Tellin’ Baseball Stories: Chili, Spahn, and the Queen of Liechtenstein

Welcome to the middle of February, folks. Pitchers and catchers are still a week or more away from reporting, the hot stove is all but dried up, the Eastern seaboard is waist-deep in snow and writers are taking some time off in this post-Super Bowl, pre-spring training part of the calendar… it’s not exactly the ideal time for us baseball fans who are eager to see the season started. There just isn’t that much news going around.

We should be grateful, then, for some of the stories we’ve seen this week. Yes, the Bud Selig statue at Miller Park got some good laughs, but we also got this wonderful story from Brent Mayne yesterday. It was quickly and easily debunked – as far as the specifics go, at least; I fully believe the general events of the story are true – but it was a lot of fun to talk about.

I also found a neat little story yesterday over at the social news site, Reddit. A user named mushpuppy tells the story of how he got the chance to meet Rangers’ shortstop Toby Harrah as a kid at a local event in the ’70s. When he finally met him face to face, the shy kid asked Toby what he’d do if he ever found himself in an 0-for-22 slump (or some other such number – it’s what mushpuppy himself hit in Little League). Toby kind of rudely laughs at him and says, “I don’t know, kid. I’ve never gone 0-22.” Go and read the rest of the story yourself. It’s not exactly heartwarming – maybe schadenfreude is the right word – but it’s honest. I liked reading it.

In the interest of keeping these honest and fun stories alive during this otherwise cold and boring week, I figured I’d join in. Of course, I can’t match the experiences of a journeyman catcher, or even of a Texas kid from the 1970s, so I’ll have to do it another way. Lucky for me, my Google search skills haven’t atrophied. Here’s what I found:

(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)

In the January 1981 issue of Baseball Digest, Roger Jaynes, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal, talks to Tommy Ferguson, the Brewers traveling secretary at the time. Ferguson had been in baseball since 1945, working for the Red Sox, Braves (Boston & Milwaukee), Angels, Pilots, and Brewers. Needless to say, the man was full of stories, and Jaynes gave him nearly free reign to tell them. Some highlights from the article:

“Characters? I’ve known a million, a million.

Working with Charlie Dressen was an experience in itself. He was a great chili man, see. He’d make the stuff all afternoon, then take it to the concession stand to simmer just before the game. That’s why he never wanted a game to go extra innings. If we had to go extra innings he was upset, because the chili would get cool. Sometimes I think he worried more about the damn chili than he did the game.”

That’s Charlie Dressen, one-time World Series manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, though he must’ve been talking about his time with the Milwaukee Braves. He also had some interesting things to say about Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette:

“You know, Spahn and Lew Burdette were two of the craziest guys you’d ever want to meet. They did things you wouldn’t believe. Like with Wes Covington. He always wore different kinds of hats. Well, one day he had this pork-pie hat and they set it on fire.

One day in New York, at the Polo Grounds, they even set fire to the clubhouse. The game’s going on, and here come the fire engines roaring up and nobody could figure out what was going on. It was a hell of a mess. Or if a clubhouse was too clean, they’d litter it, tip over everything.

But you know, on the day they pitched, they never fooled around.”

I don’t know what it is, but I never really suspected Warren Spahn of being a hell-raiser in the clubhouse. Maybe it’s the majesty of his 363 wins, or maybe it’s the way W.P. Kinsella portrayed in the short story “How I Got my Nickname” him as a deep-thinking book-nut who questions the brilliance of The Great Gatsby… I don’t know. But it’s fun to see this other side of him. Two more quick stories:

“With the Angels, we had one problem. Bo Belinsky. I’d tell you everything about him, but you don’t have enough paper. He and Dean Chance were wild. Polite, though. They’d always call and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna miss the plane. Don’t worry about us.’

I remember once, when the team landed in New York, and there was this big chauffered limousine waiting for Bo and Dean as we got off the plane, complete with this beautiful blonde and little white dogs on leashes. The rest of the guys were dumbfounded.

It was all show, of course. Dean and Bo had fixed it up with the local Cadillac dealer they knew. But the next day, when all the players asked who she was, they said she was the queen of Liechtenstein.”

Mysterious blonde women are always the queen of Liechtenstein, aren’t they?

“One of the funniest things I ever saw, well, you know lots of times managers get calls from gamblers, wanting to know who’s going to pitch. They fake it, have somebody typing in the background, so the guy thinks they’re a newspaper writer or something.

Anyhow, Rigney always knew this one guy by his voice. One day the guy calls, says he’s a UPI writer and needs to know the pitchers for our series in New York, so he can get it on the wire.

Well, we had this pitcher, Bobby Botz from West Allis, (Wisconsin)… He was the last pitcher on our roster. So, anyway, Rigney says, ‘In the first game, I’ll pitch Chance, and Bobby Botz the second game.’

Now, never mind what that did to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas. We get to New York, and Botz picks up an early edition of the News, and sees the probables. Well he sees his name, and I swear, he faints dead away in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel. He couldn’t believe it, he almost died.”

I guess maybe Bill Rigney guessed wrong about the identity of that reporter. Pretty funny.

There are quite a few more stories in the article that I didn’t highlight here. They include, among others, a story on how Ferguson, then the traveling secretary of the Seattle Pilots, had to take a gamble on what uniforms the team would be wearing when the 1970 season began, and one about how Ferguson was friends with Charley Pride without even knowing it. Like I said, it’s a fun read, and one that is absolutely perfect for this time of year. Go have a read and enjoy.

And remember: only a week (or so) until pitchers and catchers report! I can’t wait!

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.