On the subway the other day I saw someone wearing one of those sweatshirts that say “Member of the All-Harvard Drinking Team”. It got me to thinking of how many drinking men there have been in baseball through the years, so I thought I’d put together an All-Star team of the game’s notable boozers. Generally, it seems that excessive drinking was more widespread in the past, and since professional baseball began around 1860 or so it has always reflected American life as a whole. Imagine society back then, with far fewer entertainment and recreational options, far less information on issues like health and well-being, sanitation or medicine. Consider that commercial spirits were being mass-produced and distributed for the first time then, so they were widely available and cheap. Throw in the horror shows of the Civil War and its fallout, sweatshop working conditions in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, a few disease and flu epidemics, two World Wars sandwiched around the Great Depression, the development of nuclear arms, the onset of the Cold War and other fun stuff. I’m not trying to come off as some kind of Temperance League Herbert Marcuse here or anything, I’m just saying that it was little wonder that people by and large were hitting the bottle with a vengeance back then. I know I would have. In fact, just writing about this makes me feel like having a belt ……aahhh, that’s much better, thanks.
I get the feeling that early baseball was basically a diversion to be played or watched while drinking profusely. Hell, back then, the players were often partly paid in beer and many of the teams were owned by brewers, distillers, or tavern owners. Certainly the fortunes of ballplayers were not markedly better than those of regular people on the whole, at least for the first sixty years of the profession or so. There surely were a lot of heavy drinkers in baseball in and around the 1890s, when the game got so dirty and rough. Even after the game was cleaned up with the birth of the American League and the creation of the Commissioner’s office and so on, it had its share of alcoholics right into the 1960s. Come to think of it, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was pretty handy with a bourbon bottle himself. After this, the boozing started to taper off gradually to the point where now the term “juicing” has an entirely new meaning, namely guys taking banned designer substances to boost their performance and value in a multi-billion dollar market. Now, I ask you………… what has the world come to?
Before getting to the “all-star” team itself, a brief story on the subject for perspective, from Leo Durocher’s autobiography NICE GUYS FINISH LAST. In 1944, there was a pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers system named Tom Seats. He had a pretty good season in the low minors and with Brooklyn’s pitching thinned by the War, Seats was given a shot with them in 1945. Despite good stuff, he was hit pretty hard in his first couple of starts and manager Durocher decided the problem was nerves. Leo had heard that Seats was pretty fond of liquor, so before his next start Durocher gave him a couple of shots of brandy to settle him down and occasionally another belt on the bench during the game. This continued throughout the season, generally with whisky, and it seemed to work wonders as Seats finished the season 10-7. Team President Branch Rickey was very religious and a teetotaler among other things, so when he found about this he was apoplectic. “Judas Priest!….You gave a man in uniform….whisky?“
“Yes, sir,” replied Durocher. Rickey mulled it over for a minute and said, “He’ll never pitch again for Brooklyn”, adding that he was thinking of firing Leo too. Leo responded with a classic, terse summary of his managerial philosophy. “There is a ‘W’ column and an ‘L’ column. I thought when I signed my contract…it was my obligation to put as many as I could in the ‘W’ column.” This speech saved Leo’s job, at least for the time being, but Tom Seats never pitched in the major leagues again.
In picking the team, I’ve decided to disqualify certain guys on the grounds that they’re too familiar and obvious, such as outfielders Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Everybody knows that Babe and The Mick liked to drink and were great players anyway. I agree with Bill James, who has said he feels that people should talk less about Mantle’s drinking and more about his .420 career on-base percentage. Ditto Ruth and his .690 slugging average. First baseman Jimmie Foxx is another famous example, he was basically the Babe Ruth of first base. Pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander was a serious alcoholic and one of the very greatest pitchers who ever lived, but again, too famous. There’s even a movie about him, starring (if that’s possible) Ronald Reagan. Rube Waddell is another too-obvious pitching example and somebody should make a movie about him, Michael Cera would be perfect for the part.
As far as putting this all-star drinking team together goes, there are plenty of choices except second and third base – a lot of players at those positions were responsible, clean-living types who might have had the occasional drink or two, but that’s about all. Most of the players on the team were heavy enough drinkers that often, or at least occasionally, they were under the influence during games, or maybe hung-over. Here then, are the Jim Beam All-Stars as I see them:
Catcher. My choice is Rollie Hemsley, and it’s an easy one. Though he’s not remembered much now, he was all over 1930s and ’40s baseball and it’s almost impossible to read about him without his fondness for the bottle coming up immediately. He was known as “Rollicking Rollie” because of his zesty appetite for the night life, and he seemed to take prohibition as a personal challenge. He was a superb all-around defensive catcher along the lines of Jim Hegan, Luke Sewell, or Al Lopez, adept at everything such as throwing, blocking the plate, snaring errant pitches and calling a good game. He managed to catch 1,593 games over a career that spanned 19 years from 1928-47. He became very good friends with the great pitcher Bob Feller during his four years in Cleveland and Feller went on record, saying, “He could catch better drunk than most guys could sober.”
His drinking meant he bounced around a lot, playing with the Pirates, Cubs, Reds, Browns, Indians, Yankees and Phillies. He hit .262 with almost no power – just 31 career home runs – so his defense must have been something for him to last so long. Hemsley would sometimes get up to some wild stuff while drunk, like throwing lit matches into the upper berths of a sleeper car where the equipment was stored, nearly setting the damn thing on fire. Eventually, Cy Slapnicka, who scouted for the Indians, talked him into attending A.A. and Rollie went through the program and played even better before falling off the wagon eventually. He had a long career as a coach and scout after retiring.
