Tracers

September 18, 2017

Thumbing through Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of DiMaggio the other day, looking to find his version of the goofy Lefty Gomez anecdote about DiMag trying to make people forget about Tris Speaker (which appears nowhere in the Cramer tome, by the way), I came across another anecdote that Gomez told about him and DiMaggio getting on manager Joe McCarthy’s nerves by laughing it up after a tough loss. That anecdote (pp. 122-3) begins with Gomez setting the scene:

"This one time I had pitched in Cleveland against Bobby Feller and I went thirteen innings and got beat 2-1…."

Being a thoroughgoing skeptic by this point, I decided to track down the 13-inning loss, Gomez vs. Feller, if only to see where in DiMaggio’s career it took place. After all, it had to be relatively early, since he and Gomez were teammates for only the first half of DiMaggio’s relatively short career. Let me cut straight to the chase and report that in the decade that Gomez, DiMaggio, Feller and McCarthy held the roles described here, 1936-1945, Gomez never pitched a 13-inning game, against Feller or anybody else. His peak in innings pitched during this decade was 10 and 1/3rd, on May 5th, 1939, which was indeed a 2-1 loss in Cleveland, but not to Bob Feller, who never appeared in this game. Feller, by the way, did pitch as many as 13 innings in a game, on August 7, 1941, but it was also in a loss, and to Detroit, not the Yankees.

In Cramer’s defense (his book is described on the cover as "meticulously researched"), this anecdote comes straight out of Maury Allen’s perhaps not so meticulously researched book Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?, opening the question as to how meticulous a researcher it takes to look up extraordinary claims such as a 13-inning performance.

Cramer’s indexer, by the way, is also somewhat less than meticulous, listing separately the two Yankee pitchers, Lefty Gomez and Vernon (Goofy) Gomez, interpolating a third Gomez between the two in that alphabetical string,  one Tony Gomez. (And the first page-number the "Gomez, Tony" index refers to, page 40, is actually a reference to Goofy-Lefty-Vernon, not Tony Gomez.) I attribute this indexing error to a lack of familiarity with baseball—I can see how someone might come across the names Lefty Gomez and Goofy Gomez and conclude that they are two different Gomezes, just not someone who follows baseball even casually.

Anyway, I just wanted to discuss the larger issue of tracers while I found myself running some of these. The definitive work on tracers, apart from Bill’s work introducing the term in the Historical Abstract, is Rob Neyer’s fabulous Big Book of Baseball Legends, which is wall-to-wall tracers (and Rob also did some of the original tracing as Bill’s researcher).  This is a great book, tracing some published tall tales, and extracting the truth and some huge whoppers by juxtaposing the tales with old box scores and contemporary game descriptions. 

What impressed me most on this go-around was the remarkable tolerance that Neyer displays at all the wholesale lying that he explicates. (His term—the subtitle to the book is "The Truth, The Lies, and Everything Else.") Of course, in one sense, it’s only natural that he is grateful for the lies, and to the lying liars who tell these lies, because without them he wouldn’t have a subject for his book, but I’ve read a quote attributed to Albert Einstein to the effect that "Anger is man’s natural response to being lied to," and I wonder that Neyer (and James) are as cheerful and accepting of the lies as they seem to be. (That Einstein quotation, by the way, seems to be apocryphal as well—another lie, about lying. If Einstein ever said half of the wise remarks attributed to him, he’d never have had the time to do any serious math, and he’d probably top Abraham Lincoln in pithy quotes, except that most of what Lincoln is quoted as saying has also been mostly invented posthumously.  Between Einstein, Lincoln, Mark Twain and Yogi Berra, they must have actually said something memorable some time, but damned if I can pick out the actual quotes from all the made-up ones any more. Between them, they’ve been credited with 75% of all the quotes ever made, another fictional statistic, and you can quote me on that.)  

At any rate, on the final page of his text here, Neyer castigates a columnist, Phil Mushnick, for expressing anger at one of the many whoppers told by Joe Morgan over the air, a tall tale that that Neyer is himself, on that page, in the process of exposing:

Umm, okay, Phil. Funny thing, though. I thought old baseball players are supposed to spin the occasional tall tales. Don’t we love them for doing exactly that?

Anyway, when Mushnick contacted ESPN, a spokesman acknowledged the errors and said Morgan would issue a correction….Does Mushnick expect that every professional athlete who’s ever told a tall tale—at a banquet, or in a book, or while calling a game on the radio—to issue a retraction? I think it’s perfectly fair to check the veracity of stories for our own edification. But I’m not sure that we should hold ex-athletes to a higher standard than we do our elected officials. As Mudcat Grant says, "There ain’t no fun telling a boring story."

