Excerpt from “Bums, Burns, & the Brooklyn Dodgers”

This is an example of the timeline for publishing creative, short non-fiction about baseball: write a rough draft in 2011, edit several times, submit to a half-dozen journals, receive rejections six months later; rewrite in 2012, edit several more times, resubmit to a few places, receive more rejections after six or even nine months; and, “one last time,” edit & tweak just a little more in 2013, submit to just one very niche yet fitting publication, and, at last, receive word of acceptance–then wait just a little longer, out of courtesy to the editors, before sharing on a blog in 2014. . . . I therefore figure that enough time has passed that I can finally post at least an excerpt from “Bums, Burns, & the Brooklyn Dodgers,” an essay of mine that the kind editors at Spitball published last year in issue #73. However, out of respect for the little baseball literary magazine, I’m still not going to post the entire piece; anyway, the original is bookended by a more personal narrative that doesn’t really need to appear here.

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     . . . . So imagine my surprise when in the middle of watching the “Shadow Ball” episode from Ken Burns’s sprawling PBS series, Baseball (1994-2010), I heard a narrator elucidate the deeper historical roots of this often (though not exclusively) derogatory expression. Yes, the marvelous, two-hour program documents the surely more broadly, culturally intriguing dilemmas—and, strangely enough, delights—of baseball’s “Negro leagues.” For example, Burns edifies with accounts of how black players sometimes performed a curious game of “shadow ball.” The term referred not to any racial epithet, as you may tentatively cringe with suspicion, but instead how these vastly underappreciated athletes practiced with a “ghost” ball—and with such reputed skill as to dupe the eyes of even the most watchful onlooker. All this, alongside detailed attention to other key events, rising stars, and the fading of that greatest star of the major leagues, Babe Ruth, and Burns delivers a masterpiece once more.

However, in the midst of this greater narrative delivered via some gravelly though often eloquent voices of historians, poets, broadcasters, and aficionados, the episode segues into the exploits and largely laughable disasters of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Disdainfully known for their notoriously poor performances and almost clownish attitude, the team came to be named by fans and foes alike as, you guessed it, “dem bums.”

This rather popular moniker aside, though, the team’s official name originated from an even more ubiquitous notoriety. The Dodgers name actually stemmed from a joking insult that many New Yorkers reserved for Brooklyners. It was all due to that unfashionable borough’s muddled network of trolley cars—hence the old slur, “trolley dodgers.” Early on, the team also moved to a precariously located stadium (at Eastern Park), bordered treacherously on two sides by busy trolley line tracks. The team was thereafter known as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Albeit this nickname was subsequently shortened to simply the Brooklyn Dodgers, which, despite a number of other christenings given by fans, eventually ended up as the team’s official name in the early 1930s.

All this was but merely a predecessor to the team’s status as “dem bums.” Despite an outstanding hitter, Babe Herman, who was just as outstanding a mishap in the outfield, the Brooklyn team largely disappointed the citizenry. As their slump persisted, their unofficially eponymous reputation did, too. And the other name finally stuck when it appeared in the work of newspaper cartoonist Willard Mullin and his popular drawings of the time. Fittingly, the story goes that Mullin first heard the term of endearment one day from a cabbie curious to know how the team fared that afternoon.

Indeed, it did become an endearing term—and one that endured as, eventually, Brooklyn started to actually win some games. But that was long ago. Funny enough, any such fondness in the old expression seems far removed now. . . .

A Tale of Two Sams

“Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name?”

—Harvey Pekar in the film adaptation American Splendor (2003)

Harvey Pekar’s quasi existential musings in his now famous “What’s in a name” monologue felt like an appropriate start here. I recall feeling the same vaguely pensive sentiments about identity, chance, and fate not long after I first encountered pitcher Sam Jones and his salient, doleful visage. To this day, Sam’s lachrymose expression seems to cause the very cardboard to warp and sag on his contradictorily brightly colored 1958 Topps card. Printed in typical four-color halftone on customary compressed cellulose, his portrait exhibits a poor imitation of a happy ballplayer; indeed, the tortured smile that drags his eyes down appears to be more grimace than grin. This is the illustrated definition of a long face. One compatriot baseball enthusiast whom I know even jokingly suggested a more than suitable nickname, “Sad Sam.” Actually, it turns out that Sam’s teammates and fellow players similarly christened him: “Sad Sam Jones.”

