This Side of Cooperstown: An Oral History of Major League Baseball in the 1950sby Larry Moffi
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Enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is the ultimate honor for any major leaguer. This rousing, you-are-there history tells the story of seventeen legendary players who came up just short of Cooperstown: Virgil Trucks, Gene Woodling, Carl Erskine, Frank Thomas, and others. Collectively, the humorous, engaging, behind-the-scenes stories also tell the tale of baseball in the 1950s: a game performed on fields of grass and dirt, divided by segregation, played by men who took trains from city to city and held off-season jobs.
The New York Times applauded this oral history as "great fun," and sportscaster Mel Allen praised it as "a must-read for anyone who wants to know where today's game came from and what it can become once again." Former Commissioner of Baseball Fay Vincent noted that "Oral historians like Moffi do us the service of preserving what these men have to say about their baseball lives. These are players who gave me much enjoyment and so did this fine book. You will agree."
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This Side of Cooperstown
An Oral History of Major League Baseball in the 1950s
By Larry Moffi
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Larry Moffi
All rights reserved.
"HOW WOULD YOU KIDS LIKE TO MAKE A TRIP TO ST. LOUIS?"
June 2, 1993, St. Louis, Missouri
Marty Marion was the St. Louis Cardinals' regular shortstop from 1940 to 1950. In 1952 and 1953 he was the player-manager of the St. Louis Browns. He also managed the Cardinals in 1951 and the Chicago White Sox from 1954 to 1956. Named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1944, Marion had a 263 lifetime batting average and played on four Cardinals pennant-winning teams and on three World Championship clubs.
Let me tell you a story. When I got out of high school, my brother Johnny was playing with the Chattanooga Lookouts. Cal Griffith — he was old Clark Griffith's son — was the general manager up there. Anyway, my brother told me to come up there and he'd get me a job. So I went up there with him.
That's the Southern League. Pretty good league, Southern League, back in those days. Anyway, they signed me to a contract. I think they gave me a thousand dollars or something to sign a contract. We stayed there for about a week. And then the team had to go on the road. Well, when they were on the road I went back home to Atlanta, Georgia, where my girlfriend — who's my wife, now — was. I was lonesome. We were high school sweethearts. Been married fifty-five years. Wow! I been married to that gal all my life.
Anyway, I wasn't gonna stay there in Chattanooga, you know. Nobody told me. But when the team came back to town in a week, I went back to Chattanooga. Well, I went in the office and they said, "Hey, you were supposed to stay here and work out on the diamond here."
And I said, "Nobody told me."
So they gave me my pink slip. I only lasted a week. After I became famous I used to see old Cal. I says, "Cal ..."
And he says, "I could kill myself."
* * *
I went back to Atlanta, Georgia, and they were having a tryout camp — the Cardinals — in Rome, Georgia, which is about ninety miles north of Atlanta, up toward Chattanooga. So this kind of a bird-dog scout there in Atlanta ... great big old fat guy ... he was getting a lot of the kids together.
"Let's go up to the camp," he says.
So we went up to the camp, and I played two innings of baseball, and the Cardinals called me and a kid named Johnny Echols over and said, "Hey, how would you kids like to make a trip to St. Louis?"
So they invited me and Johnny.
He was a good third baseman for a rival high school, Boys' High, in Atlanta. A good-lookin' kid. Hell, the whole time we was up there, Mr. Rickey wasn't interested in me, he was interested in Echols. Echols was a good-looking ballplayer, kind of a polished kid.
So we came to St. Louis in '35. Tail end of '35. Hell, I was gettin' to be an old-timer by then. I'd already signed a contract and been released. And coming to St. Louis and try out.
Well, when Johnny and myself got on the train to come up here — they paid our expenses, naturally; we didn't have any money — we said that we're not gonna sign unless both of us sign. A little pact.
The Cardinals were playing the Cubs ... that series when the Cubs won twenty-one straight games in '35. And Phil Cavarretta had just hit a home run the day before we got here, beat Paul Dean, I think, 1—0.
