The banjo act—the skinny little guy and the big, top-heavy character with the leathery face—was fracturing the audience. They socked over Hey, Mr. Banjo! and then Bye, Bye, Blues, with the big fellow belting out the lyrics and the little guy wagging his head and jumping up and down. Everybody in the place started clapping and stomping and yelling for more. So the act gave out with Shanty, Five Foot Two and Oh! Susanna and tried to get off with Any Time. But there had to be an encore, and so it was Margie. It could have gone on and on, but the audience and half of the banjo act, the big leathery-faced guy, had to get out of there and play a ball game with the St. Louis Cardinals.
It all happened in the clubhouse of the Milwaukee Braves on a recent summer evening when Eddie Peabody, billed in theaters and night clubs as The Banjo King, dropped in for a surprise visit with his old pal, Manager Charley Grimm, "the best left handed banjo player in baseball" and a rollicking refuter of Durocher's Law, which says that "nice guys finish last." Sometimes, as Grimm still hoped to prove last week after Milwaukee provided the Dodgers with their 10-2 pennant clincher, a nice guy can finish second.
If this isn't to the complete satisfaction of the pennant-hungry Milwaukee fans, they can't blame the banjo. Despite the fact that there's a big banjo revival on, Grimm rarely plays these days. Matter of fact, he wouldn't have been able to join Peabody in the jam session if Eddie hadn't been able to dig up a left-handed banjo. But Charles John Grimm hasn't put his banjo aside because he's going in for dignity at the age of 57, after almost 40 years in baseball. He still believes, in contradiction of the John McGraw school of managing, that a team boss can be one of the boys and get his share of the laughs.
Sitting up in the grandstand a few hours before joining Eddie Peabody in the impromptu clubhouse musicale, Grimm had been mulling over his managerial philosophy. He was comfortable in a flowered sports shirt and gray slacks with a yellow straw tilted over his eyes.
"I've always had a lot of fun," he said. "When I was a kid we used to have those old-fashioned Saturday nights at our house with music you could hear for miles. Dad played the bull fiddle, Mom had a harmonica, my brother Bill played the guitar and Ollie would blow the bass tuba and my sister Margaret would be at the piano. We all played by ear. My father would yell, 'Achtung!' and then, 'Eins, zwei, drei—spiel!' and we'd be off."
Grimm chuckled to himself. He might have been thinking of his early playing days with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was the banjo player and baritone of a famous quartet that also included Rabbit Maranville, Cotton Tierney and Possum Whitted. One of Cholly's big numbers at that time was When You Wore a Tulip, sung with a thick German accent. Only Pittsburgh Owner Barney Dreyfuss was not amused. He decided the quartet had cost him a pennant and broke it up by trading Grimm to the Chicago Cubs, for whom he played a stylish first base and won three pennants in two hitches as manager.
As it turned out, Charley was thinking of something else. "The best fun I ever had managing," he said, "was with Bill Veeck when he took over the Brewers here in Milwaukee and made a pennant winner out of an eighth-place club." (The Brewers played at Borchert Field in those days. It was a cozy minor league park, with the customers practically sitting on home plate. Grimm used to entertain them with jigs in the coaching box, salaams to home run hitters and pratfalls and fake faints to needle the umpires and the opposing team.) "One night," Charley went on, "they gave me a big birthday party. Eight players came out carrying a cardboard cake from Veeck. Then there were dancing girls. All of a sudden the top of the cake opens and what do you think pops up? Just what I needed—a brand new left-handed pitcher named Acosta!"
When the transplanted Boston Braves moved into County Stadium in 1953, Grimm was assigned a private office. But after one game he moved his desk to the clubhouse.
"I like to be close to the players," he said, "and have a few laughs. I'm supposed to be an easy-going guy. Well, you've got 25 different dispositions. You've got to treat them all differently. If I think a guy isn't putting his best foot forward, I take him aside and talk to him. There's no sense in embarrassing a guy in front of everybody. Ballplayers have feelings like everybody else. I've handled some pretty tough ones in my time and gotten good performances out of them."
He got up and stretched and said: "They call me Jolly Cholly. Well, that's the way I always was and that's the way I'll always be."
He yelled and waved at some ushers and hot dog vendors he knew. Then he headed for the clubhouse and the surprise that Eddie Peabody had waiting for him.
CHARLEY GRIMM shows his left-handed way with banjo, symbol of a career which proves that nice guys needn't finish last.