Great Scott!

October 4, 2016


In cleaning up my apartment today, a semi-annual event, I ran across my aged copy of Bill Stern’s BULLSHIT STORIES FOR GULLIBLE CHILDREN*, written in 1946, and found one that could actually form a tracer, being composed (as so few of Stern’s stories are) of actual facts, so I thought I’d run it for you. It takes place on October 6, 1922, as it happens, the anniversary of which is this Thursday, so I figured I’d run it now rather than waiting for next October 6th to come rolling around again.

Before I do, I assume most of you know Stern’s reputation for telling improbable, unprovable, sentimental tales that makes you go all warm and goopy inside, but if you don’t, let me refer you to Woody Allen’s film RADIO DAYS where he does an imitation of Bill "Kern"’s baseball stories that is a lot more fun than trudging through Stern’s actual treacly prose. Mostly these are stories about kind things that crusty old baseball managers have done for their players and other such piffle, and this is one of those.

Stern’s stories are Paul Harveyish in that his stock in trade is to withhold a key detail, like who the story is about, until the end, and he seems to be particularly fond of the tale of a promising young player who turns out to be –William McKinley! Or Harry Truman! Or Dwight Eisenhower! Or any kid rumored to have picked up a baseball but who got sidetracked into doing something else for a living! Like John L. Sullivan! Or Betty Boop! (He does feature stories about McKinley, Truman, Eisenhower and Sullivan in this volume, leaving the Boop story for later.)  What surprised me a little was the realization that many of these stories weren’t ancient tales, but rather stories well within the memory of your average adult at the time of publication.

Take this one, from 1922—Stern is recounting it in 1946, only 24 years later, but he tells it as if it has been retrieved from the fogs of time. At least that’s how I read it, as a kid, like Stern was some kind of gray-bearded historian dredging up hoary tales of yore.  Twenty-four years ago is, well, like 1992 is to us right now, and we still discuss plays and games from 1992 as if they just happened. Which they did.

So this one is about a grizzled veteran pitcher named Jack Scott, all washed up, a bum whom no one in organized baseball will take a chance on anymore, appealing to the crusty old manager of the New York Giants, Muggsy McGraw, for any kind of handout.  Muggsy slips him fifty bucks and invites him to use a locker in the Polo Grounds clubhouse.

Now, in reality, according to, Scott was actually only a few months past his 30th birthday and, far from having been "a fine pitcher but now a washed-up has-been with a dead arm," had actually had his best year (really, his only decent year) the previous season, when he had gone 15-13 for the Boston Braves.  The Braves, of course, played in the NL, one of only 7 opponents of McGraw’s team, but to hear Stern tell it, it was some sort of miracle that McGraw managed to recognize the face of this "wreck of a man in a shabby suit" who approached him that mid-summer day.

According to Stern, this wreck of a beggar had "slaved on his tobacco farm a whole year" only to see his harvested crop go up in flames, which if I were Muggsy I would have kicked him in his ass for insulting my intelligence with such nonsense—Scott had pitched briefly in the major leagues that very April, before being cut (doubtless suffering from a sore arm), and this was less than three months later, so anything he had planted during his farming career had barely had a chance to germinate, much a less a whole year to be harvested and tragically burnt, but Stern soon cuts away to McGraw notifying Scott during that year’s World Series against the Yankees, "You’re going to pitch today!"

What he leaves out is that Scott, during the months of August and September, was one of McGraw’s most reliable starters, going 8-2 in 10 starts (and 7 relief appearances), and was actually not at all a bad choice to start a Series game. The Giants were up one game to none, in the middle of a 4-0 sweep, and far from "the stands buzz[ing] with excitement" at McGraw’s astonishing choice, I’m pretty sure the only buzzing came from bumblebees and other assorted insects.

