Tagged: Colorful Characters

Farewell to The Bird




st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;

It has been a dire day for baseball. On Monday afternoon, we
learned of the passing of beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas. A few hours later
came news of the death of an equally cherished figure, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych,
who became the game’s pied piper in 1976.


I first experienced the wonder of Mark Fidrych on a Monday
night in late June that summer. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of
Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much
about Fidrych. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous
highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking rookie was
doing during his tour of American League cities.


Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in
1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained
themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of
pitching in a businesslike manner.


On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees
matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger
Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych showed the country his way of doing
things. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands,
fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great
defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his
teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off
the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually
engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout.
There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to
the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the


And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt
that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it
move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of
karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to
throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in
it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”


All of these on-field mannerisms overshadowed Fidrych’s pitching that night. Throwing a sinking fastball clocked at 93 miles per hour, Fidych scattered seven hits in putting the clamps to the Yankees, 5-1, before an appreciative Tiger Stadium crowd.

As with most colorful characters, Fidrych came equipped with
a nickname. Fidrych’s on-field antics, assisted by his physical appearance,
earned him the nickname “The Bird.” Thin and gangly with a head full of curly
hair, Fidrych looked a little like the Sesame Street character, “Big Bird.”
Fidrych’s unusual look fully accentuated his on-the-field histrionics, giving
him a loveable goofiness that fans adored.


Fidrych became so popular during the 1976 season that one of
opponents held a special promotion marketed around the Tigers’ right-hander.
The California Angels hosted “Mark Fidrych Day” at Anaheim Stadium, giving
thousands of fans a chance to obtain the gawky right-hander’s autograph at no
extra charge.


In addition to adoring his on-field antics, fans appreciated
Fidrych for his down-home qualities. At a time when major league players began
to draw criticism for escalating salaries, Fidrych showed little interest in
material reward. He drove a green subcompact car to the ballpark, usually wore
old blue jeans, and told fans that if he didn’t have the ability to pitch, he’d
spend his time pumping gas at a filling station in Northborough, Massachusetts.


Unfortunately, Fidrych would be forced to return to a more
routine lifestyle sooner than he would have expected. During spring training in
1977, Fidrych hurt his arm while shagging fly balls in the outfield. The
injury, which turned out to be a rotator cuff tear, sidelined him for most of
the next three seasons, never allowing him to return to his previous form. By the
end of the 1980 season, he was out of a major league job. To the surprise of no
one who knew him, Fidrych became a commercial trucker after his playing days
and settled down to live on a 107-acre farm in Northborough.


It was on that farm that Fidrych was doing some work on
Monday. A family friend came by his house, discovering his body under a dump
truck, which Fidrych was trying to repair. The truck had apparently collapsed
on Fidrych, claiming his life at the age of 54.


Mark Fidrych should have lived longer, just like he should
have pitched longer. That’s the sad part of the story. But he managed to create
more memories than any player who lasted a mere five seasons in the majors. And
he lived more vibrantly than most of us could do given twice the time he had.


That’s a lesson we should all remember whenever we think of
The Bird.



Card Corner–“The Big O”


During his three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Oscar Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Municipal Stadium and other American League ballparks. According to  former Hall of Fame senior researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tuff of hair. Clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today.) By the end of each game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his Afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet.


Gamble’s oversized hair posed another problem. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (For those who remember Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Gamble’s Afro was nearly as massive and majestic as the one grown by the former ABA standout.)  The “problem” reached such extremes in 1975 that Gamble held a contest in which he asked Indians fans for recommendations on how to wear his hats. “We’re open to all suggestions, except a haircut,” Gamble informed Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.


As much notoriety as Gamble accrued for his “head piece,” he acquired a colorful reputation for additional reasons during his journeyman career in the major leagues. Recognized as the flashiest dresser on the Indians, Gamble once wore a pair of red, white, and blue plaid slacks, accentuated by red elevator shoes. Gamble was also one of the few major leaguers who could claim ownership of a disco. He opened up the establishment in 1976, turning over the day-to-day operations of the disco to his brothers.


While with Cleveland, Gamble also developed a reputation for a questionable attitude. He chafed about a lack of playing time, sometimes complaining about being repeatedly benched against left-handed pitching. At least one critic considered Gamble disingenuous. “He talks about wanting to play,” an anonymous Indians player told the New York Daily News, “but when he gets the chance, he acts like he doesn’t want to play.”