I don’t mean to get in between Mushnick and Neyer here (Neyer had worked for ESPN, and may have been irritated on behalf of the network whose employees Mushnick was holding to a high standard of accuracy) but that’s sort of where I find myself—in between the extremes of loving ex-athletes for the tall tales they spin and holding them to a higher standard than elected officials face.

That middle position is something like "irritation" and "disappointment" over the wholesale inaccuracies spun by ex-athletes, as well as puzzlement at either extreme position. I certainly don’t love ex-athletes for telling bogus stories at banquets (or in sworn testimony before Congress, for that matter), if only because those stories form the basis for our disputing the accuracy of other sources. In resolving some of the disputed parts of baseball history, some people like to rely on the testimony of eyewitnesses to certain deeds or events, and to use those accounts to cast doubt on later reporters’ alternative explanations, even when those later alternatives are more objectively based. (In discussing MVP voting, , for example, we often must enter into the thinking of contemporary viewers of ancient seasons in trying to make sense of votes that seem unsupported by statistics—some will find it dispositive that a player was described in print as "great" or "a leader" or "a guy whose contributions don’t show up in the box score.") So, yeah, I do want the anecdotes that players tell to have a germ of accuracy to them, or at least for them to be thoroughly debunked where they lack that germ—that’s why I think Neyer is doing such a terrific service here (and elsewhere) in pointing out the fictionalizing present in so many of these ex-athletes’ anecdotes.

As to the Mudcat Grant quote that ends Neyer’s critique of Phil Mushnick (it appears in Tales from the Tribe Dugout, p. 70, btw), I love telling non-boring stories, and I love making them up out of my imagination, but when I do, I usually take great care to label them clearly as "fiction." To peddle the nonsense my imagination comes up and to expect that some reader will mistake it for the truth strikes me as a near-criminal act, especially if it’s a story that took place in privacy where I was an active participant. Mudcat came up with the quotation, not out of any objective philosophizing about truth and accuracy but on the occasion of having been busted for telling some stories that didn’t check out. It’s because ballplayers are often the sole eyewitnesses to the events they describe ---Gomez’s story takes place on a train compartment he shared with DiMaggio, with Joe McCarthy overhearing their hilarity in that compartment--that we place so much credence on their version of their stories’ details, so when they prove to be fictionalizing, sometimes with close to zero basis in fact—well, I find that disappointing.

As to whether I want to hold them up to the standards I expect from elected officials: I’m not sure if I have ANY standards any more for elected officials telling anything resembling the truth, but surely this is not the only standard loftier than wholesale fictionalizing, is it? I’m reminded of Richard Nixon’s defense when accused of committing various crimes against the state. Nixon claimed "I am not a crook," overstating (or mis-stating) what the accusations were about in order to deny them. He wasn’t, strictly speaking, standing accused of being "a crook," in the sense that he was accused of committing robbery personally, or shoplifting, or any other petty crime we might associate "crooks" with, so by proclaiming his innocence on this vague term, he was exonerating himself on all possible criminal charges. It’s a sort of "Well, hey, I didn’t actually murder anyone myself" defense, pleading innocent to a crime you’re not charged with. That’s what Neyer does here, in this curious passage in a wonderful book, letting the ex-athletes off lightly by exonerating them of a crime, lying on important matters of state, that no one has accused them of. It’s a very petty crime that I’m accusing them of committing here, hardly a crime at all, in fact, just misleading people into believing their versions of stories they could plausibly have been first-hand witnesses to, which is why I love tracers so much, and the tracing tracers who trace them. Thanks, Rob, for your super-human tolerance and your super-generous acceptance of the athletes who provide you, and ultimately us, with these fascinating tracers.

 
 

COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Charlie--I've retold this anecdote several times on this site, but I was at the previous game (Don Schwall vs. Ralph Terry), sitting near where you were seated, hoping to witness Maris' 61st. It was my first baseball game, and I went with my dad as well. I'm sure my dad would have told some mangled version if we''d been as lucky as you were.
8:04 AM Sep 24th
 
rogermaris
Cops know that eyewitness testimony is often suspect, and can shift.

I was fortunate to be at the game when Maris his #61. My Dad for years would say, "Remember it came down right next to us!" I remember that we were out in RF about halfway between first and the RF stands. Maybe I'm off, maybe we were just into the outfield off the dirt. I am looking at the stubs now. They say Sun., Oct. 1, Game 81, Mezzanine Box, Section 15, Box 105E, Seats 2 and 4. I've been trying to locate a seating plan of the original Yankee Stadium online and doing something imprecise, not turning it up. The stubs bear me out, I believe.