Anyway, we got to work out on the field. Sportsman's Park, which is no longer there. And Mr. Rickey brought us in the office and talked to us. And I'd just sit in the corner and listen to them, you know, and finally they made us these kinds of offers.
"Want to play with the Cardinals?"
"No, I don't think so."
And we went back to Atlanta. And that winter, in February, Frank Rickey — Mr. Branch Rickey's brother, a scout — he came down, driving a big old convertible Buick. I remember that car like yesterday. Little old short fellow. Fat kind of guy. Nice talker. Good man. Talked like his brother Branch. Branch used to live right next door. Right before he died, he moved right next door.
So he came down and he talked to us, and he talked to us, and ... Stayed about two or three days. And by that time, I was getting pretty smart.
And I told Johnny, I says, "Johnny, I tell you what, let's take a four-year contract." And this was before the days they ever had multiyear contracts, you know.
I think they gave us $500 to sign. Something like that. Wasn't much. I had it written down on a piece of paper — Johnny didn't have nothin'. They'd pay us $250 a month for the first year, no matter where we played; $500 a month for the second year, no matter where we played. The third year we'd make $3,000 — that's the way it was written on the piece of paper — no matter where we played. And the fourth year we'd make $5,000.
So the first year I played at Huntington, West Virginia. In 1936. And I was just a skinny little old kid. And I remember the newspaperman, his name is Duke Rigsly. Huntington, West Virginia. Nicest man. And I remember him writing an article: "Marty Marion looked like a girl wearing her first pair of high-heeled slippers." But by the time the year was over he said I was the best prospect in the league. So I really did change, I really did come along.
The next year they sent me to Rochester. And I stayed three years in Rochester. So my fourth year in Rochester, I was making $5,000. Hell, that was good money for those guys. Way higher than anybody else.
I was in the Cardinal camp, I guess it was '39. I hadn't even made the team yet, the Cardinals. Anyway, one night at the Detroit Hotel in St. Petersburg, I walk in the room and who's sitting on the bed but old Johnny Echols, my friend from Atlanta, Georgia.
I said, "Johnny, what're you doing here?"
He said, "Well, the Cardinals released me."
I said, "They can't release you, you've got a four-year contract."
So, Echols had to meet with Mr. Rickey, and I went with him.
I said, "Mr. Rickey, you can't release us. We've got four-year contracts."
He said, "I don't know of any four-year contracts."
We said, "Well, that's what they promised us when they signed us."
And he said, "You know what? I can release Johnny Mize, Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick, anybody I want to. What have you got that we have to play you?"
I said, "Well, that's what you promised us."
So, lo and behold, we got a call from Mr. Landis, the commissioner of baseball. He was over in Clearwater. He always stayed over in Clearwater, that big old wooden hotel. Bel Air ... something like that. He always stayed there. He called me and Johnny over there.
He was sitting on the front porch, and he says, "Tell me your story, boys."
So we just told him. He says, "You have any proof?"
I says, "I have this little piece of paper. That's all I got."
And he said, "Well, that's fine."
Well, he called Mr. Rickey, and he says, "Pay. You have to pay Mr. Echols."
He had it in for Mr. Rickey. Of course, I didn't know at that time. He didn't like the way Mr. Rickey was running all these clubs. He owned the whole Nebraska State League at one time.
* * *
Slats. Skinny. Burt Shotten gave me that nickname. See, when I joined the Cardinals in spring training, Mr. Shotten was the manager in Columbus, Ohio. And he took me back to Columbus.
I had a contract to go to Huntington, but Huntington didn't start for another month after spring training broke up. But Mr. Shotten liked me and he took me to Columbus with him.
I pitched batting practice for him, fooled around. I didn't play, I just fooled around for a month until my league opened. Then he sent me down there. But he called me Slats.
