At 6:15 p.m., 39 years ago today, Bobby Bonds arrived at the ballpark for a night game in Pittsburgh.
It had been a long journey. Bonds, a three-time All-Star, had been released the previous winter by the St. Louis Cardinals, having hit .203 with just five home runs. He signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers for the 1981 season. “I didn’t think I could take the minors,” Bonds would say. “My one goal was to make the majors.” His teammates in Wichita called him Gramps. He was 35. One day, the Rangers called him up, but Bonds happened to wake up that morning with a stiff neck that kept him from throwing. Call-up revoked.
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While he was in Wichita, his son — Barry — was becoming a fixture in Bay Area sports pages. A couple of weeks earlier, during the regional high school playoffs, he’d taken over the county home run lead. As a profile in a San Francisco Peninsula newspaper said that spring, “It may yet come to pass that San Carlos resident Bobby Bonds’ role in sports history, as great as his own lengthy career has been, will be as Barry Bonds’ father, not as a long-time major league star on his own.”
So that was the trajectory: Bobby’s career as Bobby Bonds was coming to an end. His career as Barry’s dad was approaching. One day very soon, the son would be better than the father. They write Greek myths about this sort of thing.
On June 3, the Cubs purchased Bobby’s contract. He woke up on June 4, 1981, and flew to Pittsburgh. He arrived at the park at 6:15 and was in the lineup for the 7:30 first pitch. And by 8 p.m., Bobby Bonds had played his way into the next day’s papers: In the first inning, on the first ball hit in his direction, Bonds went for a shallow fly ball, stumbled on a seam in Pittsburgh’s artificial turf, slid “about 20 feet,” and broke his pinkie.
He fell asleep that night in a cast, his son having gained immeasurably on him. It hadn’t happened yet, but it was inevitable.
Exactly five years later, on June 4, 1986, Barry Bonds hit his first MLB home run.
The story of Bobby Bonds’ broken finger appeared on Page C3 of the Miami News, Page B5 of the Ukiah (California) Daily Journal and Page C5 of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Those inside pages are where so many of baseball’s best stories are, as we discovered a few weeks ago while digging into the mystery of Don Mattingly’s birthday. As we put it then, the classic baseball story is “small and quirky, worth only a brief mention on the inside pages of the day’s sports section, but in time, a better and more significant tale than the news that made the cover.” After burrowing into the past, the ideal baseball story grows weirder and more mysterious, waiting patiently to be rediscovered.
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Last week, we went through one century’s worth of sports sections — a couple hundred of them, all covering the news of June 4, 19__ — to see what they hid. There were the front-of-the-section stories, the ones you see in traditional This Date in History roundups: Sandy Koufax threw a no-hitter, Ramon Martinez struck out 18 batters. But we also found pistols, knives, allegations of conspiracies and false identities, last rites, Presbyterian pastors, trips to the dentist, fires in the infield, a stuffed gorilla and three momentous stages in the history of the all-time home run record. All of it was news to us.
The ump who drew a pistol
June 4, 1904: The largest crowd in baseball history at the time gathered to see the Giants and Reds at the Polo Grounds. Fans ringed the field, where the warning tracks would be today, and in the most exciting moments “the diamond was invaded” by fans who “danced, cried, and hugged each other with joy” before they were dispersed so play could resume. June 4, 1907: Umpire Jack Sheridan halted the game in the sixth inning because he was convinced there were two balls in play. A ball “disappeared mysteriously” between innings, apparently thrown by “the score boy” into the bleachers. But Sheridan became convinced some Yankees outfielder had stashed it, and he hiked into the outfield to personally search both the outfield and the grounds. It took 10 minutes. All who were in his vicinity jeered him. June 4, 1912: The Giants ran out of water. Athletes were “drooping with thirst.” June 4, 1915: The 18-year-old rookie Lewis Ryan appeared in his first game as Lewis Malone — his real name, sniffed out by reporters. Malone had been playing under the fake name so he could keep playing for his high school team.
Also on June 4, 1915, a man named Tim Hurst died of food poisoning:
The New York Times’ obituary called Hurst “one of the best known sporting men in the country,” declaring him, simply, Sports Character in its headline. He’d been a competitive runner, a boxing ref and a raconteur, but he was best known for his career as a baseball umpire, which began unexpectedly like this: “He was a spectator at a game which was to decide the pennant. The regular umpire quit under fire and Hurst volunteered to take his place. In the final inning he called a home player out at the plate with what would have been the tying run, at the same time drawing a pistol. Not a move was made toward him.” He would go on to become an American League umpire for many years.
Fast-forward exactly 25 years: On June 4, 1940, an umpire named Bill Wilson had a 90-day suspension upheld by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Wilson was punished for pulling a knife “when menaced by players during an argument” in a Texas League game. In these two stories, a fairly seismic shift in umpire/player relations over the intervening quarter-century is suggested.
Hurst pulled his pistol in what was a very physical era for umpires. The following events all occurred on June 4s in the early decades of the 20th century:
June 4, 1901: Ballplayer Jimmy Sheckard, upset at a call made by umpire Bert Cunningham, “rushed at the official.” He threw a handful of dirt at Cunningham, deliberately spit at him and was eventually removed by police. “Cunningham told the Eagle correspondent that he could not explain why he did not strike Sheckard. ‘That’s the limit, and if any other player ever tries the same trick, I shall pick up a bat and use it.'”
June 4, 1912: Umpire Frederick Westervelt was held out of the game one day after a mob of White Sox and their fans required him to get a police escort from the game. On his way back to the hotel he was “knocked off a thirty-fifth street car” and police had to rescue him again. No White Sox were punished, but after they sent a letter complaining to the league office Westervelt apparently was.
June 4, 1917: “[Manager Bill Donovan] had a large bat in his hand when he approached Umpire Tommy Connolly, and for a second Tommy looked behind him to see just how far he would have to run to make the gate in right field. Donovan swung the bat like a cave man waves his club, and then let ‘er go. It traveled in the direction of the bench, however, and not toward Connolly’s head.”
June 4, 1918: The Dodgers, after allowing a go-ahead run in the top of the 13th, attempted to stall — to run out the daylight before the inning could be completed and the game made official — in part* by fomenting a public riot against the umpire. Hundreds of fans hurdled the fences to join the Dodgers in protesting umpire Cy Rigler (though, to some observers, the correct call they were arguing wasn’t even that close). Cardinals players had to form a cordon around Rigler, wielding bats against the mob.
*They also refused to field any batted balls, and the Cardinals would end up scoring seven runs in the inning before Brooklyn gave up the attempt.
In the first decades of professional baseball, umpires frequently were former players (and players were sometimes former umpires). Like outlaws and lawmen of the Old West, there was often little distinction between the two, and an outlaw in one town (or one year) might become the lawman in another. There was a sort of balance, of parity, between the two roles.
But umpiring became professionalized and umpires became their own breed, quite distinct from the players. By the time Wilson was umpiring in the Texas League, this point is made explicit in an article about changing backgrounds among Texas League umps: “Umpires are now developed as players are developed. Some come out of the numerous schools for umpires that are operated. They start in the sticks and gradually work into better jobs.” Compared to the players, these umpires were more like bureaucrats who had studied their way into bookish regulatory jobs. Only two of the 12 umpires in the Texas League, that article found, played ball at a high level.
One of the two was Bill Wilson. He’d been a professional pitcher for nearly a decade before he became an ump. He was, in a way, a throwback, and he reacted like an umpire from a previous generation might have — like Tim Hurst did, for instance, and like Bert Cunningham (a 12-year major league pitcher) said he perhaps should have.
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Wilson was immediately horrified at himself for pulling the knife. He realized instantly he was in the wrong era. “I was as surprised as anyone in the park when I saw it in my hand,” he said soon after. “I would do anything to erase that error. It was the worst boner I ever pulled.”