As to the game account itself, Stern is pretty good: Scott shut out the Yankees that day, retiring Ruth, Pipp and Meusel on grounders in the ninth to cinch the shutout. (He fabricates a little bit in claiming that the Yankees got "four scratch hits"—Wally Schang pounded a double down the RF line, advancing Meusel to third in the seventh inning—but let’s call that poetic license.)  It’s just the bubba-meisers** Stern tells that amuse me so, the extra helping of sentimental details that are Stern’s trademark. Most of these stories have no possibility of running tracers on, because of the utter lack of time- and place-details, but when something can be tracked down and checked, you may be sure that some teary elements in it are probably exaggerated to a comical degree.

Incidentally, if anyone wants a load of old baseball books, send me a PM or just say so in the comments section—I’m kind of sick of having all these books cluttering up my apartment (I’m considering moving to a smaller place, and can’t take all of them with me when I do) so if you have an empty shelf or two, I’m glad to fill it up for you. Once I get to scour it for tracer material, of course.



** "Grandma stories" in my native tongue.


COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

Well, no, hisfamily owned a tobacco farm, the wheat was secondary. They were wiped out when tobacco prices collapsed. Stern seems right on, so does Grantland Rice earlier. Other than that, great piece!​
4:50 PM Oct 5th
Steven Goldleaf
I'm sure a lot of Stern's stories have a basis of truth to them, Old Backstop, and thanks for researching it a little. I maintain that the truncated way he tells 'em messes the story up: for instance (I can duplicate his verbatim language, if you like) Stern's timeline makes it sound as if Scott had gone into tobacco (not wheat) farming after quitting baseball, and had suffered a disaster so was seeking to resume his pitching career after a long hiatus. If he'd specified that this was a few months since he'd last pitched, then McGraw doesn't sound so charitable or so perceptive, does he? He's merely willing to give a tryout (and 50 bucks) to a guy who won 15 games last year with a bad club --big whoop. Any manager looking to shore up his pitching staff would do the same. What did it cost McGraw? Fifty bucks. If I had a barn full of tobacco leaves, btw, I'd probably take out a little insurance. Just sayin'.

archie: try I'll look for your email.
8:37 AM Oct 5th
I was just joking around there, that probably wasn't clear. Trace away.
7:52 AM Oct 5th
You could have waited until October 6, 2022, and nobody would have complained.
7:48 AM Oct 5th
I don't know how to send a "PM". But, I love baseball books. I'm looking for some particular books I remember having as a kid. How do I contact you?
7:35 AM Oct 5th
Perfessor...c'mon, this was a 30 second trace and the Jack Scott story is totally true. Google "Jack Scott pitcher tobacco":

There are whole chapters in contemporary books, and in 1937 Grantland Rice wrote an extended account in the Reading Eagle, long before Stern hit on it.

Scott's uninsured barn, filled with wheat, burned down and wiped him out. He went destitute to McGraw, who personally staked him.

5:20 AM Oct 5th
Scott led the league in Games in 1921 and played in 8 against the Giants.
4:23 AM Oct 5th
Is Bill Stern, Howard's father?
2:42 AM Oct 5th
I listened to a couple of Bill Stern's 15 minute extravaganzas on the Old Time Radio site or some such site. While it was well before my time, I enjoyed them on a certain level.

The rush of trilling organ music, the Gillette commercials, the breathless Stern rapid firing through the copy ... everybody should hear it at least once.

Paul Harvey is a good comparison in some ways, but then I liked and respected Paul Harvey a lot more than Bill Stern. Thanks for the tracer.​
6:09 PM Oct 4th
I have or had two Bill Stern's shows on cassette. One he interviews Babe Ruth after telling a story about when Babe was a kid he got a bat from someone famous, which increase or led to his interest in baseball. Babe asked if the bat really came from this person from this famous person during the interview. Bill said sheepishly that was how the story was told to him.

The amazing part was some anonymous stranger actually gave Babe a bat when he was a kid.
5:01 PM Oct 4th
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