Read an ExcerptThe Long Ball
The Summer of '75 -- Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle, and the Greatest World Series Ever Played
By Tom Adelman Back Bay Books
Copyright © 2004 Tom Adelman
All right reserved.
AT EIGHTEEN MONTHS of age, Carl Yastrzemski drags a tiny baseball bat with him everywhere he goes. A battered Philco floor-cabinet radio blares in the background, broadcasting battles between Allies and Axis, between Red Sox and Yankees, between Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Sometimes announcers talk to Williams after a game, and in an impatient, authoritative tone, he discusses batting against Lefty Gsmez or Rip Sewell. Ted has been advised by two-time Triple Crown-winner Rogers Hornsby, "Get a good ball to hit." Concise yet full of intriguing implications, this nugget is all that passes at the time for strategy in the bigs. Williams studies the snap of his wrists, the flex of his shoulders, his stance and pivot. At the plate, his cleats seek balance in the batter's box as his mind weighs every factor, from the wind and light to the particular tree from which his bat was hewed.
Carl is eight when Ted Williams wins a second Triple Crown. By now, Carl is hitting tennis balls in the backyard while his father pitches. Scouts from the majors start to watch him catch Little League games. The Milwaukee Braves offer him a pitching contract. Carl refuses. He signs instead with the Boston Red Sox as a shortstop. They make him a secondbaseman.
When he is twenty, he meets, at last, Williams, his hero. Ted shares what he has learned in a career spent repeating and revising Hornsby's homily. He works vigilantly to articulate the best ways in which a stick-bearing body might move in order to ricochet a propelled ball any prescribed distance. He has this idea of hitting as a kind of science. From Williams, Carl receives four succinct fundamentals: "Number one, close your stance and back away. Number two, watch the ball. Number three, hit the ball through the middle. Number four, be quick."
Williams has played one side of Boston's Fenway Park outfield since before Carl was born. Carl is strengthened, stabilized, encouraged by Tom Yawkey, the unassuming millionaire who owns the ball club and ardently adores this big-nosed Polish kid. In 1961 someone will have to replace the retiring Williams, and Yawkey thinks Carl is the one. It goes okay. Years pass. Boston managers come and go like magazines, one a month, but the fatherly Yawkey remains and his unwavering faith in his left fielder holds constant.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox sign other local ethnic boys with overly syllabic names. The ever-dwindling fans at Fenway shorten the names to paint them on placards, to fit them in their mouths and make them familiar. Yastrzemski becomes "Yaz." Tony Conigliaro, a brash and beautiful Boston boy who homers in his first game at Fenway - Opening Day 1964 - is promptly dubbed "Tony C." (the last initial becomes necessary to distinguish him from hockey's Tony Esposito, or "Tony O.").
There's also the silent Americo Petrocelli, a shortstop with delicate features. To fans he's just "Rico" (to teammates he's "Petro"). When he arrives, he's nothing but a melancholy benchwarmer, too shook-up to be very reliable, until Dick Williams is named Boston's manager. He senses that all Petro needs is confidence, and Williams supplies it.
The year is 1967. Carl glances up and around the field. It dawns on him: this is a new ball club. Something has happened. Nobody from his rookie season remains, though his teammates still dress in the same flannels, the button-front jerseys and belt-loop trousers, the cap with the fancy red B on the bill, their chests saying boston in plain block capital letters just as they had when Ted Williams was a rookie. The view from the Fenway grass and bleachers is the same - indeed, the same as it's been since the stadium was built in 1912. But this is a new ball club, and with a spectacularly invigorated Rico batting behind Tony C., who in turn is batting behind Yaz, the dependably droopy, dreary Red Sox engineer a dramatic turnaround. In 1966 they ended the season twenty-six games out, in ninth place. Now, with Dick Williams at the helm, they beat up the league for the first time in decades. The cheering of baseball in Boston is heard once more. Old fans flock back; new fans descend.
During the pennant stretch, Ted Williams happens to catch a game on TV. He professes deep concern about the way Tony C. hugs the plate. He gets a message through to Conigliaro - Back off, you're gonna get beaned. Charming, gorgeous, popular, healthy, strong, and young, Tony laughs off Ted's advice. Instead, on a Friday evening in Boston, August 18, he leans way in. He's watching for a slider on the outside corner. He doesn't see the high, inside fastball. (You rarely see the pitch that comes at your head.) At the last second, Tony flinches. His half-shell batting helmet flips off. Carl, standing on the top step of the dugout, hears "a deafening sound, a sickening sound." Tony feels the baseball penetrate his skull. He imagines it coming out the other side. Rico runs over from the on-deck circle. Tony flails in the dirt beside home plate, barely conscious and bleeding from the ears, nose, and mouth. "It's going to be all right," Rico cries desperately. Tony's jaw is visibly dislocated, the cheek smashed. Immediate hemorrhaging inflates his left eye into a black balloon. "You're going to be fine." Conigliaro is rushed to the hospital. In his stead, a pinch runner is put on first. Rico triples the man home and the Red Sox win, but everyone's thinking of Conigliaro and wondering if he'll live through the night.
Tony does survive, to the surprise and relief of physicians and fans alike, but takes time to recover from his near-death experience on the playing field. He's ravaged by terrible headaches. Boston's 1967 Impossible Dream season drifts on without him. Carl becomes the only Boston player besides Williams to win the Triple Crown. The Red Sox claim the American League pennant in baseball's closest race and tightest finish ever. But with Conigliaro's bad depth perception, Boston must play the World Series without a cleanup hitter. Even so, seven games are required before the richly talented St. Louis Cardinals can claim superiority.
New England prays for Tony C.'s return. He is not just the hometown hero, the local high school star living out big-league dreams. Fenway's close wall in left perfectly complements Tony's punishing, right-handed swing. He is Boston's most natural source of power; but as hard as it is for Tony C. to step back into a batter's box, it's harder still for him to see and hit the ball. Blind spots cloud his vision. He guesses a lot on location and speed. He studies pitchers, learns to read their tendencies. He manages occasionally to get lucky (he clouts sixty round-trippers from 1969-71), but far more often he swings at a pitch and misses by a foot. He makes no excuses, reveals no weakness, claims perfect vision. He's too proud to tell the truth. All he's ever wanted to do is play baseball, but he can't judge fly balls in right field, he can no longer gauge the rotation on a major-league pitch. After endless frustrations and setbacks, in 1971, at age twenty-six, the former golden boy announces his retirement.
He tries this and that, he sings at bars, he travels, he opens a nightclub on the Atlantic shore. He's at loose ends. In 1972 and again in 1974, his old team seems about to win a pennant, but without Conigliaro's clutch hitting, the Red Sox fall short.
He fidgets restlessly, haunted by mirrors, viewing in them the reflection of a ruined romance, shattered dreams, a man destined until recently to be one of the all-time greats. Whenever he thinks about baseball, it makes him sick. His look changes. The smile is more tentative, the hair shaggier, the sideburns long and wide. The boyish features harden. The chocolate-brown eyes develop dark bags. Crags and furrows appear. In October of 1974, he snaps on the television and there's the Dodgers' ace Andy Messersmith pitching in the World Series. Tony can't shake the feeling that he could hit this guy. His body screams for a second chance, but Tony worries he's too old; he's been away too long. He doesn't want to look undignified, a child who won't grow up. He's thirty now. A friend reminds him that Ruth hit two-thirds of his home runs after turning thirty, and Ted Williams - well, he went away for the duration of World War II and came back fine.
Tony decides to attempt another comeback. His eye seems improved. His vision is nearly normal. Once more he doggedly pursues the lost love of his life. He's pure guts. His drive is relentless. He swings bats for months, heavy lead bats or weighted wooden ones, in basements, in batting cages, against pitching machines or indulgent hurlers.
The pitcher Tony saw, Andy Messersmith, is indeed great. Messersmith's twenty victories and six losses gave him the best won-lost percentage this year in the majors. And yet nobody in 1974, not Messersmith, not anybody, throws a baseball better than James Augustus Hunter, a droll, country bumpkin with rock-star clothes, lengthy brown hair, and the nickname of "Catfish." Nearly all of Hunter's victories are complete games; a considerable number are shutouts. He gives up fewer earned runs than anyone else in his league. He isn't overpowering; he just wins a lot. He never seems to wear out. For almost ten years, he's been throwing strikes on the corner of the plate without altering his motion, and when his overhand curve works right, it breaks twice - with the action of both a curve and a slider.
