Musings: Willie Mays and Boston

Willie Mays almost played for Boston.

But it was the Boston Braves, not the Red Sox, who had the inside track on him. The details are in a terrific book, Willie Mays: The Life and Legend, by James S. Hirsch, that was published several years ago. It is an authorized biography, and Hirsch is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times so we can trust in the accuracy of the events it discloses.

On a June night in 1949, Bill Maughn, a scout for the Braves who lived outside of Birmingham, Alabama, decided to take in a Birmingham Black Barons game. The Black Barons, a Negro League team, were not to be confused with the white Birmingham Barons, who played in the Southern Association and were a Red Sox minor league affiliate. Maughn was captivated by the exploits of the kid playing centerfield for the Black Barons. At one point an opposing player, with a runner on first, hit a ball into the gap in left center. The hit was fielded by the left fielder, but the kid in center came over yelling for the ball. The left fielder shovel-passed it to him and the kid threw a laser strike to third, nailing the runner. The kid was, of course, Willie Mays.

After the game Maughn sought out the Black Barons owner, only to be told that Mays was still in high school. The Braves chief scout had also seen Mays and Braves owner Lou Perini was prepared to offer $7500 for him. But major league rules prohibited teams from signing or even talking to anyone whose class had not graduated from high school. Mays’ class would not graduate until the end of May, 1950, almost a year away.

Maughn continued to track Willie’s progress, sending rave reports back to Boston. As Willie’s graduation approached, the Braves sent another scout to check him out, and on the day he was there, Mays was not at his best, going one for eight in a doubleheader. The second scout concluded that he’d never be able to hit big league pitching. Maughn protested that he’d only seen Willie play one day, but the negative report went back to Boston, and the Braves never made an offer.

Maughn, dismayed that his year of bird-dogging had been for naught, ran into New York Giants scout Ed Montague a short time later. Montague said he was going to Birmingham to watch the Black Barons’ first baseman. Maughn said forget the guy on first - check out the kid in center. The rest is history. Mays signed with the Giants, and in less than a year he was in playing in New York and was the talk of the baseball world.

The Red Sox did eventually get wind of Mays and sent veteran scout George Digby to look at him. Digby pronounced him, “The best prospect I have ever seen.” But the Sox had already signed a player from the Black Barons, Piper Davis (about whom more in another Musing), and were not about to sign another, so they took a pass.

What if Mays had signed with the Braves instead of the Giants?

Certainly the Braves, with the biggest drawing card in baseball, would have been able to hang on in Boston for a few more years (they left for Milwaukee in the spring of 1953). In 1954 another phenom from Alabama came up with the Braves. His name was Henry Aaron.

Can you imagine Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in the same lineup? In Boston? They were roughly the same age and could have played together for years. The Braves would never have had to move. Together, Mays and Aaron had 1415 home runs and 4300 runs batted in. Eddie Mathews came up with the Braves in 1952. Add his 503 home runs and 1426 runs batted in to the mix and you have, by far, the most powerful middle of the batting order in baseball history. People would have flocked to Braves Field to see them in action. They’d have been THE baseball attraction in Boston.

And what of the Red Sox? They were just entering a prolonged drought on the field and at the gate that would not end until the Impossible Dream season of 1967. With Ted Williams on the team they managed to attract a million fans a year, but once he retired in 1960, attendance fell off drastically. It reached its nadir on October 1, 1964 when the total attendance at a Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians game was 306. 306! That’s not enough to fill the small triangle of seats in the centerfield bleachers that is covered over during day games to provide a background for hitters. It was the smallest crowd in Red Sox history. Think of how bad it would have been if everyone was getting a baseball fix in Braves Field, just a mile up Commonwealth Avenue from Fenway Park, watching Mays and Aaron. The Red Sox, second division bottom feeders in those days, would have been left in the dust.

Maybe (gulp) it would have been the Red Sox who would have had to relocate. That would have meant that, as a Red Sox guy through and through, and even though I was just a kid, I’d have had to pull up stakes and go with them. G’bye, Mom. So long, Dad. I’m off to Milwaukee with Willie Tasby and the rest of my heroes. Do you know what the worst of it would have been? I don’t even like bratwurst.

Musings: The Ellis Kinder Fan Club

The events I am about to describe took place two thirds of a century ago, in the early nineteen fifties. I assume that the statute of limitations has long since expired, therefore, I feel free to at last reveal my awful secret.

