On a dark and rainy afternoon in Boston some years ago the Braves were losing a game to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the bottom half of the fifth inning and as the sky grew darker and the rain increased, the Braves tried everything to make the umpires call off the game before it became official. Finally Connie Ryan, the Braves' second baseman, came wandering out of the dugout wearing an oversize raincoat and carrying a flashlight. History does not record whether the umpires laughed, but certainly everyone else did.
And they laughed the day that Lefty Gomez had to bat against Bobby Feller in the gloom of late afternoon. This was in 1940 when the young Feller was long on speed but short on control. Just before Gomez took his stance at the plate, he reached in his pocket, produced a book of matches and lit one.
"Put that out," ordered the umpire. "It's not that dark. I can see him fine."
"Oh, I can see him fine too," said Gomez. "I just want to make sure he can see me."
The Ryan and Gomez stories are part of the lore of the game and they are told and retold whenever baseball people get together. And yet it is one of the sad facts of baseball that if either of these incidents happened today, the offender would be reprimanded sharply and probably fined by his manager, his club owner or the league president.
Individuality is disappearing from the game; the trend is toward the organization man. There are still a magic few who by the force of their personality or the style of their play manage to stand out from the rest, but their number is dwindling. A Dick Stuart is cautioned by the Pittsburgh front office that he will go a lot further in baseball if he keeps his mouth shut and sticks to hitting. Casey Stengel disagrees. "If you think you're going to do better just by being serious all the time and never telling any stories or doing any kidding around—why, you're a little mistaken," he has said. Stengel can say that and practice it because he is a big name, too big to control. When he sets off sparklers in the dugout, as he did in Chicago two years ago, the umpires and the commissioner's office can only look the other way and pretend it didn't happen. But let a little man try it and he's in trouble.
In the summer of 1957, when Bragan was manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was thrown out of a game for arguing a call with the umpires. Bragan withdrew into the dugout but reappeared almost immediately with a small carton of orange soda pop and two straws. "It's a hot night," he said, "and as long as we're going to discuss this thing we might as well be comfortable." Not only was he fined, but less than a week later he was fired as manager.
Ballplayers themselves seem to have less patience with the comedian or eccentric than they once did. Today any player who varies from the normal pattern of behavior on the field is immediately branded as either a hot dog, baseball's special term for a show-off, or as a flake—an oddball. Last year when Gene Freese, new to the Cincinnati team, hit his first home run of the season, he jumped and skipped his way around the bases, giving a masterful imitation of Bill Mazeroski's romp after he hit the home run that beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Freese immediately was stamped as a flake. So was Jackie Brandt of the Baltimore Orioles after he hit a home run and then slid into every base as he ran it out. The umpires and the front office winced, but there were no complaints from the fans.
There have been flakes and hot dogs in baseball as long as the game has been played, although they were called by other names, like showboats and hamburgers. One of the early flakes was Germany Schaefer, who once decided that the quickest route from first to third base was straight across the diamond. There was a day when Schaefer came to bat against Nick Altrock with a runner on first. Schaefer took the first pitch for a strike. Then Altrock threw over to first base to hold the runner close. Schaefer swung and missed the second pitch and threw his bat away in disgust.
"That's only strike two," the umpire said to him.