Three for the Tigers
- September 1973 MAX. IT IS LUNCHTIME at Gene & Georgetti's Restaurant, on North Franklin Street in downtown Chicago. It is the middle of the week, and the place is pretty full. A lot of businessmen eat here: b.l.o.o.d.y Marys, chopped sirloin or the veal scallopini, salad, coffee, shoptalk. At one table-a party of three-somebody mentions the St. Louis Browns, the old American League baseball club that moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles. A man rises from a nearby table, approaches the threesome, and bows. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he says. They look up. He is a sandy-haired, bright-eyed man-still a bit below middle age, one would guess-with a small cigar in his hand; his eyegla.s.ses are in the new aviator-goggle style. "Excuse me," he says again, smiling cheerfully. "I just overheard one of you mention the old St. Louis Browns, and I'm sure you would all like to be reminded of the lineup of the 1944 Brownies, which, as you will recall, was the only Browns team ever to win the AL pennant, and which lost that World Series, of course, to their hometown rivals, the Cardinals, in six games. It was one of the two World Series, in fact, in which both partic.i.p.ating teams came from west of the Mississippi River. The Browns' regular lineup in 1944 went: catcher, Frank Mancuso; first base, George McQuinn; second base, Don Gutteridge; third base, Mark Christman ..." He runs through the eight names (one of the least celebrated lineups in the history of the game), adds starting pitchers Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, Bob Muncrief, and Denny Galehouse and, for good measure, throws in a second-string catcher named Red Hayworth. "You probably remember," he says, still smiling, "that Red Hayworth and the regular catcher, Frank Mancuso, both had brothers who were also major-league catchers and, in both cases, better catchers. Thank you." He bows and departs.
The three men at the table look at one another, and then one of them calls after their informant. "Hey!" he says. "Do you come from St. Louis?"
"No," says the stranger. "Detroit."
He sits down at his table again, but he has stopped smiling. He has just remembered that he lives in Chicago now-away from Detroit, away from the Tigers.
Bert. A little after nine-thirty on a Monday morning in June, Bert walks into his ground-floor office in Oak Park, Michigan, which is a suburb on the north side of Detroit. His name is on the door: "Bert Gordon, Realty." He says good morning to his secretary and to his a.s.sistant, Barbara Rosenthal, and goes on into his own office, which looks out on a parking strip and, beyond that, onto Greenfield Road. He sits down at his desk, leans forward and takes off his shoes, and slides his feet into a pair of faded blue espadrilles. Then he swings his swivel chair to the right, so that he is facing a desk-model calculator on a side table, and punches out on it the numbers "2922" and "1596." The first figure is the total number of days of President Nixon's two terms in the White House; the second is the number of days the President has served to date. He hits another b.u.t.ton, and the answer slot at the top of the machine offers up "54.62" in illuminated green numbers. Bert is a member of the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee, and he has just figured (as he figures every weekday morning) the expired percentage of President Nixon's two terms of office. Now Bert clears the machine and punches out the numbers "9345" and "2806." (Since Friday morning, the first number has gone up by seven and the second by one: Al Kaline, the veteran star outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, hit one single in seven official times at bat against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend.) The machine silently presents another set of green numbers; today Kaline's lifetime major-league batting average stands at .3000267. Bert sighs, erases the figure, and picks up his telephone. He is ready to start his day.
Don. Don and his wife, Susan, are attending a performance of The Marriage of Figaro by the touring Metropolitan Opera company at the Masonic Temple Auditorium in Detroit. They are both very fond of the theater, and they go to a play or an opera whenever they can manage it. As usual, Don has bought seats near the back of the balcony, where he knows the radio reception is better. The two of them are following the opera attentively, but Don is also holding a small transistor radio up to his left ear. (He is left-eared all the way.) Through long training, he is able to hear both the opera and (because of the good reception) the voice of Ernie Harwell, the sports broadcaster for Station WJR, who is at this moment describing the action at Tiger Stadium, where the Brewers are leading the Tigers 10 in the top of the fourth. A woman sitting directly behind Don and Susan is unable to restrain her curiosity, and during a recitative she leans forward and taps Don on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," she whispers. "I was just wondering what you're listening to on that little radio."
Don half turns in his seat. "Simultaneous translation," he whispers.
In this country's long love affair with professional sports, the athlete has more and more come to resemble the inamorata-an object of unceasing scrutiny, rapturous adoration, and expensive adornment-while the suitor, or fan, remains forever loyal, shabby, and unknown. Sports fans are thought of as a ma.s.s-statistics that are noticed only when they do not fall within their predicted norms-but the individual fan (except for a few self-made celebrities, like Hilda Chester, the Ebbets Field bell ringer, or the Knicks' Dancing Harry, or the Mets' folding-sign man) is a loner, a transient cipher, whose streaks and slumps go unrecorded in the annals of his game. Every sport, however, has its great fans as well as its great athletes-cla.s.sic performers whose exceptional powers set them apart from the journeyman spectator. They are veterans who deserve notice if only for the fact that their record of attachment and service to their game and their club often exceeds that of any player down on the field. The home team, in their belief, belongs to them more than to this pa.s.sing manager or to that arriviste owner, and they are often cranky possessors, trembling with memory and pride and frustration, as ridiculous and touching as any lovers. These rare ones make up a fraction of every sporting audience, but they seem to cl.u.s.ter more thickly in the homes of the older, well-entrenched franchises. The three Detroit nonpareils are a vivid constellation of contemporary baseball fandom: Maxwell H. Lapides, a businessman who went to work last spring as a vice-president of a national collection agency in Chicago, thus painfully exiling himself from his friends and his ball team; Bertram Gordon, whose real-estate agency specializes in finding and leasing business and shopping-center locations in the areas of thickening population outside the central city; and Dr. Donald N. Shapiro, a distinguished oral surgeon. They are intimate friends, united by their ages (middle to upper forties), their similar backgrounds and styles of life, their neighboring families, their Jewishness, and their wit and intelligence, but most of all by their consuming pa.s.sion for the Detroit Tigers. None of the three is willing to accept the cheerfully patronizing tone that nonsporting friends and relatives usually direct toward the baseball-bitten; none of the three, for that matter, regards himself as a baseball fan at all. "Right from the beginning, I have been a Tiger fan and nothing else," Max Lapides said this summer. "Other men can happily go to ball games wherever they happen to find themselves-not me. My interest is the Tigers. They are the sun, and all the twenty-three other teams are satellites. You can't begin to understand or appreciate this game unless you have an intense involvement."
