Archive for June, 2017

Before the Sox Turned Black: Return to New York

June 30, 2017

There are very few plays from a World Series of the Deadball Era that are still famous. The Merkle Game of 1908 was a regular season affair and no one can tell you what Mathewson did in each of his three consecutive shutouts in the 1905 World Series other than no Philadelphia player scored. Cy Young pitched game one of the first Series, but almost no one knows he lost the game.

There are exceptions. There’s the Snodgrass Muff in 1912 that helped lead the Red Sox to the title. Most people don’t know that Frank Baker became “Home Run” Baker by hitting key homers in the 1911 World Series, but in the era fans did. The 1917 World Series produced one play that became instantly famous and is still known to die-hard baseball freaks. It occurred in game six.

Game 6, 15 October 1917

Eddie Collins

With the White Sox up three games to two, the Giants sent game three winner Rube Benton back to the mound. He’d thrown a shutout in game three and hopes were that he could do it again. Chicago countered with Red Faber who’d already won two games.

For three innings the game was an even match. Both pitchers gave up two hits, but no one scored. In the top of the fourth Eddie Collins led off with a ball hit to third baseman Heinie Zimmerman. An error made Collins safe and a second error put him on third and Joe Jackson on first. Then came the play that fans talked about for years.

Heinie Zimmerman

The next batter was Happy Felsch. He hit a tapper back to Benton who whirled and flipped to Zimmerman at third, catching Collins off the bag. But things went wrong immediately. Collins was in no man’s land and Zimmerman had the ball at third. Catcher Bill Rariden was down the line close to Collins. Zimmerman threw to Rariden, Collins turned back toward third, Rariden moved up the line and tossed the ball back to Zimmerman. Rariden was, by this point too close to both Collins and third.  Collins took off for home passing Rariden immediately. First baseman Walter Holke was still at first in case Benton had thrown to first to nail Felsch. Benton stood on the mound observing everything. All that, Rariden way up the third base line, Holke at first, Benton still on the mound, meant that no one was covering home except the umpire. Off Collins raced with Zimmerman, having no one to throw to chasing after him. For his career Zimmerman stole 175 bases, Collins stole 741. Collins was an acknowledged speedster in the era, Zimmerman on the other hand, wasn’t exactly slow but no one was going to confuse him with Man O’ War. Collins dashed home, slid into the plate, Zimmerman still behind had to leap over him to keep from falling down and Eddie Collins scored the first run of the game. Below is a picture of the play at home. Collins is on the ground with Zimmerman in the air (the other player is Rariden).

Collins is safe

While this was happening, Jackson moved on to third and Felsch to second. Now with both runners in scoring position Chick Gandil singled to score both runners and make the score 3-0. It was to be the decisive inning.

The Giants would manage two runs in the fifth and the Sox would get another in the ninth to show a final score of 4-2, but the fourth inning and Collins’ dash were the difference. Chicago claimed its first World’s Championship since 1906, Red Faber had won three games, and John McGraw had lost another Series. Zimmerman was the goat in most people’s eyes (and there is speculation that his treatment by fans led him to the gambling woes that ended up with his banishment in the 1920s–although there is no proof of that). McGraw never blamed Zimmerman. “Who was he supposed to throw the ball to, the ump?” McGraw is alleged to have said. He may have said it but it was probably in more “colorful” language. It is McGraw we’re talking about.

There was no MVP in the Series that far back but both Faber, with three wins, and Collins who hit .409, scored four runs, and drove in two might have been the favorites. Felsch had the only White Sox homer, Gandil led the team with five RBIs, and Jackson tied Collins with four runs scored. For the Giants Dave Robertson hit .500 (11 for 22) and scored three runs (as did George Burns). Benny Kauff led with five RBIs and led both teams with two home runs.

It is perhaps a more important World Series than it is a good Series. There were a lot of errors and both the hitting and pitching were spotty. But it did show what the White Sox were capable of doing when they tried. Two years later essentially the same team, minus Faber, would be accused of not trying.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Before the Sox Turned Black: back in Chicago

June 28, 2017

With the World Series tied two games each, the Series returned to Chicago for game five. If the two games in New York were shutouts and pitching dominated, game five was a shootout.

