Question of the Week: Favorite Baseball Character
This week's question: Who is your favorite real-life character in baseball history, player or otherwise?
Bill Veeck. Some of the team-promotion boundaries he pushed and the crazy stunts he pulled are among the most memorable in baseball history. Veeck as in Wreck is also one of the greatest baseball autobiographies ever written. There will never be another Bill Veeck.
My favorite baseball character is Ed Lucas, an 81-year-old man I've known well since we met in 1971. Ed lost his sight playing baseball at age 12; the last thing he remembers seeing is Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World." As a New York Giants fan living in Jersey City, NJ, he loved it. Determined that his blindness would be a nuisance rather than a handicap, Ed became the first sighted student to graduate from Seton Hall University and later the first blind father to win custody of his kids from a sighted wife. Ed was introduced to his second wife by his lifelong friend, Phil Rizzuto, and attended 63 straight Yankee Stadium openers before this year, most of them as a member of the media. He writes a column for the Jersey Journal and contributes to the YES Network. His recent autobiography, Seeing Home, was co-written with son Chris and may become a motion picture.
I’d say the late Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. I’m fascinated by how he empowered players through his negotiating prowess. He has to go down as one of the most influential men in baseball history.
For me, it’s always been Ted Williams. I’m old enough to have seen him play his last four years, and old enough to know him as someone who lent his name to the Jimmy Fund, fighting childhood cancer. That he was a jet pilot who flew with John Glenn and was the last man to hit .400 led me to write or co-author six books about him, the most recent being Ted Williams: First Latino in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I didn't have to dig too deep into history for my answer: Tim Lincecum. I got to know him well with the Giants, and I’ve never met anyone like him. His talent and his personality were such a mismatch to how uniquely ill-equipped he was to be a superstar celebrity. He hated everything about it. He was so humble, introverted and introspective, and so genuinely nice. He became the best pitcher in baseball practically overnight, and disappeared just as suddenly. Such a singular, fascinating career and person.
Has to be Lou Gehrig, a terrific player who was cut down in the prime of his life. I remember As a kid reading a book about him and being inspired by the way he handled himself in the face of a debilitating disease that would take his life at the very early age of 37.
I always loved Tug McGraw. He always had a funny quip and was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. I don't know if he was the greatest character in baseball history, but he was one of them. Also, I'm not completely sure he was real. At times I wonder if I imagined him.
Wally Yonamine was a double-Jackie Robinson, being the first Asian to play for an NFL franchise (in 1947, only two years after Japanese-Americans were released from the internment camps) and the first American to play baseball in Japan after World War II. He was also one of the nicest people I have ever met. During the three years I worked with him on his biography, he became a friend and a surrogate grandpa to me, as well as a role model.
Lou Gehrig, an almost mythical character with huge offensive numbers, who defied odds to compile the greatest consecutive-games streak until Cal Ripken broke it.
Frenchy Bordagaray is one of the true characters in big league history. Once, as an inning began, he decamped from his position in right field to the restroom without notifying the pitcher, who delivered a ball that was subsequently hit to the spot where Bordagaray should have been. When he was fined for spitting at an umpire, he remarked that the penalty was “more than I expectorated.”
As someone who wrote about the Swingin’ A’s of the early ’70s, however, I love Bordagaray for another reason: the mustache he wore to spring training with the Dodgers in 1936. He’d grown it for bit parts in two movies during the off-season, and given that he had already established himself as a character, when he received positive feedback about it he gleefully added a goatee and monocle, complete with dangling black ribbon. The outfielder ditched his chin hair and eyeglass when the regular season began, but kept the mustache. His manager, Casey Stengel, acquiesced, at least until a dreadful May slump knocked Bordagaray from the starting lineup, at which point the skipper — a bit of a character himself — put his foot down. “Frenchy,” Stengel said to his outfielder, “if there’s going to be any clown on this club, it’s going to be me.” It wasn’t long before Bordagaray razed the final mustache to be seen in the major leagues until Reggie Jackson turned the sport upside-down with his own, in 1972.
If I drone on about Willie Mays being my favorite ballplayer, that wouldn’t be very imaginative. So let’s go with something a tad more creative. My favorite real-life baseball characters were Giants broadcasters Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons.
In April 1969 I hadn’t discovered baseball. That happened during an early-season Giants-Dodgers game. Tuning in to a broadcast on KSFO, the Giants’ flagship station, all I heard on my little transistor radio was sounded like static. I soon realized my mistake. “I don’t think that’s Alston,” Russ said over the airways. He was describing Dodgers’ pitching coach Red Adams making a mound visit. The static I heard was crowd noise, and I was amazed that there could be a buzz in the ballpark even though absolutely nothing was going on. If a crowd could get that excited during a stoppage in play, I wanted to learn more about the game. So I relied on Russ and Lon. They shaped the way I thought about the Giants in particular and baseball in general. They made being at the ballpark sound like fun. No wonder I became a beat writer. They described Mays, McCovey, Marichal and Perry in detail. They taught me the infield-fly rule, explained whether a pitcher qualified for a decision and examined why a game was being played under protest. I wanted a hot dog every time I heard their voices.
If I'm going with the more obvious definition of the word, my favorite character from baseball history is Hilda Chester. We typically think of her as the lady at Ebbets Field who rang her cowbell, the ultimate Dodgers fan, but she was so much more than that. A ballplayer born before her time, she was the single mother of an AAGPBL player who had her daughter raised largely in a Jewish orphanage because she was too poor to care for her. Hilda managed to make the papers nearly as often as the boys she cheered, and was so popular with her “fellas” that she rode the bus with the team on the way to spring training games. Fun fact: We typically think of Hilda as a Dodgers rooter, but in actuality the real object of her affection was Leo Durocher, who once visited her in the hospital. When Durocher joined the Giants (and Branch Rickey stopped giving Hilda free tickets), she started schlepping all the way to the Polo Grounds. By the time she was ready to return to Brooklyn, the team was only a couple seasons away from moving to Los Angeles.
My answer is Sadaharu Oh. Absolutely unique swing, absolutely unique style, and absolutely unique vision of baseball and its meaning. Watch the highlights, then read the greatest sports autobiography of all time: Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball.
Effa Manley was co-owner of the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues from 1935 through 1948, splitting the duties of running the team with her husband, Abe. Effa handled administration and acted as the team's public face. She was hard-nosed and outspoken, and refused to be pushed around by the male owners of the other teams. She had been an organizer, and sometimes picketer, for a 1934 Harlem boycott of white-owned department stores that refused to hire blacks. She was an NAACP officer and once sold “Stop Lynching” buttons at an Eagles game to raise money for the anti-lynching movement. She was one of the early proponents of admitting Negro Leaguers to the Hall of Fame (and was voted in posthumously herself in 2006 as the Hall’s only female member). Effa lived an active life as a successful upper-middle-class African-American woman, but in her later years claimed, based on what her mother had told her as a child, that she was genetically white, the product of an affair between her mother and a white businessman. That claim turns out to be at least partially true. Her life can be examined in different ways: what it meant to be a female executive, the effort it took to fight for civil rights, and what, exactly, categorizes a person as being of a particular race (and how much does that even matter)?