Archive for the ‘San Francisco Giants’ Category


Brett Butler

November 17, 2019

Brett Butler

“What is the point of life?”

My son asked me that last night. He’s eight and asks a lot of questions. He wasn’t asking this question rhetorically, as a bitter, narrowing complaint, as I often have. He wanted to know.

I started saying words, haltingly, clumsily. It felt like I was trying to put up an unfamiliar tent at night in the rain. The tent directions in my mind—what I was wrestling toward with my answer—were something along the lines of the point of life being an ongoing attempt to figure out the point of life. What a shit-ass shelter! But maybe it didn’t really matter so much. Before I’d finished jamming the last of my ill-fitting mumbly tentpoles into place, Jack was already asking another question.

“What happens when you die?”


In a way the moment has passed, the play in our view over, and in another way it is being extended, is still in doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the standing figure, the square-jawed All-American fellow with the square-jawed All-American name. He has been and will continue to be for some years an excellent  major league, adept at every facet of the game within his grasp to master, which is to say that he wasn’t graced with the ability—from nature, from God, who really knows?—to drive the ball far enough to clear fences with any regularity, but he was fast and smart and driven and highly coordinated, and he hit for a high batting average and drew walks and stole bases and fielded his position well and about as close to flawlessly as anyone has ever come, committing just 41 errors in 2,213 career games.

The prone fielder, who would have an even better career and end up in the Hall of Fame, is shown here in just his second year trying to mask his callow stature with a flimsy mustache, and you can see the very same expression in his face that’s in the cancelled baserunner’s face above him—too immediate to be defined as curiosity, but related: a breathless waking at the core of whatever it is to be alive.

If we’re standing tall, if we’ve been knocked down, if we’re sent here from God, if we’re the product of some accident—it’s the same at the core for all of us:

We all wonder what will happen.


This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don’t punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can’t remember the last time I did it. I don’t particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don’t particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I’m going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There’s no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.


If you asked Brett Butler, a devout Christian, the point of life, he would have an answer that could be illustrated by this baseball card.

“I believe if Jesus Christ was a baseball player,” he once said, “he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.’”

I don’t share Brett Butler’s specific beliefs, but I think his message could be one I could adapt to an answer for my son that would be better than me trying to explain my affinity for staring at baseball cards and writing about baseball cards and writing about life and sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall:

The point is to find something you love and do it as well as you can and try to find love for everyone in the world, even those you might come into conflict with.

Brett Butler would have an even clearer answer to my son’s other question, about what happens when you die. In a 1996 article dealing Butler’s battle with cancer, he said, “I’m not afraid to die. I know if I die, I’m going to heaven.”


I know what happens next. Not in life, not after life is over. But I do know what happens next in the moment depicted on this baseball card. The photo on this 1990 baseball card shows a game between the Giants and the Padres in San Diego during the day. In the 1989 season there were only a handful of games that fit those parameters, and in only one of them was Brett Butler involved in a force play at second base. It was the third game of the season, on April 5. Butler drew a walk off Ed Whitson to open the third inning for the Giants. Robby Thompson hit a groundball to shortstop Garry Templeton. Templeton got the ball to Robbie Alomar to force Butler out at second. Alomar threw to first while falling to the ground. His throw was not in time to get Robby Thompson. Butler had succeeded in breaking up the double play. There’s no record of whether he then picked up Alomar and told him he loved him.


I don’t know what happens next. But I can tell you that tonight during my pre-bedtime conversation with my older son, he asked me about demons and devils and angels and hell and heaven, and somehow we ended up imagining Spongebob Squarepants getting kicked out of both hell and then heaven for annoying the residents of each place so much with his unwavering enthusiasm for life. The angels in particular couldn’t believe he was so fixated on there being a Crusty Crab for him to flip crabby patties at in Heaven, and when he kept wailing that the Crusty Crab was what gave him meaning they finally booted him out of the clouds and he landed with a thump back down in Mr. Crabs’ office, where the boss docked him for missing time at work.

“But, Mr. Crabs, I was dead!” Spongebob wailed.

“That’s no excuse, Spongebob!” roared Mr. Crabs.

Jack beamed at me as I simultaneously wrote, directed, and acted out this episode. He kept waiting with attention and wonder to see and hear what would happen next, and in the telling and in his listening and in our love I’m reborn.

“So I guess Spongebob was reincarnated,” Jack said. This is a concept that Jack has been drawn to lately.

“Hi, Squidward!” I chirped as Spongebob.

“That’s what happens,” Jack said.

“Oh, no! You again,” I wailed adenoidally as Squidward.

“That’s what happens, I know it,” Jack said. “We come back.”


Gary Lavelle

July 22, 2019

Gary Lavelle

Gary Lavelle’s best moment occurred in New York City less than a week after the 1977 blackout that left that city without power for 25 hours. In the standard public conception, that blackout featured looting and arson, if not an overall sense of society on the brink of collapse, but I didn’t experience any of that. I was telling my sons about it a few days ago. I was driving them to a place in Chicago that sold New York style pizza slices that they liked.

“All the lights went out everywhere.”

“Didn’t you bump into things?” my older son asked.

“Maybe we had some candles,” I said. I actually couldn’t remember what we did inside my father’s studio apartment for light, but as soon as I proposed this theory I saw my father’s desk, stacks of papers and books and classical music cassettes on it, and now, in my mind, there was a candle at the edge of it, casting a flickering light through the tiny apartment as the sounds of a city in darkness floated up to us from the streets below.


My desk has a stack of books and a stack of baseball cards. Gary Lavelle has been at the top of the stack for a while. I hoped and still hope that at some point I will be able to move seamlessly from the writing of one book to the next, but my writing life has and probably always will be defined by long, solitary stretches that go on for years and years. Maybe in those silences something is gathering, maybe it isn’t. Maybe I have something to say about Gary Lavelle, maybe I don’t. The days go by, the nights, the weeks. His tinted glasses, his sideburns, his shadow on the artificial turf. I come to the desk again and again. My father did the same, although not with baseball cards but with thick books on sociology. He leaned on his elbows every night and read. All those words that went into his brain—where are they?


One of the books stacked on my table is a 1961 autobiography of Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks. I’m probably reading it to try to stay connected to my father. When he was a boy in the 1930s, growing up poor and Jewish in New York, as the Marx Brothers had a generation before him, he had watched all their movies in the theater when they’d first come out. I imagine him sitting there in the darkness, laughing, happy.

I told my boys a story from the book, about how Harpo had been continually thrown out his first-story first grade classroom window by two Irish classmates. (One day he got tossed out and decided to never come back, ending his formal education.) My boys were fascinated by that story and wanted to know more, so I showed them some Marx Brothers clips. The clips were, of course, created close to a century ago, back when my own father was the age of my sons. I laughed. My boys laughed. I imagined my father with us, laughing too.


Gary Lavelle had made the 1977 all-star team on the strength of a sub-2.00 ERA, and the National League manager, Sparky Anderson, whose “Captain Hook” nickname attested to his status as an early advocate of bullpen specialists, tabbed him as the first pitcher in from the bullpen after starter Don Sutton handled the first three innings. Sutton had been excellent, blanking the American League on one hit and one walk, but Lavelle was just as good, if not better, adding two more zeros to the scoreboard on one hit and no walks. He struck out two Hall of Famers, Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Jackson, and bested two other Hall of Famers, George Brett and Carlton Fisk, while racking up his swift six outs. It’s not a performance you ever hear about when legendary all-star game feats come up, but in those few minutes that Lavelle was on the mound at Yankee stadium under the blazing electric lights, he mowed down some of the best baseball players who ever walked the earth.


“What about in the streets?” my older son asked me.

