Baseball Eccentrics: A Definitive Look at the Most Entertaining, Outrageous and Unforgettable Characters in the Gameby Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Jim Prime
A round up of the most outrageous group of malcontents, characters, rebels, nut jobs, reprobates, wing-nuts, wackos, space cadets, head cases, goofs, free thinkers, and oddballs who ever livened up the grand old game of baseball, this collection not only describes their most bizarre antics in often-hilarious detail, but also includes the unique thoughts of Bill
A round up of the most outrageous group of malcontents, characters, rebels, nut jobs, reprobates, wing-nuts, wackos, space cadets, head cases, goofs, free thinkers, and oddballs who ever livened up the grand old game of baseball, this collection not only describes their most bizarre antics in often-hilarious detail, but also includes the unique thoughts of Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a man known for his colorful quotes and offbeat personality.
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The Most Entertaining, Outrageous, and Unforgettable Characters in the Game
By Bill Lee, Jim Prime
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Bill Lee and Jim Prime
All rights reserved.
Confessions of a Cunnythumber
Pitchers are a large contributor to baseball's eccentricity. Depending on their effectiveness, or lack of same, they drive hitters to the edge of insanity or managers over the edge. They say that you have to lose your fastball if you want to learn to pitch. I was fortunate enough to not have much of one from the very beginning — and then I lost it completely.
My mother called it a game only once. Both my parents tell the story in one voice. When you have been married 67 years, that is the only way to tell a tale.
It was the summer of 1941, the halcyon days before Pearl Harbor. The date that would separate my parents for the better part of four years. My father was quietly fuming behind the wheel of the old Ford. He was trying not to show any emotion. He had gotten his pitch, he thought. But after toiling in the mound for nine innings in the late summer heat, his bat had slowed down. It was a 3–1 fastball right down the chute. He got under it and popped it up to right. (Twenty-seven years later, while leaving USC on my way to Waterloo, Iowa, of the now defunct Midwest League, I saw that my father had written on my glove, covering each finger: Throw strikes. Keep the ball down. Don't alibi. Hustle, hustle, hustle. His advice I now give to my sons Mike and Andy, and their sons, Hunter, Kazden, and Logan Lee.) Bill Lee Jr., my father, couldn't alibi. He had learned not to alibi from his father, Williams Francis I, who played for the Hollywood Stars on the Pacific Coast League. Besides, Ring Lardner had not written Alibi Ike yet, so no one was listening anyway.
My grandfather used to cut the center of his glove so he could feel the ball better on his palm. He said it made his hands softer and quicker while he was turning the double play. No one got the ball quicker to first base. Not until the great "No Touch" Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
My grandfather's job, when he was not playing second base, was opening up new Gilmore Gas stations. Their symbol was the lion, and they had given him twin male lion cubs to raise. The lions lived in the backyard of his North Hollywood home. He had them for four years, in which time they traveled together up and down the California coast and had become inseparable. When Mobil Oil took over Gilmore Gas, they felt the lion promotion did not go with their logo, which was a flying horse — apparently lions eat flying horses when they land. My grandfather ended up taking the lions to the Griffith Park Zoo under the condition that he be allowed to visit any time he wished. On his first visit, the young lions came running, pressing up against the bars, purring and rolling around on their backs so that he could reach through the bars and scratch them on their bellies. The visitors at the zoo were dumbfounded by this action.
When the time came for my grandfather to leave, he had tears in his eyes, and when he turned away, the lions started to roar. They were trying to get him to stay. The other animals at the zoo sensed the anxiety and started calling out in their own voices. Monkeys howled and birds screeched. Snakes did relatively little. You get the picture. The zookeeper came to my grandfather and told him never to come back.
