As of this writing, we have no baseball season. No one knows when, or if, the season will start. The ritual, distraction and meditative powers of baseball have brought citizens of this great country comfort through every crisis we have faced since the 1870’s. The team I have assembled below may at least give some of us the missing distraction — if only for a few moments.
(photo: James 'Honus Wagner' Medlin, in his playing days)
In these days of millionaire ballplayers and 24-hour media coverage, being a character has become something to be avoided. But it was not always so. This collection of players is based not just on what they accomplished on the field, but also on how they impressed me. Some of them played before I was born, but their legacy lives on. Some did things early in my lifetime that I feel deserve to still be celebrated. Some just impacted my life in ways I can’t forget. As you will see, I do value zaniness above batting average; eccentricity over Earned Run Average; and even a vague connection to my life over what they may have accomplished in theirs. Let’s start with the man who would have to lead this collection of characters.
Manager — Casey Stengel had a 14-year career as a player. He hit the first home run in Brooklyn’s old Ebbets Field. And once, while playing for the Pirates, drew the wrath of the crowd when he struck out twice and missed a fly ball. After striking out again he headed to his position in the outfield, but detoured for a minute to the bullpen. When he took his position in the field the boos got extremely loud. So Stengel removed his cap and a sparrow he had captured in the bullpen flew out. Everyone laughed except the Pirates' owner, who traded him to the Phillies for Possum Whitted.
But it was as manager of the mighty Yankees and the lowly Mets that Stengel became an American icon. The first time he was named manager of the year, someone asked him the secret to good managing. “Keeping the five guys who hate you away from the five who are undecided,” replied Casey. He told his players, “Don’t drink in the hotel bar 'cause that’s where I do my drinking.” After taking the Mets job, he was asked why he drafted a catcher with his first pick. “You have to have a catcher or you'll have a lot of passed balls."
So let’s start with catcher.
Catcher — Forrest “Smoky” Burgess was a nine time all-star. I chose him partly because I like the name Smoky. When I purchased his baseball card in the 1950’s the smiling round face of the 5’8’’ 188-pounder was different from all the steely-eyed square-jawed jocks on the other cards. Plus, Burgess was twice traded for the same player, Andy Seminick. But Smoky had some real baseball credentials. He was the catcher when the Pirates' Harvey Haddix threw a perfect game for 12 innings and lost the game in the thirteenth. Smoky also caught for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the World Series in 1960 over the Yankees of Mantle, Berra and Maris. And for many years he held the major league record for pinch hits (145).
You can imagine how hard it is to not list Yogi Berra as my catcher. He is a baseball icon. But Yogi is on everyone’s list, unless they name that Johnny Bench fella. Bench is generally acknowledged as the greatest catcher of all time. But he wasn’t the first, or even the second, catcher drafted back in the very first amateur draft. In fact, Ray Fosse, Gene Lamont and two other catchers were picked ahead of Bench. Fosse had a great career, but is most famous for being injured by Pete Rose in a violent collision at home plate during the 1970 All-Star Game. Lamont hit a home run in his first at bat with the Detroit Tigers. But he’s better known as the Manager of the Year for the Chicago White Sox in 1993. Fosse and Lamont have a sense of humor but they are not eccentric enough to make this squad, a fact for which I am sure they are both exceedingly grateful.
Pitcher — Luther “Dummy” Taylor was the first deaf major league baseball player. In 1901 he pitched 31 complete games for The New York Giants. He didn’t like the nickname “Dummy,” but pointed out that he was “the highest salaried deaf person in The United States.” Taylor was also known for his sense of humor. Back in the days before ballparks had lights, Taylor was annoyed because an umpire refused to call a game due to darkness. Luther emerged
from the dugout carrying a lit lantern. Another time when an ump failed to halt a game due to rain, Taylor went on the field in hip boots and a raincoat.
I considered former Angels’ pitcher Bo Belinsky mainly
because he dated Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens, Tina Louise and Travis Redfish's favorite actress, Mamie Van Doren (see photo). Satchel Paige (see photo) would also be a great fit. Segregation kept Paige out of the Major Leagues until he became a rookie at age 42. He went on to make two All-Star teams. But he is more famous for quotes such as “Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.” “How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?” and “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”
First Base — Dale Long hit home runs in eight consecutive games while playing for the Pirates in 1956. And he
accomplished another rare feat: he played catcher for a few games in the majors. A left-handed catcher is as rare as a harpsichord in a jug band. But I picked him for an incident that occurred the next year, after he had been traded to the Cubs. In those days Major League teams would spend part of their spring training playing exhibition games in various minor league ballparks. In 1957 the Cubs played the Baltimore Orioles at Kokernot Field in Alpine, Texas. My grandfather, Homer Medlin Sr., took me to the game. In the fifth inning I went down under the bleachers in search of the restroom. Lo and behold, there was Dale Long, all 6’4’’ of him, walking unsteadily toward the locker room. I shyly asked him to sign my program. Long glared down at me in a most threatening manner. He hadn’t shaved for several days and his breath was not pleasing. “Get the Hell outta my way kid!” I did so as quickly as possible. It was the first and last time I sought an autograph. Dale Long will always be “The player who most frightened me.”
Second Base — Jackie Robinson transcended baseball. When I was a kid growing up in West Texas, all my older baseball-loving relatives were fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. Was it because of Dizzy Dean? Stan Musial? The only team they hated more than the New York Yankees was the Brooklyn Dodgers. My grandmother Ada “Mamie” Medlin was the exception. She explained to me that my kinfolk liked the Cardinals because, back then, St. Louis was as far south and as far west as major league baseball went. Mamie quietly liked the Dodgers because they dared to break the color barrier by employing Jackie Robinson. Eventually the same team that broke the racial taboo, The Dodgers, became one of the first teams to move west of the Mississippi.
