Friday, July 21, 2006

Today's Random Sports Book Notes Today: A Rambling Post about The Hustler's Hustler: Bill Veeck ... and Women's Pro Softball

I'm in the middle of reading a used copy of Bill Veeck's 1965 memoir of his career as a baseball maverick, The Hustler's Handbook, and, as expected, it's a rambling, disjointed, hyperbolic, entertaining read. Veeck -- who died in 1986 (to continue a theme pervading most of my last several posts) -- is still well-known for crazy stunts as part-owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox (twice), as well as management positions for several other clubs. He planted the ivy at Wrigley Field, he sent a midget (dwarf? little person? really short guy?) to bat, and he installed the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park. He also seems to have been instrumental in pioneering the use of "sport psychology" (with limited success) and was way ahead of his time in making the case in the mid-1960s for recruiting Asian players.

It's a baseball nerd's book, to be sure, full of war stories about the dirty and treacherous business of player trades, and irreverent observations about immortals like Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Satchel Paige, and Yogi Berra:

Yogi is a completely manufactured product. He is a case study of this country's unlimited ability to gull itself and be gulled.... It pleased the public to think that this odd-looking little man with the great natural ability had a knack for mouthing humorous truth with the sort of primitive peasant wisdom we rather expect from our sports heroes.

Still happening today ... Yogi's AFLAC commercials seem to air during every commercial break of every baseball game I've watched this season -- which is a lot.

The book also contains, naturally, no shortage of wit and wisdom about Veeck's strongest suit -- the art of promotion. Many of Veeck's ideas were purely entertainment-based -- the examples noted above, and other promotions that have become ubiquitous, such as game-day giveaways ("Bat Day" -- now there's a concept destined for a certain rock club in Minnesota), printing player names on the backs of uniforms, and those annoying scoreboard "contests" between innings. But many of his innovations -- considered outlandish if not insane at the time -- were simply aimed at finding talent in new places. (He was the guy, after all, that signed the first African-American player in the American League -- Larry Doby, in 1947.)

In an epilogue added to the paperback edition of the book I own, he describes another scheme I'd like to see resurrected:

There is... one source of talent that has never been tapped: the female of the species. In 1980, I had a promotion worked out, secretly, with Coca-Cola to conduct a national hunt for the best of the female players, with the winners to be placed in the minor leagues and brought along like anybody else. It was not a stunt. Although the female of the species lacks the upper-body strength to stand much of a chance in the competition for the power positions, young women are more than competitive when it comes to dexterity and agility. If everything had gone according to plan, we would have had a female playing second base in Chicago within three years and, unless I was off the mark, a pitcher with style and control within five.

After watching a few of the games in the World Cup of Softball on ESPN2 last weekend while hiding indoors from the heat wave -- which was a pretty fun competition to watch, if tremendously mismatched in the USA's favor -- I think it's an idea that has some merit. I don't know if these women can pitch overhand, and I doubt you can put the dramatic motion on a baseball that you can on a softball, but I'd still like to see the experiment attempted. Come on, MLB! Somebody sign up Cat Osterman now! Or Jennie Finch. She already works in Chicago -- for the Bandits pro team -- but the Cubs really need pitching (and the White Sox starting rotation ain't looking so ... uhh ... good, lately), and I bet they have more in the payroll to offer than the Bandits.

And I'm not sure Veeck was right about the upper-body strength thing. Stacey Nuveman looks pretty brawny. There are definitely major leaguers who are weaker than her (I'm just about certain she could beat the hell out of Ronny Cedeno in a bar fight). She has a batting stance and a swing that I think could hold up in pro baseball, at least at the minor league level. Why not? Besides, a lot of hitting power comes from the legs (OK, I'm not sure that's true, but let's pretend it is), and she definitely has strong ones. At any rate, I bet she could hit -- and catch -- better than Chris Widger's doing this season.

No comments: