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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Evening the Score
By Mickey Weintraub

In 1947, the Stamford, Connecticut, club of the Colonial League sold me in midseason to San Diego of the then Triple A Pacific Coast League. On my first road trip we played San Francisco, managed by Bay Area legend Lefty O'Doul. I was interviewed by the sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Will Connolly, who had heard from a mutual friend that I had a master's degree from Columbia.

The next night when I walked into the locker room, the normal babble of conversation stopped abruptly. I was puzzled by the other players' averted faces and sudden silence, broken only by whispers and suppressed laughter. I asked our third baseman, sitting near the door, what was going on. He didn't say anything; just jerked his thumb toward the bulletin board on the front wall.

Posted was an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek column written by Connolly in that afternoon's Chronicle about the new San Diego ballplayer who was a novelist (I had actually just started on a novel—never finished), had a master's degree, was sought after by many movie studios (I had just one nibble), and many other embroidered fantasies.

Back in the late forties, there were very few college graduates in pro baseball, let alone one with a master's degree. Those of us so unfortunate as to have attended college did our best to keep that shameful fact from our mostly hard-nosed, tobacco-chewing, born-on-the-farm (or bred-in-the-mines) fellow ballplayers. Forever after, I was subjected to the kind of needling ballplayers revel in, although it was largely good humored, thanks to Connolly. He had the good grace to indicate in his column that I had neither initiated the interview nor volunteered the "facts" that appeared in it.

Of course, I wasn't above a little needling of my own. After San Francisco, the team moved on to Los Angeles to play a series against the Angels. They had a daffy outfielder named Lou Novikoff, known then, and later in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs, as the "Mad Russian." He was also noted for being hit-happy and was definitely no angel in the outfield.

In one at bat during the series, Novikoff hit a line drive that barely glanced off the glove of the diving left fielder. It was definitely a hit, but there was some margin for error. As Novikoff dusted himself off after sliding into second base (where I was covering the bag), he whispered to me: "Hey kid, check the scoreboard. Did they give me a hit or an error?" He wasn't about to enhance his hit-happy reputation by turning to look at the scoreboard himself. "Sorry, it's an error," I said, feigning innocence.

Novikoff raged. "That son of a Žbleepin' scorer is tryin' to keep me in the minors forever!" When I finally told him I had "misread" the scoreboard and he had really gotten a hit, he acted like a little kid at a birthday party, uttering a joyous "Yeah!" and thrusting his fist to the sky—though careful to keep his back to the scoreboard.

Up to that point, I hadn't been doing too well for San Diego at the plate. Used primarily as a pinch hitter, I had managed only one hit in seven at bats. I had been hitting the ball on the nose, but they just weren't falling in. Our manager was Rip Collins, the old-timer first baseman who had gained fame playing with the legendary Gas House Gang of the St. Louis Cardinals that included Joe Medwick, Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Pepper Martin, et al. Collins was a good-natured, affable leader who never put pressure on his players—not even me, with my almost nonexistent batting average. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty discouraged by the time we reached Los Angeles.

Before the first game of the series, I took infield practice and then went into the locker room to change my sweatshirt. Standing alone at his locker was Manny Salvo, a big Portuguese pitcher who had been with the New York Giants for a few years. Just making conversation, I asked who was pitching for Los Angles that night. "Cliff Chambers," he said. Chambers was a lefty and the best pitcher in the Pacific Coast League that year, having already won fifteen or sixteen games by the time I joined San Diego and leading the league in strikeouts. His stock in trade was a blazing fastball. (Subsequently, Chambers pitched a no-hitter in the majors, before throwing out his arm in mid-career.)

As a right-handed hitter, I had always felt I had an edge facing a left-handed pitcher. Instinctively, I said to Salvo: "I wish I were in there tonight. I love lefthanders." Just then, in a tableau worthy of a Frank Merriwell story, someone slapped me on the back and a voice said, "Okay, kid, you're in there tonight." It was a chuckling Rip Collins, who had just come into the locker room!

