During the playoffs and World Series this month it's likely that some players will become stars and others goats. In Ninety Feet from Fame (Carroll & Graf, 2004), journalist Mike Robbins pulls together fascinating stories of players who came up just short of baseball glory. He relates how some messed up their lives, others were off to great starts and suffered injuries, and others made key hits in World Series but had them overshadowed by later plays. There's plenty of material for musings about providential twists.
WORLD: You write of Willie Mays Aikens and conclude, "It's certainly the furthest any near-Series hero has fallen." What happened to him?
ROBBINS: In the 1980s World Series the Royals first baseman went 8 for 20 with four homers and also six walks, but Kansas City lost to Philadelphia in six, so no one much remembers Mr. Aikens' heroics. His career continued to roll along until 1983, when at age 28 he was suspended by major-league baseball for using cocaine. He returned the next year but wasn't the same player and soon drifted out of the majors, then out of the minors. By the early 1990s he weighed over 300 pounds and was addicted to crack. In 1992, Mr. Aikens met a woman who asked him to help her get some drugs. He complied, but it turned out the woman was an undercover narcotics officer. He was sentenced to more than 20 years in jail, where he remains to this day.
WORLD: Lou Gehrig is perhaps best known for saying in 1939, in the face of a fatal disease, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Who do you consider the "luckiest" man to have played baseball?
ROBBINS: Jack "Lucky" Lohrke. On June 24, 1946, a bus carrying the Spokane team of the Western International League plunged 500 feet off a mountain road. Eight ballplayers were killed, and most of the rest badly injured. Third baseman Jack Lohrke had been on that bus, but 50 miles before it crashed he received word that he'd been promoted to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League and immediately left his teammates to head south. One season later, Lohrke was in the major leagues. His career was undistinguished, but the brush with disaster earned him his nickname.
WORLD: Who do you think would have been the surest Hall of Famer but for an injury?
ROBBINS: Tony Oliva. As an outfielder with the Twins in the 1960s, Oliva finished in the top three in the American League batting race in seven of his first eight full seasons in the majors. He averaged more than 20 homers a year in an era when that meant something, and made the All-Star team each year. But in the ninth inning of a June 29 game against Oakland in 1971, the then-30-year-old Oliva tore cartilage in his right knee diving for a ball. He'd been hitting .375 at the time, but his average dropped to .337 by year's end. Off-season knee surgery cost Mr. Oliva most of 1972, and more knee operations would follow. Mr. Oliva played four more seasons, but never again hit .300 or made an All-Star team. He lost the second half of what was shaping up as a tremendous career, and that cost him the Hall of Fame.
WORLD: "The good die young" is a cliché, but which (if any) of your stories of the deaths of promising players gets to you?
ROBBINS: Lyman Bostock had a career batting average of .311 in his first four seasons in the majors, and more than that, he apparently was a good person. While most major-leaguers seem to think million-dollar contracts are their right, Bostock felt so bad when he got off to a slow start with the Angels in 1978 that he tried to give his paycheck back to his club. When they wouldn't take it, he donated it to charity instead.
On Sept. 23, 1978, Bostock was riding in the backseat of a car with his uncle and two women identified in the press as his uncle's goddaughters when a man pulled up alongside and fired a shotgun into their vehicle. He'd intended to hit his wife, sitting beside Bostock, but he hit Bostock instead, and the talented young ballplayer died the following morning. He was 27. His killer was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The stories of players who live sometimes hit me harder than the stories of those who die. Take Karl Spooner. The Dodger prospect got two late-season starts in 1954. He threw two shutouts, allowed a grand total of seven hits, and struck out 27. Teammates thought the left-handed fireballer would win them a pennant in 1955. Instead he hurt his arm in spring training and was soon out of baseball. Spooner drifted through a series of menial jobs to pay his bills, at one point shoveling manure to make a living, before settling into a position as packing house manager for a fruit company. The fruit company was based in the same Florida town that the Dodgers used for spring training, so every March Spooner's old team would come to town and he'd have to relive what might have been. Spooner died of cancer in 1984, at the age of 52. That strikes me as a very tough life.
WORLD: Which nicknames were important in winning recognition for a player, and which names held players back?
ROBBINS: It's interesting to compare the divergent levels of fame enjoyed by Wee Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley. Both were star outfielders for the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1890s. Both were top hitters and wonderful defensive players, and both are in the Hall of Fame. If anything, Kelley was probably the better player all around. Yet the name Wee Willie Keeler is much better known today. Perhaps the names themselves explain the difference in name recognition. "Wee Willie Keeler" rolls off the lips, while "Joe Kelley" is a rather forgettable name considering the large number of talented players named Kelly in that era.
WORLD: Which largely forgotten players would have been famous had they lived in different eras?
ROBBINS: Jud Wilson, a third baseman with a short fuse and a quick bat, was one of the best hitters of the 1930s. He was also an African-American in the era of segregation and spent his whole career in the Negro Leagues. One or two Negro League players are still remembered today-Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, for example-but Wilson has been almost completely forgotten. Yet Gibson himself called Wilson the greatest hitter he'd ever seen, and Paige listed Wilson as one of the two best hitters in the Negro Leagues. Wilson's playing career ended in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. The former star third baseman worked on a road crew after leaving the game, but apparently suffered epileptic fits, engaged in increasingly odd behavior, and was committed to an institution. He died in 1963 at 64 years old.
Buzz Arlett is another player who suffered from poor timing. He hit .341 with 432 home runs in the highest levels of the minors between 1918 and 1937, but his defensive deficiencies kept him from sticking in the majors. Had he come along in the past 30 years he would have been a star as a designated hitter.
WORLD: If you could tell only one of the many stories of Ninety Feet from Fame, which would it be?
ROBBINS: In the 1960 World Series the Pirates trailed the Yankees by one run with two outs and two on in the bottom of the eighth inning of the seventh game of the Series. The Yankees would win another championship if they could just get four more outs. But Pirates backup catcher Hal Smith homered, and suddenly it was the Pirates who were three outs from victory. This could be remembered as the most important homerun in World Series history, except that Pittsburgh blew the lead in the top of the ninth, and it fell to Bill Mazeroski to hit his famous game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. Hal Smith did everything required of him to be a World Series hero; it just didn't work out that way.