March 29, 2023

The Shemp Syndrome

November 5, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

Relativity doesn’t begin and end with Einstein. I don’t think he was a baseball fan anyway. Also, I don’t think he was a movie fan, but if he was, I suspect he was not a Three Stooges fan. He probably never heard of Curly, Larry, or Moe, much less Shemp. But Shemp is all about relativity – and not just because he was a relative (a brother) of Curly and Moe.

Talent, of course, is a relative entity. Sometimes it lends itself to objective measurement; sometimes to subjective interpretation; sometimes both. What it boils down to is the person under review is constantly measured against others – not only one’s peers but one’s predecessors. Has there ever been a child who has not heard something to the effect of “Why can’t you be more like…” (fill in name of appropriate paragon: sibling, cousin, classmate, neighbor, whatever).

If you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by incompetents and mediocrities, you might look pretty darn good by comparison. But if you’re unfortunate enough to be compared to a living legend…well, your best will  never be good enough.

“A tough act to follow” is a show biz turn of phrase, probably dating back to vaudeville days, so let’s posit another show biz-oriented term: the Shemp Syndrome.

Shemp was the once and future stooge in the famed trio of clowns renowned as the Three Stooges. I say “once and future” because Shemp did two tours of duty as a Stooge. Every Stoogehead knows that Shemp took over for Curly. But it is less widely known that he was an original Stooge in the trio’s infancy and was replaced by Curly before the Columbia shorts were filmed. (As an aside, it is also not widely known that Moe’s first appearance on film was as a 12-year-old boy getting hitting lessons from Honus Wagner.)

During the Curly era, the Three Stooges churned out 97 comedy shorts for Columbia from 1934 to 1946. Then one sad day on the set of “Half-Wits Holiday,” Curly suffered a stroke. It was hoped that he would recover and the trio would soldier on. The trio did indeed soldier on, but without Curly. Aside from a cameo in “Hold That Lion,” a 1947 short, Curly never appeared on camera again. He died in 1952 at the age of 48. Of course, if you’re destined to be a legend, dying young is often part of the package.

Curly was immediately replaced by Shemp. During his sabbatical from Stoogery, Shemp had enjoyed a solid career as a comic and character actor in features and short subjects. After rejoining the Stooges, he appeared in 81 shorts from 1947 through 1955. Not too shabby. Shemp was a funny guy – but he wasn’t Curly. Neither was Moe, neither was Larry, but they had established their own identities and were never called upon to replace Curly, so they got a pass.

Curly set the bar so high no one could measure up. I remember some kiddie matinees when many youngsters actually booed Three Stooges shorts when it was revealed that they featured Shemp, not Curly. Kids liked the Three Stooges but they loved Curly, probably because he was the most childlike. Kids could identify with Curly.

A 1985 biography of Curly referred to him as a “Superstooge.”  Larry said Shemp “Couldn’t work as fast or as good as Curly. Poor Curly was a genius in my view.”  So even a Stooge lifer had to admit that the post-Curly franchise offered a lesser product.

Sorry for the protracted preface, but I’m trying to convey that  as surely as a Stooge can’t compare to a Superstooge, a baseball star can’t compare to a superstar, and when the star has the misfortune to immediately succeed the superstar in the lineup, disappointment is almost always the result. There are numerous examples of good, solid players who had the misfortune to succeed legends, HOF-caliber players who had long careers with one franchise, as well as that extra oomph that goes beyond the statistics.

Not every legend passes the torch to a highly-touted successor. Oftentimes the immediate successor is notably inferior and expectations are low. One example is the post-Tony Gwynn era in San Diego.

If you had to define an ideal legend, you could hardly do better than Tony Gwynn. While most professional athletes have a peripatetic lifestyle, Gwynn was the exception. He played baseball and basketball at San Diego State before signing with the San Diego Padres.

For good measure, after his playing days were over (20 seasons with the Padres), he returned to San Diego State as head coach for 12 seasons. First and foremost, of course, are the 8 NL batting titles and .338 lifetime BA.

In addition to all the well-deserved kudos he received in his lifetime (sadly, he died of cancer at the age of 54 in 2014), a beer was named in his honor!  Before he died, he worked with the AleSmith brewery in San Diego to create .394 Pale Ale (the name refers to Gwynn’s 1994 batting average, the highest of his career). Since that season was cut short by a strike, he was denied a realistic shot at hitting .400 – not that he needed to enhance his resume.

Well, I would consider having a beer named after me the crowning achievement of my life. What finer tribute could there be than to have people leaving not just baseballs but empty beer bottles of your beer on your grave?

Gwynn did not have an immediate successor. In the last two years (2000-2001) of his career when he was hobbled by injuries, the likes of Eric Owens and Bubba Trammell played right field when Gwynn didn’t. Xavier Nady followed in 2002. Clearly, they were not even close to Gwynn. Brian Giles, who played left field in 2003 after being acquired from the Pirates in late August, stabilized right field when he was shifted from left in 2004.

