The Laughing Devil's Final Tag

February 11, 2016

Thank you. When I first come to the major leagues, fifty-three years ago, I spoke only two words of English and I was very, very skinny. As you can see, I am today no longer very, very skinny, and as you can hear, my vocabulary has grown, too, almost as much as my belt size, so I am honored to be asked to talk on the occasion of my good friend’s induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.


Most baseball players have nicknames known to the public, but we also have private nicknames that only we know, and to this day, I do not think my good friend’s nickname, by which everyone called him for decades, is widely known. Now that he is gone, I do not think he would mind if I tell you he was known as "The Laughing Devil."  For years, I did not find him in the least laughable—quite honestly, he terrified me. He was a veteran when I was a rookie, he played at the position next to mine, his second base to my shortstop, he was a loud and profane fellow where I was quiet and devoutly religious, and he took a special joy in scaring me, which he did every day the first year I played baseball in the U.S. He would place gross and unspeakable things into my fielding glove whenever I left it unattended, he would humiliate me by grabbing away my towel as I departed from the showers, making me walk naked as the other players pointed and laughed at my miserable, wet, hairless body, and on the field, during games, in front of thousands of people, he would to me whisper vile and sacrilegious things.


I had the bad habit of stepping in the center of second base to turn a doubleplay. After two days of trying to teach me to touch only a corner of the base with a tip of my shoe, which I resisted learning with the special stubbornness of the young and talented, he taught me without words. As I approached the base, to turn a doubleplay, I saw that, right in the center of the bag where I insisted on stepping, was placed a silver crucifix.  I screamed when I saw it, almost harming my knee, twisting away in mid-air from the holy cross while trying to step on the base. I tell you, I thought he was the worst person on earth, the very Devil indeed, and I found nothing amusing about him.

He persecuted me personally.  When another player tried to join his fun, he would protect his property. "This rookie’s mine," he would say, stepping between me and the other player. "All mine," and he would cackle like some demented hen. I would realize, of course, years afterwards, that what he was protecting was not his right to torture me but, instead, he was protecting me from others in the league, whose acts would have been far more malicious. His jokes offended me, usually scared me, always hurt my feelings. But the other players would have hurt far more than my feelings.

This was a decade after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line, but there was still an abundance of racism. The Laughing Devil had himself endured the worst I ever heard about. When he had broken in, a few seasons after Robinson, there were still only a few colored players in the league, and L.D.—which is what we called him, since those were his real initials as well as the initials of his nickname—was only the second Negro on the team. During L.D.’s rookie season, he had endured far worse than I would, partly because the times had changed a little but mostly because his tormenters fervently believed every syllable of their racist taunts: that Negroes lack courage, that Negroes practice degeneracy, that Negroes’ morals or brain sizes or personal hygiene was inferior to that of whites. Early in his rookie season, his teammates would actually beat him, against which he had no remedy at all, since the first hint of dissension would be blamed on him alone. One night in St. Louis, eight teammates intruded themselves into his hotel room and pinned him to the floor. Some of them, years afterwards, admitted kicking L.D.’s midsection and privates so badly he had to enter the hospital for internal bleeding. Others of them maintained that they just tried to scare him into behaving more respectfully, and that the abuse was almost all verbal. The one fact known was that L.D. spent two weeks of his rookie season in the Critical Care ward of the hospital. Officially, he was treated for appendicitis. But after rooming with him for years and showering next to him for over a decade, I must report that I never saw an appendicitis scar.

 

His first day back, some of the eight players doused him in the shower-room with caustic lye, joking they were trying to make a white man out of him. If a drop of lye had gone astray, he might have lost an eye, or worse, but L.D. was a lucky man.

