American Literature and the Squeeze Play

February 23, 2017

 

 

I just had an occasion to use my sabermetric research skills, such as they are, in my day job, which as some of you know is to be an obnoxious know-it-all, particularly on the subject of modern American literature.  So I’m minding my own business, annotating the 1935 John O’Hara novel Butterfield-8  for the Library of America’s new edition  (maybe you know the 1960 movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor—she won her Oscar for this performance) and I come across another reference to baseball. My first reference to baseball in O’Hara on BJOL was my reprinting here of a blog post I wrote for Penguin Classics website a few years ago, in "Readers’ Posts," about a reference in an O’Hara story to Joe DiMaggio hitting a HR that turned out, upon a little searching (okay, a lot of searching), to be fictional. Some of you offered me some helpful comments (it appeared in Reader’s Posts on September 9, 2013, but the link to the article no longer works—in fact, I can’t locate the blog post anywhere on the web), and this time, my search was more fruitful, in that I unquestionably found the game O’Hara was referring to, and it had an unexpected side-effect: it allowed me to date the novel with extreme specificity. The game took place, on Ebbets Field, on Monday afternoon, May 4, 1931, so I was now able to date the novel, which basically is set in a few days’ time, very specifically just before and just after that date. Conveniently, the passage appears smack in the middle of the novel, meaning I now know exactly when the novel starts and when it ends.  Such are the modest achievements of literary scholarship.

The baseball reference appears in a conversation taking place the next morning, a Tuesday we now know, when a morning newspaper is picked up by Eddie (played by Eddie Fisher in the film, on the set of which, or just off it, Mr. Fisher, the husband of Debbie Reynolds and the father of young Carrie Fisher, began his scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor, but that’s another story altogether). Eddie reads aloud from the paper that "the Giants beat Brooklyn, if you’re interested. Six to three was the score. Terry tripled, scoring when the Giants worked their squeeze play, Vergez laid down a perfect bunt."

I assume Eddie (who does not have an affair, scandalous or otherwise, with Elizabeth Taylor’s character—they have a very chaste relationship, one of the few in O’Hara’s novels, though Taylor plays a floozy and Fisher plays a jazz musician, so what are the odds on that?) is reading verbatim from the newspaper. (I could look up which one, I suppose, but there were a lot of NYC morning newspapers back then, some tabloid format, some broadsheet, and which one he prefers makes only the vaguest of comments on Eddie’s character.) If he is reading verbatim, and not improvising on the text, it’s a curious, almost aesthetic, point that the paper singles out Johnny Vergez’s bunt in its lede, in that the Giants were ahead 5 to 3 when it occurred, and they won the game as O’Hara notes 6 to 3, meaning the bunt wasn’t particularly crucial to the victory.  It must have been a beauty, though.

I’ll reproduce Retrosheet’s play-by-play below so you can appreciate the excellent bunting:

 

GIANTS 6TH: Terry tripled to center; Ott grounded out (first unassisted); Marshall grounded out (third to first); On a bunt Vergez singled [Terry scored]; O'Farrell singled to center [Vergez to third]; Mitchell popped to first in foul territory;

1 R, 3 H, 0 E, 2 LOB.  Giants 6, Robins 3

 

The bunt came, in other words, with two outs, which isn’t really seen that much these days, I think.  Since Vergez was bunting for a hit, by necessity, would this even be regarded as a squeeze play? I thought a squeeze play was, by definition, a sacrifice bunt (which sometimes turn into bunt singles, but not by design, just by excellent execution).  According to Wikipedia, a squeeze play is

a maneuver consisting of a sacrifice bunt with a runner on third base. The batter bunts the ball, expecting to be thrown out at first base, but providing the runner on third base an opportunity to score. Such a bunt is uncommon with two outs because there is a significant chance that the batter would be thrown out at first base, ending the inning and thus negating the score. Likewise, such an attempt is unlikely with two strikes because a bunt attempt that is fouled off is an automatic third strike. The squeeze play is said to have been invented on the baseball field at Yale by Dutch Carter and by George B. Case, who later went on to found the white-shoe law firm White & Case.[1][2] White shoes later went on to become the trademark of the Kansas City (later Oakland) Athletics.

In a safety squeeze, the runner at third does not take off until the batter makes contact bunting, waiting for more certainty that the ball will go to a location from which it will be difficult for the fielding team to make an out at home plate.

In a suicide squeeze, the runner takes off as soon as the pitcher begins to throw the pitch, before releasing the ball. If properly executed, a play at home plate is extremely unlikely. However, if the batter fails to make contact with the pitch, the runner is likely to be put out at home plate (hence, "suicide"). Therefore, the suicide squeeze usually requires a skilled bunter who can make contact consistently, even on difficult pitches.