Wilson first escaped punishment by his league, with the Texas League president asserting that “many times under similar circumstances in organized baseball umpires had been severely mauled,” which is true. But the National Association suspended him, his appeal was denied (on June 4, 1940), and he served it out. For a couple of years, he was known for the mistake: In a newspaper’s umpire poetry contest (huh?), he was mocked by one submission for being afraid to use a knife when steak is served (OK!). But he got past that one boner, and he frequently made the papers for other reasons. In 1941, he was injured by a warm-up pitch to his head. In 1942, he joined the Army for World War II. In 1945, he returned to umpiring. Then he was in charge of a Texas umpiring school. Then he broke his arm on a wild pitch. Then he got hit in the head with a whisky bottle during a road-rage incident. Then he was described by a sportswriter as a “demon consumer of peanuts.” And, finally, he was fired in 1954, probably because the league decided to cut costs by laying off its most senior officials. In 1967, he got sick, lost both legs to amputation and eventually died. He was 58.
Along the way, the players’ relationship with umpires kept changing. Umpires became further off limits. June 4, 1954: Bob Avila, the AL’s leading hitter, bumped an ump. A newspaper noted he would draw an automatic 10-game suspension due to a fairly recent rule, and that it made no difference whether Avila’s bump was accidental: No violence was tolerated against umpires. It was definitely for the good — though umpires also became even more distinct from the players, no longer considered their equals at all. June 4, 1996: Major League Baseball announced it would not punish Bruce Froemming for hounding players for autographs.
Tim Hurst, incidentally, was fired by the American League six years before his death for spitting tobacco juice in Eddie Collins’ face. Upon Hurst’s death, Connie Mack called him “the fairest umpire I ever knew.”
June 4, 1919: An infielder named Ed Sicking finished a successful three-game series against the New York Giants, and the Giants complained that it wasn’t fair: They had sent Sicking to the Phillies one month earlier as a loan because the Phillies didn’t have enough healthy players to field a club, and now he was winning against them. It was just a loan! They wanted him back. The Phillies wouldn’t give him back. Eventually, the league ruled that it was a loan but that the loan would last for the rest of the season, and Sicking returned to New York that winter. June 4, 1934: Lou Gehrig skipped an in-season exhibition game to get dental work done. He had played 400 exhibition games without missing one over the course of his Iron Man streak, which at that point covered 1,391 official games. Gehrig’s off-day was picked up by newspapers everywhere:
The great balk conspiracy
A couple of weeks earlier, on May 19, Dean — arguably the National League’s best pitcher and undeniably its biggest star at the time — was pitching in the sixth inning against the Giants, runner on second with one out and a tie score. The batter flied softly to left field for an apparent out, but umpire George Barr declared that Dean had balked by not coming to a complete stop before starting his windup. The league had been threatening to call more balks on just this infraction. NL president Ford Frick claimed managers had been complaining about the rule not being enforced, and in the weeks leading up to May 19 he had sent one of his umpires to team clubhouses to explain the new rule. Dean had been directly warned before the game, then warned twice during the game, before he was called for the balk. Still, he didn’t like it.
The batter got another swing, he singled to drive in the run and Dean flipped out. He protested by repeatedly headhunting the Giants’ batters, until eventually the Giants retaliated by attempting to knock over Dean while he was covering first base. There was a brawl that lasted 15 minutes. Fine.
That was just the start of things for Dean. In his next start, he worked so slowly — nominally to avoid balking, but clearly as an act of protest — that it took him 11 minutes to throw three pitches. Behind the scenes, he had offered reporters $1,000 to print his full, perhaps libelous feelings about Frick, but none took him up. Then he went to a father-son sports dinner at the First Presbyterian Church of Belleville, Illinois. He wasn’t on the speaking schedule, but he said a few words: He called Frick and Barr “the two greatest crooks in baseball.” He claimed the NL’s new balk rules were instituted as a “direct persecution” of him.
Did he have a point? Consider a couple of things: Dean already had reason to feel persecuted. That spring, Frick had infuriated Dean by calling Dean’s wife, Patricia Dean — who handled his very public contract negotiations — a “dominating personality.” Patricia “called her husband, who was traveling with his team to New York, and said, ‘The first thing I want you to do when you get to New York is to go to Ford Frick’s office and punch him on the nose. If you don’t, you’re yellow.'” So Dean knew Frick was beefing with him.
As for the much publicized changes to the balk rules — the National League umpires called 13 balks in 1936. They called 20 in 1937. Of those extra seven, three were called on Dizzy Dean — perhaps because Dean alone was too stubborn to obey repeated warnings, but you could see his points.
