October 17, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Pilgrim’s Progress

January 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

As longtime readers of Notes know, the title of this thing has a double meaning. I write it in the shadows of the mecca that is home to baseball’s — no, make that Baseball’s — Hall of Fame — but it is nothing official, or, well, famous. It is the work of an amateur — I just love to write baseball. The other meaning has to do with geography — I write Notes literally in the shadows of Cooperstown. I live just about an hour, door-to-door, from the Hall. And that is significant, because I often write about Cooperstown — a whole book’s worth, over the years, and I hope to see that book in print someday soon. It might just be my favorite collection of writings.

I first visited Cooperstown with my family, in 1965, when I was nineteen, and idealistic as hell. On my second trip there, in 1974, I observed that baseball fans do not really travel to Cooperstown — they pilgrimage there.

A recent trip — around my fiftieth, I reckon — was unlike any other. I went there to work — not as a HOF employee, but at the Hall, doing paid research (a first).

Nothing makes a person appreciate “retirement” (I still use quotes), like a long day of work. Leaving the house on a cold snowy morning before sunrise, returning after the sun has set. There is no plane, train or bus to Cooperstown unless you charter one; the major league teams used to do that, riding from an upstate airport the last leg, on a ride that must have stirred memories of their minor league days and rides on the Greyhound.

I did arrive once in Cooperstown by bus, on a Jay Buckley Tour in 1994 (I still recommend taking time for this particular slice of paradise — visit www.jaybuckley.com.) And that visit was a bit like my first, probably because for so many on the tour it was their first. If you’ve never been there, Cooperstown is a magical word, and the Hall of Fame in one’s imagination takes on the shape and aura of a Disney castle. In 1965, the Hall was the same red brick facade, housing that famous gallery of bronze plaques, but the museum was much smaller, and I’m not sure there was much to the library. The Hall is not a castle, of course, but I don’t think it disappoints anyone, either.

Especially, if you like digging into history, the Research Center. As I put it in the Acknowledgements for my play (now a musical) Mornings After, when I thanked the HOF staff: the National Baseball Library is “a scenic drive of less than an hour from my home. It’s a good thing it’s not any closer, because when I’m there, I don’t care if I never get back.”

For first-timers, the anticipation builds up over the last hour or so, which is always spent on a winding road, skimming through upstate New York farmland. There is no superhighway anywhere close. I’ve always liked that feature. The country roads are like a decompression chamber, slowing you down, in preparation for the pace of the target village. Only on Induction Weekends will Cooperstown bustle with anything like a city pace. No, it’s country, and a perfect setting for folks from the country of baseball. Forget Abner Doubleday, Cooperstown has earned the Hall by not becoming a theme park.

But to get back to my recent visit — driving to the Hall to work was a whole different feeling, very un-Pilgrimlike. It felt almost wrong, having to be there by a certain time. I’ve described here before how I sometimes feel guilty when I walk thru the HOF’s gallery without even glancing at the bronze, on my way to the library (I wish I could use the rear entrance!) It’s like that. There is just no savoring a drive to and from a job, no matter how enjoyable the company you are in. The drive becomes two hours in between, two hours out of the day.

When you are retired, and used to having all twenty-four hours at your disposal, two can seem like a big number.

That one day of work echoed many days of rising early and leaving in the cold and dark, to go to a job. Days I’ve mostly erased from memory by now. It also gave me a taste of what it would be like, if I ever became employed at the Hall — something I sometimes muse about. (I also occasionally wonder, What if I had been hired to work at the Adirondack Museum, ‘way up north at Blue Mountain Lake — I had a second interview there, back in 1976.) I think that I could have done it — made that journey weekdays, in exchange for a paycheck to support my family — it is amazing what we all do for paychecks. But it surely would have changed the drive, and the Hall itself, for me. As it is, there is still a little pilgrimage in every visit.

For the record, the company on that recent drive was enjoyable, I car-pooled with a couple of folks who live nearby, and they do work at the Hall. And they do the “commute” five times a week, and perhaps this little essay reads like a foreign language to them. I’m sure that I’d want to car-pool, most days, although I also like the companionship of book tapes, and I’d see that — an extra two hours of “reading” — as a definite plus.

I won’t belabor this — suffice to say, I have a renewed appreciation of “retirement.” And I’ll add this: I needed that.

100 AND OUT

Billy Werber passed away on January 22, at the tender age of 100. I think he’s the only centenarian with whom I’ve spoken, although he was a mere 95 at the time. Here’s my report in an early version of my book:

Only His Catcher Knew for Sure?

Did Cicotte play to win? For most of the time since 1919, that seemed like a far-fetched theory. It still seems unlikely, but now there is more evidence to consider. The Cincinnati Reds thought he pitched to win, as did the umpires. What about his catcher, Ray Schalk? A number of sources have Schalk physically fighting with Lefty Williams for not pitching to win, and some of them have Schalk showing similar displeasure with the staff ace, Cicotte.

In 1932, the Yankees sent me to play for the Buffalo Bisons under Ray Schalk, the old White Sox catcher. He was a feisty little Dutchman and regaled us with stories of his eighteen years in the big leagues. He caught every game of the 1919 World Series for the so-called Black Sox against the Cincinnati Reds and was emphatic that Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ed Cicotte gave their best all the way. I always believed that as the catcher for the team, he was in a position to know.

— Bill Werber, Memories of a Ballplayer, page 9

The first time I read the above words of the former third-sacker, I was very puzzled. First, by the fact that Ray Schalk, who said so little about the 1919 Series, said anything at all to the team he managed in 1932. And then by what he said — Cicotte played to win? I had stretched things in my imagination to make a case that even Chick Gandil might have played to win — but Cicotte? Didn’t he serve up the 9-1 opener loss, tipping off the gambling community of America along the way by plunking the leadoff batter? Didn’t he single-handedly toss away Game Four, his two “errors” giving the Reds all they needed in their 2-0 win? And didn’t Cicotte confess to the grand jury, and later admit he did wrong?

