Marv died at age 60 on June 23, 1994; Faye at age 67 on April 26, 1999).

And Faye wasn’t just treading water with all that extra time on his hands. While other retired ballplayers were running bowling alleys, beer distributorships, bars, or restaurants, he became a professional dog trainer! He even produced a national champion at the National Bird Dog Field Trial Championship in 1973. How ‘bout that, Marv?

Curiously, the Throneberry genes have found an unexpected outlet in the arts: Film director Craig Brewer, who gave us Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and the recent remake of Footloose. Even here, however, Marv gets to pull rank, albeit posthumously. Marv is Brewer’s grandfather, and Faye is merely his granduncle.

Yes, there are lessons aplenty to be learned from the careers of los hermanos Throneberry, but if we had to name the three most important, they would be:

(1) life is unfair;
(2) life is unfair; and
(3) life is unfair.

Even when you’re dead.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Terrific article.

    “Best example: Henry and Tommie Aaron”, but I would have used Christy and Henry Mathewson as my example.

  2. Graham Womack said...

    For an older example, you have the Delahanty brothers. Not as remembered, perhaps, though there were five of them who played in the majors.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    IIRC, somewhere in the original Baseball Abstract there’s a note that in the season following Marv’s huge year with the Mets, he was a hold-out, and the Mets responded by sending him to Buffalo, “a tactic that today is known as ‘reality therapy.’ ”

  4. Red Nichols said...

    Very nice read.  .  .  My favorite brother quote was uttered in the 60s by Jim Perry, who beat his highly-touted younger bro to the big leagues by several years, to wit:  “Gaylord’s got all the money but I’ve got all the stuff.” (Gaylord was still in the minors at the time).
    Posterity seems to prove that Gaylord had plenty of stuff of his own.  .  .

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