Anyway, Frick got mad, suspended Dean indefinitely, tried to get Dean to sign a statement of apology, and when Dean wouldn’t sign that statement, Frick released the unsigned apology, which ran in newspapers. There was a long meeting in Frick’s office on June 3: “A mob of reporters and photographers reported several bellows of ‘I ain’t signin’ nuthin’!’ from within Frick’s office.” But Frick started to lose his nerve. Dean threatened to sue and threatened to quit baseball entirely. And on June 4, Dean requested another meeting with Frick, at which he presented a telegram from the Presbyterian minister whose church had hosted the sports dinner and wrote a letter in support of Dean. “In our judgment, if more players made such talks before like groups, baseball would profit,” the pastor wrote.
Frick was beaten. He “turned to his friends in the press box for a solution. He had Dean answer questions in the presence of the sportswriters, then had the journalists — not Dean — sign a statement that they had witnessed his testimony. Based on that, Frick accepted Dean’s statement, lifted the suspension and pronounced the incident ‘closed.'”
Frick’s mistake had been picking the fight in the first place. For Dean, these were just typical days. He was constantly in fights, in the papers, in the center of attention. On June 4s alone: In 1935, he was threatened with a $5,000 fine after a fifth-inning fistfight with Joe Medwick, after which his teammates unanimously took Medwick’s side. In 1940, he demoted himself to Triple-A so he could learn to pitch sidearm. In 1942, he was warned by the commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to quit holding commercial exhibition games (as The Dizzy Dean All-Stars) under the guise of war-relief charity games.
Frick never had a chance against somebody as controversy-immune as Dean. Frick would go on to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball, but he would never carry the powerful authority that had been universally recognized in Landis. (June 4, 1925: “Judge Landis has a new hat. It is just as carefree looking as the old one, which was known in nearly every spot where baseball is played, but not so heavy.”) Frick later called it “the biggest error of my regime.” The controversy gave Dean the chance to put down Frick in terms every non-ballplayer fears: “What does Frick know about baseball? How many people does he put in the ballparks?”
On June 27, 1937, Dean was called for another balk against the Giants. His manager argued the call, but “Diz himself never uttered a word.”
June 4, 1938: Lou Chiozza, Giants second baseman, splashed oil of wintergreen into his eyes before a game, thinking it was eyewash. A doctor was called down from the stands to treat him. Chiozza missed a week. “Mistakes of that sort often cost a loss of life,” a newspaper reported. June 4, 1947: The great Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser ran into a wall catching a ball and fractured his skull. He would lay in a hospital for five days. Last rites were given. He would come back and play for five more years, but he likely was never the same. June 4, 1952: Young Nellie Fox fouled a ball off his face during batting practice. A doctor was called down from the stands to treat him, but he was sent to the hospital with a large gash and didn’t start again until June 8. June 4, 1953: Philadelphia pitcher Curt Simmons ran over his own foot with a lawnmower. A toe was badly mangled, but his military service might have saved him from worse: He was wearing heavy Army combat boots that gave him extra protection, his doctor said. June 4, 1960: Dodgers relief ace Larry Sherry severely sprained his ankle when, as Sherry was running to back up home plate, an umpire kicked a bat into his path. June 4, 1980: Royals outfielder Amos Otis let a ball drop near the wall, rather than crash into it. Reporters made him defend himself, and he did: “The last time I ran into a wall I didn’t see any fans coming to visit me in the hospital.”
An ‘unsung hero’ breaks through
Seven years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the National League. But that barrier had to be broken at every level of organized baseball, in every league and every city, including in the Jim Crow South. As minor leaguers, these trailblazers were already long shots, and in some cases, they were all alone — as with Wilkins, a college student who was the Tar Heel League’s first and only African American ballplayer.
