Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Lew Burdette, RIP: The Fauna
If you are my age, and you became a baseball fan early enough in childhood, you probably know the name Gene Schoor. He wrote a library's worth of sports biographies for children in the 1950s and early 1960s. For all I know, enough of them still survive in a few elementary schools. Maybe.
Schoor's technique (he didn't invent it, but he did it well enough) involved mulcting as many newspaper and/or magazine articles as he could find about his subject, using the creamier quotes, making sure they included tales of how his subject was scouted, a quote or three in which our hero had his doubts, and as much rah-rah in the triumph as could be tolerated short of a need for Tums.
The reporters who actually did the legwork for the stories Schoor and contemporaries rounded up for their quickie kids' bios (Milton Shapiro was another such biographer) probably fumed, but the books were hits and they did give a lot of kids an entree into reading by way of their game. The longtime New York Yankees public relations executive Marty Appel wasn't the only kid who cranked out a third- or fourth-grade book report on a Gene Schoor book.
Mine was Lew Burdette of the Braves.
Being a New York Mets fan since the day they were born, there was one reason alone, beyond a swelling baseball passion, to pick up a book on an enemy pitcher. (Burdette had yet to be swapped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Gene Oliver and Bob Sadowski.) The Milwaukee Braves were Hank Aaron's and Eddie Mathews' team, you liked Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews even if they brutalized your team. (But who wasn't brutalising the 1962-64 Mets?). And Burdette on the cover in looked pretty fly in those fancy 1950s Braves silks.
But it was Burdette's expression, too. He was shown in follow-through finish, perhaps having delivered one of the spitters he usually denied throwing even if he didn't exactly object to the accusation, which usually had its origins in his fidgety mound habits. ("If I could get one of the first three hitters in the first inning to go back to the dugout saying I was cheating, by the fifth inning everybody on the team wanted to see the ball when they batted," he once told historian Danny Peary.)
Then you noticed his face. And you paid closer attention. Burdette — who died of lung cancer at 80 at his Winter Garden, Florida home Tuesday — was a pleasant looking man, but the slightly hooded eyes and slim grin suggested that the latest victim of a practical joke was about to get his while he was winding up as you faced him, or while he was sharing a handshake with you, far from the scene of the crime. He resembled the uncle who'd just left another set of nieces and nephews uncertain about whether to laugh or kill him. If not both.
If this story Schoor told from Burdette's West Virginia boyhood was actually true, it telegraphs the merry prankster Burdette's said to have become as a major leaguer. (That's merry prankster in the comic, not the Keseyian sense, gentle reader.) Bear in mind that I haven't seen a copy of Lew Burdette of the Braves in four decades, and my version springs strictly from memory, but I'm willing to gamble, anyway.
Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr. was enough of an animal nut in boyhood that he liked to bring a few of his little exotic rural pets to school in his pockets, for company and to amuse his peers. Then came the unexpected playlet that could have come from an Our Gang script. (It wouldn't shock me to learn Burdette himself was a fan.) One of the creatures slipped out of Burdette's pocket for a little classroom exercise.
The classroom got exercised, all right. Burdette's classmates shrieked (I don't remember if it was delight or dismay, though it was probably both) and his teacher fumed. The marm barked his full name, minus "Jr.," and the racket stopped. Since this was one school that practiced corporal punishment, as many did in that time and place, Boy Burdette was a breath away from getting his rear end turned into an impression of two flags of Japan.
But a breath was all he needed to plead with the old bat not to let him have it. When she demanded to know why, Boy Burdette admitted he had two other such creatures in his rear pockets, and if he got spanked they were liable to get killed. That did it. The old bat folded her wings, sighed, and handed him a pardon.
She encouraged him to bring a different member of his exotic rural pet collection and talk about him/her/it in detail to the class each day. According to Schoor, he did precisely that, making him the star student of his grade for about a fortnight. That was long enough for one of his more slithery creatures (it could have been a snake) to escape his control and scare the old bat right out of her hosiery. She put a stop to the live exhibitions but not to Boy Burdette's daily fauna lectures, apparently.
Bear in mind that it's open to debate just how true the story really was. Marty Appel has long since noted the Schoor biographical style enabled at least thirty sports biographies in just over a decade's time. (Ty Cobb, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio were other Schnoor baseball subjects.) Then someone else's similar work put an end to Schoor's involvement, Schoor graduating himself to team histories.
Milton Shapiro, a movie critic turned juvenile sports biographer in his own right, was taken to court by a subject who just so happened to be Lew Burdette's Milwaukee rotation elder. Warren Spahn wasn't thrilled about two things. One was being misquoted and the other was seeing not a dime from that sort of biography. (Their era was the era in which a baseball player had no right to test the market for his services and most often worked offseason to make ends come to within sight of each other. Burdette himself worked for the Miller Brewing Company in each offseason during his life with the Braves.)
Spahn lost when the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but Schnoor decided to get out of the quickie-bio business regardless.
