Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mighty Joe Speaks! by David Lawton

Like so many things in America, baseball has become big business. And to maximize profit, the owners of big league clubs have increasingly applied corporate principles to the bucolic, poetic game that so many of us grew up on and love. The ballpark experience these days includes a family friendly plasticity, with playgrounds for the kids to escape to, Jumbotron screens with cartoons and quizzes to distract them, and costumed actors playing slickly designed team mascots who twerk on top of the dugout to Beyonce and fire t-shirts into the stands from a hand-held cannon. Anything to try and corral the public’s rapidly diminishing attention span. All this has caused me to recall a time when there was a true team mascot who had a personal connection to the players which helped relieve the tedium of the long season, making them (and the fans) feel that it helped them to win. This is what made me seek out one of the most reclusive figures from 1970s baseball history: Mighty Joe Young, the stuffed gorilla who was an essential part of the 1975 Boston Red Sox team that played in what many people still call the greatest World Series ever. I tracked him down to the sports memorabilia store in Fort Myers, Florida where he has been on display as a collector’s item for this exclusive interview:

DL: It’s an honor to meet you, Joe. Big fan!

MJY: It’s a relief to talk to anybody these days. This store owner’s got me vastly overpriced. Memorabilia schmemorabilia! It’s not like I’m Honus Wagner’s teddy bear or something.

DL: Don’t sell yourself short. You carved out a piece of history for yourself. How did you get yourself involved with The Show?

MJY: It all started with a pitcher named Scipio Spinks. Great baseball name, right? Hard thrower who came up in the Astros system, but then got traded to the Cardinals in 1972. And on a trip back to St. Louis one time, he bought me in an airport gift shop for his daughter.

DL: Aw, for his daughter…

MJY: It all started out so innocent. But as soon as he got to the clubhouse, he runs into Joe Torre, who takes one look at me and asks if I’m coming on the road with the team. So Scipio’s daughter never got me. See, Scipio was a fun loving guy. The Astros traded him because they didn’t think he was serious enough about his career. He was plenty serious on the mound, but he wanted to have fun. And he knew that one of the ways that he could help the team was by keeping the guys loose. So he dressed me up in a bat boy’s uniform, brought me out for TV interviews, sat me on the bench during the game. It took a while to win everybody over. Bob Gibson didn’t like the look of my nose, so he tore it off my face. It hurt like hell, but it was preferable to getting plunked by one of his fastballs. And the guys hung me from the rafters in Pittsburgh one time. But eventually, they treated me like one of the guys. One day, before a game, Scipio’s playing catch, and this Phillies pitcher Lowell Palmer comes up to him all pissed off, accusing him of something. Seems Palmer had bought a toy chimp for one of his kids, and found it hanging by a noose in the locker room, with a knife dripping ketchup stuck in it, and a note that said, “There’s only room for one monkey on this club!” We looked around, and saw Torre and Lou Brock laughing their asses off.

DL: So Spinks had succeeded in loosening the clubhouse up.

MJY: Yeah, but maybe got a little too loose himself. One night in midseason, he reaches base against Cincinnati and tries to score on a double, and blows his knee out running into Johnny Bench’s shin guard. He was just starting to establish himself in the rotation, and he ends his season with bad base running in a game where the team was three runs down.

DL: Pitchers can be dangerous doing anything but pitching. But he was able to come back, wasn’t he?

MJY: He was back for the beginning of the ’73 season. But then his shoulder started bothering him. Maybe from compensating for the repaired knee. But the Cardinals felt it was all in his head. They sent him to psychologist who kept telling him that his shoulder felt fine. This ticked Scipio off, because his shoulder hurt like hell. So he started bringing me to the sessions, and telling me that there was nothing wrong with MY shoulder, so I should be able to pitch. The shrink didn’t know what to do with that.

DL: But Scipio’s shoulder problems continued?

MJY: Yeah. Right on into the 1974 season. That was when the Cards decided that a change of scenery might help him. So they traded him to the Cubs. And he in turn decided to send me to his friend Bernie Carbo, who had been traded to the Red Sox.

DL: Was that hurtful for you, that he gave you away?

MJY: Not really. I think he knew he was done. His arm hurt, and no one could do anything about it. There weren’t some of the high tech surgeries they have now. And I think he knew that I still had some wins left in me. So he gave me a chance to experience the American League.

DL: Carbo was some piece of work.

MJY: You can say that again. I mean, Scipio was just having some fun with me. But Carbo needed me. He bought me a plane ticket for a seat next to him anytime we went on the road. And he would talk to me. Like deep conversations.