Thought about picking Billy Martin because he played for Stengel and used to get drunk with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. But I think Billy may have been too mean for this team.
Third Base — Johnny “Pepper” Martin played with Dizzy and Daffy Dean on the zany St. Louis Cardinals squad known as “The Gashouse Gang.” He batted .500 in leading the Cardinals to victory in the 1931 World Series. Pepper was also famous for pulling stunts such as filling a paper bag with water and dropping it from a third story hotel balcony on the head of his manager, Frankie Frisch, who was walking down the sidewalk. Pepper managed to dash down the stairs to the lobby and sit down reading a paper by the time Frisch came in the front door. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Martin also fronted a country band called The Mississippi Mudcats. Plus, after retiring he got fired from his job as a minor league manager for choking an umpire; co-managed a boxer; played for The House of David basketball team; was a place kicker for the NFL’S Brooklyn Dodgers; and served as Athletic Director for the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
Considered selecting Willie Jones as my third baseman — how can you overlook someone called “Puddin Head?” Jones had a nice 15–year career, but more importantly he played on the Phillies with someone named Granny Hamner and with Andy Seminick who was twice traded for Smoky Burgess.
Shortstop — I like players who like to play. And Ernie Banks’ most famous quote is “It’s a beautiful day — let’s play two.” And the man could play. He was the first National Leaguer to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player honors. He was the first player to hit five grand slams in one season. And he was the first Chicago Cub to win a Gold Glove.
Outfield — Rusty Staub was one of the Houston Astros’ first heroes. He makes this lineup because of the time Moon Bellamy and I had driven to Houston from Austin to see a game in the Astrodome. For some strange reason, Moon and I stopped off in a bar before heading to the Dome. We overheard two Astro fans arguing. One said “Rusty Staub is a modern Stan Musial.” The other fan vehemently disagreed, “Rusty Staub? That inarticulate son-of-a–bitch?” The moment, and the phrase, became branded on my tiny brain.
Outfield — Carlos Beltran was so great in the playoffs and the World Series that he earned the title "Señor Octubre!" But since the Astros cheating scandal he’ll be more remembered as the “brains” behind the scheme to bang on a trash can lid to let his teammate know what pitch was coming. The Astros finally win a World Series and a danged trash can lid becomes the symbol of their success and their failure. The Houston Curse Lives On!
Outfield — Smead Jolley played for the White Sox in the early 30’s and earned the reputation of being the game’s worst fielder. His most infamous play was when Bing Miller hit a ball to him in right field and he allowed it to roll thru his legs. But that was just the beginning. When he turned to play the ball off the wall, it rolled back between his legs once again. Trying to make amends, Smead finally picked up the ball and hurled it toward the infield with all his might, sailing over the head of the third baseman. Bing came around to score. After missing a fly ball, the jolly Jolley would sometimes say, “‘There’s a bad sky today. Not an angel in the clouds.’” [*Notes in Jolley’s Hall of Fame file.] After one game he denied that one poorly judged ball had bounced off his head ... he insisted it bounced off his shoulder. Despite his defensive lapses, he was good enough at the plate to have a five-year Major League career, and go on to earn the title of “Best hitter in the minors.” Thought about making Smead my DH. But an even better candidate emerged thanks to my General Manager Bill Veeck.
Owner/General Manager — Bill Veeck (as in wreck), at various times, ran the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox. He famously said, “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off.” “There are only two seasons — winter and Baseball.” It was Veeck’s idea to put names on the back of players’ jerseys. It was Veeck who integrated the American league when he signed Larry Doby for the Cleveland Indians. It was Veeck who introduced the exploding scoreboard and fireworks after home runs by the local team. It was Veeck who hired Dizzy Dean as an announcer. It was Veeck who persuaded legendary announcer Harry Caray to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” live during the seventh inning stretch. It was Veeck who promoted the infamous Disco Destruction Night in Chicago on July12, 1979. A crate of Disco records was blown up on the field. Unfortunately fans then rushed out on the field and a riot ensued.
DH — Eddie Gaedel (photo left) was the shortest player to ever appear in a Major League game. Veeck sent the 3’7’’ Gaedel in as a pinch hitter. He walked on four straight pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner.
Pinch Hitter — Jay Johnstone was a good one. Manny Mota is the greatest pinch hitter of all time. And another of the greatest, Smoky Burgess, is already on the team as a catcher. But it's Johnstone's approach to life that earns him a place on this squad. During a 1981 game in Dodger Stadium, when it came time for the ground crew to drag the infield, they were joined by pitcher Jerry Reuss and Jay Johnstone. The crowd loved it, but Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was outraged. He fined each player $250. But he soon needed a pinch hitter and sent up Johnstone. Jay homered. Lasorda waived his fine, but not Reuss's.
Visiting Team Batboy — Stanley Burrell was a batboy for the Oakland A's before evolving into rapper MC Hammer. Some stories say that he got the name "Hammer" from Reggie Jackson, who thought he looked like Hall of Famer "Hammering" Hank Aaron.
Home Team Batboy — Jared Kushner looks like a batboy. And we know he would keep track of "OUR" bats.
Hopefully my selections will stir up controversy. Please let me know who you would prefer to see in this lineup. And please don’t say infamous bank robber “John Dillinger” — he played ball but never in the big leagues.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. And listen for the return of that beautiful sound “PLAY BALL!”
James BigBoy Medlin © 2020
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"
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