In Lew Burdette of the Braves Schoor fashioned a mushy little rah-rah scene of buddy-buddy/all the way next year season-ending huggery between Spahn and Burdette that had to be read to be believed. If you were a 9-year-old kid, you'd have found it inspiring, at least in the early 1960s. (Spahn and Burdette probably did toast their freshly-bonded friendship with an oath to win the pennant next year, but they wouldn't have been half as mawkish about it as Schoor had them.) If you grew up to be a bit of a baseball excavator, you harked back in nausea if one of your excavations revealed that the two pitchers were partners in crime in the clubhouse comedy department.
Their gags are said to have included sending limousines to bring to the ballpark hitters whom either or both pitchers owned. (Spahn must have had one hell of a bill when it came to Joe Garagiola.) I'm not entirely clear what Burdette's role was in that kind of gag, but I wouldn't have been surprised to discover the dynamic duo had arranged for Burdette to be the driver when the hapless hitter got his little surprise.
Burdette's wit got him into trouble once in awhile, however. He had a few bragging rights over the Yankees — who had signed him in the first place, only to unload him in a swap for veteran Johnny Sain, when they were in need of veteran pitching help down the stretch in 1951 — after waxing their tails in the 1957 World Series and beating them again in Game Two of their 1958 rematch.
It didn't exactly hurt Burdette that he had seven runs to play with before going to the mound for the second inning, after the Braves' first inning assault that only began with Bill Bruton's leadoff launch against Bob Turley. As a Yogi Berra biographer (Joe Trimble) quoted him after that win, Burdette purred, "I wish the Yankees played in the National League. They'd be lucky enough to finish in third place."
Whoops. With the Yankees in check at a three games to one deficit, Burdette and Turley had a Game 5 rematch that sat at 1-0, Yankees, until the bottom of the sixth. Two singles, an RBI double, an intentional pass, and another RBI single sent Burdette to the clubhouse, after which reliever Juan Pizarro surrendered the three runs he left behind.
Burdette and Turley went at it again in Game 7. It started with a 1-0 Braves lead after an inning. It was the first Braves lead of the game. It was the only Braves lead of the game. The Yankees hung up a deuce in the second and a four spot in the eighth and they had the Series in seven games. After losing the 1959 pennant in an arduous playoff against the Los Angeles Dodgers (the two teams ended the regular season in a dead heat for the pennant, in the pre-divisional play era), the Braves won no further pennants during their Milwaukee tenancy. Lew Burdette never saw postseason action again.
But he did see front office ignorance turn into one of baseball's most notoriously lopsided deals. The Cardinals had shipped Burdette to the Chicago Cubs early in the 1964 season, following a couple of useful seasons in St. Louis. A fortnight later, Burdette became aware that the Cubs' front office had eyes for another Cardinal pitcher named Ernie Broglio. The Cubs' College of Coaches (that infamous experiment of rotating head coaches rather than a manager was in its final season in 1964) had nausea over the prospect because the Cubs were offering a young outfielder they liked, even if he hadn't yet hit stride.
"[W]e didn't like Broglio," then-head coach Bob Kennedy would remember to Jerome Holtzman and George Vass (for Baseball, Chicago Style). "Lew Burdette ... was on our club and he told us Broglio had been having arm problems. He'd been getting shots."
The coaches listened to Burdette. But the front office didn't listen to the coaches. The front office listened only to the whisperings of a 21-win season in 1960 and an 18-win season in 1963. They ended up having to listen to indignant Cub fans' fuming for years to come, especially after Burdette's warning proved only too right. Ernie Broglio won exactly seven games for the final two and a half seasons of his career, all with the Cubs. Lou Brock lasted just a little longer and went just a little farther.
That wasn't the first time Burdette was in the best seat in the house for history actual or potential. That was Burdette going the distance against Harvey Haddix in Milwaukee, on the night the diminutive Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander entered the bottom of the 13th inning with not a man reaching base against him to that point.
But Felix Mantilla, a late-inning second base replacement for the Braves, opened the home 13th by reaching when Pittsburgh third baseman Don Hoak's throw hit first baseman Rocky Bridges in the knee. Eddie Mathews sacrificed Mantilla to second and Henry Aaron took an intentional pass. Then Joe Adcock drove one over the left field fence.
Haddix's heartbreak was lessened only slightly when Adcock's bomb was turned into a long double, after Aaron broke from the basepaths for the clubhouse when he knew Mantilla scored the winning run (Aaron may not have realised the ball cleared the fence), and Adcock trotted past Aaron's breakaway point and was called out for passing the runner. To Haddix, it hardly mattered whether you lost it 1-0 or 3-0.
Lew Burdette was among those who congratulated and consoled Haddix graciously in the clubhouse after the game. "You pitched the greatest game that's ever been pitched in the history of baseball," Burdette told Haddix. (For his part, Burdette scattered twelve hits but gave up no walks.)
It's how Burdette's believed to have phrased it to the Braves' front office, during the offseason, negotiating a raise for his 21 wins in 1959, that seems just as typical. Quoted by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, in The Baseball Hall of Shame #2 (the entry wasn't to honor Haddix or Burdette, but the Hoak error that fractured the extra-inning perfecto): That guy pitched the greatest game in baseball history and he still couldn't beat me. So I must be the greatest pitcher of all-time.
Burdette probably got his raise. I'd have given him the raise for chutzpah alone.