You and I Have Memories

September 9, 2017

When I wrote last month (https://www.billjamesonline.com/articles/?AuthorId=23 ) about Roberto Clemente hitting the only walk-off grand-slam inside-the-park home run in major league history, it made me think a little bit about what memory feels like. It was a strange little piece, an experiment prompted by my reading an online article in the hellish waiting area at LaGuardia (it’s not hell, just hell-ish) and wondering if I could possibly get something, anything, written and posted in the 15 or 20 minutes available before they call my row number. Normally, I put a couple of days into planning, researching, writing, rewriting, rethinking, revising a piece before I post it, so  I was basically daring myself to see if I could get anything remotely readable online before I had to clap my laptop shut. Maybe that haste showed. If so, sorry.

But the thing I realized, once I figured out that Clemente’s W-O G-S I-T-P HR just happened to occur sixty-one years to the day before I read about it, was how long ago sixty-one years was—or rather how long ago it WASN’T.  I remember Clemente very well—I saw most of his career, though not the first few years of it (I turned 3 about a month before the day described in the article) but I remember vividly seeing Clemente as a young outfielder. He had a charismatic, almost royal, presence, especially in those days when Batting Average was still king and OBP wasn’t even a bump in its mama’s belly. For some reason, I remember a black-and-white photo of him down on one knee in the outfield: I’ve never quite seen any other player in quite that pose. It reminded me of an Irish Setter pointing at a bird, Clemente’s angular body down on one knee. What was he doing? Making a catch? Falling after making a throw? Anyway, 61 years isn’t that long a time to remember—I’m sure many of us have memories that go back 61 years—I know I have one or two, and I’m far from the oldest guy on this site. The first baseball game I ever saw was in late 1961, though, and if my logic holds up, that means that there were guys sitting in Yankee Stadium with me that day who remembered very well games before the American League began, and no doubt some even older guys who remembered a lot further back than that.

That strikes me as remarkable, somehow, that when I was very young I knew men who remembered parts of the nineteenth century but regarded those memories as nothing special. The nineteenth century now seems to me like a time just after dinosaurs walked the earth, but 1956? I can describe the sailor cap my dad wore that summer, or the precise shade of red my infant brother’s face turned when he cried that year. I actually have one very clear memory of my brother’s birth in 1955, and I find that 62-year-old memory fairly amazing in itself, for the clarity of it and the certainty of the scene I’m able to recall. But now I’m questioning my own sense of certainty.

I used to live next door, in upstate New York, to an older guy who remembered having seen Babe Ruth play, which struck me as amazing, but really when you come to think about it, Babe Ruth didn’t even die until 1948, and he died very young, 53 or 54, so of course I had neighbors who remembered him playing outfield for the Yankees—I just didn’t fully realize how close the past is to me, is to us all, on a personal level.  F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, and I was able to interview in 2013 the woman who had been his secretary the last few years of his life, and to talk to Budd Schulberg, who had been Fitzgerald’s collaborator on a movie script in 1937. Both of these nonagenarians had sharp memories of Fitzgerald, and spoke with perfect lucidity as they told me about his daily routines. (They were also slightly annoyed, I think, that they were in such demand to discuss events of 70 years earlier, and that so few of the interviews concerned the lives they lived in those 70 busy years.) Somehow, I’d assumed that when I got to the point when I had memories that were over 60 years old, my mind would have frazzled and those memories would be as valuable and as tangible as dandelion spores in a strong breeze.

When I think of all the things I’ve wasted in my lifetime, and that’s a lot of waste, one of the biggest is not sitting down and taking notes when older people were willing to tell me about their lives. My dad served in Europe and in the Pacific during World War II—I can still feel my eyes rolling whenever he was willing to talk about his experiences during the war. He didn’t like talking about the war at all, but sometimes he would be reminded of something that happened to him as a young soldier. I, however, couldn’t wait to change the subject into one more relevant to me, not understanding that knowing about my dad’s life would be far more valuable than some pop song or TV show. Now that resource is long gone, forever lost, and I marvel at my own self-centeredness in having been unable to recognize the value in older people’s memories.

The images that keep replaying on a loop inside my cranium, even those over a half-century old, maybe especially those, are remarkably vivid. My brother likes to tease me about remembering useless stuff about baseball in the 1960s, and I do remember baseball from that decade far more sharply than I remember any other decade, partly because I didn’t have that much to focus on at the time other than baseball, and partly because I have reinforced those initial impressions with much re-thinking and research into the period since then.  Truth to tell, I probably watch 10%, maybe 5%, maybe less, of baseball games today than I watched when I had nothing better to fill my days and nights with, or so I thought. I used to know the names of every utility infielder in MLB, and I could tell you some anecdote or oddball stat or association with every player in baseball, often many anecdotes and stats and stories about the most ephemeral players in the game, but now, honestly, I see the names of starting players, even MVP candidates, and I don’t know a damned thing about them—what’s worse, I’m not alarmed at my ignorance; in the same way I used to dismiss everything that happened before I was born with a casual "Well, that was before my time," I often view things that are happening in MLB right now with "Well, that was after my time."

