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Monday, March 05, 2007

Jeff Burroughs

I don’t know where the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we had at the liquor store came from. I also don’t know where it went when the store closed for good in the late 1990s. On the store’s last day, my friend Pete and my brother, Ian, who were both in the employ of the store during the End Times, packed up a rented truck with the remaining inventory. The owner, Morty, oversaw this work and probably ended up zealously pitching in, too, even though he was crowding eighty by then and probably under strict orders from his wife, Goldie, to leave the lifting to the two "boys." Once the truck was loaded and the store empty, my brother and Pete transported the booze upstate to Morty’s son-in-law’s liquor store.
But I don’t know what became of the non-alcoholic odds and ends, such as the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger. There were a fair number of odds and ends. In the store’s two-plus decades of existence it had had one constant, Morty, and a long parade of young men who were either aimless by nature or going through an aimless phase in their lives. None of these aimless guys owned much stuff while they were working at the store, but once in a while a piece of their meager collection of possessions dislodged from their porous grasp and accrued in one of the nooks and crannies of the store. One member of the long parade of aimless young men left behind a crate of scratchy, mediocre records in the basement, another a well-thumbed baseball encyclopedia in the back by the stereo, another a half-empty bottle of saline solution on the shelves by the sink, another a book on origami jammed in among Morty’s collection of Beverage Media Guides. The last aimless guy hired to work at the store, i.e., the anchor of the entire twenty-five-year parade of aimless guys, was a pale young divorced mumbling NYU dropout named Dan who took most of his weekly paycheck in vodka. Dan left a collection of little flickable paper footballs behind the champagne rack, residue of his chosen method of time-killing, flicking paper footballs at the bottles of liqueurs above the champagne, each bottle assigned a unique point value, the stumpy, ornate bottle of Chambourd worth 10 points, the Mrs. Butterworth’s-looking Frangelico worth 7, the large Bailey’s gift box worth 5, etc., etc. Dan bestowed intricately layered personalities to each paper football and kept a running log of their exploits, complete with league statistics and player biographies. When one of the paper footballs fell into the unreachable space behind the champagne rack it meant that the player had, like Duk Koo Kim, Ray Chapman, and Dale Earnhardt, passed in a blaze of glory directly from the field of athletic battle to the Great Beyond. A eulogy was inscribed in the commissioner’s notebook and black armbands were imagined onto the fallen hero’s grieving fellow paper footballs left to carry on bravely in their unforgiving gladiatorial clashes.
Anyway, some aimless guy who had preceded me must have one day brought a Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger into the store. Maybe it was his own from earlier days (if memory serves, it was a 28-inch bat, in other words a little league model) or maybe he’d been sent by Morty to buy one from the sporting goods store up near Union Square (I forget the name right now, but the guy who played Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in Slap Shot once worked there). Who knows? Maybe that aimless guy or another aimless guy sank the two nails halfway into the strip of wood behind the counter from which the bat hung from the handle. It’s all a mystery to me, really, which is fitting in a way, because Jeff Burroughs himself, represented solely in my childhood by this one unusually early (1974) card, was himself mysterious to me. All the other guys who had been awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the 1970s came to loom in my mind as ever-present, larger-than-life figures. Once or twice a year I was thrilled to find one of their dynamic action-shot baseball cards in a new pack; I read about them in Sports Illustrated; I saw them repeatedly in the All Star game; I thought about them, imagined them, sometimes even imagined being them. Bench, Reggie, Rose, Lynn, Carew . . . Burroughs? Part of the problem was that after getting this card, one of the few 1974 cards I own, I never got a Jeff Burroughs card again. He also never showed up in the All Star Game (his 1974 appearance had preceded my attentions, and while he was chosen to be a part of the 1978 National League squad he didn’t get into the game). There was, to me, an aura around him. He actually seemed sort of scary. His lone MVP win, coming from what seemed to me to be nowhere, struck me as unpredictably explosive. Who was this Jeff Burroughs, and when was he going to strike again?
He did, I now know, have more than just that one good year, and in all fashioned for himself a respectable power-hitting career before becoming, with the help of his son, Sean, a two-time world champion little league coach. He will also be remembered by some for being a key participant in two of the more famous forfeits in baseball history (interestingly enough, he also was later a part of the most famous forfeit in little league history, the team he coached winning the first of their two World Championships after it was discovered that the team from the Philippines that had thumped them in the Little League World Series final had been stocked with deep-voiced over-aged ringers):
Forfeit #1 (September 30, 1971): The final game of the second edition of the Washington Senators

In this game, Burroughs, who would endure long enough in the majors to be the final active former second-edition Washington Senator (I believe Jim Kaat was the last of the original Washington Senators), was in left field when fans poured onto the field in the top of the 9th inning. Who can blame them? Their team was doomed, gone, not only bound for Texas but bound to be stripped of its name, just as the earlier Senators team that moved to Minnesota had been stripped. They stormed the field to rip up and take home anything they could, clods of dirt, the bases, pieces of the scoreboard, clumps of grass. (I wonder if anybody still has their clump of RFK Stadium grass.)

Forfeit #2 (June 4, 1974): 10-Cent Beer Night
Earlier in the 1974 season, at a game between the Indians and Rangers in Texas, Len Randle took out Jack Brohamer with a hard slide, which prompted Milt Wilcox to throw at Len Randle’s head, which prompted Len Randle to drop a bunt down the first base line, which prompted Wilcox to race over to cover first on the play, where Len Randle rammed into him with a forearm. At this point, a melee ensued. During and after the violence Texas fans showered Indians players with beer.
The rematch between these two teams occurred in Cleveland on 10-Cent Beer Night. Many fans came to the park already well-lathered (a detail that offends my instinct for cheapness—why get drunk somewhere else when you can buy thirty beers for three dollars?) and with pockets full of old batteries, golf balls, rocks, and other assorted throwable items. They also brought smokable items, Jeff Burroughs saying afterward, "the marijuana smoke was so thick out there in rightfield, I think I was higher than the fans." In the ninth inning, the game-long fan unruliness reached a point of no return when one in a constant trickle of intruders onto the field swiped Jeff Burroughs’ hat. Burroughs slipped and fell as he moved to get his hat back. In the Texas dugout, Burroughs’ manager, Billy Martin, did not have a full view of Burroughs at that moment, and thought that his star player had been chopped down by one of the fans now pouring onto the field. Martin seized a bat and led his team onto the field to fight the entire ballpark.

Here’s a few moments of the call from Indians broadcasters Joe Tait and Herb Score, courtesy of an excerpt of Cleveland Sports Legends quoted on The Sissybar:
Tait: Hargrove has got some kid on the ground and he is really administering a beating.
Score: Well, that fellow came up and hit him from behind is what happened.
Tait: Boy, Hargrove really wants a piece of him—and I don’t blame him.
Score: Look at Duke Sims down there going at it.
Tait: Yeah, Duke is in on it. Here we go again.
Score: I’m surprised that the police from the city of Cleveland haven’t been called here, because we have the makings of a pretty good riot. We have a pretty good riot.
Tait: Well, the game, I really believe, Herb, now will be called. Slowly but surely the teams are getting back to their dugouts. The field, though, is just mobbed with people. And mob rule has taken over.
Score: They’ve stolen the bases.
Tait: The security people they have here just are totally incapable of handling this crowd. They just—well, short of the National Guard, I’m not sure what would handle this crowd right now. It's just unbelievable. Unbelievable . . .

11 Comments:

Anonymous pete said...

The excellent read "Baseball Babylon" by Dan Gutman goes into detail about 10-cent beer night, Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, and other high points from our national pastime.

Unfortunately it came out too early to include such recent festivities as "Shirtless-drunken father-son-redneck-tag-team-attack-on-Tom-Gamboa-night," an evening that gave Mayor Dayley pause to utter the immortal quotation: "...shamefully, these morons have besmirched Thursday Night Baseball in Chicago forever..."

Then there was the evening the Dodgers gave every paying fan a baseball, and proceeded to stink up the joint to the extent that the outfield at Chavez Ravine was littered with the damn things by the seventh inning. I attended a similar unfortunate promotion, the first and quite certainly final "flip-flop night" at Shea Stadium in the mid-80s. I don't know...somehow free projectile souvenirs just have some magical aptitude for disrupting play on the field.

It still gives one pause to think that for years the Yankees actually sanctioned and sponsored "Bat Day," delighting their rowdy constituency by distributing upwards of 25,000 regulation-sized Louisville Sluggers, gratis, throughout the blighted, violence-ridden South Bronx on an annual basis. This practice endured for decades before being toned down to mini-bats, and eventually was ceased altogether, presumably by the same shadowy forces of political correctness that want to legislate moderation, dignity and family values, and pretty much stop all of us from having any last bit of good old fashioned fun whatsoever...

8:01 AM  
Blogger Marty Winn said...

I grew up in Central Florida and at night in the mid 1970s with the AM radio turned just the right direction I could listen through the static to my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves on the radio. When I was 5 Larvell Blanks was my favorite player because he was "Sugar Bear" but soon Jeff Burroughs would become my favorite player because he hit home runs. In 1978 he hit a very impressive 41 (Foster hit 52 (I think) to overshadow him). I even wrote book about him in elementary school comparing him to Babe Ruth (who had ended his career with my Braves). It's funny that I did not have an image of how he looked because the Braves were almost never on TV. I had the baseball cards and I remember curly hair and big glasses. I'm not sure if the hair was just a created afro to play into the style or his natural hair. I was always startled to see how he actually looked. I remember the same reaction when I first saw Rush Limbaugh. I just wanted to say that there is at least one person for whom Jeff Burroughs meant a lot and I cherished the MVP, even if it happened before my baseball memory began.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Baseball Babylon. I've just recently been trying to remember the name of that book so I can try to track it down in the library.

As for the possible additions to a 2nd edition of that book, don't forget the White Sox fan who attacked umpire Laz Diaz just a few months after Gamboa got father-sonned. Also potentially worthy of inclusion is the All Star game that ended in a Selig-ruled draw, which prompted the crowd to start up a chant that Tanner Boyle would have recognized: "Let them play! Let them play!" (Selig didn't).

My favorite promotional item turned projectile was the Reggie Bar. That day was recounted in Bronx Zoo, I think, with one Yankee (Nettles?) actually sampling one of the fan-thrown bars and ruling that it tasted "like shit."

Marty: Thanks for the Burroughs-as-a-Brave perspective. Now that you mention it, I have a vague notion of him being a big fan favorite there, which made him somehow even more mysterious to me, as if (even though I lived and breathed baseball) there was a whole part of the baseball world that remained unknown to me. The idea of Jeff Burroughs became one of the first of many things that came to seem to me like the Chisholm Trail to the guys in Diner:

Desirable woman on horse: [I'm] Jane Chisholm. As in the Chisholm Trail (rides off)

Boogie: What fucking Chisholm Trail?

Fenwick: You ever get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?

8:59 AM  
Blogger VP19 said...

A correction: I believe Toby Harrah, not Jeff Burroughs, was the last active member of the second Senators in the majors. I lived in D.C. in '71 and remember those guys.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

vp19: Right you are. I checked the records and Mr. Harrah played a year longer than Mr. Burroughs. I apologize for the error. I was blindly following a quote on the Jeff Burroughs page on BaseballLibrary.com: "Of the Senators, Jeff Burroughs will be the last to retire, finishing up in 1985."

10:01 AM  
Anonymous pete said...

As a baseball-crazy child of the 70s who grew up wearing glasses, it was quite encouraging to me to witness Jeff Burroughs having won the MVP award. In 1975 Topps included a special set of the MVP winners for each year in their packs, and I'm certain that I wasn't alone in drawing inspiration from the likes of Reggie Jackson, Denny McLain, Dick Allen, and Burroughs having overcome the same daunting obstacles I was dealing with, and excelling as ball players.

Between Alfred Lutter's portayal of Ogilvie in the Bad News Bears, and Tim Foli's portayal of a major league shortstop with the New York Mets, there was sort of a halcyon era of inclusiveness afloat back in those heady days when the wearing of glasses could easily be misconstrued by bigger, more athletic kids on the diamond as a fatal weakness, and (in a worst-case scenario) could possibly even end with the glasses-wearer being labeled a "sissy."

At one point my parents even looked into a special summer-camp just for children who wore glasses, but of course that's a different story altogether.

Suffice to say that the abundance of such high-achieving role-models struck a positive blow for the nearsighted among us in sandlots and little leagues far and wide, and was a blessing at such a vulnerable point in my life.

Hang in there Jason Phillips.
It ain't over yet...

11:44 AM  
Anonymous pete also said...

Incidentally, the old liquor store has gone through several identity shifts since that final day when the very last carton of blackberry brandy half-pints was given away for free and heaved strenuously out the front door by one of our regular customers, a filthy, shambling and stumbling derelict known colloquially only as "Ian's Client."

The place is now some sort of sparsely bedecked office furniture showroom. On the rare occasion that I find myself passing by, though, I always sneak a quick peek through the westernmost of the large bay windows fronting on Eighth Street.

What I'm looking for isn't exactly clear. Even to me.

A melancholy look back to a simpler, earlier time perhaps?

A hazy gaze through a soot flecked picture window to my own private "Willoughby?"

Wistful memories of ages past?...of mom and pop businesses, languid afternoons spent idly schmoozing with neighborhood characters and old friends?

A time when fripperies like employment and relationships nonetheless seemed on steadier ground? Nostalgia with hindsight? When all things aimless seemed comforting in their own way?

Actually I always steal a glance toward the once dusty corner where the champagne rack used to be.

It is there that, hope against hope, I always imagine catching just a fleeting glimpse of one Dan Brick's valiant and deceased paper footballs, forgotten by time and overlooked by broom, somehow still residing in an eternal lint pile of sweet, old, memories...

2:30 PM  
Blogger Josh Wilker said...

Nicely said, Pete. Methinks I need a drink, if only there were still a liquor store...

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff Burroughs has always fascinated me as well, not only because of his power, but because of one crazy play against the Mets. He was in right field, charging for a fly ball, and dove for it. After rolling around on the ground, he looks into his glove; it's not there. He looks all around him and can't find the ball. No one knows where it is. Then he reaches for his hat, which had fallen off; the ball was under his hat.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous mdr said...

Here's a Dan Gutman update for you fellas; he writes a series of children's novels for HarperCollins, with such titles as ABNER & ME, SHOELESS JOE & ME, BABE & ME, HONUS & ME, MICKEY & ME, JACKIE & ME, SATCH & ME, and JIM & ME, fictional accounts of a young baseball fan who gets to meet his heroes.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Robert Wayne said...

I remember hearing that forfeited game in Cleveland well. I was 13 and 14 years old the summer that Billy Martin almost led the previously sadsack Rangers to nearly winning the A.L. West in 1974. And I remember the astonishment of Rangers announcers Dick Risenhoover and Bill Merrill on WBAP out of Dallas the night those Cleveland fans got drunk and went berserk. It's hard to believe it's been 35 years since that night.

10:56 AM  

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