The genius (and madness) of Gene Mauch

Gene Mauch always wanted to be a big league manager.

1944 – Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop – Gene Mauch

Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was Mauch’s inspiration. As a rookie shortstop in 1944, Mauch only played in 5 games. The rest of the time Mauch rode the bench and intently observed Durocher’s every decision. He admired the manager’s ‘play to win’ style.

He would achieve recognition in the minor leagues as a fiery utility infielder but never made the grade in the major leagues. In all or part of nine seasons with six different teams, he never played more than 72 games in a season.

Mauch would hang it up as a player in 1957 and go on to become one of the most clever and arrogant managers in baseball history. Mauch is fifth all-time in games managed at 3,942 and ninth in wins with 1,902. But he also lost more games than he won. His 2,037 defeats are third all-time. However, he was often saddled with mediocre teams in the process of rebuilding or, as in Montreal, with an expansion team.

Nick Acocella of ESPN once said that Gene Mauch was either the smartest baseball man never to win a pennant or the most expert at pulling defeat out of victory’s jaws.

Despite only winning two pennants in 26 years of managing, many of Mauch’s players regard him as their most insightful manager.

1987 – California Angels manager – Gene Mauch

One of Mauch’s most insightful moments would come during a game between the Tigers and the Angels on May 12, 1987.

After a 3rd inning pitch in the dirt by Tiger’s pitcher Dan Petry, catcher Mike Heath reached out with his catcher’s mask and scooped the ball up.

It would have appeared that no one gave the seemingly harmless move a second thought.

Well, no one BUT Gene Mauch.

1987 Topps – Mike Heath & Dan Petry

After all, 35 years earlier he had memorized virtually every word of the baseball rule book.

As Heath returned the ball to Petry, Mauch came lumbering up the dugout steps and out onto the field.

“Well, are you going to make that call?” Mauch asked home plate umpire Durwood Merrill.

“What call?” Merrill asked.

“Rule 7.05. Paragraph D. Make the call Merrill!” Mauch responded.

Merrill clearly was either unaware of the rule or had forgotten it. “Oh THAT rule, Gene. Well go ahead and remind me of what in that hell that rule even is.” he said.

“Well, rule 7.05, paragraph D calls for an automatic two-base error whenever a player stops a ball with a piece of equipment other than his glove, be it a cap, a resin bag or in Heath’s case, his catcher’s mask!” Mauch explained in perfect detail.

Merill looked at Mauch in defeat. He knew he was right. “It must have slipped my mind,” he said as he motioned for Angel baserunners Mark McLemore and Brian Downing to advance 180 feet. Downing moved from first base to third, McLemore scored from second, and Mauch pulled into the RBI lead for major league managers in 1987.

Many would say it was a great moment in baseball managing.

Not if you’re interested in results.

Final score of that game: Tigers 15, Angels 2.

Mauch would come to be known for his many futile strokes of genius. Mauch was an exemplary manager and possessed a cunning baseball mind, despite what the statistics say. One has to wonder what achievement he would have seen had he not been saddled with mediocre teams.

This probably explains why Mauch is known just as much for his legendary temper tantrums as he is for his managerial skills.

1963 Topps

One of Mauch’s most celebrated outbursts happened on September 22, 1963 and involved, well, a lot of food.

After a 2-1 loss in Hoston on Joe Morgan’s first big league single, Mauch was the first to return to the clubhouse and he was mad as hell.

Local caterer Norm Gerdeman and his wife Evelyn were admiring a beautiful post-game buffet that they had just finished setting out for the visiting Phillies. The table was stocked with fresh fruit, cold cuts, crisp salads and Evelyn’s specialty – barbecue chicken and spareribs.

Still burned from the game, Mauch began pacing up and down the buffet with his hands on his hips. Every time he passed the buffet, he would reach over, grab a handful of food and sling it across the clubhouse as if he was gunning down a runner headed for home.

Every corner of the room soon found itself covered in watermelon, potato salad, coleslaw, roast beef, and ham.

Norm held his wife back as Mauch approached the barbecue chicken. All she could do was watch as Mauch began chucking her award-winning chicken all over the place.