These other eight players were not so lucky. Over the next season or two, they suffered terrible, unfortunate, completely inexplicable fates, and I can never say whether through bad luck or whether anyone caused them, since they took place while I was still a schoolboy in Caracas. In the decades since, I have heard it said that the Laughing Devil caused some of these events to happen, but I do not know how one makes a player contract tuberculosis, for example, or causes another to become imprisoned for crimes of sexual deviancy. By my rookie season, seven out of these eight players had left the game of baseball suddenly and completely, and it was whispered throughout the game that you never wanted to mess with the Laughing Devil.

Outside of the game, no one knew any of this, because he rarely spoke to reporters. I am amused when I read old newspaper accounts describing him as closed-mouthed or soft-spoken, because he was only that way with the press. Among his teammates he was outspoken and insistent and very, very direct. After one of his locker-room tirades, players would joke that L.D. stood for "Loquacious Delivery." White teammates used to say it was too bad L.D. was colored because he would have otherwise made a great manager. When he would focus his huge fiery green eyes on you, you felt helpless to look away. He projected a force of leadership that you could almost touch. It was said of him that he could never wear a wristwatch because his energy was so forceful a perfectly fine watch would just stop working after a short time pressed against his skin. I don’t know whether this is true, of course, and I wouldn’t presume to impose my own beliefs on you, but I will testify that he bought several dozen cheap watches a season. He would claim that he hated to sleep wearing a watch, and traveling as much as he did, he would leave behind a lot of watches in hotel rooms, which is why he bought cheap ones.

He was a fanatic about being on time—he often lost his temper with me because I was not nearly so fanatical as he—and he knew the rule-book, every section, backwards and upside-down. Many were the nights we shared a hotel room on the road, when I would be reading my Bible and he was engrossed in the rule-book. To me, it was a simple game and I was confused how he could read the same book over and over, night after night, and giggle over passages he had read before so many times, but instead of answering my questions, he would just stare at my Bible. You might think he was saying to me, "You mind your business, I’ll mind mine" or maybe "If you can read your book over and over, so  can I" or something else equally hostile, but what he was saying was, as with my Bible, that he learned something new every time he read the rules.

 

Much of what we said to each other was not verbal, but this was not because of any barrier of language. Teammates who spoke only English said much the same thing and, in the years after my English improved, we spoke neither more nor less than we did when I spoke only Spanish. He had very expressive body language, it was true—I already told you about the magic of his eyes—but it was far more than that. It was as if he could read your mind and, more, that he could send his thoughts into your mind.

People gave me a lot of credit for being a smart ballplayer, but all the credit is his. I would be playing shortstop with a runner on second and a left-handed batter at the plate, so I would be near second base and he would be far away, and he would look over at me between every pitch, and usually his looks would mean nothing, but sometimes he would look at me, the same exact look as before, only this time I would think "Cover the bag" and I would run to the base and the pitcher would have spun at the same time and we would have a pickoff play. This whole time, he would be standing in one spot forty feet away, and after the game reporters would ask me, and ask the pitcher, how long we had worked on that play. No one ever asked L.D. a question, but he was, dozens and hundreds of times, the creator of that play. I answered every reporter’s question, and I took all the credit, but it was always all, completely, his doing.

Or if someone was arguing a point with him, he often would not say a word, just stare at the person with those eyes. The manager, for example, might ask him to bat third against a particular pitcher and the conversation would sound like this: "Hey, Devil, I want you in the three-hole today." L.D. would look right through him, and the manager would explain, "Yeah, I know, but you hit some solid balls off him last time." Again, L.D. would say nothing at all, maybe his eyebrows would move a hair. "Okay, okay," the manager would argue, exactly as if L.D. had been arguing back, "but the way to get at him is to take pitches, and you do that…" and on and on, the manager doing 100% of the talking and L.D. holding up his end of the conversation with facial expressions and, I believe, a little extra-sensory perception. Silently, L.D. dominated the conversations in the locker-room, using only his eyes and eyebrows and his nostrils, which could flare wider than his always-pursed lips.