“I guess it wasn’t totally dark. There were cars with headlights. People had flashlights.”

I actually didn’t remember walking with my brother and father through the streets with a flashlight, but I remember walking up six flights of stairs in a pitch black stairwell to my father’s apartment, and I remember the three of us holding hands as we did so. I’m not sure if this—or anything—is literally accurate, but it’s emotionally accurate. What I remember about the blackout is being brought closer to my older brother, who was often trying to get some separation from me, and closer to my father, who had stopped living with us a few years earlier. So I always imagine us holding hands as we rose through the darkness. Forgive me if I told this story before. It’s one of the best moments of my life, even if it may not be altogether true.


Chris Arnold

March 29, 2012



“Satori comes upon a man unawares, when he feels that he has exhausted his whole being.” – D.T. Suzuki

I’m exhausted. I’m pretty unaware, too. I’ve been banging into the sharp corners of things, tripping over things, walking out the front door without necessary things. Fucking things! Can we just abolish all things and live in a world of pure idea and sensation? What I mean to say is, can’t I just return to bed for a little while and fall back asleep, where there are no things? No? No, it seems the world is made of things, and life requires repeated departures from sweet unconsciousness to the tangled entrapments of things. So I wonder what things I will smash into and trip over and forget today. Yesterday I forgot my bicycle helmet. I didn’t use a bicycle helmet when I was a kid, but now that I’m riding every morning and night up and down a potholed city avenue crowded with swerving eyeless buses I do, and I felt strange as I started out riding yesterday without one and without realizing that I was without one. Something was different. A breeze massaged my hair, a sensation from childhood, and the vague sense that something was off ferried the feeling of implacable nostalgia into implacable dread.


The baseball season has begun, I guess. Way over in Japan. I didn’t pay much attention. I used to think I would someday not only pay attention to everything but master attention. Relatedly, I used to think I might, if I could muster the guts, end up in Japan, in a Zen monastery, my head shaved, my legs pretzeled beneath me, my spine straight, my mind no mind. Big mind. It never came to pass; if anything my unhelmeted mind keeps shrinking. This I suppose would fall under the category of a failure to live up to the dreams of my younger days. Is “dreams” the right word? Convictions, maybe, or perhaps arrogances. There is something arrogant about being seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, no skills, virginal and drug-addled and buried in adherence to beat generation yowling, believing that enlightenment, that is to say complete and unsurpassed understanding of the universe, is not only possible but near at hand. One more acid trip, a few more mornings of meditating in front of a cheap K-Mart candle burning on top of the cover for Bob Marley’s album “Uprising,” maybe a trip to Japan, and boom. Perfect connection. Satori.


This card from 1977 is the last Topps offering to feature Chris Arnold’s blandly handsome visage and includes the entirety of his major league exploits. He hit one home run his first season, 1971, one home run in 1972, one home run in 1973, one home run in 1974, then zero home runs in 1975 and zero home runs in 1976. It’s meditative somehow, like a mantra—one, one, one, one—that centers one’s thoughts until eventually all thought falls away to nothing. The card clutters the purity of this dissolving into zero with some text at the bottom circling back around to Chris Arnold’s earlier days in pro ball, before the majors, when in the Arizona Instructional League he “set all-time loop record for most Triples with 12.” That was back in 1970. In 1977 he returned to the minors, and in 1978 he joined that early wave of American journeymen who fought their encroaching disappearance from professional baseball by going far, far away, to Japan.


I was unaware of the obscure migration eastward of players at the borders of the majors that occurred during my childhood. It was only in my years of ridiculous conviction that I began to think about Japan. In my weathered copy of Dharma Bums, I read about Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder (or, rather, their stand-ins, Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder) looking east together. Those two went in different directions afterward. Kerouac became a suburban wine-addled recluse, withdrawing from the world, souring, bloating, while Snyder actually went east, to Japan, to be a monk in a Zen monastery for a while before returning and resuming his passionate attachment in words and deeds to this continent. Kerouac died young, while Snyder is still alive, one of the last beats standing, I guess, though I suppose—his genuine affection for Kerouac notwithstanding—he’d chafe at being considered a beat, or as any one thing. He was and is a lot of things, environmentalist, activist, family man, Zen monk, lumberjack, beat, what have you. I’m getting off track here. I was going to talk about baseball in Japan, or about my own enlightenment, or something. Who remembers? As Kerouac once put it, channeling his western dissolution through his eastern fascinations:

Well here I am,
2 PM –
What day is it?


Those four home runs Chris Arnold hit, one per year, they must stand out in his mind, little bursts of perfect connection. The superstars with bushels of homers every year, surely some of their glories blur into one another. Not so with Chris Arnold. His first home run came in his very first major league start and was struck off the most unusual, unpredictable pitch in baseball history, the knuckleball, thrown by the master of the mystical offering, Phil Niekro, a future Hall of Famer. His second home run was not as momentous, perhaps, as it was hit off journeyman Ron Schueler in a loss, but then again it was his second home run, proving the first was not a fluke. Then Chris Arnold really got cooking. His third home run was a grand slam pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth that keyed an incredible comeback from a 7-1 deficit. His final home run also came in a win and was hit off another Hall of Famer, Steve Carlton. For good measure, later in the season Chris Arnold also stole his lone major league base off the battery of Steve Carlton and Gold Glove perennial Bob Boone. Consider the sweet lucky life of Chris Arnold, and of us all. We stumble into things, lose our grip on other things, go to Japan or don’t go to Japan, whichever would be more indicative of life’s tendency to expel us from our dreams, and yet once in a great while we connect in such a way that there is no feeling whatsoever, the bat meeting the ball just right, no mind, big mind, and we round the bases, tracing an imperfect oval with our route, a woozy zero, our misshapen bliss.


Ed Halicki

April 28, 2011

This dinged-up Ed Halicki card from 1976 seems to be a relic of a relative nobody. The photo on the front is a stiff, uninteresting posed shot, the actual human somehow less lifelike than the similar but decidedly jauntier pitcher icon in the lower left corner. On the back of the card, a 10 and 21 lifetime won-loss record is listed, as are a scattering of minor league stops. The number of the card in the set is 423, confirming that Ed Halicki is not one of the chosen few to have his card number end in a zero or two zeros. Most of all, there is no mention made of the no-hitter Ed Halicki notched the previous year. There would have been plenty of space to allude to this most glorious of single-game feats, given the meager space demands of Ed Halicki’s relatively short tenure in pro ball to that point, but the 1976 card set’s style of space-filling was to include a cartoon featuring general baseball info that had no relation to the player on the card. This particular card relayed the yawn-inducing news that Dick Wakefield was “baseball’s first ‘bonus baby.’” (The cartoon is of a player with a bat over one shoulder and on the other shoulder a big sack with a dollar sign on it.) The 1976 use of random cartoons contributed to a general indistinct flatness in the cards that year, a year, now that I think about it, that has always seemed sort of flat and overcast to me, like the 1976 cards. That year the cards were still my primary way of following baseball, though my brother’s new subscription to Sports Illustrated had begun to bring more of the daily world of the game into my life. He’d started getting the magazine the year before, but I didn’t read every word of the magazine until later, and so I missed the report of Ed Halicki’s no-hitter, which was heralded not in an article all its own but instead confined to a weekly major league wrapup and within that wrapup to a clause at the end of a sentence about something else in the middle of a paragraph that began with this apparently more urgent news: “San Francisco leads the majors in snuff users (14), permanents (eight) and, now that Catchers Dave Rader and Mike Sadek have come clean, in Telly Savalas-type skullheads (three, Dave Heaverlo being the other).” So I missed that there was greatness in this Ed Halicki card. It was the card among all past and future Ed Halicki cards that should have been most aglow with the recent no-hitter, and yet I likely did not give it a second glance. I must have handled it some, however. The upper left corner seems to have fared the worst during this object’s almost completely unnoticed passage through time. The card is also a bit off-center, the right bordering thicker than the bordering along the left-hand side. There are faint scratch marks across the face of the card, as if it has scraped up against an abrasive surface. The most visible scratch bisects Ed Halicki’s cap on a slightly bent diagonal. Ed Halicki, despite this neglect, went on after the no-hitter to do pretty well for a little while, winning 14 games in 1977 posting a career-best 2.85 ERA in 1978 to help the Giants contend improbably for the NL West crown. He finished up his career two seasons later, with the Angels, his lifetime won-loss record halting at 55-66. Of the 29 no-hitters thrown in the 1970s era of permanents and Telly Savalas, Ed Halicki would be the no-hit author of the decade to finish his career with the fewest lifetime wins. In a way, considering the relative anonymity of the rest of his career, his no-hitter should have stood out more than any other that occurred during the 1970s, and now I wish I’d known about it at the time. I would have loved this card.


Chris Speier in the All-Time Franchise All-Stars

November 2, 2010

When a team breaks through and wins a championship after decades of trying and failing, the decades of trying and failing are transformed into one long season, a championship season that just took a little longer than most. The roster of the 2010 World Series Champions already seemed unusually voluminous throughout the playoffs, a product of the team’s reliance on all its parts, and now, with last night’s title-clinching win over the Rangers, it includes every last Giant ever to pass through San Francisco.

So with congratulations to the Giants and all their fans, and a special nod to Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, who has entertained me for years as a screaming-himself-hoarse loose cannon sports radio host (and who is a rabid Giants fan and Chris Speier idolizer from childhood), I thought I’d try to name some of the bygone guys coming along for the ride when the 2010 Giants parade through their city as champs. Here’s my stab at coming up with an all-time franchise all-star team for the San Francisco Giants, off the top of my head (it’s more fun that way), and with some notes and one prefatory remark in celebration of this year’s amazing collection of odds and ends: not a single player from the team that finally won it all could make the franchise’s all-time all-star starting nine.

C: Dick Dietz. The current Giants catcher, Buster Posey, is a spectacular talent, but it doesn’t seem fair to me to place him on the all-time franchise all-stars after just one season. Dietz had a relatively short career but packed it full of productive offensive seasons. He drew a ton of walks and had decent power.

1B: Willie McCovey. An easy call, though it bumps another all-time Giant great, Will Clark, to the bench.

2B: Jeff Kent

SS: Chris Speier. The back of the card at the top of this page testifies to Speier’s one-time and long forgotten status as an elite player in the game: “Chris has been on the past 3 N.L. All-Star Squads.” Speier was a good fielder and, at that time (possibly the low point in baseball history in terms of the hitting abilities of shortstops), among the best offensive threats at his position. He would never make another all-star squad, but he’d go on to have enough good seasons for his next team, the Expos, that a certain blogger would argue for his inclusion on the Expos’ all-time franchise all-star team, too.

3B: Matt Williams

LF: Barry Bonds

CF: Willie Mays

RF: Bobby Bonds

SP: Juan Marichal

RP: Rod Beck

Human victory cigar: Johnnie LeMaster. This category in the All-Time Franchise All-Stars feature was formerly known as the “wild card”; I’ve renamed it in honor of the Giants’ triumph, in that this slot is really reserved for the guy not named above whom you’d most like to see riding in the victory parade. How can you not want to see the player once known as Johnny Disaster bathed in the light of redemption?


Bruce Miller

March 31, 2010

Bruce was a pretty big name in the 1970s. Bruce Jenner, Bruce Banner, Bruce Lee, Bruce Springsteen. There was even a kid in my elementary school named Bruce who, I am convinced, was the best kickball player of all time. Using a left foot clad in farm-roughened shitkickers, he could pummel the red ball over everyone and into the corn field bordering the school’s property. The ball made a different kind of sound when he kicked it. Deeper. Toom. A sound that tattooed the air.

According to the back of this card, the player featured here was not officially a Bruce, as his given name was Charles Bruce Miller. He played professional baseball for seven seasons. In three of them, he played only in the minors; in three others, including his last, he split time between the majors and the minors. In just one season, he was a major leaguer from start to finish, free of the harried life of someone who is neither here nor there. He is on the grinning brink of that season in this 1975 card. That year, he would share third base with Steve Ontiveros and also play a little second base and shortstop. A usefully versatile guy to have around, though not exactly an offensive weapon (a .239 average with 1 home run, few walks, and no stolen bases). In the offseason, the Giants traded a young lefty, Pete Falcone, to the Cardinals for regular third baseman Ken Reitz, and a re-marginalized, 29-year-old Bruce Miller spent most of the 1976 season back down in the bushes, managing to log only 25 at-bats with the Giants during a month-long span in late summer. His last chance came on August 28, when he was inserted for Charlie Williams as a pinch-hitter in the third inning of a game against the Pirates. Williams had entered the game in the first inning after starter John D’Acquisto had surrendered three hits and three walks to the first seven Pittsburgh batters (his one recorded out was a fly ball deep enough to drive a run home). Williams wasn’t quite as bad as D’Acquisto had been, but he wasn’t Bruce Sutter at the 1978 all-star game either (to name another prominent 1970s Bruce). By the time Bruce Miller got his last turn at bat, the Giants were already down 7-0. Bruce Miller struck out.

Bruce Lee was dead by then (in fact he had died a couple weeks before Bruce Miller’s major league debut, in 1973). Bruce Banner would continue to be the alter ego of the Hulk in Marvel Comics, but when the character moved to television in the first year of Bruce Miller’s life beyond pro ball, the scientist who turned into a muscular green Ferrigno twice every episode (at twenty after and ten of) was named David Banner, the name Bruce gone without a trace. Bruce Jenner’s time at the pinnacle of American cultural life had come and gone, too, his soaring, feathered-hair 1976 Olympic win in the decathlon the kind of thing that cannot help but make all subsequent existence into an increasingly absurd, plastic-surgery-enhanced aftermath. Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Sutter kept churning out anthems and fanning Juan Samuel for a while, respectively, but their efforts weren’t really enough to keep alive the feeling that the name Bruce was somehow more magical than other names.

I don’t know what happened to the kickballing Bruce of my elementary school. He wasn’t interested in any of the official team sports offered in junior high and high school. He wasn’t a good student. He certainly wasn’t someone who would have gone on to be among the ironic twenty-something urban types who in the 1990s began “playing” “kickball” in “leagues.” I wasn’t one of those people, either, but only because I was lazy and wary of getting involved with others. I passed these kickball games from time to time, populated by people my age who seemed to all be from my species of the pale, stooped, spindly, and bespectacled. It looked like they were having “fun,” and maybe even bordering on having actual fun, i.e., without the air quotes, i.e., the kind of fun I didn’t really allow myself to have. I probably could have joined in, but somehow I felt compelled to be loyal to some sadness within: We had all grown up in the Age of Bruce, but the Age of Bruce was long gone.


Charlie Williams

March 8, 2010

The American Dream is to find home. This dream shaded a 1972 trade featuring Charlie Williams. Charlie Williams was not the focus of the dream, however, and so ended up actually being taken from his home and moved elsewhere. This is the problem of the modern world, I guess, or one of them: the dream of home, always elusive and often invasive or worse (ask an Indian, if you can find one, how he or she feels about the American dream of finding a home), ends up making everyone more or less rootless and adrift.

