As we entered the year 2000 it seemed we needed mostly a computer that could add 99 and 1 and get 100, thus entering the next century in academic dignity. One thing we did get was television's Baseball Team of the Century, and I take exception to it on the grounds that we still have one whole season to go and we don't know yet what the Red Sox will do. Besides, they put Babe Ruth on the century team, and I consider that a mistake.
In 1919, the Babe was considered the best left-handed pitcher in the American League, and the day he started a home game against the Washington Senators, old Fenway Park was loaded with fans. They gave the Babe a big standing ovation when he took the mound. Then Babe Ruth threw four straight balls to walk the first Washington batter.
While the fans hooted their approval of this brilliant strategy, the Boston manager yanked Ruth and booted him down the dugout stairs to the showers. That's one reason I leave Babe Ruth off my century baseball team. The other reason has to do with our merchants' picnic that same year.
The storekeepers of Freeport, Maine, always staged a big clambake to thank the town for its support, and there was always a baseball game with our arch rivals next town over in Yarmouth. After a couple of lobsters and a dish of clams, everyone welcomed a chance to sit and digest. And for these special baseball games it was customary to send $100 to the right address in Boston and have a big-league pitcher come down from The Hub on a day off and be either Joe Smith or Jim Jones.
There was no secret about this chicanery, except that nobody knew who was coming to pitch until he arrived. On this occasion, the incognito Yarmouth pitcher was Babe Ruth.
When the game started, the "ringer" that Freeport had hired struck out the first three visiting batsmen on nine pitches, and then Freeport came to bat. All eyes were looking at the Yarmouth pitcher to see who he was.
Billy Coffin, our barber and expert on baseball, was the first to recognize the Babe. And to Elmer Porter, who was digesting beside him, Billy said, "That's Ruth!" Elmer, who wasn't much of a baseball fan, said, "Ruth who?" Then everybody settled back to watch Ruth mow Freeport down.
Instead, Danny Snow, the minister's son, swung at the Babe's first pitch, connected, and trotted home for the circuit. That year the picnic was held at the True farm on Flying Point, and the ball finally made a big splash in the ocean, halfway to Bustin Island. So again strategy suggested the Babe be lifted, which he was, and those are the reasons I have left Ruth off my team.
I notice they did have Warren Spahn on the television team of the century, and he's on my team, too. But not for the same reason. Spahn was a good pitcher, but he was also a good hitting pitcher, and took his turn at bat. (This was before designated hitters.)
The Boston Braves frequently used Spahn as a pinch hitter on his rotation days off. He was with the Braves when they moved to Milwaukee, but while in Boston he hit the longest home run in history. (This never happened, but is told about every pro who ever played in any ballpark with railroad tracks close by. I first heard it about Spahn in Boston, and that's why he's on my team of the century.)
The tracks of the New York Central, westbound out of Boston's South Station, passed by the center-field fence at the old Braves Field. It ran through the Hoosac Tunnel under the Berkshire hills on its way to Chicago.
One afternoon, as the train was leaving South Station, Warren Spahn came to bat. He took his practice swings and stepped to the plate. The train came by. When Spahn hit the ball, it sailed over the center-field fence and through the open door of a baggage car. The ball was recovered the next day in Albany and sent at once to Cooperstown. That's the longest home run ever hit, and if Spahn didn't do it, who did?
They didn't have Jack Coombs on the century team, and he certainly belongs there. Jack never made the hall of fame because (I've heard) he had his spectacular career with Connie Mack before the hall of fame came about. Maybe so, but Christy Mathewson is in the hall of fame and on the century team. Jack Coombs and Christy Mathewson pitched head-on twice, and Coombs won both games. I'm partisan, since Coombs was my hometown's product and my boyhood idol, but why bring that up?
Now, I have two more players that must go on my century team, and you won't find them on anybody else's. I don't remember if they played at Braves Field or at Fenway Park. Whichever, I saw them play twice when my dad took me to Saturday games the first year I was in school, l9l4.
They were two out-and-out clowns, not members of the Sox or the Braves. They'd come out between innings, while the teams were changing positions, and play pass on the first-base line with an imaginary ball. They were extremely funny as they tossed the ball, which didn't exist, back and forth.
When one failed to catch the baseball, he'd chase it down and throw it over the other's head. On a day when a shortstop made seven errors, these two would give the fans something to laugh at. This was appreciated and kept the fans from demanding their money back. You can't fault that.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society