But not once in all the years after that game, when Dad (d. 2000) would say, "Remember it came down right next to us!" would I ever say, "Nope. Don't think so. You're so proud to have taken me to the 61 game that you want it to have been an even more remarkable day than it was." Of course it got into our family legends as "Charlie and Iz sat right next to that kid caught the ball!" Uncles were jealous.

I prefer it dad's way. But any time I mention this, I tell it right. Well, the way I think is right.
Charlie Rubin. (not Roger, d. 1985; but I'd like to think he'd approve of this post)
2:22 PM Sep 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
And I had it open in front of me, too. Misremembering is just too easy and too common. It's a miracle that we ever get any story straight.
10:02 AM Sep 21st
 
Fireball Wenz
But you couldn't even remember that my post said it was Bob Bailey, not Bernie Carbo, who was the pinch hitter who struck out! ;)
10:52 PM Sep 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The only part I'd dispute, Fireball, about "it's not lying. It's the tricks of memory" is whether the "tricks" bolster a certain kind of narrative. In Carbo's case, it's a narrative that makes him out to be a villain, or at least an incompetent, which is the narrative that embittered Red Sox want to maintain. After all, if Carbo was a guy trying his damnedest to work out a walk against a tough pitcher, and just got beat fair and square, you've got nothing to complain about, so your memory twists the narrative into "That damned Carbo lost the game for us" which paints a neater portrait that satisfies Sox fans (of whom I'm one). And if Gossage had been a little bit wilder that day, or the umpire had a narrower strike zone, who knows, Carbo might have worked out a walk and you might be lauding him as the brave hero who had the guts to take close pitches against the Goose in the clutch, blablabla... I'd amend your "trick of memory" to add "We often remember the way we want to remember." I specifically said that very few people, outside of a mental institution, just make up shit maliciously, but that's not the only species of "lying"--there's also stuff that folks invent and then don't take the trouble to find out if it's accurate because it pleases them in the form that they remember. To you that may be "tricks of memory"--to me, it's an understandable kind of lying.
6:05 AM Sep 20th
 
garywmaloney
This interest in truthful memory is one of the big reasons many of us collect and listen to old baseball broadcasts -- you travel back in time to hear or see EXACTLY how it went down. To choose just one moment: In Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, did Curt Flood's stumble in center on Northrup's drive really lose the Series for the Cardinals? Judge for yourself.

We can only process and remember just so much . . . there is joy in reliving, but also humbling to realize how much you THOUGHT was true was, well, not quite so. Or, that there were so many other factors you'd forgotten.

The truth is what matters, it seem to me, and we should struggling, grasping for as much of that truth as we can manage.


10:43 PM Sep 19th
 
Fireball Wenz
On Facebook recently, some friends were talking about how the Red Sox could have used Bernie Carbo in the 1978 playoff game they lost to the Yankees (we're all Bostonians) and one guy said, "They had to pinch hit Bob Bailey against Gossage, and hi struck out on three pitches." My other friend responded, "And he never took his bat off his shoulder." This tale looms large in Boston, and I remembered it the same way. Nope - he takes ball one for the first pitch, fouls off the second, and then takes two strikes. But over almost 40 years, the memory is the frustration of the last two strikes, and so our brain fixates on that. It's not lying. It's the tricks of memory.
9:06 PM Sep 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Another way to take this story is in the context of Joe D.'s leadership, especially on the late 1940s Yankees, when he was aloof to his teammates, and very stern and serious about baseball. It's written (somewhere, forget just where right now) that what made the 1940s-50s Yankees into a winning organization was the dead-seriousness with which the veteran leaders on that team addressed the question of attitude: no joking, no taking your duties lightly, no casual baseball, no "Oh, well, what the hell, we'll win tomorrow" stuff. Everything was all about winning, professionalism, comportment, playing the game right. Especially YOU, rookie! And the chief enforcer and example of this businesslike approach was Joe D. himself.

So what does this story tell us (if it ever happened)? That Joe D. learned from his youthful mistakes? Problem here is that the late 1930s Yankees were a very successful baseball team (Epstein and Neyer say the most successful team ever) so maybe a little horseplay after a tough loss isn't so bad? Or is the point of the story that Joe D. was a terrible hypocrite, yukking it up when young, grimly serious about baseball when older? Or maybe that Joe D. was actually more understanding, and not so stern with his younger teammates in the early 1950s as he let on to the press? Of course, if the story never happened at all, and Gomez was just inventing a colorful tale to amuse the rubber-chicken circuit, then it's a little harder to interpret the story in a meaningful way.