Game 5, 13 October 1917

Eddie Collins

Game five saw Reb Russell take the mound for Chicago. George Burns led off the game with a walk then went to third on a Buck Herzog single. Then Benny Kauff doubled to score Burns. And that was all for Russell. He’d pitched to three men and all had reached base, two by hits and a walk. The ChiSox brought in Eddie Cicotte to replace him. A fielder’s choice cut down Herzog at the plate for the first out of the inning. Another fielder’s choice cut down Kauff at home, but a Dave Robertson hit brought in a second run before Cicotte ended the inning.

Now ahead 2-0 the Giants sent Slim Sallee to the mound to hold the lead. He gave up a run in the third on an Eddie Collins walk and a Happy Felsch double, but the Giants got that run back, plus another in the fourth. Catcher Bill Rariden singled and went to second on a bunt. Burns singled and an error by right fielder Shano Collins let Rariden score. Two more errors brought Burns home to make the score 4-1.

Chicago got a second run in the sixth on three consecutive singles to make it 4-2, but New York responded in the top of the seventh with a run on an Art Fletcher double and a Rariden single. Going into the bottom of the seventh, the score stood 5-2 with Sallee cruising. With one out, Joe Jackson singled and Happy Felsch followed with another single. Chick Gandil then doubled to bring home both men.  An out moved him to third and a walk put Ray Schalk on first. Schalk took off for second and Herzog dropped the throw making Schalk safe and allowing Gandil to score to tie the game 5-5. A strikeout ended the inning.

Red Faber took over on the mound for Chicago in the eighth and sat down the Giants in order. In the bottom of the eighth Shano Collins singled and moved up on a bunt and scored on an Eddie Collins single. A Jackson single sent Eddie Collins to third. A Kauff throw failed to nip Eddie Collins, but New York third baseman Heinie Zimmerman thought he could catch Jackson going to second. His throw was wild and Eddie Collins scored while Jackson went on to third. A Felsch single scored Jackson but that ended the scoring.

With the score now 8-5, Faber went back to the mound. Two ground outs and a fly to left later, Chicago led the Series three games to two. So far all the games had been won by the home team. With game six back in the Polo Grounds there would be a game seven if that held.

 

Before the Sox Turned Black: Games 3 & 4

June 26, 2017

With the 1917 World Series two games to none in favor of the White Sox, the teams left Chicago. They headed by train across the upper Midwest to New York. Games 3 and 4 would be played in the Polo Grounds.

Game 3, 10 October 1917

Rube Benton

For game three, the ChiSox sent game one winner Eddie Cicotte to the mound. The Giants countered with Rube Benton. It was a pitchers duel. Benton gave up five hits and didn’t walk anyone. Other than a Buck Weaver double in the eighth inning, all the hits were singles.

Cicotte was almost as good. Like Benton, he didn’t walk anyone, but gave up eight hits, two of them for extra bases (a double and a triple). Both extra base hits came in the fourth inning. Dave Robertson led off with the triple and Walter Holke’s double scored the first run of the game. With two outs George Burns singled Holke home from third. It was the last run by either team.

Benton’s complete game shutout came in his initial appearance in a World Series game. For Cicotte he was now 1-1 in the Series. A win the next day by New York would tie up the Series.

Game 4, 11 October 1917

Benny Kauff

For game four, also in the Polo Grounds, New York trotted out Ferdie Schupp while Chicago sent Red Faber back to the mound. The last meeting between the two resulted in a White Sox win. This time Schupp and the Giants turned the tables. Schupp went nine innings with a walk and seven hits. All except a fourth inning double by Eddie Collins were singles and Collins was subsequently picked off second by Schupp.

Meanwhile the Giants managed to score off Faber. In the fourth Benny Kauff hit a gapper that he turned into an inside-the-park home run because of his speed. It put the Giants up 1-0, a lead they would not relinquish. They got a second run in the fifth with Schupp driving it in. They tacked on a third run in the seventh on a single, a wild pitch, and a double play that plated Art Fletcher.

In the top of the eighth Faber was lifted for a pinch hitter. New pitcher Dave Danforth wasn’t the answer either. In the bottom of the eighth with one on Kauff drilled a home run to provide the final score of 5-0.

In two games in the Polo Grounds the Giants had evened the Series at two games apiece. Chicago had come to New York ahead and failed to score in either game. The World Series would head back to Chicago tied with one game there and a game six back in New York.

