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THE APPEAL of baseball for me has always been as much about its past as its present. No sport embraces its history as much as baseball. The boys of summers past were heroes, and the older we get, the better they were.
Major leaguers play on beautifully manicured fields of green. They dazzle with their talent. They fill our summers — and our winters — with endless and unresolvable arguments about who was the best we ever saw.
Who you got, Mantle or Trout? How would Ty Cobb fare against Max Scherzer? That sort of thing.
Unfortunately, what the game does not provide so much anymore are the characters, the guys who intentionally or unintentionally stood out from the crowd with their humor, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies, their malaprops.
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Today’s players are businessmen first, ballplayers second, and the game is poorer for it. Long gone are the guys with the colorful nicknames: Catfish, Oil Can, Pumpsie, and the Goose.
Most fans know about Yogi Berra’s flair for a funny line. Speaking of a restaurant in New York, Yogi once said “nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
On another occasion he observed that “we made too many wrong mistakes.”
He said of a player who batted both right-handed and left-handed: “he’s amphibious.”
Trying to explain the afternoon shadows in Yankee Stadium, Yogi noted that “it gets late early out there.”
I think old Yogi knew exactly what he was saying and did it for laughs. I’m old enough to miss him.
Yogi may have given the game its most memorable lines, but he was hardly alone.
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Relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry might have been a close second.
Here are a few Quisenberries:
“I’ve seen the future, and it’s much like the present, only longer.”
“Our fielders have to catch a lot of balls, or at least deflect them to someone who can.”
Of an articulate teammate, Mr. Quisenberry noted that “he didn’t sound like a baseball player. He said things like ‘nevertheless’ and ‘if, in fact.’”
Casey Stengel also deserves a spot on the leaderboard here.
During his years managing often difficult Yankee players, he warned his barber, “Don’t cut my throat. I may want to do that myself.”
Of one of his young players, Casey observed that “he’s only 20, with a good chance in 10 years of being 30.”
Lefty Gomez was asked once if he threw a spitter, an illegal pitch. “Not intentionally,” he replied, “but I sweat easy.”
Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee had one of baseball’s most fitting nicknames — the “Spaceman” — back in the 1970s. It was richly deserved. Defending his diet at the time, which featured bananas, he made a good point: “Did you ever see a monkey with a cramp?”
Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax reflected on playing games outdoors in Houston before the Astrodome was built: “Some of the bugs there are twin-engine jobs.”
Another Hall of Famer, pitcher Garry Maddox, was asked to describe a grand slam home run he had surrendered. “As I remember it, the bases were loaded,” he said.
Pitcher Bill Terry bragged facetiously about himself: “I had great control. I never missed the other fellow’s bat.”
Slugger Reggie Jackson explained that whenever he was in a hitting slump, he would be inundated with well-meaning suggestions for snapping out of it. “You want to try them all, but you can’t. You’re like a mosquito in a nudist camp. You don’t know where to start.”
The legendary Babe Ruth, questioning the umpire’s judgment after the ump called a blazing fastball a strike: “That last one sounded kinda high to me.”
Umpire Ron Luciano said throwing players out of the game was like riding a bicycle. “Once you get the hang of it, it can be a lot of fun.”
It was also Mr. Luciano who observed that whenever an umpire reminisces about his career, he inevitably begins every story with the same line: “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
Speaking of pitcher Phil Niekro’s unhittable knuckleball, outfielder Rick Monday observed that “it actually giggles at you as it goes by.”
Kansas City shortstop Fred Patek was asked how it felt to be the shortest player in the major leagues at 5 feet, 5 inches. “A heck of a lot better than being the shortest player in the minors,” he replied.
The Tigers’ great Hank Greenberg insisted that “the only way to get along with newspapermen is to say something one minute and something different the next.”
A San Diego second baseman named Tim Flannery acknowledged he was superstitious during a 14-game hitting streak. “Every night after I got a hit, I ate Chinese food and drank tequila. I had to stop hitting or die.”
All of these players are of an earlier era in baseball, and all these quotes have been culled from a variety of sources. They still make me laugh.
Perhaps my favorite is a quote from team executive Clark Griffith, bemoaning the haplessness of his pitchers. “The fans,” he said, “like to see home runs. So we have assembled a pitching staff for their enjoyment.”
They say that major league baseball attendance is down again this year. Maybe we need more characters like Yogi and Bill Lee.
But as Yogi himself once explained, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”
Thomas Walton is the retired Editor and Vice President of The Blade. His column appears every other Sunday. His radio commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard on WGTE public radio every Monday at 5:44 p.m. during “All Things Considered.” Contact him at [email protected]