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U.L. Washington

February 8, 2007

At the time Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton were exchanging teams and destinies, I was probably more aware of a third young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop, U.L. Washington. This idiosyncratic focus stems partly from the fact that I didn’t know as much about the National League in general, especially the teams (besides the Joe Torre Mets) that never got into the playoffs, such as the Cardinals and Padres. By the same token (whatever that means), I knew U.L. Washington in part because his team practically lived in the playoffs, but also because his name was U.L. Washington and U.L. stood for U.L. Of course, the main reason U.L. Washington had imprinted his name and image on my adolescent mind was that U.L. Washington played every inning while chewing on a toothpick.

A major leaguer playing baseball with a toothpick in his mouth is just the kind of thing that fascinates a child. At least this child. And since I was edging my way out of childhood when he came along, U.L. Washington seemed something like a parting gift from the Cardboard Gods to me, the last miniature Krackle bar at the last house the last time trick-or-treating. Fittingly enough, I took my last candy-gathering round as a 12-year-old wearing the laziest of all costumes, a sheet with eyeholes, in 1980, just a couple weeks after watching U.L. Washington gnaw on his toothpick while playing in the World Series. I liked him instantly and rooted for him and, like thousands of other American boys, I walked around with a toothpick in my mouth for a little while.
Unlike his two young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop National League counterparts, U.L. Washington was not traded in his early years. I’m not sure who he could have been traded for, since there weren’t any other young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstops in the American League. Maybe the Royals could have worked out a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for switch-hitting shortstop Alfredo Griffin (who was not African American but who was a young switch-hitting shortstop and who more importantly would have enabled the Kansas City newspaper to print the headline “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Griffin!”) with weak-hitting Danny Ainge as a throw-in who would in turn bring them speedy African American Terry Duerod from the Celtics. When, four years after the Ozzie Smith-Garry Templeton trade, U.L. Washington finally did make his debut on the transaction page, he was swapped for a 27-year-old pitcher, Mike Kinnunen, whose sole brief and ineffective stint in the majors to that point had occurred back when Garry Templeton was still an All-Star for the Cardinals. U.L. Washington was in decline by then, but even so, the question must be asked: Mike Kinnunen? It seems an unnecessarily cruel mirror to hold up to the fading toothpick-gnawing infielder who’d brought so much joy to the youth of America. The Royals, who never once made use of Mike Kinnunen nor ever made it back to the playoffs after parting with U.L. Washington, should be ashamed of themselves, but not as ashamed as the Topps baseball card company should be for this blatantly toothpickless photo. It’s like depicting Paul Bunyan without an axe.

5 comments

  1. 1.  9 comments from the old CG site:

    El Person said…
    Toothpick Sam Jones was another guy who played with a toothpick in his mouth.

    6:16 PM

    Max said…
    Great stuff, but…

    “The Royals, who never once made use of Mike Kinnunen nor ever made it back to the playoffs after parting with U.L. Washington,”

    The Royals traded UL in January 1985 and won the World Series nine months later.

    9:15 AM

    Josh Wilker said…
    “The Royals traded UL in January 1985 and won the World Series nine months later.”

    Arrrrrggghhh!!!

    This is almost as bad as the gaffe in the Gorman Thomas post (since corrected), in which I claimed that the Brewers were hampered in their bid to win the World Series by a bad call by first base ump Don Denkinger, confusing the ’82 series between the Brewers and Cards with the ’85 series between the Cards and Royals. This UL-less 1985 series is something I obviously have some trouble with, possibly because it occured during a particularly aimless, post-expulsion, pot-addled, schoolless Teen-Wolf viewing period (see post on Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson). Anyway, what’s disheartening about these errors is that I often justify my lack of knowledge about most things (computer software, tax shelters, mortgage rates, auto repair, etc., etc., etc.) by claiming that I spent all my brainpower on learning baseball factoids. Now I apparently have no excuse.

    9:37 AM

    Josh Wilker said…
    And the funny thing is I remember many things very clearly about that ’85 Royals squad, George Brett and a (Daryl) Motley crew of oddballs. One of my all-time favorite baseball players, Steve Balboni, was on that team; Bret Saberhagen was barely 20 years old and, as if he was starring in an old-time heroic baseball novel, won the 7th game while his wife was giving birth to his first kid; Frank White was black and Bud Black was white; and of course the immortal Buddy Biancalana, not UL Washington, was manning the shortstop position. I guess I just wanted to imagine that UL was part of all that, perhaps mentoring Buddy Biancalana and serving as the wizened toothpick-gnawing representative of all the great ’70s Royals, such as Amos Otis and John Mayberry and Freddy Patek, who never quite made it to the promised land.

    9:54 AM

    Anonymous said…
    I always thought that Buddy Biancalana was the greatest shortstop I ever saw…

    10:27 AM

    Jon said…
    I’m a Red Sox fan, but that ’85 Royals team has a special spot in my heart. Some stoner from Overland Park’s dad transferred to Connecticut around 84 or 85 and he wound up in my brother’s class. We’d hang out alot and we were all pulling for the Royals that year. Dane Iorg’s hit in Game 6 was my favorite baseball moment up until 2004. We were all so drunk, I remember trying to walk up the hill to Danimal’s house and I couldn’t do it. Ahhhhh, to be young and foolish again.

    8:58 PM

    pm said…
    I don’t know if it was puberty(?) or what…I have virtually no memory of the 1980 World Series.

    At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, though, I’ll venture that as far as immutable physical characteristics, UL had the biggest lips in the American League.

    In the NL the competition was fiercer, amongst Jeff Leonard, Max Venable, and Rowland Office.

    It is the endless, detail-oriented analyzing of incidental factoids like these that memories of card-collecting are so often built upon..

    12:04 PM

    Anonymous said…
    I read that as “The Royals traded Washington in 1985 and never made the postseason after that year.” You’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

    3:05 PM

    Max said…
    Josh, you are excused for your error. “Teen Wolf” was a pretty awesome movie and could cause a lot of distractions.

    I am a Kansas Citian, but the only thing I remember about the ’85 Series was Ozzie’s backflips. I was seven at the time and didn’t care for baseball much. Little did I know, that would be the last time I’d get to see the team I would grow to love in the postseason!

    11:01 AM


  2. 2.  The Royals were a damn good team in the late 70’s/ early 80’s. As a result, they were periodically featured on the Game of the Week and such. And when they were, some killjoy like Garagiola or Michaels or Kubek would admonish any and all youngsters out there in TV-land to never, never play baseball with a toothpick in your mouth; serious injury or death could result! Of course, if Patek was playing short that day, you didn’t hear about the toothpick, but somebody would inevitably comment on how short Freddie was. I miss those days.


  3. 3.  2: Yeah, I miss those days too (obviously).


  4. I loved U.L. Washington! In Little League, ca. 1982 for a very short spell, I played right field with a toothpick in my mouth…until the game where our first baseman took a bad hop full in the face and happened to have a root-beer barrel candy in his lip, and it jammed up through his upper lip and tore the connective skin between his lip and his upper jaw. Needless to say, my toothpick never made another appearance after that.


  5. Thanks for that cautionary tale, Sam. I loved those root beer barrel candies. Never would have guessed they could do damage.



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