It is, then, our luck that the Astros' scheme came in this era, when every game is broadcast on television, when the broadcasts are extraordinarily well miked, when the energy online can remix official news into more entertaining analysis, and when the players themselves are mingling among us in the shared social space.
Every team has something in its history that would make for a perfect online moment. We're going to trace baseball history through 29 of these moments, one for every team except the Astros (whose moment is, obviously, the banging scheme). Some were huge stories at the time, some weren't but are easy to imagine breaking through in our current environment. Some are huge and scandalous, some merely small and weird, some consequential to the standings, others only GIF-worthy.
Most teams have far more than one item that could meet our standards. In the case of the Dodgers, you could have read about Rick Monday saving the American flag, Sandy Koufax sitting out for Yom Kippur, a mysterious sack of flour falling out of the sky into the middle of a game, or, of course, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. We just happened to pick something else. For the most part, too, we avoided player deaths, serious crimes and bigotry.
Jump to a franchise:
BAL | BOS | CHW | CLE | DET
HOU | KC | LAA | MIN | NYY
OAK | SEA | TB | TEX | TOR
ARI | ATL | CHC | CIN | COL
LAD | MIA | MIL | NYM | PHI
PIT | SD | SF | STL | WSH
Phillies: Vibrathrobs (Sept. 17, 1900)
The Phillies were crushing the Reds one day when Cincinnati catcher Tommy Corcoran zeroed in on Philadelphia third-base coach Pearce Chiles, who kept planting his foot in a very precise spot before each pitch. Corcoran suddenly "let out a loud yell, ran across the third base line, and began frantically kicking the ground around the area, using his spikes and hands to remove large clods of dirt," Paul Dickson writes in "The Hidden Language Of Baseball." "Fans thought he had gone mad." But Corcoran discovered "a small wooden box containing an electric buzzer with wires attached."
So began the sport's tradition, repeated and refined and eventually elevated even further by the 2017 Astros, of observing the catcher's signs from some place out in the outfield and relaying those signs to the batter, or to somebody standing near enough to communicate directly to the batter. The Phillies' plan was to send a buzzing signal to the third base coach. These signals were called, Dickson writes, "Vibrathrobs."
That was just one outrageous moment that this outrageous incident unleashed. Shortly after, the Phillies pretended to repeat the scheme, just to humiliate the Reds, who charged the spot and started digging. And then they went to Brooklyn and tried to re-create the scheme from an apartment window using binoculars (to see) and a folded newspaper (to signal). Meanwhile, the Reds went to Pittsburgh, where they sniffed around until they found the Pirates using a similar system, with the Pirates' signaler turning a rod installed on a fence, like clock hands.
Finally, the story's greatest twist of all: The organizer of the original scheme, the third-base coach Chiles, was arrested the following offseason in a con-artist scheme and drew a two-year prison sentence. Before he had served it all, he escaped from a Texas prison. Ron Schuler's SABR bio of Chiles finds him turning up at a couple semi-pro or minor-league fields, including one stint that ended when he assaulted a woman. After 1903 -- when he was "playing for Fortuna, a semi-pro club in a one-horse northern California town" -- he disappeared from the records. "Did he flee to Canada? Or Mexico? Did history intervene, leaving him an unidentified victim of the San Francisco earthquake or the sinking of an ocean liner? Or did he just fade away -- like thousands of roving odd jobbers, good and bad ones alike, without roots or loved ones? It's possible we won't ever know the final chapter of this strange, sad little story," Schuler wrote.
Giants: Baseball's craziest day ever (Oct. 8, 1908)
Probably no game was ever anticipated more than this one between the Giants and the Cubs to settle the National League pennant. We'll run through the background quickly before we get to the Day Of, which is probably the craziest Day Of that baseball has ever had.
The background is this: A few weeks earlier, the Giants and Cubs were fighting for the pennant when the Giants apparently won a game with a walk-off single. But the runner on first veered off to the celebration before touching second, as required; this is what you've probably heard of as Merkle's Boner. But the boner did not end the season, or anywhere close to it, and if either the Giants or Cubs had opened up a six-game lead in the National League it would have been inconsequential. Instead, the two teams each played ferociously down the stretch, and managed to finish the season officially tied. That forced the National League's president to make an official, season-defining ruling on the boner game. After two days of hearings -- while the Giants waited -- the league ruled that the Merkle game was ... a tie. Which meant the NL was tied. Which called for a one-game playoff in New York, to essentially reply the boner game. The Cubs hopped on "the fastest train ever ridden by any ball club" to travel the 1,000 miles to New York. Which brings us to the Day Of.
"With a fine day the greatest crowd that ever attended a baseball game in the history of the National sport will be on hand at the Polo Grounds to-day, and the conditions are of such a peculiar nature as to be unparalleled in the annals of the diamond," The New York Times wrote that morning. Compare that to what the paper wrote the next morning: "It is impossible to believe, after what happened yesterday at the Polo Grounds, that the earth is still on the same track it was clinging to 24 hours ago." According to the New York Times coverage of the day:
- Night watchmen "spent most of the night digging small boys out from under seats and the grandstand, and repelling those attempting to climb the fence under cover of darkness." By 10 a.m., 5,000 people were lined up to buy tickets for the 3 p.m. game. By 12:45, there were already 40,000 people in the stands, about seven times the average baseball attendance that year: "Thousands congested in the aisles and flocking into spaces around the bleachers, suddenly burst through the bonds that kept them from the field, and a great rush was made across the grounds for places on the sward beyond the white wash lines of the diamond."
