It really turns out that left-handed pitchers are people. John Antonelli of the New York Giants, a good lefthander of the current school, thinks it's silly to classify lefties as temperamental screwballs. And if you take a close look at John, a good-looking, serious, well-mannered, hard-working young family man, you are bound to agree.
Maybe you, but not Al Schacht, the restaurateur, raconteur, entertainer, baseball clown, onetime baseball coach and onetime (1919-1921) American League pitcher. Schacht holds that lefthanders per se are strange.
"They have crooked arms," Schacht explained once. "They throw crooked, they walk crooked and they think crooked. They even wear their clothes crooked. You have to figure they're a little crazy."
Schacht was reminded that he himself was more than slightly famous for his own zany antics on the diamond. He once smuggled a nickel rocket, a soft sawdust-filled boys' baseball, to be used against a feared slugger. Yet he was undeniably a right-hander. Was this not so?
"Sure," Schacht admitted. "But I think left-handed."
Schacht's blanket indictment of left-handed pitchers is an enjoyable hyperbole, but even the most conservative baseball fan has to admit that he has a deep-seated, nagging belief—and perhaps even a hope—that Schacht is essentially right, despite evidence to the contrary.
Certainly Warren Spahn, the great left-handed pitching star of the Milwaukee Braves and the dean of today's lefties, refutes Schacht and supports Antonelli. Spahn over the past decade has been just about the best pitcher in baseball (see box next page) and surely the best left-hander. Yet he is a quiet, conservative and completely unremarkable (except for his pitching skill) man, and the rest of the left-handers around the big leagues seem for the most part to follow the same pattern.
Even so, there is something about the idea of a left-handed pitcher—something that may derive from a childhood memory of Rube Waddell or Lefty Gomez, or from hearing too many fine old baseball legends, but something—that makes the casual fan forget the plain, unorthodox lefthander like Antonelli or Spahn and in his stead remember indelibly someone like Wilmer David (Vinegar Bend) Mizell of the St. Louis Cardinals, the large young man pictured below.
Mizell is no screwball; he is a determined, ambitious young pitcher. But he has an appealing drawl, a facile tongue, a warm, memorable face and that wonderful nickname. And, of course, a left arm. A right-handed Vinegar Bend would be colorful; a left-handed one is something else again: the heir apparent to a gay tradition. He is watched hopefully, almost eagerly; maybe any moment now he'll steal a ride on a fire engine or appear on the pitcher's mound in Bermuda shorts.
If not Mizell, maybe someone else, for life follows art. Some young pitchers, discovering simultaneously that they throw left-handed and that in baseball eccentric left-handers are considered box office attractions, perhaps cultivate the bizarre side of their personality a little more assiduously than they might ordinarily. If so, it is sound business, and more power to them.
The Detroit Tigers are conscious of, and hopeful for, a young left-hander named Gene Host, who pitches for their Charleston Senators farm club in the American Association. Host, who has been described as one of the most promising young left-handers, as far as screwball potential is concerned, was told this spring that apparently he did not concentrate enough when he was pitching, that he didn't study each batter and how to pitch to him—in short, that he didn't think enough. To this, young (23) Mr. Host bridled and replied forcefully, "That's not true at all. When I'm on the mound I'm thinking all the time. It may not be about baseball but, believe me, I'm thinking."
Host is obviously a man to watch.
The Tigers have another lefty in the classic mold in Billy Hoeft, a tall, gangling 24-year-old who loves to clown in the clubhouse and who has one of the best fast balls in the American League. Hoeft comes from Oshkosh, Wis., which isn't as good as Vinegar Bend, Ala. but which isn't bad, and was coached in high school by a chap named Snitz Schneider, which is just about perfect.
Hoeft asked a recent visitor to the Detroit dugout if he liked old crow. The visitor thought Hoeft was referring to the whisky and as he was a baseball writer he naturally answered, "Sure." Delighted, Billy put a dead crow on the writer's lap.
John Antonelli obviously isn't the sort of left-hander who has dead crows lying around, but Hoeft apparently is.
He takes a view of the left-hander situation opposite to Antonelli's.
"They say left-handers are screwballs," he said recently, "and I guess I'm one of them."
Hoeft was asked what he was called by the other players.
"They call me everything," he said cheerfully.
Just then a group of players walked past the room Hoeft was in. One saw him, waved and said pleasantly, "Hi, Goof."
"See what I mean?" grinned Hoeft.
The fascination that left-handed pitchers hold for baseball players and baseball fans alike most likely has its origin in the ancient Latin word for left, sinister. But a part of it must rise from the complexities of the game itself and the fact that in baseball as elsewhere lefties are a minority group. All batters, generally speaking, get used to hitting against right-handed pitching because there are so many more right-handed pitchers than there are lefties. (The proportion of right-handed pitchers in the majors stays pretty consistently at or above 70%.)
