Of Chipmunks and Knights: A Baseball Writer On Baseball Writing

Ty Cobb once sent a writer a telegram signing his own praises.
(via Library of Congress)

Ted Williams called them–called us, I suppose–the knights of the keyboard, with a derisive tone duly attached. Thus dishonored, the knights called themselves chipmunks, provided they were skilled in the ways of quip and keyboard. Blackie Sherrod, the Dallas wordsmith, reckoned sportswriters “got an early start by having their mamas drop them on their little heads as infants,” and that a career in sportswriting is “habit-forming, true, but cheaper than dope.” Grantland Rice, whose prose helped elevate sportswriters from the rank of ink-stained wretches to that of semi-respected craftsfolk, thought himself a member of “The Greatest Profession” and that “a little thing like money or the lack of it never gave us much concern.”

As a writer in search of words to write, I recently read this stuff– learned this stuff–following a brief run of good old serendipity. Stranded without a topic, I stumbled across three old books whose content became a savior, rescuing me from that dreadful place of wordlessness and pushing me toward a better place where an idea can at last attach to letters. I discovered one book in an antiques store (don’t judge me) and the other two in an old cardboard box I had retrieved from storage and unpacked as if it were a Christmas stocking, and together, if just for a time, the books restored my standing as a writer by turning me into a reader again. The letters are out there, the old books told me…in not so many words. We must go and find them.

What I find here and now is what others have found in other places and times. Seasons change and names are replaced, but themes are ageless and stubborn. They have a way of reminding us they have been this way before, not least in the realm of major league baseball. Example: As Rice articulated in his memoir, The Tumult and the Shouting, a book I discovered alongside Sherrod’s Scattershooting in that cardboard box, newcomers have always unseated the veterans, and the latest style has long supplanted “the way it’s done.” And the old-timers, may their memories be ever served, have always resented it. Rice wrote of a time he shared with Ty Cobb.

Well, the old game is gone,” (Cobb) said one day in 1924 as we watched Babe Ruth rocket batting-practice pitches into the new Yankee Stadium bleachers. “We have another game, a newer game now. In this game, power has replaced speed and skill. Base running is about dead…(N)ow they wait for somebody to drive ’em home.”

Cobb pointed to Ruth, who was being watched by the players from both clubs.

“Babe Ruth has changed baseball,” he continued. “I guess more people would rather see Babe hit one over the fence than see me steal second. I feel bad about about it for it isn’t the game I like to see or play. The old game was one of skill–skill and speed. And quick thinking. This game is all power…”

I imagined Cobb–in black-and-white, somehow–standing slack as he watched a great young phenom hack away at the game he’d loved and dominated. I saw him, and still see him, powerless against that strength.

Added Cobb, by way of Rice:

(T)hey’ll start juicing (the baseball) like a tennis ball because Ruth has made the home run fashionable.”

Fashionable homers? Juiced balls? New Yankee Stadium?

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the baseball sun.

Indeed, as Sherrod wrote in Scattershooting, a collection of his newspaper columns from the 1960s and 1970s, players play as much for themselves as for the teams that pay them. In his column “Steel Head,” he wrote that A’s pitcher Vida Blue sat out the early part of the 1972 season because–get this–he wanted more moola. And in “Close Out,” he wrote that Rod Carew sat out the 1972 season finale to preserve his shot at the American League batting crown.

Added Sherrod:

Maybe this doesn’t sound like the All-American way of playing the game, baby, but it’s done. The game, in those final lame duck days, becomes a drive for individual laurels, which are handy when contract negotiations start.”

Ecclesiastes, anyone?

The 2011 version of Jose Reyes, hoisting his batting crown, says hi.

Sherrod was just getting warmed up, even if he could not have known his words would reach a latter-day audience. In the 1962 column “His Education Was Lacking,” he wrote of Angels rookie Bo Belinsky, who, after throwing a no-hitter in the sixth start of his big league career, had become the buttered toast of Hollywood, “seen at the Best Places, in company with this young Starlet or that young Starlet.”

Sherrod made a not unimportant observation:

The young gent has not won himself a ballgame since May 20, when all this idolatry started. He has not even finished a game since that time.”

Added the writer:

There is nothing wrong with being an individualist, you understand, as long as you are winning.”

The 2017 version of Brian Wilson, hoisting an old Taco Bell pay stub, says hi.

In a 1965 column about Giants pitcher Juan Marichal’s infamous bat attack on Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, Sherrod wrote that Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto blamed the incident on–quote–“the Tension of Our Times.”

