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"Just Like the WPA"
The job progress sheet in the office says the weather is clear, with a high for the day of 54 and a low of 40, which is fine to keep work moving along on this $19,100,000 stadium New York City is having built alongside its World's Fair grounds.
Outside, a pale sun washes what is now a latticework of steel, but which will be, hopefully by summer, a horseshoe-shaped ballpark seating 55,000 people. And crawling over the steel beams on this day is the flower of New York's construction trades, a group of 483 tin-hatted workers.
As you watch, you are struck with the immenseness of a construction job such as this one. Take that guy way up on the top, the one moving along a solitary white-painted beam that seems to be held up by nothing. His name is Tommy McLaughlin, and he has a wife and six kids at home. He is over five hundred feet in the air, without even a rope to hold onto. One strong gust of wind or one slippery spot on the beam, and that will do it. You'd be surprised how many times this happens on a construction job. But here he is, walking like a guy going over to play the jukebox in the neighborhood saloon. And all around the place there are workers just as high up and taking just as many chances. It makes you nervous to look at them.
It also would frighten hell out of you to pay them. McLaughlin is on the clock as an iron worker. At $5.25 an hour. There are steamfitters up there, too, and they come in at $5.37 an hour. Then there are electricians ($7.63), laborers ($4.94), wire lathers ($5.72), and operating engineers ($5.43). The payroll for this one day is going to run $15,585.72 by quitting time.
This is only part of the story. The planning and political wrangling that went on earlier were incredible. Why, once they argued for two days about how many toilets the new stadium should have. Plans called for 329, but somebody insisted that he would not be associated with a stadium that did not have at least 600 johns. Finally a Parks Commissioner named Newbold Morris put his foot down when he found an architect busily penciling in a spot to hook up Unit No. 526 of American Sanitary's best.
"What are we building, a ballpark or a place to go to the toilet?" Morris said.
You think of all these things as you stand and watch this big job. And then, just for a minute, everything changes. The ground, piled with dirt and covered with empty beer cans and crushed coffee containers, turns into cropped Merion blue. The turf surrounds an infield that doesn't have a pebble on it. The bare steel beams turn into gleaming stands, and they are filled. You can hear the crowd making noise.
And now it hits you. Now you realize, for the first time, what this is all about. All of it, all of the workers risking their lives, and all of the huge payrolls and all of the political wrangling. There is a reason for it all:
They are building a brand-new stadium for Marvin Throneberry.
Marvin Throneberry, who is known as Marvelous Marv to his admirers, plays first base for the New York Mets, the team which is going to play its home games in this new stadium. In fact, Marvelous Marv does more than just play first base for the Mets. He is the Mets.
The New York Mets are a team that was formed at the start of last season. They lost 120 games, which made them, on paper, the poorest team in modern baseball history. On the field they were even worse. The Mets did not lose games merely because they played badly. Never. The Mets lost because they played a brand of baseball which has not been seen in the Big Leagues in over twenty-five years. And in doing this they warmed the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. They became, in their first year of existence, almost a national symbol. Name one loyal American who can say that he does not love a team which loses 120 games in one season.
As far as all of sport is concerned, the Mets are the most delightful occurrence in a long time. For this is the era of the businessman in sports, and it has become as dry and agonizing a time as you would want to see. In golf, for example, all they talk about is how much money Arnold Palmer makes and how he uses top corporation thoroughness in running his career. This is fine for Palmer, but who ever wanted a sports guy to be like a business executive? Once the big thing in that sport was whether the bartender would close up in time for Walter Hagen to get out to the first tee on schedule. Things have gone like this every place else in sports too. And it is even worse in baseball. Today you hear of pension funds and endorsements, and the players all seem to know what to say and what not to say, and after a while, as you go around, everything seems to come down to this kind of conversation:
REPORTER: Did you know it was going to be a home run?
REPORTER: How could you tell?
PLAYER: Because I seen it go into the stands.
The Mets have changed all this. In one season they stepped out and gave sports, and the people who like sports, the first team worthy of being a legend in several decades. And they are a true legend. This is rare. You see, most of the stories which have been handed down over the years about ballplayers or teams are either vastly embellished or simply not true at all. The stories dealing with Babe Herman of the old Brooklyn Dodgers are a good example. He was the worst outfielder ever to live, they tell you, and fly balls fell on his head and nearly killed him as a matter of course. Well, two or three guys we know who watched the old Dodgers for twenty years or more never saw Herman get hit any place by a baseball. And one of them, the respected Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald-Tribune, will go so far as to tell you that Herman was a good fielder. He had good hands and could move, Tommy insists. Once in a while he would misjudge a fly badly. But only once in a while. Day in and day out, he was as good as they ever came, Tommy says.
In fact, in eighteen years of being able to look at things and remember what I have seen, the only sports legend I ever saw who completely lived up to advance billing was Babe Ruth.