These plays are often used in the late innings of a close game in order to score an insurance, winning, or tying run.

The full box-score is here: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1931/B05040BRO1931.htm. Do you think we don’t see this play anymore (at least, I don’t) because of a decline in bunting skill? Better quality fielding? Better defensive positioning? An abandonment of small-ball baseball strategies? Or maybe I’m just not playing attention as I need to.

Johnny Vergez (Jean Louis Vergez, pronounced "VEER-jess," though the French pronunciation would be more like "Vair-JZAI") was a hot-as-hell rookie on May 4, 1931, batting above .390 in his first 17 MLB games as of that morning, so you wouldn’t think he’d had a lot of opportunity to prove to Bill Terry, who was both the runner on third and the Giants’ manager, that he was a fabulous bunter, but who knows? Seems to me if you’re going to trust someone to bunt you in from third with two outs, you’d want to be very confident that he’s a spectacularly reliable bunter.

I included all these extraneous details because it’s fascinating to see where these things lead. You don’t suppose that George B. Case of Yale baseball and law-firm fame is related to the multiple base-stealing leader George (Washington) Case, who played for the Senators and Indians in the 1930s and 1940s, do you? And what in the world do the Athletics’ footwear have to do with white-shoe law firms, or the squeeze play, for that matter? This is one of those strings that, if you follow it out to the end, you’ll never stop following it. George Washington Case, just to keep the string going a little bit, is a fascinating character, unrelated as he apparently is to George B. Case of Yale and to George Washington of the Continental Army, as well as to George Washington Carver of peanut-butter fame. According to SABR’s bio he was the fastest man in baseball, and in 1946 Bill Veeck arranged a 100-yard foot-race between Case and Jesse Owens, which Case lost by a tenth of a second, the only race he is known to have lost to anyone, anywhere. http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/eb836343. Case’s son was Executive Director of SABR from 2000 to 2002, according to that article, and is a Facebook friend of mine.

Returning to the matter at hand, I suppose the newspaper account O’Hara’s character is reading from is technically accurate, in that Wikipedia says that a two-out squeeze play is merely "uncommon," not impossible. I would have called this play an infield hit, but I suppose there needs to be some distinction between an infield hit and a bunt single where there is no possibility of sacrifice.

There is another unusual element here—Vergez’s hit was made with a two-run lead in the sixth inning, which doesn’t quite match up with the notation that squeeze "plays are often used in the late innings of a close game in order to score an insurance, winning, or tying run." The sixth inning isn’t all that late, and the run it scored wasn’t either "an insurance, winning, or tying run," other than the sense in which all tacked-on runs are insurance runs. I always thought an insurance run was only that run that turned a one-run lead into a two-run lead, but that’s not written in stone or anything. You might consider a run that gives you a three-run lead an insurance run, though I think that’s stretching the definition a bit.

 
 

COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
Steven - I don't now anything about O'Hara as a writer. My specialty is early English theater (up through 1700). But I do know that Elizabeth Taylor won two Oscars. The other one was for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
10:27 AM Mar 1st
 
Steven Goldleaf
One irony that anyone who’s ever published anything will appreciate (and wince at hearing) is that O’Hara, who was both a nut for cars and a nut for factual accuracy, had an egregious typo appear early in Appointment in Samarra, where he describes a “V-61 Cadillac coach.” Even to an automotive novice like me, the idea of a V-61 engine is ludicrous (O’Hara meant a V-16, which is more than big enough). To O’Hara, this must have been excruciating, especially since it damaged his reputation as an automotive historian and as a scrupulous reader of proofs.
7:12 AM Feb 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'd recommend starting with his relatively thin All Gone (18 stories) or his mega-collection Stories of Stephen Dixon (close to 100). He's not precisely a realist, but not precisely a meta-fictionist either, sorta vacillates between those poles, but in a likable and readable manner. He's like O'Hara, very accessible, sometimes bawdy and incredibly prolific: I haven't read all of his stuff by any means (I'm reading his Late Stories now, but I have a lot of early ones to catch up on), and I'll be curious what you make of them. I may send an emissary to an Organ Meats Society gathering to learn your opinion.
10:14 AM Feb 25th
 
okrent
Thanks for this. On my to-buy-and-read list: Stephen Dixon (wih whom I'm entirely unfamiliar) and your annotated O'Hara.