I think of myself as a curious person, but my curiosity now extends to areas beyond contemporary baseball—I’m looking backwards to understand more about baseball history, but I’m also interested in expanding my knowledge in other fields entirely, beyond baseball, beyond sports, beyond my professional areas of expertise, which has been focused narrowly on certain American writers of the 20th century. Bill likes to rail against expertise, but I (and he) have made decent livings out of being experts in our specialized areas, as have most of you, I’m quite sure—we tend to know a lot about a very limited sphere of information (what Isaiah Berlin liked to call "Hedgehogs," as opposed to Foxes, who according  to Berlin know a little bit about a lot of things), and that to me seems a very useful organization of information: I want my plumber to be extremely knowledgeable about pipes and sewer lines and such, and I don’t really care if he’s also an opera aficionado or a master chef in his spare time, while I’m pretty sure my students want me to be extremely reliable on Fitzgerald’s impressions of the 1926 silent film version of The Great Gatsby and couldn’t care less about my career as a bartender or a rock guitarist (both of which I abandoned early on, for a stunning lack of aptitude). I’ve always admired people who are expert in several divergent areas—the incongruity is always a marvel: while I admire Bill no end for his depth of understanding about baseball, for example, it pleases me even more that he is also knowledgeable about American crime stories or ancient Rome, so I’m trying to widen my own areas of expertise now that I have a little time in which to do so.

As I try to branch out, however, I’m always reminded of all the chances I had, and lost, to explore paths I walked right by earlier, not thinking to take a detour from my chosen route. (Frost’s road not taken, his point being, I think, that some roads are necessarily not taken, not that he made an especially poor call with that one road.) While it’s not a lie to say that I saw a lot of great ballplayers in my youth, a lot of those memories are only technically within my memory banks. I can produce ticket stubs as evidence that I saw Brooks Robinson play third base, or Mazeroski playing second base, but I don’t know that on the days I saw these things my attention was focused on Robinson or Mazeroski. It’s often fun, when I take some neophyte to see a game these days, I try to point out the one or two players who might someday make a good story that you saw them play a game. I took my girlfriend (not a baseball fan) to see the Mets play the Brewers in early June this year, and I asked her to pay special attention to Michael Conforto, more by way of default than anything else. It’s just impossible to pay your full attention to every player on the field at once, and it’s more fun to concentrate on just a few, if you have any idea which ones are worth your effort.  I think I’m compensating for my own failure to strategize along these lines when I went to games as a neophyte, or even as a hardcore baseball nut.

I’ve inadvertently made some odd experiments in memory in the past few years, especially as concerning my friend Joe. You may recall that Joe, who celebrated his 95th birthday this spring, had very briefly broken bread with Ted Williams in the service during The War, and had baseball stories to share with me dating back to the early 1930s. The funny part is that I’m surprised, and Joe is embarrassed, to find out how often Joe’s sharp, vivid memories of baseball games hang a bit off-plumb. Sometimes a little off, other times a lot, but nearly always contradicting facts that Joe confidently asserts as 100% accurate. As I said, I’ve grown suspicious of "certainty" above all else.

A Giants’ fan (NY Giants—Joe doesn’t care for the SF johnny-lemaster-come-latelys), he told me a few weeks back about a masterful shutout (27 up, 27 down, one baserunner erased on a DP) that Carl Hubbell pitched against the Dodgers in Ebbets Field in the front end of a July 4th doubleheader, or possibly a Labor Day doubleheader, as his career was closing down, in either 1940 or 1941. Joe told me the score of the game, the score of the second game, the batting star of both games (a backup catcher named Harry Danning), and several other details. He told me where he sat in Ebbets Field, as he painted a lively picture of a baseball game he’d seen over 75 years ago. I marveled at his total recall.

It will not surprise you that I could find no such game on Retrosheet. I looked for July 4th and Labor Day doubleheaders for 1940 and 1941, and then for 1942, and then for 1939 and 1943. (Hubbell hung on for quite a while as what we would now call a back-of-the-rotation guy.) Nothing even close. Which was too bad because I’d hoped to surprise Joe with the boxscore of the game he had so richly described to me. When I reported my findings, Joe still insisted that I had to have overlooked something, so certain was he of what he’d seen (and had been remembering so fondly all these years).

Turned out-- thanks to Joe remembering wearing a jacket to the game, which he says he wouldn’t have worn to a July 4th or early September game--to have been a Memorial Day double-bill. Joe got the score wrong (but fairly close) and Danning did have a good day (3 for 11, with 2 doubles and 3 RBIS), but Joe had been mis-telling this story in detail for several decades now, positive he was remembering correctly every last detail: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BRO/BRO194005301.shtml is the box score.

