Thursday, November 15, 2012

136. Henry Wiggen: 200 Miles from Perkinsville to Cooperstown

3 years ago, I had a crazy idea of honoring my Pop and the time we spent talking about old ballplayers with a never-ending card set. On random scraps of paper, cocktail napkins and service station receipts I made crazed lists of the players I wanted to depict. Besides creating drawings and stories for real-life ballplayers, I also wanted to do the same for those memorable fictional characters from movies and literature. Roy Hobbs, Mayday Sam Malone, Bump Bailey, Chief Gedsudski... they all have a place right beside Babe Ruth and Pee Wee Reese here at The Infinite Baseball Card Set. There's one more character that I seem to get a number of requests for each year and that's Henry "Author" Wiggen, star of Mark Harris' baseball trilogy. I always put off doing a Wiggen card for the simple reason that I don't remember all that much from reading the books. Not wanting to fake it, I sat back and waited for someone who was more intimately familiar with Harris' work. 

Enter Bill Schubert, author of this week's story...

Baseball is great for nicknames. It seems the better the player, the more colorful the moniker. George Herman Ruth was “The Babe” and “The Sultan of Swat”. Bob Feller was “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater From Van Meter”. Henry Aaron became “Hammerin’ Hank”. Reggie Jackson was “Mister October” and Roy Hobbs was simply “The Natural”. It goes on and on: “Catfish”, “Charlie Hustle”, “The Rocket”, “Goose”, “The Splendid Splinter”, “Mudcat”, and “The Wizard”.

The dominant New York Mammoths teams of the early 1950s had some of the best nicknames in history. Led by Manager Herman “Dutch” Schnell, they had “Lucky” Judkins, “Sunny Jim” Trotter, and “Swanee” Wilks patrolling the outfield, “Ugly” Jones, “Coker” Roguski and “Canada” Smith in the infield, and the veteran catcher “Red” Traphagen flashing the signs to pitchers “Horse” Byrd, “Knuckles” Johnson, and “Sad Sam” Yale.

When the young southpaw Henry Wiggen joined the Mammoths in 1952, he had a brash confidence to go along with his blazing fastball, wicked curve, and nearly unhittable screwball. By the end of his rookie year Henry had won a league best 26 regular season games and 2 World Series games (New York beat Philadelphia to take the ’52 Series 4 games to 1). He took home both the MVP Award and the Sid Mercer Memorial Award of the Baseball Writers Association as Player of the Year. What Henry Wiggen did not have was a proper nickname.

Over the off-season Wiggen wrote a book, The Southpaw (“Punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved by Mark Harris”), about his early life in Perkinsville, New York, his two years with the AA Queen City Cowboys, and his magnificent rookie campaign. Henry paints a vivid picture of life in the small town of Perkinsville and of his baseball-crazed early days. He was raised by his father, a former minor league pitcher with Cedar Rapids and star of the local semi-pro team the Perkinsville Scarlets. Henry’s whole world revolved around the grand old game. Henry starred on the mound for Perkinsville High. He cheered his Dad. He walked from his house to Fred Levine’s cigar store in town to buy “The Baseball Digest”, “Ace Diamond Tales”, and “The Sporting News”. He stole the local library’s copy of Sam Yale -- Mammoth and read it over so many times that he was able to quote whole passages to “Sad Sam” himself when eventually they were teammates in New York. He cut a picture of Sam out of the stolen book and carried it in his wallet next to a picture of his “Pop”. He made Sam’s “Rules to Live By” his own: always play hard, live a clean life, listen to your coaches, and, especially, have faith in yourself. Henry always played hard, never smoked or chewed tobacco or drank alcohol during his playing years, and had the utmost confidence in his abilities.

I believe that some day I will be counted amongst the immortals and have my statue in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Connie Mack says Lefty Grove was the greatest and maybe so, and some say Mathewson and some say Walter Johnson, some say Bobby Feller and some say Satchel Paige. Yet you will see some writers that say that on my best days I am better and faster than any, and I believe them. ( The Southpaw, 17) 
When the Mammoths reassembled in Aqua Clara for spring training in 1953, Henry got his nickname. He was then and ever after Henry “Author” Wiggen. As if to live up to the nickname, Henry would go on to author three more books about his life on and off the diamond, Bang The Drum Slowly, A Ticket For A Seamstitch, and It Looked Like Forever.

