Seven Stories for a Winter’s Day

Juan Marichal (25 years old) once outdueled Warren Spahn (42) in a 16-inning affair. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

In winter, when we’re still waiting for spring training to start and box scores to appear again, it’s nice to sit back and think about old stories, even if they might not be true. Maybe especially then.

One of the most celebrated baseball tales happened in the Baltimore Orioles dugout in the late 1970s. It was Earl Weaver’s platoon team. One of those players Weaver alternated in the outfield was Harold Patrick (Pat) Kelly a colorful character who had played for several of major league teams. He even upset rookie Vida Blue by breaking his no-hitter in the eighth inning of a game the Oakland A’s won 3-0 on September 11, 1970.

He had a very difficult time in 1975, struggling with drugs and liquor. Then he accepted Clyde White’s invitation to a Bible class, and saved himself by becoming an evangelist. His Chicago White Sox started to call him “The Rev.”

Once he was traded to Baltimore for Dave Duncan, Kelly at first was evaded by his teammates when trying to proselytize his faith. But by the time he left Baltimore for Cleveland in free agency, Kelly had made an impression on Scott McGregor, Tippy Martínez, Doug DeCinces, Kiko García and Ken Singleton.

Kelly enjoyed remembering a game where Weaver walked back and forth in the Orioles dugout. The O’s had the bases loaded, but there were already two outs. Kelly got closer to Weaver. “Don’t worry, Ski,” he said. “Relax. You just have to walk with the Lord and everything will be all right.” Weaver looked at Kelly straightforwardly: “I prefer that you walk with the bases loaded.” Weaver then sent Kelly to pinch-hit.

Some people say it happened in spring training, at the Cincinnati Reds’ camp in Tampa. Others say it took place in the regular season at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The only agreement is that it was 1969 or 1970. The fact is that on the mound was one-time fireballer Jim Maloney, who threw a no-hitter for 10 innings against the New York Mets on June 14, 1965, only to lose the game 1-0 in the 11th; who on August 19, 1965 no-hit the Chicago Cubs 1-0 in 10 innings; who on April 30, 1969 threw another no-no against the Houston Astros.

However, soon thereafter, the guy from Fresno, who once won 23 games in a season, had lost the strength in his throwing arm. When Johnny Bench noticed Maloney’s fastball didn’t have any zip, he went to the mound and explained to him the batters were going to smash him if he kept throwing that flat pitch. As Maloney insisted on throwing his fastball, Bench went back to the mound two or three more times encouraging him to throw a curve, or some sort of breaking ball. The next time Maloney threw his fastball, Bench took off his mitt and received the ball barehanded. Then shouted to the mound, “Do you see what I mean?”

Yes, this is the same Bob Gibson who won the World Series in 1964 with the St. Louis Cardinals against the New York Yankees and in 1967 against the Boston Red Sox. The same pitcher who had a 1.12 ERA in the 1968 season.

Gibson went to play winter ball in Venezuela for the Indios de Oriente in the 1960-’61 season, and most of his games were very close. Once, he was facing the Leones del Caracas and got to the bottom of the ninth inning leading 1-0. The Caracas players tried to distract Gibson from his focus, shouting at him using his secret nickname in the league. All of a sudden, the field and stands were filled with the mixed shouts from the Caracas players and fans, all calling him by his nickname.

So Gibson, instead of throwing to home plate, fired the ball to the Caracas dugout. The dugout suddenly seemed like a desert as everyone scrambled and ran away. The Caracas team manager went to talk with the chief umpire for a while, but Gibson kept pitching and managed to get the shutout. He kept looking at the Caracas team dugout while walking from the mound to his own, escorted by his teammates.

One night, Dwight Evans, the same player who made a fantastic catch in Game Six of the 1975 World Series, was preparing to leave home for the ballpark.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Before he reached the front door, one of his two sons, who was convalescing in bed because of a recent surgery to alleviate his neurofibromatosis, called to him. “Dad, I want you to hit two home runs for me.” Evans got closer to his son and kissed him on the forehead. “I’ll do my best to get those two home runs, son.”

