on Baseball Books: Leo Durocher, Pitching as Deception, and Casey Stengel

Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son by Paul Dickson (Bloomsbury)
Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception by Terry McDermott (Pantheon)
Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character by Marty Appel (Doubleday)

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One night in the mid-1970’s, I attended a dinner sponsored by a liquor distributor in Boston. My father, a retailer, had invited me to come along. Each of us was introduced to the evening’s celebrity-for-hire, Leo Durocher, whose popular memoir Nice Guys Finish Last had just been published. I recall only two things from that event. First, Durocher ridiculed the designated hitter rule which had been adopted by the American League in 1973. Second, as my father and I left the hotel venue, he murmured, “You just shook hands with the man who stole Babe Ruth’s watch.”

DurocherCover.jpgMy father was six years old in 1928 when Durocher arrived as a slick-fielding shortstop for Miller Huggins’ championship Yankees. The rookie quickly developed a reputation for running his mouth at opponents and teammates alike, as well as for his aggressive play, flashy clothes, gambling habit, and bad checks. He and Ruth constantly teased each other. Babe called him “the All-American Out” (Leo was a lifetime .245 hitter with 24 home runs over 18 seasons). Durocher went on to play for Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Brooklyn (where he was player-manager), and then managed the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the Houston Astros to three National League pennants (1941, 1951, 1954) and the 1954 World Series championship (Cubs). During his lifetime, only five Major League managers won more games than his 2,008.

But what my father recalled was the alleged theft of Babe Ruth’s watch. Hall of Fame voters remembered the uncountable episodes of Durocher’s abuse of umpires, brawls with opposing players, harassing of his own players (eg., he called Ken Holtzman “a kike” and “a gutless Jew”), relentless bench-jockeying, philandering, compulsive gambling, and association with criminals. When the 1969 Cubs collapsed after blowing a 7-1/2 game lead in June, he blamed his players who, he claimed, “had quit.” (He said, “I could have dressed nine broads as ballplayers and they would have beaten the Cubs.”) “Leo the Lip” also played the media – he barred certain reporters from his clubhouse while maximizing his media presence on and off the field to entertain the crowd. He recognized that his livelihood depended on showmanship. But his bravado usually wasn’t the false kind. After his baseball days were over, he moved to Hollywood, enjoyed a contract with NBC as a TV personality, and marketed what we would now call his brand. And year after year, the HOF voters refused him entry to Cooperstown, rebuffs that deeply embittered him.

1101470414_400.jpgPaul Dickson’s lively biography, Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, captures the non-stop ups and downs of The Lip’s career and life. He was hired and fired so many times that keeping track of his whereabouts is a labor in itself. Durocher’s turbulent life evoked caricature and dark rumors, but Dickson sorts through the chatter and creates a compelling portrait of a man who could be generous, supportive, and loyal. Many players, such as Willie Mays, related to him as a mentor. But more, Dickson places Durocher vividly in the context of his times and provides the best assessment to date of his managerial prowess and influence on the game. He quotes Tommy Lasorda who said, “When I became manager, I wanted to carry Leo’s number because of my respect and admiration for him … He was brilliant, by far one of the greats. He was a gambling, aggressive manager. He didn’t worry about people second-guessing him. He had an electrifying personality with an ability to motivate men.”

Just before his death in 1991, Durocher asked his friend Harvey Weinberg to turn down his election to the Hall should it occur after his death. Durocher supposedly put something in writing to that effect. Finally, in 1994, the votes tallied in Durocher’s favor. The actress Laraine Day, one of Leo’s divorced wives, accepted on his behalf.

[Published March 21, 2017. 304 pages, 32 b&w photos, $28.00 hardcover]

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“We have dressed the game in so many fine coats of so many glorious colors that it becomes hard to see the thing itself,” writes Terry McDermott in his preface to Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception. That’s one thing I admire about this engrossing book – it peers at the game, draws aptly from history, and presents the basics in a fresh perspective. Just as a pitcher varies pitches for surprise, McDermott pivots between the nine innings of a Mariners game, memoiristic interludes, and baseball lore that illuminates the emergence of various pitches over time, from the fastball and its variations (two-seamer, cutter) to the curve, slider, spitball and knuckler.

Hernandez.jpegOn August 15, 2012 at Safeco Field in Seattle, Felix Hernandez tossed a perfect game, the twenty-third in MLB history. His performance per inning frames Off Speed. “Over the entire game, Tampa hitters swung and missed twenty-four times,” writes McDermott. “Only two of those swings were at fastballs. The remaining twenty-two were on off-speed pitches. Felix threw two fastballs and thirteen off-speed pitches in the ninth inning to finish the game.” As Mickey Mantle exclaimed after striking out on a Sandy Koufax hook, “How in the fuck are you supposed to hit that shit?”

McDermottCover.jpgPitchers fail miserably at critical moments every day of the season, yet the odds of success seem to strongly favor them, at least theoretically. Because the pitcher strides as he throws, the distance between him and the hitter shrinks by ten percent (about six feet) even before the ball leaves his whipping hand, as McDermott notes. “An average fastball from an average pitcher leave his hand at about 90 mph,” says McDermott. “A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice.” Hernandez varied his pitches brilliantly, making it extremely difficult for the batter to use those four-tenths of a second effectively. McDermott goes on to say, “The difference in time available to a hitter between a 90 mph fastball and one thrown at 100 mph is approximately forty milliseconds.”

Certain pitches come and go, such as the overhand curveball – in this case, only because umpires discourage it. “A good overhand curve breaks from a batter’s waist to his knees or below as it crosses the plate. It often ends up in the dirt before a catcher can glove it,” says McDermott. “Umpires look silly calling strikes on balls in the dirt, and umps don’t like to look silly. David Wells pitched for nine teams over twenty-one years, ending in 2007, mainly because he could get called strikes on his overhand curve.” If your baseball mind gets stimulated by observations such as this one, then Off Speed is for you.

“It is, as Warren Spahn famously said, the job of the pitcher to fool the hitter,” McDermott reminds us. “Hitting is expectation and habituation. Pitching is surprise and interruption. The most common way to throw a fastball that moves contrary to expectation is to throw one that sinks.” Enter Greg Maddux whose “ability to impart movement to low-velocity fastballs became legend.” Deception may be the pitcher’s desired effect, but control is the pitcher’s necessary attribute. As Off Speed proceeds, control becomes its preoccupation. Some pitchers control the ball so well that they succeed even when batters expect a certain pitch. For instance, Mariano Rivera threw a cutter four out of every five pitches, compiling an exemplary career ERA of 2.21. Here is McDermott’s fine rendition:

Mariano.jpegThe pitch is executed by holding the ball in a basic four-seam fastball grip, but with the fingers moved to the right (for a right-hander) side of the seams rather than straight across them. Then you throw the ball as if it were a fastball. By applying pressure with the index and middle fingers, Rivera turned the pitch into an incendiary device. He did this by maintaining velocity while also inducing spin. The resulting pitch came from the same spot as a straight fastball and looked exactly like a straight fastball until just before it arrived at the plate, when it veered to the left. Not much – only a few inches – but hard and always late. A right-handed hitter would break his bat by catching the pitch on the end of the barrel. A left-handed hitter would break his bat by catching the pitch in on his hands. The bat carnage was so complete that one of the retirement gifts Rivera got from an opposing team was a rocking chair built out of busted bats.

Having grown up just 15 minutes from the Iowa ballfield where Field of Dreams was shot, Terry McDermott has delivered a book that celebrates the pitcher’s dominating finesse. Nevertheless, Henry Aaron disagreed: “The pitcher has only got a ball. I’ve got a bat. So the percentage of weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.”