Dr. Donald Shapiro, in spite of the demands imposed by his successful and extensive practice, by his family (he is married and has three children), by his writing for medical and dental journals, by his sideline in theatricals (he played a small part in a Hollywood gangster film shot in Detroit last winter), by his weekend career as a highly compet.i.tive Cla.s.s A tennis player, and by his voluminous, wide-ranging reading, manages to keep abreast of the Tigers' news almost inning by inning throughout their 162-game season. Evenings, friends at his house or at their own have taught themselves to ignore the fact that his left ear, like van Gogh's, is of no immediate social use; in the spring, when a good many ball games are played in the afternoon, Shapiro tries to schedule his surgical appointments in hospital operating rooms that he knows to have an acceptable interior Harwell-level. (Sinai Hospital has the worst reception in Detroit.) When all else fails, he calls his baseball friends, and Bert Gordon has come to recognize the sound of Don's telephone voice, blurred with haste and a surgical mask, asking, "How're we doing?" One afternoon in 1970, Bert answered his phone and heard Don whisper, "This is probably a violation of every professional canon, but I can't help it. Guess who I've got in the chair!"
"Who?" said Bert.
They hung up. (Chet Laabs, a chunky, unremarkable outfielder, played for the Tigers from 1937 to 1939.) This kind of belonging brooks no alternatives. "When I'm listening to a game, there is nothing that annoys me as much as somebody who clearly doesn't care coming up to me and smiling and saying 'How's it going?'" Don says, "How's it going! Why, don't they understand that for a real fan it's always a matter of suffering and ecstasy? What we're involved with here is exaltation!"
Bert Gordon, in turn, detected a crucial slight in the midst of a recent bridge-table conversation, and demanded, "How come you're a bridge authority and your partner's an art aficionado but I'm a baseball nut?"
Bert and Don are lifelong friends who grew up in the near-northwest section of Detroit and graduated from Central High together in the cla.s.s of 1942. Max Lapides, who is forty-five years old-three and a half years younger than the others-did not live in the same neighborhood, and thus the triumvirate was not completed until early in the nineteen sixties, although they have subsequently established the fact that they were fellow witnesses, usually in person, of innumerable famous moments in Tiger history: Goose Goslin's championship-winning single in the ninth inning of the sixth game in the 1935 Series; an unknown thirty-year-old rookie named Floyd Giebell outpitching Bob Feller in Cleveland on the second-to-last day of the 1940 season to nail down the pennant for Detroit; Rudy York and Pinky Higgins. .h.i.tting two-run homers in the same inning against the Reds in the Series that fall; Earl Torgeson stealing home in the bottom of the tenth inning to defeat the hated Yanks in 1955; Joe DiMaggio hammering a grounder that broke George Kell's jaw-and Kell picking up the ball and stepping on the bag to force the runner from second before collapsing in front of third base. Don and Max met at last in 1960, when a friend in common brought them together at a dinner party, having a.s.sured each one beforehand that the other was a Tiger fan of surpa.s.sing tenacity and knowledge. Both of them, of course, utterly ignored the proffered bona fides, and the marriage very nearly expired on the spot. Late in the evening, however, the two chanced to arrive at the drinks table together. Don Shapiro, regarding Max with evident distrust, ventured a minute opening. "R.L.," he said.
"R.L.?" returned Max.
Don nodded, watching his man.
"Why, Roxie Lawson," said Max. (Roxie Lawson was a right-handed pitcher for the Tigers in the mid-thirties.) "Of course."
They fell into each other's arms.
In recent years, the three-way entente has deepened in complexity, ritual, and affection. Max Lapides, who has regularly attended about thirty or thirty-five Tiger home games every year, often to the extent of going to the park alone ("He even likes a night game against the Texas Rangers in the last week of September," says Bert Gordon), has been an energizing catalyst for the three, organizing baseball dates and tickets, nudging baseball memories, berating the Tiger management, comparing active and erstwhile ballplayers, inventing bets and interior games, finding causes for contention and laughter. Since each of the three friends sustains an almost permanent state of transcendental baseball meditation, they are forever making and sharing new discoveries. Last year, for instance, Bert startled Max with the sudden announcement that Aurelio Rodriguez, the present Tiger third baseman, is the only major-league infielder with all five vowels in his first name.
Max and Bert are telephone addicts, and have made several thousand calls to each other in the past four or five years (Bert: "Think how many if we liked each other!"), mostly to exchange baseball talk. In a recent call, Max baited Bert for having inexplicably forgotten that Don Heffner had played in six games for the Tigers in 1944, long before beginning his tenure as a Detroit coach. "Now we're even for Milt Boiling, right?" he said. "It must be a year you haven't let me up because I forgot Milt and Frank Boiling played together that once for us in the fifties." In time, they went on to bubble-gum cards. "I never saw the Waners, because they were in the wrong league, but I know how they each looked up at the plate," Max said. "Both were lefty hitters, of course, but Lloyd held the bat sort of out in front of him when he was up, and Paul's bat was tipped sideways and back. That's the way it was on my cards, anyway. Listen, what were the worst baseball cards you used to have-you know, the ones you always had so many of you couldn't get rid of them? ... Harlond Clift? Oh, yes, my G.o.d, you're right, Bert! I'd absolutely forgotten. But with me it was always too many Hudlins. Willis Hudlin, the old Cleveland twirler-right? I think I had a hundred Willis Hudlins.... What were the best baseball cards? You mean like the Gehringers and ... Oh, the rarest ones. Let me see.... I guess they were so rare I never got one. I mean, I can't remember. Probably some good ballplayer on a terrible team. Somebody on the old Athletics who'd get overlooked there. Like-oh, like Bob Johnson. You remember him-Indian Bob. He used to kill us.... I think we talked about this once already, but let's talk about it some more, OK?"
