Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I Love: Stories

By The Common Man

Yet again, we delve into the things we love about baseball in an effort to combat the really disappointing news from around the game in recent weeks, and the potential flurry of negativity we'll be reveling during the upcoming Hall of Fame debate.  Here are links to our previous efforts, which document our love of movies, Twitter, grittiness, NotGraphs, and minor league free agents.

The Common Man loves baseball stories.  More than any other sport, baseball seems to lend itself to narratives both on the field and off of it, and those stories become absolute bedrocks of our American identities.  For instance, that Babe Ruth was so supremely confident, he'd promise to hit home runs for kids and called his own shot.  That Satchel Paige would tell his outfielders to sit down before he pitched.  That Jose Canseco would meet with teammates in the clubhouse bathroom to inject each other with steroids. 

These stories are not just compelling when they're told well, but they invoke the essence of the players and time in question.  Ruth was a god in the 1920s and early 1930s who could do anything. Paige and his Negro Leagues were as much about showmanship as about baseball.  And steroids were seedy and shameful, as were the men who did them.

More fun than listening to these stories is digging into them further, providing context for them and testing their veracity.  Did Ruth actually call his shot?  Was Ty Cobb provoked when he went up into the stands to attack a man with crippled hands?  What did Shoeless Joe really know, and what did he do?  Why did George Strickland take a year off in the middle of a productive career?

In this vein, Drew Fairservice put up a link earlier this week to a tremendous 1962 article that was reprinted by the San Francisco Chornicle, in which a gambler, “Manny the Noodle,” recounts how a bunch of other gamblers tried to poison Willie Mays in September of 1962. Manny argues,

“So the smart money is up to its hip boots on the Dodgers….A lot of very hard guys are beginning to look like losers. This they don't like. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. When these babies get hurt, they get smart. They don't talk. They do.

"The money gets nervous when the Giants leave town with three out of four in their pocket and the Dodgers only one game out. It's like some of these Greeks won't get to send their kids to Yale after all.

"So what to do? Only one thing, kid. You gotta get to that outfielder.”
Manny goes on to recount how gamblers sent a child up to Willie’s room one morning, since he never had a roommate on the road. And while Willie magnanimously signs an autograph for the whelp, “young Capone is walking over to his bed and putting the mickey in the oatmeal.”

It sounds ridiculous (Drew certainly thinks it is), but let’s pretend for a minute that the story is at all plausible. After all, just because the plan wasn't ultimately successful in derailing the Giants doesn't mean that the plan didn't exist.  Nobody blew up British Parliament, but Guy Fawkes still was hanged for treason. 

The Giants did indeed take three of four from the Dodgers in Los Angeles from September 3-6, with Mays hitting .333/.474/.733 in 19 plate appearances. At the end of the series, the Giants are just 1.5 games back of LA with 25 and 24 games left, respectively.

After the game, the Giants leave LA to head back to San Francisco to play a five-game homestand, then they’re on the road from September 12-23 for the final trip of the regular season. After playing one inning on September 12 in Cincinnati, Mays “collapsed of what was described as an attack of indigestion in the third inning. The brilliant center fielder was unconscious when he was carried off the field, but revived before being taken to the hospital” after his first at bat, a strikeout. The next day, the case was still something of a mystery, as “Manager Al Dark said there was no apparent indication of what felled Mays.”

Mary Kay Linge’s biography of Mays suggests that “[The doctors] found what Mays had expected them to find: nothing. There is no medical test for tiredness, and Mays was simply ‘exhausted. Mentally, physically, emotionally, every other way.’” In his autobiography, Say Hey, Willie recalls telling his team, “I just feel like I don’t want to move. I can move, but I don’t want to.” Doctors ordered bed rest. Again, according to Linge, there were rumors that he was an alcoholic, that he’d had a heart attack, a seizure, or that he’d been in a fight, but nothing about being poisoned.

Aside from this article, there’s been no indication that Willie Mays suffered from any foul play that knocked him out for basically four games. Upon coming back, Mays hit .448/.484/.793 for the rest of the roadtrip and .354/.446/.646 for the rest of the season, with 4 homers in 13 games. The Dodgers and Giants ended up tied and had to play a three-game set to determine the NL champions, in which Mays hit .455/.571/1.000 with two homers and four RBI. So if Mays was poisoned, it was something with almost no lingering effects.

The timeframe certainly fits with Manny the Noodle’s story. So do the symptoms, as some poisons commonly referred to as Mickey Finns are known to cause headaches, dizziness, and depression.  So based on the events that happened, it’s certainly a possible explanation.

That said, his story doesn’t really pass the smell test, especially when we consider Occam’s Razor. For one thing, even if he were inclined to sign a baseball for the kid, why would Willie allow him into his room? Also, even if the kid did make it in, how long could it have actually taken Mays to sign his name on a baseball? And if it was something as simple as food poisoning, why would Willie cop to exhaustion, which doesn’t sound terribly heroic, in his autobiography?

What happened to Willie in 1962? Maybe he was just dead tired. Maybe he had a mini-breakdown. Maybe he had food poisoning. But was Willie poisoned intentionally? Maybe, though the method this informant suggested doesn't make much sense.  It’s just really hard to believe that, even from a reliable source like Manny the Noodle.  But that's the fun of this kind of investigation.  There's always more information to explore.  More to dig into.  And The Common Man hopes for more answers before he's done looking into it.

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