Mark Richardson —
My late fall/early winter reading has recently focused on classic fiction, Tolstoy and Mann, but I have found time to squeeze in three baseball biographies, and all three are worthy of note. Biographies have always been at the forefront of the game’s literature, but in recent years there seems to have been an explosion of life stories of the diamond’s greats. This is a welcome trend for those of us who love to read about the games and players of yesterday, many of whom even oldsters like myself are still too young to have seen play.
The first of the bios is called Lefty: An American Odyssey (2012) by Veronica Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone. The book is the story of the New York Yankees’ star lefthander, Vernon (Lefty) Gomez. The primary author, Veronica Gomez, is Lefty’s daughter, but this is no family memoir. Veronica is by profession a writer, and the narrative of the story is that of a professional biographer, not that of a daughter recollecting her life with daddy. There is no mention of the relationship until the epilogue, and no hint of familial fawning or prejudice. This is a straightforward telling of the life of one of the great pitchers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. It is the story of a man who wagered with Babe Ruth, poked fun at Lou Gehrig, and roomed with Joe DiMaggio. His long career spanned the glory years of the Yankees through the better part of three decades, and his success was in large part contributory to the success of the great Bronx Bombers who dominated baseball for most of the 20-plus year period that his career covered.
Known almost as much for his witty sense of humor as for his blazing fastball and sharp-breaking curve, Gomez was a favorite of his teammates, opponents, fans, and especially, sportswriters. Always good for a quip, he was the perfect foil for the reticent DiMaggio, who, despite (or perhaps because of) his standing as baseball’s regal prince, remained aloof from all but a select few. Gomez acted as a shelterer for Joltin’ Joe, deflecting those who tried to get too close to the Yankee Clipper by jumping into the mix and striking up conversations with those who would pester Joe. He was Joe’s exact opposite, boisterous, fun-loving, and people-oriented, and DiMaggio appreciated Lefty like he did no other.
Gomez’s success on the mound resulted in his election to the Hall of Fame, and this stellar book about him is also Hall caliber.
The second of the biographies is Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto (2010) by Carlo DeVito. The diminutive Yankees’ shortstop also enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as one of several Italian-American players who were among the first players of Italian origin to break into the pastime. Along with fellow Yankees DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri and Frankie Crosetti, Rizzuto opened the door to the sons of immigrants into the big leagues. Phil was a funny little guy who was terrified of bugs, any and all bugs. In a time when it was common for fielders to leave their gloves lying in the grass when an inning ended and they came back into the dugout, many were the instances when Rizzuto would return to the field, picked up his glove, and put it on his hand only to let out a blood-curdling scream and throw off the glove because an opposing player, knowing of his phobia, had placed a spider or a beetle into it. This became a recurrent joke on him, one which Rizzuto never got used to or came to expect. It caught him off guard time after time, leaving his teammates plenty of ammunition with which to tease him. He was very small in stature, barely over five feet tall and skinny (in fact, the start of his career was delayed for several seasons because the Yankees’ front office felt he was too small), and this fact, combined with his winning personality, caused his teammates to treat him like a beloved little brother. In 1950, he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, and none less than the great Ted Williams proclaimed that the Yankees, with stars like DiMaggio, Henrich, Berra, Houk, Bauer, Skowran and so many others, owed their success to the steady play of the little shortstop Rizzuto.
After his playing career ended, Rizzuto made his way into the broadcast booth, where he remained for over thirty years, endearing himself to another generation or two of Yankee fans. He battled with fellow announcer Harry Caray over which of them originated the call, “Holy cow!” and he was famous for telling his broadcast partner that he was going to the restroom at the start of the seventh inning, only to sneak out of the ballpark to beat traffic on the causeway, leaving his partner to wrap up the game by himself. He famously did a voice-over on Meat Loaf’s rock-and-roll hit “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” and then squirmed when he discovered that the song was about teenage sex. He tried to claim that he had no idea what the song was about, but Meat Loaf went on record saying that he had fully explained the song to Rizzuto prior to its taping. Eventually, the issue went away and Rizzuto remained as popular as ever.
The third of the three biographies, and I think the finest, is Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes (2013) by John Rosengren. Greenberg was one of the first Jewish players in the game, and the first to proclaim his religion with pride. There had been a handful of Jewish players prior to Greenberg’s appearance on the scene, but most had changed their names so as not to be identified with Judaism. Hankus Pankus, as he was nicknamed by announcer Ernie Harwell, blossomed into a slugger of rare ability, one who not only clubbed the long ball but hit for extremely high batting averages as well. He faced prejudice and taunting with courage and grace, and he was an early ally of Jackie Robinson when Jackie broke into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s despicable color line. Robinson expressed his appreciation for the encouragement given him by Greenberg, and the two shared a distasteful knowledge of what it was like to be different from the average ballplayer. In the midst of his outstanding career, Greenberg, like many other stars, was called into the military as World War II beckoned. He had served a stint in the Army and was just released when America entered WWII, and so, he went right back in again and remained for the next five years He returned to the Detroit Tigers just as their pennant winning season ended, and even though he hadn’t played ball in five years, he took up right where he left off, hitting a game-winning home run against the Chicago Cubs in the 1945 World Series. After his playing days, Greenberg took over as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians. His success in this role was not what it had been when he played. After standing with players throughout his career, working for better playing and living conditions, he became known as a penny pincher in the front office, and was accused of having no concern for the players. Most of the Indians took an anti-Greenberg stance, and he was soon relieved of his duties. But it will always be his outstanding playing career for which he is remembered, and a great career it was.
