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Larry Biittner in . . . The Nagging Question

May 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.

Anyway, on to the Nagging Question for today. In case you haven’t already guessed it, here it is:

Who was your Joe Shlabotnik?

55 comments

  1. 1.  AL: Jim Anderson
    NL: Ron Roenicke


  2. 2.  Bill Sudakis


  3. 3.  Gerald Perry.


  4. 4.  Butch Wynegar.


  5. 5.  Another vote for Gerald Perry, and Milt Thompson.


  6. 6.  Garry Maddox, followed by Dickie Thon.


  7. 7.  Love it Josh. Keep bringin’ it.

    My Joe Shlabotnik was Adrian Garrett. Who? This guy was praised in Sporting News as an upcoming star, for several years in the 1960s amd 1970s. He was supposed to have unbelievable power. He ended up playing a lot of minor league ball. He played in the majors little over 8 seasons. I remember, in 1975, I was ten, and I used up all my money to buy a tabletop baseball game called Longball. The cards were designed to replicate actual stats and abilities of the players. I looked at this card which showed a player with unbeliable power–Adrian Garrett. I was like, “who the f*%# is this guy?”…ya, even at 10 I could swear pretty good. Adrian out-slugged every other player in the set, Jackson, Stargell, Schmidt, Kingman, you name it. Going into 1976, I was just waiting for Adrian Garrett to EXPLODE! It never happened.

    My bit on Biittner: I lived in IL from 1976 to 1981. I watched a lot of really bad Cubs ballgames during that period. But I fell in love with the losers, like most people do. A lot of those games kindof morphed into one long hot summer, except for one game . . . the only game ever pitched by Larry Biittner. I remember watching the game in 1977, and the Cubs were getting blown out so bad, they brought in Larry Biittner . . . to pitch! On the TV screen they wrote: “Larry Biittner – the Piittcher”. He got lit up like Times Square, and finished with an ERA over 40.00. Too funny.


  8. 8.  7 Adrian Garret. By god, I’ve never heard of him.

    I did read about the Biittner pitching stint. He gave up 3 homers in an inning and a third, but he somehow also struck out three guys. Go figure. (I didn’t know about the “piittcher” graphic, however–awesome!)

    3, 5: Gerald Perry’s leading the way so far. Who’d a thunk it?

    6: I liked Dickie Thon a lot, too.


  9. 9.  Adrian Garrett was Wayne’s brother.

    In terms of a bit player associated with a suffering fanbase, it’s hard to top the above named Bruce Boisclair. Though I don’t think anyone was fooled into imagining him a star at any time.

    George Theodore on the other hand…


  10. 10.  Dan Wright


  11. 11.  Is Todd Hollandsworth too famous to count?


  12. 12.  Glenn Gulliver.

    (Explainer: I grew up in Rochester, NY, home of the Baltimore Orioles’ Class AAA team. During my impressionable years, Gully was the Red Wings’ hustling third baseman who walked a lot. Why did this appeal to me? God knows.)


  13. 13.  Lynn McGlothen P

    His daughter went to the same grade school as me and that brush with fame was enough for me to put his baseball cards in the box of highest honor whenever I was lucky enough to snag one. He was actually a decent pitcher too, at least in his St. Louis years. I remember him as the king of the 1-hitter, but wonder now how many he actually threw.


  14. 14.  George Zeber — the waxen demonstration of bunting technique on his 1978 card did it for me.


  15. 15.  9: Note to self: possibility for name of disappointing third album for band I will never get around to actually forming–”Wayne Garret’s Less Famous Brother”

    10 I do not know of this Dan Wright. Any further elucidation on this matter would greatly me get to sleep tonight.

    11: I noticed that during his brief stay with the Cubs, Hollandsworth definitely seemed to be verging on some Biittneresque appreciation from the Cubs fans.

    12: Yes, a minor league Shlabotnik! This gives me a chance to highly recommend a book I’m reading right now called Twilight of the Longball Gods by John Schulian. Among other subjects (such as the always entertaining Bill Veeck), Schulian writes beautifully about minor league superstars (such as Steve Bilko and Moe Hill) who never made it to the show but who still were heroes in their minor league towns.

    13: During a quick search I couldn’t find any 1-hitters in McGlothen’s 13 career shutouts. But rest assured in the Cardboard God world he threw several.


  16. 16.  You’re right, he didn’t throw any.
    This is truly disturbing. I probably didn’t do as well in school as I thought and never hit that home run in little league either.
    World crumbling all around me…


  17. 17.  In fairness, Glenn Gulliver did make it to The Show, albeit briefly.
    In 1982-83, he added his name to the long list of O’s third basemen who dismally failed to replace Brooks Robinson.
    (He could not unseat either Wayne Gross or Todd Cruz for a permanent third-base gig with the O’s … which says all you need to know.)

    He also got at least one Topps card, in 1983. Of course I’ve got one.

    Will have to check out the book.


  18. 18.  Brian Traxler and Dave Hansen.


  19. 19.  By the way, I was doing research once for a museum exhibit on baseball content in the Peanuts strips, and came across a claim that Shlabotnik was based on a real player who played for the Minneapolis Millers while Schulz was growing up there. Can’t for the life of me remember the guy’s name, though.


  20. 20.  Lorenzo Gray. I was there when he hit his only HR.


  21. 21.  milt ramirez and shooty babbitt.
    pitcher would have to be brian kingman.


  22. 22.  though mickey klutts’ tater off ron guidry in the bottom of the 9th inning at my first in-person A’s game in ’80 certainly cemented MK’s place in my baseball god-dom.


  23. 23.  I would have to say , Steve Swisher and Lance Rhautzen .


  24. 24.  Does Chico Escuela count?

    Actually, in deference to Mother’s Day I will say that my mom’s favorite was John Wockenfuss, a career backup catcher. My mom is not much of a baseball fan but she always went to my little league games and never asked anything from me when TWIB was on, so I owe her. She was in the room one Sunday in the mid-1970′s when I was watching a game involving Detroit. The announcers were making a big deal of the Tigers letting Wockenfuss start the game because his mother had travelled to see her son play in the majors for the first time. This caught my mother’s attention. Sure enough, Wockenfuss hit a home run. He could be a psychopath bent on the destruction of humanity but my mother will always think he is a good boy because he hit a home run for his mom.


  25. 25.  19 Boy I wish I knew the name of the Minneapolis Miller that Joe Shlabotnik was based on. Below is a link to the year-by-year rosters for the Millers in the 1930s, which is presumably when the young Charles Schulz (b. 1922) was doing his deepest Charlie Brown research:
    http://stewthornley.net/millers_1931_1940.html#1934

    I guess the name of the real Shlabotnik might be in there somewhere.

    24 Long live the legend of Wockenfuss.

    Though my mom was aware of the Red Sox players my brother and I were constantly going on about, the first player I ever noticed her taking a special interest in was Manny Ramirez, back when he was an Indian and she was living in Oberlin, Ohio, for a few years in the ’90s. I think his sweetly clueless escapades–getting picked off of first, wandering to the plate with his shirt hanging out, running in from left field when there were fewer than three outs, etc.–brought out the mothering instinct in her.


  26. 26.  Hee-Seop Choi.

    It’s a long story.


  27. 27.  I don’t recall ever having a Biittner. Maybe Ramon Aviles who had one sole Red Sox appearance in ’77. He bunted a couple of runners over but it was for naught as Bob McClure (the Founding Father of Rotting) intentionally walked Butch Hobson. Rick Miller tried to bring his brother in law Pudge Fisk on a flyball to left but Jamie Quirk’s (?) throw to Charlie Moore nailed him at the plate.

    Ramon got an assist in the next inning, but they weren’t trusting him with the bat when his spot came up again. Dewey Evans pinch hit for him. Sox one the game anyways, but Aviles didn’t show up in the majors for a couple of years until the Phils used him for parts of three seasons.


