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February 10, 2021
Over the years, BJOL has run some cool, intense one-to-one comparisons of individual players, and I always find them edifying, more so than the broader comparisons of larger groups of players or teams, because those larger ones have by nature a more diffused focus, more qualifications, more excuses, more exceptions, more quibbles, more hands (as in "on the other hand") than all the poker players in Vegas. The one-to-ones, whether it’s Rice-to-White, or Yaz-to-Kaline, or Whitaker-to-Trammell, are sharply focused and stick in my brain like, well, like White sticks to Rice.

But we’ve been through that drill so many times, we can do it in our sleep, so I’ll give you one in bare outline form here and, if you like, you can run the full comparison in the "Comments" section or in your sleep. Stan Musial’s career resembles Al Kaline’s, on a slightly elevated level:  each hit machine played for one team in 22 seasons, mostly at a corner outfield position, but some first-base, too, plus a little center field in his youth. Of which, both were stars from a very early age, and the same type of stars: high-average guys with power, though not power of the very first order—neither ever broke 40 HRs, and Kaline never broke 30. Each one batted in the #3 hole for most of his career. They had similar personalities as well: nice, affable, steady gentlemen, known more for their decency than for their colorfulness, respected by opponents and teammates alike. And of course both wore the number 6, and did it proud.

That was what got me started thinking about this, the number 6, swinging a bat beautifully from opposite sides of the plate, and slashing line-drive after long line-drive. There are crucial differences, too, of course, but I’m more interested in the bigger subject of "comparisons" for now.

You can compare any two players head-to-head, and those like Al Kusial to Stan Maline will be worthy of an extended discussion, but I got to thinking about comparing two truly dissimilar players, and what that sort of comparison would show. Even more broadly, you can compare any two things in the universe, just as an exercise, and that exercise will reveal something about your mind, though the comparison itself may be entirely useless.

I spent a few years of my life training to give such comparisons. My last two years or so of graduate study were spent mostly training for oral exams, and like most grad students, I found prepping for these exams extremely stressful. The faculty who sat on these committees were empowered to ask me almost any question, ranging far and wide over the entirety of literature in English, and then in my area of specialization within that field. It was of no use to enquire about subjects or questions they were particularly interested in, although like most grad students I did enquire beforehand and I did get no helpful response, because the whole idea was to see how you thought on your feet, not how good you were at memorizing and reciting specific facts. But you can’t really rehearse thinking on your feet, can you?  So my studies were an attempt to fill in my most egregious gaps, which were many, and I tried memorizing as many facts and data-points as I could, just to give me comfort that I had something to say on a variety of subjects.

For some reason, dates stuck in my head most easily, so I adopted, purely as a calming device, the birthyears and deathyears of hundreds of authors, just so I could stall for time while assembling my answers to the most bizarre of questions. If, for example, I were asked a bizarro about the poetry of Alexander Pope, I might be able to start my answer confidently with "Alexander Pope, who was born in 1688 and who died in 1744…" which were clearly irrefutable facts that assured my committee that I knew quite well who he was.  Dates also helped to remind me of the historical period each author lived in, and a few facts of the historical context that these authors lived in. (It’s somewhat scary that this numerological body of facts sticks in my brain 40 years later, when I haven’t read five lines of Pope’s work in all that time.) If I could start out with a few truths about Pope, or several hundred other authors, I might eventually work my way up to answering the actual questions put to me.

Naturally, after all this effort, I don’t think I used even once the birthyears/deathyears gambit in my hours of examination, and came through the ordeal okay, but it felt comforting to have it in reserve should I get stuck. Getting stuck is a doctoral candidate’s worst nightmare, and I think that’s what the oral examination is designed to find: if you can or cannot think on your feet, and if "Cannot" is the answer, is it "Often" or "Sometimes" or "Rarely"? If one’s examiners are satisfied that one rarely or only sometimes gets stuck thinking on one’s feet, then one may well emerge with a "Pass" and thus a Ph. D.