He was even more positive about one detail in the only World Series game he ever saw, the final game of the 1942 Series between the Cardinals and the Yankees, in which he described for me his pleasure at seeing Joe DiMaggio get thrown out stealing second base. We had discussed earlier our annoyance at Yankee fans’ insistence that DiMaggio literally never made a base-running error nor threw to the wrong base—I told Joe of the sabermetric view that every Attempted Stolen Base on DiMaggio’s stat line plainly showed a record of the only type of base-running error we (sometimes) kept a record of, so certainly there were instances of DiMaggio misjudging his jump, an outfielder’s arm, etc. on other types of running plays that we don’t track records of so readily. More significantly, and this applies equally to  baserunning errors and errors throwing to the wrong base, a low error-rate (as opposed to a zero error-rate) is actually a sign of excellence: we all make mistakes, and the only sure way to guarantee against errors is never to try. An outfielder who never tries to nab the lead runner while the trail runner advances an extra base is simply playing over-cautious baseball, conceding all sorts of extra bases routinely to runners.  Sometimes, the smart play is to throw the ball with only a 75% or 90% chance at nabbing him—naturally this means that 25% of the time, or 10%, both runners will be safe, but there is obviously some figure  (well below 90%) that justifies throwing to the lead runner’s target, even though throwing to the trail runner’s target would cause that trail runner to hold.

What I believe, and what Joe believes, is that DiMaggio was a superb baserunner and thrower who probably did make a few errors in judgment per season on the bases and in the outfield, as superb runners and throwers will, but Yankee fans and Yankee announcers and other idiots just enjoyed bugging us by proclaiming a zero-error rate for DiMaggio, so it pleased us both that Joe remembered so well Dimaggio getting thrown out to snuff a rally in the 1942 World Series’ deciding game. "And it was in the ninth inning, too," Joe added. "The Yankees had DiMaggio on base, they were only behind by two runs, and he ruined everything by getting thrown out trying to steal second base. All by himself, he turned a promising rally into a no-one-on, two-outs situation. I can see him, trotting back to the dugout, head down. The Series ended a minute later.  It was beautiful."

Problem was (you’re way ahead of me), that the 1942 Series stat line showed DiMaggio (and the Yankees for that matter) with 0 caught-stealings, and when I checked out the play-by-play for the final game, I found that DiMaggio didn’t get up to bat in the ninth inning.

When I reported this to Joe, for a second I thought he was angry with me, as if I were lying to him or teasing him. "I can see it—" he started to say.

"DiMaggio trotted back to the dugout," I chimed in. "Head down."

"Yes," Joe said, shaking his head vigorously, up and down. "Yes."

"No," I said. "Didn’t happen like that."

"Let me see that box score," Joe said. "I know what I saw."

What Joe saw, it turned out, was that Joe Gordon, the Yankees’ other star-Joe, had singled to open the bottom of the ninth, then advanced to second base on an error but promptly got himself picked off second base for the first out of the inning, blowing a gigantic hole in the 9th inning, two-runs-down rally his single had started. DiMaggio never got near the field in the bottom of the ninth, but somehow Joe remembered what he wanted to remember, DiMaggio slinking off the field in red-faced shame at his moronic attempt to steal a meaningless base that wrecked the Yankees’ slender chance to steal back the 1942 World Series from the Cardinals.

I had wondered, briefly, if Joe could have been confusing the final game of that World Series with the final game of the 1926 World Series, also where the Cardinals defeated the Yankees, ending on a very famous caught-stealing by a very famous Yankee slugger, but of course that was ridiculous. Joe was only four years old in the fall of 1926, so how he possibly have an image in his head of Babe Ruth slinking off the field in red-faced shame, etc. etc.? And while I still find it ridiculous, that is exactly what human memory does, conflating all varieties of experience into one experience, turning our lives into a smorgasbord that we pick and choose from, making up plates to suit ourselves, plates that have no order or reason or logic to them sometimes, just the disorder of our minds that fossilizes itself into vivid memories we swear by.

Joe and I spoke about this unreliability as well, which is another thing I like about Joe—he was actually pleased to be shown the things he had sworn by were wrong in critical places.  We discussed traffic accidents we had witnessed in which our testimony was critically flawed—I remembered a green car being broadsided by a red car, only it turned out that it was the red car that had rammed into the green one (and just barely missed ramming into me), and Joe had similar experiences. Human memories, I’ve understood increasingly over the years, are deeply flawed, and we’re just beginning to understand and quantify the depth and persistence of those flaws.

This is why I spend so much time reading Retrosheet, and why I love sabermetrics as much as I do: both provide a solid antidote to the poison of human memory. A little poison (a lloydwaner, in baseball terms) can be a good thing, can inoculate us and even provide pleasure, in small doses—a glass or three per week of Irish whiskey might lead to your finest hours in those weeks, but a bottle or three as your daily regimen will surely wreck your guts sooner or later, and my money’s on "sooner." Remembering stuff vividly from childhood is a great pleasure, but it’s the swearing by those memories that’s so dangerous, a danger that Retrosheet and sabermetrics and recording history seeks to protect us from.

You can make all the wild claims you like about fantastic games, and plays, and feats, you saw as a boy, and until recently it was difficult to prove you wrong, but now when Joe and I and you want to make those claims, we have to do it in the face of recorded facts. The only facts that existed up until the past few decades were newspaper accounts, which didn’t always agree with each other, and which were recorded by human beings capable of committing errors to print. Now, not so much, and getting harder by the day.