  28. 28.  Mick Kelleher


  29. 29.  An article in the April 3, 2000 Syracuse Post-Standard leads me to believe that Joe Shlabotnik was inspired by Johnny Pasek.

    “A few years ago, I spoke twice with Schulz on the telephone. The topic that got his interest was an old bat maker from the North Side of Syracuse. Now, as baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown prepares its first “Peanuts” exhibit, I’ll almost guarantee that Schulz would have agreed with me on this:

    An old Johnny Pasek model baseball bat, made by the fabled Kren bat company of Syracuse, should be part of that display.

    Pasek died more than 20 years ago. He was a journeyman catcher who played minor league ball in St. Paul, Minn., where Schulz – nicknamed “Sparky” – spent his childhood. For the guy who later created the humble Charlie Brown, Pasek became the perfect boyhood hero. Years later, Charlie Brown would have his own journeyman hero in Joe Shlabotnik.”


  30. 30.  Keith Miller, dirtiest uniform I ever saw…


  31. 31.  I have only once spent the exorbitant amount of money it takes to get an “official” baseball jersey. in the summer of 1998, i journeyed to the sports clothes store at the local mall and proudly ordered an “away” yankees jersey with #21 on the back.

    “pauly!!!”, the clerk responded excitedly.

    I almost didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, but I quietly and honestly admitted, “nope. Dan Pasqua.”

    dan pasqua indeed.


  32. 32.  Joe Lovitto. One of the first cards I owned and along with Mike Kekich gave me 2 Texas Rangers cards. I think this and the fact I was a big Lone Ranger fan made me a Texas Ranger fan. I grew up in Nebraska so I was pretty much free to pick whatever team I wanted as my favorite–no hometown teams around. Now living in St Louis so I have a NL team to cheer for with my Rangers still.


  33. 33.  They are poorly constructed, with only four (fairly decent to pretty lousy) pitchers, and their numbers are larger than a major league roster would allow, fittingly necessitating several demotions to the minor leagues at the close of their bumbling spring training tryouts. But if any team is equipped to deal manfully with minor league demotions it is this squad, which includes career minor leaguer Pasek on the coaching staff as well as infielder Milt Ramirez, who played in the majors in 1970 and 1971, then not again until 1979. What goes down sometimes comes back up. (Note: It usually doesn’t.)

    Anyway, now presenting. . .The Shlabotniks:

    Manager: Joe Shlabotnik
    First base coach: Chico Escuela
    Third base coach: Johnny Pasek

    Catchers:
    Bruce Wynegar
    Steve Swisher
    John Wockenfuss

    First basemen:
    Gerald Perry
    Brian Traxler
    Hee-Seop Choi

    Second Basemen:
    George Zeber
    Shooty Babbitt
    Ramon Aviles
    Keith Miller

    Shortstops:
    Jim Anderson
    Dickie Thon
    Milt Ramirez
    Mick Kelleher

    Third basemen:
    Bill Sudakis
    Glenn Gulliver
    Dave Hansen
    Lorenzo Gray
    Mickey Klutts

    Outfielders:
    Ron Roenicke
    Milt Thompson
    Garry Maddox
    Adrian Garrett
    Bruce Boisclair
    George Theodore
    Todd Hollandsworth
    Dan Pasqua
    Joe Lovitto
    Garry Hancock

    Pitchers:
    Dan Wright
    Lynn McGlothen
    Brian Kingman
    Lance Rautzhan


  34. 34.  My Joe Schlabotnik had to be Jim Walewander of the Tigers. I just remember thinking that a normal guy had somehow made the majors. There were articles in the paper about how he loved the Dead Milkmen and had tin foil curtains in his apartment. He just seemed like he could have been one of your buddies who somehow got scooped out of the backyard wiffle ball game and put into the Tiger dugout. I remember my grandmother cried when he hit his first (and only) HR.