7:38 AM Feb 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
All pretty terrific. A pantheon is pretty tough to declare just because there are so few objective standards and so many subjective ones--the thing that puts O'Hara at the top of the short-story writers' list for me is just the sheer output of first-rate stories. I think he published something like 400, mostly in the NYer, of which seriously at least 100 are amazing, powerful, first-rank pieces of American realist fiction. This is an astonishing quantity if you consider that Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner don't combine (in my view) for 100 truly first-rank stories. Also, I'm impressed by his readership: unlike those three, who are adored by Lit professors (especially lit Lit professors), scholars, critics, and the like, O'Hara was widely read. Somewhere, in another context, he makes a case for the "Guy Lombardo" people, the middlebrow slobs of mid-America, the anti-elites, as we call them today, who aren't given credit or validation for their artistic preferences (this was in a newspaper column, I think, deep into his Goldwater phase) for whom he tried to write. Since I think his stuff stands up pretty well to the elitist crowd, he accomplished a lot in getting the middlebrows to join the high-and-mighties in bringing his books onto the beach and the subway. That's a tough gig, writing so the people who read for entertainment (mostly paperbacks, mysteries, romance novels, spy books, etc.) enjoy your work while other writers and professionals also think well of it. It's a singular achievement, perhaps unique in American letters--I can't think of another writer who does as well with both mostly non-overlapping groups as O'Hara does. While you're drawing up your list of great American story writers, I'd also include Tobias Wolff, maybe Stephen Dixon and some other people I'm forgetting now. Definitely Cather, and some others you've suggested.
6:45 AM Feb 25th
 
okrent
P.S.Maybe Cather?
6:13 AM Feb 25th
 
okrent
This is fabulous stuff, Steven. I like O'Hara even more than I like the Giants (even though not as much as I like the Cubs). But I have a question about where you place him in the pantheon. If you think he's better than Hemingway (agreed), Fitzgerald (sort of agree), and Faulkner (hmmm....), whom (if anyone) do you place above him from the first half of the 20th century? And how do you rate his stories vis-vis Cheever's, or O'Connor's?
6:11 AM Feb 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Her name has two LLs at the end, like Marianne Faithfull. Actually, thinking about it, I didn't really go into the whole real-life case the novel was based on. I might go back and see if there's a place for it in my notes.
8:27 PM Feb 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Definitely. A few pages later there is a reference to the capture of Two Gun Crowley, which according to my annotations, is to "Francis 'Two-Gun' Crowley (1912 –1932), an 18-year-old American criminal, was captured by hundreds of New York City police officers after a two-hour shootout on May 1, 1931." O"Hara was famous for his incorporating real-life details into his work, almost to the point of obnoxiousness: brand-names, celebrities, jazz, all of it detailed and accurate. The first article on him I ever published (in the Kansas Quarterly, you'll be glad to know, Bill) was about his use of cars in dozens of stories and novels, about which he was fanatical in getting the makes, the models, the years, the design peculiarities etc. correct. This novel was based on a lurid true-crime story that was in the news, about a floozy named Starr Faithful who was found dead in New York in 1931. O'Hara changed her name to Gloria Wandrous, pushed the death up by about a month, but essentially wrote a fictionalized true-crime book out of it.
8:15 PM Feb 24th
 
bjames
1) Do you think the author put that in there so that the events would be tied to a specific date? Or do you think he didn't really think about that aspect of it?

2) Do you think he put other things in there that could fix the novel in time that way, if you were as keyed in to some other area as you are to beisbol?
6:18 PM Feb 24th
 
benhurwitz
What about the "suicide squeeze" as narrated by Phil Rizzuto in that classic of literature, Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light"? It always bothered me that there were two outs there also.
8:15 AM Feb 24th
 
steve161
The Wayback Machine is a wonderful resource, given how ephemeral the Web can be. It pays to learn how to use it.

I'll skip the Hemingway convention (not a fan), but I'm way overdue for another visit to Paris. Let me know if and when. We've already met up in two cities, let's aim for a third--neutral ground, this time.
7:50 AM Feb 24th
 
engalleons
Sure thing.

1) Find the exact URL of the page when it existed. In this case, I found it in your Hey Bill submission in September 2013.

2) Copy and paste that URL here: http://archive.org/web/ and click Browse History.

3) Hopefully, you'll get some hits from when this URL was "saved", like we do here. From here, you just navigate among the saved versions and look to find one that has the info you'd expect.
8:12 PM Feb 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for that, engalleons. I've archived that "archive" link on my c.v. If you can do it, would you mind describing your digging process a bit, for my future reference?

If anyone remembers my friend Joe Stern, about whom I wrote a column last spring on the occasion of his 94th birthday, I mentioned Johnny Vergez to him in the pool this afternoon, and he remembered him well. Joe also gave me some helpful information about the probable newspaper Eddie was reading from, which I'm going to see if I can locate when I get to a library.
7:34 PM Feb 23rd
 
engalleons
That link works a bit better copied and pasted than directly clicked on, apparently.
7:17 PM Feb 23rd
 
engalleons
The Penguin Classics blog post can still be found online with a little digging: web.archive.org/web/20160820213956/http://www.penguinusablog.com/john-oharas-bread-alone-from-a-sabremetric-perspective-by-steven-goldleaf/
7:14 PM Feb 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
The thing I like about Wikipedia is that while it can be re-edited by any idiot, true, usually it stands until someone wants to dispute it, and much of the time it's accurate and accessible.