- The stadium was officially sealed off, so fans swarmed the area around the park, rising higher and higher, like something out of "World War Z": Police trying to maintain order "were swept aside like corks before a torrent, and the horses of the mounted men were pushed and jammed against the high walls surrounding the grounds." Fans filled the subway tracks -- "braving even the third rail" -- and "finally the high-pitched roof of the grandstand was reached by hundreds. Toward the sky the crowd seemed to pile, and over the highest ring of fans reared the 155th Street viaduct and Coogan's Bluff, higher yet and dense with men, women and children." They climbed 100-foot poles around the subway tracks. One man fell off a pole and died nearly instantly -- Frank McBride, "an enthusiastic follower of base-ball" -- and "his vacant place was quickly filled."
I could go on and on, because the details of the crowding -- "vigorous cops clobbering," "men fought just for fun," "never since the days of Roma and its arena contests," etc. -- are incredible. But there's more to this day:
- Each team tried to incite the other into getting ejected for fighting before the game. The Giants took over the field for infield practice while the Cubs were still taking BP, and when Cubs manager Frank Chance objected, Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity stepped on Chance's toes, spit toward him and raised his bat menacingly. Meanwhile, before that, Chance had "told his men before they took the field to each choose a Giant to pick on. 'Call 'em everything in the book.'"
- The Giants' team physician, Joseph Creamer -- hired as a close personal friend of manager John McGraw -- tried to bribe the umpires with a handful of cash offered underneath the grandstand. According to umpire Bill Klem -- who called this the most exciting day of his career -- Creamer told Klem, "Here's $2,500 which is yours if you will give all close decisions to the Giants and see that they win sure." Creamer claimed a well-known politician was backing him, though later investigations alleged "future Hall-of-Famers John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and Roger Bresnahan" as having provided the money. In any case, Klem rejected it, and tried to get the National League to assign new umpires to the game. None were available. Creamer would be banned from baseball for life.
- Speaking of those three Hall of Famers -- Mathewson started the game. Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown pitched most of it for the Cubs, having entered the game as a reliever in the first inning and gone the rest of the way. Tinker, Evers and Chance -- from Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame -- were all in the lineup, and all future Hall of Famers.
- Chance was also the manager, and upon the game's conclusion -- the Cubs won 4-2 -- there was a near riot as fans attacked him and other Cubs, and tried to overrun the clubhouse. Most seriously, one fan pulled a knife and slashed starting pitcher Jack Pfeister. Another hit Chance with a thrown bottle. "He was struck in the neck and painfully hurt. ... It was found that a cartilage in his neck had been torn by the blow. ... He could barely speak above a whisper." Some reports had Chance picking up bottles and throwing them right back, injuring a spectator.
Ultimately, the Cubs snuck out the way they'd arrived: One at a time, to keep fans from spotting them. They boarded a train to Detroit, where they won the World Series easily, the last championship for the Cubs for more than a century.
Yankees: Babe 'Piece of Cheese' Ruth (March 20, 1920)
There are at least a couple dozen Babe Ruth events that would fit in this article, maybe far more. These are just off the top of my head:
- The time he was jailed for speeding, missed the start of a game, and after paying his $100 fine sped even faster to the park. He got there in the sixth inning.
- The time there was a stampede during his barnstorming tour, and 62 people were injured and two died -- one of them a 17-year-old student who reportedly died in Ruth's arms as he stroked her brow.
- The time he was chasing a fly ball and ran into a palm tree, knocking himself unconscious.
- The time he got chased naked through a train car (filled with reporters!) by a woman with a knife.
- The time he got ejected one batter into a game, punched the umpire, and his reliever retired the next 26 batters (and also caught Ruth's runner stealing) for a combined no-hitter.
- The time he may or may not have called his shot in the World Series.
- The time he missed half a season with some ailment that was widely rumored to be syphilis.
- The time 17-year-old Chattanooga Lookout Jackie Mitchell struck him out during an exhibition game. (She struck out Lou Gehrig, too.)
- The time he made his first ever radio appearance, froze up with stage fright, and was "replaced" by the radio host pretending to be him.
- The time in 1918 when he got mad at his manager and quit the Red Sox, signing a contract to play with the Chester, Pennsylvania, shipyard instead.
- The time he collapsed, rumors swirled that he'd died, and some newspapers actually ran his obituary.
But my favorite is the one best told as simply as possible: In spring training, in 1920, while he was struggling as a brand new Yankee, a fan in the stands kept calling him "a piece of cheese." Or maybe those are just the clean words that the newspaper writers settled on. Anyway, Ruth went into the stands to fight the guy, and the guy pulled a knife. Ruth's teammate, Ernie Shore, the underrated hero of Babe Ruth's life, saved Ruth from that scrape.
Reds: The protest nap (June 20, 1920)
The thing I can't figure out about this is who got owned. I could really see us all laughing hysterically at the guy who couldn't stay awake at his job. On the other hand, falling asleep, refusing to wake up and making the umpire wake you up has to be the most emphatic, umpire-owning protest of all time.
So which is it? We need to see the details from the reporting at the time: In the bottom of the eighth, there was a fair/foul decision the Reds disagreed with. Just about the whole team ran toward umpire Barry McCormack to argue for about 15 minutes. One Red was tossed for throwing equipment. Finally, things were resolved and ready to go, until "[Edd] Roush was discovered using centre field for a davenport." He didn't wake up immediately, so he was tossed for, as I believe the fuzzy scan of the New York Times puts its, "laze majeste" -- a pretty good pun on lese majeste, or insulting of the crown. This set Roush off. "Then came another delay during which the heretofore quiet Roush became a central figure in a storm scene in which Pat Moran and other Reds restrained Eddie. Roush wanted to merge more closely with the ump than the law allows." That took about 10 minutes. Finally, Roush went to the bench; the Giants protested that he had to leave the scene entirely, but everybody just wanted to play some ball, so McCormack let him stay. Roush drew "an indefinite" suspension for his threats and arguing, not, apparently, for the nap.