When I was trying to trace out this story, I came across a famous DiMaggio story that belies all the "perfect ballplayer" nonsense that his idolators love to indulge in. (If you Google "DiMaggio" and "perfect ballplayer" or other such phrases, you’ll find all sorts of wild claims about him having perfect judgment,  never making a mental mistake, etc., some of the quotes from respectable baseball people as well as fans and broadcasters.) It’s funny, because this counter-anecdote is very well known, and its point is that DiMaggio, when he was a young star, was far from perfect in his judgment—its point is, in fact, that he was a conceited young doofus who learned lessons the hard way. It’s the one about Joe D. playing shallow when Lefty Gomez was pitching, in order "to make them forget about Tris Speaker," and blowing the game by allowing a hitter to blast a ball deep over Joe’s head, losing the game for Lefty and the Yanks.  You all know that one. Isn’t that exactly what I just said—a story about DiMaggio making a mental error?

I came across an excerpt in a magazine (New York mag,  May 1-14 2017 issue, page 102), not the book itself, but it appears in a first-person narrative from Joe. D. himself, so I decided to run a tracer on this version of the story, with the usual unsurprising results: the game (as told) never happened. This narrative (the book is Dr. Rock Positano’s DINNER WITH DIMAGGIO) has Joe supplying enough details to run a tracer: the game took place in 1936, his rookie year, on a day the Yankees "were playing a doubleheader against the Red Sox. I played real shallow and we won the first game. Lefty pitched the second, and he was in trouble." Joe gives a few more details but the only ones that matters for my purposes is that the ball "rolled around out there all the way to the monuments" and the Yankees "lost that game." Since there are no monuments in Fenway, this tells us the game took place in Yankee Stadium.

In 1936, the Yankees played the Red Sox twice in doubleheaders in Yankee Stadium. The first one, on June 30th, the Yankees swept, so no go. (The pitcher in the second game was Bump Hadley, anyway.)  The next one was on August 23rd. This time they did win the first game and lose the second, but again, the Yankee pitcher in the second game was Bump Hadley. Now, if the punchline of the story were "You keep playing like that, kid, and they’ll forget Bump Hadley," then I’d look at the boxscore of the second game on August 23rd to see if maybe that play were there, but, no, it’s always told as "Tris Speaker? You keep playing like that, kid, and they’ll forget Lefty Gomez," which is how it appears in the Positano book. (I'd already forgotten Bump Hadley.)  I could keep looking, for other tellings, or other flaws in the story that make it possible (if the game were an away game, or took place in 1937, or wasn’t part of a doubleheader, or something else.) The minor point is, like most tracers, the story, as told, doesn’t check out, and it wasn’t all that hard to run a check. The major point is that, obviously, Joe DiMaggio did make mental errors, just like every ballplayer—he may have made fewer of them, or made all of them in his first few years in MLB, or compensated for them better, but he wasn’t, as the anecdotes have it, a perfect ballplayer, and the anecdote exists to memorialize that fact.

(A related memory-centric article to follow, in a few days or whenever I get it finished, whichever comes first.)

 
 

COMMENTS (37 Comments, most recent shown first)

FrankD
Dylan Thomas and memories:
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

Its a wonder if we don't conflate our memories even more. We take in a huge amount of real-time sensory data, filter it somehow to make sense of the now, then filter the data again and store this data with some kind of time stamp. And years later we try to recall this information. Now oft told stories often seem to even change these memories, as we recall, embellish and restore these memories - probably not in the same state that we recalled them. And many people lie and repeat the lie so often that the lie now is, to them, a real memory.

As for Clemente on one knee: in '60s we were taught to take routine grounders in outfield on one knee to block bad hops ......
6:45 PM Sep 18th
 
Marc Schneider
I guess I'm misremembering that I hit a home run to win the World Series and after the game went out with a supermodel. Oh well! The mind works in mysterious ways. I have memories of things happening to me that were actually dreams but seemed so vivid I was sure they actually happened. One night when I was single I dreamed that I had met a very attractive woman and got her phone number and I woke up and went to check my address book and, yes, it was a dream. I just wish it had been a better dream than getting her phone number.
3:35 PM Sep 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I haven't read the Positano book, only the excerpt in New York magazine, but I've certainly read enough about DiMaggio to last me a while--I'm not so drawn to his personality, or lack thereof, to want to explore it further.

A funny thing happened when I contacted my friend Joe to find out if my house in Florida was still standing (which it is--Joe says I lost a screen door, but it's otherwise untouched by Irma) --he pointed out how he had told me that he mis-remembered Dimaggio getting picked off second base, not getting caught stealing, but I mis-remembered that in turn as him telling me it was a CS. Joe had shared his story, and I looked up the boxscore, several months ago, but that was time enough for me to forget one crucial detail of his story. It's a wonder (as Dylan wrote about a different idiot) that we can even breathe.
3:17 PM Sep 13th
 
steve161
Given that I've read the Richard Ben Cramer biography, is there enough value-added in the Positano book, even leaving aside the fallibility of memory? From Cramer (and many other sources, like the 'greatest living' business or banning some of her friends from Marilyn Monroe's funeral) I don't get the impression I'd much enjoy spending time with Dimaggio.

