Monday, July 14, 2003 Updated: July 15, 1:22 PM ET
The List: Baseball's biggest rumors
By Jeff Merron Page 2 staff
His career may be dead, but Darryl is very much alive.
When the false reports of Darryl Strawberry's death circulated briefly last week, it was the second time in the last few years that a Yankee's demise was prematurely announced. (The first occured when NBC, during a Dateline broadcast, reported at the bottom of the screen: ""This is an NBC News Special Report. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio has died at his Florida home. He was 84 years old and had ..." DiMaggio happened to be watching the report, which occured when, according to NBC, "A techncian pressed the wrong button.")
That got tongues wagging around here about other big baseball rumors, some which later proved to be true, some false. Since many are still circulating, we thought we'd investigate and try to get the lowdown.
1. Dock Ellis' no-hitter Rumor: Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on acid.
Fact: An old-timer here remembers, "In the old Three Rivers Stadium press box, there was a photograph of him on the mound in that game, and his eyes were as big as pizza pies." That's because Ellis was on LSD, dexamyl, and benzadrine when he no-noed the Padres in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader in 1970. The way Ellis tells the story, in Donald Hall's excellent book, "In the Country of Baseball," the Pirates were just starting a west-coast road swing. After the Pirates landed in San Diego, Ellis split for his hometown of L.A. to party, forgetting he was slated to pitch the next day. So he started doing acid the night before the game, and around 10 a.m., after catching maybe an hour of sleep, he realized he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ellis made it to San Diego about a half-hour before the game started. "When I took those greenies, that knocked that acid out of there," he told Hall. "Had a couple of bennnies, too." And during the game? "I knew what I was doing," said Ellis. "I was in control."
2. Mike Piazza's sexual orientation Rumor: Mike Piazza is gay
Fact: In May 2002, the New York Post printed the following: "There is a persistent rumor around town that one Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs is actually gay and has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation."
You didn't have to be a genius to understand that the reference was to Piazza, and that's why he addressed the media the next night. "I'm not gay," he said. "I'm heterosexual. I can't control what people think. I date women."
Since then Piazza has told the press that he confesses after he has sex with his girlfriend, former Playboy Playmate Alicia Rickter. ""I've got friends who are priests," he said. "If I confess to them, they'll say, 'Hey, we teach that you should wait for marriage, but if you care for the girl, that matters too.'"
Sox and Yanks fans can agree on this -- thank god it never happened.
3. Yankees-Red Sox trade Rumor: The Yankees and Red Sox agreed to swap Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, but changed their minds.
Fact: This appears to be true. As Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote in 1980, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Yankees owner Dan Topping made the trade in late April, 1947, over drinks at Toots Shors. But they agreed to wait a day before sealing the deal.
Yawkey phoned Topping the next morning, saying he couldn't make an even-up trade. "The people in Boston think Williams is better," Yawkey explained. "If you want to make the deal, you've got to throw in your little left fielder."
The trade was off. The little guy in left was Yogi Berra.
Besides Anderson's account, there are other reasons to believe this story. The Red Sox did, indeed, shop Williams around in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the Yankees did, indeed, consider obtaining the services of Williams late in 1951.
"This much I would like to make clear on the Williams situation," said Yankee GM George M. Weiss in a Dec. 4, 1951 press conference. "Up to this moment I haven't so much as discussed the matter with Joe Cronin or any one else connected with the Boston club. What is more, I won't if DiMaggio notifies us that he will be back next spring. For in that case we would have no interest in Williams whatsoever. However, should Joe decide to quit, well, I guess you could say we would be interested."
4. 1914 A's Rumor: After losing the 1914 World Series to the Miracle Braves, A's owner Connie Mack sold off a lot of his big stars ... the story going around was that the A's threw the Series, angering Mack, who took it out on the players he sold.
Fact: The A's had a mini-dynasty going in the early 10's, winning the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913. After winning the AL flag again in 1914, Philly lost to the Boston Braves in the World Series. But even before the Series, Mack had told pitchers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender to sign with the newly formed Federal League, knowing that the A's couldn't equal the huge salaries the upstart league offered. At the same time, Philadelphia fans got so used to winning that they stayed away from droves; dipping attendance drained revenues and Mack decided to sell off a lot of great players. This was, evidence suggests, a financial move, not one made from anger. The A's subsequently plunged into an era of ineptitude, spending the next seven seasons in last place.
5. Ted Williams' eyes Rumor: Ted Williams' eyesight was so good he could read the league president's signature on pitched baseballs and the labels on records spinning at 78 rpm.