So who owned whom? It seems pretty clear that McCormack blew it, and was the one who was owned. Napping as protest is a fantastic move. It is the coolest, Bugs Bunny-est response to an aggravated Sylvester. The way for McCormack to have out-Bugsed that move would have been to simply order play to begin. There's no law against lying down on the field as a defender, and no reason play couldn't have gone on under those circumstances. Roush wasn't technically disrupting anything. He was only hurting his own team. And, had McCormack let play go on, the ump would have pushed Roush into decision-making time. Would the outfielder just lay there, obviously faking it, while baserunners circled? Or would he sheepishly get up and rejoin the awake? Either way, his protest would lose its force.
But by forcing Roush awake, McCormack overstepped -- because, again, Roush wasn't technically doing anything illegal, other than owning McCormack -- and gave Roush the invitation to extend the argument period even longer. Which is probably what the Reds wanted, and which is definitely what the umpire -- whose job is to keep the game moving smoothly -- did not want. That McCormack lost his nerve and let Roush stay on the bench rather than invite another storm of protest just proves it. Edd Roush is a legend, and no argument since has topped his silent (and then unsilent) one.
Cardinals: The Chain-Gang (March 23, 1938)
Branch Rickey's "first great innovation was the farm system," Andy McCue writes for the Society for American Baseball Research. Rather than scouting minor leaguers and buying their contracts from their Class A teams, the Cardinals would simply buy the teams, or establish working agreements with the teams whereby they would have sole access to the developing players. By 1938 -- two decades into Rickey's experiment -- the Cardinals' organization had become humongous and arguably quite corrupt. Among other sins, the Cardinals controlled -- officially or unofficially -- entire leagues worth of teams, with close to 1,000 players under St. Louis ownership. They were known around the league as the St. Louis Chain-Gang, giving you a sense of the players' freedom within this system.
Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis considered it unfair and a conflict of interest to control more than one team in a league -- not to mention terribly disadvantageous to the young farmhands stashed in the minors by a compulsive prospect hoarder -- and in 1938 he found the Cardinals "guilty of illegal traffic in baseball players." He freed at least 74 Cardinals farmhands -- some estimates put it at 120 players over two years -- and fined the club. The best prospect released was Pete Reiser, and, McCue writes, Rickey tried to subvert the ruling by arranging an under-the-table deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign and then return Reiser to the Cardinals. Reiser torched spring training competition, though, and the Dodgers kept him. Three years later, as a 22-year-old, Reiser would win the batting title and finish second in MVP voting as a Dodger.
The St. Louis Star and Times, breaking the news of what was about to happen, called it "the most important decision in the history of baseball." It was not that! But imagine if former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow had been found to have systematically cheated to acquire entire teams worth of prospects for the Astros, stripping bonus money from them in the process, and the league declared scores of them -- including a megaprospect like Forrest Whitley -- free agents all at once. It was like that.
Browns/Orioles: The triumph of the one-armed man (Aug. 19, 1945)
Pete Gray lost his right arm, above the elbow, when he was 6 years old. He learned to do everything left handed, including play baseball. Hitting one-handed was relatively simple, if, obviously, difficult. Fielding was complicated (and also difficult), but he worked out a system where he'd "squeeze the ball out of my glove with my arm and it would roll across my chest and drop to my stomach. The ball would drop right into my hand and my small, crooked finger prevented it from bouncing away." He got good enough to play slow-pitch softball for his church team.
Just kidding! He got good enough to play a full season in the major leagues.
In 1945, Gray hit .218 as a major leaguer with one arm. That's obviously not great, and he was in the 5th percentile of major league hitters that year -- but it means he was better than 5% of major league hitters that year. On Aug. 19, 1945, he had four hits in a 13-inning game, batting second and playing center field for a team with a winning record. He scored three runs, drove in another and recorded six putouts. Who knows how you'd justify this claim, but a skilled debater could surely prove that, given the disadvantage of one-armed play, Gray was the greatest athlete the sport ever had.
Of course, nobody misses the fact that he played in the majors only because so many big leaguers (and minor leaguers) were fighting in World War II. Still, it's not like there were no good players left. Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Lou Boudreau, Joe Medwick and Hank Greenberg played that season, and their numbers weren't way out of line from the rest of their recent (and future) careers. Rather than downplay Gray's accomplishments as "only because of WWII," it probably makes more sense to say that it was only thanks to WWII that scouts and executives got over their rather obvious bias against him. He didn't play his first game in affiliated minor league ball until 1942, when he was already 27 years old. (Tellingly, the scout signed him before telling his boss Gray only had one arm.) He hit .381.
Cubs: Bugged! (sometime in the late 1960s)
The two biggest cheating scandals in the 2010s were, of course, the Astros' players stealing signs (scurrilous by baseball laws), and the Cardinals' assistant GM hacking into an opponent's databases (illegal by real-life laws). The Cubs' scheme in the late '60s had a bit of each, according to Paul Dickson, the author of The Hidden Language Of Baseball:
As manager of the Cubs in the late 1960s, Leo Durocher had the visiting team's clubhouse bugged. Gaylord Perry, pitching for San Francisco, later related that when the Giants detected this, they held team meetings to loudly discuss bogus pitching plans just to confuse the Cubs.
This isn't the only case of suspected clubhouse bugging. Dickson -- who is also Durocher's biographer -- goes on to say that the 1977 Texas Rangers were convinced the Yankees were doing the same thing, and swept the clubhouse for bugs. And when Davey Johnson played in Japan, Tim Kurkjian writes, "his manager knew that the visiting clubhouse in a certain ballpark was bugged by the home team." The club adjusted by using bespoke codes for each player, worn on opaque wristbands.
