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The All-Bastard Athletic Club

Meet the Bastards: a collection of the meanest baseball players who ever lived.

All my life I have loved two things: monsters and baseball. Even now, if offered the choice of being anything, I would—without a doubt—choose to be centerfielder for the New York Yankees, and possibly also a werewolf. Just to tweak archconservative owner George Steinbrenner’s ban on long hair.

After numerous beer-ish conversations with strangers, in-depth discussions with my father and stepfather, and one long talk with a man known only as Uncle Larry, I have combined my two favorite pastimes, and proudly present the ‘All-Bastard Athletic Club,’ comprised of ballplayers possessed with monstrous élan, a flair for savagery on the playing field, or a ravening impact on the National Pastime. It is critical to understand: a Bastard is not a scumbag. Bastards are separated from the merely churlish by an extra ingredient that lifts them above the ordinary lout. Indeed, being a bastard may not even signify immorality: the question isn’t whether they’re good or bad people (though bad helps,) it’s how they played the game.

Now, without further ado (strike up the player piano, please): the All-Bastard Athletic Club.

Infielder: Hal Chase (career: 1905-1919)

During his time Chase was an excellent batter, a swift base stealer, and generally acknowledged to be the finest defensive first baseman to date. Yet he consistently led the league in errors. Why? Because he was throwing games right and left for his own benefit. Playing hard only when it suited his gambling designs, Chase could go from the best to the worst player on the field at any given moment. Handsome, with keen eyes and a wily smirk, one reporter said of Chase, ‘He has a corkscrew mind.’ He once turned an accusation of fixing games into a managerial position for himself, and under his suspect leadership took his team from second to sixth place. In fact, on one occasion Chase went to the mound and told a shocked pitcher in his rookie start to throw the game away.

Eventually banned from baseball for his gambling, Chase lived out his final days with a sister who loathed him.

Infielder: Swede Risberg (career: 1917-1920)

As a ringleader of the notorious Black Sox of 1919, the Swede helped contrive the greatest gambling scandal in baseball history. Horribly underpaid by their miserly owner, the Chicago White Sox of 1919 were one of the best, and least happy, teams ever assembled. Gambling and gamblers were an ordinary aspect of baseball to that point, but when eight members of the White Sox agreed to throw the 1919 World Series in exchange for monetary considerations, it was a fix of an unheard-of magnitude. In the end, the conspirators were banned from baseball forever.

During the ensuing trial Risberg’s teammate Shoeless Joe Jackson—who participated in the fix but never actually brought himself to play poorly—sought protection from Risberg, who threatened to kill Jackson if he talked. When asked why he needed a guard, Shoeless Joe said plainly, ‘Swede is a hard guy.’

Infielder: Jack Robinson (career: 1947-1956)

Unlike the rest of these players, Jackie Robinson had to be a bastard in order to survive. Before Martin Luther King, Jr., before Rosa Parks, before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Jack Robinson: the first black player in the major leagues.

Unable to retaliate physically or verbally to the overwhelming racism and disdain directed at him by fans, the reporters (most of whom refused to publicize the abuse), and other players (some of whom refused to play on the same field as him), Robinson took out his temper on the field. Playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he stole bases aggressively, batted defiantly against repeated throws at his head, and all the while had to remain quiet regarding the ordeal. No one in the game played under the pressure Jack Robinson played under, and that he not only survived—and also flourished—as one of the best players of his time is an incredible accomplishment. Perhaps Roger Angell, the current dean of baseball writing, put it best when he wrote, ‘…I knew that we had asked him to do too much for us. None of it—perhaps not even a day of it—was ever easy for him.’

Outfielder: Ty Cobb (career: 1905-1928)

The Bastard of all bastards, Ty Cobb was likely the worst man to ever play the game of baseball. Maybe it ran in the family: His mother, in what was called an accident, shot his father in the face twice with a shotgun as he spied through a closed window, trying to find out if she was cheating on him. A few days later Ty Cobb joined the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers.

Georgia-native Cobb was immediately hated by his mostly-Northern teammates. A racist, a bigot, and a thug, Cobb slept with a loaded revolver beneath his pillow in case his teammates tried to beat him up in the night. He took his anger out on the game: hitting, running, and fielding like no one before. Even in that early, anarchistic era of sharpened cleats and raging mobs in the bleachers, Cobb was the supreme force of anarchy. Once, after being heckled by a fan, Cobb leapt into the stands and pummeled the man, who was later revealed to have been missing most of his fingers from an industrial accident. Off the diamond Cobb wasn’t much better: He routinely punched or knocked down passing blacks on the streets and once, during an altercation in a Cleveland hotel, Cobb slashed the black night manager with a knife.

To top off his demonic career, while playing for the moribund Philadelphia Athletics Cobb introduced his new teammates to the wonders of the stock market, just in time for the Big Crash. He himself had seen it coming and actually profited from the collapse.

Outfielder: Pete Rose (career: 1963-1986)

Peter Rose has always inspired mixed feelings. A hometown boy, Rose joined the Cincinnati Reds in 1963 and won the Rookie of the Year award. Called ‘Charlie Hustle,’ Rose played the game flat out. And that same hustle helped ruin the career of popular catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game, when Rose laid him out on a close play at the plate. The play caused more than a few grumbles, since no player should ever be hurt during what is, essentially, an exhibition game.

