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Cookie Lavagetto, the manager of the Washington Senators, looked up and down the long luncheon table in a corner of the tearoom atop Wood-rums' furniture store in Charleston, W.Va. He had the imperturbable air of a man who, having finished in eighth place in the American League for the last three years, is beyond further surprise in this life.
Cookie stared down at the wreckage of strawberry shortcake on his dessert plate. He raised up his head and turned to the only woman present, Mrs. William O. Abney, a sprightly gray-haired lady who is known as Mrs. Baseball for her years of devotion to the Charleston team.
"Mrs. Abney," said Cookie with a. courtly bow. Then, glancing around the table, he went on: "Mayor Shanklin, Mr. Woodrum, Manager Wilber, General Manager Milkes, directors of the Charleston club, coaches, sportswriters and radio announcers—have I mentioned everybody?"
Everybody laughed except me. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry—for years ago I had attended many a civic booster luncheon like this one and listened to the manager of a chronic second-division ball club put the best face on things. My old team was the St. Louis Browns. I had been a schoolboy fan, and when I grew up I worked for several years in the front office. Out of this experience I could almost predict what Cookie was going to say: the boys had been losing some games they should have won, injuries were plaguing the team, somebody was pitching better than the record indicated, once things shook down the club couldn't help but get going and, while it wasn't (speaking frankly now) a pennant contender this year, why it would be right up there giving the leaders a lot of trouble.
"To give you a rundown on our ball club," said Cookie, rearranging the silverware on the table, "as you know, we've been losing a lot of ball games by one run, and if we can just reverse this trend, why, I think we'll be up there battling for top position." Cookie went on to say that, of course, the leg injury suffered by Harmon Killebrew had hurt the team, but he hoped for Harmon to be back in the lineup on this road trip. Pedro Ramos, who at the time had an 0 and 4 record because his teammates couldn't get the runs for him, was just bound to start winning—it stood to reason. Washington had a real stopper, maybe the best pitcher in baseball, in Camilo Pascual (who had pitched 15 straight scoreless innings up to now) and a couple of great hitters in Bob Allison, one of the league's leading batsmen, and Jim Lemon. Earl Battey, obtained in the $150,000 deal that sent Roy Sievers to the White Sox, appeared to be solving the Senators' problem behind the plate. All in all, Cookie had a good case, and, as he said, his principal job now was "to keep the boys up there spiritually and mentally."
Only thing was that Washington was in seventh place and skidding toward eighth. Undeniably, as Cookie said, it was a better ball club than the one that had finished last three years in a row—a condition that once caused Cookie himself to break out in a psychosomatic all-over itch. But that was old stuff now. This was the hopeful time of year (Cookie hadn't scratched himself once), and a second-division ball club could explain things away—even poor attendance. Washington, for instance, was running considerably behind last year's gate at home, but blame the horrible weather for that.
Cookie wound up by saying that Washington would be sending Charleston (its farm club affiliate in the American Association) another player later in the week, and he hoped that the boy might make the difference for the local team—also in second division at the moment.
After the luncheon almost everybody went off to take naps before the night exhibition between the Senators and Charleston. Although the game created some inconvenience for the parent club, Washington President Cal Griffith had obliged because Charleston was also having its troubles at the gate (bad weather again here) and had asked for the exhibition to supplement other pump-priming stunts, which included a radio announcer refusing to shave until the ball park had been filled to capacity once, and another fellow sitting up on top of the scoreboard night and day until the same happy event occurred.
It was all as I so fondly remembered it. I had found in Charleston, and in Washington, too (and was soon to find again in Detroit), what I was trying to recapture—the serenity of second-division baseball. It had been a joy to see the Yankees and Senators play the previous Saturday. The attendance had been 7,552. No parking problems. No battling through crowds at the gate, no noise, no commotion around the hot dog-stands. Just unadulterated comfort with nobody to stop you from draping yourself over five seats in a whole section of the grandstand that you had practically all to yourself—except for the sparrows that flew in to peck at the old popcorn littering the aisles. As usually happens with a true second-division ball club, the Senators looked like world beaters before the small crowd. Pascual shut out the Yankees with four hits and struck out Mickey Mantle three times. It was an ideal game for the small hard core of Senator fans. They could yell and make themselves heard all over the grandstands and even down on the field. One man sitting near me, obviously a regular, called out as every Yankee batter approached the plate, "All right, Camilo! No sweat, no sweat! Take it easy. This guy's a bum." Here and there in the grandstand other regulars turned to nod their approval.
Pascual's superior performance on Saturday helped to draw 17,637 to the Sunday game. As used to be the case with the old Browns before large crowds, the Senators looked their worst. They lost 11-2. The game itself was not the only irritant to the regulars. The crowd made an awful racket and kept crowding the hot dog stands and other conveniences, and there was no place for sparrows to light. The regulars had to make themselves fit into single seats. The man whose rooting had been heard perfectly the day before was drowned out entirely. He looked utterly miserable.