Left unwritten, of course, is that other tense times have included each decade since the dawn of humankind. Sherrod went on to assert that the “Tension of Our Times, Etc.,” is no excuse for brandishing a Louisville Slugger with both hands and thereupon attempting to knock the opposing catcher’s “everloving block off.”

He added:

Tension of Our Times is blamed for everything, from wiping one’s nose on the tablecloth to daylight robbery.”

What Sherrod omitted, no doubt, is that stealing a base when your team is up by eight, and flipping your bat when your team is down by nine, might also be attributed to the Tension of Our Times, but yeah, you get the idea.

Seasons change. The stories remain the same…more or less.

Even the stodgy old Wall Street Journal, in its 1970 book Ted Williams, Sam The Genius And Others Sports Stories, hinted at what today’s audience might interpret as baseball’s been-there-done-that. In the collection of articles from WSJ’s sports section, one writer, Todd E. Fandell, wrote of the “hard work, travel, loneliness, obscurity and abuse” suffered by major league umpires.

And this, I submit, came before the advent of Internet memes.

In a piece titled “The Long Season,” Fandell explained that veteran AL umpire Hank Soar “was regularly booed in every city he visited,” adding, “No one ever points and says, ‘There goes Hank Soar.’”

Granted, several modern-day fans might point and say, “There goes Joe West,” adding, “Let’s follow him to his hotel room and then, after he orders room service, spit on his eggs,” but again, you get the idea. Umps still ain’t household names, and none will ever hear the squeals a boy band hears.

In the article “The Sunshine Boys,” Frederick C. Klein wrote about baseball broadcasters and remarked that each such talker requires “a keen eye for detail and a glib tongue,” plus “a long memory for anecdotes and stats.”

All true, of course–remember Tim McCarver ’s long memory? Sheesh, that thing never failed in its recovery of a Tim McCarver story, like the time Tim McCarver caught Bob Gibson or the other time Tim McCarver caught Bob Gibson or…

Klein added that baseball broadcasting, especially on television, “isn’t a complete bed of roses.” He wrote, for example, that some broadcasters “admit to being discomfited by the entrance into their field of a growing number of big-name former athletes, some of whom are good announcers and some not.”

Somebody’s ears are burning. And that somebody is Ken Harrelson.

Not to mention Tim McCarver. And Joe Simpson, professional dullard.

Also occupying the category of we’ve-seen-it-all-before is this item from Klein’s piece:

Sportscasters have incurred the enmity of sportswriters with whom they compete (it’s a rare week that some sports columnist doesn’t take off on how TV is spoiling some athletic event.)”

It is true now, as it was then, that it’s mostly a unilateral affair. In all likelihood, Harrelson has never used his on-air time to bash the baseball prose of yours truly, and for that I thank him. That said, I wouldn’t know. I’ve had to hit the “mute” button each time I’ve heard the guy. He has spoiled a lot of athletic events.

Personally, I don’t deny that Harrelson or any number of broadcasters could have rightfully bashed yours truly or any number of writers for generating words that don’t warrant the space and time they take up. As intimated in paragraph two, writing can be hard, and the results of that difficulty are often displayed in stories that aren’t worth reading. Here’s an activity for you, one that might demonstrate the hardships of producing prose: Stare at a blank page and then hit yourself in the head with a hammer. That, most of the time, is what writing is like, plus the low pay.

At some point in the mid-to-late-20th century, sportswriters recognized the difficulty of producing good prose–good sports prose, in particular–by creating a strange nickname for those who somehow managed to pull it off: chipmunks.

In his piece “…And the Chipmunks,” the writer Klein explained:

A much larger number of writers are asking more than routine questions. They are not afraid to offend their subjects. They are quicker with the acerbic comment…The increasing number of sportswriters who supply this information often are known as chipmunks–perhaps because they burrow into athletes’ psyches.”

Klein went on:

Fans now can often see the game better from their living room than the sportswriter can from the pressbox. The fans know that Klutz hit a fast ball (sic) into the left-field bleachers; they want to know that his reading of How to Avoid Probate eliminated his estate-planning worries and made him relax at the plate.”

Klein, with a quote from New York sportswriter Maury Allen, explained that chipmunks were “dedicated to the proposition that sports is fun and entertainment, not life and death,” and listed among their favorite subjects men like Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton and “double-talking” manager Casey Stengel.

Great copy and good fun had become prime objectives. Klein wrote of one incident involving the Baseball Writers Association of America and its recent ban of one writer–“presumably a chipmunk”–from voting in its annual MVP and Rookie of the Year elections. The reason?