 

Before the Sox Turned Black: Games 1 and 2

June 22, 2017

The first two games of the 1917 World Series were played in Comiskey Park. The local White Sox had broken through to win their first pennant since 1906. They faced the New York Giants who were back in the Series for the first time since 1912.

Game 1, 6 October 1917

Eddie Cicotte

For the opening game, the Chisox sent ace Eddie Cicotte to the mound to face John McGraw’s Giants. New York countered with Slim Sallee. The game turned into a great pitchers duel.

Although a few men reached base, no one scored for the first two and a half inning. The White Sox broke through in the bottom of the frame that began with an out. Pitcher Cicotte singled, then was erased trying to go to third on a Shano Collins single. A great throw by Giants right fielder Dave Robertson nailed him, but it allowed Collins to move up to second. A Fred McMullin double plated Collins with the first run of the Series. In the bottom of the fourth Chicago tacked on another run on a Happy Felsch home run.

Down 2-0 New York struck in the top of the fifth. Lew McCarthy led off the inning with a triple. Pitcher Sallee then singled to bring him home with the Giants initial run of the Series. A double play and strikeout got Cicotte out of the inning without further damage.

And that ended the scoring. Both pitchers continued to record out after out through the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. There were a couple of hits but no one motored beyond second. In the ninth the Giants went down in order and Chicago went up one game in the Series by a 2-1 score.

Both pitchers were stellar. For the win Cicotte gave up seven hits, a walk, and the single run. Sallee was almost as good. He gave up seven hits also, but didn’t walk anyone. The difference was the Felsch homer.

 

Game 2, 7 October 1917

Red Faber

If game one was a well pitched duel, game 2 wasn’t. The Sox sent future Hall of Famer Red Faber to the mound. The Giants countered with Ferdie Schupp.

Both pitchers had trouble initially. In the top of the second consecutive singles by Dave Robertson and Walter Holke put men on first and second with one out. A Lew McCarthy single to left scored both runs.

Chicago replied in the bottom of the second with four singles in a row.  Joe Jackson led off the inning with a single, Happy Felsch moved him to second, and Chick Gandil brought him home with the third single. Another single by Buck Weaver scored Felsch and evened the score at 2-2. A Ray Schalk bunt was unsuccessful with Gandil being out at third, but Schupp then walked Faber to reload the bases. That brought out McGraw for a pitching change. Fred Anderson, the new pitcher, picked up a strikeout, then saw a grounder to short get New York out of the jam.

It was the highpoint for Anderson. In the fourth the White Sox took his measure and put up four runs. Two singles, an out, and two more singles brought in two more runs and ran Anderson. McGraw brought in Pol Perritt to pitch. He was met by singles by Eddie Collins and Jackson that sent three more runners across home plate to make the score 7-2.

Meanwhile, Faber had settled down after the second inning and was setting down the Giants. For the game he gave up eight hits and walked one (the walk came in the eighth). After the second inning, no Giant got beyond second. By the end, Faber had his complete game victory and the White Sox were up two games to none in the Series.

 

 

Before the Sox Turned Black: the Chisox

June 20, 2017

“Pants” Rowland

A lot of people who know about the 1919 Black Sox and throwing the World Series don’t know that it wasn’t the first Chisox pennant winner. They’d won the very first American League pennant in 1901 and followed that up with a World Series victory in 1906. More to the point of the Black Sox, they’d also won a pennant in 1917, two years before infamy, and 100 seasons ago this year.

Manager Clarence “Pants” Rowland was a former minor league catcher who’d managed long enough to get the attention of the White Sox. For those curious, the nickname came from his childhood when he wore his father’s trousers while playing ball. He took the reins of the Chicago American League team in 1915 and stayed through 1918 (he was fired in a disagreement with ownership). He led his team to 100 wins. They led the AL in runs scored, triples, stolen bases, OBP; were second in both walks and slugging; and third in batting average, home runs, and hits. The staff was first in ERA, shutouts, and allowed the fewest walks; second in runs allowed; and third in strikeouts.