For his part, Gamble regarded the criticism as off base and partly motivated by his appearance and his race. “Yeah, people always ask me about my hair. I liked it, but I guess it did cause me to get a bad reputation,” Gamble told The Sporting News in 1979. “People took one look at that hair and thought I was a bad guy. There were some sportswriters who wouldn’t even talk to me. They thought I was some kind of militant with my beard and my hair.”


In actuality, Gamble was anything but militant. He was fun loving, outgoing, and accessible. Yet, the Indians still traded him, sending him to the Yankees for Pat Dobson during the spring of 1976. The Yankees loved his left-handed swing and his ability to crush right-handed pitching, but they didn’t care for his Afro. Unlike the Indians, the Yankees didn’t permit large Afros, long hair, beards, or anything less than conservative grooming. Shortly after the trade, George Steinbrenner instructed public relations director Marty Appel to order an immediate haircut for Gamble. Appel made all of the arrangements for a “private” cutting, thus avoiding the spectacle of a public barbershop setting. Just imagine the amount of hair that ended up on the cutting room floor. The haircut cost over $30 to trim eight inches off his Afro, a barbershop fee that was nearly unheard of at 1970s prices.


With his hair safely off his head, Gamble soon found an ally in the form of the New York media machine. He became one of the most quotable Yankees, often hamming up his responses in a larger-than-life manner. On the field, Gamble provided the Yankees with an expected level of power; he hit 17 home runs in 340 at-bats, while using his patented deep-crouch batting stance in which he actually seemed to face the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. On the flip side, his batting average and on-base percentage fell short of Yankee desires. The free agent signing of Reggie Jackson made Gamble available–and then expendable, when the need for a shortstop influenced the Gamble-for-Bucky Dent exchange during the spring of 1977.


After a whirlwind tour of both leagues that included stops with the White Sox, Padres, and Rangers, Oscar rejoined the Yankees for a second stint in 1979. He immediately reminded writers of his way with words. “I’m a man of character, a man of stature, a man of ability,” a half-serious Gamble informed the New York Times. Gamble also liked to give himself nicknames. He called himself “The Big O,” a humorous double entendre that played on his first name, Oscar. During his tenure with the Yankees, Gamble began referring to himself as the “Ratio Man” because of his tendency to hit lots of home runs in small numbers of at-bats. Some of his Yankee teammates joined in the refrain.


No longer questioned about his attitude, Gamble became especially well liked by fans and teammates during his second stint in the Bronx. He maintained that popularity until the spring of 1982, when he vetoed a trade that would have sent him, first baseman Bob “The Bull” Watson, and pitcher Mike Morgan to the Rangers for Al Oliver (another favorite of this columnist). Teammates understood, but Gamble’s veto infuriated Steinbrenner, who wanted Oliver badly. “The Boss” carried a grudge to the extent that some writers felt he ordered manager Billy Martin to limit Gamble’s playing time as a form of punishment. In spite of some rough treatment from his owner, Gamble retained his ever-present smile and remained a popular part of major league clubhouses until his retirement in 1985.


Gamble has not worked in Organized Baseball since retiring, but has spent some time as an agent and is now involved in the game at the youth level.


And, oh by the way, he’s completely bald these days.


Card Corner–Jay Johnstone


Influences play a major role in baseball. It’s no secret that veteran teammates often provide counsel to young players about the subtleties of the game. Perhaps lesser known is the influence that some older teammates have had in shaping unusual characters of the next generation. Few players know that better than Jay Johnstone (seen here sporting a “Broccabrella” in his 1984 Fleer card), who carried the lessons from others through decades in the major leagues. 


As a high school athlete, Johnstone found himself facing impending trouble from the NCAA. He had signed letters of intent to play football for nine different colleges. That was more than slightly against NCAA rules. Thankfully, the California Angels bailed Johnstone out by signing him to a baseball contract on the day of his high school graduation.


When Johnstone joined the Angels as a rookie in 1966, manager Bill Rigney gave him an intriguing place in the clubhouse. Rigney stationed Johnstone at the locker that stood in between those of veteran flakes Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance. Rigney then gave Johnstone his roommate assignment: the incomparable and sometimes indescribable Jimmy Piersall.


