Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #42

This is the forty-second in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn whether Vladimir Nabokov worked an actual baseball headline into one of his most famous works. Plus, marvel at the strange Little League World Series game where the two teams both tried to let the other team score! And discover why a baseball umpire threw two TV cameramen out of a game!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball urban legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Vladimir Nabokov worked an actual baseball headline into his acclaimed novel Pale Fire.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Vladimir Nabokov was one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th Century, both as a novelist (with his most famous work being 1955′s Lolita and as a non-fiction writer (his memoir, Speak, Memory, was one of the most acclaimed autobiographies of the century). While Lolita is both his best known and most celebrated work, his 1962 novel, Pale Fire, is nearly as revered. Pale Fire is a uniquely designed novel. It is framed as a long poem by a fictional poet, John Shade, along with a commentary on the poem by the editor of the book, Charles Kinbote. As Kinbote examines the poem, he shares insights into Shade and, ultimately, Kinbote himself.

A much-discussed part of the novel is in lines 97-98 of Shade’s poem (emphasis added)

I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,
A poet and a painter with taste
For realistic objects interlaced
With grotesque growths and images of doom.
She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room
We’ve kept intact. Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer
, thumbtacked to the door

Later, Kimbrote explains the line thusly:

Line 98: On Chapman’s Homer

A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America) which, owing to a printer’s absent-mindness, has been drolly transposed, from some other article, into the account of a sports event.

Obviously, it is a reference to John Keats’ famous poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” But is it also a real headline?

One of the fascinating ways in which Nabokov worked was the amount of actual popular culture references that he would work into his stories. In Pale Fire, there are references to literally dozens of other poems, poets, novels and authors. Not only that, but also odd little pieces of popular culture that appealed to Nabokov’s keen sense of satire. When Nabokov came across something that interested him, he would jot it down with the hope of eventually working it into one of his stories in the future. For instance, upon coming across an advertisement he found particularly abhorrent, he jotted down in his notes, “Must write something about advertisements,” and the next day went to the library at Cornell University (where he spent time as a professor) to look through old copies of Life magazine for specific ads that he could mock. After jotting the ads down, he would years later work them idea into Pale Fire, with Kimbrote’s notes on line 91.

Line 91: trivia

Among these was a scrapbook in which over a period of years (1937-1949) Aunt Maud had been pasting clippings of an involuntarily ludicrous or grotesque nature. John Shade allowed me one day to memorandum the first and the last of the series; they happened to intercommunicate most pleasingly, I thought. Both stemmed from the same family magazine Life, so justly famed for its pudibundity in regard to the mysteries of the male sex; hence one can well imagine how startled or titillated those families were. The first comes from the issue of May 10, 1937, p. 67, and advertises the Talon Trouser Fastener (a rather grasping and painful name, by the way). It shows a young gent radiating virility among several ecstatic lady-friends, and the inscription reads: You’ll be amazed that the fly of your trousers could be so dramatically improved. The second comes from the issue of March 28, 1949, p. 126, and advertises Hanes Fig Leaf Brief. It shows a modern Eve worshipfully peeping from behind a potted tree of knowledge at a leering young Adam in rather ordinary but clean underwear, with the front of his advertised brief conspicuously and compactly shaded, and the inscription reads: Nothing beats a fig leaf.

I think there must exist a special subversive group of pseudo-cupids—plump hairless little devils whom Satan commissions to make disgusting mischief in sacrosanct places.

The aforementioned ads are actual ads that appeared in the cited issues of Life. With that in mind, then, when Nabokov refers to the headline in question, it is quite logical to believe that it, too, was an actual headline that Nabokov came across and jotted down for future use. Nabokov biographer Alfred Appel, Jr., stated this very fact in his book on Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema. In it he notes that “Nabokov unearthed in the stacks of the Cornell library the newspaper story headlined ‘Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 on Chapman’s Homer’”

The Chapman in question has to be Ben Chapman, as he was the only Chapman to ever play for the Red Sox during the years before this novel came out (I believe since then, as well, but I only checked players before 1962). In his two years with the Red Sox, Chapman only hit one home run in a game in which the Red Sox defeated the Yankees. In that game, the Red Sox won 8-4, with Chapman’s solo home run tying the game at 2-2 in the second inning. The Red Sox would take control of the game in a six-run inning in the sixth, during which Chapman sacrificed runners on first and second to second and third in front of a two-run double by Bobby Doerr.

