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Johnny Wockenfuss

June 6, 2008
 Untitled 
The first year my world expanded beyond my house and yard, I got a bully. He intercepted me in the afternoons after kindergarten, stepping in front of me when I was on my way home. One day he showed me a little pen knife and said he was going to carve me up if I didn’t find a way to climb through a small tree that had split at the trunk into two thick, tightly entwined branches. I spent what seemed like a very long time trying to climb through the nonexistent space between the branches. For most of that time I was afraid to look up from the task, and even when I finally did and saw that my bully was gone I kept trying for a while, afraid that he’d somehow know that I had defied him.

Another day he was starting to menace me with a fallen branch bigger than either of us. My best friend Nick happened to come by.

“Hey, get out of here,” Nick shouted at my bully. He stepped toward him. Nick was a big kid, a year older than me. “Go on! Beat it!”

The bully beat it. From that point on I lingered after school every day for a little while, waiting for Nick’s class to get out so we could walk home together.

When does a person’s life begin to separate itself from other lives? There are a few years there, after the womb, after the cutting of the umbilical cord, of glowing unconscious preverbal attachment to others, to those holding you and feeding you. Then things start getting a little more complicated.

The first lie I ever told was to Nick. One day my next-door neighbor dragged a little plastic wading pool out into the grass between our houses and I discovered that Nick had abnormal feet. His toes were all melted together. This upset and disturbed me tremendously. Another day, maybe the next day, he came over and asked if I wanted to play in the wading pool again. He was standing outside our open front door like a salesman.

“I have a TV show I have to watch,” I said. “Bye.”

I shut the door on him and went and turned on the TV. I have imposed onto this memory that I then watched Lost in Space, a show I watched a lot in that house in New Jersey, but I’m not sure if that’s what was on. It didn’t matter what was on. Nick never asked me to play in the wading pool again.

Lost in Space was my first favorite show. In it a standard clean-cut Eisenhower era television family augmented by a perpetually angry young hothead, a safety-conscious robot, and an aging flamboyant narcissist drifts through the universe, unable to get back to the world they know. At that time, my own family was in an early 1970s experimental open marriage phase that must have made the unusually configured clan of Lost in Space seem comfortingly familiar. My mother and her boyfriend shared a room, and my dad had a room of his own. My brother and I watched a lot of TV.

There was this recurring character on one of the shows we watched, Sesame Street, a big droopy pachyderm-like creature named Snuffleupagus, whom only Big Bird could see. I remember him as always being a little depressed that the adults didn’t believe he existed. After every appearance he’d galumph off just before an adult happened by, and Big Bird’s claims that they’d just missed Snuffleupagus would be met with skepticism. Of course, besides Big Bird, all the children watching at home could also see Snuffleupagus.

“You don’t understand!” we would say.

I guess the idea was that one of the beauties of childhood, and one of its hardships, was that as you grow up and out of the crawling and sucking stage you start seeing and living a different life than the lives of your guardians. You start separating, becoming an individual. The adults can’t see what you’re seeing.

Sesame Street still features Snuffleupagus, but in the mid-1980s they got rid of what had been the key element of his story. Someone at the show noticed that having adults disbelieve stories of what happened in their absence came dangerously close to the historical tendency of adults—of society in general—to disbelieve children’s claims of molestation. So I can see the reason behind revising the Snuffleupagus story, but I’m also glad I got to see it in its original form. It makes me better able to understand why I have put so much undue importance on a baseball player who was not anywhere near my favorite player and never played for my favorite team.

There are plenty of differences between Snuffleupagus and Johnny Wockenfuss, of course. For one thing, I don’t think Snuffleupagus could rake left-handed pitching like Johnny Wockenfuss could. For another, I’m sure if I’d told my mom or dad or stepfather about Johnny Wockenfuss, they would have believed that someone called Johnny Wockenfuss existed. But as they then turned back toward whatever they’d been doing before being interrupted, I would feel that the most important thing about Johnny Wockenfuss had been ignored, had been lost somewhere between my young tongue and the adults’ ears.

“You don’t understand!” I would say.

And how could they? It’s thirty years later and I still can’t explain it myself. All my Cardboard Gods matter to me, but there’s a little extra magic about Johnny Wockenfuss, and I’m not sure why.

When I first found this card in a pack I’m sure I felt compelled to say the words aloud. Johnny Wockenfuss. The sound was mine alone, a droopy galumphing imaginary companion. Every once in a while I still say Johnny Wockenfuss aloud. It’s a habit that may bloom into full flower someday, as I lie bald and decrepit in a stiff metal-railed bed in an underfunded institution.

“He keeps saying Johnny Wockenfuss,” one staff member will say. “Who the hell’s Johnny Wockenfuss?”

“Nobody,” another staff member will reply. By then my tongue won’t be able to form any other words. So only groans will come out when I try to protest.