By the way: Steven, excellent piece.​
8:40 AM Sep 13th
 
MWeddell
I also read the Positano book and it was a rather odd book. It was written by an unabashed admirer of DiMaggio but yet clearly reveals DiMaggio to be an extremely self-centered, high-maintenance person during the last decade of his life. I'd often heard him described as "aloof" elsewhere, but his behavior extends far beyond that rather tepid description. The book is much different than the typical athlete biography.
8:08 AM Sep 13th
 
Brock Hanke
bhalbleib - My memory is that this is also in My War. Hornsby, trying to win a pennant, didn't like his team's September off days being consumed by exhibition games. To Sam Breadon, those games were more money for him. I probably should have said "money issues" instead of just mentioning the salary thing. Now that I think of it, this feature may be what started the dad/Broeg story. Heroic superstar player/manager trying to win pennant opposing money-mad front office. I can see that this would play to a hero-worshipping teenage baseball fan.
6:12 PM Sep 12th
 
bhalbleib
Brock, , Wikipedia has yet another story of Hornsby leaving the Cardinals (quoting a 2007 book/article by Lee Lowenfish as its source), which states:

"But during the offseason, Breadon traded Hornsby to the New York Giants, the result of a heated confrontation between owner and player-manager in September 1926 over the playing of exhibition games during the September pennant race."

Btw, that story is in the Breadon Wikipedia article, not the Hornsby one.
10:56 AM Sep 12th
 
Brock Hanke
evanecurb - I'd be inclined to question which Hornsby story was right myself, except that the one in My War makes Hornsby look much worse. My dad and Broeg's version sanitizes him, portrays him as a genius player/manager who got roasted by Rickey over credit. Now, I have noticed that the dad/Broeg story is completely PLAUSIBLE, as long as you don't have any actual "I was there" sources. Hornsby, realizing that he wasn't going to become manager of the Giants, gets them to trade (sell) him to the Braves, whose owner was trying to build his team up by acquiring both Hornsby and George Sisler (all true), and who was willing to let Hornsby manage. This didn't work, and Hornsby was apparently satisfied that he had had his chance, and went to the Cubs under Joe McCarthy with no resistance. However, once McCarthy was gone, Hornsby wanted to try managing again. That SOUNDS like it makes sense, and McCarthy, who did not like Southerners, apparently had no problems with Hornsby that I know of, but still. My dad was 15, Bob Broeg was younger than my dad, while Hornsby was an adult who was actually there. And his story makes him look worse than the dad/Broeg story. I'd love to see a version of this by McGraw or McCarthy, but I haven't found one yet.
2:28 AM Sep 12th
 
bhalbleib
Just a thought but you could check Gomez's games against the Indians during the same time period too, after all, Speaker almost 500 more games for the Indians than the Red Sox.
2:33 PM Sep 11th
 
bhalbleib
I wanted to share one that I had to figure out from my grandfather (who just passed away at the fine age of 97). He told me a story about seeing an exhibition game in Wichita (his farm was in western Kansas) as a kid where Honus Wagner and Rogers Hornsby stood on the field near the third base dugout with their bats and talked about hitting the entire game (showing each other stances and grips and such). When I first thought about it, I thought it wasn't possible, Wagner retired in 1917 and my grandfather wasn't born until 1920 . . . but then I realized that he coached for the Pirates (Wikipedia said 1933-1951). Hornsby also coached for the Cards in 1933, so my speculation is that the exhibition game would have taken place prior to the season in 1933 between the Cards and Pirates. It is also possible the game was in KC, not Wichita, but that wouldn't change the story.
1:53 PM Sep 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Can't edit here (I haven't figured out how) but Gomez pitched EIGHT games against Detroit in 1937, but Neyer focused on the three most likely games.
10:29 AM Sep 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Did a little more looking: Rob Neyer conveys yet another version of Dimag-Speaker-Gomez tale on pp. 144-5 of his Baseball Legends book, this time as filtered through NY Post columnist Milton Gross in 1971. This time around, Dimag tells it as happening in 1937 (specifically "my second year in the majors").

Neyer runs a tracer--there's no Greenberg here at all (apparently the greatest catch ever vs. Greenberg at the 461-mark in 1936 has gotten conflated with the Rudy York story here.) According to Neyer, Gomez pitched three games vs. the Tigers in 1937. Dimaggio tells the story about Gomez signalling him to play back, much deeper, against the rookie York, who smashed 35 HRs in 104 games that year, and Dimaggio refused to budge. York then smashed "the first pitch over my head, and I couldn't catch up with it. I managed to touch the ball with one finger. We lost by one run." And after the game, the discussion of forgetting Tris Speaker, and forgetting Lefty Gomez, ensued. Gomez, compensating for 1936, started 8 games vs. the Tigers in 1937, according to Neyer, but lost only two games by one run. The first one York didn't play in. The second one York got one hit, but it was a HR, so not the ball Dimaggio describes.

Neyer also traced out a 2-run loss to Detroit, but with similar results. In that game on June 26 1937, York also went hitless except for "a home run, this one dropping into the left field stands, presumably far from DiMaggio's outstretched finger."