Giles retired after 15 years with a very respectable 1,897 hits, a .291 BA and 287 HRs. But he was not the immediate successor to Gwynn so the contrast with Gwynn was not so stark. Other post-legend players were not so fortunate.

Consider the ultimate legend, Babe Ruth. Talk about bigger than life. He was the toughest act to follow in baseball history, but somebody had to play right field for the Yankees in 1935 after the Babe was banished to the Boston Braves. That somebody was George Selkirk, who even donned the Bambino’s No. 3. Selkirk responded with a .312 BA and 94 RBIs. Not exactly Ruthian but nothing to be ashamed of. The following season he was an All-Star. His last season was 1942 at age 34.

After three years of service in the Navy in World War II, he was too old to return to major league baseball (though he did serve as player-manager for Newark, the Yankees’ Triple-A Affiliate in 1946). During his MLB career, he fashioned a respectable .290 BA (810 for 2790). He was also an All-Star in 1939 when he drove home 101 runs in just 419 AB. His career wasn’t notably lengthy, but his Yankee teams won 6 pennants and 5 World Series during his tenure. So the long shadow cast by the Babe didn’t completely obscure Selkirk.

One year after Selkirk took over, a bona fide Yankee legend appeared. Given the one-season gap and the fact that he usually played center field, Joe DiMaggio is not thought of as the successor to the Bambino. But when he retired after the 1951 season, there was indeed a passing of the torch.

DiMaggio’s last year with the Yanks  coincided with Mickey Mantle’s rookie year. After DiMaggio retired, Mantle took over in center field. As it turned out, one legend replaced the other. Now you could probably start a pretty good debate as to whether DiMaggio or Mantle was the better ballplayer.

I suspect the latter would win simply because there are still plenty of baby boomers out there who saw Mantle play; the DiMaggio eyewitnesses have dwindled away to a precious few.

I think I would give the edge to DiMag. The tie-breaker is his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. That accomplishment doesn’t appear on his HOF plaque but it does befit a legend.

Unfortunately, the line of succession wasn’t quite so smooth when Bobby Murcer took over for Mantle. Murcer, a multi-sport high school wunderkind certainly appeared to be a worthy successor. Like Mantle, he was a center fielder who started out as a shortstop and logged some time as a right fielder – and like Mantle, he was from Oklahoma.

Both arrived at the big leagues at age 19. For good measure, Murcer grew up as a Yankee fan and idolized Mantle, joining him on the Yankee roster in 1965. If you had to conjure up the ideal player to pick up the torch, it would be hard to improve on Murcer. When he carried the torch, it didn’t burn out…it just didn’t burn as brightly.

In Murcer’s defense, he made his debut in 1965, when the Yankees’ long run of post-season glory had petered out, thus denying him a chance to enhance his resume with post-season glory. Even so, he retired with a .277 BA, 252 HR and 1,862 hits in 17 seasons. A nice career but hardly Mantlesque. Bobby Murcer does not have a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, but he does have a bust outside of Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City. Significantly, just a few steps down the street from Murcer’s bust, there is a larger-than-life statue of Mickey Mantle. Guess which one is the more popular photo op location.

A disproportionate number of legends are Yankees but they have not completely cornered the market. Certainly Ted Williams qualifies as a legend. No need to detail his accomplishments with the Red Sox from 1939 through 1960. So pity poor Carl Yastrzemski who had to take his place in left field. Yaz had 18 All-Star selections in 23 seasons (1961-1983).

He had 3,419 hits (765 more than Williams). He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is certainly fondly remembered in Beantown. Had he enjoyed more seasons like his 1967 season when he led the Red Sox to a pennant, he might have enjoyed the same stature as Williams. Off the field, alas, Yaz was sorely deficient. He was no fighter pilot.  He was no fisherman (I don’t think).

Then there is the matter of nicknames. Ted Williams was the Thumper, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid, and Teddy Ballgame. Carl Yastrzemski was Yaz, a nickname that does not reflect his on-field deeds, just his last name. Any forklift driver, construction worker, or keyboard jockey with a polysyllabic surname could just as easily acquire a monosyllabic nickname.

Now let’s look at the case of Brooks Robinson. Not only was he HOF-worthy, he was regarded by many as the greatest third baseman in the history of the game. That can be argued but not the fact that he played more games at that position than anyone else in baseball history.

Like Yastrzemski, he played 23 seasons (1955-1977), including 6 post-seasons, for the Orioles. How could anybody ever take his place at the hot corner at Memorial Stadium?

Well, someone had to, and that someone was Doug DeCinces, who played third base for the Orioles through 1981 and then moved on to California. He had a 15-year 1973-1987) career, amassing 1,505 hits and 237 home runs.