Evans knew it was very difficult to predict a home run, but his love, his will to make his son feel better, led him to promise it. That night Evans couldn’t hit those dingers. He tried to go into the house as silently as he could. His son called him. “Don’t worry, Dad, I know you tried your best. I know the major league pitchers are hard to hit.” Evans went to his son’s bedroom. “Someday I’ll hit those two home runs for you. You’ll see.”

The next night, Evans’ son was feeling bad and fell asleep early. About 10:30 that night, his mom came into the room and turned on the light. “Son, son, wake up! Guess what! Your dad hit the second homer for you!”

The boy tried to get up and showed a mix of surprise and disappointment. “Great! I knew he could do it! But why didn’t you call me when he hit the first home run?”

Anytime I hear about a ballplayer injuring himself while chasing a line dive in the outfield, I think of Harold Patrick Reiser, better known as Pistol Pete, who was the first rookie to win the batting average title in the National League with a .343 mark with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941. That year, he also led the league in triples, runs, total bases and slugging percentage, and tied with Johnny Mize in doubles with 39. He also was beaned twice and crashed once against the wall of the outfield.

The next season, in a 12-inning game at St. Louis, Enos Slaughter hit a line drive to center field. Reiser chased the ball and caught it. He slammed against the wall, and it was only then that he dropped the ball. He advanced a step and collapsed. He woke up at St. John Hospital, where Dr. Robert F. Hyland told him to stop playing baseball for the rest of season. Two days later, with his head still bandaged, Reiser took a train to Pittsburgh.

His manager, Leo Durocher, asked him to put on his uniform, just to encourage his teammates from the dugout. Durocher promised not to play him. In the 14th inning, the Dodgers had two runners on base. Ken Heintzelman was the pitcher for the Pirates. Durocher was out of pinch-hitters, so Reiser went to the rack and got a stick. “You’ve got yourself a hitter,” he said.

He hit a line drive over second base to send the winning runs in, but all Pete could do was stretch his triple to a single. He collapsed on first base and awoke in a hospital. There, Durocher told him, “You’re better with one leg and one eye than anybody else I’ve got.”

The manager, Alvin Dark, kept asking Juan Marichal if he was sure he didn’t want out of the game. The pitcher looked straight at his manager and took the rosin bag, his eyes shining, as his voice stabbed the air.

It was July 2, 1963, and Marichal and the San Francisco Giants were facing Warren Spahn and the Milwaukee Braves at Candlestick Park. The intensity of this pitching duel was so great that even some endangered candlestick birds (the ones responsible for the name of the national park, Candlestick Point, where the stadium was located) risked flying around the outfield to catch the action.

Spahn, 42, came into the game with an 11-3 record. He had recently established the record of most wins for a left-hander with 328, and hadn’t allowed a walk in 18.1 innings.

Marichal, 25, had a 12-3 record with a 2.38 ERA and had pitched a no-hitter 17 days prior.

Both pitchers used a high kick style because it made it difficult for the hitters to decipher their release points and pitch selections. No matter that Marichal threw five different deliveries from three different angles with two different speeds; he noticed his fastball was working very well.

Spahn had prolonged his career by adding a screwball to his repertoire in 1956, so now he used it effectively against right-handed hitters.

In the second inning, Del Crandall got on base on a two-base error after two outs. Marichal breathed deeply and retired Roy McMillan with a pop-up to center field.

In the fourth inning, Marichal got Hank Aaron out on a fly ball to left field and struck out Eddie Mathews. Then Norm Larker was walked, and Mack Jones hit a ball to center field. Willie Mays chose to play it off the first bounce instead of diving to make the catch, then threw Larker out at home plate with an “amazing movement,” according to Bob Stevens of The San Francisco Chronicle.

With two outs in the top of the seventh inning, Spahn, whose 35 career home runs remain among the most in history for a pitcher, almost hit one. His shot rebounded off the right field wall for a double, but he was stranded there.

Spahn survived a near home run in the bottom of the ninth inning when Willie McCovey hit an immense shot that seemed to pass over the right field pole in fair territory. That was what the Giants thought, as well as the fans and most of the people in the press box. But the first base umpire, Chris Pelekoudas, called it foul.

Several times between the 11th and 16th innings, Dark considered taking Marichal out of the game. The pitcher replied in a very serious way. “Do you see the old man pitching for the Braves? He’s 42. I’m just 25. As far as he remain on the mound, I’ll be here.”