Therefore, there is no way that the headline could have read “Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman’s Homer” and there is almost certainly no way that the headline could have read “Red Sox Beat Yanks 8-4 On Chapman’s Homer.”

Instead, it is more likely that Nabokov did, indeed, come across some headline that did mention Chapman hitting a homer (Chapman hit a walk-off home run for the Yankees in 1934 and one for the Red Sox in 1937. The former was an 8-7 victory and the latter was a 4-3 win) and just used that as the basic inspiration for the gag. Or, I suppose, he could have encountered the actual sonnet and thought, “That sounds like a baseball reference – I should do something with that.” Whatever Nabokov’s reasoning was, he did not get the headline from an actual newspaper clipping, despite the assertion that he did by many Nabokov scholars over the years.

Thanks to Michael Donohue for first coming up with the notion of, “Hey, we could actually fact check this” and checking out Chapman’s home runs as a Red Sox (I confirmed it myself, as well, but Donohue was the first one to do it).

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Two teams playing in the Little League World Series were both trying to intentionally fail in the last inning of their match-up so that they could advance to the final of their region.

STATUS: True

The idea of strategically losing is a well ingrained concept in the world of sports. In most leagues, the team with the worst record in the regular season will have the first pick of the next season’s draft (or in the NBA, the team with the worst record will have the best odds of getting the first pick in a lottery drawing held after the season). Therefore, if there is a particularly heralded prospect available in the upcoming draft, it actually makes a certain amount of sense for a mediocre team to try to become as bad as they can to give themselves the best chance to snare the number one pick. It is such a well known strategy that there is even a phrase for it – “tanking the season.” We have seen it work well for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Pittsburgh Penguins (who netted themselves Lebron James and Mario Lemeiux, respectively), but we have also seen it backfire horribly, as it did for the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Boston Celtics when they had the worst two records in the NBA in 1996-97, but saw the 3rd worst team, the San Antonio Spurs, end up with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft.

Beyond losing to get a good draft pick, teams also often intentionally lose to affect where they are seeded in the playoffs. I have written in the past about an amusing incident where the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks both tried to lose their final meeting of the 1999 NBA season because the Heat wanted the Knicks to be the #7 team and face the #2 seeded Pacers while the Knicks wanted to be the #8 team so that they could face the #1 seeded Heat.

So the idea of stragetically losing is normal. However, what is abnormal is seeing two teams that were playing in the final inning of the game that decided who would go to the finals of their region in the Little League World Series (where the winning team would advance to the Little League World Series) where one team was trying to let the other team score and the other team was trying intentionally to make outs!

In case you’re unfamiliar with Little League Baseball, it is a non-profit organization founded in 1939 that organizes local youth baseball and softball leagues all over the world. They have leagues for youths from ages 5 to 18, but likely their most famous league is the titular “Little League,” for players aged 9-12.

Every year, the Little League World Series finals takes place in August in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania (where Little League was founded). The Little League World Series is an international competition consisting of the winners of eight regional tournaments from the United States and the winners of eight regional tournaments from around the world. The winners of each region then play each other until there is a champion of the United States bracket and a champion of the international bracket. These two teams then play each other in the Little League World Series. The tournament has been going on since 1947 (it began as just a United States thing but has developed into the international tournament it is today).

Each local league is represented by an “All-Star Team” made up of 11 and 12 year olds who play in that local league (if they chose to enter the tournament). Since 2001, the regions are as follows (they’ve changed slightly since 2001, mostly names of the region – I’m giving you the current alignment):

In the United States: New England, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest (including Alaska) and West (including Hawaii)

In the rest of the world: Canada, Mexico, Asia-Pacific, Japan, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Latin America and Caribbean

Since Little League is, at its heart, a league devoted to good sportsmanship, there is a notable rule that must be adhered to in all Little League games, including the All-Star Teams that compete in the Tournament – everyone has to get a chance to play. Specifically, every player on the team roster must have at least one plate appearance and play three consecutive outs on defense in each game (so basically get one at-bat and play an inning defensively). Since Little League Games are six innings long, this could be an issue at times.

And that was the issue at hand in the match-up of two teams in the New England region of the 2006 Little League World Series. The Portsmouth, New Hampshire All-Stars were playing the Colchester, Vermont All-Stars for the right to play the team from Glastonbury, Connecticut to represent New England in the Little League World Series.