Fact: Lots of yarns were told about baseball's greatest hitter, but Teddy Ballgame, who once said he could see individual stitches on pitched balls and also see the bat and ball at the moment of connection, later denied these abilities. "I had real good eyes," said Williams. "But that wasn't the thing that made me do well. I think I was a lot smarter at the plate. In the first place, you know they're scared of you. In the second place, they know you can hit a fastball. They get me out with a couple of curves, then I look for the curve ... But I instinctively had a good eye at the plate. I could see a ball." Indeed. According to USA Today's obit of Williams, "Armed forces ophthalmologists said his eyesight was so keen it was a one-in-100,000 proposition."
6, Rickey Henderson & John Olerud Rumor: Rickey Henderson, who played with John Olerud with the Blue Jays and Mets, knew the first baseman wore a batting helmet in the field. When the two played together again later in Seattle, Henderson said it was funny, he knew another guy in who did the same thing. Olerud replied, "That was me. We were teammates."
Fact: From what we could gather, this Rickey legend has been rolling around for years, and places the original Henderson-Olerud discussion about the helmet (which Olerud wears in the field because he suffered an aneurysm in college) either in Toronto or New York. Didn't happen. "But as Olerud acknowledged when I asked him about it," wrote Page 2's Jim Caple, "it sure sounds like it could be true."
Mickey hit some shots, but none of them went that far.
7. Mickey Mantle's tape measure home run Rumor: Mickey Mantle hit the longest documented home run in major league history, a 565-foot blast in Washington's old Griffith Stadium.
Fact: This is a great baseball story, which has some elements of truth to it. Facing Senators pitcher Chuck Stobbs on April 17, 1953, The Mick launched one that cleared the ballpark's left-field fence, which was 55 feet high.
Mel Allen called it: "Here's the pitch. Mantle swings. There's a tremendous drive going into deep left field! It's going, going! It's over the bleachers ... over the sign atop the bleachers ... into the yards of houses across the street! It's got to be one of the longest runs I've ever seen! How about that!" That was a first, and it was an amazing blast. "I just wouldn't have believed a ball could be hit that hard. I've never seen anything like it," said Senators manager Bucky Harris. But the actual distance was a product of the Yankees PR man, who quickly found the ball in somebody's backyard, took out his tape measure, and declared that the ball travelled 565 feet.
Allen Barra, writing in last week's Opinion Journal, tracked down baseball historian William J. Jenkinson, who had researched the mythic blast. "There is no authenticity to the story. Absolutely zero. We know the ball was a high fly hit into a strong tail wind," Jenkinson said. "Following its trajectory, there is simply no way the ball could have traveled 565 feet, even including the roll when it hit the ground. I wouldn't argue with anyone who said it went 500 feet, but 565 seemed like something out of myth. [Yankees PR man Red] Patterson was trying to create a standard by which all future home runs would be measured."
8. Billy Ripken's baseball card Rumor: In the photo on his 1989 Fleer card, Oriole Bill Ripken holds a bat with "f--- face" written, and clearly legible, on the end of the bat handle.
Fact: Fleer indeed issued the card, though it's unclear how the words a) appeared on Ripken's bat, and b) slipped into circulation without someone noticing. Some have suggested that Fleer marred the card on purpose, to create some publicity and a valuable collector's item. Ripken has said that the obscenity was the result of a prank played on him by teammates, which he obviously didn't notice until it was too late. In any case, Fleer issued the card with the obscenity, then later issued a card with the words whited out. This card is always available on eBay, and you can see one original here, a whited out version here and a blacked out version here.
9. 1961 home run record Rumor: In 1961, baseball commissioner Ford Frick said that if Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record, it would go into the books with an asterisk, because it would be set in 162 games, while Ruth hit 60 in only 154 games.
Fact: Frick said, in a press conference, "if the player does not hit more than 60 until after his club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books ..." However, Frick said nothing about an asterisk. Sportswriter Dick Young suggested, after the press conference, "Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record." But an asterisk was never used, although both records were listed until Sept. 4, 1991, when Ruth's 154-game mark was removed from the record books.
10. MLB's money question Rumor: Major League Baseball is losing money
Fact: This notion has been frequently advanced in recent years by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. In Dec. 2001, Selig testified to the House Judiciary Committee that baseball lost $232 million in 2001. A few months later, Forbes Magazine reported that MLB teams had, in fact, combined profits of $75 million, with Selig's Milwaukee Brewers leading the pack with $18.8 million in black ink.
Selig is just the last in a long line of baseball owners who've cried poverty. But as Donald Fehr, the Players' Association head, said in 1995, "You go through The Sporting News for the last 100 years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money."