It's really getting to look like DiMag and Gomez exchanged quips about "forgetting about Speaker" and "forgetting about Gomez" that made a good story but perhaps had no basis in an actual game. That'd be my guess at this point. Gomez used to tell colorful anecdotes in the rubber-circuit, and this might be one of them.
10:27 AM Sep 11th
 
evanecurb
Brock: It's possible that Hornsby is the one who got the story wrong. If you read Cobb's autobiography, there's an awful lot of revisionist history in there. (I"ve never read Hornsby's). On the other hand, did the Cardinals even have a farm system that was well established as early as 1926? I always thought it came about a little later.
9:06 AM Sep 11th
 
BobGill
So much for Gomez's story, then. But at least Chandler seems to have been right: He pitched the last four innings of the Aug. 2 game, and retrosheet says Greenberg flied out to center field in the ninth, so that must have been DiMaggio's great catch. Too bad about the rest of it, though. It really sounded genuine to me.
8:55 AM Sep 11th
 
Brock Hanke
I got burned earlier this year by one of these. In 1964, Sportsman's Park in St. Louis was an elderly building an a poor area of town. The metro area wanted to build a new ballpark, but St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which surrounds the city, could not decide on where. Then a guy got shot to death taking a pee by the side of the road on his way home from a game, and suddenly the path was cleared. My STRONG memory was that the murder victim was the son of my mother's best friend, Rosemary Lough (John was the son's name). Someone did a tracer on that and found out that John had been the DRIVER of the car, NOT the shooting victim. How could I possibly have had that wrong since 1964, when Rosemary was my mom's best friend? I have no idea.

Here's another. Both my father AND the old sportswriter Bob Broeg told me the exact same story about how Rogers Hornsby left the Cardinals. He and Branch Rickey got into an ego fight over who was responsible for the 1926 championship. Hornsby claimed that, as soon as he was named field manager in 1925, he turned the club right around into a contender (this is true, or at least the Cards did start playing like the 1926 bunch as soon as Hornsby became manager). Rickey claimed that it was his great farm system and GMing that had done the trick. Rickey convinced owner Sam Breadon to trade Hornsby to the one team in baseball where Hornsby would NOT get a chance to prove that he was a genius manager (Giants, McGraw). The thing is, if you read My War With Baseball (Hornsby's biography, 1961), it is very clear that all this is wrong. Hornsby got into a salary fight with Breadon. How could my dad AND Bob Broeg remember the same story wrong the same way since 1926? Well, dad was 15 years old at the time, and, while he thought that George Sisler was God, he thought that Hornsby was Jesus. So, that makes sense. Dad never read Hornsby's biography. But Bob Broeg? Who was the beat writer for the Cards for decades and was still active in 1961, when My War... came out? How did he miss it? Did he just never read Rogers Hornsby's biography? The beat writer for the Cardinals? I have no idea at all, to this day. And, since Broeg is now dead, I doubt I'll ever find out how he missed the correction.
9:51 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The catch Chandler refers to came on August 2. 1939. The next day's Times coverage (byline Louis Effrat, not James Dawson, though Dawson might have written a similar column later) calls it "probably the greatest catch ever made in the Stadium." Effrat describes Joe D. racing "to within two feet of the 461-mark on the wall and, without looking backward, clutched the ball in his gloved hand just as it appeared about to hit the fence." The next day, Monte Pearson pitched a complete game for the Yankees--no Lefty Gomez, who as I said did not pitch against Detroit all that season.

James P. Dawson was covering the NL at that point, but maybe sometime he described DiMag's catch. He certainly did not see DiMaggio make the catch, as he was covering the Giants playing in Cincinnati when he made the catch at the 461 mark in Yankee Stadium.
9:15 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Here's a pretty good 5)

In 1939, Lefty Gomez innings vs. Detroit: 0
8:44 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Also, 3) Lifetime triples Rudy York hit off Gomez: 0
4) Lifetime doubles Rudy York hit off Gomez: 0

the retrosheet record at BB-ref.com is missing 1 game, but it's pretty unlikely that that is the one game.
8:33 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Haven't traced this version out completely, but

1) in 1939, Rudy York hit only 1 triple on the year, so obviously he never hit 2 in one game

2) I couldn't find any NYY-Det series in 1939 at Yankee Stadium in which Lefty Gomez pitched the second (or third, or fourth) game of the series.

Either of these is sufficient for me to regard the story as seriously flawed. You've got all these competing versions, with various tellers supplying very specific details, some of which are certainly wrong.
8:11 PM Sep 10th
 
BobGill
Addendum to the DiMaggio story ...

In "Baseball When the Grass Was Real," Spud Chandler discusses DiMaggio's great catch of the ball hit by Greenberg. He says it was the greatest catch he ever saw, and he had a good view of it, because he was pitching that day. He also corroborates the year it happened: 1939.