In a high-scoring game, Colchester was batting with a runner on and two outs in a 7-7 game in the bottom of the fifth inning. Then, suddenly, Nate Frieberg two-out, two-run homer put Colchester ahead 9-7. This would normally be a good thing, however, Colchester manager Denis Place had not managed to get substitute Adam Bentley up in the bottom of the fifth. The third out was made before Bentley came to bat. I don’t know how Place made the mistake – perhaps he thought it unlikely for his team to score with two outs?

In any event, if Bentley did not bat (he was due up the next inning), Colchester would have to forfeit the game. Therefore, the only way to win the game was to get Bentley an at-bat in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the only way to do that would be for Portsmouth to tie the game in the top half of the inning.

In the top of the sixth inning, Portsmouth scored a run to cut it to 9-8, but then Portsmouth got two outs. It was at this point that Place had a meeting at the mound to inform his players of his strategy (it might actually have been at that point that he realized his mistake, I honestly couldn’t say). So pitcher Zach Tandy started throwing the ball wildly and the Colchester infielders began throwing the ball around wildly, as well. Portsmouth manager Mark McCauley noted later that he didn’t figure out what was going on until he noticed that Tandy wouldn’t pitch to McCauley’s son, Connor, choosing instead to throw pitches way out of the strike zone. Around this point, a Portsmouth supporter shouted something to the effect of “they haven’t gotten a kid in!”

At this point, Little League officials took both managers aside and admonished Place and said to cut it out. Colchester did not, so Place and Tandy were both ejected. With it clear that Colchester was still going to let Portsmouth tie the game (and with the tying run on third base now), McCauley began to tell his players to just swing at everything (and not advance on wild pitches, naturally). Eventually, the third out was made without the tying run scoring.

Portsmouth then, naturally, protested the game and two hours later officials determined Colchester violated the Mandatory Play rule and the game was forfeited in Portsmouth’s favor. McCauley said of the game, “I’ll be drop-dead honest. I would’ve rather walked off that field losing, 9-8, and been ignorant to the fact that we didn’t do our job to check that book. I hate this. I absolutely hate this. I wish I wasn’t here. I feel absolutely horrible about it. You know who I feel the worst for is those Vermont kids. You can’t say anything to those kids. My heart breaks for those kids.”

Portsmouth defeated the team from Glastonbury to advance to the final tournament, which began with a round robin before going to a three-round single elimination round. Portsmouth actually won the round robin but were eliminated in the first round of the elimination round by the Columbus, Georgia team representing the Southeast region.

Doesn’t this all sound like the plot for the next Bad News Bears movie?

Thanks to reader Joe Maggio for the suggestion (I sure do love suggestions!) and thanks to the Boston Herald (I can’t seem to find who wrote the article) for the quotes!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: An umpire once ejected two TV cameramen!

STATUS: True

In a game between the Mets and the Braves on May 9, 1984, there was a close play at the plate involving New York Mets third baseman Hubie Brooks. Umpire Joe West (who is still umpiring in the big leagues today) called Brooks out. The Mets manager, Davey Johnson (who is still managing in the big leagues today) came out to argue the call.

Meanwhile, Mets coach Bobby Valentine and Mets pitcher Mike Torrez went to the end of the dugout where Al Friedman and Doug Zimmer, cameramen for the cable station SportsChannel (who broadcasted some Mets games at the time), had their cameras. The cameramen showed Valentine and Torrez a replay of the call, showing that Brooks appeared to be safe.

Thus, the argument was resumed and Valentine and Torrez started shouting at West. West responded, but not by ejecting either Valentine or Torrez, but by having Friedman and Zimmer ejected from the stadium!!!

The Mets complained about West’s actions, but ultimately National League president Chub Feeney stood behind West. Feeney acknowledged that West’s actions were without precedent, but noted that there was a rule against showing TV replays to players, so the ejections were reasonable enough.

Still, it was a pretty bizarre situation that I do not believe has re-occurred since.

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

-Brian Cronin

3 Responses to “Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #42”

  1. Great to know Jack@ss Joe West was making his own rules trying to draw attention to himself and the league was doing nothing about it as far back as 1984. Some things never change I guess.

  2. The two Little League teams both trying to intentionally lose reminds me strongly of a South Park episode with a very similar premise. It turns out that all Little Leaguers can’t stand playing baseball, and the ones that progress the farthest are simply those who are worse at losing.

  3. Ha! It really is a lot like that South Park episode, Frank.

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