The infield consisted of Chick Gandil at first, Hall of Famer Eddie Collins at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Swede Risberg at short. If they sound familiar, they’re the same four that were the primary infield in 1919. Collins led the group with a .289 average, one of only a handful of times he hit under .300. He also led the infield in most other offensive categories (doubles, triples, runs, even RBIs). His 128 OPS+ was third among all starters and his 5.0 WAR was second among non-pitchers. And of course, being Collins, he led the team in stolen bases. Gandil and Weaver both hit above .270 and Weaver’s OPS+ was 110. His WAR was 2.9, while Gandil checked in at 1.2. Risberg was only 22 and new to the big leagues. He wasn’t a particularly great shortstop, even with the lower fielding numbers of the era, and managed to hit all of .203 with only a 76 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR. Fred McMullin was the only backup infielder to play more than 20 games. He primarily substituted for Weaver at third and for Risberg at short. He hit .237 with 14 RBIs.

The primary outfield consisted of four men playing three position. Right field was a platoon situation between right-handed hitting Shano Collins (no relation to Eddie) and lefty Nemo Lebold. Leobold hit .236 while Collins hit .234 and had the only home run. Between them they had 41 RBIs, 25 doubles, 160 hits, and 206 total bases. Leobold’s WAR was 1.2 and Collins was absolutely average with 0.0. Center fielder Happy Felsch led the team in hitting at .308 with an OPS of .755 (OPS+ of 128), had 4.7 WAR, and was considered a superior outfielder. So was left fielder Joe Jackson (“Shoeless Joe”). He hit .301, had five home runs (Felsch had six) and 82 RBIs (to Felsch’s 99) had an .805 OPS, an OPS+ of 143, and led the hitters with 5.8 WAR. Backup outfielder Eddie Murphy (obviously not the modern comedian) got into 53 games, hit .314, had a 135 OPS+, and produced 0.3 WAR.

Ray Schalk and Bird Lynn did almost all the catching. Hall of Famer Schalk hit .226, had both home runs, all five triples, and 12 of the 14 doubles. Lynn hit .222. Schalk produced 3.0 WAR but only had an OPS+ of 89. Schalk was a fine backstop. In a league where the caught stealing rate was 45%, he was at 54%, having caught 101 of 186 base stealers.

They caught a small, but competent staff. Dave Danforth was one of the first pitchers designated for use as a reliever. He’d played some before, but by 1917 was a main cog in Chicago’s pitching. He had a 2.65 ERA over 50 games (nine starts) and 173 innings (obviously not a modern closer). He struck out 79 (but walked 74), gave up 155 hits, 51 earned runs (one homer), and had nine saves (retroactively figured). It was one of the first big relief seasons. Four men started 20 or more games. The ace was Eddie Cicotte (of 1919 infamy). He was 28-12 with an ERA of 1.53 (ERA+ of 174) with seven shutouts, 150 strikeouts, and a team leading 11.5 WAR. Hall of Fame pitcher Red Faber was 16-13 with 84 strikeouts and 85 walks over 248 innings. His ERA was 1.92 with an ERA+ of 139 and 2.6 WAR. Reb Russell was also under 2.00 in ERA (1.95) with 54 strikeouts in 185 innings and 4.2 WAR to go with a 15-5 record. Twenty-four year old Claude “Lefty” Williams (also of 1919 infamy) was the youngest hurler. He was 17-8 with an ERA of 2.97 and 1.5 WAR over 230 innings.

The Chisox managed, in 1917, to break the Boston stranglehold on the AL pennant. They would face the New York Giants in the World Series (I did something on the Giants a week or so ago, so look down the page for them.). Because of American League domination in the recent Series’ Chicago was favored to win.

 

 

Old Timer’s Games

June 15, 2017

Newk, oh, so many years ago

I got to watch the Old Timer’s Game the Dodgers did recently. It was a fairly standard type of these games. They went two innings, no body cared who won, no body played very well, and everybody seemed to have fun. It was interesting as far as it went.

They’ve had these a long time. I remember them from back in the 1950s when they’d show them just before beginning the Game of the Week on TV and it was always fascinating to see what some of these guys that my Grandfather talked about actually looked like. I’d never seen them play so it was a close as I could get to watching them perform, even if it wasn’t at the highest level anymore.