Johnstone had been a quiet, unassuming high school student. That all changed with the Angels. With Piersall becoming his guru, and Belinsky and Chance providing their own unique influence, Johnstone quickly developed into a combination of prankster, quipster, and clown. Within a short span of time, he became known as “Moon Man” to his Angels teammates.


Johnstone fit in well in the California clubhouse, but his lack of concentration and frequent defensive mishaps in the outfield frustrated Angels management. The Angels traded Johnstone to the White Sox, where he continued to show flashes of brilliance but also provided too many fits of frustration. A .188 batting average in 1972 didn’t help either. The White Sox released Johnstone, leaving him temporarily unemployed.


Fortunately, Johnstone had received an earlier promise from another major league owner, indicating that if he were ever to be released, he would have a standing offer of a job. That is how Johnstone came to be matched with an owner fitting of his comedic personality, Oakland A’s patriarch Charlie Finley. Living up to his promise, Finley signed Johnstone to a minor league contract.


In the midst of the 1973 season, the A’s recalled Johnstone from their Triple-A affiliate at Tucson, where he was attempting to begin his climb back toward the major leagues. The free-spirited Johnstone seemed like a perfect fit for the wild, swingin’ A’s, but he struggled to hit for the  team that wore green and gold, and eventually became a victim of Oakland’s crowded outfield. Released by the A’s, Johnstone again found employment in the minor leagues, this time with the Phillies’ organization. It was there that he experienced an amusing run-in with Jim Bunning, the former Phillies’ standout who was now managing their Triple-A Toledo affiliate in his decidedly old school fashion. During the 1974 season, Bunning ripped two of his slumping hitters, Dane Iorg and Jerry Martin, by comparing their diminishing batting averages to the sinking of the Titanic. The comparison appalled Johnstone, who couldn’t believe that his manager would publicly belittle his own players in such a way. The next day, Johnstone showed up at the ballpark wearing a full-body wet suit with the words “USS Titanic” scribbled across the front of his chest. As Johnstone made his way around the ballpark, he carried an oar with him, pretending to paddle it across the playing field. Not amused by the outfit or the “paddling,” the hardline Bunning fined Johnstone.


Johnstone would find a better fit with the parent Phillies. Once promoted to Philadelphia, Johnstone became paired with a more lenient manager, one who possessed a sense of humor. Regarded as a players’ manager, Danny Ozark seemed to understand  and appreciate his journeyman outfielder, who would do or say almost anything. “What makes him unusual is that he thinks he’s normal,” Ozark explained to a reporter, “and everyone else is nuts.”


Although Ozark and the Phillies came to appreciate Johnstone as a valuable part-time player and pinch-hitter, he also tested their patience at times. He sometimes missed signs, didn’t always run hard to first base on ground balls and pop-ups, and developed a strange habit of throwing the bat at the ball when badly foooled on the pitch.


As a member of the Phillies, Johnstone began to solidify his reputation as a full-fledged flake. He diligently shined his shoes before the first pitch of every game, knowing full well that they would become dirty once he stepped onto the infield dirt.  He wore unusual headgear before and after games, including a multicolored umbrella hat and an oddly shaped helmet that featured the words “Star Patrol.” He also shot off firecrackers with regularity from his locker. One time Johnstone waited until NBC “Game of the Week” broadcaster Joe Garagiola started to ask questions of Phillies first baseman Dick Allen, then set off a loud firecracker during the live interview that was airing on national television.


Another one of Johnstone’s most memorable stunts took place during the 1977 winter meetings in Los Angeles. After dining at a restautant called The Cove, Johnstone stood outside while waiting for the valet parking attendant to return his car. As he waited, Johnstone struck up a conversation with several other restaurant patrons, who asked him what he did to keep his batting stroke sharp during the winter. In the middle of his disertation on wintertime workouts, Johnstone’s car arrived. Not wanting to miss an opportunity at show-and-tell, Johnstone opened up the trunk and took out a batting tee, a tennis ball, and a bat. He placed the tennis ball on the tee and then took a whack, hitting a sound line drive down 7th Street in Los Angeles.


As a backup outfielder, Johnstone found intriguing ways to fill down time at the ballpark. While with the Dodgers, Johnstone once paid a visit to the concession stand–after the game had begun–and stood in line while wearing his full baseball uniform. When his turn came, Johnstone ordered a hot dog–and then returned to the dugout.


