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Tracing the Tracer-master

March 12, 2019

The master of tracing baseball anecdotes is Rob Neyer, who started out as Bill James’ assistant tracking down (and mostly disproving, but not necessarily disapproving)  many gussied-up stories, and who has branched out and published a fine book running down such stories as a baseball righter in his own write. (ROB NEYER’S BIG BOOK OF BASEBALL LEGENDS: THE TRUTH, THE LIES, AND EVERYTHING ELSE).  Admiring Rob’s tracers has, however, impaired me in that I can no longer read anyone’s account of a colorful event in baseball history without wondering, "Hmmmm, is there sufficient detail in here to allow me to check and, if possible, to blow a truck-sized hole in this story?"

I was reading another fine book of Rob’s, THE BIG BOOK OF BASEBALL BLUNDERS, the other day when I came across a very colorful (and very sad) story that struck me as both chockful of checkable details and chockful of fecal matter. The blunder Rob described was the Mets’ acquisition of Joe Foy in 1970, and assorted roster-wrecking maneuvers that went along with it, such as their de-acquisition of Amos Otis; the truly sad part was that Joe Foy was, apparently, a drug-user whose habit made it impossible for him to continue playing major-league ball, and for that matter to live very long. (Foy died at the age of 46.) The anecdote in Rob’s book concerns one crucial play that Jerry Koosman related in Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’. The excerpt starts with Koosman relating a grave sin Foy committed one day when he stopped in the Mets’ dugout and blocked Gil Hodges’ view of the playing field. This doesn’t seem like a major transgression to me—the remedy for it, it seems to me, is for Hodges to yell, "Hey, Foy, move your ass! You’re blocking my view," but in Koosman’s telling, it was a "no-no." It was "a disaster about to happen." It was a sign that Foy "wasn’t in his right mind."

Really? Sounds like a sign that Hodges was out of his mind to get cheesed off for more than a few seconds, but let’s go with it. Hodges put Foy onto the field to play third base, although the whole Mets’ team ("we") apparently "knew that he wasn’t capable of playing that day," and sure enough

the first batter hit a hard ground ball by Foy, and after the ball went by him, he was still patting his glove and saying, "Hit it to me, Hit it to me." He never even saw it.

We were looking at each other and saying, "Oh, my God, you gotta get him out of there." But Gil left him in a little longer just to let everyone see that he didn’t fit in that ball club.

And it was not long after that that Joe was gone.

Couple of issues that aren’t really relevant here:  Is this good managing? Deliberately playing someone to demonstrate that he isn’t ready to play? Giving away at least one out, and risking giving away several more, to make that point, when as the manager, you could simply sit the guy on the bench and, if need be, argue with your GM that the guy is stoned and has to be replaced on the roster? This story is more damning of Hodges’ managerial style, and his insecurity about his players supporting his decisions, than it is of Foy’s drug abuse.

Not that I believe it to be true: I’m an admirer of Hodges’ managerial style, if not his scouting acumen. Neyer and others make a pretty strong case that Hodges was responsible for the Mets’ choice to trade Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan –at the least, he certainly didn’t oppose either trade, suggesting that scouting future All-Stars was not among his strong points. But I don’t see a lot of evidence that Hodges was a vindictive man, as this Foy story implies, or the kind of manager who makes unwise moves in a game just to embarrass a player.

Maybe there are big-league managers who deliberately play men incapable of catching (or even seeing) a baseball to make a point, although I can’t think of one off-hand, but if there were, I’d have to think that these vindictive managers would certainly limit such humiliating spectacles to games that have already been won or lost, or maybe in pennant races that have long slipped out of sight.

The details Koosman supplied, however, give the lie to that possibility. According to Koosman’s story, Foy blocked Hodges’ view during the first game of a doubleheader when he wasn’t in the lineup, so Hodges started Foy in the second game of the doubleheader. In other words "the first batter [who] hit a hard ground ball" was the first batter of the second game, the exact opposite of a game that has long been won or lost.

Furthermore, the Mets finished 5 games out of first place in 1970, and were only 2 games out a week before the season ended, after the season’s final double-header had been played, so for this story to add up, it would mean that Hodges was deliberately giving away outs, and possibly games, while his team was in a hot pennant race.

Doesn’t sound like Hodges to me, or any sane manager.

Because Koosman specifically places the story during a doubleheader, and moreover a doubleheader in New York, this was fairly simple to trace. Foy played only one season for the Mets, which again simplifies the search. The Mets played only eight doubleheaders in Shea Stadium that year, and the scenario described applies, it turns out, to none of them:

April 19:  Foy started the first game of the doubleheader

May 24: Foy didn’t play either game

May 31: Foy started the first game of the doubleheader

August 2: Foy started the first game of the doubleheader

August 23: Foy started the first game of the doubleheader

September 7: Foy sat out the first game, and played the second. But the first batter grounded out to second base, and the next batter struck out, the third batter singled to right field, and the fourth batter grounded out unassisted to first base. In other words, no one hit a fair ball anywhere near Foy in the first inning

September 9: Foy sat out the first game, and played the second. But the first batter struck out, and the next batter flied out to right field, and the third batter struck out. In other words, no one hit a fair ball anywhere near Foy in the first inning.

September 20: Foy started neither game, and played in neither.

Now, it’s entirely possible, of course, that Koosman got one of the details wrong in his telling, in a way that opens up the chances that this exact incident took place, say, in a doubleheader on the road, or in a single game where Foy had offended Hodges the previous night, or the fatal groundball was hit to Foy in a later inning: I certainly didn’t look at every play-by-play of every inning of every game the Mets played in 1970, and I have no way of knowing what this play would look like in a play-by-play account, outside of "single (LF)" which occurs maybe four or five times in each game. No "single (LF)" occurred in any game that matches the details of Koosman’s telling.

Since the details as given-- "a double-header" "in New York" where Foy sat out the first game but played the second game, in which "the first batter" hit a "hard groundball to third base" that Foy never saw—did not happen, though Golenbock and Neyer print it as reliable gospel, I have to wonder what else in this story that I find implausible also never occurred. For now, I’m going to go with "Der Gantzer Megillah," as we Latin scholars like to say.


COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

I think there was some discussion of the shoe polish on the ball at the time of game 5 of the 1969 World Series. The ball did wind up in the Mets dugout, as I recall. The same thing happened in the 10th inning of game 4 of the 1957 World Series, one of the most exciting ever played. Nippy Jones was pinch hitting and was awarded first base after they saw shoe polish on the ball. (It hadn't gone into the dugout though.) A few seconds later his pinch runner scored the tying run on Johnny Logan's double.

David Kaiser
8:18 AM Mar 21st
Add: I think you are creating that it was the first batter of the second game, therefore making it a home game. It reads more like Foy took the field and the first batter hit one by him.....which didn't quite happen on July 19, but it means it could have been on the road.
1:57 AM Mar 20th
edit: Foy sat the first game and started the second, a Koosman start.
1:40 AM Mar 20th
I look at this and wondered why Koosman cared so much, and in fact saying he WANTED Foy removed -- Wikipedia says of the incident "Koosman and others all wanted Foy out right then, but according to Koosman....."

On July 19 in San Fran, Foy sat the first game of the doubleheader, a Koosman start. In the first inning, Koosman on the mound, Foy at third, there is listed a single to left....maybe that is the spaced ball by Foy? But then, Foy is listed as having an E5 on a throw, letting a run score and a runner advance to 3rd.

One can picture Koosman fuming, right? He then unleashes a wild pitch that allows the runner on third to score.

Not enough? Foy makes two more errors in the game, which Koosman eventually wins 7-6.

I would bet that is the game Koosman remembers, altho it wasn't in San Fran.

1:39 AM Mar 20th
Steven Goldleaf
The quotation (also from Golenbock's AMAZIN') is given here:

You'd think something like that would be hard to keep a secret for so many years. How many Mets would have seen the ball come into their dugout, heard Hodges instruct Koosman to rub it on his shoe, etc. but never told about it, other than Koosman?
4:31 AM Mar 16th
Marc Schneider
It sounds like Koosman may have felt that Hodges needed to be taken down a peg. He had this almost saintly reputation going back to his years in Brooklyn. No outsider really vknows what goes on inside the clubhouse. It's odd that Koosman would complain about the shoe polish since it ultimately bhelped the Mets and pro athletes aren't normally known for their their unwillingness to bend the rules.​
7:31 PM Mar 15th
Steven Goldleaf
Your "hostility" theory is intriguing, Marc, especially in light of another anecdote about Koosman's insight into Gil Hodges: supposedly, Koosman tells the story that Hodges presented the umpires with a shoeshine-scuffed ball he had in the dugout, making them think that Cleon Jones' shoes had been hit by the ball when it hadn't been, in the 1969 World Series. Not sure if he said so out loud or just implied some skullduggery on Hodges' part, but either way it was a strange characterization of Hodges' integrity.
12:35 PM Mar 15th
Marc Schneider
It's possible that Koosman saw something and misinterpreted what was happening. Or that he misremembered. I have lots of "memories" that, looking back, I'm not sure they actually happened. Or, maybe Koosman had a grudge against Hodges for some reason. Or, as crazy as this sounds, maybe Koosman dreamed it. I had a dream once about having met someone that I woke up and went to check if I actually had. (I knew it was a dream because I could not find any record of this person.) And dreams can be very bizarre.

The whole story doesn't make much sense otherwise.
9:30 AM Mar 15th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, Ball of Fire. I don't believe it is true (not the main point of Koosman's anecdote, that Hodges insisted on playing a man who couldn't see a baseball coming at him in order to embarrass him in front of his teammates) because that would be antithetical to everything I've ever heard about Gil Hodges as a manager and as a man. Koosman's reason, that Foy annoyed him by blocking his view of the field, borders on "insane," but yes the lack of concern for one of his players suffering from a bad addiction that went out of control is inhuman, on a scale that I cant see the most brutal of managers--a Leo Durocher, a Billy Martin, a Vern Rapp--signing on to, much less Hodges, who was universally respected.​
5:09 PM Mar 13th
Fireball Wenz
Never mind the rest of it...if the anecdote is true, Hodges was willing to put Foy's life at risk.
1:46 PM Mar 13th
(no, not the entire game in the field, but I know that's just a small detail)
10:21 AM Mar 13th
Steven Goldleaf
The entire point of Koosman's anecdote is that Hodges put Foy into a game, close to the end of the regular season (" was not long after that that Joe was gone") for a few plays at the very beginning of the game when the whole team knew, and Foy demonstrated, that he wasn't capable of making the simplest plays. There are all sorts of possibilities such as those being suggested here that allow for Foy to have played in a different type of game, such as an exhibition game, a non-doubleheader, an entire game , etc., but all of those undermine the essential point that Koosman is making. Marisfan61 has Foy playing the entire game defensively, which is antithetical to Koosman's point, and SwampDog conjures up the possibility of a rained-out second game, with zero evidence that this occurred in 1970, or interprets "the ball went by him" to denote a foul ball, or other far-reaching stretchers that undermine the point that Koosman was making. (If a guy doesn't budge in the direction of a foul grounder, isn't that just reading the ball correctly? IOW, if the ball was foul, and for Koosman to be making anything like a legitimate point, the ball would have had to be a screaming grounder that went foul by inches.) My point is simply that Koosman's story, as told, has certain large factual problems inherent in it, and should be regarded with extreme skepticism on that basis alone.
6:55 AM Mar 13th
Maybe the game began as Koosman described, but was rained out.
Or perhaps the first batter hit a ball that Foy did not see or react to, but went foul. Possibly it was a preseason game.
1:28 AM Mar 13th
Just noting, if you want to take it as a given that Foy was taken out of the game pretty early, we can see quickly that the whole thing is sunk right there, because there was just 1 game all year where he was taken out even mildly early -- and in that game (May 13, 4th inning), it was after he'd been hit on the wrist by a pitch.

(I wouldn't take that part of it as a given when trying to trace something like this.)
10:37 PM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
You can always find games in which a single to LF appears. But if Hodges had it demonstrated clearly that Foy never even saw the baseball whizzing by him, and then left him in the game until the bottom of the 9th (which is hardly "a little later"), then he was worse than vindictive--he was taking chances with a pennant race that was downright suicidal. Hodges' being confident in Foy's ability to field 3b for the entire defensive game undercuts Koosman's point as much as it can be undercut.
10:25 PM Mar 12th
I would have "traced" it at least a little more broadly -- particularly, looking beyond the first batter and the first inning.

September 9 fits the anecdote well enough for me. Not that it's close enough for me to say "That's it," just that it fits well enough to keep me from throwing up my hands.

The second batter of the 2nd inning singled to left.
Foy came out of the game in the 9th inning for a pinch hitter.

Plausibly adding to the impression in the anecdote (if indeed this is the game), on the next ball hit in Foy's direction, the first batter in the 3rd inning reached on an infield single to 3rd base.
BTW, Foy did handle the next play: a sac bunt.
10:06 PM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, Matthew. Of course, if was a road doubleheader, that casts some doubts on Koosman's memory from the git-go. When people say things like "I remember it well, it was a doubleheader at home..." and it turns out not to be, you have to question exactly how well they're remembering other details. ​
5:57 PM Mar 12th
There's only one road doubleheader where Foy played in the second game but not the first -- July 2 at Philadelphia. He played the entire game, 4 assists (including 2 double plays) and no errors.

Moving beyond doubleheaders, I looked for games where Foy started the game at third base but was removed early in the game. Only one game looks like a possible fit -- May 13, in Chicago, when he started at 3B but was removed after 3 innings. But in that game it looks like only two balls were hit anywhere near Foy, and he caught both of them (a foul popup and a line drive that he turned into a double play).

My next thought was that perhaps Foy was inserted into the middle of a game, for only an inning or two. But his two shortest appearances as a sub don't seem to match -- on July 10 (1 inning) and May 9 (4 innings), he came into the game as a pinch hitter and remained in to play third base, and he finished the game. In fact, he has no games in his fielding log for the 1970 Mets where he entered mid-game and was removed before the end.

It's hard to see Koosman just making this up out of whole cloth, but I'm not seeing any games that can reasonably be considered likely fits.

- Matthew Namee
5:44 PM Mar 12th
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