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Mudville: November 28, 2020 2:00 pm PDT
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The Curious Case of Crazy Clint Costanza

Baseball history is strewn with tough guys, legends you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Or a well-lit alley, for that matter.

Guys like Ty Cobb, Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, who would leave you bloodied to win a game and send you back to the dugout with brown stains on your road greys… and not from sliding either.

Their stories of high-and-tight fastballs, menacing quotes and amputee hecklers left bloodied are part of the fabric of baseball lore. There are some under-the-radar roughnecks as well, and that leads us to Clint Courtney.

Courtney played for five different teams in the 1950s and was nicknamed “Scrap Iron” decades before Phil Garner earned that same moniker. I imagine Courtney regularly walked into baseball locker rooms like Lee Marvin and shot the clubhouse attendant in the thigh simply to assert dominance.

Ok, that probably never happened, but with Courtney you just never know.

While playing for the Browns in a 1952 game against the Yankees, Courtney slid hard into second, taking out Billy Martin in the process.

Targeting Martin on the field – or in a bar – was never a good idea, and a slight melee ensued. So the next time Martin had the good fortune of having to tag Courtney later in the game, he delivered a right cross to Courtney’s jaw with the baseball, inciting another riot.

This kind of thing happened consistently with Courtney.

With this knowledge of Courtney’s behavior and reputation, I eagerly sought out his baseball card and came across his 1956 Topps edition. I was ready to see Charles Bronson in a baseball cap or Richard Kiel in an old-style catcher’s mask. This was the set with the horizontal layout that had a large portrait of a player and a little action painting depicting some type of baseball action. Maybe Courtney’s action shot was going to show him throwing someone off a building. Instead, when I found his 1956 Topps card, I got something completely different and unexpected. It was George Fucking Costanza!

I don’t have to go into great detail into what I saw; you all know who George Costanza is. Round face, round glasses, unassuming look. Costanza at least had a temper, but if he ever came across Billy Martin, he’d turn into Fragile Frankie Merman and dig a hole in which to hide. The action photo is just as puzzling; It shows Courtney sliding past home plate, hand extended to swipe the dish under the outstretched tag of a generic catcher. Knowing Courtney’s reputation, I doubt he was ever going to slide around home plate. He would be more likely to barrel through the catcher and then jump into the stands to knock out his mother. Then on the way back to the field, he would pull a peanut vendor’s straw hat down around his neck and beat the living snot out of him.

The backs of Topps cards in the era let fans learn more about their favorite baseball sociopaths, and Courtney’s card did not disappoint. Topps afforded three small panels to explain the most important things they knew about psychotic Costanza. The first panel was innocuous enough, explaining that Courtney enjoyed his best offensive season in 1955. Good for him.

Moving onto the next panel, things took a most tragic turn. The text under a little sketch proclaimed Courtney as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the drawing showed a murderous baseball felon. It was a cartoon of Courtney stomping back towards home plate in full catcher’s gear with a quote bubble that says, “When I tag ‘em, they stay tagged.” Then there’s a drawing of a fellow laying flat on his back on the third base line with his neck fatally twisted. He… killed him? Is that why they “stay tagged?” I am picturing a scene where this runner was coming in to score but thought better of sliding into home with Courtney there, so he tried to retreat to third base. Courtney chased him down and snapped his neck with the violent force of Ku Feng.

 

The final panel tells me that Courtney is a cattle rancher in the offseason, and the accompanying cartoon shows Courtney practicing his neck breaking skills on a red cartoon steer.

Jesus, lighten up Clint.

Why the hell is Courtney so mad anyway?

Maybe it’s because he grew up in Hall Summit, which has a population of less than 300 people and is located in a desolate area of Northeast Louisiana, a locale that would have made a perfect setting for the film Deliverance, but nobody would have believed existed in real life.

Courtney’s legend didn’t die with the 1956 Topps card, a heart attack would make sure to take care of that in 1975. Like his sparring partner Billy Martin, Courtney was highly regarded as a manager who likely terrified his teams into winning. He never got his chance at the Majors because at the age of 48, Courtney was playing ping pong while talking over the lineup with some of his coaches when he literally dropped dead mid-sentence in the clubhouse.

The next day, the lede in his obituary read, “Clint Courtney was so tough, he’d spray your shoes with tobacco juice and then fight you for being in his way.” It also recounted a couple of Courtney’s fights, which were remarkably one-sided.

One time, he came out of the dugout and onto the field to knock out a teammate he thought was being “selfish”.

On another occasion, he scrambled a teammate’s brain simply for talking while Courtney was taking a beating in a card game. When they start recounting your fistfights in your obituary, you know you had an air of menace about you.

Man, what a wild ride of paradoxical traits Clint Courtney was. His bespectacled pumpkin face made him seem like a perfect mark for street hustlers as he walked around 1950’s America, but underneath that docile librarian exterior lied a homicidal madman with a vicious streak of Bayou insanity.

His 1956 Topps edition was one of those cards you’d get in every pack instead of the Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays card you really wanted and it would more likely than not wind up in the spokes of your bicycle. But kids ripping packs in 1956 were careful to show any type of disdain for pulling another Courtney because he was liable to jump off the cardboard and throat punch you to your death, with one of his patented neck snaps to follow.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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