That was good enough to get him into the Orioles’ Hall of Fame. But he will never be in Cooperstown. And he was not Brooks Robinson. Even worse, he was followed by another legend called Cal Ripken, Jr. In more recent years, DeCinces has been in trouble with the law (civil and criminal) for insider trading. If he were a legend, his legend would surely be tarnished.

Speaking of third basemen, when Mike Schmidt retired, he managed to steal some thunder from Brooks Robinson in the debate about MLB’s greatest hot cornermen. Robinson might have had the edge in the field, but Schmidt certainly had the edge offensively. Robinson was a long-term fan fave in Baltimore while Schmidt got booed by the Phillies fans, but, hey, welcome to the (Philadelphia National League) club, Mike.

After Schmidt retired early on in the 1989 season, the Phillies acquired Charlie Hayes from the Giants. His stats were mediocre for the Phillies and Yankees (one season in 1992). Acquired by the Rockies in the expansion draft, the altitude in Denver apparently agreed with him, as he hit .305 with 25 homers and 98 RBIs in the Rockies’ inaugural season (1993).

That was his peak season. After that he slid back to mediocrity with a number of teams. Yet he managed to stick around for 14 years, hit .262 overall and accrued 1,379 hits including 144 home runs. Again, no great shakes, but all in all a decent career.

Henry Aaron was a two-city/one-franchise legend with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. He wasn’t a fighter pilot and he didn’t marry a movie star, but as the MLB career leader in home runs and RBIs when he retired, his on-field achievements were sufficient to make him legendary.

Dusty Baker took over as the Braves’ primary right fielder after Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in the twilight of his career. Baker was no stranger to Braves fans as he had been up and down with the Braves from 1968 through 1971. Before then he had been the center fielder. Towards the end of his career, Aaron had moved to left field while Ralph Garr took over in right.

Baker and Garr were certainly talented. Garr hit .306 for his career (1,562 for 5,108) and he won the 1974 NL batting title with a .353 average. Baker hit .278 with 1,981 hits and 242 HR. Both had been with the Braves since 1968 and were known commodities and each was talented in his own right. Thanks to a lengthy career as a manager, Baker has remained in the spotlight (much as Joe Torre did) while Garr has pretty much faded from memory.

Pittsburgh also offers a sterling example of the Shemp Syndrome. The last time I was in the Steel City I saw a father taking pictures of his little boy at the Roberto Clemente statute outside the ballpark. Neither was alive when Clemente was killed in a plane crash after the 1972 season but their presence attests to the stature of the man who was the subject of the statue. Clemente’s on-field deeds were certainly the stuff of legend. The fact that his final hit of the ’72 campaign (and hence his career, though no one knew it at the time) was his 3,000th adds  a touch of the uncanny to his demise.

And if that weren’t enough, at the risk of sounding insensitive, let me reiterate what I said earlier about dying young – which Clemente did while performing a mission of mercy (carrying relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims), no less!

The unenviable task of taking over in  right field for the Pirates fell to Richie Zisk. His burden was all the greater since everyone had expected Clemente to return in 1973. During three part-time (pre-Clemente) and three full-time (post-Clemente) seasons with the Bucs, Zisk hit .299 with an even 600 hits and 69 home runs.

Normally, that would be good enough to hold onto one’s job but when the White Sox offered Rich Gossage and Terry Forster for Zisk (with Silvio Martinez as a throw-in), it was too much to resist. Zisk had back-to-back All-Star seasons in 1977 (White Sox) and 1978 (Rangers). He retired after 13 seasons (the last 3 with Seattle) with 207 home runs and a .287 BA (1,477 for 5,155). I doubt that anyone will erect a statute of Zisk in Pittsburgh or anywhere else, but his resume needs no apologies. All he suffered from was the Shemp Syndrome, which went undiagnosed at the time.

Well, I could probably come up with more examples, but you get the idea. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to apologize for being human. But if you have the misfortune to succeed a legend, that’s about what it amounts to. One day someone will take over for Mike Trout or Aaron Judge. Good luck to those poor souls.

As Shemp might have put it, hee-bee-bee-bee-bee is no substitute for Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo.


References and Resources:

Curly: An Illustrated Biography of the Superstooge by Joan Howard Maurer, Citadel Press (New York 1985)

The Stooge Fan’s I.Q. Test by Ronald L. Smith, Contemporary Books (Chicago, 1988)

The Three Stooges; an Illustrated History From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons, Doubleday (New York 1999).

Doug DeCinces SABR biography by Jeff Barto.

Tony Gwynn SABR biography by Dan D’Addona.

Bobby Murcer SABR biography by Clifford Blau.

George Selkirk SABR biography by Joseph Wancho.

Carl Yastrzemski SABR  biography by Herb Crehan and Bill Nowlin.



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