Pirates: The LSD no-hitter (June 12, 1970)
When my dad was a young man, he twice spent a night in jail. Once, he was driving his dad's car -- registered to his dad's roofing company -- and a police officer took him to jail on suspicion of auto theft. The other time, he was in college and got the bright idea of getting himself thrown in jail -- by refusing to pay a $5 traffic ticket -- to interview prisoners for a sociology research paper. (It was a disaster.) These two stories fascinate his young granddaughter, who has a still-developing view of good vs. evil and morality vs. law, and so she makes him tell these stories constantly. He has probably told these stories 15 times in the past three years. Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter while tripping on LSD is baseball's version of that. You've heard this story, you definitely want to hear it again, and after that some time will pass and you'll want to hear it some more. Here's the best version, culled from a radio interview he did just before his death and animated just after his death.
There are only two blemishes to this story: The first is that Ellis didn't reveal it until 14 years after the fact, and if it weren't such a fantastic story we'd take it with a grain of salt. But, of course, the degree of fantasticality is directly proportional to how much salt we should deploy. The other blemish is that it's only the second-funniest start of Ellis' career: the game where he declared he was going to hit every Reds batter, and he proceeded to hit the first, hit the second, hit the third, walk the fourth when the batter dodged four inside pitches, and throw a couple at the head of the fifth, before being removed. Ellis later claimed he was on LSD (or maybe pep pills) for that one, too, but, you know, salt.
A's: Vida Blues (March 17, 1972)
Understand who Vida Blue was at this moment in time: He was 22 years old, and he had just won the Cy Young Award and the MVP award in the American League. He had led the league in wins, ERA, WHIP and FIP, and strikeouts and hits per nine innings. And, again, he was 22 years old. There really isn't a comp in 2019 that can capture how young and how good Blue was back then; maybe Ronald Acuna Jr., maybe Cody Bellinger. Maybe you'd have to go back to Mike Trout six years ago, or Clayton Kershaw eight years ago. Anyway, here's what happened:
He retired. Unable to reach an agreement on his salary with A's owner Charlie Finley, he took a job doing PR work for a steel company that specialized in bathroom cabinets, shower stalls and range hoods.
"It is with deep regret and sadness I announce my leaving baseball," Blue said. "I had hoped my career could have been longer. While it was short, it was packed with excitement." The announcement came hours before the league was to appear in front of the Supreme Court to defend its reserve clause, which, in Red Smith's words at the time, "gives the game's Charlie Finleys outright ownership of the game's Vida Blues."
"I'm sorry to learn," Finley said. "He had a great future ahead of him. As long as he is retiring, I'm happy that he has selected the steel industry and is starting out as a vice president."
Alas, Blue -- who didn't take questions at the press conference -- wasn't quite able to keep a straight face. His announcement did make it to the top of sports pages. But, as one write-up noted, he "began giggling" at one point. That might not have been the best for his leverage. He really did go on to do work for the steel company while holding out for a month into the season. He finally signed, but took a couple more weeks to get conditioned, and the season turned out to be a disaster: a league-average ERA, a 6-10 record, and a postseason spent mostly in the bullpen. (Fifteen years later, upon returning to Oakland after a long career, he really did retire abruptly.)
Brewers: The Outlaw Bernie Brewer (July 7, 1973)
I'd like to imagine that this scandal -- in which Rangers manager Whitey Herzog accused the Brewers of using an Astros-like sign-stealing scheme that centered on their brand new mascot, Bernie Brewer, clapping for breaking balls -- would come with all sorts of made-to-meme visuals if it happened today. An umpire peering down suspiciously into Bernie Brewer's face hole. Bernie Brewer, palms out, giant dead-eyed mascot smile, pleading his innocence. Bernie Brewer perp-walked out of the stands. Bernie Brewer's mug shot. Bernie Brewer in court. Bernie Brewer in prison orange. Bernie Brewer with a face tattoo. Bernie Brewer, decades later, released and hanging out on a park bench, feeding pigeons from a giant mug. But, of course, it would really just go like this: A leaguewide memo stating that mascots couldn't be in certain sections except in-between innings. Nevertheless.
In 1973, Herzog described it like this: "I couldn't figure out why that other guy"-- the other guy being Bernie Brewer, a mascot -- "had no white gloves on when we bat but put them on when they came to bat. Then he'd clap like hell every time we called for a breaking pitch. He called the right pitch six times in a row." The umpire ordered Bernie Brewer to take off his gloves, and that was the end of the one-day story when the Brewers were stealing signs using a mascot.
Padres: The owner and the streaker (April 9, 1974)
Ray Kroc had owned the San Diego Padres franchise for three and a half games when he'd had enough. In the eighth inning of the Padres' home opener, Kroc went to his new public address booth, grabbed his new microphone, and breathed out into the great expanse of his new baseball stadium: "Ladies and gentleman, I suffer with you. ... I have good news and bad news. The good news is the Dodgers drew 31,000 for their opener and we drew 39,000 for ours. The bad news is that this is the most stupid baseball playing I've ever seen."
Which is all amazing enough, and would play extremely well on Twitter these days. But what really makes it a perfect social media moment is what those ellipses up there represent: A streaker running onto the field.
So, in the middle of the owner of the team bawling out his players at their own home opener, a man ran naked onto the field. "Get that streaker off the field!" Kroc yelled at the interruption. "Throw him in jail!"
Kroc, pressured by the commissioner and the players union, later apologized. He blamed the streaker.
Angels: Nolan Ryan's unthinkable pitch count (June 14, 1974)
Nolan Ryan started on this day, three months before Frank Jobe performed the first "Tommy John" surgery on a guy named Tommy John. By the fourth inning of Ryan's start, according to the L.A. Times game story, Ryan had already thrown 84 pitches, having struck out nine batters and walked six. In the fourth inning itself: Walk, walk, walk, strikeout, walk, strikeout, strikeout. In 2019, a starter would quite likely be pulled from the game with that pitch count in four innings.
But Ryan would end up going 13 innings that night. He walked 10 and struck out 19, each outcome requiring more pitches than a typical plate appearance. Pitches weren't generally counted in that era, and they weren't mentioned in the next day's paper. But a pitch-count estimator developed by sabermetrician Tom Tango puts it at 242. Some reports said 238. The most common number, credited years after the fact to Ryan's pitching coach's unofficial hand clicker, was 235.
Of course, the sport was different then. But even then, even for Ryan, this was a ridiculous outlier. By the Tango pitch estimator, no other start he made in 1974 was higher (or much higher) than 175. A very small handful of pitchers probably topped 200 that year, but barely; the pitch estimator puts nobody within 30 pitches of Ryan. (Luis Tiant, in the same game, probably threw about 200, completing the 15-inning game the winner.) And, of course, Ryan was the opposite of a low-effort hurler. Watch him in the ninth inning of a no-hit bid after that year, and see how he puts as much oomph into his throws as the most high-effort relievers of today.
Thirty years later, in an article revisiting the pitch count -- which wasn't news at the time -- Ryan said his most lasting memory was not wanting to come out when he did, at the end of the 13th. Observed Bill James: "It obviously ruined his arm because he had to retire 19 years later."
Braves: Ted Turner, manager for a day (May 11, 1977)
The most social-media-ready moment that could happen in a baseball game is a normal person somehow getting to play. That hasn't happened yet, so a normal person getting to manage is the closest thing to it. The Braves had lost 16 games when Turner, then 38 years old and building a reputation as the latest eccentric team owner, decided to put his manager on leave and do the job himself. While Turner wasn't quite an everyman, it was the closest modern baseball ever got to letting a Normal Person wear a uniform and get in the game. Turner spent one day in the job, leaning heavily on his coaches to tell him what to do, and letting his starting pitcher throw a complete game. Infielder Darrel Chaney remembers seeing Turner watching the opposing manager, Chuck Tanner, in the Pirates dugout. "It looked to me that every time Tanner would cross his legs, Turner would cross his legs, you know? Like he was trying to figure out what to do."
The Braves lost, and then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Turner that owners weren't allowed to manage. Turner tried to negotiate -- what if he spent a year managing in the minors, learning how? -- but the commissioner wouldn't budge. Bleh.
Royals: The case of the stolen uniforms (June 12, 1977)
There's that "Seinfeld" line about how we're all rooting for laundry, but for a day in 1977 the concept was turned upside down:
As you can tell from that clip -- or from the New York Times' article the next day -- the time that the Royals' uniforms were stolen from their clubhouse and they had to borrow the Brewers' uniforms for a game against the Brewers really only sets up one joke. But if this happened, we would all make this joke, gleefully and non-stop for three hours.
As Paul Lukas at Uni Watch wrote, "I'd never heard about this Royals/Brewers game until now, which just goes to show how this type of event could fly under the radar back in the day. If something like this happened nowadays, everyone would be all over it and it would immediately be documented as a notable chapter in uni history." Oddly, I couldn't find any resolution: Did they find the thieves? Did any ever show up in memorabilia sales? Stay tuned.
Dodgers: The birth of the high-five (Oct. 2, 1977)
As Dusty Baker approached home plate in the sixth inning of the final game of the 1977 season, it was already a huge moment in Dodger Stadium. Baker had just hit his 30th home run, joining Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith as the first quartet of teammates in history to reach that mark. This was, at the time, a really big deal. Baker had been trying to launch the historic home run all weekend, popping balls up in his overeagerness. After he finally hit his 30th, the 46,501 Dodgers fans in attendance gave him four standing ovations. Later in the game, all four of the 30-some home run hitters were called out for a curtain call. "I have the same feeling today that I had on the night that Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run," said Baker, who'd been on deck for the Aaron record-breaker. It was a big, breathless moment.
It was just a fluke that Glenn Burke was the next hitter up. He would normally never have hit cleanup. He was an extremely captivating young player, muscular and toolsy, extroverted and hilarious and already considered the life of the Dodgers' clubhouse. A future star, many felt, but not that yet. He had never homered as a major leaguer, and he usually batted seventh or eighth. But in this game, Garvey had exited early, and Burke took his spot behind Baker. That put him in position to greet Baker at home plate.
"Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate," Jon Mooallem wrote for ESPN The Magazine in 2011. "Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. 'His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,' says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. 'So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.'"
It's never been formally settled, but that is the moment most often credited as the birth of the high-five. Who knows, maybe it would have died there. But Burke then went up to the plate and hit his first major league home run. Baker greeted him with another high-five. Two is a movement.
"From there," Mooallem writes, "the high-five went ricocheting around the world. Even by 1980, the Dodgers were selling 'High Five' T-shirts with a trademarked logo of two upraised hands connecting. A promotional poster explained: 'The High Five salute has become the Dodgers' standard salute during the 1980 season. It is given customarily following a home run, good defensive play or Dodger victory.' The high five was being celebrated as a welcome injection of style throughout sports. In 1981, the Canadian magazine Maclean's noted that, thankfully, 'when a black guy has hit a home run,' the players scoring ahead of him don't just stand around anymore and 'shake his hand like a bunch of Rotarians at lunch on a Tuesday.'
"In this interpretation, Burke didn't just add a bit of flair to baseball -- he uncorked a repressed longing for personal expression and connection in all of American society."