There are shelves and shelves of magnificent baseball biographies, and am looking forward to delving into them. These three were all great reads, and I thoroughly enjoyed each of them. I am going back to a few classics for the next few weeks, but Juan Marichal, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams await me when I return to baseball. I may even be able to find a book or two about the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs!. I’ll let you know.
13 thoughts on “Lefty, Scooter, and Hankus Pankus: Three Baseball Legends”
Very much enjoyed these reviews – I’m a devout baseball fan and love reading about players from what might be called baseball’s Golden Age.
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Thanks very much.
Nice article Mr Richardson.
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Love your baseball writings, Mark. A few numbers on Hank Greenberg, who was #1 right from birth—born on 1/1/11 ! Broke in with the Tigers at age 22, hitting .301.Because of 4-1/2 seasons lost to military service in WWII and a lost season to injury in 1936, was only able to play nine full seasons. Still, compiled a lifetime BA of .313, led the AL four times in home runs & runs batted in, with highs of 58 HR & an astonishing 183 RBI, & was twice named AL MVP.
His salary before & upon return from WWII was $55,000 & $75,000 in 1946, his final season with Detroit.In 1949, the three highest player salaries were DiMaggio at $100,000, Ted Williams, $85,000 & Bob Feller $82,500. So, when Greenberg worked as General Manager of the Indians, under legendary baseball ambassador to the fans Bill Veeck, from 1948-57, you can see why anyone in charge of salaries could be called a penny-pincher!
Greenberg’s intelligence & character were beyond question. He was for quite a few years in his 70s dictating memories & observations, intending to write his autobiography, but progressive kidney cancer his last year of life prevented this. He was not merely the first Jewish player to achieve national fame, but was recognized as a thoroughly principled man throughout his life, rarely responding in anger or frustration during his baseball career, & often extending help & support to other players, fans, & the general public for worthwhile causes, as close to being universally respected as one in the limelight of sports can get.
Yes, Bob. His one big character flaw seems to have been his inability to resist a pretty smile. He was an inveterate womanizer, which characteristic cost him his marriage to Gimbel’s heir Carol Gimbel as well as several other relationships. This is a fairly common thing among ballplayers, as Jim Bouton’s outstanding one-season memoir, Ball Four, so pointedly made clear.
Over the past 60+ years the economics of baseball have immensely changed, but this morning’s “Baseball Notes” in the WSJ cited what has to be considered one of the most absurd salary demands, EVER! Baltimore Orioles backup catcher Caleb Joseph, who made $523,500 last season, is asking for a raise to $1million this year. Remember, the Great DiMaggio’s salary in 1949 was just $100,000, the highest of any ballplayer of that era. So, even tho times have changed, consider Joseph’s offensive stats in 2016: 132 at bats, a .174 batting average, and NO runs batted in—the worst lack of production in the entire history of Major League Baseball! As the Scooter might intone, “Holy Cow! What’s goin’ on here?”
And the saddest thing is that if he goes to arbitration, he’ll probably win. Higher ticket prices, anyone?
And of course, too, Bob, while your point regarding the pay of a utility player in today’s game is well made, it is important to remember that the $100,000.00 DiMaggio was paid in 1949 would equate to $1,001,792.53 in today’s dollars. Still FAR below what his market value would be today, but you see my point. Let’s also remember that in DiMag’s day, the revenue stream for baseball teams was limited to ticket sales and a small amount of radio income. Today the television contracts alone cover all of multi-millions of dollars in teams expenses, and MLB has devised another thousand ways to increase revenue for all teams. Teams like the Yankees and Dodgers, who own their own television networks and air baseball programming 24 hours a day have an even larger source of cash. There are SO MANY more dollars being brought into today’s game that it is almost unbelievable how teams used to operate in the good ol’ days.
Some baseball geek figured out a few years ago that Alex Rodriguez (the first of the now-ubiquitous __-Rods) made $17-thousand-&-chump-change every plate appearance. So, just by the action of stepping into the batter’s box, A-Rod would pocket that $1,792.53 residual from Joe’s converted One Mil ! Wonder if he laughed all the way around the bases like all the way to the bank?
I’m glad you mentioned the -Rods. This is something I have commented on a couple of times on Facebook. When I was a kid, we knew nicknames like The Dominican Dandy, The Panamanian Flash, The Say Hey Kid, The Hammer and on and on. Nowadays, the tiny (if they exist at all) imaginations of the writers and sportscasters pretend that calling a player by the first letter of his first name and the first three or four letters of his last name constitutes a legitimate nickname. It drives me buggy.
Picking up on mediocrity being rewarded, as with Caleb Joseph above: Common sense prevailed, as he lost his arbitration bid. Not to be deterred, however, it took until April 29 for Clubbin’ Caleb to get his first RBI of the season—in 62 ABs, extending his “record book” production futility to 194 ABs!
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I enjoyed this article very much. It took me back more than fifty years. But one small detail. Hank Greenberg got the nickname Hankus Pankus from Tiger announcer Ty Tyson, not Ernie Harwell. Tyson broadcast Tiger games from the 20s to the 50s. Harwell didn’t come to Detroit until 1960.