He batted right behind me in the order, too, and people always said we put on great plays, but again all the credit is to him, and I have no idea how he did what he did. I would be on first, taking a lead, and he would be taking pitches and suddenly I understood that he was intending to swing at the next pitch, so that was the pitch I would run on. I stole a lot of bases because he swung at pitches and missed, and I went first-to-third a lot because he hit some of those pitches. If he was signaling me, I never knew what the signal was. I just knew when he would be swinging, don’t ask me how.

I can explain better how we performed the double play. We worked at it. He and I would practice the double play hundreds of times a day, game or no game, rain or shine. I had no choice. From my first day in the majors, when I thought he hated me and when I was sure that I hated him, he would wake me in the mornings and say, "Get dressed, Rook," to me, "you and me’s going out to the park. Now."  I thought he was joking at first—in Caracas, no one ever practices, most players when I was growing up got to the park when the fans did, at most a half hour before the games—but he would wake me at eight in the morning for an evening game. He would order some other rookies to come to the park, and he would assign us tasks: I would play shortstop, another rookie would be hitting fungo grounders to us, and a third rookie would be playing first base. L.D. stood at the second-base position.

Every day, we would perform six stages of practice D.P. balls. First, L.D. would have a couple dozen grounders hit to me, and my task was to feed him the ball a fraction of a second after he had gotten to the base. In a game, such a feed would cause a sure out at second—he would be standing right on the base when he had caught the ball—but because he would be lingering on the base for that extra split-second he would be in danger of being hit by the sliding baserunner, which would be dangerous to him and disruptive to his making the throw. Of course, in a real game, with actual baserunners, a second baseman risks far greater physical danger than a shortstop because the second baseman has to make the catch with his back to the charging runner, while a shortstop gets to see how fast the runner is coming, and to which side, and so is able to avoid him much more easily. The Devil would tell me, as we practiced this play, "I’m a dead man," as he twisted in the air, and flung the ball to first base. "I’m hit," he would moan. "Spiked me good that time," and so on.  As these imaginary runners plowed into L.D. at practice, I would get to understand what agony I would cause if I were ever to feed him the ball a half-second too soon.

Next, we would practice feeding him the ball a half-second too late, a far safer play for him physically, because he would have left the base already by the time the ball reached him. On this play, though, there was always a chance that an umpire would call the runner safe with L.D. already in the air for a split second before he had caught the ball. Finally, we would work on the actual play, where I would feed him the ball exactly as he left the base, minimizing both dangers, that of being hit by the runner and of not getting the call by the umpire. The difference between the slowest feed and the fastest feed was far less than a second, but we’d do all three plays so often we could distinguish them as easily as we could distinguish the bases from each other. Then we would do all three gradations all over again, this time with him fielding the groundballs and me turning the pivot at second base.

Over the years, as we worked as a double play combination, he would urge me to use a quicker feed in the games. Once the umpires had accepted that we were leaving second base simultaneously with having caught the ball, L.D. felt we could cheat a little more. Every season we would shave an imperceptible instant off our time, and still get the call every time. Around my sixth year in the league, there was almost no question that the pivot man was in the air by the time he had caught the ball, but all the umpires would say was "Yeah, it almost looks like he’s off the base, but that’s just how quick those guys are. It’s an optical illusion."

Because L.D. tested what the umpires would allow so respectfully, they came to admire him. One of the points of our d.p. practice was so we would know exactly what was a legal play and what was not. In this way, L.D. avoided arguing if there were even a chance that the umpire was right. And when an ump would blow a call, L.D. would just stare straight ahead at home plate, making no eye contact with the ump, and without even moving his lips, he would just intone soothing words such as,  "It’s okay, even good umps make mistakes once in a while,"  which the umpires came to appreciate.