And while Rose assaulted the record books, off the field he became a profligate womanizer of the sleaziest bent, and began fostering the gambling habit that would be his downfall. He reached his nadir in 1984, when he finally broke the all-time record for hits: Weeping copiously in front of the roaring fans, ‘Charlie Hustle’ made sure to change his uniform shirt nine times after the record-breaking hit, so he could later sell each one at a premium price. As manager of the Reds in 1989, his gambling debts were soaring and allegations arose that not only was he betting on baseball, but had been placing wagers on his own team as well. Pete Rose was banned from baseball.

To this day he denies the charges, saying the testimony of bookies is unreliable, and calling them ‘low-lifes.’ Rose doesn’t go into why the bookies seemed to have his name on speed-dial, why he hung out with such low-lifes, or why he accepted the ban from the game in exchange for sealing all investigation records.

Outfielder: Ted Williams (career: 1939-1960)

Williams proved to be an immediate irritant when he told his Boston Red Sox teammates he would earn more than the entire outfield combined. In no time, he managed to be barely on speaking terms with most of the Sox. Williams likewise made no friends with the Boston press, referring to them as the ‘Knights of the Keyboard.’ In turn, the writers vilified Williams as a self-centered, clubhouse cancer, all the while awarding the highest accolades in the game to far lesser players. As sole supporter to his impoverished mother, Williams sought a draft deferment during World War II, and was subsequently demeaned in every way by the media, though Williams went on to have a distinguished combat record as a naval pilot in both World War II and Korea.

An all-time know it all, Williams was convinced of his superiority in all matters, whether it was how to hit, fish, or play cards. Never one to mince words, Williams said very early in his career, ‘All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’’ He was the last man to bat over .400 over an entire season—so, yes, he may have gotten his wish, but he surely wasn’t loved for it.

Catcher: Thurman Munson (career: 1969-1979)

Friend of neither teammate nor reporter, Munson had an almost pathological belief he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved, openly slagging other star catchers of the time and blaming the media for their popularity.

Munson’s finest moment may have been when he was named Yankee team captain. In a choice example of a Know-Thyself-Bastardom, Munson said, ‘I’ll be a terrible captain. I’m too belligerent. I cuss and swear at people. I yell at umpires, and maybe I’m a little too tough at home. I don’t sign autographs like I should and I haven’t always been very good with writers.’ Typically, he added, ‘I should have been named long ago.’

Pitcher: Burleigh Grimes (career: 1916-1934)

A heavy drinker, a spitballer long past the 1920 ban, Grimes refused to shave before games and acquired the nickname ‘Ol’ Stubblebeard.’ His grubby visage could only have been worsened by the slippery elm bark he chewed to increase the effectiveness of his saliva. Grimes also had a predilection for throwing directly at batters’ heads.

Grimes’ attitude wasn’t helped any by his having perhaps the worst single game of any pitcher ever. While pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the fifth game of the 1920 World Series Grimes gave up the first-ever World Series grand slam, and a few innings later surrendered the first-ever World Series home run by an opposing pitcher.

As sour, unshaven and hung over as ever, Grimes went on to manage the Dodgers in the late ‘30s. The team was terrible, and after one particular drubbing, a 12-year-old fan asked Grimes for an autograph. Ol’ Stubblebeard punched the kid in the gut.

Manager: Billy Martin (career: 1950-1988)

There is only one man who could manage the All-Bastard Nine, and that’s Billy Martin. As a sallow-faced, scrappy second baseman for the lordly Yankees of the 1950s, Martin quickly caught on as a drinking companion of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and the other late-night carousers on the team. Martin served as a kind of belligerent mascot, amusing the rest of the guys with his brawls and bad attitude. After one too many midnight altercations involving New York’s high-priced stars, Martin took the blame and was traded.

The fights and insobriety continued into Martin’s managerial career. In 1969 during his tenure as manager of the Minnesota Twins, he beat up his star pitcher Dave Boswell and was fired. In 1974 with the Texas Rangers, he popped the team’s 64-year-old traveling secretary in a fight over a proposed club for the team’s wives. Hired back as manager of the Yankees in 1977, he took the team to a world title, but was, at one point, seen battling with Reggie Jackson in the dugout during a nationally televised game, and was again relieved of his position. In 1979—again managing in Minnesota—he clobbered a marshmallow salesman.

The early eighties were the usual for Martin. Hired, fired, and rehired again by the Yankees, Martin drank and brawled his way out of every job he ever had. His teams almost always won, but the price of living with Martin was too much. Yankee star Ron Guidry said of the manager, ‘If you approach Billy Martin right, he’s okay. I avoid him altogether.’

Described once as ‘a mouse studying to be a rat,’ Billy Martin died, intoxicated, in a car crash on New Year’s Eve 1989. Said Jim Bouton, former pitcher and author of the baseball classic Ball Four, ‘Lots of people looked up to Billy Martin. That’s because he just knocked them down.’

biopic

Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon