Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

A Boston Baseball Story

June 9, 2017
Piersall2

Jimmy Piersall

The recent passing of Jimmy Piersall brought back a load of memories. If you’re a New Englander of my generation, you automatically think “Piersall” when somebody says “center fielder.” He patrolled that sector of Fenway Park all through my childhood, from 1952 to 1958. I was shocked and confused when the Red Sox traded him for Vic Wertz and Gary Geiger in December of ’58. How could they do that?

Jimmy’s personal problems with a bipolar disorder, which were depicted in the film “Fear Strikes Out,” were well documented. When he came up to the Sox in 1952, he dubbed himself the “Waterbury Wizard,” a reference to his home town in Connecticut. His teammates didn’t care for that one.

The Red Sox were decent all through the 1950s. They usually had a winning record but never finished higher than third place. Their outfield was pretty damn good, with Piersall between Ted Williams in left and Jackie Jensen in right. Piersall was twice an All-Star – which meant a lot more then than it does now – and won three Gold Gloves.

I met Jimmy once, in 1964. He was playing for the Los Angeles Angels at the time. He stopped by Waterman’s Funeral Home in Kenmore Square for the wake for my uncle Walter. My father was there with me, and he asked Jimmy to come over and shake my hand. That was a thrill.

DON GILE HEADSHOT

Don Gile

But now to my Boston baseball story. Jimmy Piersall is a supporting actor in this one. The star of the story is a journeyman player named Don Gile (pronounced Jee-lee.)

Several years ago, my company had a luxury box at Fenway Park. I went there one night when the “legend” host happened to be Dick Radatz. Contemporaries will remember Dick, the unhittable – for a few years – closer whom Mickey Mantle once dubbed “The Monster.” Dick was perfect as a host – nice guy, erudite (he went to Michigan State and was, as he told us that night, only the 25th major leaguer to have attended college at the time he was playing.)

Dick Radatz

Dick Radatz

Dick told me a great tale about the 1963 All-Star Game, which I wrote up here. I happened to mention that one time I’d met, among other Red Sox of that era, Don Gile. It was at the Cottage Park Yacht Club one Sunday evening in the summer of 1962. We had heard that a bunch of Red Sox were around, and we went out to the floats to get their autographs.

The players put down the cases of adult beverages that they were loading onto the docked cabin cruiser and signed, obligingly. Yes, things were different back then. I still have those autographs. One of them is Gile’s. When Radatz heard this he said,

“Ah, Don Gile. Let me tell you about Don Gile.”

It was September 30, 1962, the second game of a doubleheader (remember them?) and the final game of the year. Gile, a reserve catcher and first baseman, was in the lineup. In 17 previous games, he’d not had a hit. He was rather down on himself.

Autographs

1962 Red Sox autographs: Don Gile, Mike Fornieles, Bob Tillman

During pregame warmups, a bunch of the players from the two teams were chatting on the sidelines. The opponents were the Washington Senators. Piersall was their center fielder.

Jimmy listened sympathetically to Gile’s story of frustration. He said, “Hit one to me in center. I’ll short-leg it for you and we’ll get you a hit.”

Sure enough, that happened. Gile hit a soft fly ball that Piersall pretended mightily to chase and catch.  But the ball fell in, and Gile had his first hit of the season. Thank you, Jimmy Piersall.

Came the last of the ninth. The score was tied. There were two runners on base. Gile came up. He swung hard. The air was shattered by the force of his blow.

Shattered too was the baseball. It flew high over the nets in left field for a walk-off home run.

Gile circled the bases, kept his head down, crossed home plate, and made a beeline for the dugout.

“By the time we got into the clubhouse, he was gone,” said Radatz. “We never spoke to him and never saw him again. He never played another game in the majors.”

I have no reason to doubt any of this story. Gile’s final year in the majors was that season of 1962, when he was 27 years of age.  He had two hits in 41 at-bats: a single, a homer, and three runs batted in.

Gile became the second Red Sox player of all time to hit a home run in his final at-bat. Two years earlier, Williams had done it on that day, famously chronicled by John Updike in The New Yorker,  that “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was Williams’s 521st career homer; it was Gile’s third.

Other than Don Gile, who’s 82, they’re all gone now: Piersall, Radatz, Williams. May they rest in peace. And thanks to all of them for those baseball memories.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: Lip Pike, Baseball’s First Professional

August 27, 2014
Lipman E. Pike (1845-1893) America's First Pro Baseball Player

Lipman E. Pike
(1845-1893)
America’s First Pro Baseball Player

Logan Mankins, late of the New England Patriots, will hereafter be cashing his generous paychecks in Florida, just his second professional sporting home. As you ponder that news, consider how far we’ve come since the days of America’s first documented professional athlete, the peripatetic Lipman Emanuel “Lip” Pike.

Lip Pike was the first American to be revealed as a professional athlete. He was also the first Jewish baseball player. And he was a good one. Known as the “Iron Batter,” he first appeared in a box score one week after his bar mitzvah in 1864. He joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866, and he was paid $20 a week under the table.

Two other guys were also reportedly getting money from the A’s, and a hullabaloo ensued. The National Association of Base Ball Players set up a hearing on the matter, but nobody showed up and the whole thing was dropped.

By 1869, however, the façade of amateurism in baseball had fallen away, and the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first openly professional baseball team. So Lip Pike was a Jackie Robinson of sorts – he broke a barrier and paved the way for others. What he did was first deemed unacceptable. Society eventually got around to embracing it, but I bet nobody every thanked Lip Pike.

Pike also endured prejudice, but of a different sort than that felt by Robinson or by Pike’s Jewish brethren. Yes, Lip was a powerful hitter and speedy runner – he once hit six homers in a game that the Athletics won 67-25. But the A’s dropped him from the team in 1867. Why? Because he was a “foreigner,” as far as the team’s fans were concerned. He was from New York. They couldn’t have that, in the City of Brotherly Love.

Pike wasn’t finished. He had a lengthy career, playing for teams like the New York Mutuals, Brooklyn Atlantics, Troy Haymakers, Providence Grays, Baltimore Canaries, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Worcester Ruby Legs, and New York Metropolitans. He was always on the move. Harry “Suitcase” Simpson had nothing on Lip Pike.

August, 1886 Media Coverage of Lip Pike and His Baseball Exploits. Newspaper Price: One Cent.

August, 1886 Media Coverage of Lip Pike and His Baseball Exploits. Newspaper Price: One Cent.

In 1869 Pike batted .610 for the Atlantics. He was their second baseman in 1870 when they beat Cincinnati and ended the Red Stockings’ 93-game winning streak.

Pike also used his speed and skill to make money in other ways. On August 16, 1873, he raced a trotting horse named Clarence in a 100-yard sprint at Newington Park in Baltimore. Lip won by four yards with a time of 10 seconds flat, earning a nice little prize of $250.

The superb writer Mordecai Richler points out that the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports reports that most baseball players of the 19th century were gamblers and drunkards, or thought to be. But Richler states that “Pike was an exception. Throughout his career, contemporary journals commented on his sobriety, intelligence, wit, and industry.”

After retiring, Pike went back to the family business; his father, a Dutch immigrant to Brooklyn, owned a haberdashery. Lip died rather young, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 48. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, “Many wealthy Hebrews and men high in political and old time baseball circles attended the funeral service.”

Of course, Lip Pike is enshrined in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 1936, according to Wikipedia, he got one vote for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

As far as I’m concerned, Lip Pike belongs in Cooperstown too.