Commentary

Guest chat: Ask The Ol' Perfessor™

L. Hopwood Poteat pontificates about McGwire, coaching loyalty, great athletes

Updated: January 25, 2010, 11:18 AM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

ProfessorKurt Snibbe /ESPN.com

Moderator's note: Jeff MacGregor is on assignment. This week we introduce an interactive chat with distinguished guest columnist L. Hopwood Poteat. For the next 30 minutes he's here to answer any and all questions you may have about sports or life or This Sporting Life.

One of America's great sports thinkers, historians and pop philosophers, famous for the wit, grit and grizzled wisdom of his tall tales, Hop "The Ol' Perfessor™" Poteat, now 112 years old, served in four wars; spent 47 years as a ballplayer, bench coach and equipment manager in the Carolina League; won eleven titles across five weight classes as a Greco-Roman wrestler, marathon dancer, six-day bicycle racer and Silver Slippers boxer; earned gold medals in the now-banned Octathlon (knotted-sheet climb; underwater swim; Lindy Hop; four-man Skin-the-Mickey; Eskimo burn; doubles Rabbit Punch; pistol trick; singalong) at both the 1936 and 1940 Great Lakes Games; and spent fifteen winters as a rigger, sharpshooter and sideshow tout with the Ringling Brothers.

He claims to have traded punches with Jack Dempsey and Gertrude Stein; to have saved the life of Calvin Coolidge; to have climbed the Matterhorn with Greta Garbo; and to have twice beaned Ty Cobb. "Don't think he didn't deserve it, neither," says the stroppy Poteat. "He knew what he done. Been even worse if it was during a ballgame, trust me."

Having also worked 20 years in Hollywood as a stunt double to Ward Bond, he was briefly considered common-law husband to the movie spitfire Lupe Vélez. He now lives at an assisted care facility near the home of his great-grandnephew, just beyond the jurisdiction of any reasonable legal authority or the truth. (from Wikipedia)

[+] EnlargeCasey Stengel
AP photoHow mean does a man have to be to give a nickname and then take it back for himself?

First question, from David B. via Hotmail, in Astoria, Queens, N.Y.: I thought Casey Stengel was "The Old Professor." What's up with that? Thanks.

Which tube do I holler into?

This here?

'Kay.

Halloo! I am fine, and the weather here is good! Cold, though! And too many fish dinners! But thank you for your cable!

Here's the story to it.

Stengel and me come up about the same time in the Blue Grass League. This was back before the war against the Kaiser, and he was just a little outfielder over in Maysville, Ky. Stengel that is, not the Kaiser. Uniform hung on him like a sackcloth.

I was cuttin' tobacco that summer and a scout seen me and got me a tryout with Lexington. I was bigger then, and strong, and they signed me on the spot to pitch for $45 a month with a $75 bonus.

Few weeks later I'm pitchin' against Maysville and here come Stengel to the plate. He is just small, but it is a battle. He gives me no quarters and asks none back. Fouls off maybe nine good pitches. Up, down, inside, outside. Fast. I must have thrown a dozen or 14 balls up there until, finally, he hacks at a spitter in the dirt like a schoolgirl trying to kill a snake with a shovel. Strike three.

Well, I'm so relieved I sprint off the mound to the dugout.

Except he is only my second out and the crowd has a good laugh at me when our manager, Hogan Yancy, turns me around and I slow walk back out there. Stengel laughs like a zoo hyena, and me up on that mound red as a beet root.

So's I'm rattled now and give up six hits consecutive. In return for which Yancy give me the hook, I spend the rest of the afternoon looking ice picks at that damn Stengel, and we go down by 9 to 3.

Get back to the hotel for dinner, and there's damn Stengel in the dining room. Couple tables away with his teammates. OK. Small town. Free country. Nice enough, me and my catcher, Alvie Johnson, eat separate and quiet and no remark is made nor heard. Comes time to pay, and I set down the money and make for the door.

Before I get there, though, two waiters grab me up rough under the arms and ask, "Hey, Mack, what's the big idea?" and I got no thought what they mean. Turns out the steak and potatoes and corn and pie and buttermilk was $5 for me and Alvie both, and 'cause I was still rattled by Stengel and that jackass laugh of his I'd put down only just a single dollar bill. Which the waiter is waving at me now with his finger and thumb like he's trying to yoo-hoo me, or shoo flies off a Mesopotamian princess.

Now I fumble for a fiver, and I can see Stengel bite back a smile and it's all I can do not to climb him.

Then one of his boys, a kid shortstop named Rickets Murphy, picks up their bill and stares at it and stares at it and scratches his cowlick and strokes his chin and then says real slow-like, "Hey, Casey. How do you figger a $4 tip on a $1 tab?" and that cracks them all up.