1958 Topps 287, Sam Jones

Sad Sam it would be. Naturally, curiosity next propelled me to do some casual research (as if the baseball almanacs, biographic blurbs, and statistical ebbs and flows would so easily illuminate some secret tragedy in Sam’s past).  I was but barely on my way to discovering the origins of Sad Sam’s woes and melancholy when I soon confronted a wall of confusion in the form of another pitcher—named Sam Jones. At first I assumed an error had somehow occurred in the annals of ash wood and leather. In fact, I swore that some editorial oversight was culprit for the following, more startling duplication: that this other, early prototype (highly regarded by players and fans in his time) was also infamously hailed as none other than “Sad Sam Jones.”

1933 Goudey, Sam Jones

Two Sam Joneses. Two “Sad” Sam Joneses. Both pitchers. But wait: the coincidental or preordained links in the chain do not end there—not by a long ball. For while each Sad Sam clearly lived his own individual life, possessed no shortage of inimitable eccentricities, and earned some fine distinctions in the game, some additional and curious parallels exist. . . .

Sams converge

The Sad Sam Jones who lived from 1892 to 1966 (henceforth Sam Jones I) was a pitcher who threw right and batted right.

Likewise, the Sad Sam Jones who lived from 1925 to 1971 (henceforth Sam Jones II) was a pitcher who threw and batted right.

Sams diverge

Sam Jones I played in the MLB from 1914 to 1935—near the end of the dead-ball era and into a new chapter for pitchers.

Sam Jones II played first in the Negro leagues and then in the MLB from 1951 to 1964—near the end of the era of exclusion of African Americans from baseball and into a new chapter for black ballplayers.

Sams converge

Among other teams, Sam I played for the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.

Among other teams, Sam II also played for the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Cardinals, and the Baltimore Orioles (formerly known as the St. Louis Browns).

Cleveland was the first team for both Sams.

Sams diverge

Sam I’s achievements include winning three World Series Championships (with the New York Yankees).

Sam II’s achievements include appearing in two All-Star games.

Sams converge

Sam I was born in Woodsfield, Ohio.

Sam II was born in Stewartsville, Ohio.

Approximately forty miles apart, Woodsfield is less than an hour drive from Stewartsville.

Sams diverge

Sam I earned his nickname on account of his “downcast” exterior when on field, no doubt exaggerated by the style in which he wore his baseball cap very low over his eyes. (While other players wore their caps high so they could more easily admire the female fans, or so he jocularly criticized, Sam defensively attributed his peculiar cap-donning fashion to the desire to play with focus.)

Sam II earned his nickname due his shy nature and “mournful-looking” appearance (often with a toothpick in his mouth, which earned him a second moniker).

Sams converge

Sam I threw a no-hitter in 1923 but with the dubious distinction of failing to make a single strikeout (a first for a pitcher with a no-hitter).

Sam II threw a no-hitter in 1955 (making him the first black pitcher to accomplish this feat in the MLB).

Sams meet

After his time playing major league ball was over, Sam I remained involved in baseball. Whether by kismet or serendipity, his charitable work among youths in baseball would bring two paths to a cross, as SABR reports:

He kept busy, teaching kids in Woodsfield how to play ball (and securing donations of major-league equipment from some of his old teammates), according to his friend, Ronald Turner; one of those children, from nearby Stewartsville, Ohio, was another Sam Jones, nicknamed “Toothpick Sam.”

Credit: 1958 Topps Sam Jones courtesy of COMC.com.