8:37 AM Sep 19th
 
pob14
"I never said most of what I said." -- Yogi Berra, probably.
8:07 AM Sep 19th
 
steve161
"Them ain't lies. Them's scoops." (Dizzy Dean)
7:13 AM Sep 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Of course all these stories have a plausible basis in SOMEthing, Don--that's why we don't dismiss them out of hand as BS stories, the way we would if you or were to start a story with "Me and my pal Joe DiMaggio were in a train compartment one day, when all of a sudden...." But it's the details that lend them authenticity, the specificity of the memories, that is belied by the understanding that Gomez et al. don't actually remember all of them all that clearly. And if Gomez is messing up several details here, isn't it also possible that he's making up other, more important elements? Maybe he and Joe D. were laughing it up and only THINKING "Gee, wouldn't Joe M. be pissed if he caught us yukking it up after a tough loss?" or maybe they were caught but not by the manager: maybe a no-name coach bawled them out? Or maybe Gomez was yukking it up after a tough loss with a lesser teammate than Joe D. but decided afterwards that it made a better story if he could stick DiMaggio into it? The one thing we know for sure here is that there are some details in the story that are wrong, and there might be others we can't easily check up on.
6:30 AM Sep 19th
 
doncoffin
Take this particular story. What is, really, the salient point of it? Isn't it this: an "anecdote that Gomez told about him and DiMaggio getting on manager Joe McCarthy’s nerves by laughing it up after a tough loss." That seems eminently possible. And, then, there's this. On September 3, 1936, Gomez pitched a complete game against Cleveland, winning 6-4. Feller started for Cleveland and was hammered, giving up 5 runs in 1 inning of work.

And 2 days later, against Boston, Gomez was called on in relief, in the bottom of the 12th inning, against Boston. Pat Malone left after pitching 4.1 innings, with, apparently at least 1 man on, and the Yankees leading 7-6. Gomez faced and retired 2 batters, but a run scored while he was pitching and he would, these days, have been "credited" with a blown save. In addition, Di Maggio committed 2 errors in that game (but not, apparently, in the 12th).

So we have an extra inning game. Gomez gave up a run (charged to Malone) in the bottom of the 12th that prevented the Yankees from winning the game. DiMaggio committed two errors (so, by the way, did Bill Dickey, who also had a passed ball), and 2 of the runs charged against Monte Pearson were unearned.

I can't find a play-by-play of that game, but it seems possible that one (or both) of Joe D's errors let to one (or 2--there were 2) unearned runs. And then Gomez was pitching when the tying run scored in the 12th.

That game was in Boston, the second game of a DH (they lost game 1). The next day, September 6, the Yankees played another DH against Boston--and lost BOTH games--losing 3 of 4 to a team that finished 6th. The next day (Sept. 7), the Yankees played the As in Philadelphia, so there was a late--overnight--train. It's entirely possible that Gomez and DiMaggio were joking around, that McCarty heard or observed it, and (as he did apparently have a short fuse) lost his temper with them.

So the whole story could be almost true--there was an extra inning game; Gomez had pitched against Feller 2 days earlier. It's possible that McCarthy felt that between them DiMaggio and Gomez had blown a game for the Yankees. (Not that is could possibly have made any difference in the season's outcome--the Yankees finished 19 games ahead of 2nd-place Detroit.) And, again, McCarthy had a short fuse...
8:43 PM Sep 18th
 
Gfletch
Objective truth? I can't even figure out the difference between an article and an essay.
7:08 PM Sep 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Not a tall, Gary. Provocative curmudgeons like me thrive on disagreement. I'm particularly interested in the whole question of whether objective truth exists--it's a lively philosophical area of debate on which I'm not completely convinced.
6:21 PM Sep 18th
 
Gfletch
raincheck, your comments were well written and I agree with you 98%. Hope to see more of your thoughts on Reader Posts as well as on individual articles.

We need fact checking when people are making 'claims' but not so much when people are telling 'stories.' Most ballplayer accounts are clearly stories and, as you say, I can enjoy the stories and I can enjoy the tracers.

I especially like your observation that the details we can actually check are the least likely things to be true of a story. We can't really know if Gomez really said, "...you're going to make them forget Gomez," to Dimaggio one day, or if McCarthy once chastised both Gomez and Dimaggio for laughing it up after a tough loss. Probably both stories are true, but the "facts" of the story are not.