The trade I’m talking about is the one that sent an aging Willie Mays from San Francisco back to New York, the city where he had begun his incredible major league career. The Mets sent Charlie Williams west to facilitate this homecoming, not balking at the fact that Charlie Williams had an even stronger tie to the Mets’ home than Mays ever could: the young pitcher was then and remains (according to Brian Joura) the only player in Mets history to hail from the very ground the Mets stood on: Flushing, NY. [Update: as pointed out in the comments below, Ed Glynn was another Flushing native who played for the Mets.]

The back of this 1977 card confirms the plumbing-evocative neighborhood name as Charlie Williams’ point of origin, and also relates that the pitcher decided after the 1972 transaction to try to make his new home in Foster City, California. Right around the time of his arrival, events in Foster City inspired an article in the San Francisco Examiner that went on to gain some renown entitled “Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree.” I haven’t seen this article, but its reputation is of a sensational report on rampant youth vandalism in a recently formed community that had been planned out with the highest aspirations.

A few years ago, a student looking to gather information for a project on the trouble in Foster City posted a question on an internet site hoping to get memories from any Foster City residents from that time. The responses almost all professed surprise that there had been any trouble at all. To them, Foster City was and is just fine. One responder did hint at some trouble out beyond the margins of the vision of the American Dream. It’s interesting to note that in this commenter’s description, the opposite of trouble in Foster City is a world saturated with baseball and with players, or one player in particular (a player who will forever pull Charlie Williams at least slightly into the limelight), who decades later can serve as a potent symbol of home, if not the whole idea of home altogether. Everyone wants to find home. For some of us, home means this game, these cards. Anyway, here’s the take of the commenter, “Joe2,” on the two versions of Foster City, one within the safety of the baseball field, and one beyond that safety:

I remember the “Mouse Packs” clearly. I was 13, it was summer of 1973 and it was baseball season. We played in a big field that used to be behind the fire station. We were good kids, we played in the parks, went swmming/sailing in the lagoon, joined a father & son group called “indian guides” and rode our bikes to Safeway to buy baseball cards. I still have my Willie Mays in action cards. There were a couple of bad influence kids arround, and I know they were going arround pulling hood ornaments off cars. They pulled the BWM crome plates off with screw drivers. I remember Dad told me about the Mouse Packs story, and I thought it was about these kids . . .

There were some bad apples, but we were good kids.



Lately I’ve been thinking a lot, as I am prone to do, about Kelly Leak, specifically the particularly iconic version of Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and I have even gone so far as to begin trying to imagine Kelly’s life away from the baseball field.

This past weekend, I finally watched the 1979 film Over the Edge (which has come up several times in conversation on this site) while wondering about what might have happened to the star of the Bad News Bears after his heroics in the Astrodome (note: while asking “Where have you gone, Kelly Leak?” I do not and never will recognize the existence of the execrable, useless third Bears movie, The Bad News Bears Go To Japan). Put another way, as the 1970s came to a close, was there a place in America for Kelly Leak?

For a possible answer, I turned to Over the Edge, which focused on a community built on the core American Dream idea of perfect safety and harmony, of home, far from the dangers of the city.

Over the Edge was originally supposed to be set in Charlie Williams’ adopted home of Foster City, California, as it had been inspired by the aforementioned San Francisco Examiner article on the “mouse packs.” Because of some restrictions in the child labor laws in California, the production moved to a planned community in Colorado with significant similarities to Foster City, according to the filmmakers, most importantly the element that gave the film a haunting visual look that corresponded to and enhanced the central theme of alienation: building after building of eerily sterile and lifeless architecture, a dream of perfection that had forgotten to include a beating heart.

The community, called “New Granada” in the film, was intended to be the perfect home, a place of security and harmony and prosperity. But the community in Over the Edge is not well: the adolescent teens of the town are not given anything to do or anywhere to go. They have been left out of the plan for perfect American prosperity. What is there to do but wander around, smoke pot, drink, maybe break shit?

It is not too difficult to imagine Kelly Leak among these kids, especially the imagined, implied, offscreen Kelly Leak, who reminded every boy raptly worshipping his every move in the Bears movies of his own town’s cool, tough kids, who wandered around and smoked pot and drank and broke shit.

In the Bears films, Kelly is a loner, but that is only in the context of the boys on the team and their childish pursuits. In the first Bears movie, before he has joined the team, Kelly initially rebuffs Amanda’s attempts to get him on the team, telling her that the Bears (presumably because they still care about baseball enough to pull on their little yellow-trimmed uniforms and happily prance onto the field) are “fags”; early in Over the Edge there is a prominent piece of graffiti on the school that reads “jocks are fags.” Kelly Leak and the kids in Over the Edge seem to speak the same language and seem to be oriented in similar ways toward the world. It’s not that much of a stretch to think they might, once Kelly and his rapidly aging body are finally barred from pounding the pitches of small children, fall together some night at a darkened playground and share hits from a skull-headed bowl before going down to the highway overpass to throw lit M-80s at cars.

The scene of greatest exhilaration in Over the Edge is when the two main characters, Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon, in his film debut) make a getaway from a cop in a vehicle Richie has swiped from his mother. Though the moment of freedom is brief and much more realistically rendered than the ultimate scene of male adolescent fantasy in Breaking Training when Kelly and his teammates start out toward Houston in a stolen customized van, I saw a key correspondence between the two scenes. Though presented in completely different ways, in both scenes there is joy. It’s the joy of believing that the world, after a whole life of wanting, is finally at the command of those who have seized the wheel.

Unlike the irresistible fantasy of Breaking Training, the scene of escape in Over the Edge lasts for just a few moments and ends grimly. Events in the movie escalate from there, and the action climaxes with a scene of a wildly destructive spree by the kids that reminded me acutely of Disco Demolition Night, which just happened to have occurred the same year that Over the Edge came out. It’s pretty much the same thing: Longhaired white kids getting high and setting things on fire and rampaging: rebellion, yes, but impotent, useless. Next stop for America: the candy-colored teen films of John Hughes, the reactionary reign of Ronald Reagan, and, by virtue of beefed-up security at ballparks, no more longhaired mobs going wild across the fields of the American Dream.

And Kelly Leak was nowhere to be seen. 


Dave Rader

February 24, 2010

The Blue Jacket

(continued from Jim Bibby)


It’s late February, the beginning of spring training, at least for pitchers and catchers. Everything is still to come. But sometimes it feels like everything has already gone. It’s almost always felt that way for me, the exception being the rare moments when I’m holding something strange and new and beautiful in my hands.

This Dave Rader card would have produced that sensation, back when I first held it in 1975. The close-up, intimate portrait of a man seemingly unaware that the camera is on him: it’s strikingly different from the occasional action shots and from the awkward, self-conscious wax figure portraits that were so common especially in that first year of my baseball card collecting. From the blurry backdrop, more likely some training compound trees than the stands of a major league park, it appears the figure in the extreme foreground must be at spring training, perhaps in the very early days of it, in late February, just pitchers and fellow catchers and him. Dave Rader is wondering about his place in it all, wondering if it’s all still to come or already gone. (As it turned out, he was just about in the middle of a decent ten-year career as a part-time catcher with an above average left-handed batting stroke.)

Many years earlier, in the 1950s, another young catcher in the Giants’ camp may have struck a similarly pensive pose, though no Topps photographer was around to document it. This catcher was a short, powerfully built young man from the Little Italy section of Manhattan, and his name was Larry. Larry didn’t end up lasting that long in pro ball, just a couple seasons in the Giants’ minor league system.

“Couldn’t hit,” he told me years later across the desk in the back of the liquor store. “If we really needed a baserunner I leaned into one and let it smack me in the arm.”