I mentioned that seven out of the eight teammates who had made a torture of L.D.’s life as a rookie had suffered unfortunate accidents, but the worst, of course, was the fate of the eighth man. That man, Andy Scharger, had been traded out of the league after L.D.’s rookie season, and nobody missed him much. Scharger had been what was called a ‘tweener: he had good power for a middle infielder, but he lacked the agility that shortstop and second base demanded. He had enough speed to play either right or left field but not quite the power you want at either spot, and he was a little too slow afoot to cover centerfield as a regular. By the time this judgment had been reached, however, he was nearly thirty years of age, far too late for him to be retrained in the minor leagues to play another position like third base or catcher. They tried training him to back up at those positions  but there is never in the major leagues, the right personnel for training, so you become an emergency player at best, which is what Scharger became, a kind of general utility man. He would pinch-run, he would pinch-hit against certain lefties, he would fill in for an injured player and, for a few days, substitute before his weaknesses would get exposed. He also got traded a lot, and maybe that was because he also had a nasty personality.

Even if he had not been a terrible racist, Scharger enjoyed creating trouble. He would second-guess his managers-- and you can imagine how they cared for that—he would quarrel about curfews or practice times or dress codes, which are pretty arbitrary by their nature, and he would usually find players socializing together to listen to his complaints. Aside from L.D.’s skin color, L.D.’s acceptance of managers’ rules was something Scharger held against him. L.D. understood how to follow rules that did not suit him. Every time I or another rookie would complain about some obstacle, L.D. would berate us for our expectations. "It’s easy playing for a manager you like, Junior," he said when my favorite manager got replaced by a man who did not think much of me, "now let’s see if you can play good ball for a man you don’t like." Since Scharger disliked all managers, simply for being managers, he and L.D. had their problems.

After Scharger had been traded a number of times, he found himself back in our league as a utility player. At the end of the season, we were a game ahead of Scharger’s team with only one game to go, so they needed to beat us this final game to create a tie for the pennant. You all remember the details of that game, even now—our manager’s surprise choice of a starting pitcher, the pinch-hit triple, the dropped pop-up—but I will tell you one detail of the game’s most famous, most dramatic, play that you do not know, which took place in the ninth inning, when we had a six-run lead, and Scharger’s team got a man on with one out.

Normally, six runs behind, a baserunner wouldn’t matter at all, but having an expanded roster and a sense of desperation, Scharger’s manager sent him in as a pinch-runner, to try and keep out of the double play. Taking his lead off first base and without taking his eye off the pitcher, Andy Scharger whispered in a voice that L.D. could barely hear, fielding his position maybe twenty feet away, "Going to slice you, boy. Going to rip you a new one. Best keep your nigger ass far away from me, ‘cause if I get a spike into it, your black blood is coming out," and more stuff, worse stuff than that. At shortstop, I could barely hear the hateful words coming from Scharger, but I was sure that L.D. heard every one. L.D. was just focusing on the ball in the hand of the pitcher with that fierce stare of his, his cap-bill pulled low over his eyes, but he would have had to be deaf not to hear Scharger’s ugly threats, and blind not to see the raw hatred in Scharger’s face. I was sick at my stomach. Most likely, the lefty batter would pull the ball to L.D., so the pivot at second would be my play, and I knew Scharger’s reputation as a hard slider in general, but I feared for L.D. more than for myself: if the play went to him, he’d have to turn his back to Scharger barging into second base.

But instead, the lefty batter, badly fooled, tipped an outside curveball on the ground far to my right. I backhanded it, and tried to feed L.D. the ball further from the bag than I had ever fed it to him before. There was no way on earth that L.D. was actually on the base as he made the pivot—even in our practices, when I would try to throw the ball too late, I’d never thrown it quite this late. Looking back at photos of the play, the umpire had not yet begun to signal whether Scharger was safe or out, but his tense face and half-formed fist make me wonder if an ump was finally willing to rule against our phantom play. Even if the umpire called Scharger safe, however, I knew that L.D. would be physically safe, and we would still be way ahead with only two more outs to go. As L.D. started to jump and release the ball to first, by now a full step off the bag, he spun around in the direction of the sliding Scharger.

Only Scharger wasn’t sliding. Instead of coming in low as he had threatened, he was running, right at L.D., standing straight up, at full speed, trying to create a full-body collision and knock the ball loose from his hand. This was actually a smart play, since otherwise he was clearly going to be out. Or he would have been if I had given L.D. the clean feed—-and now I wished I had, because my attempt to feed L.D. the ball so he’d avoid Scharger had now put him in Scharger’s path. He was a burly little guy and when L.D. turned around, Scharger was running full speed straight at him from less than fifteen feet away.

I have said that L.D. could think faster than anyone I ever knew, and this was his fastest thought. Of course he told reporters afterwards that he was just trying to make the throw to first base, and he told his teammates that was his intent, but as you know, the ball never reached first base. L.D. threw that ball with enough mustard to make it to first on a straight line, but it only went about two yards before it bounced off Scharger’s forehead. From where I was standing, maybe fifty feet away, the sound was like a pane of glass breaking.

If you think about it, when people describe the horror of batters getting beaned by pitches, this had to be much worse: the ball was thrown just as hard as any beanball, but the runner was right on top of the fielder and not wearing any kind of helmet. When people talk of that Boston outfielder who got hit in the eye, or that Houston shortstop who had his career halted when he got hit in the head, or even Ray Chapman getting killed by that underarm fastball back in 1920, they describe the awful sound the ball made against the batter’s skull, but I have to believe that this sound was far, far worse.

For one thing, the ball literally took the top of Scharger’s skull off. It not only concussed Scharger’s brainpan but it actually cracked the skull in two parts. I can describe the difference between the sound a ball usually makes when it beans a batter, a sound I have heard far too often, and this beaning, like this: when you’re trying to crack open a raw egg, you hit it with a fork, and maybe the first time the fork bangs against it, and it makes a kind of hollow thud but it doesn’t break the shell. Then when you hit a bit harder, the fork breaks the eggshell, splits it clearly in two, with a whole different sound. The ball ricocheted off Scharger’s head and went up into the air, like a Texas League single into the grass of the short outfield, right in back of second base.

Now, I believe Scharger was dead before he hit the ground. He was certainly dead ten minutes later, when he was placed in an ambulance that drove up on the field and doctors found no trace of any sign of life. Those were the most horrific ten minutes you can ever imagine, with all the players from both teams rushing on to the field, and the trainers and team doctors, and doctors in the stands coming out to help. Poor Scharger was beyond the help of anyone. Meanwhile, when the ambulance drove off, the umpires convened in their locker room and tried to figure out what had happened in the game. The players had no idea, either. Was the game still on? How many outs were there? Was the game going to be continued? Had we won the pennant or was there still the possibility of a playoff game tomorrow? How in the world could Scharger’s teammates play an unscheduled game under these conditions? How, for that matter, could we?

Everyone left L.D. alone. We just let him wander around the outfield grass, wearing the most intense game-day face you ever saw. He had picked up the deadly baseball from the grass and kept tossing it into his glove, in case the umpires declared the game still on.

The umps finally sent a batboy out of their little conference room with their ruling: Scharger was out. (At about the same moment, it turned out, the doctors at the hospital were making the same pronouncement.) The umps ruled he had interfered with L.D. illegally, which meant the batter was being called out as well. The umps remained hidden beneath the stands, probably fearing the reaction of the fans and of Scharger’s teammates, but even Scharger’s manager was too stunned to protest ending a game his team had little chance to win. If he had been thinking clearly, he might have argued that Scharger had been entitled to occupy the basepath, but with no protest, the game was over and the pennant was ours.

Scharger’s team left the field, still in shock, and changed their clothing, giving stupefied interviews to reporters all evening long.  The only player on either side unavailable for interviews was L.D. He just holed up in the manager’s office for hours, and everyone gave him a lot of space.

When it was announced, later that evening, that Scharger would be buried the next day, before the start of the World Series, L.D. called me into the manager’s office.