By the way, Steven, I don't want you to take this as criticism. It's disagreement, somewhat, but it is not criticism. Enjoyed your article.
6:13 PM Sep 18th
 
raincheck
Well, there are many things going on. Among them...

First is the standards of the day. The great writers of baseball (until...the 80s?) were not concerned with proving the precise truth of a story. Fred Lieb wasn't running tracers. This kind of precision wasn't part of the culture of the story, it was the story itself, not the precision of it that mattered, because...

Secondly, these games happened and then were lost. No SportsCenter. No video record replayed over time. Just a column and a box score. So memory wasn't reinforced by repetition. The only repetition was the repetition of the story, which evolved over time with the telling, like all stories, because...

Third,humans have pretty bad memories. I was just with a group of old friends from high school (class of 76) and we were telling old stories. We all had different memories of them AND in some cases people couldn't remember if they were THERE for a particular incident or if they just remembered it from the story. "I'm sure you were there!" "No, I was away to college then!"

So you play 154 or 162 games a year for 15 years, none of it really recorded anywhere but in your mind, and you want to tell a story about something that happened one day. Inevitably game details will blur together. More memorable details from different games will be more likely to be grouped into one story. And that story will, consciously or unconsciously, begin to gather famous players and great feats of the teller. Because who remembers an 8-1 game in mid-June in Kansas City that involve Jim Gentile? Remembered details get added together to build one story. Consciously or not.

So, by our very nature, our tracers end up starting with the wrong details. The ones least likely to be true. The essence of the story may have happened to the guy. But if you are looking for a scoreless game in the top of 10th in Detroit in 1932 where I hit a line drive to left off Rip Sewell, then tried to leg it into a double, sliding into second base spikes high with Charlie Gehringer blocking the bag... Well, the inning, the score, the place and the players are the least likely parts of the story to be true, but they are the ones we can easily test.

I love tracers. They are fun. But I am not into judgment. Guys from a different time, with different journalism standards, dredging up old memories and adding details to make a story of it. That WAS baseball for the first 100 years. I can enjoy the story. I can enjoy Lieb's books. And I can love the tracers. Why does someone have to be a fall guy in all this?

4:23 PM Sep 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Johnvgps--an important criterion, whether the mis-statements in an old story do nothing to advance the teller's agenda, in which case they might be viewed as innocent errors, simply human mistakes of memory, etc. or whether they're skewed to the teller's advantage, making them suspect. The vast majority of tracers I've run and found the facts to be skewed are of the second variety. If Gomez, for example, had told about a 10-inning game he and Feller pitched, but it turned out actually to have been a 13-inning game, I'd call that an innocent error, but in this case, as in so many of these things, his version makes him out to have performed an almost super-human feat, dueling the great Feller to a 1-1 tie in the first twelve innings, an accomplishment, it turns out, that Gomez did not in fact perform. In law, I believe these are known as "statements against interest" which are given greater credence than statements that help one's own case.
2:21 PM Sep 18th
 
johnvgps
The first baseball game(s) I remember ever attending was a doubleheader in which Gary Gentry and Charlie Williams were the starting pitchers for the Mets. Trouble is, there never was such a doubleheader as far as I can find now.

So I don't fault someone for misremembering the details for an old story; if the game went ten innings or thirteen, I'm willing to cut them some slack.

However, if there's an agenda behind the story (make the speaker look better, make someone else look worse, claim that my generation are the toughest guys ever...), I think it's fair game for criticism.
1:24 PM Sep 18th
 
Gfletch
I’m not offended by the inaccurate remembrances or even downright tall tale telling; I do enjoy the tracers. Tracking down the facts and comparing them to the stories is instructive in how we understand truth…artistic truth compared to scientific or historic or legal truth.

“It was not necessary that I know her, for she was romance, and romance is so often in a garden, behind a wall, along a twilit street. (Louis Lamour)”

10:43 AM Sep 18th
 
OldBackstop
He took my answer.

In the study of leftwingers today this is called "virtue signaling".....​
10:38 AM Sep 18th
 
77royals
Who cares? It's baseball, not medical science or world politics.

So what if some old guy gets some details wrong.

ITS THE STORY, NOT THE FACTS, THAT WE WANT.

And calling them liars?

You've got a really bad case of tunnel vision. Take off the blinders and starting watching the world around you.

Does it really make you feel like a bigger man to point out to 80 and 90 year old men that they didn't get all the details in a 50-year old story right?
8:53 AM Sep 18th
 
 
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