My maternal grandfather played football for USC. His father was Dean of Graduate Schools for USC from 1900 to 1937. When he left there he was one of the founding fathers of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, on the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. He had been raised along those river banks. He went to World War I as a medic and was gassed in some obscure farm in France. When he returned partially disabled, his brothers set him up at a farm in Oakdale on the Stanislaus River. He became president of the Oakdale water district. On his farm he raised peaches, walnuts, and almonds (people always called baseball players from California the "boys from the land of fruits and nuts" in a derogatory fashion, but I was one in a literal sense). He had learned to fly and had a couple of planes in which he used to survey the dams along the water district. When I was eight years old, he taught me to buzz the farm doing barrel rolls and loop-de-loops, culminating with a stall coming right down over my grandma — which drove her nuts.
One day he let me fly all the way back from Donnells Reservoir. He told me to follow the river and then he fell asleep. When he woke up, I was following the wrong river and was heading for Atwater Air Force Base, about 20 miles off course. When I saw the jets in the distance, I knew I was in trouble. It would have been embarrassing to be shot down by our own guys. Other times he took me up to chase the coyotes off the pheasant fields on the Rodden ranch. He would fly under the power lines, sometimes giving me the stick while he shot at them. As you can see from my two eccentric grandfathers, the apples don't fall far from the tree. While it might better serve the purposes of this book on eccentrics if I had been raised by the wild man of Borneo and a she-wolf, my mother and father were like Ward and June Cleaver in comparison, fairly normal. Like talent, eccentricity must skip a generation.
* * *
In the old days pitchers like me were called cunnythumbers. In fact, I almost called this book Confessions of a Cunnythumber. Then I Googled it and all kinds of interesting things popped up. I figured that we might get more readers, if only by accident. A certain demographic would have lined up to buy it because it sounds pretty filthy — like you should be going for counseling to rid yourself of it. Welcome to Cunnythumbers Anonymous, sir. Hello, my name is Bill Lee and I'm a cunnythumber. Or maybe you need to go to the doctor for a shot of penicillin. Mr. Lee, I'm afraid you have a severe case of cunnythumb. You'll need a series of injections. Actually, the term may have its origins in marble shooting. Cunnythumbing was a way of striking the "shooter." So go and wash your mouth out with soap for anything you might have been thinking.
It's an expression for a guy who can't throw hard but is still a really good pitcher. My dad told me about a guy named Red Barrett who threw the shortest game in history — he never went to three balls on anybody, induced eight double plays, and only threw 58 pitches! He was the epitome of the classic cunnythumber. You use your thumb to either make it break away or make it break in. I have a really strong thumb. I can hitchhike like nobody else. When people ask how to get a good curveball, I say, "Well you gotta get your wrist at 90 degrees, your elbow at 90 degrees, you put a beer cap in your hand and you know how to flick it off your fingers." You actually do a rotator cuff exercise while you're throwing your breaking ball. It's called multitasking. I build up my rotator cuff and my cunnythumb simultaneously.
My father was the first to call me a cunnythumber, though he ended up calling me a lot worse. Dad was a hard-throwing pitcher. His sister, my Aunt Annabelle "Lefty" Lee, pitched in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, more famously known today as the league in A League of Their Own. She pitched the first perfect game for the league. When she was interviewed years later by Joe Garagiola, he asked her, "Annie, how did you do it?" to which she replied, "Twenty-seven up, 27 down." (A lady of few words. Her nephew can't shut up. It must be a generational thing, right?) Her uniform hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. My father and my aunt taught me how to pitch; in fact, the whole family played baseball. My grandmother broke her leg sliding into second base at the age of 47. She was trying to stretch a single into a double. She lived to be 99.
The reason I was called a cunnythumber was because I couldn't break a pane of glass — but I sure could chip the edges! Remember, Warren Spahn said, "The two inches on the inside corner are mine, and the two inches on the outside are mine. The rest of the plate belongs to the hitter."