This was about four decades later, in the early 1990s, but it was still easy to imagine the now silver-haired Larry as a good-glove, no-bat catcher. He still had, as he crowded sixty, a squat, muscular build, featuring powerful shoulders and huge mitt-like hands. Every evening he came into the store to give his friend Morty shit and to usurp Morty’s seat behind the desk and drink a couple quarter pints of Smirnoff with Sprite, surveying the scene in front of him like a catcher perusing the field, sometimes barking out pointed, expletive-glutted commentary on the various occurrences at the store, sometimes just taking it all in quietly, as if wondering if it was all already gone. Whenever he came in I switched the store radio from Morty’s classical music to the oldies station. Once in a while a song from the fifties like Earth Angel or I Wonder Why or Why Do Fools Fall in Love would come on and Larry would smile and look up at the cracking paint on the ceiling and say, “Ah, Josh, this takes me back.”

I love to think of Larry drifting on the doo-wop harmonies back through the years. He may indeed have been a romantic at heart, like all the rest of us who ended up at that store, but by sheer force of will he managed to not let it influence the path he forged in his life. After his short foray into professional baseball came to an end, Larry quickly got on with his life in an unsentimental, undelayed way that surely made it difficult for him to understand the customary existential hemming and hawing by all the lazy romantic clerks who had come and gone at the store, including myself, all of us propped on a broom, waiting for our life to burst through the front door and shower us in kisses instead of going out and looking for it. On the contrary, when Larry had been a young man no longer connected to a childhood-inflected dream life, baseball, he promptly got an accountant’s degree and entered the business world. He became a very successful executive, eventually climbing high up the ladder in a worldwide tobacco conglomerate before being forced out in some kind of a political shakeup not long before I started working at the store.

Though he was still young enough to continue working, he had made more than enough money to stop, so he did. He spent his days as a man of leisure, in the summer rarely appearing in anything but tinted wire-rim glasses, a tank top, a gold necklace, shorts, flip-flops, and a tan that George Hamilton would have envied. He walked up and down 8th Street like its heaven-ordained ruler, slowly, his head at a slight upward tilt. He spent time at various stores, mostly hanging out for a while with the Greeks in the back of the florist shop down the block before moving on to the liquor store to bust Morty’s chops. Morty left for the day halfway through Larry’s “shift,” leaving Larry alone with me and whoever I was working with that evening. I was always sad to see him call it a night.

I am hoping that this story doesn’t turn out to be one digression after another, never arriving at the titular blue jacket, but I can’t help it, and anyway digressions are sometimes the only way I can get to my love of the world and all the people I’ve known. I can’t tell it straight. It has to spool out of me, one memory catching and pulling loose and unfurling the next.

I spoke to my father yesterday. It was his 85th birthday. We talked about health issues. My wife and I (and even one of our cats) have been sick with an initially violent, puke-filled, and, for a couple days, completely debilitating stomach problem; my dad’s begun having more and more trouble seeing out of his left eye. We talked about the liquor store. He lived on 11th Street back then, less than a five-minute walk away. He stopped by from time to time, talking with me and everyone else there. Morty usually swaggered up to the front to make my dad laugh by telling him what an asshole I was. After I stopped working there Dad asked me periodically about the people there, including the philosophy teacher Dave, and Morty, and Larry.

I’d started out thinking I was going to write yet another in a long line of my young man’s blues with this story The Blue Jacket, and I still intend to circle around to that feeling of being 22 or 23 and not knowing if it’s all still to come or already gone. But today, as I start to come out of my pulverizing stomach issues and scratch my chin like pensive Dave Rader and have a look around at this life, I don’t feel like singing that kind of blues but another, more complicated, more bittersweet song.

“Those were good days,” I said yesterday to my father, who was in his home in North Carolina as I spoke to him from mine in Chicago.

“Having you stop by the store,” I said. “That was really a great thing.”

“Yes,” he said. “It was a wonderful time.” 

(to be continued)


Dave Heaverlo

February 4, 2010

Heaverlo, normally a blithe spirit, who shaves his head and wears rubber noses, was disconsolate.

That sentence, which would make a great first line in a short story, perhaps one about a circus employee with suicidal ideations, was a part of the April 22, 1980, sports page of Washington’s Ellensberg Daily Record. Dave Heaverlo, a native of Ellensberg, dominated the sports page of his hometown paper that day, showing up not only in the recap of the Mariners game he had lost the night before (and which presumably caused the temporary moratorium on the brandishing of rubber noses) but also in a feature story titled “Dave Heaverlo: Glad to Be Out of Oakland” and in a large photograph in which his notoriously clean-shaven dome is being rubbed by an unidentified teammate.

When I was a kid, Dave Heaverlo definitely barged deeper into my consciousness than a journeyman reliever for distant second division teams otherwise might have, mostly due to his last name, which for reasons I can no longer fully access always made me laugh. “Heave” is kind of a funny word already. People heaved up their breakfast sometimes. Grizzled hurlers with spare-tire midriffs heaved easily sluggable meatballs toward the plate. And then you add the “her low” to heave, and, well, I don’t know. I guess you had to be there. My brother would probably understand. In other words, Dave Heaverlo is one of the select Cardboard Gods, an ineffable inside joke between me and my brother and possibly shared, though I can’t say this with any certainty, with other kids who found him in packs of cards and laughed.

I never knew he shaved his head, because he always wore a cap in cards, and I wasn’t observant enough to notice that, as in this 1977 card, the total absence of hair (besides eyebrows and the cop mustache) below the cap suggested that some information on the back of the card (“Nickname is ‘Kojak’”) was not there because Heaverlo enjoyed solving gritty New York City crimes while sucking on lollipops. 

Oh, how I want to pause for a while and talk about Telly Savalas. There was no better decade than the 1970s! When else in the history of humankind could such a man, with a pear-shaped body, sloping shoulders, and liver-spotted, child-frightening head, become a famed sex symbol? But there is no time. I’m already running late for work and want to say a couple more things about Heaverlo.

First, the shaved head. The 1970s were renowned in baseball history for various grooming innovations, most notably for the first appearances of mustaches on major league diamonds since before Ty Cobb started gashing guys’ shins with his sharpened cleats, and for the Afros that began bulging out from under caps, but in both of those cases baseball was trailing behind trends in the wider culture. When Heaverlo shaved off all his hair, no one else was really doing it, except Telly Savalas. Heaverlo deserves some credit for that, I think.

I wonder if his iconoclastic tendencies hurt his career. In the edition of the Ellensberg paper quoted above, it is reported that in the spring Heaverlo “wouldn’t let his hair grow out until [A’s owner Charlie] Finley traded him.” The 1970s came full cycle in that situation, as it was Finley who played a huge part in the hair explosion earlier in the decade, when he encouraged players to grow facial hair (first doing it to coax a bearded, attention-seeking Reggie Jackson into losing the beard, then backing the encouragement with monetary rewards when the mustaches proved to be good for publicity). Heaverlo’s bald-man-alone stance did get him out of Oakland, but in the following season, according to another Heaverlo-heavy edition of the Ellensberg Daily Record, he was having trouble finding a team to employ him. This seems odd given Heaverlo’s decent stats and reputation for being able to pitch often and tirelessly. Maybe his head-shaving ways had gotten him a reputation as a troublemaker. I don’t know. But it seems odd to me that a guy who could still get outs had to struggle to find work. He did make a few appearances that season, with Oakland, of all teams, so maybe there wasn’t any attempt to steer clear of him. But his ERA in ’81 was below 2, and after that season he was restricted to the minors for a couple years and then out of organized ball altogether. I don’t know why, but it seems that major league teams, or big businesses in general, don’t really like the wearers of rubber noses. And now I’m a little disconsolate, too, and late for work besides, me and my conventional hair and humorless nose.


John Montefusco

March 23, 2009


One of the most interesting things I’ve ever come upon while roaming around the Internet is the long chain of comments following a post at Jaybird’s Jottings entitled “Where Have You Gone, John Montefusco.” Despite the title, the post does not really center on the player shown here in his 1981 Topps card, but it does offer some brief information about Montefusco’s ups and downs after baseball at the conclusion of a positive review of a book called Giants: Where Have You Gone. The post was published on May 22, 2005. It was over a month before anyone commented on it. That first comment probably cost its author about three seconds to complete, as evidenced by its brevity and by the level of analysis shown by the concluding phrase: “What a loser!”

More silence followed, but then two full months later another commenter finally chimed in. By this point, over three months after the original post was made, it seems likely that most anyone visiting the post had gotten there the same way I had, by doing a search on the name “John Montefusco.” With the second commenter’s offering, the communal story that would begin to unfold in the comments moved closer to the subject. Where the first commenter fired a volley from afar at John Montefusco, the second commenter, Joe Settipane, sought to establish a closeness to John Montefusco. They had, Settipane explained, been neighbors, though Settipane didn’t realize the identity of his neighbor until Montefusco had moved out. There is an immediacy to the comment: Settipane has just found out that day, from the movers clearing out Montefusco’s house, that the man who had until recently lived right beside him was a charismatic former all-star of some renown.

Settipane’s comment is not inherently negative—he concludes with the wish that he could have gotten to know Montefusco—but his musings on the reason Montefusco had to vacate his home seems to have combined with the “What a loser” comment to, eventually, draw out the comment that would begin to make the chain of comments into a living, breathing, many-voiced creature all its own. But before that third comment there was more silence, nearly a half a year of it. Finally, the author of the third comment must have done an Internet search on a name that meant as much as any name in the world to her, come upon the Jaybird’s Jottings post and the two comments, and posted the following message:

I am John Montefusco’s daughter and I think that all of you should get lives of your own. I cannont [sic] believe you people have the audacity to talk about a man and a family that you have never met and know nothing about. It is because of people like yourselves that our family has suffered more than we ever needed to. Yes, my parents got divorced, like millions do, no one needs to know the details, or slander anyone of my parents names for it. Get lives of your own, and stay out of ours!!!

Read the rest of this entry ?


Marc Hill

November 26, 2008
Marc Hill, according to a particularly entertaining entry on BR Bullpen, was a two-sport high school superstar in Missouri. This is no surprise to me; save for one or two oddball late bloomers, every player I’ve droned on about on on this site must have been a god in his hometown long before he was ever a Cardboard God. I vividly remember the most celebrated high school athlete in the little town in Vermont where I grew up, Ron Schubach, our all-state basketball star, a quick, smooth guard with a Chachi haircut and an unstoppable pull-up jump shot. I still think of him as the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. I know that objectively this can’t be true, but to me he possessed the most magic. It must have been the same for all of these players enshrined in these cards. Odd as it may seem while gazing at this photo of a mouth-breather with an uncomplicated frat-boy glint in his eye, Marc Hill must have had that Schubachian mythic glow before he ever became a benchwarming journeyman known as “Booter.”

Mythic glow aside, Marc Hill is surely recalled fondly by more than a few fans. He was a member of the most treasured San Francisco Giants team of the post-Mays, pre-Will-the-Thrill era, the 1978 squad that unexpectedly contended for the division crown. Hill was actually a starter that year, and the next as well, before being sent to the Chicago White Sox. He played for several years for the White Sox, a backup to Carlton Fisk, and was apparently known as a clubhouse joker. He must be more than one fan’s Shlabotnik.

A couple years ago a friend of mine went back to the town we’d grown up in and played in an informal reunion pickup basketball game for anyone who played on the school team and was a member of any of the classes between 1980 and 1984, especially the Schubach-led 1981 team, which made it to the state finals. My teeth started to hurt with longing when I heard about this, in part because I immediately felt excluded, being from the class of 1985, the worst basketball class in the history of the school; in part because one of my favorite things in my life was playing pickup basketball with guys from my town, especially if the pickup game included the older guys from the state finals team; in part because I will apparently always harbor fantasies of righting all wrongs by getting one more chance against those guys and somehow dominating them instead of being a barely noticeable figure at the edges of their games; and in part because I have always wondered what became of Schubach. There was a time, during his legendary high school career, that I thought he could somehow make it to the pros, even though he was a 5’10” white guy from a state that had never (and still hasn’t) sent so much as even one end-of-bench player to the NBA. In fact he barely played at his Division II college, quitting in his first year because, so the town legend has it, “the coach was a dick,” and that was that. My friend described the reunion game as a bit of a letdown, a sparsely attended kid-riddled affair with all the intensity of a backyard beer-in-one-hand badminton match. As he described it I could envision Schubach out there among men in knee braces and giggling children: he’s moving slow, the sublime inimitable rhythm of his stutter-step dribble dulled, his hair no longer feathered, maybe no longer even there. I almost asked my friend to give me a report on the state of Schubach’s game to confirm this vision, but I decided I didn’t want to know. 

Turns out that even guys like Marc Hill, who change before our eyes from hometown legends to comic figures we fans can festoon with our failings, make inscrutable, mysterious gods. At times their messages are like off-kilter punchlines; other times they’re like wind through the trees. Ambiguous, jarring, haunting, inscrutable. We’re on our own in this quick holy life. Consider the last three mentions of the Shlabotnik named Marc Hill in that ongoing book of stark aphoristic scripture known as Transactions:

May 27, 1986: Released by the Chicago White Sox.
October 2, 1986: Signed as a Free Agent with the Chicago White Sox.
October 8, 1986: Released by the Chicago White Sox.


Bill North

November 14, 2008
It must have seemed like it was going to be a blooping basehit, beyond the reach of infielder and outfielder alike. Dick Allen, in the midst of the last of his many MVP-caliber seasons, had been running from second base on the play, and from what I’ve read Dick Allen was not just a one-dimensional mangler of pitches but an intelligent player who knew the whole game well. He must have sized up the fluttering wounded quail off the bat of White Sox teammate Brian Downing and been convinced that it would touch down safely in the outfield grass. He must have set his mind on roaring across home plate with the tying run.

Is there anything more exciting than speed? As the ball arced down toward the outfield grass, Oakland A’s centerfielder Billy North suddenly appeared like a flash of heat lightning. This is how I imagine it happened. One moment no one is there and an eyeblink later Billy North is a green and yellow bolt catching the ball off his white shoetops. His momentum carries him forward, toward the second base bag, and I imagine that he thought about making the throw to the infielder waiting there to double off Dick Allen. Maybe North even cocked his arm to throw. But then North must have seen that Dick Allen had no chance to beat the centerfielder to the bag. (A sign of Allen’s lack of fleetness came later in the game, when he was pinch run for by Tony Muser, who stole all of 14 bases in his nine-year career.) Billy North hung onto the ball and kept running. With speed like that, speed so transcendent it must have felt exactly like joy, why stop? The outfielder transformed himself into an infielder and stomped on the bag, ending the inning and preserving the lead with what has to be one of the more unusual unassisted double plays ever recorded.

Must have felt pretty good to be Billy North that day.

The A’s won their third straight World Series title that year, 1974. They won another division title the following year, but in 1976 the ranks of their championship-caliber players began to thin. The organization seemed to decide to counter the beginnings of an erosion of talent by employing an offensive strategy very much resembling sheer desperation.

In short, they tried to steal everything they could possibly steal.