1955 should have been another great year for “Author” and the Mammoths. Henry was an All-Star for the third year in four, and New York made it back to the World Series, this time beating Detroit behind two victories by Henry. But that season, chronicled in Henry’s bitter-sweet second book, Bang The Drum Slowly (“Certain of his enthusiasms restrained by Mark Harris”), was played under a cloud, the knowledge that back-up catcher Bruce Pearson was dying of Hodgkins disease. Henry and Bruce drove down to Aqua Clara together that spring. On the way they decided to keep Bruce’s condition a secret from everyone for fear that the Mammoths would release Pearson if they knew the awful truth. They made a detour to visit Bruce’s folks in his tiny hometown of Mill, Georgia. Eventually they shoved off for spring training without even sharing the truth with Bruce’s parents. Once in Aqua Clara, Henry sat in the stands watching his teammates practice. He was holding out for more money. Finally, Henry and the club settled on a figure, but “Author” was not through negotiating. He would not sign until a clause was written into his contract saying that he and Bruce “…will stay with the club together. Whatever happens to one must happen to the other, traded or sold or whatever. We must be tied in a package on any deal under the sun.” (p. 67, Bang The Drum Slowly) Manager Dutch Schnell did not like the unusual request, saying, “What is up between you 2? A roomie is a roomie, Author, not a Siamese twin brother fastened at the hip.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 70) Eventually the manager relented and the clause was put into Henry’s contract.

On Memorial Day, with spring turning to summer, the Mammoths were under-performing. They could not put any distance between themselves and Washington. They clung to a slim 1 1/2 game lead despite Sid Goldman hitting home runs on a pace to break “Babe” Ruth’s single season mark of 60. With 16 of the roster’s 25 players veterans of the 1952 World Series Championship team, they should have had a perfect mix of experience and youth. But, something was not right in the clubhouse. The players were ragging each other, especially their small town back-up catcher, Bruce Pearson. “It takes him longer than most to discover a thing like that.... It is easy pickings, like punching a punching bag that can not punch back.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 121) Wiggen and Pearson’s secret was like an anvil around the neck of the mammoths; it was holding them back, dragging them down.

The bigger the secret, the harder it can be to keep, and, eventually, the truth about Bruce’s diagnosis spread through the clubhouse and front office. As the disease began to take its toll on Pearson, the club rallied around him. They pulled together and began to play to their potential. Before he became too weak, Bruce was able to make significant contributions on the field, but soon the disease was too much. He played for the last time on a rainy day after Labor Day in Washington. Henry described it this way,

... and then everybody begun running, for the rain come in for sure now, and he seen everybody running, but he did not run, only stood there. I started off towards the dugout, maybe as far as the baseline, thinking he was following, and then I seen that he was not. I seen him standing looking for somebody to throw to, the last pitch he ever caught, and I went back for him, and Mike and Red were there when I got there, and Mike said, ‘it is over, son,’ and he said, ‘Sure’ and trotted on in. ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 237-238)

Bruce stayed with the club. He sat in the dugout in his uniform, too weak to play, cheering his teammates. Though he grew thinner and paler day by day, and his hands shook, his spirits remained high. He was there in Cleveland when they clinched the pennant, and he was there in New York when they took the first two games of the World Series. But, he did not feel up to the trip to Detroit, saying, “I will see you in the spring. I will be back in shape by spring.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 242) The Mammoths swept the Tigers for the title. Pearson died on October 7. Henry went down to Georgia where he helped carry Bruces’s casket. Then he returned home to write about the 1955 season and about Bruce Pearson. “He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.” (Bang The Drum Slowly, last paragraph)

1970 was Henry’s last season with the Mammoths. He won only three games and they did not offer him another contract. Like so many players, he was not ready to walk away from the game, not ready to hang up his spikes. Self-confidence is often the last thing a veteran ballplayer loses, long after his legs, his arm, his eye, and his reflexes have abandoned him. Rare is the man like Sandy Koufax who retired at or near his best after the 1966 season, a year that saw him put up his career best ERA (1.73) while winning 27 games and his third Cy Young Award. Much more common is the sad sight of a formerly great player, like Willie Mays, rendered average or worse by the passage of time, yet seemingly the last to notice.

Henry was aware of his diminishing skills, “The ball done what I told it. The only thing it could not do was go fast. My fastball come up nothing,…” ( It Looked Like Forever, 65) Yet, he spent months making phone calls and taking trips in hopes of catching on with another club. He even travelled to Japan to investigate the possibility of joining the Oyasumi Cobras. Finally, in June, “Suicide” Alexander, owner of California’s club, signed “Author” as a relief pitcher. Henry resumed his career on June 16th, and in his first nine appearances out of the pen he went nine innings giving up just one hit and allowing no runs. But, his comeback would be short-lived. On July 2nd, in San Francisco, Wiggen was brought into the game in the eighth inning with one out and a man on first. “Muddy” Rivers came to the plate. Henry got ahead of him quickly with two consecutive curves, but the third pitch, another curveball, did not fool Rivers.

Now and then, with a small glass of sherry, I use to run California 1
more time through my TV cassette machine in the belief that may be that boy
name of Muddy Rivers would change his mind about my third pitch. He
never did. Strike 1. Strike 2. Then smash, and the next thing you see I
am flat on the ground unconscious. It give me the headache.... After a while
I no longer required the film but give it to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown,
N. Y., along with many other silvernears (sic) of time gone by. (It Looked Like
Foever, last paragraph)

Between his emergence as a green nineteen year old September call-up in 1951, when he gave the Mammoths one perfect inning against Boston, and his fateful final pitch to Muddy Rivers just four days shy of his fortieth birthday, Henry “Author” Wiggen fashioned a magnificent career. Over nineteen full seasons, he pitched 4,824 innings. When he retired he had 247 wins, tying him with “Iron Man” McGinnity and John Powell for twenty-seventh on the all-time list. He was a perfect 4-0 in the four World Series games he pitched (The Mammoths won the crown in both 1952 and 1955). He was a multiple all-star and an MVP.

When Henry’s minor league Manager, Mike Mullrooney, told him that he was being called up to the big leagues, his simple advice was to listen to the veteran catcher Red Traphagen; “When he says something that has got to do with baseball you must hang on his every word as if it was the word of God. He is the smartest ballplayer in baseball today.” ( The Southpaw, 118)

In his own book, Backing Up First, Traphagen wrote, “I have expressed my aversion to superlatives. Nevertheless, the ‘best’ pitcher I ever caught was Henry Wiggen.”

It must be true. 

Thanks again to Bill Schubert for the story. Not only did Bill graciously take on the task of crafting a great Wiggen biography, but he patiently answered all my silly little questions about what the character looked like and other little details that helped me make a card. A little about what went into creating Wiggen's card: Since the books are written in first-person, Harris doesn't really give a comprehensive description of the hero. Over 6'-3" tall, broad shoulders, 195 lbs... and that's pretty much it. Same for the Mammoths' uniforms. That real poor movie with Robert DeNiro, "Bang The Drum Slowly" (yeah I said it - and I don't like "Bull Durham", either) had the ballplayers in Yankee-esque pinstripes with a terrible intertwined "NY" logo. As a designer, it gives me agida to see the characters run around in those lousy jerseys and caps, so I sure as hell wasn't going to copy them for my card. There was a television play done in 1956 and I found a couple of stills from that but the uniforms were kind of generic and didn't look up to the level that a National League team would have worn at the time, so that, too, was no help. Harris only mentions that instead of "MAMMOTHS" on the front it simply carried the name of the city of New York. Too bad for me because I would have loved to create a jersey that had "MAMMOTHS" on the front! So anyway, I wanted to stay as true as possible to what Harris envisioned when he wrote the books. As you just read in Bill's story, Henry Wiggen's career began in 1952 so I wanted the card to depict him between his rookie year and 1955 when the Mammoths won the World Series. I picked orange and blue for the Mammoths colors. I know Mark Harris was a New York Giants fan, and in fact had the pleasure of making his acquaintance at a Giants Spring Training game years ago. But, I didn't want to just copy the old Giants look. Using the blue which the Giants wore when Harris was a boy in the 1930's and 40's and the orange from the time period the books take place seemed like a good solution. Besides, what can I say, as an old Mets fan, I happen to like orange and blue. The logo, though you can't see it very clearly due to the size of the card, is a kind of Medieval script that I thought fit the era and was sufficiently different than any other team at the time. I also chose to pose Wiggen far away so as not to have to depict his face too well - everyone who reads a good book has their own idea of what a character looks like and I didn't want to stand in the way of that. And finally, the ballpark in the drawing is a take on the old Polo Grounds, a place Mark Harris knew well as a boy and its cavernous double-decked stands promised to make a fine background on which to place his hero...

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