With nothing else to throw, Mauch picked up a bowl of Evelyn’s special homemade barbecue sauce and sent it splashing into the open lockers of players Tony Gonzalez and Wes Covington.

With their street clothes now ruined, Mauch called the players to his office, apologized and gave them both $200 to buy new suits.

1970 Topps

The 1970 season gave Mauch another gut-wrenching loss and the Houston Astros clubhouse another Mauch temper tantrum involving food. Montreal coach Don Zimmer recalls, “When we came back into the clubhouse, there was a spread of eight big barrels of fried chicken. Now, when you lose a tough ballgame, you need to go to your locker and quietly stew over the loss to let everyone know you’re serious. Then you get up and go to the spread. That’s what I did that night and I was starving.”

Rusty Staub and another teammate did NOT follow that unwritten rule and upon entering the clubhouse, began filling their plates as if they hadn’t eaten in days.

Still steaming over the loss, Mauch quietly approached the players and said sarcastically, “Never mind the team losing the game. You boys take care of your stomachs.”

Then Mauch leaped up onto the table and started dumping the chicken all over the floor. He even jumped down and began stomping up and down on it.

The players were in utter disbelief. Zimmer, slowly walked out Mauch’s line of sight, reached up and grabbed the last two pieces of chicken from the table. “That’s how hungry I was!”, he said.

On May 7, 1969, in a game between Atlanta and the Expos, Mauch was enraged at a balk that was called against his rookie pitcher Mike Wegener allowing the tying run to score.

After losing his debate with the umpires, Mauch stormed over to the mound, kicked the rosin bag ten feet into the air, ran after it, and booted it another twenty feet. He then grabbed the ball from Wegener’s hand and drop kicked it high into the air.

The umpires having seen quite enough of this, ejected Mauch before that ball even hit the ground.

Mauch vs Umpires and then Mauch vs baseball.

There were many other outbursts in Mauch’s 3,942 game managerial career. Despite those outbursts, many said that Mauch was “one of the nicest guys in baseball.” It was almost as if he had a split personality.

The finest example of this was after a Philadelphia loss to the Reds on May 12, 1965. Mauch locked reporters out of the clubhouse, broke a window, ripped the phones out of the wall, upended all of the furniture, and finally jammed his fist through the door of a dressing room locker.

The reporters could do nothing but listen through the door. Once the door was finally opened back up, Mauch was gone, having left a trail of destruction in his wake.

The next night, after the Phillies defeated the Reds, Gene was all smiles. Warmly welcoming the same reporters into the Phillies clubhouse, Gene innocently asked them, “Hey, where were you guys last night?”

1968 Topps & 1966 Topps

Frankie Frisch

02231101-2A few weeks ago I was able to pick up this 1934 Diamond Stars card of Frankie Frisch.   PSA graded this particular card a “2”, which is expected for an 83 year old card.  With 108 total cards in the set, the Diamond Stars set was produced from 1934 to 1936 by the National Chicle company. Each pack sold for a penny and features over 30 Hall of Famers.  Frisch is one of them and I’m certain this particular card was the subject of many “trades” between young baseball fans of the time.  I absolutely love the bright colors and art-deco themed backgrounds.  Many of the cards show the player “in action” on the field.  The Diamond Stars set was one of the first products to feature baseball cards packaged with gum (as opposed to cigarettes) and as many baseball fans did not own television sets in the 30’s, it was cards like these that gave them a handy visual as they listened to their favorite teams on their radios.  Given the fact that the set does not include the two biggest stars of the decade (Ruth and Gehrig), the set still remains pretty affordable given the other stars that are included.  I am not certain how many cards were featured in each pack and my 45-minute internet search turned up nothing.  If anyone knows the answer, I’d love to know.

