The other Hindenburg disaster   

Updated: May 27, 2008, 6:12 PM ET

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A lot of people ask me about the steroid problem and what impact it's having on baseball and I tell them that if players want to have a hi-fi in their clubhouse where they can play the music they choose then what the hell does that matter? Then, invariably, they point out to me that they said steroid and not stereo, and I get to thinking that there's nothing new under the sun, on account of the following tale about this very topic of unnatural self-enhancement.

It seems there was a player by the name of Gus Hindenburg who had rose himself up from the low classes of small Texas pro circuits all the way to the ranks of the fast Pacific Coast League. This Hindenburg had slap-hitted something like .378 in the Texas League in 1937. This got the attention of the PCL's Hollywood Stars, who purchased him for '38.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

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In the offseason Hindenburg was working at an H.E. Butt grocery store in Junction, Texas, and was apparently so skinny he had to ask for help hefting soup cans over his head when stocking shelves. His nickname around home was "Bony Boy" because he most resembled the skeleton of a scarecrow – assuming scarecrows were to have skeletons, which I'm not so sure they do. He was plenty fast and would have been lots faster if not weighed down by those thick wool uniforms of the time (some have said he could have stolen 100 bases had they allowed him to play naked). Most of his singles came on bunts or on grounders that got too far into a particular hole. His doubles were all of the Texas League variety as he seemed to drop loopers at will into the undefensed regions of the outfield. When outfielders cheated in on him, he'd muscle up and hit a 285-foot drive over their heads for a triple or in-house job.

Some say he could have gotten to the bigs with that kind of game because he was good with the glove, too, flitting about center field like a dragonfly on a helium bender. When that PCL contract came, though, something changed in the boy. He began talking about busting fences and larruping fastballs with an oversized bat.

"I mean to go out there to California and lose three-dozen-odd baseballs," he told the local gazette upon returning his signed contract. "There ain't the park's been built that can contain what I'm fixing to do." His appearance also began to change.

While overly muscular men are a common sight today, what with a gymnasium on every corner and creatine available in vending machines at the high schools, in those days men were more lean than bulky. Any muscle you had, you got from toting or pushing something for a living. The notion that someone would spend their spare time hoisting dumbbells was a peculiar one, at best. That's why folks around Hindenburg's hometown really took notice when the young man suddenly got all kinds of huge in a very short period of time. By Halloween he looked like a lightweight boxer. By Thanksgiving he resembled more a football player than a diamondjack. By Christmas he was grown completely out of his clothes and had taken to wearing loose-fitting overalls much of the time.

His face was changing, too. His brow was heavier and his head larger. Hair grew where it hadn't before, and also where it was not meant to. He loped now, the spring in his step gone as he trundled around town on his thick legs. He lost his position at the grocery store because he was scaring old ladies and young children. By the time he left for the coast, he was unrecognizable to some who had known him his whole life.

When he detrained in Los Angeles, the Stars wanted to know who he was and how he had gotten Gus Hindenburg's contract. He assured them that he was who he said and aimed to prove it in the batter's box. It took him a few weeks to adjust to his new body, but he got to really putting the poke on the ball. Gone were the bloops and dribblers, replaced by searing liners and majestic flies that dropped just over outfield walls. When the exhibitions started, they moved him to first base because he could no longer cover the ground in center. He was stiff around the bag and did not seem much for stretching, but all would be forgiven when he'd come up to hit and set to smacking. He spoke little, grunting mostly, a changed man from the one who had won a debating award in high school. He took his meals alone in his room and was sometimes seen in the company of a small, bearded man in a cowboy hat he called "Doc."

About a week before the season was to start, the Stars made their way to San Diego for a tune-up against the Padres, with Hindenburg playing first and batting cleanup. The Padres pitcher got into trouble early, loading the bases with nobody out. Up came Hindenburg, dragging his bat behind him like a heavy broadsword.

What happened next still resonates in the storied annals of meaningless exhibition baseball. Plate umpire T.C. Boyle and catcher Herc Fatherinjale would both later recall that it was obvious there was something wrong with the batter. His eyes were yellowed and he was breathing in great rasps. There were odd rumblings from within him. Hindenburg dug in and managed a practice swing. The first pitch was wide and he let it pass. The second grooved the plate, but he let that one go as well. There now arose from his innards a sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard orchestrated by a human body. It was part growl, part creaking, part rumble and part hiccup.

"I thought he might pass gas," recalled Fatherinjale, "but it weren't that at all."

On the next pitch, Hindenburg whipped his bat at a fastball and drove it on a perfect line over the right-field fence. It was out of the park before he left the batter's box. He turned to commence his home run trot while his fellows began touring the bases. About 10 feet up the line, he slowed and grasped his midsection. Then, according to eyewitness accounts, Hindenburg simply exploded. His belly tore open and a great flame shot out. His head appeared to lift off his shoulders like there was a volcano inside him. By the time anyone could think to react, there was nothing left of him but a smoking pile of ash and bone.

There wasn't enough of him left on which to do a proper postmortem, so we can only speculate as to what caused him to blow up like that. My research (which I admit was not what you call extensive what with my busy social schedule at the time) did reveal one intriguing clue.

As it turned out, "Doc," his shadowy sometimes companion, was a former professor of animal husbandry at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M) named Bobby Teague Cutroe. It seems this Cutroe was given the boot from academe when his research took a decided turn toward the H.G. Wells side of the street. The final straw had come in 1934 when he attempted to publish a scientific paper titled "On the Matter of Maximizing Strength: Manipulating the Pituitary Gland With Nitro Glycerine in Conjunction With the Injection of Baboon Growth Hormone. A Play in Three Acts."

The paper was turned down by all the leading journals, not only for the outlandish nature of its topic but also because it was written as a theatrical. Its existence, and the discovery in his laboratory of certain "irregularities enforced upon nature by the mind of man," ensured a hasty and dishonorable exit from College Station. From there, Cutroe drifted to a remote ranch near Hindenburg's hometown of Junction, where he – we can pretty well speculate – resumed his bizarre experiments on the local baseball hero. After his protégé's untimely immolation, Cutroe vanished. Later unsubstantiated rumors had him working in a government lab, creating a kind of "super grunt" for the war effort, or defecting to the Soviet bloc where he helped hone the East German women's swim team, or perfecting an anti-aging compound that allowed him to live on well into the new century as a 40-year-old swinging bachelor.

What, then, is the moral of this story?

That's correct: Never be the first benefactor of new technology.

In baseball's Golden Age, Scribbly Tate was a Yankees beat writer for the long-defunct daily newspaper, the New York Loyal Citizen. He contributed an entry about Lou Gehrig to "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, The Lies and Everything Else."


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