  35. 35.  Josh-

    Dan Wright used to eat lunch with me when I was in the seventh grade. He was part of the White Sox rotation for four years and won 14 games in 2002. I followed him pretty closely and regularly made him my final pick in fantasy baseball drafts. I was pretty disappointed when he was released. Not too many people from Batesville, AR make it to the bigs. He played in the minors last year and may soon make it back.


  36. 36.  34: I always liked Walewander, too, and always saw him somehow as a relation of some sort to Wockenfuss.

    35: Thanks for the info, weatherman. I’ll be pulling for Dan Wright to make it make to the show.


  37. 37.  The first guy who springs to mind as my Joe Shablotnik actually panned out, though it took a few years. I had become a huge Pedro Guerrero fan when he went 5-for-8 with a triple at the tail end of the ’78 season, then wound up on one of those three-headed rookie cards as in the Giant Prospects entry preceding this one. it took a couple more years for him to find a home in the Dodger lineup — they even tried him at 2B for a spell in ’80 — but he worked out OK.

    As somebody who grew up in Salt Lake City, I glommed on to every halfway decent Angels prospect who came through their Triple-A club, the Gulls. Dickie Thon (sigh) was one of the more famous, as was future World Series hero/convicted felon Willie Mays Aikens. Some were less famous, such as Steve Lubratich, who’s managed a solid second act as a mid-level exec (player development) in Cleveland and Detroit, and Floyd Rayford, who bashed a huge, go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning of a game I attended in 1979 — possibly the most exciting moment I’d witnessed first-hand up to that point.

    But the one who probably fits the bill here the best is Ike Hampton, who bookended a 17-inning game I attended in 1979 with a pair of home runs, though I was long since tucked in by the time the latter rolled around. Hampton hit 30 that year, earning the last of several cups of coffee before lighting out for Japan, and I remember making a point to acquire his 1978 baseball card somewhere around that time. As I recall, it opens with the immortal line: “Combination catchers and shortstops are extremely rare…” Certainly, you can see the attraction and the doom right there.


  38. 38.  As soon as I saw the Biittner card, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. In the earlier Cardboard Gods posting on Jeff Burroughs, I mentioned the great ball-in-the-hat trick, attributing the play to Burroughs, but indeed it was Biittner; watching the hat play as it happened is one of my favorite baseball memories.

    As far as my Shlabotnik goes, it’s Dave Schneck, an outfielder who pounded eight homers in three seasons with the Mets from 1972 to 1974.

    As a kid, every once in a while I’d spend a Saturday working with my dad at his tire shop on Utica Ave. & Ave. D, and we’d pass by Schenk Ave., which always made me think of Dave Schneck. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the avenue and the ballplayer spelled their names differently.


  39. 39.  I can’t believe there are other human beings out there conscious of Lorenzo Grey and Glen Gulliver’s existence. I feel as if I’ve been taken aboard the mother ship.

    I had plenty of card board gods in my youth who fit the bill, as I grew up playing “baseball card baseball.”

    Some names that come to mind include:

    Vern Rhule
    Manny Sunguillen
    Ron Hassey
    Broderick Perkins
    Chris Bando
    Rafael Landestoy
    Bryan Clark

    Coinidentally, John Wockenfus’ kids were baby-sat by a woman in my neighborhood growing up. I suppose his depictions on cards as anything from C to 3B, 1B, OF is what made me so fond of Alan Knicely.


  40. 40.  37: Now I wish I grew up in a minor league town.

    38: Dave Schneck gets the prize for the most Shlabotnik sounding name so far.

    39: Alan Bannister was my Alan Knicely.


  41. 41.  Dave Schneck came from the city where I now live (Allentown, PA.)
    He operates a batting cage in a suburb of Allentown, and is occasionally called upon by the local paper to comment on relevant events, such as the death of Tug McGraw.

    Schneck was part of the Mets-Phils trade that involved McGraw, Del Unser and others. Apparently when Schneck saw McGraw afterward, he would always tease McGraw about being “the throw-in in the big Dave Schneck trade.”