When Marichal walked to the dugout after the top of 16th inning, Mays approached him and promised he was going to finish the game. Then Mays smacked Spahn’s screwball to deep left field, into the darkness of Candlestick Point, to give the Giants a 1-0 victory.

Maybe he wanted to prove to himself how much he appreciated baseball and how much he lamented not writing about the game when he worked as a journalist for The Kansas City Star. In a foul mood, he explained that he had never written a word about baseball in the pages of The Star, but recognized that he had developed a writing technique through his regret at not being a sportswriter. He took as a model the way an outfielder anticipated a line drive hit to his position; how he ran, turned his head backwards, and finally stretched his gloved hand to catch the ball. The author depicted with words the structure, the plot, surprising readers by describing situations in an unexpected way.

In The Old Man and the Sea, the main character, Santiago, has a tough fight with a marlin once he has trapped the big fish. The creature starts an intense battle to free itself from Santiago’s hook. The fisherman uses all his strength, but that is not enough to beat the marlin. Santiago keeps struggling with the fish for three days.

There, Hemingway goes to his writing craft and uses baseball as a reference, as a landscape where the story could keep its intensity. So he provides Santiago with some images of what he had listened to on the radio and read in the papers about Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, like Santiago, was getting close to the end of his career. When he remembered how DiMaggio had recovered from a bone spur in his ankle to get back to play at his best with the New York Yankees, Santiago gathered strength and continued fighting with the marlin through the cramp in his left hand.

Baseball floats on the story’s atmosphere as Santiago remains battling with the marlin, trying to bring it to the boat. Santiago eventually loses the fish to sharks, despite trying to repel them by hitting them with an oar. They leave only the skeleton to Santiago.

Urging his companion Manolin to pursue a career as baseball player, Santiago gets back to DiMaggio’s image and how he had a tough time in his last seasons with the Yankees, when he couldn’t run fast enough to chase pop-ups and line drives in center field, couldn’t hit the ball as hard as he had in his top years. Santiago feels like DiMaggio in his last seasons; he can’t trap a single marlin, when in his best times he could hook two or three big fish in one day.

In True At First Light, Hemingway wrote that he didn’t know anything about the human soul. The closest he came to associating with that concept was through baseball. He recalled that, as a child, he went to a Chicago White Sox game. They had a third baseman named Harry Lord who could hit foul grounders down the third base line until the rival pitcher gave up or the game had to be suspended because of darkness. As Lord kept hitting foul grounders, a call came from the stands: “Hey, Lord, I hope God saves your soul.”

This keeps the reader daydreaming about what Hemingway tried to explain about the human soul, maybe reading,

Take it easy, son. I’m just a quiet, and maybe sad ghost. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to tell you something that maybe helps to define better what I understand for the word soul. After I have written the manuscript of this book, I kept reading a lot about baseball in the papers.

That’s how I knew about Pistol Pete Reiser and Roberto Clemente. Both hit inside-the-park, walk-off homers. If triples are considered the most exciting hits in the game, they can’t transmit what an inside-the-park homer can. Think for a moment how a batter starts running through the bases while the ball lands in the most remote corner of the field, and how he keeps running no matter that the relay throw is coming to the catcher’s mitt with a great possibility of getting him out. That’s what Reiser accomplished on May, 11, 1946, in the bottom of the ninth inning against Hugh Mulcahy of the Philadelphia Phillies.

And that’s what Clemente did on July 25, 1956, in the bottom of the ninth, no outs, bases loaded, and the Pirates trailing the Chicago Cubs, 8-5, at Forbes Field. He was facing Jim Brosnan. Clemente hit a liner to the left field wall. He had plated the three runners in front of him, and he was running with such intensity that he ignored third base coach Bobby Bragan’s signs to stop. Clemente slid into home and beat Ernie Banks’ relay throw. No matter that he missed home plate; he immediately stretched his hand backwards and touched it. What a vertiginous play! It was the only time a hitter has smacked a walk-off, grand slam, inside-the-park home run.”

Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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Just great stuff!


Sorry, but baseball analogies aside, “The Old Man and the Sea” is the dullest book I’ve ever read. I never would’ve made it through the whole thing had it not been a school assignment.