Johnstone’s sense of humor carried over to his dealings with the press. Always friendly and receptive, Johnstone became known for his dry sense of humor. “I want to play until I’m 40,” Johnstone told sportswriter Gary Stein during a 1983 interview. “I drink a lot. I smoke a lot. I do all the right things.” Nearly overcoming his own self-inflicted odds, Johnstone played for two more seasons, with his career coming to an end in 1985, a little more than a year short of his 40th birthday.


After his playing days, Johnstone parlayed his sense of humor and gregarious personality into a career as a broadcaster and author. He worked as a color commentator for the Yankees and the Phillies on their radio broadcasts and hosted his own television talk show. He made a cameo appearance in the memorable Leslie Nielsen vehicle, Naked Gun. Johnstone also wrote several books, including Temporary Insanity and Over The Edge, two appropriately named volumes that illustrated his unique sense of humor.


Card Corner–Joe Pepitone


They don’t make ballplayers like Joe Pepitone anymore. I’ll leave that up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is something good or bad for our great game.


By the time that Topps issued this card as part of its 1968 set, Pepitone had established himself as arguably the most colorful character in the history of the Yankee franchise. That was certainly a tall task of grand proportions, given the precedence of former oddball Yankees like Frank “Ping” Bodie, Lefty Gomez, and manager Casey Stengel.


Considered a can’t miss-prospect who was fully capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, Pepitone first reached the major leagues in 1962, joining a Yankees team that featured a conservative front office and a staid approach to playing the game. Pepitone’s flamboyance ran counter to the Yankee way. Incredibly vain, he arrived at spring training flashing a new Ford Thunderbird, bragging about his new boat, and wearing a new sharkskin suit. When the young star didn’t hustle during the regular season, he was greeted with angry catcalls from his veteran teammates, reminding him not to “mess with their money.” They were referring to their almost annual World Series shares, which they felt would become threatened if Pepitone’s lack of hustle continued.


Off the field, Pepitone’s love of the fast lane reflected the lifestyle preferences of established Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Yet, there was something different about Pepitone’s way, which was less discreet, less subtle, and far more palpable. In perhaps his most blatant indiscretion, Pepitone occasionally didn’t show up for games, leading to speculation that he was being pursued by bookies for unpaid gambling debts.


Whether it was cavorting in nightclubs or prancing around the clubhouse, Pepitone provided an unsightly sideshow for Yankee teammates and the New York media. Oh, he won three Gold Gloves and put up some good power numbers–once hitting 31 homers and four other times exceeding 25 long balls in a season–but he never batted better than .271 in New York, rarely drew walks, and committed too many mental errors on the base paths. By the end of the 1960s, his inability to fulfill his immense potential had become a symbol of a once proud Yankee franchise that had lost its focus and gone astray, reduced to also-ran status in the American League.


Perhaps Pepitone’s legacy as a Yankee is best defined by his contributions to the game’s changing cultural landscape in the late 1960s. He became a baseball pioneer of sorts when he became the first man to bring a blow dryer into a major league clubhouse. Pepi’s trendsetting maneuver struck some as ironic, given that he consistently wore hairpieces over his balding pate. In fact, Pepitone used two pieces; he sported a larger wig for social settings and a smaller one–his “gamer”–that snugly fit under his cap and helmet at the ballpark. Both pieces, by the way, looked ghastly. Pepitone also sported long, thick sideburns during the latter stages of his career. Unlike his various wigs, the sideburns were real–but no less hideous.

On December 4, 1969, Pepitone took his sideburns and wigs elsewhere. Convinced that stardom would never happen for him, the Yankees decided to give him up in a straight-up exchange for Curt “Clank” Blefary, another character in his own right. The trade landed Pepitone in Houston, where he would play for the Astros. Somehow, the image of Pepitone wearing a ten-gallon hat didn’t seem quite right.

If there was ever an athlete who didn’t figure to assimilate into a foreign culture, it was Pepitone. Unfortunately, he was the last one to come to that realization. After unsuccessful stints with the Cubs, Astros, and Braves, Pepitone took his act to the Japanese Leagues, where he cashed a far bigger paycheck–paying him $140,000–than he would have earned in the majors. Making like the proverbial lead balloon, Pepitone made no effort to conform to the expectations of athletes in the Far East. He wore his hair long, at shoulder length, rather than the shorter style expected of professional baseball players in Japan. He complained about the long hours of practice demanded from Japanese managers and coaches. He also grumbled about the high prices of food and clothing, further alienating himself from the Japanese public. After hours, he preferred to spend his spare time at the local discos, dancing and drinking for hours rather than mentally preparing for the next day’s game.


