In 1951 you couldn’t get us to talk politics. Ball players then would just as soon talk bed wetting as talk politics. Tweener Jordan brought up the H-bomb one seventh inning, sitting there tarring up his useless Louisville Slugger at the end of a Bataan Death March of a road trip when it was 104° the field and about nine of us in a row had just been tied in knots by Maglie and it looked like we weren’t going to get anyone on base in the next five weeks except for those hit by pitches, at which point someone down the end of the bench told Tweener to put a lid on it, and he did, and that was the end of the H-bomb as far as the Philadelphia Phillies was concerned.
I was one or two frosties shy of outweighing my bat and wasn’t exactly known as Mr. Heavy Hitter; in fact me and Charley Caddell, another Pinemaster from the Phabulous Phillies, were known far and wide as such banjo hitters that they called us —right to our faces, right during a game, like confidence or bucking up a teammate was for noolies and nosedroops —Flatt and Scruggs. Pick us a tune, boys, they’d say, our own teammates, when it came time for the eighth and ninth spots in the order to save the day. And Charlie and I would grab our lumber and shoot each other looks like we were the Splinter himself, misunderstood by everybody, and up we’d go to the plate against your basic Newcombe or Erskine cannon volleys. Less knowledgeable fans would cheer. The organist would pump through the motions and the twenty-seven thousand who did show up (PHILS WHACKED IN TWINIGHTER; SLUMP CONTINUES; LOCALS SEEK TO SALVAGE LAST GAME OF HOME STAND) wouldn’t say boo. Our runners aboard would stand there like they were watching furniture movers. One guy in our dugout would clap. A pigeon would set down in right field and gook around. Newcombe or Erskine would look in at us like litter was blowing across their line of sight. They’d paint the corners with a few unhittable ones just to let us know what a mismatch this was. Then Charley would dink one to second. It wouldn t make a sound in the glove. I’d strike out. And the fans would cuff their kids or scratch their rears and cheer. It was like they were celebrating just how bad we could be.
I’d always come off the field looking at my bat, trademark up, like I couldn’t figure out what happened. You’d think by that point I would’ve. I tended to be hitting about.143.
Whenever we were way down, in the 12 to 2 range, Charley played them up, our sixth-or seventh-, or worse, ninth-inning Waterloos—tipped his cap and did some minor posing—and for his trouble got showered with whatever the box seats didn’t feel like finishing: peanuts, beer, the occasional hot-dog roll. On what was the last straw before this whole Cuba thing, after we’d gone down one-two and killed a bases-loaded rally for the second time that day, the boxes around the dugout got so bad that Charley went back out and took a curtain call, like he’d clubbed a round-tripper. The fans howled for parts of his body. The Dodgers across the way laughed and pointed. In the time it took Charley to lift his cap and wave someone caught him in the mouth with a metal whistle from a Cracker Jack box and chipped a tooth.
“You stay on the pine,” Skip said to him while he sat there trying to wiggle the ivory in question. “I’m tired of your antics.” Skip was our third-year manager who’d been through it all, seen it all and lost most of the games along the way.
“What’s the hoo-ha?” Charley down eleven-nothing.”
Skip said that Charley reminded him of Dummy Hoy, the deaf-mute who played for Cincinnati all those years ago. Skip was always saying things like that. The first time he saw me shagging flies he said I was the picture of Skeeter Scalzi.
“Dummy Hoy battled .287 lifetime,” Charley said. “I’ll take that anytime.”
The thing was, we were both good glove men. And this was the Phillies. If you could do anything right, you were worth at least a spot on the pine. After Robin Roberts, our big gun on the mound, it was Katie bar the door.
“We’re twenty-three games back,” Skip said. “This isn’t the time for bush-league stunts.”
It was late in the season, and Charley was still holding that tooth and in no mood for a gospel from Skip. He let fly with something in the abusive range, and I, I’m ashamed to say, became a disruptive influence on the bench and backed him up.
Quicker than you could say Wally Pipp, we were on our way to Allentown for some Double A discipline.
Our ride out there was not what you’d call high-spirited. The Allentown bus ground gears and did ten, tops. It really worked over those switchbacks on the hills, to maximize the dust coming through the windows. Or you could shut the windows and bake muffins.
Charley was across the aisle, sorting through the paper. He’d looked homicidal from the bus station on.
“We work on our hitting, he’s got to bring us back,” I said. “Who else has he got?” Philadelphia’s major-league franchise was at that point in pretty bad shape, with a lot of kids filling gaps left by the hospital patients.
Charley mentioned an activity involving Skip’s mother. It colored the ears of the woman sitting in front of us.
It was then I suggested the winter leagues, Mexico or Cuba. “How about Guam.?” Charley said. “How about the Yukon?” He hawkered out the window.
Here was my thinking: the season was almost over in Allentown, which was also, by the way, in the cellar. We probably weren’t going back up afterwards. That meant that staning October we either cooled our heels playing pepper in Pennsylvania, or we played winter ball. I was for Door Number Two.
Charley and me, we had to do something about our selfesteem. It got so I’d wince just to see my name in the sports pages — before I knew what it was about, just to see my name. Charley’s full name was Charles Owen Caddell, and he carried a handsome suitcase around the National League that had his initials, C.O.C., in big letters near the handle. When asked what they stood for, he always said, “Can o’ Corn.”
Skip we didn’t go to for fatherly suppon. Skip tended to be hard on the non-regulars, who he referred to as “you egg-sucking noodle-hanging gutter trash.”
Older ballplayers talked about what it was like to lose it: the way your teammates would stan giving you the look, the way you could see in their eyes. Three years ago he’d make that play, or He’s lost a step going to the hole; the quickness isn’t there. The difference was, Charley and me, we’d seen that look since we were twelve.
So Cuba seemed like the savvy move: a little seasoning, a little time in the sun, some senoritas, drinks with hats, maybe a curve ball Charley could hit, a heater I could do more than foul off. Charley took some convincing. He’d sit there in the Allentown dugout, riding the pine even in Allentown, whistling air through his chipped tooth and making faces at me. This Cuba thing was stupid, he’d say. He knew a guy played for the Athletics went down to Mexico or someplace, drank a cup of water with bugs in it that would’ve turned Dr. Salk’s face white and went belly-up between games of a doubleheader. “Shipped home in a box they had to seal,’’ Charley said. He’d tell that story, and his tooth would whistle for emphasis.
But really what other choice did we have? Between us we had the money to get down there, and I knew a guy on the Pirates who was able to swing the connections. I finished the year batting .143 in the bigs and .167 in Allentown. Charley hit his weight and pulled off three errors in an inning his last game. When we left, our Allentown manager said, “Boys, I hope you hit the bigs again. Because we sure can’t use you around here.”
So down we went on the train and then the slow boat, accompanied the whole way by a catcher from the Yankee system, a big bird from Minnesota named Ericksson. Ericksson was out of Triple A and apparently had a fan club there because he was so fat. I guess it had gotten so he couldn’t field bunts. He said the Yankee brass was paying for this. They thought of it as a fat farm.
“The thing is, I’m not fat,” he said. We were pulling out of some skeeter-and-water stop in central Florida. One guy sat on the train platform with his chin on his chest, asleep or dead. “That’s the thing. What I am is big boned.” He held up an arm and squeezed it the way you’d test a melon.
“I like having you in the window seat,” Charley said, his Allentown hat down over his eyes. “Makes the whole trip shady.”
Ericksson went on to talk about feet. This shortened the feel of the trip considerably. Ericksson speculated that the smallest feet in the history of the major leagues belonged to An Herring, who wore a size three. Myril Hoag, apparently, wore one size four and one size four and a half.
We’d signed a deal with the Cienfiiegos club: seven hundred a month and two-fifty for expenses. We also got a place on the beach, supposedly, and a woman to do the cleaning, though we had to pay her bus fare back and forth. It sounded a lot better than the Mexican League, which had teams with names like Coatzacoalcos. Forget the Mexican League, Charley’d said when I brought it up. Once I guess he’d heard some retreads from that circuit talking about the Scorpions, and he’d said, “They have a team with that name.?” and they’d said no.
When Ericksson finished with feet he wanted to talk politics. Not only the whole Korean thing—truce negotiations, we’re on a thirty-one-hour train ride with a Swedish glom who wants to talk truce negotiations — but this whole thing with Cuba and other Latin American countries and Kremlin expansionism. Ericksson could get going on Kremlin expansionism.
“Charley’s not much on politics,” I said, trying to turn off the spigot.
“You can talk politics if you want,” Charley said from under his hat. “Talk politics. I got a degree. I can keep up. I got a B.S. from Schenectady.” The B.S. stood for Boots and Shoes, meaning he worked in a factory.
So there we were in Cuba. Standing on the dock, peering into the sun, dragging our big duffel bags like dogs that wouldn’t cooperate. We’re standing there sweating on our bags and wondering where the team rep who’s supposed to meet us is, and meanwhile a riot breaks out about a block and a half away. We thought it was a block pany at first. This skinny guy in a pleated white shin and one of those cigar-ad pointed beards was racketing away at the crowd, which was yelling and carrying on. He was over six feet. He looked strong, wiry, but in terms of heft somewhere between Hyweight and poster child. He was scoring big with some points he was making holding up a bolt of cloth. He said something that got them all going and up he went onto somebody’s shoulders, and they paraded him around past the storefronts, everybody shouting, “Castro! Castro! Castro!” which Charley and me figured was the guy’s name. We were still sitting there in the sun like idiots. They circled around past us and stopped. They got quiet, and we looked at each other. The man of the hour was giving us his fearsome bandito look. He was tall. He was skinny. He was just a kid. He didn’t look at all happy to see us.