And then Stengel looks right at me and says, "I don't know, Rickets, you'll have to ask the ol' perfessor there," and points straight between my eyes and doubles over laughing like a dog. Them waiters hold me back from killin' him, so I turn, walk out fast, hotfoot it across the lobby, knock over a potted palm, and the elevator operator passes the third floor before I can't hear those howls no more.

So it was Stengel himself first christened me the "ol' perfessor".

Course Stengel got called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers not long after and I was traded off to Asheville and I never seen him again except in the newsreels. Then I heard on the radio one day writers for the New York papers was calling him "the Ol' Perfessor," and that got my dander up. And it stayed up since. That was years ago.

Stengel was mostly a banjo hitter with a weak arm and a fair head for the game, and I suppose a good line of patter. Played dumb, but wasn't.

[+] EnlargeMildred 'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesAmong her many accomplishments as an all-around athlete, Babe Didrikson Zaharias made the cut at several men's golf events in the mid-1940s.

But that poor little SOB is dead these 35 years and I ain't.

Plus which I got a lawyer got it trademarked.

So the "Ol' Perfessor™" it is, if you please.

Official.

Or "Little General." Which I bought up when the Bonaparte family copyright lapsed.

Next question.

Rick, Bloomberg, Miami: Who was the greatest athlete you ever saw?

Including me?

Me.

Even Jim Thorpe said so after I whipped him in that famous three-way foot race between him and me and Man o' War. That was 1900 and 23, in a midnight exhibition down in Havana. Course Thorpe was already past the peak of his prime by then, and enjoyed a rye highball, and I might could beat him with a Franklin stove and chest of drawers lashed to my back. That damn horse was sober, though, and still plenty fast.

No brag, but who's left alive to call me liar?

Leave me out of it and it's Babe Didrikson. Hands down.

GoodWillBunting, aol: I have a metaphysical bone to pick with MacGregor regarding those errant notions on relativity, perspective and subjectivity he was putting forward last week. In a fully postmodern sense, there is no real distinction to be made between subject and object, observer and observed, medium and message -- as all things or events (that is, all things qua things; all events qua events), once deconstructed, are equally all other things and events simultaneously. As is the case with Heisenberg -- or during a Jets game.

I don't understand your question. Nor do I hanker to. You and him both sound like a couple $7 haircuts to me.

flybywire13, Diego Garcia: What did you think about Mark McGwire's confession?

You mean the sob sister which choked up on the TV the other night?

Even Fannie Farmer got no use for a candy ass that size.

McGwire
AP Photo/Eric DraperRuthian power? Pass the oysters, please.

Don't get me wrong, I want no truck with cheaters or sharpers or thimbleriggers, but kee-rist, people talk like nobody ever tried to get a edge before.

Coming up in the them days, they wasn't a one of us -- not one -- wasn't dosed with something when we took the field. Paregoric syrup or Sweet's Ichor of Eucalyptus or hot mustard plasters with mentholated petrolatum. Often as not two or three at once. Hell, Coca-Cola still had real cocaine in it. Every soda jerker I knew was a terrible, wild-eyed dope fiend.

I once raced a bicycle six days and nights at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City in November of 1921 on nothing but wind, violet pastilles and regular injections of a 9 percent solution of strychnine, Boraxo and rosewater. In fact, I was on the needle steady from 1919 'til 1948 when I gave up track cycling entire. Don't regret a day of it. Not a day. 'Cause I was a champion.

People complain about performer's 'hancement never seen Babe Ruth sit down to a hundredweight platter of Blue Point oysters at Delmonico's of an evening before he run over to 11th Avenue for a night at the, um, local "sororities."

It's just in our human nature to excel.

UcLa1425, gmail, Westwood: What do you think about all these college coaches like Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin moving all over the place chasing bigger salaries? Whatever happened to loyalty?

Lane Kiffin? Sounds like a women's furniture store.

Loyalty? I'll tell you about loyalty.

Rockne.

That was loyalty.

Knute Rockne never went nowhere, did he?

Nope. Rockne was true to his word.

Stayed where he promised 'til he died.

Course part of that was 'cause he doted on George Gipp so. Two better men you never seen together. Right up 'til the end. I still cry like a babe every time I see that damn movie, too. Even though Mr. Reagan didn't look nothing like George.

George and Knute. Knute and George. They was inseparable. Never saw them apart.

How them and J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson would dress up and enter them dance contests together under assumed names was one of the great open secrets of The Jazz Age.

That was loyalty.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Moderator: So OK, then. Almost out of time. One last question.

Amy2, from her Blackberry, Enid: I read somewhere that you played winter ball down in the Dominican Republic. Did you hear what Rush Limbaugh said the other day about that earthquake in Haiti?

Nope. But I beat the hell out of Father Coughlin once when he welshed on a bet.

Jeff MacGregor returns next week.

MORE COMMENTARY »