The back-up catcher would be Rudy York, who would also serve as a back-up at first base and as a deadly pinch-hitter. He caught more games early in his career, then moved to first base, but most of all was feared power-hitter. He hit 277 home runs and drove in over 100 runs six times in a career that lasted just eleven full seasons. He was part-Cherokee, slow-moving, heavily built and he played on the good Tiger teams of 1937-45, including the pennant-winners of 1940 and ’45. He was traded to the Red Sox in 1946 and they won the pennant that year.
York’s alcohol intake was legendary, he has to be on this team both for quality and quantity. Team-mates used to draw straws to see who had to room with him on the road, something which proved to be none too restful. Tiger shortstop Billy Rogell recalls “I roomed with that goddamn Rudy York. He was the silliest bastard I ever met in my life. He was a third-string catcher at the time and I was a regular shortstop and all night long that.goddamn phone was ringing. He knew every whore in New York.” Hank Greenberg recalls that York “had a tendency to light up a cigarette when he went to bed, then he’d drink and he’d forget about the cigarette and it would burn down to his fingers. He burned up a couple of hotel rooms that way.” York wasn’t much on defense or as a room-mate but brother, you didn’t want to pitch to him.
First Base. There are a few choices here, but I’m going with Ferris Fain, mainly because he was unique in so many ways. Putting a “team” like this together is really just an excuse and a framework for telling stories about players who were unusual and Fain definitely qualifies. I’ve known the name Ferris Fain since my early days of being interested in baseball. It jumps out at you, partly because of its odd, alliterative quality, partly because he won two consecutive AL batting titles in 1951(.344) and 1952 (.327). With just 48 career home runs, he didn’t hit with the power usually expected of a first baseman, rather his game revolved around his .424 career on-base percentage. Apart from his .290 lifetime batting average, he drew 100 or more walks five times and was over 90 in two other seasons. He is the only player in baseball history with a higher ratio of walks to hits than Ted Williams, which is staggering when you consider how much Ted walked. He was definitely a drinker and a combative, testy and highly competitive personality, a hard-ass who often led the league in bar-room brawls and ejections. Fain once missed two weeks after breaking a bone in his foot when he kicked the first base bag in exasperation after making an out. He was a very slick fielder and went by the nickname “Burrhead” for reasons I haven’t been able to fathom. His career was relatively short, 1947-55, mostly with the Philadelphia A’s and the White Sox. His life was also odd and picaresque, a few details follow:
His parents divorced soon after he was born in 1921 and Ferris never really knew his father, Ockie, who died in 1934, yet their lives had weird parallels. In the decade of the early teens, his father was a top jockey – yes, that’s right, Ockie the jockey. He was good enough to have ridden a horse to second place in the 1912 Kentucky Derby and in 1913 was America’s top-rated jockey. After he grew too large to ride, he went into professional boxing, which he was also good at. Ferris too would become a pro jockey as a teenager, then would also switch to prize-fighting. He drifted into baseball because it was safer and paid better, but kept up the fighting as an extracurricular activity. Back in his native California in 1986, Fain was arrested for growing marijuana in his backyard and served 18 months in prison at 65 years of age! Still feisty in 2001, he protested that he could hit better than today’s players if the Commissioner “would just let me take my wheelchair on the field.” Old ballplayers never die, they just grow older and grouse about younger players.
Second Base. This was a hard spot to fill and I’m choosing Billy Martin, whose career as a drinker/player was overshadowed by his career as a drinker/manager. I wanted to make him manager, but the team needs a second baseman and no one else really fills the bill. He was not a great player, yet his scrappy, heads-up, aggressive play kept him on the powerhouse Casey Stengel-managed Yankee teams from 1950-57. He played full-time for them only in 1952, 1953 and 1956, but this applied to many Yankee infielders as Stengel used endless, bewildering combinations of players there. He hit .257, fielded well, had a little pop, ran well, was smart and always hustled. Stengel loved Martin, calling him “the best little player I ever had.” Billy reminded Casey of himself as a young player.
Martin’s best moment as a player came in Game Seven of the 1952 World Series, possibly the most exciting one of the decade. The Yankees were leading 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh at Ebbets Field, with reliever Bob Kuzava pitching. There were two out and the Dodgers had the bases loaded, with Jackie Robinson batting. Robinson hit a towering pop-up between home plate and the mound, a “tweener” which seemed to freeze Kuzava, Yogi Berra and the infielders all at once. Some of them had lost the ball in the glare, others hesitated, unsure who was going to take it. At the last second, with Dodgers circling the bases, Martin sprinted in, slid (his cap flying off) and just caught the ball on his knees behind the mound. While all around him had seemingly lost their heads, he made the Series-saving putout.
As to his drinking habits, let’s just say he was familiar with the empty end of a bottle. He was famous for being a running buddy of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, which usually meant considerable elbow-bending. This eventually led to his demise as a Yankee because he was seen by management as a bad influence on his more talented peers, which is to laugh. It all came to a head with the infamous Copacabana incident in May of 1957. Mantle, Ford, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer and their wives took Martin to the Manhattan nightclub to celebrate his birthday and there was a dispute with a guy at another table over some comment. A big punch-up ensued, Bauer was charged with assault and it exploded all over the New York press. Though the charge was later dropped and the whole affair blew over quickly, the Yankee brass were outraged by the incident and made Martin the fall guy. He was quickly traded to – where else? – Kansas City. Though he also loved Stengel, Martin never forgave him for not fighting harder to keep him a Yankee, but Casey’s hands were tied in this case.
He was never quite the same away from the Yankees, Billy needed to play for high stakes to be at his best. His career devolved into a series of one-year stands with mostly bad teams – the A’s, Tigers, Indians, Reds, Twins, and after 1961 he retired. His career as a manager was of course similarly mercurial and fiery, a vicious cycle of quick team turnarounds followed by increasingly toxic relationships, frequent tempestuous dismissals followed by second- and third-chance comebacks. Off the field was much the same, with numerous drunken punch-ups and encounters of the ‘marshmallow salesman’ kind, right up to his death on Christmas Day 1985, drunk behind the wheel of a car. Billy the Kid died as he had lived, on the edge and spinning out of control.
Third Base. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that of all the positions in baseball, third base has the biggest population of normal, well-adjusted nice guys. Think about it – Brooks Robinson, Ron Cey, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Ron Santo, Ken Boyer, Gary Gaetti, Sal Bando, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, Terry Pendleton, Stan Hack, Robin Ventura, Buddy Bell, Ray Knight, Doug DeCinces, Rance Mulliniks – all nice, responsible guys and good-to-great players. Even Graig Nettles, whose sense of humour had a rough edge to it, and Wade Boggs, who had his eccentricities, were basically regular guys and great players. There’s hardly a real jerk in the bunch, with Alex Rodriguez being the exception that proves the rule. This made third base on this team the hardest spot to fill, but after some digging I’ve come up with someone who qualifies, both as a player and boozer: Jim Tabor. Not many people remember him now, but he was a terrific third baseman in the first few years of his career, before the drinking really took hold.
Tabor came up in the Red Sox system with Ted Williams, who was a few years younger. Once, when they were playing with the Minneapolis Millers, Ted got to sulking because the equipment manager wouldn’t give him a new baseball to practice with – he was a bit of a crybaby in his early days. The sulking fit continued into the game, with Ted refusing to make any effort in the field, meaning the center fielder was running all over the place trying to catch balls in two fields. The Millers lost the game and afterward, Tabor severely beat Williams about the head and shoulders, until manager Donie Bush told him to cut it out, that Ted was just a kid. They both had their rookie seasons with the Sox in 1939 and while Williams was sensational, Tabor was no slouch. He hit .289 and drove in 95 runs in 1939, hit 21 home runs in 1940 and drove in 101 runs in 1941. He was a very good third baseman with good range and a rifle throwing arm. He was also fast, a good, hard-nosed base-runner. As one teammate put it, he’d “slide into you at second base and knock you on your ass.”
He liked the girls and his cigars, but most of all booze and lots of it. His play declined after 1941, though he still had his moments, hitting double figures in homers and driving in 70-85 runs in the next few years. He drank more and more though, would often show up at the park half-drunk. He had the unfortunate habit of drinking in public and didn’t much care how it looked. As one player put it, “you have a few drinks in your room and nobody’s the wiser.” The Sox put detectives on him to curtail his drinking, but more than once Tabor locked them in a closet or a bathroom and moved on to the next bar. He was traded to the Phillies in 1946 – not a good sign – and was out of baseball after 1947. He died of a heart attack in 1953, aged 39.
Shortstop. There are two good choices here – Vern Stephens and Rabbit Maranville. Stephens was a power hitter and Maranville is in the Hall of Fame mostly for his glove, being the Ozzie Smith of his day, but far more colourful. As we’re a bit short on power so far, I’m going with Stephens as the regular and making Maranville the utility infielder.
Vern Stephens was the prototype of such power-hitting shortstops as Cal Ripken and Robin Yount. He generally hit cleanup, even on Red Sox teams that included Ted Williams. Like Ripken, he was slow afoot, hit home runs and was a little bigger than the average shortstop, so his fielding was underrated. Also like Ripken, he had the strongest shortstop arm of his generation, which made up for any lack of speed. He came to baseball late because he was very small as a teenager and a straight-A student. He underwent a huge growth spurt at 18, took to swimming several hours a day and soon attracted the attention of scouts. During his freshman year at Long Beach State, he hit .552.
He was deferred from service in World War Two due to a knee injury and became the best position player in the American League during the War, playing with the St. Louis Browns. In his 1942 rookie season he drove in 92 runs, followed by a 22-home run, 91-RBI season in 1943. He played on the Browns’ lone pennant-winner in 1944, leading the league with 109 RBI. He was traded to the Red Sox and played with them from 1948-52. His RBI totals in Boston were staggering – 137, 159, and 144 from 1948-50. The last two led the league and the 159 RBI is still a record for the position. He generally hit from 22 to 39 homers every year, with a batting average around .290, until 1951. Stephens was nicknamed “Junior” and “Buster” and was also called “Pop-up Stephens” because he was famous for hitting towering flies, often straight up in the air. This led one scribe to comment that, “He could have played most of his career in a stovepipe, if they could have found one big enough to hold him”. He was right-handed and had a very open batting stance which led him to naturally pull the ball to leftfield, so Fenway Park was perfect for him.
He developed a serious drinking problem, had a somewhat nonchalant attitude to the game and his play declined sharply after 1950 as a result. He was traded to the White Sox, then on to the Browns again in 1953, closing out his career back with the White Sox in 1955 for just 22 games. Because of his drinking and poor work habits, baseball writers and historians have not been kind to him – “carefree” is one of the kinder adjectives applied to him. He wasn’t a superstar, but he was a well-liked player in his time who hit 247 home runs and drove in 1,174 runs as a shortstop in basically a 12-season career. I’ll take him. He died in 1968 at 48, largely from alcohol-related causes.
Rabbit Maranville played shortstop in the National League from 1912 to 1935 with the Braves, Pirates, Cubs, Dodgers, Cardinals, and a final stint back with the Braves. He was small, quick and a terrific fielder, but not a great hitter – just .258 with little power. He was a colourful character, an inveterate prankster and clown both on and off the field, I think of him as the Joe Venuti of baseball. He patented the “vest-pocket catch” whereby he would hold his glove down by his belt buckle, let a fly ball hit him in the chest, then watch it roll down into his glove. After tagging out sliding runners at second base, he’d sit on them for a while, riding them as horses or rowing them as boats. If he was on first as a runner and the pitcher was dawdling, he’d lean with one arm against an invisible wall in pantomime, or lie down and pretend to fall asleep, snoring loudly and hugging the bag as a pillow. He was a master at mimicking the body language and gestures of umpires, getting the crowd to laugh, then stopping just as the ump looked around at him.
Off the field he drank lots and led a zany, surreal life full of gags and laughs – a Marx Brothers life, as more than one observer has put it. His best friend in the game was Bill McKechnie, often a teammate/roomie and later his manager. They were polar opposites as people – McKechnie was quiet, kindly, sober and dignified, but with a good sense of humour. One time in 1922, McKechnie was sharing a room with Rabbit and another wild man, Chief Yellowhorse. Bill retired to the room one night around eleven- o’clock and was surprised to find both men in bed and the lights dimmed. He opened one of the closet doors to hang up his coat and a dozen or so pigeons flew out into his face and he stood there speechless as they flapped around his head. He heard Rabbit’s voice croak from under the blankets, “Don’t open the other one Bill – mine are in there.” Characters like this have all but disappeared from the landscape and we’ll never see the likes of him again. At times he made a mockery of the game, but he was so entertaining and such a good player that he got away with it.
Left Field. There are a number of ways to go here, but I’m picking Pete Fox, even though he often played right field. Fox was a speedy, line-drive hitting outfielder who played on the great Tiger teams of 1933-40 which won three pennants, and later on he was with the Red Sox. He was not a slugger, but hit for average (.298 lifetime), with line-drive power and stolen bases thrown in. He generally scored a lot of runs, over 100 in three different seasons. The power on those Tiger teams generally came from the infield, with Gehringer and Greenberg; in 1934, the infield drove in 460 runs. As for his boozing prowess, Fox was generally Rudy York’s drinking buddy, which means he was prodigious. Billy Rogell tells of he and third baseman Marv Owen meeting Fox and York in a bar in the very late afternoon after a game and they’d already had 10 or 12 beers each. Owen and Rogell joined them for one, then went out for dinner, took in a double-bill at the movies and returned for a night-cap around eleven-o’clock. York and Fox were still sitting at the same table, crates of empties piled around them. “Did you guys eat or anything?” Rogell asked. “No, we’ve just been sitting here enjoying the evening” slurred Fox.
Center Field. A number of possibilities here – Lenny Dykstra, Babe Herman, Lloyd Waner, but I’m choosing Pete Browning, mainly because there are so many funny stories about him. He drank a lot and was a great figure of fun throughout his career, from 1882-94. He had both great abilities and flaws – he was a terrific hitter (.341 lifetime), but an indifferent outfielder – he was dubbed the “Cigar Store Indian” for his lack of range in center. It was often said his best play was when a fly ball occasionally bounced off his head to an infielder. Once he found a fly in his soup in a restaurant and the waiter said, “Don’t worry Pete, you won’t catch it.” He was the original Louisville slugger, being born, playing most of his career and dying there. All kidding aside about his defense, he was really a great hitter, kind of a slash-and-run guy, winning three batting titles with averages of .382, .367 and .387. He also had considerable power in that dead-ball era, hitting 47 career home runs, a pretty fair total for those times.
In the malapropism department, he was also kind of a forerunner to Yogi Berra. When President Garfield was assassinated, Browning asked who he played for. He was once arrested at three-o’clock in the morning, fishing in a gutter. He tried to stop drinking, realizing that it didn’t help his playing. He would go dry every winter, but his self-discipline would slip every summer as he would agree that one or two tall ones couldn’t do any harm and off the wagon he would fall with a loud thud. Pete always touched third base for good luck as he ran in from the outfield at the end of an inning and one time Foghorn Miller literally stole the base before Browning came in and Pete stood dumbfounded, staring at the ground where third should have been. Guided by the crowd’s laughter, he saw Miller with the base in the opposition dugout. Miller took off running with the bag and he was faster than Browning, who chased him all over the park for several minutes until the umpire grabbed him and sent him back to the dugout. In that inning Browning came to bat, took two quick strikes, then noticed third base was back where it belonged. He dropped his bat, ran down to third base and touched it, then came back to hit and ripped the next pitch to right – so are superstitions sustained. There are dozens of similar anecdotes about him.
Right Field. With Ruth disqualified, the obvious choice here is Paul Waner, a Hall of Fame player and champion drinker. Casey Stengel has said Waner was the greatest National League right fielder he ever saw, which is saying something because Stengel also saw a lot of Mel Ott during his time in the league. Waner played with the Pirates from 1927-40 and a few teams after that through 1945. He was very small, 5′ 8”, 153 pounds and fast. He didn’t have Ott’s home-run power, but was the all-time master at aiming the ball for the foul lines and corners, hitting 603 doubles (with a high of 62 in 1932) and 190 triples. He had over 200 hits eight times, with 3,152 in his career. He won batting titles in 1927 (.380), 1934 (.362) and 1936 (.373), hitting .333 for his career. Defensively, he was the Roberto Clemente of his time, with terrific speed, range and a great throwing arm.
His brother Lloyd generally played alongside him in center field with the Pirates and is also in the Hall of Fame, though he wasn’t quite in Paul’s class as a hitter or drinker. They were known as “Big Poison” (Paul), and “Little Poison” (Lloyd.) These names came from a New York Giants fan with a Brooklyn accent, as both the Waners hit well in the Polo Grounds and the fan was saying “person” but it came out “poison” because of the accent. The New York press picked up on it and the names stuck; apparently the brothers remained friendly with the fan for years afterward.
It’s a little hard to believe that Waner drank as much as people say he did because his skills are so well-rounded and consistent. He never really had an off year until 1940, which at that point could be put down to age. The stories of his drinking persist from all corners though: he drank whisky before, during and after games throughout his career. It’s not that he’d get falling-down drunk, but he was never exactly sober either, it was kind of a steady drip throughout his career. He used to keep a pint of whisky in the ice chest at the end of the dugout and take nips from it during the game. When Frankie Frisch took over as manager of the Pirates in 1940, he tried to confront Paul about his drinking. One day, the trainer found a half-pint of whisky in the dressing room and Frisch went straight to Waner, yelling, “Is that half-pint yours?” “How much is in it?” asked Waner. “It’s half-full.” replied Frisch. “No, Frank. It’s not mine” answered Waner, looking Fisch straight in the eye. “If it was mine, it’d be empty by now.”
The back-up outfielder would be Mike Kreevich. He was a fabulous defensive center fielder, a Garry Maddox-type player who could really go get the ball and throw. He was terrific with the White Sox from 1936-38, but his drinking got so bad that in 1941 he was traded to the A’s, one of the worst teams in baseball. Kreevich was a funny, well-liked guy who tried to stop drinking, but teammates didn’t realize how deep-seated his problem was and they’d always invite him along on an evening’s rounds. Al Simmons admitted later he was often guilty of this and regretted it. The drinking was so bad that the A’s had to release him at the end of 1942. Luke Sewell was managing the Browns at the time and realized he could pick up a good center fielder for nothing if he could just keep Kreevich on the wagon. He took the veterans aside quietly and made them promise not to encourage Mike’s drinking and he paid Kreevich a bonus for staying sober. He also enlisted the help of a friend who was active in A.A. and, as Kreevich was a good Catholic, scheduled counselling sessions with a priest. It all worked, as Kreevich had his last good season in 1944, helping the Browns to their only pennant.
Designated Hitter. If we’re going to have a designated hitter, then Hack Wilson is the perfect man for the job, though Rudy York could also spend some time there. Wilson had a bizarre, almost Quasimodo-like physique – 5′ 6” and 190 pounds. He was built for power rather than speed and this made his defense pretty spotty at best. He generally played center field, go figure. To say that he drank is like saying Frank Lloyd Wright was a pretty good drawer. For about five years from 1926-30, when he was with the Cubs, Hack was the most feared power-hitter in the National League. He led the league in home runs four times, with a high of 56 in 1930, which stood as the National League record until the steroid era. He still holds the all-time single season record of 191 RBI – also set in 1930 and just to show it was no fluke, he drove in 159 the year before. Altogether, he hit .307, with 244 home runs and 1,062 RBI in a career that basically lasted for nine full seasons. He essentially drank himself out of the game, and was dead at 48 by 1948. With his odd dimensions, semi-illiteracy and other problems, he probably wouldn’t get anywhere near a major-league roster today. But for five years there when everyone was belting hell out of the ball, Wilson was one of the biggest belters.
Pitching. Because of the solitary and stressful nature of their job or maybe because many pitchers were just plain screwy, there is no shortage of drinking hurlers to choose from, especially among starting pitchers. I’ve whittled down the list to five starters and five relievers.
Starters – 1. Bobo Newsom, 211-222, 3.98. I don’t even know where to start with this guy. He has to be on this team and you couldn’t make him up if you tried. He was the most frequently traded player in history – fifteen times in all, holding seventeen different posts in a career that spanned 1929-53. His entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia is practically indecipherable, like an eye-chart gone wrong, or a stock exchange listing on LSD. He was with the Senators five different times, which has to be a record, but not one you’d want to hold. His real name was Norman and he was also called “Buck”. But generally he went by “Bobo”, which was how he addressed just about everybody else too. Newsom was a very hard liver and heavy drinker, a general terror and incorrigible character with a sharp tongue, cutting humour and an anti-authoritarian outlook which often caused friction with management, hence the nomadic career.
Obviously, with his drawbacks he must have been a good pitcher to stick around so long, and he was. Newsom was a hard-throwing, very durable right-hander who generally struck out and walked a lot of hitters. He went winless in three brief trials in 1929, ’30 and ’32 and didn’t win his first game until 1934 at age 26, with the Browns. His peak came in 1938-40 as he won 20 games in each of those seasons, once with the Browns and the final two with the Tigers. Bobo also lost 20 games three different times, as he often pitched for tail-end teams – the A’s, Browns and Senators. He was part of the great 1940 Tigers staff with Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges, going 2-1, with a 1.38 ERA in the World Series against the Reds that year. Unfortunately, his loss came in Game Seven – he pitched really well, but lost 2-1 to Paul Derringer. He did get to pitch for the champion Yankees in 1947, believe it or not.
His second stint with the Dodgers in 1943 led to the famous revolt against Leo Durocher, led by normally mild-mannered shortstop Arky Vaughan. Bobo had been getting under Leo’s skin with little jabs and cutting remarks, so Leo got back at Bobo by suspending him and telling the press it was because Newsom had crossed up catcher Bobby Bragan with a spitball, resulting in a tough loss. The players knew this was a lie, that it had been a passed ball by the inexperienced Bragan. When Vaughan heard about it, he took off his uniform and confronted Durocher, asking him if he had made these comments. Durocher confirmed that he had and Vaughan told Leo that if he would lie about Bobo, then he would lie about any of them and that he could take the uniform – which he threw in Leo’s face – and “shove it right up his ass”. Arky then refused to play in that day’s game and all of a sudden a bunch of the players followed suit and Durocher was desperately running around the clubhouse trying to mollify enough guys to put a team together and avoid a forfeit. Never a dull moment.
Al Benton was noted for being the only pitcher to face both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Bobo’s career spanned an even greater period and he also pitched to Ruth, but the one time he faced the Yankees during Mantle’s career, Mickey was out of the line-up with an injury. Winning 211 games with mostly bad teams is impressive enough, but with his stuff, if Bobo had just had the sense that God gives to a newt he might have won 250 or even 300. On the other hand, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did. He died at 55 on Pearl Harbour Day, 1962 from – you guessed it – cirrhosis of the liver.
2. Slim Sallee, 172-143, 2.56. Harry “Slim” Sallee was a left-handed curveballer who pitched from 1908-21. He was with the Cardinals from 1908-16, when they were consistently a losing club, often finishing last. Late in his career he got to pitch in the World Series with the 1917 Giants and the 1919 Reds. He had a stormy career marked by training rule violations, fines, suspensions, contract disputes, threats of retirement and a constant battle with alcohol. The Cardinals’ ballpark back then was surrounded by numerous “men’s clubs” which were essentially bars where as a member you received a beer pail with your name on it, which would be filled up for free if your dues were paid up. Sallee belonged to all of them and during games, he would often have the mascot or batboy hang his pail over the outfield fence, then bring it into the clubhouse full, where he would down it, often feigning having to change his shirt or whatever.
He was nicknamed “Slim” because he was 6′ 3” and 148 pounds and was also known as “Scissors” because of his bizarre delivery, known as the “cross-fire.” He would place his right foot on the third base side of the rubber, keeping his left foot on the extreme first base side. He cranked his arms straight up behind his head, leaning far back as he threw his right leg skyward to a set position. He would then step and plant his right foot at a 45-degree angle between first base and home plate, finishing his follow-through on the extreme first base side of the mound, delivering the ball at one of many possible arm angles. If you find this bewildering, think how the hitters felt, as the ball looked to be coming from first base. He was also a master at doctoring the ball and in fact retired from baseball after 1921 in protest over the new rules prohibiting this, even though he would have been allowed to continue under the grandfather clause. He had terrific control and managed to win in double figures every year with a bad team. Later, he showed what he could do with good ones – he was 18-7 with the 1917 Giants, and 21-7 with the 1919 Reds. He was 1-3, with a 3.14 ERA in his two World Series appearances. The 1919 Reds of course beat the Chicago “Black Sox” in the only fixed World Series – a fitting climax to the bizarre career of this unique, hard-headed character.
3. Don Newcombe, 149-90, 3.56. Newcombe is the only player in major league history to win the Rookie of the Year Award (1949), the Cy Young Award, and the MVP Award. The last two were both accomplished in 1956, when he was 27-7 – it was the first year of the Cy Young award and there was only one for both leagues until 1967. He had other firsts in his career. In 1949, he became the first black pitcher to start a World Series game and was the first to win 20 games, in 1951. He was of course famous as a pitching mainstay of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the fifties. My arm gets sore just reading about how heavily he was used down the stretch in 1950 and ’51, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen was a bit of a lunatic in this regard. By his own account, Newk dealt with this strain and the constant pressure of racial issues with increased drug and alcohol abuse. His record slipped badly in 1957 to 11-12 and he started 1958 – the Dodgers’ first season in California – 0 – 6, before being dealt to the Reds. The drinking and drug abuse worsened, and continued to plague him after retirement in 1960.
He of course famously underwent extensive and successful rehab treatment and has maintained sobriety since 1967. Since then, he has been a tireless advocate for and speaker on alcohol and drug abuse issues/programs, both inside and outside of baseball. His career was undoubtedly shortened by his addictions, but he was still one of the very best pitchers of his time. Although his teams often came out on the wrong side, Newk was one of the greatest big-game pitchers ever – fearless, dominant, durable, overpowering. I’ve always felt a special connection to him because one of my favourite jazz musicians, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was nicknamed Newk. This was partly because he strongly resembled the pitcher but also because he was a huge fan of Newcombe and the Dodgers; one of Sonny’s greatest records is entitled NEWK’S TIME. Newcombe has helped numerous ballplayers in their struggles with addiction, including former teammate Maury Wills, who credited Newk with saving his life. President Barack Obama said on April 19, 2010, “I would not be here if it were not for Jackie (Robinson) and if it were not for Don Newcombe.”
4. Sam McDowell, 143-131, 3.17. McDowell is the most recent player on the team, pitching between 1961 and 1975. His won-lost record doesn’t seem that impressive, but he pitched most of his career with the very weak Cleveland Indians teams of that period. His nickname, “Sudden” Sam McDowell is my favourite of recent times. He was a huge lefty – 6′ 5” and 200 pounds – who threw an overpowering fastball with an almost casual ease which made its appearance over the plate seem sudden, like a change-up in reverse. He was a dominant strikeout pitcher, leading the American League five times – 1965-66, and 1968-70, with a high of 325 in 1965. He also led the league with an ERA of 2.18 that year and might have won the Cy Young Award but they were still only giving out one for both leagues and some guy named Sandy Koufax won it. In 1970 he won 20 games for the only time, but he was generally in the 13-18 range in wins.
McDowell was a heavy drinker and womanizer, and his career and life started to unravel because of this starting around 1971. He dipped to 13-17 and in 1972 was traded to the Giants for pitcher Gaylord Perry and infielder Frank Duffy. This was a disastrous trade for the Giants as Sudden Sam would be 10-8 in his only season for them, while Perry would win 24, 19, and 21 games in the next three years for Cleveland. After this, McDowell’s performance would deteriorate completely to 6-10 in 1973, 1-6 in 1974, and 2-1 in 1975, after which he retired. At the time of his retirement, his strikeout rate was bettered by only two pitchers: Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.
Out of baseball, his drinking increased to the point where it cost him his marriage, leaving him desolate and broke. A failed business venture left him $190,000 in debt and by 1980 he was living with his parents in his childhood home in Pittsburgh. After hitting rock bottom, he finally checked himself into successful treatment and after repaying his debts, earned associate degrees in sports psychology and addiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Eventually he returned to the major leagues as a sports addiction counselor with the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, earning a World Series ring while working for the 1993 Jays. Sam Malone, the alcoholic ex-Red Sox pitcher played by Ted Danson in the sitcom Cheers, was based on the baseball life of Sam McDowell.
5. Van Lingle Mungo, 120-115, 3.47. Right-hander Mungo is an obvious pick for this team. I was a bit surprised his record wasn’t better, but there are two things to consider. Firstly, he pitched for the Dodgers in the ’30s, who were colourful, but not very good. Generally they finished between fifth and seventh place, with 80 to 90 losses a year. Secondly, a severe arm injury late in 1937 limited him to just 13 wins from 1938-43. In his prime from 1933-36, he won between 16 and 18 games each year and was an All-Star. His ERA was also quite good for that time. National League pitching then was dominated by Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean, but second baseman Billy Herman has said that Mungo was the toughest, hardest-throwing pitcher he ever faced.
Mungo was of course a wild man, a noted carouser and brawler. Casey Stengel managed him for a few years and said he always got along with Mungo just fine, achieving this by telling Van that he wasn’t going to put up with any funny business from him, then ducking immediately. Durocher later managed him and said that understanding Van’s speech was hard enough when Mungo was sober, but when drunk he sounded like Mortimer Snerd down a well.
His talent for alcoholic mayhem reached epic levels during the Dodgers’ spring-training trip to Cuba in 1941. Mungo got drunk and stayed that way pretty much for the whole trip. He precipitated a riot by making several overt, obscene gestures – crotch-grabbing, the finger – to General Trujillo during an exhibition game against the Cuban National team and was caught in a compromising position with a famous local musical entertainer whose stage name was Lady Vine. At one point he was in bed with both her and her sister. Lady Vine’s husband got wind of this and confronted Mungo, who punched him in the eye. The husband then chased Mungo around the hotel with either a butcher’s knife or a machete, depending on the version of the story told. Dodger travelling secretary Babe Hamberger eventually smuggled Mungo out of the hotel in a laundry cart to a waiting seaplane in the nearby harbour, which spirited him (so to speak) to America and safety. Otherwise, he was a cinch to be arrested or killed.
Mungo of course achieved later fame as the only player to ever have his name immortalized as the title of a song. In 1969 songwriter Dave Frishberg wrote “Van Lingle Mungo”, a brilliant song using only former ballplayers’ names as lyrics, with Mungo’s name as a repeating refrain. The song has helped to keep Mungo’s name and memory alive. In the early-’70s, talk show host Dick Cavett decided to bring the two together by having them both on as guests, with Frishberg performing the song for Mungo. Backstage, Mungo asked Dave if he could expect any remuneration for having his name used in the song. Dave smiled wanly and said no, but suggested to Mungo that he might earn some royalties if he were to write a tune called “Dave Frishberg.”