It was a hot summer afternoon, and the Babe, sweat dripping from his jowls and his shirt stuck to him, came off the eighteenth green at the old Bayside Golf Club in the borough of Queens and stormed into the huge barroom of the club.
"Gimme one of them heavens to Betsy drinks you always make for me," the Babe said in his gravelly voice.
The bartender put a couple of fistfuls of ice chunks into a big, thick mixing glass and then proceeded to make a Tom Collins that had so much gin in it that the other people at the bar started to laugh. He served the drink to the Babe just as it was made, right in the mixing glass.
Ruth said something about how heavens to Betsy hot he was, and then he picked up the glass and opened his mouth, and there went everything. In one shot he swallowed the drink, the orange slice and the rest of the garbage, and the ice chunks too. He stopped for nothing. There is not a single man I have ever seen in a saloon who does not bring his teeth together a little bit and stop those ice chunks from going in. A man has to have a pipe the size of a trombone to take ice in one shot. But I saw Ruth do it, and whenever somebody tells me about how the Babe used to drink and eat when he was playing ball, I believe every word of it.
Otherwise, most legends should be regarded with suspicion. Although, if one is to have any fun out of life, one should proceed with the understanding that reminiscences are to be enjoyed, not authenticated. But with the Mets you do not need any of this. They made it on their own and required no help from imaginative bystanders. This team was, simply, a great, colorful spectacle, and they are held here in the highest affection. The way they played baseball made them the sports story of our time. This was not another group of methodical athletes making a living at baseball. Not the Mets. They did things.
Which brings us back to Marvelous Marvin Throneberry. On a hot Sunday last summer at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Mets were in the field. Marvelous Marv was holding down first base. This is like saying Willie Sutton works at your bank.
It was the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, and the Cardinals had Ken Boyer on first and Stanley Musial at third. Two were out. Boyer took a lead, then broke for second on the pitch. The throw to second from the Mets' catcher was, by some sort of miracle, perfect. It had Boyer beat a mile, and the Cardinal runner, only halfway down, turned and tried to go back to first. The Mets' second baseman, Rod Kanehl, threw to Throneberry. Boyer was trapped.
Standard operating procedure in a situation of this kind is for the man with the ball to chase the runner, but with one eye firmly fixed on the man on third. If he breaks for home, you're supposed to go after him and forget the other guy.
So Boyer turned and started to run away from Throneberry. This seemed to incense Marv. Nobody runs away from Marvin Throneberry. He took after Boyer with purpose. He did not even wink at Musial. Marvelous Marv lowered his head a little and produced wonderful running action with his legs. This amazed the old manager, Casey Stengel, who was standing on the top step of the Mets' dugout. It also amazed Mr. Musial, who was relaxing on third. Stanley's mouth opened. Then he broke for the plate and ran across it and into the dugout with the run that cost the Mets the game. Out on the basepaths, Throneberry, despite all his intentions and heroic efforts, never did get Boyer. He finally had to flip to his shortstop, Charley Neal, who made the tag near second.
It was an incredible play. But a man does not become an institution on one play.
Therefore. There was a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds, the Mets' home until their new park is ready. In the first inning of the first game Don Landrum of Chicago was caught in a rundown between first and second. Rundowns are not Throneberry's strong point. In the middle of the posse of Mets chasing the runner, Throneberry found himself face to face with Landrum. The only trouble was that Marvin did not have the ball. Now during a rundown the cardinal rule is to get out of the way if you do not have the ball. If you stand around, the runner will deliberately bang into you and claim interference, and the umpire will call it for him, too.
Which is exactly what happened. Landrum jumped into Throneberry's arms, and the umpire waved him safely to first. So, instead of an out, the Cubs still had a runner at first—and the Mets were so upset the Cubs jumped them for a four-run rally.
When the Mets came to bat, Throneberry strode to the plate, intent on making up for the whole thing. With two runners on, Marv drove a long shot to the bullpen in right center field. It went between the outfielders and was a certain triple. As usual, Marv had that wonderful running action. He lowered his head and flew past first. Well past it. He didn't come within two steps of touching the bag. Then he raced to second, turned the corner grandly, and careened toward third. The stands roared for Marvin Throneberry.
While all this violent action and excitement were going on, Ernie Banks, the Cubs' first baseman, casually strolled over to Umpire Dusty Boggess.
"Didn't touch the bag, you know, Dusty," Banks said. Boggess nodded. Banks then called for the ball. The relay came, and he stepped on first base. Across the infield Throneberry was standing on third. He was taking a deep breath and was proudly hitching up his belt, the roar of the crowd in his ears, when he saw the umpire calling him out at first.
"Things just sort of keep on happening to me," Marvin observed at one point during the season.
