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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: October 7, 2022 1:42 am PDT
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Lies, Damned Lies

Baseball is all about statistics and stories. You can lie with statistics (Lies, damned lies and statistics) and you could certainly lie about stories. Did the New York Baseball Giants really have a spy behind the scoreboard to tip off The Shot Heard Round the World?

We may never know, but these following three baseball stories, I can tell you, are NOT true.

After the Minnesota Twins defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to take a 2-0 lead in the 1965 World Series, a Minneapolis reporter went into the stands where the Dodger wives were seated. He began to taunt the women, telling them their spouses were going to lose the championship.

When the Dodgers heard what happened, they became so angry it fueled them to win four of the next five games and the series.

I read this tale in a book that quoted Sandy Koufax describing what happened. I searched other books that recounted this, and in each case the source the authors used was the book in which Koufax told what happened.

I called the Minnesota Twins PR department and they had heard nothing about this. I got in touch with Dick Tracewski, who played third base for the Dodgers in 1965. He had no memory of it, and neither did his wife.

I guess Koufax was having some fun with the writers. Too bad really, because it was a great story. The story now is that Koufax made it up.

San Diego Padres General Manager Jack McKeon was in attendance at the 1988 College World Series, specifically to see Andy Benes pitch. The Padres had the first pick of the June amateur draft, and McKeon was there to see if the pitcher was worth selecting as the top choice.

Benes was brilliant that day. The right-hander pitched a complete game, two-hit shutout. The last pitch supposedly was a 92-mph fastball on the black of the plate for a called third strike.

One of McKeon’s staff asked him, “What do you think?”

“I think this game,” McKeon said, “is going to cost me an extra $50,000 to sign him.”

I had heard this anecdote, and years later had a chance to speak with Kevin Towers, one-time director of the Padres minor league system and later San Diego’s General Manager. I asked him if he recalled McKeon’s comment.

No, he said. He was sitting right next to McKeon and he didn’t make that remark.

Another story that wasn’t true.

(BTW, Benes signed with San Diego for $235,000. The year before, the Seattle Mariners with the first draft pick signed Ken Griffey, Jr. for $160,000. Benes’ was the largest bonus ever for a first overall pick since the draft was started in 1965.)

Jack McKeon

In 1970, the Phillies drafted a high school phenom named Mike Martin, a left-handed pitcher who possessed a wicked curveball that enabled him to strike out 559 batters in 223 innings. The Phillies were so hot to sign him, I heard, they signed his older brother Jerry to induce Mike to sign. Mike Martin was the fifth overall pick in the 1970 draft. He did sign with the Phillies, but developed arm trouble and never reached the majors. Jerry Martin did make it to the big leagues and had a pretty good career as an outfielder.

I had a chance to meet Jerry Martin and asked him if the Phils signed him to entice his brother to commit to the Phillies.

No, replied Martin. He told me he had been an All-American basketball player at Furman University and thought he’d be drafted by an NBA team. When he wasn’t, he contacted Paul Owens, director of the Phillies minor league system. Martin told Owens he had observed the negotiations he had with his brother, and Owens struck him as a straight shooter. Would he, asked Martin, give him a tryout to sign with the Phillies? Owens agreed, and Martin impressed the team and he signed with them.

This fourth story could be true.

John Rossi is a history professor who has written four books about baseball. He was fascinated by Bill Veeck’s claim that he planned to buy the Phillies and stock it with Negro League stars, breaking baseball’s color barrier during WWII. In his 1962 book, Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck told Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis about his plans and Landis then arranged for the club to be sold to someone else. Rossi searched books containing this story and found the only source for the tale was Veeck’s book.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

“Let me make it plain that my Philadelphia adventure was no ideal dream. I had made my offer to Gerry Nugent, the president of the fast-sinking club (Phillies) and he expressed a willingness to accept it. As far as I knew I was the only bidder. The players were going to be assembled for me by Abe Saperstein (coach of the Harlem Globetrotters) and A.S. “Doc” Young, the sports editor of the Chicago Defender, two of the most knowledgable men in the country on the subject of Negro baseball. With Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Monte Irvin, and countless others in action and available, I had not the slightest doubt that in 1944, a war year, the Phils would have leaped from seventh place to the pennant,” Veeck wrote.

Veeck then added he “made one bad mistake” in telling Landis.

“The next thing I knew I was informed that Nugent, being in bankruptcy, had turned the team back to the league and that I would therefore have to deal with National League President Ford Frick. Frick promptly informed me that the club had already been sold to William Cox, a lumber dealer, and that my agreement with Nugent was worthless. The Phillies were sold to Cox by Frick for about half of what I had been willing to pay,” Veeck explained in his book.

Rossi contacted an editor at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) asking if he’d be interested in a story about Veeck and the Phillies. The editor said someone else was looking into it, and would he collaborate with him? Who is it? Rossi asked. His name is David Jordan, and he lives in Jenkintown, PA, said the editor. “Dave Jordan,” replied Rossi. “He’s a neighbor of mine.”

Rossi, Jordan and a third author, University of Utah professor Lawrence Gerlach, looked into this story, and came to the conclusion it never happened.

“You can’t prove a negative,” said Rossi, but they found no evidence to support Veeck’s claim. For instance, the researchers documented how several of the Negro League stars Veeck wanted to sign were serving in the armed forces in Europe during WWII.

Bill Veeck (r) with Satchel Paige

Rossi also got in touch with Veeck’s son, Mike, who operates a minor league team in St. Paul, MN (The St. Paul Saints), and asked him if his father ever talked about that plan before he wrote his book. Mike Veeck thought for a minute and told Rossi, no.

“To me the point that I first noticed was the fact that Veeck said this happened in 1943. There was no mention of his claim until the book appeared 20 years later. You would think the signing of (Jackie) Robinson would have brought out what Veeck tried to do. Even when he integrated the American League with Larry Doby he didn’t mention his earlier attempt,” said Rossi.

Veeck was chagrined when Branch Rickey received the credit for breaking the color barrier when he signed Robinson. Veeck thought Rickey was a charlatan and blowhard. It should be noted that Veeck published his book after Landis, Rickey and others in a position to know the veracity of the story had died.

I agree with Rossi, Jordan and Gerlach primarily for this reason: Veeck wrote he told Landis what he intended to do, and Landis interfered. Telling Landis you wanted to sign Negro League players on a major league team is akin to a bank robber telling the police what bank he is going to rob and when he will do it. A friend and a big Veeck fan said Veeck informed Landis as a courtesy; after all, if the Phillies had signed several black ballplayers, the country would have been shocked (or worse).

By National League rules, the sale of the Phillies to Veeck would have to been approved by a majority of the other league owners, who surely would have nixed the sale if they knew of Veeck’s intentions. Baseball was all-white, and the owners wanted to keep it that way – they voted 15-1 against allowing Robinson to play in the majors after Rickey had signed him. The Phillies were sold to Cox on March 15, 1943, only weeks before the season started. There would have been an uproar if black players took the field for the Phillies during spring training games with the intention of integrating the sport once the major league season began.

Rossi, Gerlach and Jordan published their article in SABR’s journal, The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, and it won the Macmillan-SABR Award for best Historical Essay.

Not everyone liked it, however.

“I know that some people at SABR were mad. I believe there were some resignations,” said Rossi. Veeck, he said, has his supporters for this story.

These are only a few of the myriad baseball stories that either are true, not true, or have been embellished or distorted by inaccurate memories. One of baseball’s great joys is its oral history and literature, both fiction and non-fiction. But occasionally those two get mixed up… or get mixed together.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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