Relievers. The bullpen presented some problems, maybe in part because relief pitching is more of a modern-day field, when there was less drinking in the game. Also, relief pitching is more of an everyday position and relievers didn’t have three or four days between starts to sit around and brood, so they tended to drink less than starters. I’ve managed to find three legitimate hard-drinking relievers and imported a couple of starters who occasionally pitched in relief. Unfortunately, only one of these pitchers – Mickey McDermott – was left-handed.
1. Hugh Casey, 75-42, 3.45. Along with Joe Page of the Yankees, Casey was one of the premier relievers of the 1940s. He pitched almost his entire career with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the time of their rise to contention, 1939-48. He was 51-20 in relief, with 55 saves, a good total for that time. Casey led the league in saves in 1942 and ’44 and in relief wins in 1941, ’43, and ’44. He was very quiet and a heavy juicer. Casey is well-remembered for the infamous passed-ball incident with catcher Mickey Owen in Game Four of the 1941 Series against the Yankees. Owen was generally blamed for it, but there were many who thought Casey crossed Owen up with a different pitch than the one called for. Hugh Casey often got to brooding about this while drinking and perhaps did this once too often in retirement, killing himself on July 3, 1951. He was just 37.
2. Ellis Kinder, 102-71, 3.43. Kinder was a terrific pitcher whose career followed a similar pattern to that of Dennis Eckersley, in that he had great early success as a starter but then was converted to relief as he got older. He was a late bloomer, reaching the majors with the Browns in 1946 as a 31-year old. He spent most of his career with the Red Sox, having his best year with them as a starter in 1949, going 23-6. He began to pitch more in relief from 1951 on, when he was 35. He led the league in relief wins and saves in both ’51 and ’53, finishing finished his relief career 44-30, with 102 saves. He was from Arkansas, his nickname was “Old Folks” and he was a problem binge-drinker throughout his career but a good, gutsy pitcher nonetheless. He died from alcohol-related causes at 54 in 1968.
3. Ryne Duren, 27-44, 3.83. Duren is best remembered for his time with the Yankees, his impaired vision, impossibly thick glasses and wild warm-up routine, with pitches sailing over the catcher’s head, the screen, into the dirt or the crowd. With his blazing speed, this did not exactly inspire a secure feeling in the hearts of opposing hitters. Duren was only really good for a few years in the late ’50s, he drank a lot and like many flame-throwing righthanders he blew out his arm before long. He led the league in saves with 20 in 1958 and had 47 in his short but memorable career.
My favourite story about him comes from a good baseball friend, Paul Roth. One time Duren entered a game against the Red Sox with Ted Williams due to hit. Before delivering a pitch, Duren spent about two minutes fussing with the mound, walking around while kicking it, digging at it with his cleats, staring at it, patting it and so on. Williams grew impatient and growled at catcher Yogi Berra, “What the hell’s he doing?” Berra answered, “I think he’s looking for the (pitching) rubber.”
4. Don Larsen, 81-91, 3.71. Larsen is of course forever remembered for his perfect game in the 1956 World Series with the Yankees. He really had two careers, he was 45-24 with the Yanks and 36-67 with other teams. He occasionally pitched in relief and by his own admission was a serious lush. It speaks well for Larsen though that the Yankees saw enough in him to trade for him. Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner was something of a genius in this regard, seeing potential in other team’s pitchers and turning sow’s ears into silk purses.
5. Maurice “Mickey” McDermott, 69 – 69, 3.91. McDermott was, like Larsen, a starter who sometimes pitched in relief. He was a pretty good pitcher, his best season being 1953 when he went 18-10, 3.01 for Boston. He’s here mainly for two reasons – he was left-handed and he was Ellis Kinder’s drinking buddy on the Red Sox from 1948-53. I’m not sure if the nickname “Mickey” reflects this, or was derived from his surname.
As to who would manage this crew, I’ve thought long and hard about it and I’ve decided it has to be Casey Stengel. Piloting the mid-’30s Dodgers sure would have prepared him and there was certainly never a better manager. This choice may surprise some from the booze angle, but Casey drank a lot more than many people realize. He was eventually rich, successful and happily married to his beloved Edna, a smart and beautiful businesswoman. But he did more than his share of drinking over the years; not all heavy drinkers are failures or die young. He loved to have long, boozy gab sessions with reporters and coaches in bars, he loved to talk and liquor was often the lubricant for this. It wasn’t really a problem, he got by with it, weaving it into the colourful fabric of his fabled persona as a legend-eccentric-sage-clown. Certainly in his long career as a player/manager Stengel encountered most of these players, either on his own teams or opposing ones. The exceptions would be Browning and McDowell (who came before and after him) and Tabor, Fox, and York, because they played in the American League before Stengel managed there.
So there you have them, my Hootch All-Stars. Though obviously a product of my own fancy, this team would definitely score a lot of runs, play decent defense and pitch well. Post-victory celebrations sure wouldn’t be a problem. I noticed that a lot of these players came from the years of the Depression and World War Two, though this may be a reflection on the limits of my own knowledge. Certainly the Red Sox had more than their share of boozers, as did the Tigers, Browns and Brooklyn Dodgers. Some of these cases are sad or even tragic, some funny and most of them are colourful. It’s hard to believe how much some of these guys accomplished with so much drinking, how good they must have been, or might have been in some cases. I thought it might be interesting to look at the history of the game, its players and their stories through the prism of booze, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Oops …… look at the hour, last call is any minute now. Where does the time go?
© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.