But as I watched the old Dodgers play I began to realize I’m of two minds about these kinds of games (and most people have trouble dealing with me having one mind). On the one hand it’s nice to see some of the guys you remember. But on the other hand, they’re a shadow, baseball-wise, of what they’d been. I remember them as great athletes who could hit, run, pitch, throw, do all the things ball players do. Now they couldn’t do that anymore. They’d joined me as gray (or bald) and overweight and needing glasses in order to find the bag at first base. Don Newcombe was there. He’s 90 and looks it (he turned 91 yesterday, but was 90 when I saw him). I remember him as a great hurler who was a stalwart of the teams I rooted for in the 1950s and it almost hurt to see him look old (and of course he didn’t play).

So this is just a short note about my reactions to the recent Old Timer’s Game in Dodger Stadium. I’m glad they have them. I’m equally sorry they have them.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Bob Ferguson

June 13, 2017

Bob Ferguson is the man in the center of the middle row

When looking at the Atlantic players who participated in the 14 June 1870 game against the Red Stockings, Bob Ferguson is the last.

1. Robert Vavasour Ferguson was born in Brooklyn in 1845. His family was immigrants.

2. Ferguson seems to have missed the Civil War but began playing baseball for the Frontier, a junior team in Brooklyn as early as 1863.

3. In 1865 he joined the Enterprise, a major team in Brooklyn and in 1866 jumped to the Atlantic, the premier team of the era. His sister was the wife of Tomas Tassie, one of the more significant members of the Atlantic.

4. He played a number of positions (that was common in the era), but starred at third base. He was known as particularly adept at snagging fly balls. This earned him the nickname “Death to Flying Things.” It was a nickname that had already been applied to John Curtis Chapman, a left fielder for the Atlantic.

5. He scored the winning run in the 11th inning of the 14 June 1870 game; the game that ended the Cincinnati Red Stockings 80 game winning streak.

6. With the forming of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871 and the failure of the Atlantic to join, Ferguson moved  to the Mutual of New York. That same year he opened a saloon in Brooklyn. He was a teetotaler.

7. In 1872 he was elected President of the National Association and held the job for two years.

8. He played through 1884, serving as both manager and team captain on occasion. He was considered a tyrant by his players and not well liked. There is some conjecture that players were willing to lose in order to make him look bad. There is no actual evidence that any games were thrown.

9. For his career his triple slash line is .265/.292/.313/.604 with 544 runs scored in 823 games with 357 RBIs. He led the league once. That was in walks in 1880 when he had 24.

10. He is credited with inventing defensive shifts in 1877, playing outfielders deep or shallow depending on the hitter and moving the center fielder to one side or the other again depending on the hitter. There is nothing to indicate he did anything like this with his infield.

11. During both his playing days and afterward, he did a lot of umpiring. I’m not sure how that worked while he was active, but apparently he was well-respected (but not particularly well-liked) and noted for his impartiality.

12. Bob Ferguson died of “apoplexy” (accounts of the day make it appear it was likely either a stroke or heart attack) in 1894 (he was 49) and is buried in Brooklyn.

Ferguson’s grave from Find a Grave. It is part of a larger complex of family graves.

Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century: A Review

June 8, 2017

Cover of Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century

I haven’t done a book review in a while. It’s time to change that.

Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century is, as the title suggests, a compendium of major league uniforms in the 20th Century. Written by Marc Okkonen, the book was published in 1991, so the title is a bit deceiving. It covers uniforms from 1901 through 1991, but has to ignore the subsequent changes in uniforms from 1992 through 2000. Having said that, the book is good at what it does.

After a short section on uniforms in general, there are more short sections. These provide quick looks at both current and former teams’ (like the Washington Senators) uniforms. You get a handful of pictures noting significant changes, such as when the two birds first show up on a bat for the Cardinals or when the Yankees go to the interlocking NY for their logo. Then the heart of the book is a pictorial depiction of each team uniform yearly starting in 1901. The teams are alphabetical by league (the American League first) and you can see how uniforms contrast among teams in a given year or can trace the evolution of a particular look (like the interlocking NY) through time. Both home and road uniforms are shown, as are any special uniforms used (like a “World Champions” logo for the Giants in 1906).

If you’re interested in team uniforms or uniform history this book is worth the cost ($19.99 at Amazon for the hardbound version). For trivia fans it can provide interesting information. The book is readily available on-line.

McGraw’s Best Job

June 6, 2017

John McGraw with the Giants

Think about John McGraw. Go ahead, take a minute and conjure up your mental images of John J.. McGraw. I’ll wait. Done? Good. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that not one of those images revolved around winning the 1917 National League pennant. That’s because the Giants pennant winning team is one of the more obscure NL winners and almost no one associates it with the great Giants teams under McGraw. But it may be his finest managing effort.

