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MAN FROM THE HALL OF SHAME
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.
The telephone 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 eligible."
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."