By agreement among the three, Max holds the post of official historian, Don is entrusted with tactics, and Bert is the statistician, though none of them is reticent about intruding upon another's turf of expertise. Like most long-term fans, they are absolutely opposed to the American League's new designated-hitter rule, but Bert Gordon may be the first cla.s.sicist to point out that the addition of the tenth man means that the pregame public announcement of the team lineups now takes 11.1 percent longer to complete than it did last year. His avidity for figures seems to remove him a little from the day-to-day adventures of his team, but he keeps his Kaline statistics warm, and this summer he spent a good many hours extrapolating the day on which Kaline would pa.s.s Charlie Gehringer as the player with the third-highest number of base hits (behind Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford) in Tiger history. Early in June, Bert settled on August 17 as the likely date for the event, but later revised it to August 9; the epochal Kaline hit actually came on August 8-a single against Oakland that was probably appreciated more quickly and more deeply by Bert Gordon than by the man who struck it. Bert polishes such Tiger events and figures in his mind-the unmatched Ty Cobb records; Harry Heilmann's odd-year batting championships, in 1921, '23, '25, and '27; Denny McLain's startling 316 year in 1968-but the one Tiger record he believes to be absolutely una.s.sailable was made in an afternoon game on June 21, 1970, when a modestly talented Tiger infielder named Cesar Gutierrez hit safely in seven consecutive times at bat. "For one thing, you have to send fifty-five men to the plate in the game before the thing even becomes statistically possible," Bert said recently. "Why, only two men in the entire history of this game, out of all the thousands and thousands that have played big-league ball, have ever gone seven for seven. Just think about that for a minute." He lit a Lucky Strike and thought about it for a minute, humming happily under his breath. "You know something about that Gutierrez?" he said, and an enormous laugh convulsed him. "Oh, boy, was he ever lucky!" *
Max Lapides, by his own careful, historian's estimate, has attended at least twelve hundred Tiger games. Looking back from this Everest over a baseball landscape of almost forty years, he still has no difficulty in selecting the greatest Tiger games of his time; in the spring of 1967, acting out of a pure, Thucydidean sense of duty, he wrote a considerable monograph on the two-or, in strict fact, three-battles that remained brightest in his memory. (Today, he has said, he might have to add either the fifth or the seventh game of the 1968 World Series, when the Tigers came back from an almost hopeless disadvantage to defeat the Cardinals for the World Championship.) On the night of June 23, 1950, playing at home, the Tigers gave up four home runs to the Yankees in the first four innings, to fall behind by 60; in their half of the fourth they hit four home runs of their own, including a grand slam by pitcher Dizzy Trout, altogether good for eight runs. Homers by Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich again put the visitors ahead, by 98, but Hoot Evers won the thing with a two-run inside-the-park homer in the bottom of the ninth. This Waterloo-eleven homers, sixty-two total bases, all nineteen runs the result of home runs-still holds a number of all-time baseball records (perhaps including "Frightened Pitchers, Most"), but Max's true fanly preference falls upon quite a different game, a two-part event of almost total austerity that began on July 21, 1945, when the Tigers and the Athletics played a twenty-four-inning, 11 standoff in Philadelphia. (Max Lapides happened to see this afternoon of mime because he had just begun his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. He also happened to see every game played by the Tigers at Shibe Park during his undergraduate years. Later in the summer of 1945, he and a college friend took a train to Washington to see a significant series between the Tigers and the Senators, who were then neck and neck in the pennant race; the students slept on park benches, subsisted on hot dogs and cornflakes, and saw five games in three days.) That 11 game was rescheduled for September 12, 1945, and again the Tigers and Athletics froze at 11 after nine innings, and then at 22 after eleven. The A's won at last, in the sixteenth inning, and Max's precise and admirable account-his prose style may owe something to a press-box t.i.tan of his boyhood, H. G. Salsinger, of the Detroit News-concludes ringingly: It was a fatal move. The exhausted Dazzler [Dizzy Trout] had nothing left-even in the dark shadows of Shibe Park.... Next came the troublesome Estalella, always a thorn in the Tiger paw.... Roberto and Diz battled to a full count and then, swinging late in the murky dusk, the Cuban sliced a sharp line drive to the right-field corner. Cullenbine, shading center field for the righthanded batter, never had a chance as Smith raced around to score the winning run and wrap up the "longest game" in baseball history after forty innings of play.
Two days later, whatever justice there was for the Tigers came when Leslie Mueller defeated the Athletics 10 in a five-inning game, while allowing only two hits.
On a Sat.u.r.day morning late last May, Bert Gordon and Don Shapiro drove to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport to meet Max Lapides, who was returning from Chicago to attend his first Tiger game of the year with his old friends. Max's wife and their two young daughters were staying in their Detroit home, in the suburban Birmingham section, until the end of the school year, so Max's exile was still leavened by weekend paroles. On the way to the airport, Bert and Don considered the awful possibility that Max might someday be converted to the White Sox, but the subject died of unlikelihood, and in time the two began comparing some Tiger managers. Red Rolfe (194952), it was agreed, had been decent; Fred Hutchinson (195254) had been sound but touched with temper; Charlie Dressen (196366) had been deep in knowledge but past his prime. Surprisingly, the vote for the best manager since Mickey Cochrane (193438) went to the inc.u.mbent, Billy Martin, who had taken an aged Tiger team into the playoffs the previous fall, and who had the same seniors currently, if barely, at the top of their division again. "He's winning ball games," said Don, "and that's absolutely all that counts."
"Plus he's exciting," said Bert. "This is the first time since I was eleven years old that you see a Tiger base runner go from second to third on a fly ball."
Another pa.s.senger inquired about Mayo Smith, the pilot who brought the Tigers to within one game of a pennant in 1967, and who won it all the following year. There was a painful pause, and then Don Shapiro, the resident strategist, said, "Listen, there were times when Mayo Smith was managing, and he would call in somebody from the bullpen, and I would know who he had chosen and I knew that he was going to be wrong. I knew the game was down the drain, and so did everybody else in the ball park. Why, that sense of impending disaster was so strong you could almost chart it. It was palpable. And then the disaster would happen. Mayo Smith absolutely lacked that mystical foreknowledge of baseball events, and as a manager you have to have that. Oh, this man was a monkey on my back for so long, and the worst part of it was that everybody loved Mayo Smith, because he was such a nice guy and such a charming guy. Mayo the nice poker companion, Mayo the great drinking companion-n.o.body had anything bad to say about him, and it was all absolutely true except for one thing: the man was overwhelmingly inept. Oh, boy, I hated that man, and I hated myself for hating him. I probably would have killed him if I'd run into him in '67 after he blew the pennant for us." The Tigers lost a famous three-way race on the last day of the 1967 season, when the Red Sox won the pennant by beating the Minnesota Twins while the Tigers lost the second game of a doubleheader to the California Angels at home. "That last game, he did everything wrong," Don went on. "He let our pitcher stay in, and I was standing up on my seat screaming, 'Take him out! Take him out!' I was blind with rage. I can still see what happened next-that pitch coming in to the Angels' Fregosi, and Fregosi getting ready to hit it-and I can see the ball going through the hole between short and third, and I can see the man coming around third to put them ahead. And then, like everybody else in this town, I can still see d.i.c.k McAuliffe, in the ninth, hitting into only his second double play of the entire season, to end it all. Listen, I'm like a dying man; I can see that whole game flashing before my eyes. It was like a scene out of Fellini, because right in back of me this guy is sitting there and listening to a football game-it was a Sunday, and football was on-and his radio is blaring football as the runner is rounding third base, and Mayo Smith is standing there, riveted to that post of his, holding up the dugout." He shook his head and laughed hollowly. "That was the day I came home and went down in the bas.e.m.e.nt and broke all our flowerpots."
Bert, from the front seat, said, "Think about something happier. Think about 1968."
"The trouble with you is you don't suffer enough," Don said.
"I don't suffer enough!" said Bert, shouting with laughter. "I'm Jewish, I'm short, I'm fat, I'm poor, I'm ugly-what else do you want me to suffer?"
"That's all true," Don said, looking at his friend affectionately. "A man like you probably can't bear the necessary onus of suffering. After all, this isn't just a game of ours. It isn't just a preoccupation. It isn't an obsession. It's a-well, it's a-"
They said it together: "It's an obsession."
At the airport, Max was met and hugged, and the car aimed back toward the ball park. Suddenly, it was a party.
"Everything is fine, I guess," Max said. "Only, I miss my friends, now I'm with them again. I like this so much I may do it every week. But things are not fine back there, really. Listen, the other night when we beat the Yanks I turned on the TV in Chicago and the guy forgot to give the Tigers' score. He absolutely forgot. I couldn't get to sleep until four in the morning. n.o.body knew. You pick up the morning paper in Chicago, and it says, 'N.Y. at Detroit (n.).' I mean, doesn't a man have a Const.i.tutional right to the box scores?" He said that he was sometimes able to pick up Ernie Harwell on his car radio. "It only happens a little bit outside the city, on the north side," he added. "Sometimes it's only a s.n.a.t.c.h of the game broadcast, with a lot of static, but I can always tell from Ernie's voice how we're doing. Anyway, that's how come we bought the new house in Highland Park-so I can get the broadcasts and be closer to drive to all the Tiger games in Milwaukee. Fortunately, my wife likes the area."
At the ball park, the three friends sat in their accustomed place, in Section 24, between first and home; Tiger Stadium is an ancient, squared-off green pleasance, and the view was splendid. None of the three bought scorecards. ("The thing to do," Bert said, "is remember.") The World Champion Oakland A's, who had barely beaten out the Tigers in a violent five-game playoff the previous fall, were the opposition, and a modest but enthusiastic audience was filling up the nearby seats. Don Shapiro has a dark, vivid face-a downturned mustache, some lines of pain, some lines of hope-and he now looked about with satisfaction and clapped his hands. "Well!" he said. "Well, well. What could be nicer than this? I mean that. I really mean it. I'm supremely happy. I like this park even better than my Eames chair." He caught sight of the Oakland starting pitcher, Ken Holtzman, warming up, and his face fell. "Uh-oh," he said. "A very tough man, and now I've got some ethnic problems, too. A Jewish pitcher against our guys."
The game was a quiet, almost eventless affair for the first few innings, but Don was a restless spectator, twisting and bending in his seat, grimacing, groaning occasionally, leaping up for almost every enemy out. In the fifth, Gene Tenace, the Oakland first baseman, hit a home run into the left-field stands, and Shapiro fell back into his seat. He stared at the concrete floor in silence. "G.o.d d.a.m.n it," he muttered at last. "This is serious." The A's added two more runs off the Detroit starter, Woodie Fryman, but in the bottom half the Tigers put together two singles, a walk, and a third single, by Bill Freehan, the Detroit catcher, to tie it up, and the party was delighted.
"That was a good little rally," Max said. "Just right. Lots of running, and we have a tie."
"Yes, I don't like that one big blow," Bert said.
Don, watching the game and his emotions simultaneously, announced, "I'm elated. I'm back to my original state of anxiety. But listen, Max, we're lucky they decided to pitch to Freehan."
"Yes," Max said. "First of all, I would walk him. But then I absolutely don't throw him any kind of up pitch like that."
Jim Northrup, the Tiger right fielder, came up to the plate in the sixth, and Bert said, "I still don't see why this guy doesn't hit about .380."
"We've been saying that for ten years," Don said.
Northrup flied out, and Rodriguez stood in. Bert cried, "Au-reeli-oh!"
"See, here's another one," Max said. "This guy hit nineteen homers one year, and everybody called him a home-run hitter. They've been waiting ever since."
"He hit nineteen?" said Bert.
"Yes, for the Angels."
"Not for us, of course."
"Aurelio has a lazy bat," Don said. "He doesn't whip that bat."
"Frank Boiling had a lazy bat, too," Max said.
"You can't remember Milt Boiling?" Bert said.
Rodriguez hit a two-run home run to left, and Max, waving his arms and laughing, cried, "Exactly what I said! He's a great home-run hitter. I always knew it. Anyway, Williams should have taken out Holtzman. The man was dying out there-anybody could see it."
In the eighth, however, the Oakland designated hitter, Deron Johnson, jumped on a pitch by a Detroit reliever named Tom Timmerman and drove it high into the left-field seats. The game was tied. There was an enormous silence, and Don Shapiro, holding his head, stood up and turned his back on the field. "I knew it," he said. "I knew it!" He swayed slightly. "Oh, listen to that d.a.m.ned organ, will you? They're playing funeral selections." (Another bitter cause: In 1966, Don and Max directed a barrage of letters at the Tigers' general manager, Jim Campbell, protesting the installation of an organ at the stadium. Max wrote, "Baseball games are baseball games, and vesper services are vesper services." Don wrote, "Who in h.e.l.l wants to hear 'Funiculi Funicula' in the middle of a Tiger rally?" Max wrote, "The object of a ball game for the fan is not to be entertained. It is to win." The organ was not removed.) Rich Reese, leading off the bottom of the eighth, was walked, and hopes revived noisily. d.i.c.k Sharon stood in, and Max said, "He should bunt, but we have the worst bunting team in history."
"It's an absolute must-bunt situation," Don agreed. Last year, Don mailed a lengthy letter to Billy Martin outlining a new defense for the must-bunt, which involved sending the second baseman to charge the plate on the right side of the diamond, instead of the traditional move by the first baseman. Don's plan quoted from his correspondence with the Michigan State baseball coach, Danny Litwhiler, who had devised the new play. No answer came from Martin, but his response, relayed later to Don, was "I don't go for that funny stuff."
Here, in any case, Sharon did bunt, and was safe when first baseman Tenace m.u.f.fed the ball. A moment later, Northrup smacked a triple for the go-ahead runs-good enough, it turned out, for the game. The Tigers won, 85, and Don, on his feet and clapping, had brightened perceptibly. "I was never worried for an instant," he said. A moment later, he added, "Well, that's a lie. My trouble is I tend to view these games viscerally. Baseball gives me that endogenous epinephrine. I'm hooked on my own adrenaline."