Burke's story gets tragic after that. He retired in 1980, having faced anti-gay attitudes from some of the teammates and bosses who knew that he was gay. (He came out publicly only after he retired.) He struggled with drugs and financial insecurity and tested positive for HIV. He died in 1995. No footage of his historic high-five exists; the game in 1977 wasn't even televised.
Conditions are different in 2020. If a player as beautiful as Burke invented something as epiphanic as the high-five today, it would be a meme by the seventh inning. It would inspire wave after wave of remixed tributes, like bat flips to the power of Harlem Shake. Who knows how else Burke's life might have changed if he'd been a star today instead of four decades ago.
Mets: The Bill Buckner, er, Mike Sergio game (Oct. 25, 1986)
It's one of the three or four most famous games of the past 50 years. But for about three hours, before it became the Bill Buckner game, it was the Mike Sergio game. Sergio, an actor and musician who refers to this as "performance art," parachuted into Shea Stadium in the first inning with a Let's Go Mets banner, landing a few feet from the pitching mound. He was arrested and released, but before that he was sweating what would happen to his name in history if the Mets lost. He figured he would be blamed; might go down as the cause of a franchise jinx. So when the Mets rallied to win while he was still in jail, he says, "the atmosphere turned pretty festive." He refused to give up his accomplice -- the pilot, who violated FAA rules with the flight -- and spent three weeks in jail as a result, claiming only that "I'm just glad I had my parachute on when I fell out of the bleachers."
Mariners: Ken Griffey Jr. raps (April 28, 1992)
At the time, Ken Griffey Jr. was the coolest baseball player active -- maybe the coolest ever -- and rap was ascendant as the hippest musical genre. In 1992, the two met when Griffey rapped four verses on the song "The Way I Swing" by the rapper Kid Sensation, part of Sir Mix-A-Lot's posse.
The album charted on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, but Griffey's hobby was mostly ignored in the press, which is odd. A hypothesis for why it didn't get more attention: Griffey's raps weren't good enough to get him recognition for goodness (Mookie Betts is a better bowler than Griffey is a rapper) or bad enough for him to be a punchline (Griffey is a better rapper than Shaquille O'Neal was an actor). Griffey showed up, tried his best, didn't make a mockery of the genre or treat his role as ironic, and ended up a C-minus performer on a B-minus track. Other than in the local press, it was mostly ignored.
However, there were some real clunkers in his verses, which bounced between braggadocio and warnings against drug use, and we should commemorate those clunkers. The five worst:
5. The G the r the i the f the f the e the y / see I'm Siegfried and rough, so why / try to step to number 24 coolin' in the flat / you get cracked with a baseball bat
4. You want to see me in action at home / just turn on the TV or visit the Kingdome / that's the place where I swing the most / not to brag or boast but I swing coast to coast
3. Take the beat and get dope but not crack / I mean the kind of dope that's far from whack
2. If I see a fire then I pull the fire alarm / but if I see a girl I like then I pull her by the arm / and start throwing that game like a pitcher / but if the attitude is rude I switch her
1. I'm about to wrap it up no pun intended / just wave your hands and that will be splendid
Rangers: The brawl (Aug. 4, 1993)
As Jomboy puts it, "Robin Ventura has no plan. I don't know what his plan was." While this is a nearly universal problem for mound-chargers-- the pitcher gets to stand there bracing, while the charger has to improvise something in the heat of the moment on uneven turf and inevitably ends up looking like a dork -- it really does need to be pointed out that Ventura's plan is among the oddest: He takes off his helmet. He jogs toward Ryan. And then he slows down and lays his head directly in the crook of Ryan's armpit. His head hits that armpit like a tired nurse's head hits the pillow at the end of a long day. He finds that armpit like it's a mother's embrace, like it's a cozy sleeping bag, like it's a basket of bread after a 90-minute wait to be seated. "I can't stand," Ventura probably said as he fell into Ryan's strong, furious clutch. "Hold me up." And Ryan did, until the wave did what waves do.
White Sox: Michael Jordan's pickup game (Feb. 7, 1994)
There's not much to say about Michael Jordan playing minor league baseball after walking away from the peak of his basketball career, but to put it in perspective: It'd be like if Ken Griffey Jr., rather than appearing on one rap song in 1992 (see above), had retired from baseball to become a rapper full time. And then immediately gone on tour.
It's, of course, still incredible that Jordan did it, and that he did as well as a ballplayer as he did. But it feels significant that the best anecdotes from the time involve him playing pickup basketball against his teammates. "I remember trying to set a pick for him in a pickup game," said broadcaster Curt Bloom, "only to have him tell me, 'I don't need that.'" Michael Jordan playing basketball against baseball players is, ultimately, more interesting than Michael Jordan playing baseball against them.
Expos/Nationals: The two-second souvenir (April 24, 1994)
It might be the least significant act on this list, but the moment Larry Walker runs back and asks the kid for the ball back -- "I can fix this!" -- is the funniest moment in baseball history.
Red Sox: Boggs' beer flight (Summer 1994)
The story of how many beers Wade Boggs drank on a single flight has changed so much-- from 50 to 64 to 70 to Boggs' own claim of 107 -- that it's hard to really take it seriously. The number 107 sounds so precise, sounds like it must be the official tally, but then if there is a right answer why were we fiddling around with numbers that were off by a factor of two for so long? That's always a good clue that something is a lie: When something is both too specific and yet somehow also malleable. I could accept 64 if everybody had stuck to that number. I could maybe accept a round, even 100 as roughly credible, mentally adjusting for exaggeration but believing the contours. But "107" is a clearly fake number, and it sounds like a liar just trying to tell an even better lie.
But beyond that, 107 goes too far. That's 10 gallons of beer. Ten gallons! Debunkers have been hung up on the blood alcohol question -- could Boggs really have that much alcohol without dying -- but I can accept that I don't have intuitive sense of another man's ability to metabolize alcohol. I do know what drinking 10 gallons of anything in a day would be like, though. I know what drinking 80 pounds of liquid would be like. Over the course of 12 hours, even half as much water could kill a person. I obviously have no idea. But I bet Wade Boggs never topped 50.
Indians: Grimsley steals Belle's bat (July 15, 1994)
"As I was sitting there, the thought came to my mind: I can get that bat.''
And so begins -- no hyperbole here -- the most suspenseful four innings of action in baseball history. Truly, skip the rest of this section and read Buster Olney's account in The New York Times from 1999, five years after Albert Belle's bat was confiscated for suspected corking, sent to the umpires' dressing room for safekeeping, and then freed by teammate Jason Grimsley, who had a thought come to his mind: He could get that bat.
We're now going to spoil Olney's/Grimsley's masterful retelling, so if you want to get the full effect this is your last chance to abandon us and go there. But here goes:
Belle was, at the time, a) having one of the greatest offensive seasons ever, b) perhaps the most vilified active player in the game, and c) corking his bat. The White Sox, in a fierce pennant race with Cleveland, suspected (c). So they asked the umpires to confiscate his bat, which the umpires did. Their dressing room would be the vault.
Grimsley started thinking about how to get the bat, and he considered it an extension of the game that was going on in the field -- which is probably consistent with baseball's long and complicated relationship with sign-stealing and cheating, whereby it's considered the other guy's responsibility, not your own conscience's, to stop you. "It's like the game we play," Grimsley told Olney. "This was a challenge."
Grimsley extrapolated from his knowledge of the clubhouse ceiling-removable square tiles -- to deduce what the umpire's room would be topped with. He "walked back toward the clubhouse and down a hallway to do some reconnaissance -- he noted the whereabouts of the umpires' room, and the cinder-block walls that framed the rooms.
"If he climbed above the ceiling, Grimsley figured, he could crawl atop the cinder-block walls and work his way from the Indians' clubhouse to the umpires' room. He estimated the distance between the clubhouse and the umpires' room to be at least 100 feet."
He started his journey from his manager's desk, climbing up to remove a tile and find the stability of the cinder-block wall. He and an accomplice with a flashlight began to move between "piping that hung from wires," crossing the walls slowly -- pulling himself along on his stomach -- in the direction he had pre-navigated. It took 35 to 40 minutes to get to where he thought they were going.
He opened the ceiling -- and found the wrong room. A groundskeeper was in there. The groundskeeper didn't say anything. The good news is Grimsley now knew where he was. His next guess was true.
''My heart was going 1,000 miles an hour,'' Grimsley said. ''And in I went. I just rolled the dice. A crapshoot.'' What if an umpire had walked in at that moment? ''I'm nailed,'' he said. ''I'm busted.''
He made the switch and climbed back out, making sure he hadn't left dusty footprints on top of the refrigerator that he had used for a boost. He fixed the tile, and ''as soon as I got back up, somebody came back in the room. I had to sit there for about two minutes; I was about 20 or 30 feet from somebody.''
Grimsley held silent, then eventually returned to the clubhouse. The journey took four innings. His teammates celebrated.
It was all moot, of course. The umpires immediately noticed after the game that the bat had been switched. "White Sox officials were apoplectic, and there was talk of bringing in the FBI. Ultimately, the Indians were told that if they returned Belle's original bat, there would be no punishment for whomever made the switch. They complied, and Belle was given a 10-game suspension, a penalty that was appealed and reduced to 7 games." The perfect suspense film ended in perfect farce. Here's a podcast about it.
Marlins: The fire sale (November 1997)
At an Arizona Fall League game just days after the Marlins won the 1997 World Series, the club's vice president for player personnel told some other baseball execs: "They're all available." His good players. And sure enough, the Marlins traded 12 major leaguers that offseason or early in the 1998 season, shipping off two-thirds of their World Series club's WAR production. The equivalent share of the 2018 Boston Red Sox would have been, roughly: Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman. The defending champs saw attendance plummet and finished 52 games out of first place.
Baseball's history of broke or cheap teams shocking the sport's conscience by selling off all their good players is long and crass. There are probably three other moments that especially stand out: The 1914 A's went from losing the World Series to, in 1915, going 43-109 after selling off some of their stars and cutting salaries (and inspiring long holdouts) of others; the 1977 A's saw free agency coming and sold their best players for cash, only to have the commissioner void the deals; the 2013 Houston Astros cut their payroll to $26 million -- barely double the theoretical minimum -- as part of their long and total rebuild. But for shock value, the 1997-98 Marlins stand alone, and their offseason crossed over into mainstream scorn. The columnist Thomas Friedman was writing about them on The New York Times op-ed pages. The annual visit to the White House could muster only 14 active Marlins, most of the rest of the roster having floated away. Meanwhile, even the other parts of the Marlins' offseason were marked by chaos and dysfunction: Gary Sheffield complained he was getting bad medical treatment from the club; a top prospect was granted free agency after it was revealed the Marlins had (unwittingly) signed him as a 14-year-old, and he ended up on the Yankees instead; the top pick in the expansion draft came from the Marlins, a sign that the club had done a poor job deciding who to protect; and even the veterans who weren't traded by Opening Day had to deal with constant trade rumors around them. They knew: They were all available.
Rockies: The final .400 chase (Aug. 21, 2000)
Todd Helton's batting average in 2000 had some advantages. That was the most offense-friendly season of the steroids era, with more runs per game than any season since the 1930s. And Helton's home park was Coors Field, the most batting-average-friendly ballpark in modern history. Rockies hitters hit .334 at home that year, 82 points higher than on the road.
