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The Strangest Game of Them All

by Scribbly Tate (October 21, 1999)

And so the formerly inevitable is upon us once again.

I refer of course to the World Series, that wonderful institution that survived two world wars, two police actions, a seven-year depression and a major gambling scandal, but could not overcome the greed of its participants and facilitators and had its inevitability status revoked in 1994. We’re bound to lose another one the next time those who currently have possession of our national game get into a pissing contest over who should be rich and who should be richer, so be forewarned.

Speaking of Fall Classics not seen, today I would like to discuss the first one I missed after becoming a sports scribe. I was fortunate to have covered in person all of the World Series games from 1926 to 1928, having been the Yankees beat reporter for the now long-since defunct New York Loyal Citizen. It so happened that in 1929 the Yankees got way behind the Philadelphia Athletics and ended up in second place, a distant 18 games off the pace. I decided this lull in Yankee fortunes was the perfect time for me to marry my fiancee, the first Mrs. Tate, formerly of some other name which I seem to have lost to the ages. (In hindsight, I was too young to be married, but it sure seemed like the thing to do at the time, especially when she wore a particular red dress that fit just so. Of course, twenty years later when I married the third Mrs. Tate, I was probably still too young.)

In any event, the first Mrs. Tate insisted on a full-blown honeymoon in spite of my limited resources. I was, after all, getting by on the salary of a lowly sports reporter incurring all the usual expenses that line of work entailed; cigars, bar tabs, tips, wagers, etc. (Not to mention the hats. Today’s man is ten percent richer than was his grandfather, simply because he must no longer purchase and maintain hats. I knew of many who took on odd jobs just to pay for the blocking alone.) In spite of my constrained situation, she was insistent that we take a cruise in an ocean-going vessel of some kind.

“But Precious,” I protested, “I don’t have that sort of financial bluster.”

But she made it clear that without the cruise there would be no wedding. I ran my problem by Gilby Frake, the New York Giants beat writer at my paper who was also my mentor and would be the best man at my nuptials, provided I could bring them off.

“The last time I checked, Cuba is in the Caribbean Sea,” he offered, “and therefore accessible by boat.” Now, back in those days (about six or seven years before the birth of Yankee hurler Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez), Cuba was quite the place, especially for a sport like me. Casinos, horse racing, legal liquor; all of these things helped make it a paradise of temptation.

Intrigued, I found a reasonable fare on a ship called “El Torpedo,” and booked passage from New York to Havana. The first Mrs. Tate was ecstatic, although she was not familiar with the ship, it never being mentioned in any of those society page listings that announced what royal swell had just blown into town on which majestic tub. There was a good reason for the anonymity of our conveyance, which we discovered upon seeing it for the first time at the 42nd Street Pier: it was a refitted warship left over from the Spanish-American contest. Thirty years prior it had been surrendered by the Spaniards, and left to gather rust and barnacles until some enterprising type came along and converted it to a poor man’s Queen Mary. The conversion was not altogether thorough, however. For instance, our cabin was in the forward gun turret which, despite the rust, could and did still swivel, especially when a newlywed couple residing therein gave it frequent cause to do so.

Crestfallen but not heartbroken, the first Mrs. Tate endured our jaunt down the eastern seaboard to the port of Havana. She seemed puzzled as to why land was never out of view. I asked the captain about this and he explained with a wink, “It is for the best.” Each night, we dropped anchor off a secluded spot of the American coastline for an hour or so at a time, and the dark silhouettes of small boats could be seen coming toward us, and then moving back toward shore lower in the water. When Mrs. Tate asked the captain about these goings on, he answered by sending a bottle of vintage champagne to our cabin.

Soon enough, we docked in Havana, and had not been off the ship twenty minutes when who should we run into but Gilby Frake. The first Mrs. Tate was not thrilled by his presence and accused me of conspiring to meet him.

“It is custom,” he informed her, “for the best man to be close at hand during the honeymoon, in case the groom turns out to be a cad. Many the blushing bride has been left stranded in some foreign and inhospitable land by a husband with cold feet. These suddenly enlonliated ‘honeymoon widows’ would have faced an unspeakable future in the bondage of white slavery if not for the caring presence of the best man.”

“I have been reading etiquette books by the shelf full and I have never heard of such a thing!” she protested.

“Are you familiar with the works of the late Dame Claire?” said Gilby, clearly working from the inspiration of the moment.