Thus left-handed batters, for whom right-handed pitchers are a comparative luxury anyway, are aggrieved and unhappy when faced with the comparatively scarce but, for them, tougher lefty pitchers. For example, Duke Snider, one of the best left-handed batters in baseball history, seems continually to run into psychosomatic difficulties of the elbow, arm, back, stomach, throat, or toenail whenever a left-hander is scheduled to pitch against his team.
His reaction is mild compared to that of the fabulous Jay Kirke, a left-handed batter who had a creditable .301 average for his several tours in the majors over a six-year period back before World War I but who made his reputation as the hero of countless anecdotes about minor league baseball.
For Kirke, lefty pitchers—whom he could not hit—were anathema. When he returned to baseball after the war the first pitcher Kirke batted against was a left-hander. It was too much for Jay to take. He stepped out of the box and looked with venom at the innocent southpaw.
"Fifty thousand of you left-handed so-and-sos they sent over to France," Kirke protested, "and every last one of you came back."
But beyond history and beyond minority report lies the probable fountainhead of the great left-hander legend: one strange, unforgettable man from western Pennsylvania named George Edward Waddell.
Waddell, according to Robert Smith in his excellent book Baseball, liked to be called Eddie, but his long, bent-kneed, farmer's stride, coupled with a slow, deliberate sweeping of his arms, brought him another name. Whenever he trudged out to the mound the crowd always yelled: "Hey, Rube!" And Waddell, who came to welcome the name, would return the greeting with a polite bow. Other ballplayers before and since have been called Rube, but he was the only one known as The Great Rube.
Waddell was a country boy who said he preferred fishing to baseball and on several recorded occasions demonstrated that this was the flat truth. He was the most sensational pitcher of his day—the high noon of his day lasted from 1902 through 1908—and by far the greatest gate attraction. Smith describes him as follows:
"He was at heart a gentle and generous man who loved to be admired. He found happiness in applause, in showing off, in playing tricks on his friends, in making love and vowing fidelity to a number of different women, in drinking in good company and without restraint, in riding fire engines, in leading parades, in fishing, in winning ball games, in wearing red neckties and brand-new clothes, and in talking about himself."
Once Waddell took a can of paint and a brush and painted on sidewalks and walls inscriptions which said: "COMB OUT AND SEE THE RUBE FAN 'EM OUT. HE'LL FAN 'EM FOR YOU." Frequently in exhibition games he would show off by calling in his outfielders and endeavoring to strike out the side. More often than not he'd do it, too. He was missing at game time one day in 1900 when he was supposed to pitch for Pittsburgh against Brooklyn. He was found under the stands playing marbles with some little boys. He was a fire engine chaser and on at least two occasions took a reasonably heroic part in the quelling of flames. He jumped into a pool and wrestled an alligator in Florida. Once when he was missing from the ball park he was found acting as an automaton in a store window.
Above all, he was a great pitcher, with blinding speed, a vicious curve and superb control. Since 1900 only two men other than Waddell struck out more than 300 men in one season: Walter Johnson, who did it twice, and Bobby Feller. Waddell, from 1903 through 1905 averaged over 310 strikeouts a season.
On the same Philadelphia Athletics team with Waddell was another great left-hander named Edward Stewart Plank, a college man who was as colorless as Waddell was colorful but who proved in the long run to be a more valuable pitcher. Plank won more major league games than any other lefthander—304—whereas Waddell won only 194. Waddell's career, weakened by his drinking and his wonderful nonsense, ended early, but Plank, who pitched for the A's before Waddell joined the team, was still with them after Waddell had died of TB at 37.
Connie Mack's Athletics had an apparent monopoly on great lefties, for a decade after Plank departed came the brilliant Robert Moses (Lefty) Grove, who won exactly 300 American League games in his career and who won 20 or more games in eight seasons. Grove was a serious pitcher, but to the delight of those who remembered Waddell he showed flashes of a wild temper which, if not Waddellian, was at least a little on the eccentric side. It was, however, always tempered with a cold, hard common sense. A young pitcher who had watched Grove kick a water bucket the length of the locker room emulated the great Lefty a short time later when he, too, like Grove, had lost a heartbreaking game. He kicked the water bucket and promptly howled with pain and grabbed his toes. Grove, watching, shook his head. "Kid," he said kindly, "when you kick a water bucket never kick it with your toes. Always use the side of your foot."
Grove's career was overlapped by that of Vernon Louis (Lefty) Gomez of the New York Yankees. Gomez, a skinny left-hander with a truly blazing fast ball, won 189 games in his career, a fine record but not so impressive as the records established by other left-handers like Carl Hubbell, Herb Pennock, Eppa Rixey, Earl Whitehill, Wilbur Cooper, Hal Newhouser and Rube Marquard. Warren Spahn, who is still in the fleshy part of his career, is even with Gomez. But no other left-hander ever came closer to Waddell than Gomez for combining genuine skill with real and lasting color.
Waddell, of course, was a man with a childlike mind while Gomez, for all his carefree attitude and cheerful approach to life and baseball, is shrewd and knowing.
Gomez was a splendid competitor, at his best in tough games. He won six World Series games without losing one and was the winning pitcher in more All-Star Games than any other man. But when you watched Gomez you were always aware that this, after all, was a game. For Lefty had fun.
He had a habit of slouching slowly in off the mound after each inning, dragging his feet until he reached the dugout. One day Right Fielder George Selkirk, another happy soul, said, "Lefty, you are the slowest man I ever saw. I'll bet you $5 that I can beat you to the dugout at the end of an inning. From right field. I'll beat you."
Gomez said, "You got a bet."
The next inning, with two men on base and two out, the batter laid heavily on one of Gomez' fast balls and drove it on a harsh line deep to left center field. Gomez watched it go, saw Joe DiMaggio loping after it and then glanced toward right field. Here came Selkirk, racing like a sprinter. Gomez took off for the bench, trying with all his imperfect speed to stave off the onrushing Selkirk. They pounded down the dugout steps and landed one-two on the bench just as DiMaggio took the third out into his glove. Joe McCarthy, manager of the Yankees, stared at Gomez and Selkirk half in awe, half in disgust.
"Joe wasn't at all pleased," Lefty recalled recently. "But I won the bet."
There is no question that respect must be accorded the fine left-handers of 1956, men like stylish Billy Pierce of the White Sox and fast-balling Herb Score of the Indians, chunky, businesslike Whitey Ford of the Yankees and big Joe Nuxhall of the Redlegs. Splendid pitchers all, and one or more of them almost certainly should succeed Warren Spahn as the standard bearer of left-handed greatness. But it's hard to conceive of any of them playing marbles under the stands or racing their right fielder to the bench.
It's probably just as well. Still, you can't blame the legend-loving fan for cocking a hopeful and nostalgic eye at Vinegar Bend Mizell and Oshkosh Billy Hoeft. And what's the latest word on that fellow Host in Charleston?
VINEGAR BEND MIZELL, heir apparent to the tradition of the colorful left-hander, swings his 200-pound body forward as he puts all his strength into a fast ball.
WADDELL: THE GREAT RUBE
PLANK: QUIET EDDIE
GROVE: OLD MOSE
GOMEZ: EL GOOFO
BIOPERSE: Warren Spahn
Warren Edward Spahn (see cover) has won more games (183) during the postwar decade than any other pitcher (righty or lefty) and is the ranking left-hander in baseball today. He won 20 games or more six times; led the league in strikeouts four times; won the most games in three seasons and twice had the best earned run average.
Spahn was born in Buffalo 35 years ago. His father, a semipro third baseman, taught Warren the fundamentals of baseball as soon as he could toddle, and by the time he was 9, Spahn was playing on teams in Buffalo as a first baseman. When he entered high school, Warren switched to pitching. The fine control and fast ball that have since become a Spahn trademark brought the boy to the attention of a Boston Braves scout. In 1939, years before the big bonus era, the 18-year-old Spahn received nothing for signing.
He spent three years in the minors, came up to the Braves at the end of the 1942 season and then was drafted into the Army for three years. He became the only major leaguer to win a battlefield commission for bravery in action. Spahn returned to the Braves in June 1946. In 1947, his first full year in the majors, he had the first of his 20-game seasons (21-10). During the last month of the 1948 season, the strong pitching of Spahn and teammate Johnny Sain inspired the memorable slogan, "Spahn and Sain and two days of rain." Their efforts brought the Braves their first pennant in 34 years.
Now in his 12th season in the majors, Warren Spahn is one of baseball's highest-salaried players ($45,000). A member of the All-Star team seven times, he was the winning pitcher in 1953. Easygoing and popular with his teammates, Spahn has been married 10 years and has a 7-year-old son named Greg. In the off season the Spahns live on an 800-acre ranch near Hartshorne, Okla. where they tend their herd of registered Hereford cattle.
Here, each week, SI takes a quick, probing look at the most dramatic or significant baseball news:
Not even the firing of Charlie Grimm as manager of the Milwaukee Braves caused as much discussion and excitement as the big eight-man trade between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants. It set some to wondering again if baseball was a matter of inhuman barter, but even more to arguing about who had got the better of the exchange. A National League executive placed the combined value of the players involved at more than half a million dollars. His analysis:
First returns in a trade are as inconclusive as they are in elections, but New York drew first blood. Schoendienst, who got a heart-warming reception in the Polo Grounds, hit a dramatic pinch-hit home run in his very first time at bat as a Giant. Yet in the clubhouse after the game he looked strangely forlorn away from his old teammates. Red played 11 full seasons with the Cardinals and never with any other major league club. The Cardinals, that same night, were thrashed by the Pirates 12-1. Lockman and Dark made three hits between them in their debut, but to the dismay of St. Louis and the glee of New York they also made three widely publicized errors.