DL: What did he talk about?

MJY: I’m not saying I could make sense of it. The guy was high as a kite all the time, and half the time I had a contact high from him. But he was as sweet and innocent as a child. You could tell he was hurting about stuff from his childhood. You pick up on this shit when you’re a stuffed animal.

DL: That was quite a club, that Red Sox team.

MJY: Oh yeah! You had Yaz. Great guy as well as a great player. He wanted me to live on the bat rack in our dugout. Fisk and Tiant. Petrocelli and the Spaceman, Bill Lee. And by ’75, we added Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. It was another group of players who played hard on the field but kept it loose in the clubhouse. I got taken to more first class restaurants and skid row bars than the Phillie Phanatic ever dreamed of. But those guys really came to believe I was bringing them luck as that ’75 season rolled along.

DL: That was the first time in a long time that people in New England really believed the curse could be broken.

MJY: Nobody thought anyone could stop the Big Red Machine. But we went toe to toe with them for seven of the best games you’ll ever see. And I was there in the dugout in the eighth inning of the sixth game when Bernie was called on to pinch hit. He was unprepared and out of it. Rawley Eastwick almost struck him out on the most awkward swing in baseball history. But Bernie just managed to get a piece of it. At that point, I knew what Bench was going to call for. I’d been around. I pulled myself up on the top step of the dugout by my little knuckle dragging arms and shouted, “DEAD RED!”, and Bernie blasted it into the seats to tie the game. My man! Without that homer, Fisk never gets the chance to wave his homer fair.

DL: It must have been a great let-down to lose the series after that game.

MJY: Hey – we were the toast of Boston. Fans mailed me more bananas than I knew what to do with. Not to mention banana liqueur.

DL: Did the good times continue in ’76?

MJY: Not quite. Management started tinkering with the club immediately, and none of the moves worked. They shipped Bernie and I to Milwaukee in the middle of the season, and that didn’t help them either. By the beginning of the ’77 season, we were back with them, on another team with great offense, but perennial pitching problems. The Boston fans expected playoff baseball again. Free agency arrived, driving the stakes higher. And the Yankees were a juggernaut once again. At one point, the club was in a tailspin, and a bunch of the players got a hold of me, and doused me with lighter fluid to ritually burn me to change the team’s mojo. But Bernie rescued me, and left me back in his hometown of Detroit to keep me safe. Imagine having to go to Detroit for safety? But that’s baseball. One day you’re a good luck charm, the next you’re a jinx.

DL: Was it hard for you to be off the road?

MJY: On the one hand, I missed being around the guys, but on the other, I didn’t have to see things go so wrong for Bernie. He got traded to Cleveland, then back to St. Louis, and then tried to catch on with Pittsburgh. Each time playing less and getting more and more messed up on drugs and booze. He talked about being out in the outfield, and it looked like the stars were falling down out of the sky. He finally ended up back in Detroit, where he opened a hair salon. But then, the whole drug scandal broke out with the Pittsburgh Pirates players who had in-house cocaine dealers, for them and the opposing players. Even the Pirates Parrot mascot was implicated. Keith Hernandez was one of the players caught up in that, and at the trial, he named Bernie as the person who had first introduced him to coke. This brought Bernie a lot of bad publicity for his business, and embarrassment to his family. So Bernie mailed me to Keith Hernandez with a note that said, “Get the monkey off your own back!”, or something like that.

DL: How did that make you feel?

MJY: Like, “Leave me out of it”, y’know? I mean, Hernandez opens the package and tosses me down the trash chute without a thought. What does he care? If the sanitation guys hadn’t taken a shine to me and tied me to bumper of their truck, I woulda gone straight into the incinerator.

DL: And what since then, Joe?

MJY: I tried Japan, but I couldn’t adjust to the culture. Kicked around the Mexican Leagues for awhile. But enough’s enough. Scipio got into coaching, and helped Oil Can Boyd work out his stuff. I like that, as a former Bosox. Bernie found religion, and speaks out about drug abuse. I am happy for him. And I have my little moment of glory that keeps my nose-damaged, lighter fluid stinkin’, banana lovin’ ass on markup here on memory lane.

DL: Well thanks, Joe, for reminding us that the game, like life, is always better when there are laughs to go along with it.

MJY: Damn straight!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. Cool insight into clubhouse life, and a major nod to Bernie C. And "kicked around the Mexican Leagues for a while". Love it! Well done.