Still. Helton gave us baseball's last credible .400 chase, by which we mean most recent and also quite possibly last one forever. It was arguably underappreciated at the time, because Helton never managed to end any day after June 10 over .400. But in the middle of a torrid August -- he hit .476 that month -- Helton reached .400 in the middle of games multiple times, including after his third at-bat on Aug. 21, when he was at .400 on the nose. That's the latest in the season any hitter has been at .400 since George Brett's famed chase in September 1980. By one measure Brett got closer -- he was nearer to the season's end -- but by another measure Helton did. While Brett's season had been shortened by injury, and he had only 460 plate appearances during his last brush with .400, Helton had more than 530. Helton's season, unlike Brett's, had reached enough plate appearances to qualify as official. In other words, the only thing that kept Helton from baseball's only official .400 season since Ted Williams is that Helton didn't quit right there and then.
Alas, Helton kept playing, and settled at .372. For the record, he hit .353 on the road that year.
Rays: The legend of Toe Nash (January 2001)
Oh, man, Toe Nash. Only one prospect in baseball history has a higher ratio of fans who've heard of him to fans who ever saw him, and it's Sidd Finch, a literal hoax. For about a month, Nash was the closest thing modern baseball has to "The Natural" story: Signed by a scout who found him on a diamond "literally carved out of the cane fields" in Louisiana. Six-foot-six, "cut like marble," hitting homers from both sides of the plate and throwing 95 with a curveball that "broke straight into the ground."
The Rays' GM at the time, Chuck LaMar: "How good will he be? No one knows. But with his power and his arm, he has an unlimited ceiling as a hitter or as a pitcher. I'd watch him playing against and holding his own with college players four or five years his senior in the Instructional League, and think 'This kid hasn't been to school since the seventh grade or played organized ball since Little League ... I must be dreaming.' You couldn't make this up."
He ended up playing 47 games in the very low minors, and he was OK. "Legal problems" -- a series of criminal charges and convictions, including some violent crimes -- ended his career very shortly after that. I've still never even seen footage of him.
Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson kills a bird (March 24, 2001)
My favorite fun fact is this: If you take a deck of cards and shuffle it a few times, it is most likely in an order that no deck of cards has ever been in before. The number of possible combinations is something like a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion. None of the orders is any more special than any others. The shuffle that delivers you the ace you need is no more likely or unlikely than the one that deals you a quack.
Something in that notion is how I feel about Randy Johnson throwing a pitch that killed a passing bird, an absolutely mind-boggling moment made perfect by the fact -- irrelevant to the bird, but not to the narrative -- that the pitch was thrown by the greatest fireballer in baseball history. It is *so* unlikely. On the other hand, it's just atoms moving around, continually being shuffled into orders that will only happen once, no more unlikely than my existence or yours. It almost brings me to tears.
Twins: Matt LeCroy eats a beetle (July 18, 2004)
As Matt LeCroy remembered it years later, the Twins were slumping and he just wanted to loosen things up. So when he saw a black beetle trudging through the clubhouse, he asked his teammates how much they would pay him to eat it alive. He goaded them to up their bids -- the first was just $100 -- and, when they reached $550, he accepted. "As reliever Juan Rincon got out the video camera to film the events, LeCroy danced around the middle of the room like a boxer psyching himself up for a big bout. With the beetle's legs squirming, LeCroy inserted it into his mouth and munched down on the poor victim. After swallowing it, he opened his mouth wide and stuck out his tongue to prove the deed."
If that happened today, we'd have the video.
"Sure enough, we won about seven in a row after that," LeCroy later said. Which isn't quite right: They lost that day's game, a brutal walk-off defeat that kept them out of first place. But they did win the next five, and nine of the next 10, which helped put them five games into first place by the trade deadline, and the Twins would end up running away with the division. LeCroy, meanwhile, fell into a terrible slump, hitting just .183/.242/.250 over the next 50 days.
Tigers: The near-perfect perfect game (June 2, 2010)
The meme infrastructure wasn't really established yet in 2010. If it had been 10 years later, the Armando Galarraga Can't Believe It face probably would have been baseball's version of LeBron Yelling At J.R. Smith or McKayla Maroney Not Impressed. (But not up to the level of Crying Jordan.) As it was, Galarraga's effort -- a totally out-of-nowhere perfect game disrupted by an egregious blown call on the 27th out -- got a shoutout from the White House press briefing, a song by the Dylanesque songwriter Dan Bern, and instant replay in baseball.
Blue Jays: Bautista's bat flip (Oct. 14, 2015)
Jose Bautista flipped the bat and the whole world expanded. There have been thousands of bat flips before and since, but it's a mistake to think of what happened that night as just "a bat flip." As with so much language, the meaning comes from context and culture that is slippery to pin down but unmistakably easy to feel. Bautista's bat flip was the most confident act we've probably ever seen on a baseball field, and excluding actual acts of violence (or, heck, even including them) it's probably the most hostile. It was so sudden and severe and loaded with backstory and ripples that Grantland tried to write the oral history of it immediately. It was so visually arresting that it was on ugly-knit Christmas sweaters that winter, and it has been suggested as a replacement for the MLB logo. It was pure and perfect, and every time a player tries a little too hard to create his own memeable celebration -- looking and cringing at you, Bregman -- it's clear how impossibly high Bautista set the bar, and how impossibly cool Bautista was. While it happened in 2015, when social media was already the thing, it's also clear that we're not done with it yet:
Flashback: Nolan Ryan pummels Robin Ventura
On Aug. 4, 1993, Robin Ventura made the ill-advised decision to charge the mound against 46-year-old Nolan Ryan.