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Some of these stories have been salvaged. Hank Aaron was part of a small group of ballplayers who integrated the South Atlantic League in 1953, and he has told his story. “I wasn’t prepared at all for what would happen that year,” Aaron has written. “When I played in Jacksonville, there were things that happened to me that happened to Jackie Robinson before and after he got to the big leagues. Baseball was having problems in Georgia, in the South, and all over.” Bruce Adelson’s book, “Brushing Back Jim Crow,” tells in detail of the experiences of other players integrating the Southern minor leagues: Threats in the mail, slurs from the grandstands, double standards by the umpires — and physical violence, too. But, Adelson writes, the “white, mainstream newspapers … tended to minimize or ignore stories about racist outcries from fans,” so the histories are obscured.
Wilkins’ debut in the Tar Heel League was news, but his experience there was hardly recorded in newspapers. He was a junior at Allen University, a historically black university in South Carolina, when the Giants signed him and sent him to Shelby for the summer. (He always planned to return to college for his senior year, as he was also a football star there.) He went either 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 in his debut, and he “roamed right field in an impressive fashion.” He was referred to in one article as a right-hander and in another as a left-hander. He was 6-foot-3 or 6-5, he weighed 190 pounds or 200, he was 20 years old or 22. The scout who signed him, Tim Murchison, called him a fine major league prospect. His debut was just a short mention picked up in scores of newspapers. (The same day, another story on the sports pages was about a couple of fans in Pittsburgh demanding the league punish Jackie Robinson for flipping a bat, which they said had injured them. They later sued him.)
About three weeks after Wilkins’ debut, the Tar Heel League folded. Wilkins went to the Florida State League, where at least some teams were still unwilling to integrate because of community protest, and played four games. A total of 17 games: That would be his pro career.
It was just the start of the rest of his life, though. Wilkins played more college football, enlisted in the military, lost a second chance to play in the minors because his knees were too badly injured, and became a high school football coach, teacher and administrator. He coached the all-black Lemon Street High to the state championship in his first year as head coach, and in 1966 he won the Georgia state Coach of the Year award. And then he was demoted to assistant coach the next year, when the city of Marietta closed Lemon Street High and sent its students to the previously all-white Marietta High.
When he died in 1984, his obit was on the cover of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports section. Heck, when his protégé died, almost 25 years later, even those eulogies mentioned Wilkins, praising coach James Richards for carrying on the legacy of the great Ben Wilkins.
“Coach Ben always considered himself a man behind the scenes, and he was this, but he was an unsung hero in many cases,” Marietta High’s yearbook read the spring after he died. “He could size up a situation in a hurry and could, magically, come up with the right thing to say always. When Marietta High and Lemon Street High integrated, Coach Ben helped to smooth this change. Very soon a lasting monument to Coach Wilkins will be erected at Northcutt Stadium. Somewhere on that stone Coach Ben’s often-quoted belief should be etched: ‘Be Somebody!'”
The plaque at Northcutt is still there. The football players all touch it on their way to the field before every home game. What an absolute giant.
The forgotten first-hit fluke
June 4, 1955: Gail Harris got his first major league hit.
Harris died in 2012. I asked his son, Mark, a coach in the Nationals system, if his dad ever talked about that first hit.
“It’s amazing how much I do know about his career — but I do not know about his first hit,” Mark Harris said. “He always told the story about his best day in the big leagues, when he drove in seven or eight in the second game of a doubleheader at Forbes Field. What had happened was, Oklahoma was coming in to play Pittsburgh, college football, and he was a football fan. He said, ‘I knew I wasn’t going to play either game, so I went and had five or six hot dogs and a few pops and I came in and find I had to play a doubleheader! I felt absolutely miserable and I had the best day I had in the big leagues.'” He homered twice and drove in, yes, seven runs from the cleanup spot in Game 2. After he retired — following a six-year career as a big leaguer, which preceded a much longer career selling insurance — he told that story a lot.
But he never mentioned his first hit. This was his first hit:
“Harris’ first major league hit yesterday was hardly an overpowering shot. But it was unique. As Gail ducked away from a pitch the ball struck his bat and rolled so slowly toward third that Jackson had no chance to make a play.”
“Ha!” Mark Harris says. His dad was, by that description, trying to avoid the pitch, and accidentally bopped it while the bat was still behind his head. “I would love to have him in this chair right now and tell him,” — his voice turns a little mischievous here — “‘Tell me about your first hit, Dad.’ I can see his face. He’d give me that look, and then he’d turn a little red. He had some humility about him.”