They tried to steal early in games, in the middle of games, and late in games. They had bid adieu the previous year to the two-year experiment of using sprinter Herb Washington as a Designated Pinch Runner, but in his wake they now employed two Herbly reserves, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander, who played in a combined 129 games and had only 31 at bats between them (Alexander had 30 of them and produced the duo’s lone hit); the two pinch runners combined to steal 51 bases. Their personal stolen base totals (Lintz: 31; Alexander: 20) were topped by several teammates, including Phil Garner with 35, Claudell Washington with 37, Don Baylor (!) with 52, Bert Campaneris with 54, and team leader Billy North with 75. In all, the team, which even featured Sal Bando swiping 20 bags (more than his stolen base totals in his previous five seasons combined), stole 341 bases, the most by any post-deadball-era team.

The question is, did it work? Did it allow the A’s to stave off their eventual crushing demise? Well, they didn’t win their division for the first time in six seasons, but they certainly did a lot better than they would the next season, when the bottom really dropped out. But did all the stealing lead to more wins?

My thinking is that maybe it did (but maybe it didn’t). First of all, the A’s had what I think is a decent success rate on steals that year, given the fact that to steal all those bases they must have had the green light all the time, even against pitchers and catchers who were very difficult to steal against, and given the fact that they certainly weren’t ever going to take someone by surprise with their running game. For the season, they stole bases at a 73.5% clip. I believe experts in the analysis of baseball stats have come to the conclusion that a 75% stolen base success rate or better will help a team’s offense, while anything less will hinder it. But since the A’s were only slightly below that mark, I figure they could get a pass in this regard.

More tellingly, the A’s scored quite a few more runs that year than they would have been expected to, given their on-base and slugging percentages. I did a couple of calculations using the Runs Created formulas, and it seems they should have been expected to score 620 or 621 runs. They scored 686. It stands to reason that all the stolen bases helped them get those extra 65 or 66 runs.

How much were those extra runs worth? If they had scored only 621 runs, they would have been expected, using Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation, to win 83 or 84 games. They won 87. However, if you feed their actual runs scored and runs allowed into the Pythagorean Expectation, it turns out they should have won 91 games, which would have put them a game ahead of the division-winning Kansas City Royals. I don’t know why they performed below their expected win total, but is it possible that they lost a handful of close games in late innings because at the end of those games they had exhausted themselves with all the running?

Billy North was the last of the championship A’s to flee the team’s late-’70s implosion. His 1978 trade to the Dodgers allowed him yet another campaign with a pennant-winning club, and then the next year he moved back to the Bay Area, where he joined former A’s teammate Vida Blue (the second-to-last in the exodus of A’s stars) on the Giants. The Giants were coming off their best season in years, one of those improbable near-success stories that fans of a team will cling to as if it were a brilliant ephemeral detour from the usual predictable down-sloping narrative of their lives. Hopes for 1979 must have been high, and the acquisition of champion speedster Billy North perhaps seemed as if it would be the one thing to push them over the top.

It didn’t. The Giants returned to their familiar Padre-haunted irrelevancy near the bottom of the National League West standings. It wasn’t Billy North’s fault, however. After a subpar 1978 season he bounced back with his customary good leadoff man numbers, posting a .386 on-base percentage, a team-high 87 runs, and more stolen bases, 54, than any San Francisco Giant has ever had. In fact, this last element of his 1979 season made him the single-season record-holder for the teams on both sides of the bay (other players had stolen more in a season when the franchises were located in other cities). Though this record still stands for the San Francisco Giants, North was soon wiped off the top of the Oakland A’s record book by Rickey Henderson. Perhaps this began the slow erosion of Billy North in the collective memory of baseball fans. When one now thinks of stolen bases and the Oakland A’s, there’s not much room for anyone but Rickey.

So if Billy North is disappearing, then there’s no hope at all for Bill North. Apparently, judging from the signature on the card at the top of the page, this is what the player pictured began to prefer to be called. But if you type “Bill North” into Google you will not see a link to his page on come up. And not having a page on is kind of like not existing, in terms of major league baseball. To baseball fans, there is only Billy North. I can see why this is. Billy North just sounds more dashing and mythic, the hero of a tall tale, the symbolic embodiment of youth, the possessor of an unusual, thrilling gift. If Bill North had been in centerfield that day in 1974 when Dick Allen decided to try to score, the ball would have thudded off the grass for a game-tying single. Bill North would have played it on a bounce, like a normal mortal. Bill North would have tossed it back into the infield. Bill North would have returned to his position for a continuation of normal baseball.

Lucky for us all, when the ball started diving toward its seemingly predestined landing spot in the grass, Billy North appeared.


Bonus trivia question: Seven players stole more bases than Billy North in the 1970s. Can you best-of-seven the question by naming four of those seven? No Feldmaning; i.e., no peeking at Internet or other sources for the answer (the term, which should be in wider circulation, is based on Feldman, a minor character in a Daniel Clowes comic).


Johnnie LeMaster

July 31, 2008

Below are a couple sketches of the obscurely infamous alter ego of the slight, scraggly, plainly obvious baseball imposter pictured here, from the classic but extremely difficult-to-find book I have excerpted from before here on Cardboard Gods, Dead on Arrival: The Oral History of Giant Prospects, the Greatest Punk Band No One Ever Heard Of:

From page 134-5:

Greg Johnston [bass]: Yeah, I guess because of that whole fake baseball card flyer thing, we started seeing people in ripped-up baseball shirts at our shows. It was right around when The Warriors came out, so maybe that helped add a kind of violent edge to it. You’d see these sketchy speed freak characters in their old little league jerseys and eyeblack, just itching to break a pool cue over somebody’s head.

John Tamargo [aka Johnny Tomorrow, drums]: Joe [Strain, legendary frontman of Giant Prospects] hated those baseball fucks. He was starting to crack around then anyway, but that whole thing didn’t help. He’d stop songs in the middle to scream at them.

Ned Alvin (club owner): It got ugly. He stopped right in the middle of the set and started lecturing them. He thought they were violent fascists. I don’t know about the fascist part but they were pretty violent—they’d pretty much cleared the floor of anyone not willing to have their head caved in by one of the souvenir mini bats they held in their fists as they flailed around to the music. Anyway, Strain kept calling them stormtroopers. They didn’t get the reference. I clearly remember one of them screaming back, “Fuck Star Wars!”

Johnston: Finally one of them walks toward the stage, toward Joe. This skinny unshaven derelict in a jersey just like the ones we posed in for the flyer. He’s staring at Joe so insanely that Joe stops haranguing them and stares back. It’s a showdown! The guy grabs a bottle off a table. Joe grabs a bottle from the edge of the little stage and steps down. These two skinny nutjobs just stare at each other, both of them smiling, then finally the guy smacks the bottle against his own head, not breaking it. Joe does the same to his head. They both look kind of woozy but they do it again, whack! Whack! They’re trying to break the thing but they’re [laughs] they’re fucking complete weaklings! Even with all the speed coursing through them! Eventually the bouncer breaks it up, everyone in the place looking like they don’t know whether to laugh or puke. Weirdest fight I’ve ever seen. Anyway, that was how Joe Strain met Johnny Disaster.     

From page 137:

Eddie Toth (band manager): Errors. That’s how I would characterize the Johnny Disaster era of Giant Prospects. Things probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. When Greg Johnston left the band [to take a job as a sous chef] he did so because he was the first to see that the ship was sinking. But Johnny Disaster didn’t exactly help slow that process. He just could not play bass. I mean, his whole thing was that he was bad at everything, that he was a failure. I’m sure that’s why Joe paired up with him. Joe was always going on and on about the “Redemption of Failing,” even before he met Johnny Disaster. Sometimes I wondered if Joe Strain had created Johnny Disaster. You know, like Frankenstein. His perfectly awful creation. Anyway, it made the shows into a comedy of errors. Make that a tragedy of errors.