In a development that should have surprised no one, Pepitone lasted 14 games with the Yakult Atoms and batted only .163. He did manage to leave a legacy, though, in two different ways. Pepitone left behind a massive phone bill, which he never paid. He also influenced the creation of a new word in Japanese–a “pepitone.” Translated roughly into English, the slang word means “goof-off.” In either language, the word was quite fitting in describing the irresponsible ways of a player who once seemed destined for greatness.


Although his Japanese tenure lasted just a handful of games, Pepitone has not been forgotten in the Far East. The same can be said in western culture. Pepitone was referenced no fewer than three times on Seinfeld, arguably the greatest situation comedy in American history. Who can forget Kramer’s vivid tale of his adventures at Yankee fantasy camp, when he buzzed Pepitone for standing too close to the plate, triggering an all-out brawl?


Knowing Pepitone, that’s just the kind of thing that could have happened to him in real life.



Old school baseball lifer. I can’t think of four better words to describe longtime Phillies coach John Vukovich, who died on Thursday from the effects of a brain tumor.

As someone who has attended spring training about a dozen times, I had several opportunities to approach Vukovich and try to interview him. I never did. Why? With that grizzled face, hardcore mustache, and perpetual scowl, I was just too damn intimidated. Vukovich simply didn’t look approachable. I figured some other interview target would be easier, more accommodating. That was my mistake, my loss.

If I had done my own informal background check, I would have found out the real story with Vukovich. Unfortunately, I’m only realizing this now, after reading some of the tributes that have been written to him after his death. Although gruff on the exterior, Vukovich actually liked to talk to fans before games, both in spring training and during the regular season. He willingly signed autographs for fans, no matter their age or appearance. As tough as he appeared to be, he could be just as funny and kind, though he didn’t always show it. And he loved baseball so much that he worked in the game for 41 of his 59 years, including five as a minor league ballplayer, ten as a major league, and roughly 25 as a coach. Anybody who loved baseball that much would rank as OK with me. That’s someone I would have wanted to talk to.

There are a few other attributes of Vuk, as he was affectionately called, that I’ve come to admire. He took pride in wearing the uniform, believed that there was a proper way to wear it, and a proper way to behave while in it. He believed in playing hard and smart. Some would call all of that being old-fashioned; I would call it being proud and professional in the life work that you have chosen. If Vukovich saw a player doing something inappropriate, or making some kind of fundamental mistake, he didn’t run and complain about it to another coach or the manager. He told the player directly, usually with a scowl and a raised voice, that he had done something wrong. I’m sure that many of the players didn’t enjoy being on the receiving end of one of his stern lectures, but most of them must have appreciated being told face-to-face rather than behind-the-back.

For someone who didn’t have much physical talent, Vuk made the most of his career in baseball. A right-handed hitter with little power or speed, he batted .161 over the span of ten seasons with the Phillies, Brewers, and Reds. In fact, of any player eligible for election to the Hall of Fame, Vukovich had the lowest batting average in major league history. Just how did he manage to last for ten seasons? Well, he compensated for his lack of hitting by becoming a terrific defensive third basemen. As well as he played the hot corner, he willingly played anywhere the manager asked him, from third base to shortstop to first base to second base. He did what he was told, usually without question or complaint. He became a good guy to be around, and sometimes that became the tiebreaker between himself and another player who might have had a little more talent, but not the best attitude.

Vukovich lasted long enough in baseball to carve out a nice niche in baseball history. Let’s consider a few of his accomplishments. It’s not a typical list for a lifetime .161 hitter.

*In 1971, Vukovich played third base in Rick Wise’s no-hitter, the same game in which Wise clubbed two home runs. While Wise grabbed most of the glory, Vukovich made several standout plays at third base to preserve the no-hitter. Vuk also recorded the final out of the game, snaring a pop-up and then returning the ball to a grateful Wise.