“No, I am not.”

“Yes, that would make sense. If you were, your maid of honor would be along on this journey as well, to act as a stand-in if it were you who developed a case of the second thoughts. A pity you haven’t read these tomes. Dame Claire is most clear on the subject.”

And so our party was now three, which, again using hindsight here, may have not set my first marriage on a course bound for longevity. In my defense, I did spend at least two-thirds of my time with the first Mrs. Tate, but the lure of the casinos and all those damned horses racing with men on their backs made it hard for me to give her my undivided attention. What was worse, though, was the run of bad luck I was having. It wouldn’t be too long before the first Mrs. Tate would realize I had gone through just about all of our money.

On the morning of Saturday, October 12, 1929, I was on the edge of despair. If I did not reverse my fortunes that day, the immediate future of my new marriage would surely hang in the balance. Gilby, a confidante of Giants manager John McGraw (whom I always expected to bump into around every corner, so linked with Havana was he), said he had gotten some inside dope on the World Series game scheduled that day in Philadelphia.

“The A’s are a sure thing,” he said conspiratorially. I assumed McGraw was his source, although how he knew they were going to beat the Cubs, I couldn’t begin to guess. “Some people just know things,” I reassured myself as I cashed in our return tickets and pawned the watch that was a gift from my new father-in-law with the intention of betting every last cent on the A’s.

“How are we going to get updates on the score?” I whined to Gilby. “I can’t have this much money riding on something and not be able to know the score until after it’s all over!”

“Relax,” he said. “Go tell the wife you must visit the American consulate for the afternoon, then meet me back here in short order.” Once that lie was firmly in place, we hailed a cab, which took us to the gate of a walled estate on the outskirts of the city. Gilby muttered something in Spanish to the gatekeeper, and we were allowed to enter. Gilby seemed to know the way, and owed that he had been there before. He led me down a path that was cut through lush jungle undergrowth. We wended our way for several minutes before a clearing opened before us. Here there rose a small, wooden grandstand … and a magnificently manicured baseball diamond!

As we got closer to the grandstand, I could see that it held about two hundred people. Many of the seats were filled with white-suited Americans and well-off looking Cubans. Cigars were proffered by polite attendants and we lit up, me still not knowing what was going on. Gilby motioned for me to follow him down the stairs and beneath the grandstand, where I found myself in line at what appeared to be a parimutuel window. Ahead of me, Gilby took the plunge on the Athletics with a wad of dough thick enough to clog a Paris sewer. I followed in turn and did same with my ill-gotten bucks. I came away from the window with a small receipt and was soon back in my seat.

From seemingly out of nowhere, there appeared two baseball teams, each containing nine men. One team was in the road grays of the Chicago Cubs and the other in the bright white home threads of the A’s. They marched to the base lines and stood facing us. An announcer with a megaphone appeared and called out, in an unpredictable mixture of English and Spanish, the lineups. So unusual was his delivery that he managed to butcher both languages simultaneously, leading us to believe he may not have spoken either.

“Por los Bruinitos de Chicago, batting primera, tres base hombre, Norm McMillan …” and so on through Woody English, Rogers Hornsby and the rest of the Cubs, followed by the “Athleticos con Pachidermi de Philadelphia” as he called them.

As he stated each name, a player would step forward and tip his cap. But these players were not the men so named! The fellow who doffed after being announced as Hack Wilson was two shades darker than night, as was “Al Simmons” and “KiKi Cuyler.” I was just about to ask Gilby what was giving when I noticed the telegraph operator sitting behind home plate, a wire running from outside the little stadium directly to his table. Next to him was a slight man in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, looking for all the world like a movie director. When the players took their positions this chap began signaling to them in a weird kind of flagless semaphore.

The man announced as A’s pitcher Jack Quinn went into a big windup and out of his hand came … nothing. “Ball!” yelled the umpire as the catcher lunged outside for the “pitch.” This happened several more times and the player announced as Norm McMillan trotted down to first to start the “game.”

“Well,” I said to Gilby, “it stands to reason he got himself a walk, there wasn’t a ball for him to hit.”

“Scribbly, sometimes you are so dense a bullet couldn’t penetrate your brain. Haven’t you ever seen a mechanical scoreboard before?” I allowed that I was familiar with what he referred, that being a large board with mechanical players that moved around the diamond according to what was happening in an out-of-town game. They were often used at World Series time by newspapers who placed them on the outside of their buildings. There was one gathering dust somewhere in the basement of the Loyal Citizen. Fans would gather around the building and watch the game progress as the play-by-play came in over the wire, and it was recreated on the board. “Why do you ask?”

“Because, you stupe, this is the same thing, only they’re using real people!”

“How ingenious,” I thought, as Woody English fouled out to Bing Miller. “So this is nothing more than a pantomime show of the game being played up in Philly?”

There were times that Gilby had no patience for my youthful inability to grasp the obvious, and this was one of those times. “Now you’ve got your thinking cap on straight, Scribbly. The game account comes in over the wire to that fellow at the table, and that other fellow in the puffy pants there relays the play to the actors, who then act it out. Understand?”

“Yes, I do,” I said as Cuyler was caught looking to end the first.

And so the show continued until the fourth, when the Cubs plated two runs. To be honest, I think the troupe were guilty of some serious over-acting. Every defensive play involved a dive or a long run ending in a leap at the wall. All plays were extremely close and there was much jawing with the umpire. As for our wager, I was growing worried as Cub moundsman Charlie Root was setting down the A’s with ease. The actor playing him could not ever have seen him pitch (as had I), for his windup took a full ten seconds and was full of pumps, hesitations and leg shufflings that Root never dreamed of, let alone used.

When the Cubs erupted for two quick runs to start their sixth, a burning sensation entered my gullet and flamed there at will. A pitching change was made, but since there were no substitutes on these pantomime teams, the actor portraying Quinn merely shouted “Yo soy Rube Walberg!” and continued pitching. He quickly made an error that allowed two more Cubs to score, and I found myself yelling at him as if he were truly responsible. Charlie Grimm came home on a sacrifice fly (another spectacular leap over the wall followed by an impossibly long throw and a collision at the plate) by Zack Taylor, and I was now down 7-0.

“I don’t feel so good, Gilby,” I moaned as the A’s went quietly in their half of the sixth.

“Don’t be a suckling, Scribbly. If you’re gonna plunge, at least have the courage to stay with your pick,” he snarled at me.

“Hey, this was your hot tip we bet on,” I lashed back, contemplating how I was going to tell my new bride that we would have to hire on as hotel staff until we could raise the money to get back to the States.

When the Cubs put up yet another run in the seventh to make it 8-0, I would have shot myself had a gun been handy. Sweat had soaked all the way down to my elbows. My skin was crawling with the insects of self-doubt. Gilby gave me the once-over, disgusted.

“Look at yourself, Scribbly. You look like a fellow about to go over the top of a trench. It’s only a bet — calm yourself.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I shot back. “I sold everything to get this bet down. Everything!”

“Oh, that’s different,” he said, his disdain receding a bit. “Hey, now look at that, will you?”

Al Simmons had just belted a home run and the A’s were finally on the board in the seventh. And then, a miracle, or rather a series of miracles, came my way. A’s were circling the bases like jalopies on a dirt track. I quickly lost track of the score, but I knew the A’s were getting close. Jimmie Foxx singled and Mickey Cochrane came around to score. Gilby grabbed me, insisting the game was tied 8-8. Suddenly all of my physical maladies cleared up and I felt adreneline’s thrilling surge.

“Yo soy Malone!” announced the Cub pitcher just before he plunked Miller in the ribs to load the bases. He made a great show of pain, hurtling backwards as if gored by a bull at full run. He lay motionless for a time and then, slowly, got to his feet and hobbled to first base. Jimmy Dykes then launched a double, and Simmons and Foxx raced around to make it 10-8. Gilby and I hugged and danced around in a circle.

“Yo soy Lefty!” announced the A’s pitcher. The ace Grove made the Cubs go away in the eighth and ninth innings, and I fell to my knees in a prayer of thanks. After the game the players came out and took individual bows, and then one of those big group bows where they all bend at the waist at one time. The crowd applauded enthusiastically for the cast, especially those of us who had dropped on the A’s. What a magnificent bunch of hams they all were.

And so my marriage was saved — for the time being at least — by the biggest single inning in World Series history. We returned to New York to make a home that I, through similar monetary indiscretions with less successful outcomes, would soon enough bring to ruin.

Scribbly Tate’s columns appear weekly at robneyer.com.