7:43 PM Sep 10th
 
BobGill
Here's a different version of the "make 'em forget Speaker" story, from an interview with Lefty Gomez in 1977. This one has more of the ring of truth to me:

One day in 1939, playing in Yankee Stadium, Hank Greenberg blasted a ball 450 feet and DiMaggio made a spectacular catch of it, back among the monuments with his back to the plate. (It must've been similar to Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series.) DiMaggio himself , presumably looking back years later, called it "the best outfield play I ever made." The next day, Jim Dawson (a name I don't recognize) wrote in the New York Times that with his ability to play shallow and still catch everything hit over his head, DiMaggio would make the fans forget Tris Speaker.

The next day, with Gomez pitching, Rudy York hit two balls over DiMaggio's head, both of which went for triples. In the dugout after the second one, Gomez asked why he was playing so shallow for York. DiMaggio, disgusted with himself, said, "Didn't you see the paper? I'm going to make the fans forget Tris Speaker."

To which Gomez replied, "OK, but just make sure you don't make 'em forget Gomez."

Bill mentioned this anecdote in the 2001 Historical Abstract, and said he didn't believe it, because in the more common shortened version, DiMaggio is boasting when he says he's going to make everybody forget Speaker. In this version, though, he's being sarcastic, mad at himself for failing to catch two long flies in the same game. That strikes me as more believable, as does the added detail of who the batters were, and the name of the writer with the Times.

I haven't tried to trace it, so I can't guarantee that this is THE correct story, but it's the one I'd pick, anyway.

7:34 PM Sep 10th
 
ajmilner
DiMaggio was introduced as "the greatest living ballplayer" at a ballgame, and in the press box Thomas Boswell said, "What, did Willie Mays die?"
5:22 PM Sep 10th
 
Rich Dunstan
Thanks for this beautiful reflection, Steven.

My grandfather was born in 1873 (he was 75 when I was born), older than Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner, and how I wish I could remember more of what he told me about baseball and everything else in a long and adventurous life.

On the topic of "make a good story that you saw them play in a game," when I saw Stan Musial play at Candlestick in his final season, I made a conscious decision at the time to acquire and preserve a mental image of him. My memory is of Musial moving no more than a step or two in from his position to catch an easy fly ball in left field, gloving it in front of his face.

It's a lovely memory, and I hope it's accurate, but... the only time I saw Barry Bonds play in person, 1998 in St. Louis, it left me with an absolutely ineradicable mental picture of Bonds, correct body type and general appearance, at the plate...batting right-handed, despite my knowledge to the contrary. So much for memory.​
4:10 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
If you juxtapose the Lefty Gomez story with the "Never made a mental error" story, MarisFan61, in front of John Sterling, how long would it take for his head to explode? 10, 9, 8....
12:31 PM Sep 10th
 
MarisFan61
Yes -- hyperbole, but about a thing that's still quite true. I do wonder, though, how often people might actually believe literally their hyperbole.
I know they don't always.

Common hyperbole includes:

"It all comes down to the pitching."
I'm sure that even people who say that, if pressed, would concede that at most, pitching is only 90% of baseball. :-)

Or, about some good and conscientious utility guy (the Yankee announcers sometimes actually did say this about Luis Sojo, and they come close to saying it about Ron Torreyes):
"He always but always gets the job done."
I assume they know he didn't.

Or (like about Edgar Martinez; I come close to saying it myself):
"He's a guy who always hit the ball hard."

And, this one that was said a fair amount about DiMaggio:
"the most perfect player in history"
(which I've taken to mean he was, well, pretty good)
12:08 PM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
To excuse it a little bit, it's just a fan's expression, an overly enthusiastic way of saying "He made very few errors," but it seems to have a life of its own, and some people no doubt take it literally, despite the evidence (his nine recorded CSs, his 105 fielding errors) we have that he put his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. I have no doubt that the crucial extra-base hit in the Lefty Gomez story, if it ever actually occurred, was scored a hit and not an error, and that he may have made hundreds of similar mental errors in his career--'I'll shade this guy a step to the left" and BOOM! he hits it to Joe's right--because how could he not? An editor of Roger Kahn's once told his writers to "Stop Godding up the ballplayers" and I think that DiMaggio's peculiar legend was maybe the greatest example of a great player whose reputation got Godded up out of all proportion. I mean, he was an unbelievably superb player, I don't mean to take anything away from Joe D.'s talent, but did he have to be formally introduced at every public appearance as "The Greatest Living Ballplayer" or else he wouldn't show? Could we negotiate this one, Joe, with Willie Mays and Ted Williams and Stan Musial and Ty Cobb, please?
10:17 AM Sep 10th
 
jewishtitofuentes
During my 4 hour layover in Atlanta later today, I am going to find a spot to down a lloydwaner.
10:10 AM Sep 10th
 
pgaskill
Back when I was much younger, perhaps in the 1960s or so, wondering even then about the "DiMaggio never made a mistake" meme, I noticed in some book or other that Joltin’ Joe made TWO errors in his—as I recall—first All-Star Game. "pop" went THAT particular bubble. . . .
10:01 AM Sep 10th
 