Detroit in the nineteen-thirties had few visible civic or economic virtues, but it just may have been the best baseball town in the country. The Tigers-a dangerous and contentious team built around the power hitting of the enormous Hank Greenberg, and around Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane and, later, Rudy York, and around the pitching of Schoolboy Rowe, Tommy Bridges, and, later, Bobo Newsom-did not win nearly as often as the lordly Yankees, but victory, when it came, was treasured. There was a pennant in 1934 (the first since 1909), a championship in 1935 (the first ever for Detroit), and another pennant in 1940. At his home on Tuxedo Avenue, young Don Shapiro, listening to games over Station WWJ in the afternoon, tried to work magic spells to make the Tigers win: twenty-eight baby steps across his bedroom without losing his balance could bring Gehringer a hit (not quite pure magic, since Gehringer's batting average between 1933 and 1940 was .336). The Ernie Harwell of those Piltdown days was Ty Tyson, for Mobil Oil and "The Sign of the Flying Red ... Horse!," who called Greenberg "Hankus-Pankus" and Schoolboy Rowe "Schoolhouse" or "Schoolie." ("For a pitcher, Schoolie is sure pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down.") Whenever they could, Don and Bert and their friends took the Trumbull Avenue streetcar at noontime to the ball park, then called Navin Field, and stood beside an iron gate on the corner of National Street, behind home plate. In time, the gate rolled up, to a great clattering of chains, and a Tigers' supervisor would conduct a mini-shape-up ("You and you and you and you over there") for the job of a.s.sistant ushers. The designees took up their posts in the outer reaches of the upper deck, beyond the uniformed regulars, and returned batting-practice fly b.a.l.l.s and dusted seats and, between times, eyed the Olympians on the field: not just Greenberg and Gehringer and Rowe but the others-Marv Owen and Gee Walker and Elon Hogsett and Pete Fox, and batboy Whitey Willis and trainer Denny Carroll and groundskeeper Neil Conway. A lot of the players lived in apartment houses out on Chicago and Dexter Boulevards, or Boston and Dexter, and if you walked out there and waited long enough, you could sometimes pick up an autograph. The game and the players must have seemed very near in those days. Once, in 1936, when Don Shapiro was twelve years old, he played catch with Tiger first baseman Jack Burns, who split Don's left thumb with a throw; the wonderful stigma-a white cicatrix on the first knuckle-is still visible.
Bert Gordon's father, a rabbi, was a pa.s.sionate fan who sometimes got his tickets through the Detroit Council of Churches, which provided free seats for the clergy. "I'd be sitting beside him at the park, and I'd say 'Father-' and the whole section would turn around," Bert said recently. He laughed, and went on, "My father was a city man-like all our fathers, I guess. He never went fishing, or anything. It was baseball that was the bond between us. Baseball was the whole thing. I don't think anybody can imagine the terrific importance of Hank Greenberg to the whole Jewish community then. He was a G.o.d, a true folk hero. That made baseball acceptable to our parents, so for once they didn't mind if we took a little time off from the big process of getting into college. And then, of course, Hank Greenberg was so big and so handsome-a handsome giant. Plus he didn't change his name. I can remember Rosh Hashanah, or some day like that, in 1938, when Hank was going after Babe Ruth's record of sixty home runs in a season. Of course, n.o.body in the synagogue could go near a radio that day, but somebody came in late from the parking lot with a report about the game, and the news went through the congregation like a wind."
Don kept a sc.r.a.pbook that summer, pasting up Greenberg's pictures and box scores and headlines ("HANK'S NINE DAYS AHEAD!"). Under one photograph of Greenberg swinging a bat, he penciled "There she goes!" and under the headline "HANK NEEDS FOUR HOMERS IN NINE GAMES TO TIE" he wrote "Two bits he does it!" He was wrong; Hank hit fifty-eight, falling shy of the record by two. A year or two earlier, Greenberg had accepted an invitation to dinner with some friends of his who had a house in Max Lapides' part of town, and word was sent out that he would shake hands with the neighborhood kids. The excited juniors lined up (in their sweatshirts with Greenberg's number 5 inked on the back, and carrying, nearly all of them, first bas.e.m.e.n's mitts), but Max was not among them, for he had broken a leg a few days before and was forbidden to get out of bed. He cried himself to sleep that night, but he was awakened by his father turning on the light and ushering Hank Greenberg into the room. The sudden visitor was so enormous, Max recalls, that he had to duck his head to get through the door. Greenberg sat on Max's bed and talked to him for half an hour. Before he left, he took out a pen and signed Max's cast and then, seeing a copy of Max's favorite baseball book-Safe!, by Harold Sherman-on the bedside table, he signed that, too.
"In our household, we used to talk about only three things-current events, the Jewish holidays, and baseball," Max has said. "You have to try to remember how much easier it was to keep up with all the baseball news back then. For us, there were just the Tigers and the seven other teams in the American League, so we knew them by heart. All the games were played in the afternoon, and none of the teams was in a time zone more than an hour away from Detroit, so you got just about all the scores when the late-afternoon papers came. You could talk about that at supper, and then there were the stories in the morning papers to read and think about the next day. Why, in those days we knew more about the farms than I know about some of the West Coast teams right now. By the time a Hoot Evers or a Fred Hutchinson was ready to come up from Beaumont, we knew all about him."
Max's father, Jack, did not need Hank Greenberg to introduce him to baseball. His father, in turn, had been a butcher in Rochester, New York, and young Jack Lapides had often made the morning rounds in the family cart and then sat next to his father in a saloon and studied the pictures of the baseball players of the day-with their turtleneck uniforms and handlebar mustaches-up above the big, cool bar mirror. Jack Lapides had a laundry business in Detroit, and by the nineteen thirties he had arranged things well enough so that in the stirring seasons of 1934 and 1935 he was able to attend every single Tiger home game and many on the road. "My father used to take me to fifty or sixty games a year," Max recalled this summer, "and I recently became aware that between us we encompa.s.sed just about the entire history of big-league ball in this century. He went to most of the games every year right up to the end of his life, in 1967. I'd met Don by then, and in those last few years he would come along with us, too."
Don Shapiro's father, a tallow merchant, knew nothing about baseball, but one of Don's uncles was a junk dealer who owned a semipro team in Lapeer, Michigan; and even as a very young boy, Don was sometimes allowed to sit on the bench with the players. That was enough-more than enough-to start it all for him. Don has a vivid and affectionate memory of Jack Lapides. "He was a very formal man, a reserved sort of man," he said not long ago, "and I can still see him sitting up there in the stands, in his coat and collar and tie, with one hand on the railing in front of him. He kept me and Max on our toes. 'Pay attention, boys,' he always said. 'This is a serious business.'"
It is another Sat.u.r.day, the last day in June, and Max is back from Chicago again, to be with his family and his Tigers and his Tiger friends. This time, it has been decided, the game will be watched on television, and the three meet for lunch at Bert's big, comfortable house in Huntington Woods. Before lunch, Max and Don throw a baseball back and forth in Bert's backyard; according to custom, each is wearing the top half of a gray Tiger road uniform. The name on Don's back, above the number 42, is SZOTKIEWICZ; Max is 21, ZEPP. The shirts, which are both beautifully pressed, were gifts from Ernie Harwell, who extracted them from the Tiger clubhouse after the brief, almost unnoticed careers of two Tiger foot soldiers-Kenny Szotkiewicz and Bill Zepp-had come to a close. (Harwell, who is a friend and admirer of Don Shapiro, telephoned Don from Cleveland one afternoon late in the 1966 season, and asked if he would care to work out with the Tigers before their game with the Indians that evening. Don canceled his appointments, flew to Cleveland and suited up, was introduced to Tiger manager Frank Skaff-who may have been a trifle surprised to find that the "prospect" Harwell had promised him was a slight, forty-two-year-old oral surgeon-and then warmed up with Don Wert, Ray Oyler, Willie Horton, and the rest. In photographs of the event, which hang on the wall of Don's living room, the ballplayers look bemused, but the prospect is ecstatic.) Max begins throwing harder now, and Don, who has a catcher's mitt and is wearing a Tiger cap on backward, goes into a crouch. Max's motion is a little stiff, but you can see in it the evidences of a fair high-school ballplayer. Don handles his glove elegantly, coming up smoothly and in one motion after each pitch and snapping the throw back from behind his shoulder. He is smiling. He caught briefly for the University of Michigan varsity and, later, on a Sixth Service Command team in Chicago. The ball is beginning to pop in the gloves, and Bert, umpiring from behind the invisible mound, expresses concern for his wife's borders. Max pauses for breath and reminds everyone of a similar pregame workout some years ago when a small protective sponge fell out of Don's glove. "All he could say was 'These hands. These golden hands.' From catcher to surgeon in one second."
"Throw the ball," says the catcher-surgeon.
"Knuckler," says Max.
"Hey!" says Don. "Not bad. Again."
The next knuckleball sails over Don's head and through the hedge.
"OK, that's it," Bert declares, calling the game. "Zena will kill me."
"Listen," Don says as they troop toward Bert's sun porch. "I think my arm is coming back. I really mean that. Wouldn't that be something, to get my arm back after all this time?" He notices that a lacing on his mitt has come loose, and he stops to tie it up. "G.o.ddam dog," he murmurs.
The Tigers, who have recently lost eight straight and have slipped to fifth place, are playing the rising Orioles, but they score two unearned runs off Mike Cuellar in the first inning, and in the second Mickey Stanley hits a home run. The Tiger pitcher is a big, strong-looking young right-hander named Mike Strahler. The friends sit in easy chairs in Bert's study, with plates of sandwiches and salad in their laps. Zena Gordon, Bert's wife, brings around seconds. Brian Gordon, Bert's younger son, who is sixteen, comes in and watches for an inning or two and then wanders out again. The Gordons' other son, Merrill, is away at his summer job. He is a Michigan State soph.o.m.ore, who wants to become a forester; he does not care about baseball. "He thinks it's a lot of men running around in funny suits," Bert explains. Bert used to take Merrill to games, but the summer Merrill was eleven years old he finally got up the nerve to tell his father that baseball meant nothing to him. "Everything you do in life, you do so that your son will go to ball games with you, and then he doesn't want to," Bert says now. He makes a joke of it, but at the time the news shook him so severely that he himself hardly went to the ball park for two years. "If my family wanted to be home, I wanted to be home with them," he says. Max Lapides has two daughters, who are seven and eleven; he says he can't tell yet about them and baseball. Don's son, Alan, who is fifteen, is crazy about baseball. He catches for a team called the Rangers in his suburban Colt League, and he watches the Tigers with something of his father's unhappy intensity. Still, there are no streetcars that run from his house to the ball park, and it is almost certain that he will never discover a baseball world that is as rich and wide as his father's. "You know what I really wish?" Alan said to Don one day last spring. "I wish I had friends like yours."
The wives of the three friends apparently accept their husbands' zealotry and their arcane closed company; indeed, they have no choice, since they cannot enter it on anything like even terms, and none of them, in truth, is much of a fan. Max and Sissi Lapides used to go to several games together each year, but then during one Yankee game, with the score tied at 66 in the eighth inning, Max noticed that his wife was quietly reading a book under her program, and it was thenceforth agreed that their interests in the pastime were not really comparable. Sue Shapiro is an admitted front-runner, who gets excited about the Tigers only when they are doing well. "Don is a fan," she said recently. "It's a fact of his life, so I have no trouble with it at all."
The game at Bert's house glides along, with the Tigers leading the Orioles by 41 after the fifth, and everything apparently in hand; the lighted figures move distantly on the screen, the room deepens in shadow, and the men lean back in their big chairs and let the baseball lull them. There is nothing to be concerned about except Kaline's average (computed today by Bert on a pocket calculator), and now, after his second unsuccessful trip to the plate, the figures slip at last to .2994788, and Al Kaline is no longer a lifetime .300 man. It is sad; this may be Kaline's last year. Then, a bit later, Eddie Brinkman singles, and Tiger first-base coach d.i.c.k Tracewski slaps him on the rump as he stands on the bag. Max Lapides says, "I wonder who holds the lifetime record for handing out most pats on the a.s.s."
"It has to be Crosetti," Bert says instantly. "All those years he stood there in the third-base box for the Yankees and slapped all those big guys as they came around. He must be ahead by thousands."
"A true piece of baseball trivia!" Max shouts.
"You can't say 'baseball trivia,'" Don says. "It's a contradiction in terms. It's ant.i.thetical. We don't use the word 'trivia.'"
"OK, then," Max says. "OK-how about 'A Compendium of Little-Known Facts'?"
We cannot quite leave these friends here-three aging men, laughing together still, but too comfortable with their indoor, secondhand sport, and too much like the rest of us. Perhaps this sort of unremarkable fandom is what is ahead for them now; perhaps not. Bert Gordon, who worries about his health, goes to fewer and fewer night games. "You get older," he says. "It gets colder." Max Lapides, much happier in his Chicago job than he was in the old one in Detroit, has less time to call Bert with a baseball stumper in the middle of the morning. "I'm beginning to change a little," he confessed recently. "Sometimes I even put an old player on the wrong team by a year or two. I sometimes think that after the big years of '67 and '68 I couldn't really stay intense all summer about the Tigers if they were playing under-.500 ball again. I'm looking at it all from farther off, I guess." The Lapides family now lives in Highland Park, Illinois, where the new school year is just beginning; by next April the late Tiger scores will bother Max a little less. The Tigers, in any case, have just about slipped from contention for this year; now in third place, behind Baltimore and Boston, they trail the division-leading Orioles by seven games-a margin that, according to Bert's calculator, will require them to play at an .864 clip throughout September (plus a helpful Baltimore slump to a .500 level) in order to bring about another miracle. The friends have also lost Billy Martin, who, despite their stamp of approval, was recently fired as the manager of the Tigers. It's been a hard season. No matter; these three men should be remembered in full summer, and at their home ball park, for it is there that they, like a few other great fans in other cities, made their game into something resembling a private work of art. It is a modest genre, to be sure, and terribly dated now, but still perhaps not one to be put aside too quickly. At the very least, these gentle prodigals have used their sport to connect themselves to their fathers and to their boyhood and to their city-the inner city that they long since lost and left-and also to connect themselves to friends with whom they could share a pa.s.sion, a special language, and an immense private history. Baseball has been a family to them.
Don Shapiro, perhaps the most intricate of the three, may be the only one who will not change-the last to give up that mad, splendid hope of one absolutely perfect season: one hundred and sixty-two straight wins for his Tigers. Late last May, Don went to a night game against the Oakland A's, and after eight and a half innings the score still stood at 00. Mickey Stanley led off the ninth for the Tigers with a single, and Gates Brown came up to bat. "He's got to bunt. He's got to!" Don said, watching the field intently. "He's got to bunt, but he can't. Just wait and see." He was right; Brown swung away and singled to right, sending Stanley to third, as vast sounds of joy rose in the night. Oakland changed pitchers, and Duke Sims struck out. Tony Taylor batted for Cash, and on the one-and-two count Stanley set sail for the plate at full career, and Taylor, bunting on the suicide squeeze, fouled the ball off and was out.
"I don't believe it!" Don cried hoa.r.s.ely. "They've lost their minds down there! They're trying to kill me. They're doing it on purpose. If they don't do it, I'll have to kill myself."
d.i.c.k McAuliffe then struck out, taking the called third strike without moving his bat from his shoulder, and the rally and the inning ended. Don, who had been standing and clutching his temples, now sat down and buried his head in his arms. He shuddered, and at last forced himself to look out at the emerald field. "If we lose, this is the worst game I ever saw," he announced.
Following the Tigers has not become any easier since this report was written. Kaline and Cash and Northrup and McAuliffe and other stalwarts have departed; the team finished third in its division in 1973, and dead last in 1974 and 1975. Thanks to some new stars like Ron LeFlore and Mark Fidrych, they moved up to fifth place in 1976 but finished twenty-four games behind the division-winning Yankees. The three great fans, it is comforting to report, have changed much less than their team. Max Lapides, now entirely at home in Chicago, has not turned to the White Sox or the Cubs for solace. He follows the Tigers as best he can, sometimes calling Bert for a good long catch-up on the team, and he goes to every Tiger game within reach. Two years ago, in June, he arranged things so that he was able to drive to Milwaukee and back on three successive days-a total of more than five hundred miles-to watch a Tigers-Brewers series. The Tigers lost the first game, 84; on the second day, they dropped a doubleheader, 50 and 42; they also lost the last game, 54. President Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974, thus relieving Bert Gordon of one of his self-imposed morning tasks; the last reading on Bert's calculator showed that Mr. Nixon had surrendered 30.62970 percent of his White House tenancy. Bert's other vigil ended in October 1974, when Al Kaline retired. Shortly before game-time on the afternoon of the Tigers' final home game that year, Bert suddenly realized that he was missing his last chance to see Kaline in action. He jumped in his car and raced for Tiger Stadium. He turned on the car radio and heard Ernie Harwell describe Kaline's first turn at bat in the game; he parked in his regular lot and was hurrying across Michigan Avenue to the ball park when he heard the crowd roar that greeted Kaline's second appearance. Bert went in and happily took his seat, and for an inning or two he did not notice that Kaline had left the lineup after that second time up-left it for good. "I got up and went home," Bert said later. "There wasn't even anybody there I could tell about it. It was the story of my life." The next morning, in his office, he punched out the final Kaline numbers: 10,116 at-bats, 3007 hits, for a lifetime batting average of .2972518.
Since then, Bert has suffered the diminution of Cesar Gutierrez at the hands of Rennie Stennett, and one day last summer, when he was idly skimming the box scores, it suddenly came to him that Ed Figueroa, the Yankee pitcher, has all five vowels in his last name. "Goodbye, Aurelio," Bert wrote in a letter to Max. "I still can't believe the whole thing."
Don Shapiro gave up on the Tigers in the terrible season of 1975, when they lost 102 games and finished 37 games behind the division-leading Red Sox. "I hated myself," he says, "but I couldn't help it. They were literally killing me." Last year, when the young Tigers suddenly began knocking off the Yankees and the champion Red Sox in surprising fashion, Don allowed himself to be won back. He called me late in the summer and told me that he and Bert were going to Tiger Stadium that night. "This Mark Fidrych is pitching," he said, "and he's got a little color, you know. At least, I think he does-we're not used to that sort of thing here in Detroit, so it's hard to tell. And Ralph Houk [the inc.u.mbent Detroit manager] is so lackl.u.s.ter that it has this deadening effect on everybody, especially me. But I'm getting optimistic again, I think. I really am. The fires are being stoked."
* Bert Gordon's pleasure in the Gutierrez miracle was expunged on September 16, 1975, when Rennie Stennett, second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, went seven for seven against the Chicago Cubs, in a game at Wrigley Field that the Pirates won by the score of 220. Gutierrez had set his mark in a twelve-inning game, but Stennett's seven straight hits-four singles, two doubles, and a triple-came in the regulation distance; actually, Stennett wrapped up his day's work in eight innings, and then was allowed to sit out the ninth. The next day, Stennett singled on his first two trips to the plate and then at last popped out, after nine straight safeties. The first (and only other) seven-for-seven performance was achieved in 1892 by Wilbert Robinson, of the Baltimore Orioles, which was at that time a National League club. Gutierrez-as Bert now sometimes murmurs to himself-still holds the American League consecutive-hit record for one game.
- October 1973 ALL SPORTING MEMORIES ARE suspect-the colors too bright, the players and their feats magnified in our wishful recapturing. The surprising rally or splendid catch becomes incomparable by the time we fight free of the parking lot, epochal before bedtime, transcendental by breakfast. Quickly, then, before we do damage to the crowded and happy events of the late summer and early autumn, it should be agreed that this was not absolutely the best of all baseball years. The absorbing, disheveled seven-game World Series that was won by the defending Oakland A's, who had to come from behind to put down the tatterdemalion Mets, was probably not up to the quality of the seven low-scoring games contested by the A's and the Cincinnati Reds last year, or even comparable to three or four other cla.s.sics we have been given in the past dozen Octobers. As for the Mets, the general rejoicing over their deserved victory in their league did not match the pa.s.sions or disbelief of 1969, when the Amazin's did it all first and better; these 1973 Mets finished their season with a won-lost percentage of .509, the lowest ever recorded by a winner or demiwinner in either league. Not a vintage year, then, but not a vapid one by any means. Both the league playoffs went to the full five games, as they did last year, with the Orioles and the Reds going down bitterly at the very end. The unforgiving brevity of these Championship Series, which can sink a proud summer flagship in the s.p.a.ce of three unlucky afternoons, is just beginning to be understood by the players, who now look on them with far more concern and apprehension than they do the World Series. It was during the playoffs, it will be remembered, when the Mets' and Reds' squads threw themselves to scuffling and punching in the infield dirt, when showers of trash came out of the left-field stands of Shea Stadium, and when the Met fans, at the very pinnacle of their joy, fell into hysteria and violence. All of this, to be sure, made for some wonderfully eventful and discussable days and weeks-a time in which baseball almost seemed to return to its central place in our autumn attention.
