Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Quote of the Day (George Plimpton, on One of His Many Embarrassing Moments Pitching to All-Stars)

“In baseball parlance they speak of a pitch ‘getting away’ from the pitcher. As I came through the delivery of my curve, I failed to snap my wrist sufficiently and my hook got away from me in majestic style—sailing far over both [batter Frank] Robinson and [catcher Elston] Howard's heads to the wire screen behind home plate. If it had hit a foot or so higher, the ball would have caught the netting of the foul screen and run up it to the press boxes. It was such an extraordinarily wild pitch that I felt I had to make some comment; what I'd done was too undignified to pass unnoticed, and so once again I hurried off the mound calling out, ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ Howard and Robinson gazed out at me, both startled, I think, perhaps even awed by the strange trajectory of my pitch, which was wild enough to suggest that I had suddenly decided to throw the ball to someone in the stands. The embarrassment was intense.”— American “participatory journalist,” literary editor, actor and occasional amateur sportsman George Plimpton (1927-2003), Out of My League: The Classic Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball (1961)

Even if a sweep occurs during the upcoming World Series, the Fall Classic is scheduled to end in the first week of November. Over 60 years ago, when players were not as wealthy as today’s millionaires, they might engage in barnstorming tours abroad—or play closer to home in an exhibition game.

It was in one such example of the latter—a post-Series game at Yankee Stadium of all-stars fronted by Mickey Mantle (for the American League) and Willie Mays (for the National League)—that George Plimpton latched onto one of the great sports journalism stints. While the team with the most total bases would split $1,000 (chump-change now, but not in those pre-free-agent days), Plimpton would pitch a first “unofficial” inning to baseball’s luminaries.

As a tween, I watched Plimpton! Shoot-Out at Rio Lobo, a TV one-hour documentary demonstrating his brand of “participatory journalism”—in this case, playing a gunman in the 1970 John Wayne western Rio Lobo.

The Duke’s repeated on-air insult of the amateur actor—“Pimpleton”—was still probably nowhere near as mortifying as what the author-editor encountered when he took the mound at The House That Ruth Built. Out of such acute embarrassment came Out of My League, as hilarious as it was insightful.

Out of a simple set of rules for his inning—no umpire, no walks—Plimpton’s agony was constructed. Amazingly, he retired two batters before the others learned to wait him out and find a pitch they could whack.

As he watched his pitches fly in every direction past catcher Elston Howard (“flung with abandon and propelled by a violent mixture of panic and pent-up anxiety let loose”) when they weren’t sent screaming into the outfield by hitters, the 31-year-old Plimpton undoubtedly felt this was more audacious and foolish than editing The Paris Review.

After what he endured at the hands of the NL All-Stars, Plimpton didn’t have the strength to continue against their AL counterparts. At his typewriter, however, he was more philosophical: “I suffered a steady stream of humiliations … what happened to me is bound to happen when an amateur is thrown into the company of professional athletes. It is inevitable.”

That didn't stop Plimpton from trying his hand at other wild stunts as he pursued "participating journalism": playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions and goalie for the Boston Bruins, boxing against light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, performing with the New York Philharmonic, and photographing Playboy models.  

Even while chuckling at Plimpton’s mound misadventures, though, I couldn’t help but think that he had conveyed something that the fan in the stands or at home can barely appreciate: how hard it is to make a baseball do your bidding.

In certain weather conditions, even seasoned professionals find it difficult just to get an adequate grip on the ball. In a Sports Illustrated interview last year, Mets slugger Pete Alonso was even willing to give pitchers a pass on sticky substances for that reason: “I don't want 99 mph slipping out of someone's hand because they didn't have enough feel for it."

Pitchers who experience a loss of control may suffer the loss of their roster spot, their career—or, in its way, a Plimpton-style humiliation on the pitcher’s rubber, this time listening to thousands of booing fans.

Since last year, for instance, Aroldis Chapman has gone from closer for the Bronx Bombers to bullpen odd-man out to being left off the postseason roster—largely because, for whatever reason, he could not pitch a baseball with his onetime feared velocity, nor compensate with pinpoint location.

In the late 1990s, I got to see Plimpton at a lecture and book-signing event for his oral biography of Truman Capote, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. I was glad to see that he was as wry in his remarks about the literary life as he was 3½ decades before about facing baseball’s greatest hitters.

(The photo of George Plimpton accompanying this post was taken on Dec. 12, 1977 by Bernard Gotfryd.)

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