    Alan Knicely was no Dave Van Gorder.


  42. 42.  My Shlabonski is Jim Morrison. If I had to pick a pitcher, it would be Tom Dettore.

    Check out Dettore’s cards from like 1973 or 1974. Looks like he could kill someone.


  43. 43.  I am a good friend of Adrian Garrett’s. Please check out this website covering his career and family: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Adrian_Garrett

    Other than in 1975 & 1976, Adrian was never given a real opportunity at playing in the Major Leagues. Lets see if you can hit 43 home runs at AAA, and then perform well when you are brought up to the Major Leagues and pinch hit about once a week. He finally went over to Japan in 1977 & hit 102 home runs in 3 years. His team (Hiroshima Carp) won the Nippon Championship in 1979. Dick Schaap flew from the U.S. to Hiroshima to interview Adrian in 1978.


  44. 44.  Thanks very much for that info about Adrian Garret, JaxJaguar. That’s much appreciated.

    I go to great lengths to shape (or even distort) the exploits of many of the major leaguers from my childhood into metaphors for my own disappointments and failures, and in doing so I often obscure just how fricken amazing anybody good enough to make the major leagues for even a single game is. Even Garry Hancock deserves a standing ovation, which is why it was so cool that he actually got one. If Adrian Garret never got his major league standing O, let me be the first to get up off my middle-aged butt and make some noise for him. And actually I’m not the first–there are others here who not only remember him but count him as first among all their childhood heroes.


  45. 45.  I have been made aware of a wonder website called http://www.paperofrecord.com This is a website of newspapers that have made their past editions available on the web. Big deal, right? Not exactly. The main focus here is The Sporting News. You can search any of its issues going back to 1889. Imagine finding the first issue to talk about a young pitcher by the name of George Herman Ruth or Tyrus Raymond Cobb. You can look up Larry Biitner, Adrian Garrett, Garry Hancock or ANYONE your grew up idolizing. Enjoy!


  46. 46.  Alvaro Espinoza. He gave hope to bespectacled skinny middle infielders everywhere.


  47. 47.  Chico Walker, who drifted in and out of the Cubs teams of my youth but who did eventually pull off an extremely rare and exciting play…he hit an inside-the-park grand slam.


  48. 48.  47 : He also has an important part in Red Sox history; he was, if I’m remembering correctly, the guy who replaced Yaz in left in Yaz’s last game.


  49. 49.  Larry was my favorite player in an era where the Cubs only had a few good position players. He didn’t strike out much and hit to all fields, occasionally hitting with power. He was decent with the glove and didn’t make mistakes. He hustled too! He sure was slow. Geez.

    I believe Biittner was gassed before he got to the mound. It was about 105 degrees that day. As Herman Franks said, he came within one pitch of being a hero. I’m sure if we could’ve read Biittner’s thought balloon, it would’ve said, “gee, thanks”. It was an ugly day indeed. I thought he had a pretty good curveball though.


  50. My Joe Shlabotnik was Larry Biittner. My older brothers who loved Ernie Banks never understood it, but Biittner was the clutch guy during a time when the Cubs didn’t have much else to be excited. I still have an autographed photo of him that he sent me after sending a fan letter as a 10 year old and cherish it as much now as I did then. He was Super Sub the Super Cub!


  51. Jim Dwyer. He had a card in the APBA board game my friend and I had just bought in 1974, and we also knew ANOTHER guy named…Jim Dwyer! They were both from the Chicago area. I was astounded…two Jim Dwyers, and one was a major leaguer! Wow. After seeing how sparingly Dwyer was used and how he bounced around in his first few seasons, I would have never dreamed he’d have an 18-year MLB career.


  52. Dave Chalk
    Tom O’Malley
    Jeff Ransom
    Wilbur Howard all come to mind


  53. infielder Steve Dillard and then later catcher Bob Natal.


  54. I always liked Steve Dillard, too.


  55. Charlie Spikes and Larvell Blanks.



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