Baseball's Lesser Lights
Men who played the game and faded into memory tell their stories
THEY were not the first magnitude stars of their era. They were, rather, baseball's lesser lights - men who lived to play the game, carve a tiny notch in its lore, then fade into memory. Lacking the physical grace and power of Willie Mays playing the outfield, or the natural perfection of Ted Williams's swing when at bat, men like Mel Parnell, Al Weiss, and Bob Boyd were good, but not great, ballplayers. Yet, they were gifted and gritty enough to arrive and thrive in the big leagues and to play side by side with yesteryears' superstars.
So, what did happen to those guys - the ones who ground their way up the minor-league ladder to play finally on the same field with Joe DiMaggio or bat against Sandy Koufax?
What happened during and after such careers is the refreshing subject of ``When The Cheering Stops,'' by three baseball enthusiasts: Lee Heiman, Dave Weiner, and Bill Gutman. They selected and questioned 22 former major leaguers, recorded their answers on tape, then transcribed the interviews verbatim to make this book.
Except for a snapshot biography at the start of each chapter, it's all told in the players' own words.
The authors seem to have asked each of the players similar questions, which could have been a bore. But the word-for-word statements are a surprisingly interesting and spontaneous recounting of what it is like to play in the shadow of the big guys, only occasionally holding the spotlight. The answers include their impressions, their gripes, the great players they remember, and what they've been doing since hanging up their spikes.
Perhaps what makes the book most interesting is hearing the viewpoints of those who played in the early 1940s through the early 1970s, when ballplayers were still the chattel of team owners.
For example, New York Yankees hitting star Don Mattingly recently signed a five-year, $19 million contract. But the guys in this book were mostly paid $20,000 or $30,000 a year. One player, Roy Sievers, was the first American League Rookie of the Year (1949). His bonus for signing with the St. Louis Browns was a new pair of shoes.
Unlike many of today's players, the men in this book had a financial imperative to make a quick transition from locker room and stadium to the nine-to-five work world.
Take Mel Parnell, for a case in point. Not exactly a household name you say? Yet, Mr. Parnell's claim to fame is that he is one of only a few left-handed Red Sox pitchers to win games consistently in Fenway Park. In 1949 he won 29 games pitching in Fenway and 21 more in 1953. Fenway's left field wall, inappropriately named the Green Monster, makes routine pop flies seem to positively jump out of the park. It still intimidates most lefties.
``I knew my time was up,'' says Parnell. ``I simply left the team quietly in the middle of the season.'' What is Parnell doing today? He owns a pest-control company in New Orleans.
Then there is Al Weiss, who spent eight years (1962-1971) with the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets as a utility infielder.
``Leaving the game wasn't easy,'' Mr. Weiss says. ``Fortunately, I've been with the same company since I left baseball. It's a local furniture company and I'm in charge of shipping and receiving.... Sometimes I do physical work and I'm not ashamed of that. I make a good living; my wife works, and we've put a kid through college.''
Bob Boyd was a line-drive hitter and one of the first black ballplayers signed after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in his 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mr. Boyd played for the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Athletics, and Milwaukee Braves from 1951 to 1961.
``Minnie Minoso and I were the only two black players on the [Chicago White Sox] then and when we came into these Southern cities the ball club assigned us bodyguards,'' Boyd recalls. ``We couldn't stay at the team hotel then, so we would stay with a local black family, and these bodyguards would sleep on the front porch on chairs during the night. Then they would go with us to the ball park and actually stay in the dugout during the games.''
In the twilight of his career, Boyd was sent to the minors. He quit and began working as a bus driver for the Dreamliner Bus Company in Wichita, Kan., which had a semipro baseball team.
To say that players like Boyd, Weiss, and Parnell were a different breed of player from today's seems a gross understatement. ``It's funny,'' says Boyd, ``my top major league salary was $18,500, meal money for today's players.''
Gripes about being denied a fatter pension is a thread that runs throughout the book. The Major League Baseball Players Association is expected to decide this summer whether to give a larger slice of the pension pie to former players. Action on this has been slow in coming. The book's oldsters hold today's players bluntly accountable for their perceived greed, and other indiscretions.
Elroy Face, a Pittsburgh Pirate relief pitcher from 1955 to 1968, is one of several to drive home one of the starkest changes in the game.
``I do think that today's players are better athletes,'' Mr. Face says. ``But as far as desire, well, I think there was more desire on the part of the guys back when I played. Today's players are in it strictly for the money.''