In 1960, the writer, whose identity has never been disclosed, voted for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ groundskeeper as the most valuable player in the National League. His reasoning: A Pirate ground ball that struck a pebble started the rally that gave the Pirates the victory in the final game of the World Series that year.”

Viva insubordination!

The art of chipmunking, however, could have its disadvantages–its painful drawbacks. In the penultimate paragraph of his article, Klein explained:

(A)thletes and coaches are a notoriously sensitive lot who resent being criticized or second guessed. Also, athletes are usually bigger and tougher than the writers, which can be bad for the writer…When Cincinnati Post & Times sportswriter Earl Lawson suggested a couple of seasons ago that Vada Pinson should try to bunt more often, the Reds’ outfielder–6 feet and 190 pounds–hauled off and slugged the 5-8, 170-pound reporter.”

Ouch. That kind of beatdown could make a guy think twice, even thrice, about a career in sportswriting. Then again, that kind of story could inspire any number of people to take up the cause of the chipmunks, the cause of courageous prose, even if those people were never “dropped on their little heads as infants” and even if “a little thing like money or the lack of it” might actually give them “much concern.”

Sports, and baseball in particular, really do invite repetition–the same ol’ same ol’, time and again–but they also invite the chance to create something that no human has ever attached to letters. At its best, baseball writing finds itself when the words are uniquely arranged, when they give to a reader what the reader has never read.

Sometimes, while singing “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Cubs” or some other song reconstructed to celebrate the hometown squad, an overexcited Bleacher Bum would tumble the 12 feet to the Wrigley Field warning track and land with a dusty thud, whereupon a Cubs outfielder would sprint to the fallen figure and hoist him back to the bleachers just before security could arrive.

That, reader, is a cool story–a true story–but one I hadn’t known prior to reading Todd E. Fandell’s “The Bums in the Bleachers” in the Wall Street Journal collection.

What the anecdote emphasizes, aside from the hilarious intemperance of 1960s Cubs fans, is that good baseball writing achieves one aim: the making of a good read. Slippery at times, it is achievable through a variety of means: a skillful smithing of words, a keen display of insight, an adroit demonstration of journalistic chops.

Get that story! Get those quotes!

Alone or in combination, each aptitude can put the writer in good stead with the reader and make the words between them a bond and not a barrier.

At bottom, good baseball writing makes a reader happy to have learned something about baseball, or the men who play it, or the people around it.

In reading the three books, I happily learned the following:

  • 1960s Bleacher Bums paid a dollar–a dollar!–to sit in said bleachers. Among their songs: “We’ve Got the Word Series in Our Hands.”
  • Frankie Frisch, as a broadcaster, once informed listeners that it was a “beautiful day for a night game.” And Dizzy Dean, also as a broadcaster, inspired a group of indignant St. Louis school teachers to petition (unsuccessfully, as it happened) to have him removed from the airwaves for ruining their students’ syntax with words like “slud” and “swang.”
  • In mid-September of 1972, doctors discovered that Reds catcher Johnny Bench had a lump in his chest. That afternoon, Bench hit his 34th homer of the year and later executed a two-out bunt hit to bring home another run in a 2-0 Reds victory. In the 12 regular season games following the exam, Bench hit eight home runs and drove in 13 runs to propel the Reds into the NL playoffs. Only after the Reds had won the World Series did Bench undergo surgery to remove the lump and have it biopsied. It was benign.
  • At spring training in Vero Beach, Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey motored to the field in his jeep one day and saw that farm director Fresco Thompson had cancelled the game and sent the players home due to a heavy rain.

“No game?” Rickey thundered. “Nonsense!”

Sherrod continued: “He strode purposefully to the pitcher’s mound, stopped, placed hands on hips and looked up at the sky. At that exact instant, the rain stopped. Believe or not. The rain immediately shut down…Mr. Rickey turned and glared at his witnesses…The game was finally played.”

  • Vida Blue, in a stunt arranged by his lawyer, became the $50,000-a-year vice president of Dura-Steel Products while holding out for more than his $14,000 annual paycheck from A’s owner Charlie Finley. Blue and his counsel even staged a televised press conference, during which Blue giggled.

Wrote Sherrod: “Robert Gerst, Blue’s lawyer…vowed that Blue giggled because he was nervous, not because he found the whole plot just a bit ridiculous. Gerst, however, cannot speak for the rest of us.”