ajmilner
I just checked BB-Ref.com ... Through August 31st, 1936, DiMaggio had 109 RBI in his first 112 games. He was already driving in runs at a Gehrig/Greenberg level at the age of 21.
9:00 AM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I never really looked closely at DiMaggio's rookie stats before, but they are amazing, for reasons going well beyond his very impressive raw stats (206 hits, 29 HRs, 125 RBI etc.). I hadn't realized that he missed April entirely, and he had a pretty lousy September (in his final 121 ABs, all after August 31st, he batted only .240 with a pretty poor .636 OPS), meaning that he tore up the league from May through August. He had 668 PAs in 1936, despite missing the first month of the season.
7:52 AM Sep 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Lots of possibilities, Magpie. But in the telling in the Positano book (which is subtitled "Memories of an American Hero" btw), he is extremely specific about the game being against Red Sox, mainly because he's trying the prove he's as skillful a CF as the Red Sox' former CFer Tris Speaker. Another BTW I learned in the course of doing this tracer is that Dimaggio didn't even play CF until he was in the big leagues for several months (and he debuted in May) so he was still playing LF in the doubleheader against the Browns on July 19th. He first played center on July 31.
7:05 AM Sep 10th
 
Magpie
The Yankees did split a DH at the Stadium against the Browns in July 1936, and Gomez was the losing pitcher after a sixth inning single to centre by Tony Giuliani put the Browns up 5-4. An inning earlier, Harlond Clift had tied the game with a two run single to centre. I would venture that this game got mixed up with some others in someone's memory.
2:44 AM Sep 10th
 
MarisFan61
Yeah, I guess you could argue those things.... :-)

Maybe it's just that other factor of how things seem from the years prior to our lives compared to during (at least for me), but, in relation to the factor of......what to call it...... timeline-shattering, chapter-differentiation that I was musing on, those 3 things that I mentioned from the prior period seem more monumental and 'watershed' to me than those things you mentioned -- at least to me. The only thing in my lifetime that feels as "watershed" as I imagine those to have been is 9/11.

BTW, maybe it's just chronological proximity that makes me say this, but, depending on the full nature and results of the STORMS going on right now (and in the making -- Jose, Katia, whatnot), and depending on societal reactions, I can imagine these storms constituting another such watershed, no pun intended (I wouldn't be that tacky about it).
2:21 AM Sep 10th
 
taosjohn
"I do think that we haven't had anything as large as any of those things except perhaps 9/11"-- Marisfan

Man on the moon.
JFK assassination
Nixon and Agnew resign
Polio vaccine
the pill/sexual revolution
Interstate system/air travel/withering away of rail network
Pcs/cell phones
Nukes
Pollution
Rise and fall of the Iron Curtain
End of the British Empire as they knew it

And so on and so forth. We have lived through the normalization of a lot of things of enormous impact, less perhaps than the depression in some ways, but more in others...
12:29 AM Sep 10th
 
MarisFan61
About that first theme, about how any given years-ago amount seemed so much greater when we were kids -- absolutely. I often think of it, especially when (as for you) when I'm thinking back to some memory from kidhood, which doesn't seem that extremely long ago and which I remember vividly, that things like the Spanish-American War or the middle of Cy Young's career were no longer ago for a lot of people at the time we were kids. I'm pretty sure it's likewise for most people in our generation, but what I have no idea about is, is it a general and universal thing function of a person's age -- i.e. 60 years ago from one's childhood always seems more remote than 60 years ago from when you're in your 60's; or if it's something specific to just what these two 60-year periods have been. I can imagine that maybe it's something like that the two World Wars and the Depression made those earlier 60 years seem larger and with more changes. It's hard to be objective about our own times, but I do think that we haven't had anything as large as any of those things except perhaps 9/11.
9:40 PM Sep 9th
 
MarisFan61
Funny you should be talking about this kind of thing. By coincidence I came across an almost identical kind of thing -- maybe you know it, being kind of a political junkie but then again I am too and I never knew of it, even though it involves a researcher that I happen to have some connection with...

I was looking up some stuff about John Dean because of how much he's been on the air lately. I was only looking to see where he went to law school, but I also saw that he was so sure he was remembering all the Oval Office details so totally accurately and that his testimony was so spot-on in all its particulars, that when he learned that there were tapes and that they'd be released, he was thrilled, because he was sure it would bear this out. But it didn't. Although he's a very bright guy and (apparently) very into detail, and (I'd assume) blessed with a quite good memory, he had made all kinds of mistakes. His gist and basic narrative were right, but the details were no more right than what we find in your average Bill James "Tracer," or in one of your guy Joe's stories. A psychologist-researcher who had long believed that things like this were far more common than recognized used this stuff to further his work.
8:40 PM Sep 9th
 
Steven Goldleaf
"He was just a smooth outfielder and smooth in his hitting. No mistakes, ever. He was a solid ball player in every way. I never saw him make a mistake"--Red Schoendienst, quoted in Baseball-Almanac.com

"He never did anything wrong on the field."--Yogi Berra, same place.

Schoendienst's quote might be explained by he didn't see DiMaggio play that much, but Yogi saw him every day for years.

"Name a better right handed hitter, or a better thrower, or a better fielder, or a better base runner. That's right, a better base runner. Did you ever see him slide when he hooked the bag with his toe? Absolutely perfect." --Hank Greenberg
6:33 PM Sep 9th
 
 
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