"Jesus, you and me’s going to that funeral home," he told me. I never liked dead people, and I certainly did not like Scharger, dead or alive, but before I could say so, L.D. froze me with one of those hard stares of his. He wanted company at Scharger’s burial service, and I would be providing it.

So before dawn the next day, we boarded a train and traveled two states away to the burial service. We wore our good suits, and we each carried a briefcase. Mine was packed with sandwiches and fruit for both of us, and I did not know what was in L.D.’s briefcase. We hardly spoke on the train. L.D. stared out the window at the fields of wheat for hours, and grunted at me when I offered him something to eat. I respected his privacy, and sat in the aisle seat so no strangers approached us.

At the funeral, mostly Scharger’s teammates spoke. You could tell they were struggling to say nice things about this man, who had never knowingly committed an act of kindness in his life. As they told their pointless stories about Scharger, I watched L.D.’s face. When one of Scharger’s teammates told one such story, for example, of the high regard they had for his character, L.D.’s nostrils widened and he snorted out a puff of air, and I could almost hear him think "Players’d hide their wallets when the man came in the clubhouse," or when the minister spoke some bland words about "this good man," L.D. purred like a cat, as though unable to stifle completely his disagreement. But aside from such subtle dissent, he never said a word nor cracked an outward smile. When they finally invited everyone to file past the coffin, L.D. jerked his head at me to get on the line ahead of him.  Some people placed mementoes into the coffin, a flower, or a poem, or a baseball cap, but the next day’s newspaper found especially touching what L.D. put in.

He took a baseball out of his briefcase, and laid it on Scharger’s chest. Some people found this an oddly touching gesture, and it may have been, but today I would like to add one small detail: it was, as reported, the very baseball, stained with blood, with which he had killed Scharger the night before, but as he laid it on his chest, he whispered, so only I could hear, "Now you’re out, you motherfucker. Now you’re out."

Thank you again, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing me at last to complete the Laughing Devil’s final tag.

 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

dstone
A good read. ty
12:40 PM Feb 18th
 
evanecurb
Oh, and wonderful title, too.
11:56 AM Feb 15th
 
evanecurb
Steven:

Bravo.
8:03 AM Feb 14th
 
flyingfish
What Gfletch, said, Steven. Very well done; thanks.
5:44 PM Feb 12th
 
taylorgh
It was Giilliam. Bill had the story in the second Historical Baseball Abstract (my favorite book of all time, other than the Bible).
Nice job on the story. Well-written,interesting!
George​
2:39 PM Feb 12th
 
Jack
Enjoyed this enormously, thank you!
1:22 PM Feb 12th
 
steve161
Excellent.
7:32 AM Feb 12th
 
Gfletch
Well done, Steven. I enjoyed this. Seems to me that your writing comes alive in fiction.
1:00 AM Feb 12th
 
shthar
I never did underatand the 2b having any fear of the baserunner. The baserunner is commited once he slides. I can slam the glove in his face (with the ball in it-that hurts), I can jump up and come down with MY spikes right on his gut. Sure I didn't turn the double play that one time, but noone else came in to second like that the rest of the summer.
10:23 PM Feb 11th
 
raincheck
Beautiful piece, very nicely written. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
8:18 PM Feb 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Bill told the anecdote I based this story on as a true story, though by now I’ve forgotten the actual infielder he told it about, or where he told it, or when, or why, or how. (I think it might have been Junior Gilliam, but I can't swear it wasn't Red Schoendienst. Maybe Schoendienst was the baserunner? I have no idea.) Obviously, I’ve invented all the details (this 5,000-word short story came from a paragraph or two of Bill’s) and, equally obviously, I’ve made up entire sections and characters out of whole cloth, some of which incorporates other anecdotes and tales from MLB lore, in order to build a narrative out of the slim anecdote I started with, which is all to say that this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, etc.
8:13 PM Feb 11th
 
 
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