McGraw teams were always built on speed, good defense, and great pitching. This team was really no different, but it was a team that had no truly great player to anchor any of those things around. Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Rube Marquard, the name pitchers who had dominated all those winning teams from 1904 through 1913 were all gone. You can say what you want about the new guys, but they weren’t nearly the quality of those starters. Here’s the list of every pitcher who started 10 or more games: Ferdie Schupp, Slim Sallee, Rube Benton, Pol Perritt, Jeff Tesreau, Al Demaree, Fred Anderson. Ever hear of any of them? If so, maybe you remember Sallee because he was part of the 1919 Reds that won the infamous Black Sox World Series. Tesreau might strike a bell because he was a holdover from the last Giants pennant winner in 1913. So were Demaree and Schupp (although Schupp only pitched 12 innings). None of them were stars and none were the kind of pitchers great teams hang their hat on. But as a group they pitched well in 1917. They led the NL in ERA, fewest runs allowed, fewest hits allowed, were second in walks, and third in shutouts.

How about the rest of the battery? The main catcher was Bill Rariden with Lew McCarty and George Gibson as his backups. It was Rariden’s career year (if you exclude a stint in the Federal League). He hit .271, 34 points above his career average, and had 2.3 WAR, his non-Federal League high. McCarthy hit .247 and the 36-year-old Gibson a buck-.71. None were bad catchers, but only Gibson came close to the league average in throwing out runners (he tied the average at 44%).

The outfield was, perhaps, a bit better known. Benny Kauff was a refugee from the Federal League, who’d been a star with the Feds. With the Giants he was good, but not great. He hit .308 to lead the team and his 30 stolen bases were second on the team. George Burns was the other corner outfielder. He was over .300 and led the team in stolen bases and OPS while leading the NL in walks. Dave Robertson played center, hit .259 and led the team with 12 home runs. In in un-McGraw-like fashion he had 47 strikeouts and only 10 walks. Joe Wilhoit and Olympic champion Jim Thorpe were the backups. Wilhoit hit .340 in 34 games while Thorpe hit .193 in 26 games, and, for a player noted for his speed, had only one stolen base. Twenty year old Ross Youngs, a future Hall of Famer, got into seven games during the season, hitting .346 with five runs scored.

If there was a proven element on the team, it was the infield. They were, from first around the horn to third, Walter Holke, Buck Herzog, Art Fletcher, and Heinie Zimmerman. Zimmerman was a bona fide star of the era. He won the triple crown in 1912, won an RBI title in 1916, and repeated that title in 1917 (he’d later be banned in the fallout from the Black Sox affair). Both Herzog and Fletcher were favorites of McGraw. Both had been with him since 1909. Herzog actually game up in 1908 and had seen short stints with Cincinnati and the Braves. Fletcher had a fine year, leading the team in WAR, while Herzog was getting over-the-hill. Holke was a rookie (he’d had a few at bats earlier) who hung around at first through 1918 then went to the Braves. He hit .277 with 1.0 WAR.

As a team the Giants led the NL runs, home runs, stolen bases, OBP, was second in average and hits, and  showed up fourth in doubles. In the field the team made the least errors in the NL and was first in fielding percentage. All in all a good, not spectacular team. In many ways it was a typical McGraw team: it pitched well, it ran the bases well, and it was good on defense. What it lacked, and what McGraw had to make up for, was a top-notch pitcher. It is a great credit to him that he managed the team well enough to make up for that things. He would take the team to the World Series, where it would lose to the White Sox.

“We Got Ball Players Here”

June 1, 2017

Standard jungle fatigue shirt

In August 50 years ago I first sat foot on the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut airfield in Vet Nam to begin a year-long exploration of a small part of sunny Southeast Asia. I guess that’s made me think a bit more than usual about what happened to me all those years ago. So I’m going to delve into the strange world that occasionally saw the confluence of war and baseball. Bear with me.