*Vukovich started the 1975 season as the Opening Day third baseman for the Reds, who were about to win their first of two consecutive World Championships. Vukovich lasted only a few weeks as the starting third baseman; he struggled to hit, so much so that Sparky Anderson once pinch-hit for him during his first at-bat of the game. Anderson eventually benched Vukovich, and moved Pete Rose from the outfield to third base to make room for George Foster in left field. That switch would prove to be the clincher for the Big Red Machine. Still, Vukovich remained a subtle part of the team, filling a role as a jack-of-all trades, play-me-anywhere utility infielder, until the Reds traded him in mid-August. After the season, Vuk would receive a nice reward in the form of a World Series ring.

*One championship would not suffice. Vukovich moved on to the Phillies, where he became a backup on Dallas Green’s 1980 World Championship team. Buying into Green’s no-nonsense approach, Vukovich helped carry the torch as part of a productive Phillies bench that included Keith Moreland, Lonnie Smith, and Del Unser. This time, he stuck around long enough to be a part of the World Series roster. Not bad, two World Series rings for the .161 hitter.

*After his playing days, Vukovich remained in baseball as a coach. When Green became the head of the Cubs’ front office in 1982, he brought Vukovich to Chicago as one of his on-field lieutenants. By 1987, Green thought so much of Vukovich that he gave Vukovich the Cubs’ managerial job on an interim basis before offering him the position permanently. With the press release announcing Vukovich as manager already written, fate suddenly intervened. Green fought with team ownership and lost his job, thereby denying Vukovich of what would have been his first fulltime managerial gig. Vukovich could have remained a coach in Chicago, but he remained loyal to Green, and tendered his resignation.

*Having lost out on the Cubs’ managerial job through no fault of his own, Vukovich returned to Philadelphia the following season. He became a fulltime member of the community–and an institution at Veterans Stadium. Vuk emerged as a staple on the Phillies coaching staff, Philadelphia’s counterpart to longtime Yankee coaches like “Dick” Howser and Elston Howard. Remaining with the club as a coach through the 2004 season, Vukovich became the longest tenured coach in franchise history. Loyal to a fault, he worked for six different Phillies managers in 17 seasons. Along the way, he received another brief term at managing–another one of those interim gigs, this time for nine games–but more importantly established a reputation as a reliable third base coach and as one of the best bench coaches in either league.

*Vukovich could be colorful, too. He liked to play practical jokes and had a well-known temper. He once verbally accosted the Baltimore Bird mascot who had dared to dance on the Phillies dugout. Vuk tracked him down in his dressing room. That was classic Vukovich.

Given all that Vuk accomplished himself, I could just kick myself for not having had more courage to walk up to him and ask him a few questions. I would have been interested to hear some of his stories.

As with a lot of people in baseball today, that’s my loss.

Art Fowler, Drinking Buddy

Art Fowler was not a household name. He was a vagabond relief pitcher and a journeyman pitching coach, and none of his accomplishments in either category will ever be associated with Cooperstown.

Yet, Fowler was a Hall of Fame character. Fowler, who died on Monday at the age of 84, lived a life of legend and controversy. Here are just a few items that made Art Fowler one of a kind:

*Fowler and his brother, Jesse, both pitched in the major leagues, but not at the same time–not by a longshot. Jesse debuted in the majors in 1924, while Art did not make his first appearance until he was age 31 in 1954. That was a separation of nearly 30 years, by far a record for two brothers in the major leagues. Even though he was already in his thirties, Fowler stuck around long enough to earn a World Championship ring with the 1959 Dodgers before pitching for the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961.

*To the surprise of no one who knew him well, Fowler hated physical conditioning, particularly running. “If running is so important, Jesse Owens would be a twenty-game winner,” Fowler told a reporter in 1957. “And the only reason I don’t like to run is that it makes me tired.”

*Fowler is best remembered for filling a memorable role as Billy Martin’s designated pitching coach/drinking buddy. (My father used to refer to Fowler as “drinking buddy” so often that I thought it should have been his actual title.) Their relationship began in 1969 for the Denver Bears of the American Association. Martin decided to make use of the 45-year-old Fowler, who was still an active pitcher on the staff, as his pitching coach. The relationship soon turned into a friendship. Fowler worked for Martin during almost every one of his managerial stops in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, New York, and Oakland. Critics of Fowler called him nothing more than Martin’s crony, while supporters pointed out that Fowler generally developed good relationships with his pitchers. For what it’s worth, Fowler was the Yankees’ pitching coach for both of their World Championship teams in 1977 and ’78.

* According to many of his former pitchers, a typical Fowler visit to the mound would involve the following words of wisdom. “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but whatever it is, it’s sure [ticking] Billy off!”

*Known for his off-the-field visits to bars, Fowler developed a well-deserved reputation for enjoying cocktails of various sorts. During his years as the Tigers’ pitching coach, Fowler became good friends with first baseman Norm Cash. Sharing a similar sense of humor, the pitching coach and first baseman spent hours together away from the ballpark, especially at local taverns. They were sometimes joined by Martin, who was no stranger to the drinking scene himself.

*Because of his relationship with Martin, Fowler became a controversial figure. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 2003 feature that ESPN produced on former rookie sensation David Clyde, who had made his debut for the Rangers 30 years earlier under the watchful eye of both Martin and Fowler. Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t like pitchers and didn’t like rookies, two mortal sins committed by Clyde. Martin also didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde lost nine straight decisions after starting the 1974 season at 3-and-0. At one point, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde for 31 consecutive days. During one interview segment on ESPN, Fowler supported Martin’s general evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than in the mid-eighties. Fowler also trashed the quality of Clyde’s competition in high school, kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.” Fowler’s recollections of Clyde, however, differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve, a former Rangers’ outfielder who was Clyde’s Texas teammate from 1973 to 1975. According to Grieve, Fowler raved about Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Grieve’s sentiments were echoed by Fowler’s public comments about Clyde in 1974. “When his fastball is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Randy Galloway of The Sporting News after a game in 1974, “and with the velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.” That doesn’t sound like the description of a pitcher lacking a good major league fastball.

Perhaps Art changed his mind after 30 years. Or maybe Art just liked to exaggerate. It was just another quirk of an uncommon baseball man named Art Fowler.

Remembering Moe

The culture of baseball is a little less rich today. We lost one of the all-time colorful characters on Saturday when Moe Drabowsky died from bone marrow cancer at the age of 70. Drabowsky was a journeyman pitcher for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, but gained far more acclaim for his extraordinary abilities as a practical joker. In fact, Moe–and how can you not love the name Moe Drabowsky?–might have been the greatest prankster the game has ever known.

Let’s consider some of Drabowsky’s most comical stunts:

*Moe regularly ordered Chinese food from the bullpen phone, once placing a direct call to Hong Kong for some takeout. I doubt that Drabowsky’s orders were ever actually delivered to the bullpen, but the habit was reminiscent of a moment in Seinfeld when Elaine once ordered Chinese food and had it delivered to a janitor’s closet.

*Drabowsky wasn’t satisfied with giving hotfoots to teammates and other players; he once found a victim in Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Laying out a trail of lighter fluid from the trainer’s room to the clubhouse, Drabowsky set the commissioner’s foot on fire. And by using the trail of lighter fluid, he made it more difficult for Kuhn to find out who had been the perpetrator.

*In a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City A’s, Drabowsky pulled off what is generally considered his most famous practical joke. With A’s pitcher Jim “Jumbo” Nash mowing down Drabowsky’s Orioles, the troublemaking right-hander called Kansas City’s bullpen, impersonated the voice of A’s manager Alvin Dark, and ordered reliever Lew Krausse to begin warming up. With Baltimore relievers howling in the bullpen, Nash became so unnerved at the site of warm-up activity that he lost his composure and began getting shelled by Orioles hitters.

*After the 1968 season, Drabowsky departed the Orioles when he was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was taken by the Kansas City Royals. Drabowsky exacted some “revenge” in 1969, when he sent the American League champion Orioles a six-foot-long boa constrictor during the World Series. Coincidentally or not, the Orioles went on to lose the Series in five games to the upstart New York Mets.

Such hijinx overshadowed Drabowsky’s pitching abilities, which were certainly respectable. At one time a highly touted young starter with the Chicago Cubs, Moe became an effective reliever for the Orioles during the mid-1960s. In Game One of the 1966 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he became downright Herculean. Relieving Dave McNally early in Game One, Drabowsky came on to pitch six and two-thirds innings of one-hit ball and set a World Series record for relievers by striking out 11 Los Angeles Dodgers. Buttressed by Drabowsky, the Orioles won Game One, setting the tone for a surprising four-game sweep of Los Angeles.

It was the hallmark moment in a career filled with hotfoots, six-foot snakes, and crank phone calls. Thanks, Moe, for making the game fun.