  • Speaking of Charlie Finley, Oakland’s eccentric owner once illuminated the dugouts at the Athletics ballpark so that fans could see the players on the bench. Annoyed, the Yankees retaliated by turning off the lights. In response, Finley built a strong box around the light switch and summarily locked it. Thereafter, the Pinstripes were fully illuminated in their vexation.

Men like Finley and Rickey made for “good copy,” as journalists like to say. They were “great material”–unorthodox, innovative, and fascinating. So fascinating were they, in fact, that Sherrod in his collection wrote twice about Rickey. Sherrod and the WSJ each published pieces on Charlie O.

In “Charlie O and Charlie O,” WSJ’s John F. Lawrence asserted that Finley, after years of being both a maverick and a nuisance, “has become conciliatory toward the rest of the league, which means he won’t push to get those orange balls legalized. ‘I don’t want to press my luck,’ he says. ‘They might take away my albino kangaroo shoes.’”

Ah, yes, the orange balls and white shoes. Oh, Charlie O.!

Sherrod’s piece on Charlie O. came in 1961, nearly a decade prior to the WSJ piece and about year after Finley had purchased the Kansas City A’s.

It also came before Finley had any notion of becoming–quote– “conciliatory.”

Wrote Sherrod in “The Silence is Brass”:

Finley’s explanation is simple enough. ‘After all, it is my money that is invested and I feel I have a right to the say on deals. I will continue to be emphatic on some points,’ sez he.”

Finley continued to be emphatic on some points, sez I.

Of course, if Finley and Rickey were doubly fascinating, Ted Williams must have been triply so; all three books featured words on Teddy Ballgame. In his memoir, Rice began “My First Big Story, Ty Cobb” by writing, a bit ironically, “Those two writers, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, recently have been waging a public vendetta.”

He went on to describe their tiff, one that by now is an eye-roll.

You may recall that Cobb said that the old timers were much better ball players. Ted countered by saying the moderns outranked the former stars and that he could name many men better than the players of Cobb’s day.”

I wrote “a bit ironically” because, while Cobb courted the attention of at least one writer, Williams, even after he had become one, hated writers.

As a writer myself, I do humbly submit: He shouldn’t have.

Heck, writers helped make Teddy Ballgame a national hero. Why fight them? Why fight us? True, Williams did the heavy lifting, what with the lifetime 1.116 OPS and the military decorations for his service in two wars, but criminy, Ted, give a fella a break. After all, in the aforementioned piece “Close Out,” even Sherrod–a cynical wit ill-disposed to easy praise–used the Carew story as a springboard to explore Williams’ 1941 quest for a .400 batting average, when, instead of sitting out the final day of the season, he played a doubleheader and went 6-for-8 to finish at .406.

Wrote Sherrod:

It is not uncommon for a fellow to win a batting championship while resting comfortably on his hip pockets…Williams will be remembered for many things, but none more than that particular day when he finished on his feet, rather than on another, more comfortable, safer portion of his body.”

The WSJ also granted him praise. In his piece “The Splendid Skipper,” published when Williams’ second season as the Senators’ manager was set to begin, Fandell wrote that Williams had at last become “patient and calm.” After years of “feuding with the press” and “spitting toward the fans,” Williams had become “friendly” to writers and spectators.

Wrote Fandell:

He apparently enjoys trading jibes with the writers (‘I don’t think I’ll make all the mistakes I made in the ’69 season, and I expect improvement from everyone, even the writers’)…And he adds, ‘I know how to handle the knights of the keyboard better than anyone else in this business.’”

That particular knight, Fandell, did his job. He wrote a factually accurate piece on Williams and the Senators’ prospects for the 1970 season, quoting owner Bob Short saying, “We have a good shot at winning the pennant.”

Of course, time exposes the folly of our predictions. The Senators in 1970 would go 70-92 and finish last in the six-team AL East.

Time also exposes the folly of our certainties. Even a knight like Rice, lauded and decorated, could render himself foolish in the light of latter-day facts.

In his piece on Cobb, he wrote that “it is a sure sure thing the Cobb’s mark of 4,191 base hits will never be approached.”

Pete Rose, hoisting his 4,256 hits, says hi.

Rice, however, can be forgiven his folly. He was writing in memoir mode, a more personal style of journalism and one that affords a bit more flourish and whimsy. The more important point for us moderns is this: Grantland Rice was there, in the flesh, with pen and paper. He wrote first-hand of his time with the greats.

How else, but for his effort, could we read this tale?