I am a hardened criminal.

It all began with Ellis Kinder, who had no idea he was involved. Kinder, a late bloomer, was thirty-one years old when he made his big league debut with the old St. Louis Browns, but he developed into a very good pitcher with the Red Sox. He won twenty-three games in 1949 and later became an elite relief pitcher. He also developed a fondness for amber-colored beverages, once famously falling off the mound while warming up at Fenway Park.

One day, as a prank, another kid in the neighborhood, Walter Pierson by name (I’m damned if I’ll take the fall for this alone), and I decided to start an Ellis Kinder fan club, but (here’s where the plot thickens) we started it in the name of a third kid who lived right across the street from me, Dana Gillis. Dana had no idea that he was the target of our skullduggery.

Sport Magazine, a monthly, was at that time the country’s premier sports periodical (Sports Illustrated was not yet on the scene), and it printed fan club news in a catch-all column each month. My co-conspirator and I wrote to Sport announcing the new club for Kinder would offer free membership, an autographed photo of Kinder himself, and a monthly newsletter, none of which we had either the means or the intention of providing.

We signed Dana’s name, gave his address and put it in the mail.

Then we waited.

Each day after school I raced to the local drug store to see if the new edition of Sport was on the newsstand. Finally, one day it had arrived. I quickly thumbed through it to the section on fan clubs, and there it was! The whole thing, the offer of free membership, the autographed photo and all.

I bought a copy and pranced through the neighborhood showing it happily to everyone I encountered. We had pulled off the perfect scam. Dana even thought it was kind of funny. I basked in the glory of it all.

And then, a few days later, the mail started to arrive at the Gillis house. It came, literally, by the bagful. Apparently a lot of kids thought the opportunity to get a free autographed picture of Ellis Kinder was pretty cool. Mail trucks were pulling up in front of the house. Dana didn’t seem to mind but Mr. And Mrs. Gillis were not amused.

There was no denying my involvement. I had, after all, spent several days shouting it from the rooftops. Finally, Mr. Gillis decided to teach me a lesson. I was summoned to the Gillis house. Mr. Gillis informed me in somber tones that I had used the United States mail to defraud people. That, he went on, is a federal offense, a crime punishable by serious jail time. If anyone complained about not receiving the promised benefits of the sham fan club, he said, his voice lowering dramatically, he would have no choice but to turn me in to the FBI. Then he dismissed me.

To say I was shaken is an understatement of epic proportions. For weeks I lay in bed at night, convinced that at any moment the Feds would storm the house, slap on the handcuffs and haul me off to the Big House. If a siren was heard in the distance I was sure that it was coming for me.

Gradually, as the weeks and months went by, and it became apparent, either that no one had complained or that Mr. Gillis had not given me up to J. Edgar Hoover, my fears began to abate. Maybe it was the perfect crime after all.

I’m sure that Ellis Kinder never knew about the scam perpetrated in his name, and I don’t expect him to find out now due to the fact that he’s been dead for almost half a century.

Dana Gillis and I, who have known each other since we were three years old, are still friends. We have lunch on a regular basis and often laugh about the episode.

As for my co-conspirator, Walter Pierson, we lost contact with one another years ago. For all I know he’s in the witness protection program.

Musings: The Birth of Casey

Casey at the Bat, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s great comic baseball ballad, has played an important role in my life, and the story of its beginnings is a fascinating one - (Honest, it really is).

Its author was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and grew up in Worcester. He went to Harvard where he was editor of its humor magazine, the Lampoon, for which he also wrote. He signed his pieces, simply, “Phin,” his nickname while in college. One of his pals, Will Hearst, was the magazine’s business manager. (Remember that. It’ll come in handy later.)

Thayer graduated from Harvard in 1885. His friend Will, however, had been thrown out of school after his junior year for insubordination. His crime was sending chamber pots to faculty members with their names on them, not much of a sin by today’s standards but apparently a capital offense at Harvard during the nineteenth century. As it happened, Will’s father had acquired the San Francisco Examiner as a means of furthering his candidacy for U.S. senator from California (he won). He put his college dropout son in charge of the paper. The lad turned out to have a knack for the newspaper business; Will was to become somewhat better known by his full name, William Randolph Hearst, the greatest newspaper mogul of the twentieth century - (What’d I tell ya?).

Hearst invited his friend, Phin Thayer, to come to California to write humorous features for the Examiner. Phin jumped at the chance. After a year or so, however, Thayer’s health began to fail and he returned to Massachusetts. He continued sending pieces to the Examiner for a while until a final one appeared on Sunday, June 3, 1888. It was on page four, right next to a column by the renowned writer, Ambrose Bierce, and it was signed, simply, “Phin.” It was, you guessed it, Casey at the Bat.

The next day an entirely new edition of the San Francisco Examiner was published, and the day after that, and the day after that. The Sunday paper got thrown out with the trash, Casey along with it. That was that – or it would have been had not something happened several months later clear across the country, in New York City.

A young comic actor named DeWolf Hopper, who was appearing in a show at Wallack’s Theater on 30th and Broadway, got word that the ballplayers from the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings had been invited to a future performance by the theater management. Hopper saw an opportunity to insert a special piece of material into the show on the night players were there.

But what material? Hopper didn’t have a clue.

A friend of his, Archibald Gunter, himself a writer, said he had the perfect answer. He reached into his pocket and produced a tattered clipping he had cut out of the Examiner during a visit to San Francisco a few months earlier. He had saved - you can’t make this stuff up - Casey.

Hopper committed the verse to memory and, on the night the players from the two teams were in the house, in the middle of the show, he stepped forward and, in a deep baritone voice, launched into his recitation.

He recalled in his memoir, Once a Clown Always a Clown, that he knew he was onto something when, with two strikes on the mighty Casey, he noticed a nervous twitch in the mustache of Giants Catcher Buck Ewing. When he reached the poem’s surprise denouement (remember, no one had ever heard it recited before and the audience assumed that Casey would end the game with a dramatic home run) the theater erupted in a standing ovation that stopped the show.

Hopper, no fool he, kept the poem in the act, always getting the same delighted reaction from the audience. Soon word got out around town that something special was going on down at Wallack’s Theater and crowds began showing up at the box office. The newspapers picked up on the story, and when New York papers ran with something, papers everywhere else followed suit. Reprints of Casey appeared in periodicals all across the country. It wasn’t long before Casey at the Bat and DeWolf Hopper were nationally famous. The poem became Hopper’s signature bit and he recited it at every performance he gave for the rest of his life. There was just one thing.

Nobody knew who had written it.

Who was the mysterious “Phin?”

Hopper, although he had made the ballad famous, had no idea. By the way, he was later married to Hedda Hopper, the legendary Hollywood gossip columnist - (Another fascinating factoid, don’t you think?).

William Randolph Hearst knew who Phin was, but nobody thought to ask him. Thayer himself, a quiet, bookish type who was operating one of his father’s woolen mills, was not interested in coming forward. In his absence all kinds of pretenders came forward to claim authorship.

About five years after first reciting the poem, Hopper, by then touring the country doing his Casey schtick, played Worcester, Massachusetts one night. He received a note backstage asking if he’d like to meet the real author. At last, the man who wrote Casey at the Bat came face to face with the man who made it famous. Hopper wrote in his memoir that Thayer was prevailed upon to recite the poem for him. Thayer’s rendition of it was so lousy that Hopper was convinced that he must have written it.

Once the word was out, Ernest Lawrence Thayer must have spent the rest of his days basking in the glory of having written such a great comic verse, right? Wrong!

He didn’t have a particularly high opinion of his work and, in fact, regarded it as a curse that his authorship became known because people never stopped pestering him about it. (C’mon, Phin, lighten up a little.)

DeWolf Hopper, who continued reciting Casey for more than forty-five years, faded into the dust bun of history following his death in 1935.

Thayer retired from the woolen mill business in 1912 and moved to Santa Barbara, California where he died in 1940 at age of seventy-seven. He never wrote anything else of note but, whether he liked it or not, achieved a kind of immortality. He had caught flame in a bottle back in 1888. While Casey at the Bat might not be great poetry in the classic sense, it is a great piece of Americana. It strikes a chord in the national psyche and it will live for as long as the game of baseball is played.   

Robert Service, whose ballads of the Yukon gold rush achieved an immortality of their own, put its impact into perspective when he wrote:

I’d rather, I can tell you flat,
When for Parnassus bound,
Have written Casey at the Bat
Than odes of Ezra Pound.