Boys of Summer: 1959

Topeka Daily Capital
October 4, 1959

When the Dodgers were kicking the ball around in the third inning Thursday against the White Sox, it recalled the classic play Solly Hemus once engineered in the midst of similar disaster.

Hemus was at the plate with a runner on third when the catcher lost a low pitch and started looking frantically in all directions. Hemus pointed toward a distant dugout and said to the catcher, “Over there.”

As the catcher raced toward the dugout, Hemus waved home his teammate from third. The catcher discovered the trick — and the ball — too late. The runner scored while the ball lay within arm’s length of home plate.

Walter Johnson once hit Eddie Collins in the leg with one of his famed fireballs, and Collins dropped like he’d been shot. Johnson was genuinely concerned, and even helped Collins as he limped, painfully, to first.

On Johnson’s next pitch, Collins, running without a trace of a limp, stole second.

Trying to trick the opposition is old stuff in baseball, although it seldom works. I recall one occasion when it backfired. I’ve told this story often, but I still regard it as a classic.

It happened in Harlingen, Texas, one night. Stretch Jackson was the runner at third when the batter hit a mile-high popup in front of the plate. The catcher, pitcher, first baseman and third baseman gathered under it.

Jackson trotted toward the plate, since there were two out, and tried to confuse the delegation under the popup by screaming, “I got, I got it.”

He was yelling that for about the seventh time when the ball came down and hit him on top of his head. He smiled weakly, took another step, and dropped — out like a light. The umpire stepped from behind the plate, made the traditional gesture over the prostrate figure and bellowed, “Yer OUT!”

The most renowned trickery of the baseball diamond is the hidden ball, and it was worked in Kansas City once this season.

Harmon Killebrew of the Senators took a throw from the outfield and walked to the mound and pretended to give the ball to Chuck Stobbs. Stobbs turned to the plate, like he was preparing to pitch, and Killebrew returned to third just as the A’s Harry Chiti stepped off the bag. Killebrew showed Chiti the ball, tagged him out and you can imagine about what Chiti said.

Frank Crosetti of the Yankees used to enjoy success with the hidden-ball trick and he’d rub salt into the wound of the runner. Just as he would hold out the ball to make the tag he’d say to the runner, “Meet Mr. Reach,” referring to the manufacturer of the ball, whose name was on the cover.

In the days of the old Topeka Owls, a rival manager once gave one of his players a severe tongue-lashing and a fine for getting picked off first base. In the next inning the manager was the victim of the hidden-ball trick. He fined himself.

The story told most often about the hidden ball is of the time Leo Durocher was caught napping. That night, as he ate dinner, he still was berating himself for being the victim of such a “bush league trick.”

Then he was served his dessert. It was a heaping bowl of ice cream and as Durocher dug into it his spoon hit something hard. That’s right — it was a hidden baseball.

Al Monchak played second base for 20 years in various leagues, and was able to work the hidden-ball trick only once.

“And that time,” he said sadly, “the umpire wasn’t looking. By the time I got him to look the runner had shoved his way back to the base.”

Addendum: Al Monchak was manager of the Odessa, Texas, Oilers of the Class C Longhorn League when I worked for the Odessa American. One night I saw an incident at home plate I never had seen, and haven’t seen since.

Our catcher, Frank Mormino, didn’t chase wild pitches, and with our pitching staff, there were a lot of them. He would just hold his right hand behind his back, palm up, and the umpire would slap a new ball into it. But one night he did it with runners on first and second when a pitch sailed over his head.

Mormino casually put his hand back, and the umpire, not thinking, put a ball in it. Mormino immediately cocked his arm to try to throw out the runner advancing to third, but the umpire woke up and, realizing his mistake, grabbed Mormino’s arm. What followed, atop home plate, was a pretty good wrestling match as Mormino tried to throw the ball, and the umpire tried to to stop him. As usual, the umpire won.

The game went on.

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