They’re testing, in other words, to see how well you can produce a sensible answer to a future student’s dopiest question. (There’s also a built-in, unwritten rule that allows for one or two responses to challenging questions to take the evasive form of "That’s an interesting question—I have no idea what the answer is, but this is how I’d go about researching it: xxxxxx  x xx xxxxx." No one wants to use up these evasions too early, of course, because you never know when you’ll need them later as the exam wears on. And on. And on.) In later years, when I would be the one sitting on the other side of the table, empowered to ask my own bizarre questions of nervous grad students, I always thought that the best questions, impossible to memorize a standard answer to, would be to ask the student to compare two unlike quantities, such as, say, comparing James Joyce’s work to that of Jane Austen, or the poetry of Byron and Bukowski, or thee to a summer’s day.

I mostly taught undergraduates, and graduate students seeking a Master’s in Business Administration, so devising oral exam questions was a very low priority for me, but I always thought that the "comparisons" question would best illustrate someone’s command, or lack thereof, of the field of inquiry. A comparison need not, for example, dwell exclusively on similarities. Areas of sharp contrast would be appropriate in most cases. I always imagined the group of examiners meeting afterwards to vote on the candidate’s performance but discussing instead who came up with the weirdest questions in the examination. "Really, Bill, comparing Compton Mackenzie to a Reuben sandwich? How’d you come up with that one? Are you stoned out of your gourd?"

Speaking of "stoned," btw, there is a fabulous novel by John Williams called STONER, about a professor who examines a grad student in one of these three-hour oral exams, that I found very instructive. I read the book twice, once before entering grad school (because Williams was a member of the faculty, though thankfully not one sitting on my own ultimate oral exams—he was a notoriously difficult and prickly man) and once after grad school. In the climactic examination scene, I thought "Wow! This Stoner character is devising such hard questions for this poor grad student!!!" on my first reading, and I thought how hard grad school was bound to be, but after four years or so of schooling, I realized that the point Williams was making was precisely the opposite: the questions were easy, he was lobbing softballs at the candidate, who was whiffing on them (which btw explains the book’s lack of popular success: you needed to hold an advanced degree in English literature to understand it properly. At least, I did.) Anyway, under the category of "learning interesting stuff from dumb questions," I thought I’d supply you with an example of a seemingly foolish comparison of two unlike baseball players.

I could pick two players at random and run a detailed comparison.  My review of Mitch Nathanson’s biography of Dick Allen mentioned several athletes who in passing were compared to Allen, explicitly or implicitly, including such widely disparate figures as Mickey Mantle, Johnny Callison, Curt Flood, Jim Bouton, Whitey Ashburn, Reggie Jackson, Joe Namath, Bob Cousy, Jackie Robinson, and several others, all of whom would make for lively head-to-head extended comparisons, but I decided that the most random-seeming comparison might be of the two players I’ve recently described as "ornery," Allen and Jerry Grote.

I wrote that they were both ornery but in different ways, so let’s start there. Both were very hard men to know—they gave terrible interviews, taciturn and grumpy, and were intolerant of reporters’ nosiness, so they didn’t receive good press throughout their careers. For this orneriness, neither player seems to have been beloved by teammates: they each receive praise for their excellence on the field of play but few players can recall palling around much with either one off the field. Grote was a paragon of competitiveness on the field, angrily demanding that his teammates put out maximum effort at all times, and lambasting those who didn’t measure up to his high standard of hustle, while Allen stood frequently accused of displaying a sort of indifference to perceptions of his lack of hustle. He projected an attitude of "I’ll turn it on when it counts," which he did so dependably that his teammates had no kick coming, but he never stood accused of displaying a "rah-rah" attitude about the game. Grote was, if anything, too "rah-rah" for most of his teammates, too intent on winning, if that’s possible.