Before entering baseball, the Bronx-born Frisch attended Fordham University where he played four sports and his speed earned him the nickname “The Fordham Flash.”  Leaving Fordham in 1919, Frisch signed with the New York Giants of the National League.  Playing for the Giants for the next six years, Frisch won a World Series with the team in both 1921 and 1922.  Leaving the Giants in 1926, Frisch joined the St. Louis Cardinals and became the driving force behind the “Gashouse Gang.”  He would go on to win two more World Series with the Cardinals.  The first in 1931 against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics  and then again in 1933 against the Detroit Tigers.  Frisch finished his playing career in 1937. His career statistics totaled a .316 batting average, still the highest ever for a switch hitter, with 2880 hits, 1532 runs, 105 home runs and 1244 RBI. He also stole 419 bases in his nineteen playing seasons. His hit total stood as the record for switch-hitters until Pete Rose surpassed it in 1977. Frisch also hit .300 for his career from each side of the plate; the only other switch-hitter with more than 5,000 at-bats with this distinction is Chipper Jones.  Other career highlights include:  3x All-Star (1933-’35), NL MVP (1931), 3x NL Stolen Base Leader (1921, ’27, ’31), National Baseball Hall of Fame (1947).

s-l500One of my favorite Frisch stats though, is that he is currently tied for 6th on the all-time managerial ejections list.  He is currently tied with Paul Richards with 81 total ejections.

Known for his fiery competitiveness as a player, his managerial career consisted of more than a handful of umpires landing square in the path of his verbal lashings.

No other umpire was Frisch’s target more than Hall of Fame ump Jocko Conlan.  It was a match made in baseball-heaven as Conlan was widely known as one of baseball’s feistiest umpires.

There are many documented stories of the jaw-jabbing Frisch and Conlan engaged in on the field but here is one of my favorites:

On August 19, 1941 during a rainy game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Frisch who was managing the pirates felt that the second game of the double header should be called on account of the weather.  The Dodgers had already taken the first game and as the Pirates were now trailing the Dodgers by a run in the third inning, Frisch shouted from the dugout, “All my players are going to get pneumonia because of you Jocko – you haven’t got the guts to call this game!”  

Conlan who was finding it harder and harder to ignore Frankie’s incessant heckling, turned to the dugout and yelled “Whatsa matter Frankie?  Haven’t you the guts enough to PLAY the game?”

After the drizzle continued into the next inning, Frisch grabbed a large umbrella to “further emphasize his point” and proceeded to carefully make the trek from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound as “not to slip on the wet grass.”  Watching Frisch approaching and wanting nothing less than to continue to argue with Frisch over the weather, Conlan stood there and let him march all the way out onto the field.  Frisch stopped right in front of Jocko, opened up his large umbrella and stood there staring at the three umpires.  As the fans and the press roared in laughter, Jocko took one look at that umbrella and gave Frankie the boot.  Norman-Rockwell.-Bottom-of-the-Sixth.-April-23-1949

Frisch simply turned back around and as he returned to the dugout muttered, “Can’t a guy have any fun anymore?”  

“Sure Frankie, have all the fun you want…just not at my expense!” Conlan yelled.  

The ejection would later serve as inspiration for Norman Rockwell’s baseball-themed piece
“Bottom of the Sixth.” 

Despite the frequent battles with Conlan, Frisch considered him a close friend. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Conlan from giving Frankie the old heave-ho more than any other manager of his day.

Ralph Branca

fullsizerender“Ralph Branca, beloved Dodger pitcher and the man who courageously stood up to racism with Jackie Robinson, dead at 90”.

At the age of 90 years old, Ralph Branca quietly passed away the day before Thanksgiving in his Rye Brook, New York nursing home yesterday.

I wish more headlines read like the one above.   Instead, the majority of them define him as the man who “gave up the ‘shot heard round the world’.

Born on January 6, 1926 in Mount Vernon, New York; Branca was the 15th of 17 children.  While attending New York University, Branca was their star pitcher in 1944 and would find himself making his major league debut that summer for  the Brooklyn Dodgers.

With the help of a blistering fastball and a curve ball that snapped like a flag in the wind, 1947 would be Branca’s breakout season as he went 21-12.  The next season he would compile a record of 14-9 and making it 3 winning seasons in a row, he would top out at 13 wins and only 5 losses in 1949.  Branca would make the National League All Star team all three years.

A post about Branca wouldn’t be complete without mention of the fastball he threw to Bobby Thompson on October 3, 1951 at 3:58 P.M..