Like the marble shooter, I use my thumb to impart break on my ball. I use it on my curveball, I use it on my screwball. Without a thumb, you would never get the ball over the plate. Even Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown had a thumb, just not much of an index finger. I had one-half more fingers than Mordecai, but I did break my middle finger playing basketball in high school, and when I pitched it forced me to do more pronation with my index finger. That's why I started turning the ball over more and made it to the big leagues. Also, in high school I got taken out at second base when a short guy hit me straight on my knee. I ruined my right knee and missed part of the season. They put me in a barrel cast. They wanted to operate and then my dad took me to this really heavy-drinking bone doctor, who said, "Oh hell, we'll just shoot it up with cortisone and put a barrel cast on it and let it quiet down for a week." I had a torn medial meniscus my whole career, but it allowed me to land on a really light right foot — it made me fall off the mound like Bob Gibson, but it also enabled me to turn the ball over more. That's how I became the little shit-baller you see before you. I was a big guy who threw pus, as Dennis Eckersley called slow pitches. He'd say, "Boy, you can throw pus," and then he'd say, "You throw salad, I throw cheese." He called me "the salad master." He said, "You don't throw hard, Bill, but you can paint!" I said, "You mean I can paint like Rembrandt?" And he said, "Who's that? I was thinking more like Sherwin Williams." So much for East Bay culture.
In reality, it looked like I was throwing harder than I was. It was hard for hitters to adjust. That's why I had such good success. Injuries came to me as gifts, not handicaps. So now when I'm doing baseball clinics for young players and the parents ask, "How can I get my kid to turn the ball over?" I say, "Well, you take his hand, you put it on a bottle, and you crush his middle finger with a Coke bottle." Yes, it's extreme, but it works.
Of all the pitches, I believe the curveball is the most misinterpreted and misunderstood. A professor at MIT once said that a curveball does not break at all — it's just an optical illusion. Dizzy Dean said in response, "Tell that scientist to go hide behind a tree and I'll optical illusion him to death." Believe me, it breaks folks. It breaks. When thrown properly with a wrist bent at 90 degrees, it will go from 12:00 to 6:00. In fact, Diego Segui could throw from 11:00 to 5:00. Most kids today throw what my father calls a "nickel curve," that's just snapping your wrist on a fastball. That will ruin your medial epachondia, and you will have a zipper on your elbow before you're fifteen years old. Orthopedic surgeons don't want you to throw breaking stuff before your elbow matures, but if you don't learn it early, it's hard to learn late. Besides, they're orthopedic surgeons because they can't hit a breaking ball.
Barry Zito and I both have 25¢ curveballs. Bert Blyleven, Nolan Ryan, and Camilio Pascual all had 50¢ curveballs. They threw curveballs that were called "toilet seats." A lot of hitters would buckle both knees when they first saw it. It gave the appearance that they were on the throne taking a crap. The clubhouse boys on the team would say when Bert pitched against their respective ball clubs, they had to wash the right-handed hitters' shorts twice.
The first curveball was thrown by Arthur "Candy" Cummings of Ware, Massachusetts — it must have been confusing when people said, "You're from where?" and he responded, "Yes" — of the Brooklyn Stars Juniors. He then matriculated to the Brooklyn Excelsior club and promptly went on a road trip to the Boston area, Worcester to be exact, where he hurled his first Frisbee. It is always good to experiment on the road, where there are a lot fewer critics. It was in the spring of 1867 against Harvard that he became fully convinced he had succeeded. It was the results. The Crimson hitters were coming back to the bench convinced they had holes in their hickory. Always pick on an Ivy League team, they're oh so smart.
Cummings went on to win 16 games his first season in the National League with the third-best ERA, 1.67 (a positively Gibsonesque number, but they didn't threaten to lower the mound the next year). Cummings stood only 5'10" and weighed a hefty 120 pounds. A stiff breeze would have blown him off the hill but, fortunately, they didn't have mounds back in those days.
Candy threw his last curveball in an old-timers game in Boston in 1910 at the age of 62. A writer present claims it was Zito-like — a wide and pretty curve.