“You don’t understand!” I’ll try to say.

19 comments

  1. 1.  There is something magic about Wockenfuss. I started watching baseball a few years after this card came out, so he was just John Wockenfuss to me. Johnny Wockenfuss sounds strange to me, like Bob Clemente or Rick Schroeder.


  2. 2.  Being that I have taken to calling my 10 year old daughter ‘Johnny Wockenfuss’, during out backyard wiffleball batting practice the past year or so, this post was particulary fun to read. I have to admit, the name rolls off the tongue, and has ruminated in my 42 year old head since I first heard of this guy in the 70’s.

    Of course, my 10 year old did not believe that this fictious charachter in her mind existed, so I had to pull out some mid 70’s Johnny Wock card to prove it to her. And, we even played a game of Strato, just so she could ‘manage’ Wockenfuss, circa 1983 Tigers vs. Yankees. Sorry to say, Johnny Wock took the collar that game, as the Jack Morris vs. Ron Guidry(noticed I did start a lefty-had to try to get Johnny Wock some good at bats agains a lefty) battled into the 10th, when Dave Winfield ended the game with a 2 run-walk off HR(right after a Don Baylor walk). You would not ever see a starter in the 10th inning anymore, but remember in 1983 managing, when your starter was strong, he stayed in!


  3. 3.  1 : I always thought the most striking of those “same guy/different name” guys was the one who at one time was a freshman UNC hoopster known as “Mike” Jordan.

    2 : Johnny Wockenfuss being passed down from generation to generation! I love it.


  4. 4.  Wow. Johnny Wockenfuss as the Snuffleupagus of the CGs. Perfect. It works on much more than the level of the sound of there names…


  5. 5.  4 : Especially considering a certain Tiger teammate:

    http://tinyurl.com/66en3g


  6. 6.  Prior to the mid-80s the adults on Sesame Street were probably wondering what Big Bird was snuffleupagusing.


  7. 7.  IIRC, he had an unorthodox batting stance.


  8. 8.  FYI: An enjoyable comment has been added to the old post Big League Brothers (see link under the Behold The Unsortable heading in the sidebar).


  9. 9.  It used to really piss me off when the adults didn’t see Snuffleupagus. Apparently, one time when I was about four, I yelled “Son of a bitch!” at Sesame Street. I heard that’s why they revealed Snuffleupagus to the rest of the Street, but I’d never heard the molestation thing until this post.


  10. 10.  9 : Here’s some more specific info on the change in the story, from the wikipedia entry on the Snuffster:

    “In an interview on a Canadian telethon that was hosted by Bob McGrath, Snuffy’s performer, Martin P. Robinson, revealed that Snuffy was finally introduced to the main human cast mainly due to a string of high profile and sometimes graphic stories of pedophila and sexual abuse of children on shows such as 60 Minutes and 20/20. The writers felt that by having the adults refuse to believe Big Bird despite the fact that he was telling the truth, they were scaring children into thinking that their parents would not believe them if they had been sexually abused and that they would just be better off remaining silent. ”


  11. 11.  I don’t know if it was intentional, but the last few paragraphs of this post have me imagining Josh looking like a heavily-made-up Orson Welles.


  12. 12.  Aurelio Rodriguez is my Johnny Wockenfuss. Totally get it.


  13. 13.  7 Extremely, extremely closed stance. Then he’d waggle the fingers on his right hand in an odd, fidgety way.


  14. 14.  My friends and I used to call him Fuckin’ Wuss. It just seemed obvious.


  15. 15.  Here’s an enjoyable and informative article on Wockenfuss (which mentions the finger-waggling stance) from the Daily Fungoes site:

    http://www.dailyfungo.com/2008/02/27/happy-birthday-johnny-b/


  16. 16.  Josh, I just realized that Johnny Wockenfuss hasn’t been added to the ongoing Love v. Hate game. Was there a rain delay?


  17. 17.  16 : Astute question. I meant to mention somewhere that he’s one of the “Play Ball” law-bearers, rules instead of a game action on the back of his card.


  18. I always thought that this player secretly longed to be called “Little Johnny Wockenfuss”.


  19. I can remember being very sad when I found out that Johnny Wockenfuss was no longer a Tiger, one of those baseball names that always stays with you… Just like how I was bummed when I found out Enos Cabell was no longer a Tiger. Of course, I don’t think I really gave Johnny Wockenfuss much thought as 1984 rolled along and Willie Hernandez, acquired for Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson, was helping close down games during that magical championship season.

    Still, it would have been sweeter if some of the great baseball names of the 83 Tigers could have been around to get a ring… Sure, we still had Johnny Grubb and picked up Sid Monge… But Enos Cabell, Johnny Wockenfuss, Wayne Krenchicki… some classics right there. My ten year old self thought they deserved better. Memorables names and/or hair was a solid 40% of a player’s value as far as I was concerned back then.



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