There were many fresh discoveries and speculations to be found in the season's statistics. Nolan Ryan, the California Angels' fireballing right-hander, and an ex-Met (there's a speculation!), struck out 383 batters, to erase (by one whiff) Sandy Koufax's old one-season record. The White Sox, early leaders in the American League West, collapsed after an injury to their star slugger, d.i.c.k Allen, and attained a startling low when two of their pitchers, Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen, became twenty-game losers in the same season. The Yankees, leading their division at the All-Star Game break, lost drearily and implacably through August and September, and finished seventeen games off the pace; in the end, they also lost not only their manager, Ralph Houk, who resigned and moved along, probably to pilot the Tigers next season, but their ball park, which will be closed for alterations for the next two years. Suddenly the poorest of poor cousins, the Yankees will now have to share Shea Stadium with the National League Champion Mets-their first clear shot at likableness in forty years.
The season-long a.s.sault mounted by Hank Aaron against Babe Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs-perhaps the most widely memorized figure in baseball-utterly captivated the sporting press. Aaron's progress was so numbingly over-reported that the real news was not his season-ending total of 713, one shy of the Babe, but the fact that he was able to function at all on the field in the presence of a hovering daily horde of newsmen, network camera crews, photographers, publicity flacks, souvenir hunters, advertising moguls, league officials, and other a.s.sorted All-American irritants and distracters. All those magazine cover stories, wire-service bulletins, and breathlessly updated daily figures were curious indeed, because Aaron's splendid consistency at the plate and his remarkable athletic longevity have made his arrival at the sacred plateau very nearly inevitable for the past two or three years. Since there was no immediate time element in this particular achievement, the story had none of the tension and excitement of, say, Roger Maris's attack on Ruth's one-season mark of sixty homers. The next couple of clicks on the Aaron meter will come in April or May, then, and the only cause for concern will be whether the new numbers and the old hoopla will not somehow again obscure the kind of man and the kind of ballplayer Hank Aaron is. Observers back from the Atlanta tent show have told me that Aaron sustained a three-month-long attack on his privacy and concentration with absolute patience and good humor. Playing under these conditions, at the age of thirty-nine, he enjoyed an exceptional season at the plate-40 home runs and a batting average of .301. Skipping the second games of doubleheaders and afternoon games played after night games, he struck his 40 round-trippers in only 392 official at-bats-a rate of production exceeded only six times in baseball history. Let it be noted, too, that Aaron and Ruth and Willie Mays, who retired last month with 660 homers to his credit, are the only three ballplayers to attain even 600 lifetime home runs; the next nearest, Harmon Killebrew, is more than a hundred back of Mays, with 546. Aaron's over-.300 season-his fourteenth in twenty years in the majors-was achieved despite a miserable start; from June 15 on, he batted .354. A wonderful year, then, but very nearly an ordinary one for Hank Aaron. His c.u.mulative home-run totals have been ticked off, year after year, with almost machinelike regularity. Never hitting as many as 50 in a single season, he has averaged (since his first three warm-up seasons) very close to 36 or 37 per year for every three-year span over the past seventeen seasons; that level is actually up a bit in the past five years, when he has averaged 40 per year. To look at this another way, he notched his 100-homer marks in his fourth, seventh, tenth, thirteenth, fifteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth summers. Next summer, his twenty-first (showing us, as always, the perfect daily temperament for this most daily of all sports, and that familiar grooved, elegant, iron-wristed, late, late swing), he not only will pa.s.s the Babe in homers but will probably also move up to first place in times at bat and runs batted in, adding these to his present records of most extra-base hits and most total bases. What else? Well, one more statistic: Hank Aaron, soon to possess the No. 1 record attainable in his sport, also ranks No. 1 alphabetically; his is the very first name on the all-time roster of the thousands and thousands of players recorded in big-league box scores. Figuring the odds against that meaningless wonder should take us all a good way along toward spring training.
The Mets-ah, the Mets! Superlatives do not quite fit them, but now, just as in 1969, the name alone is enough to bring back that rare inner smile that so many of us wore as the summer ended. The memory of what these Mets were in mid-season and the knowledge of what they became suggest that they are in the peculiar position of being simultaneously overrated and patronized in our recollection. Their microscopic winning margin at the end of the regular season and their frightful, groaning struggles to get their chin up over the .500 bar should not obscure their startling march from the bottom to very nearly the top of the baseball world in the s.p.a.ce of two months. This sustained burst of winning, stouthearted play took them to within a single game of the world championship, though they appeared to have been frighteningly outmanned all along the way. They were lucky and persevering and optimistic, but far less inspired by their own unlikelihood than the startled young heroes of '69 were. This time was a lot harder. "I've never known a season that was any more work than this one," shortstop Bud Harrelson said one night near the end. "We played our a.s.ses off. No one in this club had an easy year, and almost every game-even the big wins-seemed like hard, hard work. We deserve everything we get this time." Rusty Staub, just after his splendid four-hit, five-runs-batted-in performance in the fourth game of the World Series, soberly explained that it was the result of "concentration and hard work," and Wayne Garrett, after an essential September win over the Pirates, made a pushing, snowplow gesture with both hands and said, "Games like this-all these games-you've got to ... wedge it out."
In the middle of August, hard work did not appear to offer much of an answer. Dead last in their division, the Mets were a team flattened by injuries and abandoned by their fans. At one time or another, eight of their players were on the disabled list. Catcher Jerry Grote broke his wrist. Bud Harrelson broke his hand and then his breastbone. Left-handed ace Jon Matlack was struck by a line drive and suffered a hairline fracture of the skull. John Milner, Cleon Jones, Rusty Staub, George Theodore, and Willie Mays were sidelined with ailments, and ace reliever Tug McGraw, with an earned-run average over the past two seasons of 1.70, was suddenly and mysteriously unable to get anybody out-and, in the words of Manager Yogi Berra, "if you ain't got a bullpen, you ain't got nothin'." Yogi himself was said to be on the way out-a charming relic, insufficient in ideas and words. His one tenet was the repeated and miserably evident observation that the Mets had not yet made their move.
The first tiny stirring was McGraw's good outing against the Giants on August 11-in a game the Mets finally lost in the thirteenth inning. On August 18, Bud Harrelson, the infield's main man, returned to the lineup, and the Mets whacked the powerful Reds by 121. That began the time of hard labors-a close, heartening win or two, a terribly discouraging loss-but now the pitching (Seaver, Matlack, Koosman, George Stone, and McGraw and rookie Harry Parker in the bullpen) was clearly terrific at last, and everybody knew that if this club was going to go anywhere it would be on its pitching. Weirdly, though the Mets were still twelve under the .500 level late in the month, they trailed the division-leading Cardinals by a mere six and a half games. On the last day of August, the Mets climbed over the Phillies and into fifth place. Belief ("You gotta be-leeve!"-The Sayings of Chairman McGraw) had begun.
In September, the NL East was a crowded and dangerous tenement. The Cardinals led for a while and then gave way to the Pirates, who had made a hunchy late change of managers, replacing Bill Virdon with his predecessor, Danny Murtaugh. The Cubs, a team of elders that had wasted an enormous early-summer lead, had still not expired, and in among them all was the true surprise of the year-the Montreal Expos, who were suddenly getting wonderful pitching from a rookie named Ste
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