As I, Ted Williams, and all Harvard grads know, the first curve was actually thrown by Daniel Bernoulli in Basel, Switzerland, in the late 1700s. Unfortunately, Bernoulli really was in a "league of his own" since baseball was still just a glimmer in Abner Doubleday's great-grandfather's eye. A great curve breaks best as the low and high pressure converges along with drag coefficient. I call it "late-breaking news," especially for the hitter.
* * *
Then there's the fastball: the high hard one, the heater, the express, or the bully pitch (my own term for it). In the first year of Sports Illustrated, there was an article written by a prominent physician from Johns Hopkins University. He wrote that pitching overhand was an "unnatural act." The shoulder was not constructed to throw the ball overhand. In Van Meter, Iowa, home of "Bullet" Bob Feller, an unnatural act will get you five to life. The doctor had never met Bullet Bob. Throwing over the top for him was as natural as falling off a log. Feller pitched with his whole being, his arm was just along for the ride. That ride was over 100 mph. Have you seen a pitcher today rear back, touch the ground with his pitching hand, reach for the sky with the opposite leg, then push off the rubber and come flying down the hill? Never!
Karen Blixen (under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) wrote Out of Africa and so poignantly started it, "I once had a farm in Africa." Well, I once had a fastball in America. That all came crashing down on a spring day in the Bronx. Once Nettles dropped me on my shoulder, I had to summon up all my mental powers and become Obi Wan Kenobi Lee, the cunnythumber from California. When you have a fastball you can throw by anyone, you feel invincible, but that's a delusion of grandeur. Reggie Jackson said he could time a jet; I say if that jet is up and in, you'll never catch up to it. If that jet is low and down the middle and thrown from the hand of the "acid king" Dock Ellis, then Boom! Boom! out go the lights in Tiger Stadium, a la Roy Hobbs.
Jim Palmer had a smooth, easy fastball. It would come in right at the letters with a sign saying, "Here, hit me!" You couldn't quite catch up to it. During all his years with the Baltimore Orioles, Jim never gave up a grand slam. He is in the Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, am not. I gave up two grand slams in less than a third of an inning. That is an ERA of infinity (that is Cal Ripken or Carl Yastrzemski's number lying on its side). My amazing accomplishment that day was in not getting the loss. That was given to Lynn McGloughlin. I had come into the game in relief with the bases drunk with Tigers players and a two-run lead. I promptly threw eight straight Koufaxian fastballs by those Tiger hitters. I had a big problem with the ninth one. Bill Freehan hit it over the screen. Then three hitters later, Dick McAuliffe hit one around Pesky Pole. The end! You live by the fastball, you perish by the fastball.
* * *
Doctors say you only have so many pitches in your arm. Try and tell that to "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity. Three times in August of 1903 he pitched and won both ends of doubleheaders. How about Christy Mathewson? He completed 36 out of 38 starts one year. Then there is Ole Hoss Radbourn. He completed 66 of 68, played 23 games in right field, two games at first base, and hit three home runs. He was on the hill 632 innings; that's a career for most people. These guys never heard anything about pitch counts.
About five years ago at an old timer's game in Fort Myers, Florida, we were heading to the game and Bob Feller was on the bus. I said to myself, Isn't that great? He's going to the game at his age. We all went into the clubhouse and he put on his Indians uniform, and I said, That's great. He's going to go into the dugout. Then he grabbed a ball and went out and warmed up. Then he went out to the hill. At 60'6" away, he threw his third fastball past Joe Walsh of the Eagles. I know you're saying to yourself, Walsh is a guitar player — well, he still had a bat in his hand, and Feller struck him out at 83 years of age.
Excerpted from Baseball Eccentrics by Bill Lee, Jim Prime. Copyright © 2007 Bill Lee and Jim Prime. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bill "Spaceman" Lee is a former pitcher who spent 14 years in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos. He was elected into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008. Jim Prime has written several books on the Boston Red Sox, including collaboration with the late Ted Williams and another book coauthored with Bill Lee, The Little Red (Sox) Book. He lives in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia.
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