MAN FROM THE HALL
On Jan. 19, 1972,
Early Wynn, the pitcher, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Such tidings
generally lead to a phone call from a wire-service reporter, who asks the
player for a comment, and if you follow that sort of thing, you know what
happens next. In a wash of sentiment, the player thanks mother, God, truth,
justice and the American way of life.
Early Wynn is not
inclined toward sentimentality. Working through four decades in the major
leagues, he had won 300 games and he had intimidated generations of American
League batters with the best knockdown pitching of his time. He knew he
deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.
rang. It was an enthusiastic young man from a wire service. "Naturally, I'm
happy, and so is my wife," Wynn said. "We have had a long wait.... I
don't think I am as thrilled as I would have been if I had made it the first
time. I would have liked to have joined Stan Musial and Ted Williams and Walter
Johnson as players who gained the honor the first year they were
A few weeks later,
during a private conversation when he was less concerned with keeping in
baseball's good graces, Wynn told me, "Hall of Fame? Hell, it's a Hall of
Shame. I should have been voted in three years ago." He pulled the cork
from a bottle of rare old Canadian whiskey. He took a drink.
That summer Wynn
managed Orlando, the Twins farm team in the Class A Florida State League. It
pleased him to work in the Minnesota organization under Calvin Griffith,
because Calvin's uncle, Clark Griffith, had brought Wynn into the majors in
1939. Early took a few days off to attend the induction ceremonies at
Cooperstown that August and did make a few sentimental comments in a speech.
That may have been an error. Griffith fired him from Orlando in November,
making Wynn the only man I know of who was trumpeted into the Hall of Fame and
bounced out of a managing job in the same year.
Baseball offers a
full quota of absurdities. In the low minors, where players are supposed to be
learning, you find one man, the manager, charged with teaching 20 different
apprentices. In the majors, where players are supposed to be fully skilled, you
find special coaches for pitching, catching and even base running. The big
leagues have expanded chaotically, and clubs that might have become intense and
profitable rivals—Oakland and San Francisco, for example—play in different
leagues. It is tempting to regard Wynn's dismissal as one more instance of
baseball's thoughtlessness. Some, knowing the Minnesota organization, suggest
that Griffith simply wanted to find someone else who would manage for $500
less. I suspect other considerations were involved.
Wynn is a fierce,
direct man who can take a drink. Don Newcombe took a drink, too, and he told a
Senate subcommittee last March that whiskey had cost him his career, his first
marriage, all his investments and his home. The difference is the classic
borderline between drinking and alcoholism. Wynn could mix hard stuff with
wine, drink throughout an evening, run at 11 the next morning and pitch a
shutout. Newcombe said that after his best season, 1956, when he was 27-7, he
went to Japan with the Dodgers "and was so constantly drunk that I was
unable to pitch a single game on the trip." ( Newcombe is no longer an
alcoholic. He says he promised in 1966 on the head of his oldest son never to
drink again. He has kept his promise.)
To Wynn, convivial
gatherings were a delight of big-league life. He went to parties and he gave
parties, gay raucous evenings rich in baseball talk and needling, and with a
single exception, he never overestimated his capacity. One night, when he was
pitching for Cleveland, he visited Bill Veeck, who owned the Indians. Martinis
preceded dinner; stingers followed. "Curiously, I don't remember exactly
what we served next," Veeck says, "but I do recall that at 4:30 in the
morning I was mixing grasshoppers. Then it struck Early. He was scheduled to
pitch the next day, and here he was drinking late with the boss."
"I better go
home," Wynn said. "One o'clock game."