Hunter and his team, the Athletics, are owned by a consummate skinflint and showman named Charles O. Finley. When Finley first saw Hunter, he saw a hayseed in need of a handle. Immediately, Finley conjured up this name - "Catfish" - as well as a back story to lend it hick credibility. He convinced Hunter to play along. Hunter's mother was saddened. She preferred "Jim." Still, she was philosophical about the change. "He could have gotten a worse nickname," she conceded, after some reflection. "If Mr. Finley had known that Jim loves bass fishing, he might have named him 'Big Mouth' instead."
The Athletics hate their owner. They regard Finley as unapologetically exploitative. All of them loathe the distraction of his marketing pranks: the fireworks after home runs, the team mascot, the cabdrivers bringing pitchers in from the bull pen, the use of Miss USA as a batgirl, the miniature zoo beyond the fence in left, the sheep grazing in right, the mechanical rabbit named Harvey who pops up behind home plate with baseballs for the umpire. Through it all, Finley cheats and manipulates and stabs his boys in the back. He assures the players he'll keep the club in the Midwest, encourages them to buy homes and settle down nearby, then abruptly moves the whole operation to Oakland. All over the Bay Area, sports attendance is down - but even that doesn't account for just how few bother to come out to the Athletics' cold and colorless Coliseum (which the team itself calls the "Mausoleum," complaining how the heavy air of despondency hurts their bodies and dispirits their swings). When, despite all of the owner's petty cruelties, the team manages to succeed, Finley hogs every bit of the credit.
After Hunter wins the 1974 Cy Young Award, he receives even better news. An arbitration panel has determined that Finley sought a tax advantage by delaying payments that were due to the pitcher. Hunter's contract with Oakland is declared invalid and Catfish is named baseball's first free agent. "I feel like I got out of jail," Hunter sighs happily.
Of course, no one in baseball is surprised that it is Finley, the bushy-browed bungler, whose shiftiness at contract time led to this. The other owners despise his incessant two-bit hustling, his reckless and rude micromanaging. Finley badgered them into using a designated hitter in the American League, got them to schedule the all-star and World Series games at night. He always wants more action, bigger payoffs. Fed up with the slow pace of the game, Finley suggests using orange baseballs so that sluggers can see them more easily. He recommends that batters earn a walk after three balls. He argues that his purchase of a world-class sprinter as a "designated runner" should win Oakland fifteen more games each season.
Charles Finley strikes even Tom Yawkey as a man with no class, and Yawkey is hardly a snob. Finley simply belongs to no tradition. He is no gentleman. Of all the owners, perhaps only George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees impresses Tom Yawkey as more crude than Finley - and thankfully, Steinbrenner shouldn't even be around much this year. The Yankee owner has pleaded guilty to a federal felony, having misled law enforcement officials who were investigating his furtive contributions to Nixon's reelection campaign. This scandal recently caused Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to ban him from acting as owner of the Yankees for two seasons. (Kuhn will later reduce Steinbrenner's suspension to just 1975.)
Yawkey knows this pitcher, Jimmy Hunter, very well. He likes him a lot. Though Yawkey is forty-four years older, he and Hunter are in truth very similar - two Carolina boys who like to hunt and fish. He badly wants Hunter to join his ball club and steady his pitching staff.
Yawkey is notorious for his open billfold. He's been the sole owner of the Red Sox since he was Catfish's age. When he bought the club, the press dubbed the team the "Gold Sox." Yawkey's salaries were high and bonuses large. He gave the St. Louis Browns $50,000 for a catcher and a southpaw. He gave the Yankees $100,000 for a pitcher and an infielder. He gave the Athletics $125,000 for Rube Walberg and Max Bishop ... $150,000 for Jimmie Foxx and Footsie Marcum ... $75,000 for Doc Cramer and Boob McNair. He bought another pitcher and an outfielder from the Indians, a second infielder from the Yankees, a southpaw from the Cardinals. For a quarter-million, the Washington Senators' Clark Griffith even sold Yawkey his manager/shortstop/son-in-law, Joe Cronin (who had married Mildred Robertson, Griffith's adopted daughter).
Excerpted from The Long Ball by Tom Adelman Copyright © 2004 by Tom Adelman. Excerpted by permission.
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