Larry Biittner in . . . The Nagging QuestionMay 11, 2007
In the interest of plunging ever further into the abyss of bottomless collective nostalgia for a hazy, intangible era full of things that never quite were, I am today introducing a new and (I am hoping) interactive feature on Cardboard Gods…
The Nagging Question
Today’s Nagging Question started forming a couple days ago when I saw a beer-thickened guy about my age in a too-small Larry Biittner Cubs jersey while I was riding the Blue Line home from work. I knew Larry Biittner’s faintly acrid expression from my shoebox of cards, but little else, so I looked into it a bit and found out that he was a part-time player who was something of a Joe Shlabotnikesque favorite in Chicago during the late ’70s. In other words, he seems to have been the guy certain lonely bespectacled kids might most wanted to have found in a pack of baseball cards, despite his lack of widespread stardom, as in this scenario described in the Wikipedia entry for Joe Shlabotnik:
One memorable 1960s Peanuts comic strip (which to this day . . . is still on display at the Topps Company) shows Charlie Brown buying five dollars worth of baseball cards (in 500 one-card penny packs) to get a card of Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown frantically rips open all the packs and does not get one. Lucy then buys one penny pack and much to Charlie Brown’s dismay, finds Shlabotnik in her one and only pack. To add insult to injury, he offers her every card he owns in trade, but Lucy, knowing nothing about baseball, refuses to trade and maintains, “He’s kind of cute.” After Charlie Brown leaves in obvious misery, Lucy throws the card into a dumpster, claiming, “He wasn’t as cute as I thought.”
A decent left-handed hitter who lasted 14 years in the majors, Biittner was definitely better than Charlie Brown’s famously inept hero, but his narrow yet impassioned, perhaps even somewhat cultish, popularity (from what I could gather while surfing through Cubs-themed blogs, his name is shorthand for the Cubs’ version of the call of the long-time fan: “I was there, I saw, I hoped, I suffered”) seems to owe more to his Shlabotniky turns than to his respectable .273 lifetime batting average. He described the most famous of these incidents in a 2002 Chicago Sun-Times interview:
Bruce Boisclair hit a sinker at my feet. I caught it, but my glove opened up when it hit the ground, the ball rolled out and my cap covered it up. Jerry Martin came running over from center field. He’s laughing into his glove and yelling, “It’s under your bleeping cap.” The Bleacher Bums are shouting, “Hat! Hat! Hat!” Boisclair must have been confused, too, because he hesitated rounding second. That gave me time to pick the ball up and throw him out at third. [Laughter] I’ll bet no one remembers that, huh?
If I had grown up in the city where I live now, and not in Vermont, it’s quite possible that Larry Biittner would have been my Joe Shlabotnik. Oddly enough, if my family had stayed in New Jersey, where I was born, and where we moved from before I was old enough to become interested in baseball, my Joe Shlabotnik would probably have been the player who out-Shlabotniked Biittner in the episode described above, the Mets’ immortal Bruce Boisclair.
But I did grow up in Vermont, so my Joe Shlabotnik (who I, like Charlie Brown, never did find in a pack of cards) was Garry Hancock, a Red Sox outfielder in the late ’70s and early ’80s whose playing time was impeded merely by Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, 9-time all-star Fred Lynn, 8-time all-star Jim Rice, 8-time Gold Glove Award winner Dwight Evans, October hero and former Rookie of the Year Bernie Carbo, Gold-Glove winner Rick Miller, and, in the very last throes of the Garry Hancock era at Fenway, by both Joe “Nothin’ Left in the Tank” Rudi and Reid “I Would Have Probably Been Josh’s Joe Shlabotnik If He Was Born a Couple Years Later” Nichols.
Hancock became a favorite of mine just before he stepped into a major league batter’s box for the first time. I was listening to the game in 1978 on the car radio of our VW bus in the driveway of my uncle’s house. As the announcer (either Ned Martin or Jim Woods, I believe) explained that this was his first major league at-bat, the crowd noise grew.
Fenway was giving him a standing ovation.
He had made it to the majors! He was golden! I remember thinking that I’d remember the moment forever, especially on the occasion of Garry Hancock’s enshrinement into Cooperstown. He pulled a nice just-foul line drive down the right field line, then struck out.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who recalls the standing ovation for Garry Hancock. His page on baseball-reference.com is sponsored by someone named Markf62, who says, “I met Garry just before he debuted with the Red Sox at a flea market where I was buying baseball cards. He was interested in cards because he was playing for the Triple A team in Pawtucket. A week later he made his debut to a standing O at Fenway!” And in an interview on redsoxnation.net, Jerry Spar, editor of Boston Sports Review, says while answering a question about his favorite Red Sox players, “Garry Hancock deserves honorable mention because that standing ovation he got for his first at-bat always stuck with me.”
It’s fairly likely that Garry Hancock never got another standing ovation, though he did manage to stick around in the big leagues until 1984 despite a lifetime .262 on-base percentage. In his final at-bat he grounded into an inning ending 1-6-3 double play.
Who was your Joe Shlabotnik?