01011104

Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants hits a game-winning home run off of Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca in a playoff game at the Polo Grounds – October 3, 1951, New York (AP)

In the final game with the New York Giants to determine the National League championship, Bobby Thompson lifted a Branca fastball into the left-field bleachers with two men on base in the bottom of the 9th inning.  The shot off of Branca secured the National League pennant for the inter-borough rivals.

The “Shot Heard Round the World” is often cited as the most memorable home run in baseball history and sits alongside such baseball memories as Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, Larsen’s perfect game in a World Series and Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds.  Americans alive at the time and who possessed any vague interest, could recall with exacting detail where they were when they heard the news.

The same can be said for Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.

Branca once said, “Nobody remembers that at 21, I won 21 games.  Nobody remembers that at 25, I had 75 wins.  All they remember is that homer.”

It would later be discovered that the New York Giants had been stealing signs from the Polo Grounds center-field bleachers during the entire 1951 season.

“He absolutely knew that fastball was coming”, Branca would go on to later say about his close friend Thompson.

Thompson denies he had the signs decoded. “Even if you know what’s coming, and I’m not saying I knew what was coming, you still have to hit the damned ball.” he would later say.

Branca enjoyed a 12 year career (1944-1956) and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1944-53, 1956), Detroit Tigers (1953-54), and New York Yankees (1954).  His career win-loss record was 88-68, ERA 3.79, and totaled 829 strikeouts.

branca-jackie-863e8314

Ralph and Jackie at the Brooklyn Dodgers office the day Jackie Robinson signed his contract.  February 12, 1948

Branca was also an early friend and champion of Jackie Robinson.  He was one of the few in the game to great Jackie as an equal from day one.

“Ralph was good to Jack,” Rachel Robinson once said, “when it wasn’t fashionable to be good to Jack.”  In 1944, as Robinson broke the color barrier, fellow members of the Dodgers signed a petition protesting Robinson joining the team, Branca courageously refused to sign.  In those early years on the road, Branca, unlike many of his teammates, regularly socialized with Jackie Robinson and proudly stood beside him when Robinson first took the field on opening day, April 15, 1947.

Branca grew up in a diverse Mount Vernon neighborhood and his immigrant parents taught him respect and acceptance from an early age. Growing up, Branca had black, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbors, friends, and teammates.  “Where I lived, on 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon, black families lived right next door to me. They came in my house, I went in theirs,” he says.

While many will choose to remember Branca as merely the losing half in possibly the most famous home run in baseball history, let us not also remember him as a man of unwavering integrity who stood tall in the face of racism.

The pitiful pickoff of Frenchy

The other day, while sorting through my collection; I came across two pieces that actually fit into a pretty funny story that I once read.  I’ve always loved the lighter side of the game and this story certainly fits that bill.

s-l1600On August 14, 1935 as the Brooklyn Dodgers were hosting the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds, colorful Dodger outfielder Frenchy Bordagaray landed himself on second base.  Brooklyn Manager Casey Stengel, who was coaching first base, called time-out and walked over to Frenchy.

“Now looka-here Frenchy,” said Stengel.  “I want you to stand on this here bag until you see the batter actually hit the ball in play.  I mean stand right on it.  Don’t take a lead, don’t even move away from it six inches. Do you understand what I’m saying to you Frenchy?”

“Why certainly,” Frenchy replied.

The explicit instruction was necessary as Frenchy had a penchant for getting picked off of second base.

Moments later, Cub pitcher Larry French spun around and tossed a pickoff throw to second base.  The shortstop, Billy Jurges snatched the throw and tagged Frenchy for the out.01221201 (2)

On his way back to the dugout, Frenchy was approached by a very irritated Stengel.
“Whatsa matter with you?  Weren’t you standing on the bag like I told ya?  How could you get picked off?” Stengel inquired.

With a shrug, Frenchy simply said, “I haven’t the slightest idea!  I did just as you told me.  I stood right there on the bag, not even moving six inches off of it!  I just stood there tapping my foot on the bag waiting for the hitter to bang one.”

“I see,” said Stengel.  “Then how did Billy manage to put you out?” he asked.

Throwing his hands up in frustration, Frenchy said, “Beats me Boss, he must have tagged me out in between taps!”