I recall a game in Cleveland when (Rube) Waddellwas pitching. He came to the park with a well-painted lady of the town on each arm and planted them in a box back of home plate near the press box. Waddell had the game in hand, 1 to 0 in the ninth, when Cleveland filled the bases with none out. (Nap) Lajoie, (Elmer) Flick and (Bill) Bradley, three great hitters, were coming up. Waddell walked in from the pitcher’s box to the box containing his lady friends…Lifting his cap and making a deep bow, the Rube said, “Ladies, I’ll be with you in just a minute.” In a minute, or nearly so, he struck out Lajoie, Flick and Bradley on nine pitched balls.”

Not only did Rice spend time with great players, he spent time with great writers — men like Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Frank L. Stanton. Rice recalled a time when Stanton, in need of one more drink, wrote a piece of poetry in exchange for hooch. It must have been some poem; the bartender sent it to a literary magazine and got $25.

Still, it is the time Rice spent with men like Ruth and Cobb that meant the most to readers in the early 20th century–and to readers in the early 21st.

Of Ruth he wrote:

The first time I saw Babe Ruth was in April 1919. Ruth was taking his run in batting practice at Tampa, Florida, the spring-training camp of the champion Boston Red Sox…Babe blasted one pitch clear out of the park into a ploughed field. I gauged that trip as about 500 feet–not bad, even without a publicity man around to check the distance with a tape measure.

After bombing about ten shots, Ruth circled the bases, mincing along with short, pigeon-toed steps–a base-circling trot destined to become as celebrated as Man O’War’s gallop. When Ruth came over to mop his face in a towel, (manager Ed) Barrow introduced us.

‘You sound like you got a cold,’ said Ruth….

Taking an enormous red onion out of his hip pocket, Ruth thrust it into my hand. ‘Here, gnaw on this,’ he said. ‘Red onions are cold-killers.’”

This, in the business, is called pure gold.

Of Cobb he wrote: “The shrewdest athlete, and perhaps the shrewdest man, I ever knew. Ty played a trick on me that stood up for more than 40 years.”

Rice wrote of the time, in 1904, when, as a 24-year-old sportswriter in Atlanta, he received a telegram from Royston, Ga. It read: “Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the dashing young star from Royston, has just started spring training with Anniston. He is a terrific hitter and faster than a deer. At the age of 18 he is undoubtedly a phenom.”

Fans know the story by now: The writer was Cobb himself.

Cobb admitted as much to Rice one day in the late ’40s.

‘I was in a hurry,’ he explained. ‘We were both youngsters on the way up. I didn’t know it then but I was trying to put you into your first big scoop!’”

Rice got the scoop, all right, both sooner and later–a story twice unfolded.

But that–getting the story, one way or another–is what baseball writers do.

Take this scoop, which WSJ writer Michael Gartner rustled from a bar patron while the World Series played on the tavern TV. Said the patron, who, it must be stated, despised baseball: “You can’t even hear yourself drink.”

That’s a quote. This is journalism. You can’t make this stuff up.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
Baseball writing has fundamentally changed in the past 35 years. While we can point to anecdotal evidence and repeat the French saying “plus ca la change, plus ca la meme chose,” things really are different. Prior to the proliferation of sports blogs and web sites with seemingly unlimited content, there were writers who one read because of who they were as well as what they had to say. I can remember to this day writers such as Dan Jenkins, Tex Maule, Bob Ryan, Dick Young, Furman Bisher, Edwin Pope, Leonard Koppett, and Red Smth. I could list many others. The… Read more »
87 Cards
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87 Cards
1. Some of the best quips have came out out of the catbird’s seats. Dan Jenkins is a Texas writer and former barmate of the presently-deceased Blackie Sherrod. Though his topics are the tedious activities of golf and football, he writes well enough to craftily push through my disinterest of those subjects and get my eyes on his prose. One of my personal axioms for conflict-resolution draws from his book “Semi-Tough”: “Laughter is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.” 2. “In mid-September of 1972, doctors discovered that Reds catcher Johnny… Read more »
Vil Blekaitis
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Member
Vil Blekaitis

What a coincidence! I just finished reading a chapter about Ty Cobb from Jeff Silverman’s “The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told.”
And while the book contains no stories by Grantland Rice, it has many fascinating baseball stories told by many great writers (e.g., Updike and Gay Talese).
As you correctly said: “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Now that I’ve nearly finished with that book (I’m a slow reader), I’ll move on to the books you have listed. Thanks!

Eric Robinson
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Member

Hey John, Do you still live in Fort Worth? I have written a couple articles for THT and have just moved back to FtW myself.