Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #30

This is the thirtieth in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Jim Bouton took advantage of an umpire’s problems with Boston Red Sox rookie slugger George Scott for an easy strikeout.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

This legend really brings up an interesting question – how much of a story has to be false before you consider that the story is false?

To wit, let’s say someone tells a story like “On June 3rd, 1977, I hit three home runs.” Okay, so what if it happened on June 4th? You wouldn’t consider the story false, right? Now let’s say it was on June 4th and it was just two home runs. You’re probably into false territory there, right?

Well, that’s what concerns me about Jim Bouton’s tale of umpire Ed Runge’s problems with Boston Red Sxo slugger George Scott.

Jim Bouton was an All-Star pitcher for the New York Yankees who played for New York for nearly seven seasons…

However, he is best known for a book he wrote about his days in the Big Leagues called Ball Four…

Ball Four was very controversial since it gave insight into professional baseball that people just weren’t used to when it was released in 1970. Many players did not appreciate Bouton’s candor. But overall, Bouton’s book has been accepted as a classic of sports literature.

In any event, Bouton told many anecdotes of his time in baseball.

Here’s one of them…

[Yankee catcher] Elston Howard came out to the mound and he said, ‘Don’t throw any strikes. [Umpire Ed] Runge wants to teach [Boston Red Sox slugger] George Scott a lesson.’ Scott, a rookie, had been complaining about calls.

‘Whaddya mean?’

‘Just keep the ball outside.’

Elston runs back and holds the catcher’s glove about six inches outside. I hit the glove. Strike one. George Scott shakes his head.

I think, Hey, this is going to be easy. My next pitch was about a foot outside. Strike two. I think, Holy s—, he must have done something bad.

Third pitch bounced a foot in front of home plate. Scott swung and missed. Strike three. Scott was pissed. He knew the umpire was getting back at him, and he kept his mouth shut for a long time. Runge taught both of us a lesson. He taught Scott a lesson about complaining, and he taught me what can happen if the umpire doesn’t like you.

Ed Runge was a longtime respected American League umpire for nearly 20 years, from 1954 until his retirement in 1970. Here he is with Washington Senators manager Chuck Dressen…

George Scott was a slugging first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, the first great African-American player to play for Boston…

So, as to Bouton’s story.

In Scott’s rookie year, 1966, Bouton DID face him a number of times and struck him out more than once. However, Ed Runge was not the home plate umpire for any of those games.

Runge was the second base umpire for one of those games in 1966 when Bouton struck out Scott, but also, not only was Runge not behind the plate, but neither was Elston Howard – Jake Gibbs was the catcher for New York that day.

The same went for 1967 – no day when all four men were involved in a game. Specifically, Runge was not the home plate umpire for any game involving Bouton and Scott.

Finally, in May of 1968, Scott’s third year in the Majors, Bouton finally did strike him out with Runge as the home plate umpire. However, Elston Howard was not only not catching for the Yankees, he was actually the catcher for the RED SOX that game (having been traded to the Sox in the middle of the 1967 season)!

So, let’s say that Runge DID call an erratic strike zone in that game to teach Scott a lesson (if he did, it did not make the paper, but that’s somewhat understandable, as the Red Sox won 8-1, and Bouton’s innings came in mop up duty, so it’s unlikely that a newspaper would report an erratic strike zone for a batter in mop up duty) – if so, is that enough for the story to be true?

I think enough is wrong about it (no Howard, not Scott’s rookie season) that I feel safe enough going for a false, but I understand that it is a close call (note that it might never have happened PERIOD).

Thanks to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four for the quote! You should definitely read Ball Four. It’s a fun read, even if, as I show here, the stories might not always be totally accurate – what baseball auto-biography is, though?

BASEBALL LEGEND: Detroit Tigers catcher Frank House tipped Harmon Killebrew off for his first home run in the Majors.

STATUS: I’m Going With True

Now Harmon Killebrew’s recollection of his first home run, on the other hand, is a story I am willing to believe.

After a very short stint in the Majors at the age of 18 in 1954, the future Hall of Famer Killebrew broke in for good about mid-way through the 1955 season for the Washington Senators.

Killebrew was a hyped prospect, so most likely everyone knew of his reputation – the 19-year-old natural slugger.

In any event, as he tells the story, his first home run came against the Detroit Tiger pitcher Billy Hoeft, with Tiger catcher Frank “Pig” House behind the plate.

On a 2-2 count, House told him “Kid, we’re going to throw you a fastball.” Killebrew did not know if they were just messing with him, but sure enough, Hoeft’s next pitch was a fastball and Killebrew CRUSHED it for a home run deep into Griffith Stadium.

As Killebrew crossed home plate, House told him something to the effect of “Kid, that’s the only time we’re going to tell you what’s coming.”

Now, there are a couple of reasons why I believe Killebrew’s story.

For one, he’s told the same story in exactly the same fashion for decades now.

Two, the story matches the actual facts (Killebrew did, indeed, hit his first home run off of Billy Hoeft at Griffith Stadium with Frank House behind the plate).

Three, not only do the facts match what happened, but the facts of the situation FIT it happening. To wit, when Killebrew hit his home run, it was the bottom of the fifth inning, no one was on base and the Tigers were up 13-0!! As I mentioned, Killebrew was a vaunted prospect, so House might have been interested in seeing what he had. Up 13 runs in the fifth inning, a home run was not the end of the world for the Tigers (although the Senators actually ended up scoring seven runs off of Hoeft that game – he pitched the whole game).

So all said and done, I’m willing to go with a true here. The devil is in the details! Thanks to Harmon Killebrew for the story. Also, Tom Deveaux’s history of the Senators, Washington Senators, 1901-1971, has a nice recap of the story.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #30”

  1. Re: The Bouton/Scott/Runge story. Perhaps, it occurred in spring training.
    Also, you noted that the Yankees and Red Sox played in the same division in 1966, but the league did not divide until the 1969 season.
    Anyway, I enjoy the stories. Thanks.

  2. Brian Cronin on June 8th, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Ha! Too true about the division bit – too true! I will fix that. Thanks!

    ETA: And the Spring Training point is an interesting one, too. Would Runge already be that pissed at Scott just during Spring Training? Seems hard to believe, but I suppose it is possible.

  3. Always entertaining.

    One point though: in the Killebrew story, you call the catcher Frank Moore a couple of times, but then Frank House a couple of times (which matches the baseball card).

  4. Thanks, Allen! Fixed it.

Leave a Reply