As to the "squeeze"-- are you so sure your etymology is right? I don't think it comes from the runner or the fielder feeling squeezed, but from the fact that the run is being produced by timing and pressure, as opposed to by a hit.
12:52 PM Feb 23rd
 
therevverend
Wikpedia isn't the definitive place to get answers to these kind of questions. Just somebody's opinion. More likely to confuse things even more.
I would call any bunt with a runner on third a squeeze play, because it's a pressure play. The defender has to make a decision to go home or to 1st thus he is 'squeezed'.
I think I remember seeing the 2 out squeeze happening in the last ten or fifteen years. In one of the countless M's games I've watched. Maybe involving Ichiro? Maybe even bases loaded? I remember the announcers arguing about it the next couple innings. The consensus was that it was a dumb play. I may be thinking of a different play, or it may have been someone else. Pretty sure it was Ichiro.
I'm pretty sure I've seen a pitcher bunt with a runner on 3rd and 2 outs. Must have been a while because I can't remember any details.
11:47 AM Feb 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Actually, mrbryan, the young O'Hara was an ardent supporter of FDR who eventually went so far to the right that by 1964 he was a vehement Goldwater Republican. That terrific book you cite, Sermons and Sodawater, was published in the early 1960s, but the anti-FDR diatribes in it are voiced by other characters (it's set in the 1930s)--O'Hara's alter ego, Jim Malloy, is shown as being relatively friendly to the New Deal in that book. So glad to see other O'Hara fans on this site--my proudest professional achievement has been helping to restore him to his proper place (somewhere above Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, though I'll settle for "on the same level as"). I may give a talk at a Hemingway convention in Paris next year about O'Hara's perception of him.
11:08 AM Feb 23rd
 
mrbryan
It's great to see O'Hara being ... I'm not sure what the correct word it ... rediscovered seems a bit harsh, like he was lost to the ages; revitalized makes it sound like those "Bibles Written For Today's Far Out Youth"; I guess I'm going to go with "reconsidered."

I read all of O'Hara decades ago, when I was in college and the thrift stores I frequented in Madison, Wisconsin had his books in abundance. I was really taken with his little book of three novellas, Sermons and Soda Water. He shocked me, in my impressionable youth, not with his sex, but with the vehement denunciations of FDR that sprinkle his early novels.

I always group him with Erskine Caldwell, James M. Cain and Nelson Algren in my mind, although he certainly has a unique voice.

I devoured his books then, and I look forward to revisiting them now.
9:36 AM Feb 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm more a fan of O'Hara's short stories, Steve, than his novels, and more a fan of his late novels than his early ones, so maybe I'm not the best person to ask here. I find O'Hara's first two novels, for which he is best known, to be only so-so compared to most of his other work, though they were both important historically, partly for the racy content, which seems kinda 'meh' by our standards today. (It was a scandal that the first scene in O'Hara's first novel, Appointment in Samarra, takes place in a bed where a man and a woman are waking up, even though the couple is married and nothing sexual actually takes place--wowzers!) My annotated edition of BU-8 is coming out in 2018, and it's a big step forward for O'Hara's reputation, which up until this point has been pretty much as a best-selling writer of popular and sensational books full of sex and dirty words and pontificating, which for my money is way off base. He's a great American fiction writer, one of the very best in my estimation, and the notes here of course are terrific. (If you like notes, of course. I love reading annotated novels precisely because they tell me things like who the hell this "Vergez" character is.) I've annotated the first three novels, of which the third, Hope of Heaven, is actually the best one, although by far the least well known, and I hope to persuade the Library of America to commission annotating more of O'Hara's work in the future. They've just published a collection of his short stories, edited and annotated by Charles McGrath, an editor of the New Yorker, where he published most of the stories. I actually argued that Charles should annotate these novels, all of which he genuinely admires, and I should be annotating the stories, which I've written a book about, but go argue with a publisher. Better yet, go bang your head against a brick wall--it feels much better and you get much better results.
7:41 AM Feb 23rd
 
steve161
I agree: it ain't a squeeze if there are two outs.

But 'squeeze play' isn't a scorer's category, it's simply the name of a tactic. More interesting to me is that Vergez is credited with a single. Reasonable, if the bunt was so well placed that he beat the play at first--or that there was no play at all. But--just speculating here--what if the defense actually tried to get Terry at the plate? In that case, it could as easily be scored a fielder's choice.

Don't mind me, Steven: I'm just rambling, in response to your very entertaining ramble. (Never read or saw Butterfield-8. Should I, when the LoA edition becomes available?)
6:32 AM Feb 23rd
 
 
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