Which they did. All season long. And at the end, here was this balding twenty-eight-year-old from Collierville, Tennessee, standing at home plate with a big smile on his face as he proudly accepted a boat which he had won as the result of a clothing-store contest. Throneberry was not too certain what he would do with the boat. The most water he had seen in several years was a filled-up bathtub on Saturday night back in Collierville. The nearest lake to his house is 150 miles away, and 150 miles as the coon dog runs, Marv cautioned. "Take the road, it's a little further," he said.
But this was all right. If he had been living in Johnstown, they would have given him a well pump. Things just go like this for Throneberry. It was all right with him. It was, that is, until two days later, when Marvin found out just how rough the season really was.
The whole incredible thing started in the agile brain of a Madison Avenue public- relations man whose accounts include a large chain clothing company. He also represents a book publisher, but the clothing store does not hold that against him. The clothes client had made a ticket sales tie-in with the Mets. Just before the season started, the P.R. man barged into the clothing company's offices with an idea that was so hot he was dizzy from it.
"We'll put up a sign on the outfield fence," he said. "The player who hits it the most over the season gets a boat. Where do we get the boat? We work a tie-in with another client of mine who makes them. It'll be terrific."
The first sign certainly was. Out on the left-field fence, it spelled out the client's name, and inside a circle was a picture of the boat. Anybody who hit the circle on the fly got five points. Anybody who hit any other part of the sign on the fly received three points. If the ball hit it on the bounce it was worth two points. Whoever had the most points at the end of the season was to win the boat. An official point-keeper was assigned to watch every Met game and keep a tally on the points. Before half the season was over, the scorer wanted to go to the needle trades union over the matter.
The sign was a beauty. It also was remindful of the famous New Yorker cartoon which showed the outfield wall of a ballpark and a sign on it stating, "Hit the sign and Abe Feldman will give you a suit absolutely free." In front of the sign, hands on knees, was the outfielder, waiting for the next pitch. And right behind him, at the ready, was Abe Feldman. Abe was bald and he wore a vest. He had a catcher's mitt on his right hand and a first baseman's mitt on the other.
The clothing sign disturbed Casey Stengel, however. Upon seeing it for the first time, Stengel squawked.
"We get to the end of the season, and I might need a couple of games to finish higher [optimism was rampant at this time] and what am I going to get? Everybody will be standing up there and going, whoom! Just trying to win theirselves a nice boat while I'm sittin' here hopin' they'll butcher boy the ball onto the ground and get me a run or two. I don't like it at all."
George Weiss, the Mets' general manager, moved quickly to satisfy Stengel. In a lifetime of baseball, Weiss has learned many things, one of which is that when a man like Stengel has a complaint of this type, it is to be acted upon promptly. The sign, Weiss decreed, had to go.
He was telling this to the wrong guy. This P.R. man leaves in the middle of a job for only one reason: the client isn't coming up with the money.
"Casey is worried about his left-handed hitters deliberately trying to hit the left-field fence?" The P.R. man inquired in wonderment. Told that this was the case, he had an antidote. "My client is buying the same sign on the right-field fence," he announced. This cost the client another chunk of dough. So the contest was still on.
Over the year, Throneberry hit the sign in right field exactly four times. But twice his line drive landed inside the circle for five points, and on the last day of the home season at the Polo Grounds he found himself the proud owner of a $6000 luxury cabin cruiser.
The clothing company awarded another boat on the same day. It went to the Met who was named the team's most valuable player in a poll of sports writers. Richie Ashburn was the winner. Ashburn is from Nebraska.
"We'll both sail our boats all over the bathtub," Throneberry told the boat people. Marvelous Marv was in high humor.
A day later, Judge Robert Cannon, who handles legal matters for the Major League Baseball Players Association, told Marvelous Marv something about the boat. Humor fled as the judge spoke.
"Just don't forget to declare the full value," Cannon said.
"Declare it? Who to, the Coast Guard?" Throneberry asked.
"Taxes," Cannon said. "Ashburn's boat was a gift. He was voted it. Yours came the hard way. You hit the sign. You earned it. The boat is earnings. You pay income tax on it."
Last winter, at a very late date in the tax year, Throneberry sat in his living room in Collierville and he still was not quite over his conversation with Cannon.
Excerpted from Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1963 James Breslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted March 17, 2003
if ever you need to remember what NYC & baseball used to be like...just pick up this tome by the great jimmy breslin! breezy, fun, fact filled and NEVER BORING! the ny mets must be God's creation...cause after you read this you will know there is no reasonable explanation for the Amazin's!
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Posted July 2, 2012
Posted May 31, 2004
Can't Anyone Play This Game? is the worst of the 1960s books about the 62 Mets. Breslin deals more with fiction, writing about incidents that did not happen and sprinkling half-truths into his reporting. Buy this book only in a used book store and if it is cheap.
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Posted December 28, 2008
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Posted May 5, 2010
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Posted October 27, 2008
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