They had diametrically opposite skill-sets, Grote being all defense with very spotty offense, at best, while Allen was perhaps the best offensive performer of his generation, a compleat powerhouse with a bat in his hands but a dismal failure with a glove. Dick Allen batted 3rd or 4th in the lineup for the vast majority of his at-bats, while Jerry Grote batted 8th more than any other slot for some pretty weak-hitting teams in his career, with 7th being next in frequency.  At some point in his career, major and minor league, Allen played regularly at every position except catcher (and pitcher, of course) while Grote caught almost exclusively throughout his career. They were each multiple All-Stars, though Allen was an obvious pick most of the time, being a league-leader in several offensive categories, while Grote’s two All-Star game appearances were considered weird and somewhat inexplicable. I remembered his first selection in 1968, a year Allen did not make the All-Star team, but had to look up his second appearance in 1974, by which time Allen had been traded to the AL and played against Grote’s NL team, though they did not appear in the game at the same time. Here’s an oddity, perhaps illustrative, and the answer to a strange trivia question: each of them was his team’s cleanup hitter. Allen was a recent AL MVP, so no shock there, but Grote came into the game late as a replacement for starter Johnny Bench, and so batted in Bench’s #4 slot—or would have if his turn at bat ever came up.

I had no actual recollection of the 1974 All-Star game, but I do have a valid excuse: I was living that summer in total, deliberate isolation in a small phoneless, TV-less chateau in the south of France, in an attempt to write my first book without the smallest interruption by neighbor, telephone, newspaper, or English-speaking communication of any kind, which worked (I got several hundred pages written) but I had only the spottiest sense of news from the U.S.  (French newspapers did carry an account of Nixon’s resignation that August, but they just didn’t take American baseball seriously for some bizarre Gallic reason of their own.) So the spectacle of Jerry Grote being listed, however briefly, as the NL’s cleanup batter in the 1974 All-Star game escaped me completely until just now.

They were never teammates, though each of them did put in an odd season playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Allen in 1971, and Grote in 1977 and 1978 (plus 2 games in a strange comeback attempt in 1981, after being out of the game for two years). They both came back from retirement, Allen after announcing his retirement from baseball after the 1975 season, and then, after the Sox traded his contract to the Braves, announcing that he’d changed his mind and wanted to play for the Sox again. Even more oddly than Grote coming back in 1981 after retiring in 1978, he also made a comeback of sorts in 1985 at the age of 42, when he caught a game for Detroit’s AA team, which he was managing at the time. None of these comebacks were productive, and most were embarrassing.

They were the same height and weight (5’10 and 185 pounds/ 5’11 and 187) and the same age, born seven months apart in 1942, both debuting in MLB in September of 1963.  Allen was drafted right out of high school, but Grote, who went to college for a few years, didn’t play pro ball until Allen had put in three full and very impressive minor league seasons—considering the difference in their offensive skills, it’s surprising that Allen played almost 500 minor league games before being called up, while Grote played only 121 games before his call up. You have to wonder if Allen’s orneriness was perceived by the Phillies as a drawback while Grote’s was viewed positively by the Astros—I wonder if they’d somehow been able to exchange skin colorations, might they not have spent more similar lengths of servitude in the minor leagues? They must have played against each other a lot in the next decade, being regular starters in the NL, and then the NL East, until Allen was traded to the AL in 1972, though I don’t recall any particular anecdotes about their interactions.

And of course they both wore the uniform number "15" throughout their MLB careers, making me wonder if "15" is designated for ornery types specifically, and if I should include Thurman Munson in my next arbitrary comparison. (Hmmm, now that I think on it, "15" was the only uni number I ever wore, in Little League.)

This is just free-associating, of course (with some advertence to, and pointless babble in its way, except to make the point that any two people, or quantities, can be compared in order to find out how someone’s mind operates.  After dithering and shuffling through all sorts of idiotic facts and irrelevancies, I was able to come up with that odd but perhaps valid conclusion about their differing lengths of minor league service, and tie that in with their different racial backgrounds—which may not be relevant, and may even have some factual flaws (Grote was sent back to the minors for an entire year in 1965) but the point was to reach a coherent conclusion, not necessarily to have it withstand close scrutiny. Obviously, I could answer a question about how Dick Allen’s career compares to Jerry Grote’s, and so can you, at this point, though I don’t expect the opportunity to show off this wealth of knowledge will arise anytime soon. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience in conducting this examination.


COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
I will forward your complaint to Mr. Iverson.
6:56 PM Feb 19th
Steven, you're being kind of ridiculous.

I didn't say that any random way whatsoever of seeming to prepare for something is a good idea. I talked about being able to be helped to prepare for things -- actually mostly those orals, but if you want to expand it, we can, provided you don't be ridiculous -- ....being able to be helped for things by advance preparation, by certain kinds of approaches.

It seemed you couldn't think of good ways, so I gave examples of a couple.
For the example, you're talking about, I could perhaps give some also. I'm not sure, because, well, I'm not as familiar or conversant with it, not being a serious baseball player, but I think I might.

I agree with you that the thing you put forth probably is not such a way.
11:53 AM Feb 19th
Steven Goldleaf
We're sitting here … I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're in here talking about practice. I mean, listen, we're talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We're talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last. Not the game. We're talking about practice, man.

I mean how silly is that. And we're talking about practice. I know I'm supposed to be there. I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that and I'm not shoving it aside, you know, like it don't mean anything. I know it's important. I do, I honestly do. But we're talking about practice, man. What are we talking about? Practice? We're talking about practice, man?

We're talking about practice. We're talking about practice. We ain't talking about the game. We're talking about practice, man.
9:48 PM Feb 18th
I bet it did help!
And above all, I guess, congrats on passing. :-)
7:05 PM Feb 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, that's much easier to dispute. I prepped for years, literally, in "thinking on my feet." I had friends, family, fellow grad students, even some agreeable faculty members pepper me with bizarre questions, and I don't think I handled them any better on my first day than I did when being examined. I might have felt less nervous after a few hundred hours of rehearsal, and I certainly did more real work (reading) in those years, but I doubt whether all that work prepared me any better when the time came for my orals.
1:56 PM Feb 18th
Steven, it was about preparing for "thinking on your feet."

(You weren't thinking on any part of your body when you did that reply.) :-)
11:54 AM Feb 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Well, here's an example you can (and will) argue with: assume I want to pitch in the major leagues. I can practice and practice, and I will no doubt improve (if I don't blow my arm out) but right now I have a 0% chance of achieving my goal and if I "rehearse" non-stop for the next three years, I will bump those chances all the way up to 0%.
6:05 PM Feb 17th
That means you would probably benefit from some coaching about "rehearsing"! :-)
....including about things like mental preparation, things you can do that will help you be able to go into the "thinking on your feet" mindset.

Hey, everybody else -- how about some help on this?
What do y'all think about it.....
5:10 PM Feb 17th
Steven Goldleaf
In high school, Allen was (supposedly) a dazzling ball-handler and passer.

As to "rehearse," I guess you can rehearse anything. Whether it does you any good is another question. Some things, like acting or playing music, sure. But some things I can rehearse for years and I won't get significantly better at them.
2:48 PM Feb 17th
Interesting article.

BTW, I don't agree that "you can’t really rehearse thinking on your feet"!
I see it as sort of a 'muscle,' a muscle that you can exercise just as you can exercise almost anything.
Less figuratively, "thinking on your feet" is, well, a way of thinking -- an ability to get into a certain mindset -- and I, for one, am able to get myself to be better at it or worse at it, depending on how ready and prepped for it I am (or not). I wouldn't be good at it right this moment, because I'm not ready and prepped for it -- but if I needed to be, for a particular thing coming up, I could go about it, by focusing and 'psyching' in certain ways, and by certain kinds of practice.
Like, we can have friends or whomever ask us "surprise" questions in whatever area, ideally questions that are purposely complex or even ridiculous, to help us exercise that "muscle" and grease that wheel of our brain.

BTW, Dick Allen and BOB COUSY?? I wonder what that could have been....
2:16 AM Feb 16th
You can watch the '74 All Star game on You Tube now, it's--okay, Garvey and the usual suspects getting the most press. I saw it and completely forgot Grote was in it too.
12:18 PM Feb 10th
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