Tamargo: Thing I remember about Johnny Disaster is he had the word “BOO” tattooed on his chest in big block letters. He’d show it off when people started throwing things at the stage because we sucked so bad.  

From page 238:

Johnston: Whatever happened to Johnny Disaster? Funny you ask. I ran into him not too long ago in an airport. I didn’t recognize him, but I guess he recognized me. He said he was on his way to San Francisco to take part in some Giants’ reunion. He’d completely lost it and thought that he’d actually been a baseball player! I was looking at this crazy glint in his eyes as he was telling me all the great teammates he’d had and I was wondering to myself, “How the hell did this guy get through security?” It has made me a little nervous about riding on airplanes, actually.

(Love versus Hate update: Johnnie LeMaster’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


Jack Clark

April 15, 2008

Jack Clark, the last of a series of talented young outfielders that passed through the Giants outfield in the 1970s in the wake of Willie Mays, is shown here as a young wax figure with a face bearing an eerie similarity to the Wicked Witch of the West. Before Clark, the Giants had been unable to win in the post-Mays era despite the burgeoning talents of Bobby Bonds, Ken Henderson, George Foster, Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews, and Dave Kingman. With Clark, they still couldn’t break through and win the division, and eventually they gave up and traded him to the Cardinals for David Green, Gary Rajsich, Dave LaPoint, and Jose Uribe. While these four nondescript professionals did little to dissipate the Giants’ long post-Mays fog, Clark promptly led the Cardinals to two National League pennants in three years, his ability to hit for power in cavernous Busch Stadium earning him a reputation as one of the most fearsome sluggers in the league.

He cashed in on this reputation by signing a lucrative free agent deal with the Yankees before the 1988 season. He hit 27 home runs and drew 113 walks for New York that year, but the Yankees, perhaps unwisely choosing to focus on his .242 batting average instead of his power and .381 on-base percentage, shuttled him to San Diego along with Pat Clements for the unimpressive package of Lance McCullers, Jimmy Jones, and Stan Jefferson. 

A couple years later, after continuing his usual late-career pattern of walking a lot, hitting for power, and missing significant chunks of the season due to injury, Jack Clark came to the Red Sox. He was 35 years old by this time and ready to settle into a role in which he could throw away his fielders gloves and laze around on the bench between at-bats. The Red Sox were coming off a season in which they won the division despite lacking a premier power hitter, and Clark’s arrival sparked skyrocketing preseason hopes. He had been injured a lot of late, sure, but this season (so went the thinking) was going to be different, and by staying healthy all year and having the Green Monster as an ally he’d surely blast 40 home runs and amass 140 RBI as the Red Sox rode his broad shoulders all the way to a long-awaited World Series win.

That kind of desperate, ridiculous hope was part of the culture of Red Sox fandom back then. I know I bought into it. I thought Jack Clark was going to be The Man.

It didn’t work out that way. It never does. I should know. At that time I was in my early twenties and I applied this kind of straining, suffocating hope to every facet of my life. Every sentence I wrote was going to be the one that sprung open the gates of some as yet undiscovered genius. Every woman who so much as inadvertently brushed against me on the subway or accidentally glanced my way while standing at the bar and ordering drinks was going to be the one to banish my solitude and grace some new redeemed life with undying love. It had a way, this constant grasping for miracles, of saturating the world with disappointment.


(Love versus Hate update: Jack Clark’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


Garry Maddox, 1975

January 28, 2008

Born in the USA

Chapter One

I was born almost 40 years ago, March 1, 1968, into a loving family and an indifferent universe and a country that had never been defeated. We’d thumped the Redcoats once and then again for good measure and subdued the rebel South and pretty much wiped the savage Indians off the face of our expanding map and pummeled the Germans twice and nuked Japan into submission and on top of all that tallied several smaller victories along the way over anyone anywhere not willing to make way for freedom. Even in our recent tangle in Korea we’d been able to walk away like a champ still holding his star-spangled title belt high. Hey, you’re going to have to do better than a draw if you’re going to dethrone the champ! We the People had always kicked ass. We the People had always believed. And then, just a couple days before I came out of my mom feet-first and bloody and yellow with jaundice in a hospital in New Jersey, We the People had begun to wonder for the very first time if We were going to lose.

On February 27, news anchor Walter Cronkite, so widely respected that he was considered to have the ear of the entire nation, summed up his thoughts on his recent trip to Vietnam. To that point Cronkite had passed along without any notable editorial comment the assurances of military leaders and policy makers that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that the Vietnam War would soon come to a satisfactory end, yet another win for the Red, White, and Blue. Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam had been prompted by the recent Tet Offensive, a massive widespread attack by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces on South Vietnamese and American targets. The gigantic surge revealed that the enemy was far from teetering on the brink of defeat. They could throw a lot at us and still keep coming. They weren’t going to quit. So if they weren’t going to quit, who was?

“To say that we are mired in stalemate,” Cronkite concluded, “seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

By the time Walter Cronkite seemed with his prospective “did the best they could” epitaph to give voice to the budding national desire to give in, to quit, morale had begun to erode in certain sectors of the rapidly expanding United States military presence in Vietnam. Morale was particularly low among the infantrymen from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the 23rd American Division. A newcomer to the company named Michael Bernhardt described his impression of his new surroundings in Christian Appy’s excellent oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots:

When I was assigned to Charlie Company I knew there was something wrong. You could see it and smell it. . . . There was no sense of community, no sense of duty or responsibility, no sense of pride. . . . Anybody who says these guys were typical doesn’t know what they are talking about. . . . They were just a bunch of street thugs doing whatever they wanted to do. It was a group that was leaderless, directionless, armed to the teeth, and making up their own rules out there, deciding that the epitome of courage and manhood was going out and killing a bunch of people.

On March 15, 1968, according to Bernhardt, a combination briefing and memorial service for fallen comrades had turned into a “pep talk that was inflammatory” delivered by Captain Ed Medina, who had made clear to everyone that “it was payback time, that we were going to get revenge for the terrible things they were doing to us. . . .”

The next day, Charlie Company entered My Lai-4, a subhamlet of Son My, and killed almost everything in their path. A cover-up kept the massacre out of the public eye for nearly two years, but eventually three mass graves were uncovered that contained the corpses of five hundred villagers, including women, children, and the elderly. Even more lives would have been claimed had the three-man crew of an OH-23 helicopter not intervened, an act which, thirty years after the fact, gained them all the Solder’s Medal for Gallantry. The account of one of these men, Larry Colburn, is also given in Appy’s oral history.

“I’ve seen the list of dead,” Colburn recalls, “and there were a hundred and twenty some humans under the age of five.”

The year of my birth just kept getting bloodier. On April 5 Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking deadly riots in cities all across the country and also raising already high racial tensions among American soldiers in Vietnam. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s eloquent remarks about the assassination called on Americans “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Two months later he was assassinated, too. In August the pattern of chaotic violence erupted into brutal beating-filled clashes between city police and antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

We the People might not have lost yet, but we sure as hell weren’t winning. We the People weren’t even a We anymore.

As televisions across the splintering nation flickered with images of American cops clubbing American hippies, Garry Maddox was wrapping up his first year of professional baseball. Maddox played most of the season in Salt Lake City, but after logging 206 at-bats there he was promoted to the San Francisco Giants’ farm team in Fresno, where he batted a promising .316 in 19 at-bats. The back matter on the card shown at the top of this page shows no baseball statistics for the two years following his debut season in 1968. In the lines for both 1969 and 1970 there is just a statement that reads “In Military Service.”

(to be continued)