[Published May 16, 2017. 224 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

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CaseyCover.jpgCharles Dillon Stengel got the nickname Casey from his hometown, Kansas City, where he was born in 1890. Near the end of the 1912 major league season, Brooklyn called him up from Montgomery, even though one scout called him “a dandy ballplayer, but it’s all from the neck down.” Ultimately, he played for four more National League teams while earning a reputation for flakiness. While a Dodger in the 1923 World Series, he thumbed his nose at the Yankee bench while circling the bases after hitting a home run. Then as a Pittsburgh Pirate, he was heckled on his return to Brooklyn – and tipped his cap to them, releasing a sparrow. His playing days ended in 1925.

Stengel and Leo Durocher were baseball’s two most notorious managers, but Stengel was goofier, more talkative with reporters, and skippered the Yankees over a 12 year period to seven World Series championships in 10 classic appearances. But before this remarkable stretch, Stengel had experienced long bouts of abject losing. While managing the Boston Braves, he was hit by a truck while crossing Commonwealth Avenue in the rain, his femur shattered – which triggered a comment from sportswriter Dave “the Colonel” Egan who hailed the driver as “the man who had done the most for baseball in Boston in 1943.” Stengel spent six weeks in the hospital.

He could have retired in the late 1940s after reaping the profits from a Texas oil-drilling investment. But he loved the game, swallowed his pride, and accepted a job managing a Yankee farm team in Oakland. At age 58 in 1949, he graduated back to the Bigs, the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio, taking them to the pennant and winning the Series in five games. In 1951, he brought along three rookies – Mickey Mantle, Bill Skowron and Gil McDougald, while DiMaggio retired. A new era commenced. In 1952, he penciled in 95 different batting orders.

CaseyNewspaper.jpegMarty Appel brings “The Ol’ Perfessor” to life in Casey Stengel -- and as a former Yankees publicist and virtual team historian, Appel is eminently qualified for the job. The inner workings of the great Yankee team are portrayed crisply, on and off the field. But the charm of the narrative flows from Appel’s companionable portrayal of the man who was known for “Stengelese,” an endless, wandering monologue spiked with pantomime, witticisms and remarks that could induce head-scratching among his audience. “The secret of managing,” he said, “is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” And also: “The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It’s that they stay out all night looking for it.” After being hospitalized at the outset of the 1960 season, he remarked, “They examined all my organs. Some are quite remarkable and others are not so good. A lot of museums are bidding for them.” No wonder the journalists loved him.

Casey_and_Mickey.jpgStengel was tough to please, a not untypical attitude before the current age of “players’ managers.” About Mantle, Stengel told the writers, “He constantly fights himself. Mickey actually gets discouraged when he can’t hit a certain pitcher since he hardly believes that it’s possible for anyone to strike him out … If he makes up his mind to put in the time that it will take to overcome his weaknesses, he can do things that will make others look silly. Among other things, he must try to eliminate strikeouts and not go after bad balls.”

After the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pirates, Stengel spoke at a press conference and indicated that he had been paid off in full. Reporters rushed out of the room to find telephones. Asked if he had been fired, he replied, “Write anything you want. Quit, fired, whatever you please, I don’t care.” He returned home to Glendale, but in the fall of 1961, the Mets announced that the 71-year old Stengel would be their new manager. In 1963, the Mets finished 48 games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. On July 24, 1965, his 75th birthday, Stengel broke his hip in the men’s room at Toots Shor’s restaurant – and his wife Edna made the decision for him to retire for good. He was rapidly elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. He was just the fifth man for whom the five-year waiting period was waived – the others were Connie Mack, Lou Gehrig, Judge Landis, and Joe DiMaggio.

caseysenate.jpegAppel strikes just the right tone to provide a balanced picture of Stengel – homespun or tough, generous or vindictive, shrewd or obtuse. In the end, just listening to Stengel’s conversation tells you much about the man’s humanity. In 1957, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Anti-trust and Monopoly called Stengel as a witness to testify. “I had many years when I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill,” he said without cracking a smile. He went on for a while reminiscing. Finally, the exasperated committee chair, Estes Kefauver, halted the testimony and said, “I am not sure that I made my question clear.” Stengel responded, “Well, that is all right. I am not sure if I am going to answer yours perfectly, either.”

[Published March 28, 2017. 432 pages, 31 b&w and color photographs, $27.95 hardcover]