Sixty years ago today: Bill Veeck’s exploding scoreboard shot a rocket that didn’t detonate properly. It landed as “flaming shrapnel” at second base and burned like a bonfire until somebody could rush out to extinguish it. Veeck, the game’s most colorful quote, was reduced to an engineer’s colorless jargon: “Complete combustion just didn’t occur.”
Forty-three years ago today: A White Sox game was delayed a substantial period of time when “about 15 fans, apparently made irrational by beer and the heat, burst onto the field in a punching, kicking mass.”
Thirty-one years ago today: Fernando Valenzuela played first base in the 21st and 22nd innings of a game that had begun on June 3. The winning run — served up by the Dodgers’ regular third baseman — scored on a line drive off Valenzuela’s glove, ending the longest game in major league history.
Twenty-four years ago today: Reds owner Marge Schott ordered her team to accept a good-luck charm. They got to choose between a stuffed gorilla and “a three-and-a-half-foot cow doll with a sign that read: ‘This ain’t no bull. I’m utterly lonesome and in the mooooooood for a win.'” They chose the gorilla and tried to pelt it with baseballs during batting practice — but then they went out and won the game, and they apparently kept Slugger (the gorilla’s name) around for a little while. Slugger returned, less successfully, in 1998.
And so on.
The home run kings
On June 4, 1935, Boston Braves president Emil Fuchs said Babe Ruth could keep his uniform. That marked the final, somewhat petty end of Ruth’s career. He’d gone to Boston hoping to become a player-manager, but despite Babe’s understanding, the Braves had no real intention of that. He played his final game on May 30, publicly squabbled with Fuchs in the days after, and made an offhand comment about how, if that was the end of his Braves career, he’d like to keep his uniform, at least. “If Ruth wants his uniform, he can have it for the asking,” Fuchs said, and that was it for Babe Ruth, who had 714 official home runs and wouldn’t hit another.
On June 4, 1974, Hank Aaron, onetime star of the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, hit his 731st home run as a major leaguer — including the 723 official, regular-season homers, plus six in the World Series and two in All-Star Games. That passed Babe Ruth’s 730 major league homers (714/15/1), ending the great home run chase once and for all. “Sheeeeze,” Aaron told reporters. “I thought I broke that record last month. Now they can start interviewing the guy who is chasing me.”
On June 4, 1986, Barry Bonds, the guy who was chasing him, hit his first major league home run. He had three other hits and made a spectacular catch while smashing into the center-field wall, leaving him lying on the ground for several minutes. “The homer was a thrill, Bonds said, but the catch was a bigger thrill.” Years later he would retire with 773 major league homers: Nine in the postseason, two in All-Star Games.
Before that, though, he would play a game against the New York Mets on June 4, 1992. In the visiting dugout was Bobby Bonilla, one of Bonds’ good friends in baseball and, until recently, his teammate on the Pirates. Bonilla was returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since he had left as a free agent when the Mets made him baseball’s highest-paid player.
Pittsburgh’s organist played “Take the Money and Run.” Pirates fans booed him and brought banners taunting what they saw as his greed. They threw things at him. Somebody chucked a golf ball from the upper deck and it hit Bonilla on the leg.
The half-inning after the golf ball hit him, Bobby Bonilla played the outfield in a helmet.
Meanwhile, they cheered Bonds, their local hero, who homered, doubled, drew a walk and scored three runs in a 7-2 victory. And in The New York Times, Joe Sexton made an astute point: One year from that day, “Bonds would probably be booed even worse than Bonilla is.” He was set to be a free agent after the season, and Bonds “has been almost defiant in his forecast that his tenure with Pittsburgh is close to finished.” Writers would wonder where player loyalty was anymore, but Bonds could look around that day and see precisely how loyal the fans themselves were. A golf ball from the upper deck!
We know now that Bonds was, indeed, soon to be gone. On June 4, 1993, he played against the Pirates as a San Francisco Giant. But on June 4, 1992, it didn’t matter to the Pirates fans. They didn’t care that he would surely leave them soon — he was here today. It was inevitable, but it hadn’t happened yet.