There was a comic strip back in those days, Slats and Abner, something like that. And Slats was the skinny guy. And also, Slats is like a board. I get mail all the time calling me Slats. Had one guy send me four baseballs the other day. "Marty, will you please sign, Marty 'Slats' Marion?"
I thought, "You must be out of your mind. Marty Marion's all you're getting."
I tell you, I never played shortstop in my life until I went to spring training, I think it was in '36. They had a tryout camp over in Bartow, where all the rookies came to Florida before all the others started.
In high school I played third base, second base. I never played shortstop. Hell, there was about fifteen third basemen there. Nobody was playing shortstop, so I just went over to shortstop and I said, "Hell, I'll play right here."
And I started fielding ground balls, and I guess they liked it, you know. And then that's all I played. That's how I got to be a shortstop. That easy.
Talking about Mr. Rickey and how smart he was ... He always wanted to change guys' positions, and one time he came to me when he was still here with the Cardinals.
He says, "Marty, I'd like for you to play second base."
I says, "Why?"
"So you'll be more versatile to the team. You can play all positions."
I said, "Well, Mr. Rickey, I ain't gonna play second base. I'm gonna play shortstop. I'm a shortstop and I know how to play shortstop and I ain't gonna do it."
* * *
Managing the Browns was quite an experience. It was tough, coming over from the Cardinals and all, but Bill Veeck paid me well. He paid me $10,000 more than I made with the Cardinals being a star. He didn't believe in underpaying you, if he could afford it. You got a pretty good contract playing with Bill.
I would say that Bill lived a good life. Drank that damn beer. Shirt open. My life is richer from knowing him, I'll tell you that. But it wasn't much fun trying to win with the Browns.
He said, "Marty, this is not baseball, this is survival."
We didn't even have any balls for batting practice the last two weeks of the season. Just had enough balls to play the game. Talk about poor teams!
Mr. Veeck was a showman. Wonderful person. When he was here in St. Louis, he was under very tough situations. He didn't have his mind on trying to get a winning ballclub. He didn't have any money. He wouldn't even talk to me when he was getting ready to sell a player.
He'd say, "Marty, it ain't your decision. It ain't about the ballclub. It's about us surviving."
Anyway, he was a great guy. He called me one time, we were in San Bernadino, California. I was the manager.
He says, "Marty, this is a tough day. Anheuser Busch just bought the Cardinals ballclub from Fred Saigh. You know what that means: we can't buck Anheuser Busch."
So I knew we was gone. That whole year, '53, it was just surviving. That was all. He had an apartment in Sportsman's Park. Nice apartment. He was a very common man. Good mind, always thinking. Publicity, you know. He knew baseball, too.
Veeck loved Satchel Paige. Bob "Sugar" Cain came to me one time and he says, "Marty, why do you let Satchel Paige do all these things and you won't let us do it? Satchel don't have to run, Satchel don't have to do this, Satchel don't have to do that ..."
I said, "Well, Sugar, I tell you what, when you get to be sixty years old you can do that."
I fined Satchel one time $5,000. He almost got us killed.
It was about the tail end of the season and we were on our way to Boston. We had scheduled an exhibition game in Providence, Rhode Island, trying to pick up some extra money.
It was a night game, and I didn't know anything about what the Browns management had done. Anyway, they publicized that Paige was gonna pitch. Everybody in town knew that Satchel Paige was gonna pitch. That's all that people came out to see. Well, I didn't even know anything about it myself.
So, right before the game started all the newspapermen gathered around me — had a pretty good crowd — and they said, "When is Paige gonna pitch?"
I said, "Well, Paige isn't even here. I can't find him."
They said, "You promised to pitch him!"
I said, "I didn't promise to pitch him. Somebody else did, but I didn't. He is supposed to be here, though."
They said, "Well, where is he?"
I said, "You find him, I'll pitch him."
Well, anyway, some of the team guys said that he didn't even get off the train. He went on to Boston. Well, the fans were mad. Who wanted to see the Browns play? But Satch was different. Satch was a big draw.
Well, our traveling secretary came down and he said, "They're really mad!"
I said, "Well, you get the money and we'll go to the train."
And, boy, once that game was over we got out of there. We spent the night on the sleeper and got into Boston next morning. I walk into the Kenmore Hotel and who's sitting in the lobby but old Satchel.
I said, "Satchel, you almost got us lynched last night. That'll cost you $5,000."
"What'd I do wrong?" he wanted to know.
Well, I told him what happened.
"Grrrr, I'm sorry."
But Veeck didn't take the money. No way! He loved Satchel. Matter of fact, when I was with Chicago and we were about to win the damn pennant and Dick Donovan came up with appendicitis, Veeck called me up on the phone and said, "Marty, you want to win the pennant, sign Satchel."
I said, "Bill, I wouldn't sign Satchel Paige if you gave him to me. He would disrupt the whole team."
See, you cannot have a player like Satchel on the team with that kind of name and let him do one way and the team do another way. That's the only reason, though; Satchel could still pitch. But you cannot have a divided team and win. You've got to have everybody thinking the same way.
* * *
With the Cardinals, we had a good team. We didn't know how to lose. The reason Billy Southworth was a good manager was that he didn't bother anybody. He let them play. One time he took me out. I think we were winning by about ten runs. This was late when Billy was here and we were winning the pennant, walkin' away with it. He took me out for a pinch hitter. I remember that like it was yesterday.
I came back to the bench and I says, "If he can pinch-hit for me, Southworth, he can field for me."
I stormed into the clubhouse. He came into the clubhouse after the game was over and he put his arm around me and all this kind of stuff. Buttered me up. Oh, he was good at that. And that's why we won. Billy didn't want you mad at him.
He never took me out for a pinch hitter again.
Not that I was so great, but I was great enough to be among guys who were great and made a good team. You don't have to have a Musial on a team to win a pennant, or a Williams. You've got to have a lot of guys around him.
You take any great star: they don't win a pennant by themselves. You have to have all the qualities, and once you have that you've got to have the desire to win.
You know, you talk about ballplayers ... We used to have a saying: You can always tell the good guys.
Ballplayers have little cliques on the team. And you'd say, "That son of a bitch. He wouldn't even speak to you when he was hittin' .300. Now he's hittin' .250, he's a great guy." We used to laugh about that all the time.
We used to say, "Well, you're gonna meet the same guy up and down, you better be nice to all of us."
It is so funny though. You could take some guy who was becoming a star — you know, an old country boy — you could see him change. Gettin' like he'd met somebody. Funny thing, you could always tell how well he was going by how he treated everybody. But you have to live with 'em every day, to know 'em.
I'll tell you what, don't ever trade for a guy you don't know about. And you never know a guy unless he's on your team. You think, you know, "That DiMaggio, he looks like a pretty good ballplayer...." But he comes over to your team and he may be a troublemaker, he may not even fit in.
* * *
Desire? I didn't know I had it. But I was the kind of a player that, even though I was skinny and all, I just had a feel for the game. I just could tell when the team was going good. That you were going to win. Life is better when you win. Especially on a ballclub. Things roll better. You get more meal money. Everything was that much better.
Like the '42 team. Hell, I didn't think anybody could beat us. I don't care who they were. They start talking about these great teams in the history of baseball? Ain't nobody better than we were. Guarantee ya! All you had to do was put us on the same field.
Why, when they said the Yankees were coming to town in '42? You know, they had a great ballclub, helluva ballclub. Well, they didn't have a chance. That's the way we felt. And even though we were behind, always in the seventh inning of the game, we always thought we were going to win. We won a lot of games in the late innings. A team that don't quit and keeps battling.
Talent. You know everybody talks about he's got this and he's got that. Well, you don't win without talent. Don't tell me you can get a bunch of honkey donkeys.
Excerpted from This Side of Cooperstown by Larry Moffi. Copyright © 1996 Larry Moffi. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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