Before I tell you this story, there are some things you need to know. First, there were only two places in the entire universe for someone in Viet Nam. There was “in country” and “the world.” “In country” was Viet Nam, and occasionally small bits of Cambodia and Laos (I was never in Laos). It was where you faced whatever it was you faced that day and you learned to live with that. “The world” was everywhere else. It was as if Viet Nam existed somewhere totally disassociated with the rest of the planet and if you could find someway out, you would get back to “the world” and something that at least appeared to be normal. That’s important to know because it gives you some sense of the relative isolation we felt from the rest of humanity (and it’s vastly unfair to Viet Nam and the Vietnamese) .

Raquel Welch

Second, we were very ambivalent about the USO and its tours. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t mind the people coming over from “the world” to entertain us, especially the pretty girls, but we always knew they were doing it for what we lovingly called “enlightened self-interest.” That meant that it might be good for us, but it was going to be terrific for them. Sure Raquel Welch was nice to look at and we were glad to hear her sing (but of course you couldn’t get near enough to actually touch) but we also knew that she was gobbling up a lot of positive press that was going to enhance her career (and I don’t mean to pick on her, we felt that way about most of the people who came over to visit). There were exceptions like Sebastian Cabot, the overweight, bearded actor who came over to read Shakespeare to us. As he pointed out to us when he visited our place “No one wants to see me in a bikini” and he was already on the downside of a nice enough career so we thought maybe he did just want to make us feel better. And besides, it never hurt to hear Shakespeare and, yes, he did quote the Agincourt speech from Henry V (You probably know it better as the “band of brothers” speech). Even Bob Hope wasn’t immune. We knew he’d get lots of money for one of his “visiting the troops” specials.

Sebastian Cabot

All this is by way to letting you know what was going on internally in a lot of guys when we went to lunch sometime in late November or early December (it was after Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember the day). Lunch wasn’t bad, actually the food was pretty good except for reconstituted milk and frequently reconstituted potatoes (and “rubber” eggs–powered eggs). So most of the company was chowing down when the CO (that’s the commanding officer for you civilians) showed up trailed by three guys in new jungle fatigues. Mine hadn’t been that green in a month (OD–olive drab–fades).

“We got ball players here,” I remember he announced it (funny how you remember certain phrases, isn’t it?) It turns out the USO had gotten three Major Leaguers to come to Nam on a goodwill tour. They travelled from post to post, signed autographs, talked baseball, and told stories about the big leagues to us. The stories were, all in all, pretty good and they could talk baseball so well that it put all us armchair “experts” to shame.

Well, they wandered around from table to table, shaking hands and just talking to the troops, building morale one mess hall table at a time. I got to shake all three hands, got a couple of autographs which I ended up leaving in Viet Nam when I left, and to this day couldn’t tell you who any of them were (Again, funny what you can remember and what you can’t.). None of them was from the Dodgers or Cardinals (I’d remember that) but I couldn’t tell you much else about them. They were all white guys, so Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell et.al. weren’t there. They were nice enough guys and most of us enjoyed shaking hands with them and engaging them in conversation. For instance, I learned why you never try to steal home with a left-handed batter at the plate (the catcher has an unobstructed view of what’s happening down the third base line).

They left after an hour or so happy that they’d done their bit for God, Country, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the morale of the troops. What, of course, they never heard was the comments of a lot of guys sitting in one simple wooden mess hall in the Mekong Delta who were ultimately utterly ambivalent about what had just happened to them. It was part of returning “in country” from a small touch of “the world.”

“You suppose they think this will help their batting average?” (All comments translated from GI English, which is much heavier on 4-letter words than normal English).

“You see how good a shape those jerks were in? How’s come they’re not over here with the rest of us?”

“Wonder how quick they can duck when they hear ‘Incoming’?”

“How much you wanna bet at least one of them is 4-F? He can play ball but he’s 4-F. You watch.”

“Wonder if they get a raise for coming over here and seeing us?”

“Hey, Top, you think we can change places with some of them?”

The first sergeant in an infantry unit is the “top sergeant” and he’s frequently called “Top” by the guys. Ours was an old guy (he was in his late 30s) from back water Georgia who’d been around since Korea and was by now a first rate cynic about war, women, politicians, and people in general. He’d remained in the mess hall after the officers and dignitaries left for the air conditioned comfort of the local officer’s club.

“You can’t hit a Cong with your damned rifle. What makes you think you can hit a ball? Now shuddup and eat you’re damned chow.”

“Sure thing, Top.”

Welcome back “in country.”