So I tracked down Bill Werber. At 95 he was still spry and loved to talk baseball. When we spoke, after an exchange of letters, he repeated the story above, almost verbatim. His memories seemed clear, but I was still shaking my head in disbelief. Perhaps worth mentioning is Pete Rose’s recollection in his 2004 book, that Ray’s nephew Russell Schalk repeated his uncle’s belief that Jackson “swung away throughout the Series,” but said “most of the pitchers were in on it,” including the one he beat up after Game One — that would have been Eddie Cicotte.

When I spoke with Werber, I was pretty skeptical about Eddie Cicotte’s pitching to win. But Werber insisted that that was Ray Schalk’s opinion. Werber also recalled Cicotte’s low ERA in the Series (I think he said 1.50 — it was 2.91). Today, I am inclined to believe that Werber remembered Schalk accurately. And I wish there were a lot more lucid centenarians around to check with. Over the past five years, I’ve referred a few folks to Werber, and I hope they followed up. Because he really did enjoy talking baseball, even with total strangers. Baseball is like that, of course — once you start talking, no more strangers.

DAYS OF OUR LIVES

More from my Page-A-Day Baseball calendar: January 13 I was asked which third baseman has the highest lifetime average, and my guess of Pie Traynor was off by eight points; Wade Boggs hit .328 over 18 seasons; Chicken now followed by Pie. January 15 I nailed it — which family pair has the most base hits? Paul & Lloyd Waner combined for 5,611; it was a multiple choice, and the other options were the Griffeys, Bondses, and Aarons. And that makes me curious about which pair has the most home runs. January 16, Which two teams have faced each other the most in the World Series? Again, not too hard — the Yankees and Dodgers, with the Dodgers hailing from LA in the last four meetings; the Yanks are 8-3 in the 11 face-offs.

January 17/18 (just one factoid on the weekends), an old trick question: which player never hit four HRs in a game: Colavito, Ruth, Gehrig, Bob Horner. Of course it’s the Babe, but he did hit three in two World Series games, twice as many times as Mr October. January 20 was about players hitting HRs in eight consecutive games — a record held by Pirate Dale Long for many years; he did it in 1956; Don Mattingly did it 31 years later, and Ken Griffey Jr did it six years after that; curiously, all three batted lefty — so what’s the record for a righty?

January 22: Of all active managers, who has managed more years? Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa? I guessed wrong — LaRussa starts his 30th season this year (three different teams). January 24/25: Of all the active pitchers, which one has been taken deep the most times? It’s David Wells, whose 407 ranks #10 on the all-time gopher list. He trails Steve Carlton by 17, Bert Blyleven by 23, then just 4 more to catch Warren Spahn. You might expect Cy Young to be up there, but he pitched in the deadball era. So the list is made up entirely of moderns, with Spahnie and Robin Roberts (#1, with 505) the oldest members. At first glance, you might see this as an embarrassing list to join — but I don’t think so. It’s what Leonard Koppett once called “a positive neggie” — you have to be very good, to be on this list. Think about it — the players with the most hits, Rose and Cobb, also have made the most outs; no one has lost more games that Cy Young, who also won the most; most of the strikeout leaders are in the Hall of Fame. I think six of the top ten gopher-ballers are in the Hall, or might be some day — including ageless Jamie Moyer (444 gophers). In case you’re wondering, Fergie Jenkins is #2 with 484, Phil Niekro #3, just two behind Fergie. We wonder if he knew that when he retired? Would he have served up a few more that last season, to overtake Jenkins? Niekro might argue, if he thought of this, that he was ahead of Jenkins in net home runs, since Fergie hit 13 himself (for a net 471), well more than Phil.

Occasionally, my calendar serves up Rules questions, like on January 23. Bases loaded, scorcher to the third baseman, who dives and stops the ball. The ball is in his gloved hand while he reaches for third base with his bare hand, and touches it, before the batter from second arrives. Safe or out? He’s outta there — this is just like a first baseman making a routine putout on a grounder by catching the ball in his mitt with one foot on the bag. Any body part counts, which raises the question, has a fielder ever used his head to make a putout?

SUPER SUNDAY

While it is true that these past fifteen years have been lean ones for Pirate fans — we do have the Stillers (that’s how we Pittsburghers pronounce it). And the Penguins. I have often mentioned “the Penguin Factor” here in Notes (it refers to how poorly the Pirates perform in the spring until hockey season ends, and they receive the undivided attention of fans; alas, the reinforcements have not been able to make up for the lack of talent).

I rarely mention the Stillers, though, or football. Maybe because I only follow one team closely. Anyway, they are in the Super Bowl again, playing a franchise with the second-longest drought in sports history (the Cubs’ century being #1). This makes the Super Bowl win-win for me, because I know the pain of droughts (the Pirates, 1927-1960 and their current mini-drought of consecutive losing seasons), so if the Cardinals win, well, it’s easier to live with than a Cowboy or 49er win.

Of course I’ll still root for the Stillers, and for the first time, I feel pretty good going into this game. I’ve seen most of the Stillers’ games this season, and they are fun to watch. More fun when their defense is on the field. (Does that happen in baseball? Only when a team has great pitching, I guess, because even though your outfield might routinely make circus catches, and your infield turn web-gem DPs, these are scattered widely throughout the season.)

If the Stillers win, maybe I’ll meditate some here, in honor of the late George Carlin, on the differences between baseball and football.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!