I batted sixth that night. In the first inning, Chambers struck out two of our first three hitters with his overpowering fastball and popped up the third. He also struck out the first two hitters in the second inning before I stepped up to the plate, not feeling quite as confident as I had in the locker room. Unbeknownst to me, another drama of sorts was unfolding over the airwaves. Former big leaguer Fred Haney, who would resume his managing career a few years later (and eventually win a world championship with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957), was doing the local radio broadcast for the game, and when I entered the batter's box, he reported the following to his audience:

"Well, what have we here? This young feller coming up to bat, Mickey Weintraub, out-Bergs even the famous Moe Berg. Listen to this: he graduated from five—count 'em—five colleges, has written seven books, two of them in Latin, and speaks nine languages, including Greek and Sanskrit." Then Haney paused, took a breath, and bellowed: "Now, let's see if he can hit!" Will Connolly's exaggerated story about me had apparently been sent out by the wire services to all the media in the Pacific Coast League cities, and Haney had carried the tale about me a mile farther!

Of course, as I stepped up to the plate, only those listening to the game on the radio were aware of what he had said, not I. (It was only later that I would learn about Haney's comments from a relative living in the area.) Knowing how blazing fast Chambers was, I started swinging on his very first pitch, almost before he finished his windup.

The odds favored that I would miss the pitch entirely or swing late and either dribble it or pop it up to the right side of the diamond. But I was so far ahead of the ball that I pulled it on a screaming one-hop liner to third base. The ball caromed off the knee of third baseman Joe Ostrowski (who played the outfield for the Chicago Cubs in later years) and bounced toward the stands! As I ran past our dugout on the way to first base, I heard Rip Collins chortle, "By God, the kid said he'd do it and he did it." As for me, I was more than a little proud that they had to call time for a few minutes to minister to Ostrow-ski's wounded knee. But the full impact of the incident's dramatic timing didn't hit me until my cousin Doris told me after the game what Haney had said in his broadcast just before I came to bat.

Fate played a hand eight years later, in 1955, bringing Haney and me together again in somewhat turnabout circumstances. By this time my playing days were over and I was chairman of the Grandstand Managers Club, a fan booster's organization in Pittsburgh that sponsored luncheons every couple of weeks in the Grand Ballroom of the William Penn Hotel. I usually invited Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey, two or three of our star players, the manager and several top players from that week's visiting National League team, and, of course, our own manager, who, by an ironic turn of destiny's wheel, was none other than Fred Haney!

When I introduced Haney to the audience, I said, "I'm sure Fred doesn't remember me or the incident I'm about to describe, but he and I made a bit of improbable baseball history in 1947." Then I related the entire episode, starting with the series against San Francisco and Chronicle Sports Editor Will Connolly's nutty column about me, Collins's impromptu decision to put me in the lineup that night, Haney's on-air comments that greatly stretched the already embellished truth about my off-field talents, and finally, my soul-satisfying hit against Cliff Chambers.

But I wasn't through. In the late innings of the Pirate game the night before the luncheon, Haney had to make a tough decision, one that could make him a hero or a bum. It was a bunt or hit-away situation at a critical moment in the ball game. Haney made his decision and emerged a bum: He ordered his man to bunt, and the batter promptly popped into a doubleplay, although, truth be told, the outcome might have been just as disastrous if he had ordered the player to swing away. In any case, a cascade of boos came raining down on poor Haney's head.

I wound up my remarks at the luncheon by describing Haney's "dumb" decision of the night before. Then I turned to him, sitting on the dais next to me, and, imitating his tone and bellow of years before, roared: "Now let's see you explain that away!" The fans in attendance howled in delight, apparently agreeing with me that my turnabout was fair play. Haney took it all with good grace, but again he upstaged me.

"Mickey, how come you didn't tell them how you did the other times at bat?"

— EFQ

MICKEY WEINTRAUB is a former minor league player, manager, and club owner. He's a graduate of City College of New York and the Columbia School of Journalism; he also attended the Yale Graduate School of Drama. Now retired, he lives on Longboat Key, Florida, where tennis is his game.

© 2000 Mickey Weintraub

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