Stan Musial, Earl Weaver and Fred Talbot died last week — one of baseball’s greatest players, greatest managers and greatest characters.
If you’re a baseball fan and don’t know Talbot’s significance, put down your mouse or your tablet or your phone and go to the library and check out Ball Four. Or download it to your Kindle.
Talbot was a mostly mediocre pitcher for eight major-league seasons, but he was Jim Bouton’s teammate, and sometime foil, on the 1969 Seattle Pilots. Talbot was a comedic star — he delivered some lines but was the butt of more — far funnier than the 38-56 record he compiled. (Talbot pitched for eight seasons and amassed a career WAR of 0.1; at that pace, if he had lasted another eight it might have reached 0.2).
If Archie Bunker had been a baseball player, he would have been a lot like the Talbot portrayed in Bouton’s book – part bumpkin, part boor, even by locker room standards, and often defeated.
Only Talbot, a Virginian, could lose a duel of insults to a deeper Southerner. “You look like a perch,” Talbot’s roommate and Georgian Merritt Ranew said to him. “Your head is square, you have hardly any nose at all, your eyes bulge out and you look like some kind of fish.”
That was one of the more positive moments in the book for Talbot.
His relationship with Bouton, as described by the latter, was fractious. They were almost as much adversaries as teammates; both fringe pitchers, competing for the same innings. Talbot was insecure about Bouton’s intellect, Bouton insecure about Talbot’s ease with teammates. Talbot thought Bouton smug, Bouton implied that Talbot was dense.
Bouton on why Talbot didn’t play college football: “You ever hear of an entrance examination?”
Talbot when he was announced as a starter instead of Bouton: “Eat your heart out.”
Talbot was the book’s biggest victim — of Bouton’s putdowns and of regional prejudice, but nothing moreso than clubhouse pranks.
It was Talbot who was the recipient of a fake paternity suit. Bouton called it one of the Seattle Pilots’ “finest hours.” Perhaps it was — for everyone but Talbot. As Talbot read it, his despair increased as if it were his ERA.
“(Talbot) opened the letter,” wrote Bouton, “looked at it, put his head down, looked at the floor for a while, gazed up into the air, shook his head slowly from side to side, started to read the letter again. Then he folded it, put it back in the envelope, tossed it onto the shelf in his locker, lit a cigarette and stared around the room . . .
“Talbot stomped out his cigarette, reached up into his locker, opened the envelope and read the letter again, as though he was hoping it would say something different this time. Finally after he’d devoured both pages, put them back in the envelope and thrown it on the floor of his locker, (teammate Gene) Brabender felt he had to tell him it was a joke.”
The reaction? Tommy Davis: “I didn’t think you Caucasian guys could get any whiter.” Ray Oyler: “You couldn’t have pulled a needle out of his ass with a tractor.”
That was the first great prank. The second was a telegram Talbot received, allegedly from Donald Dubois of Gladstone, Ore., promising him a share of the $27,000 Dubois won with Talbot’s grand slam home run in the Pilots’ Home Run For the Money inning. (As a pitcher, Talbot wasn’t a bad hitter. He homered twice and slugged .317 for the 1969 season, or 40 points more than teammate and shortstop Oyler, whose contributions to the gag were far greater than those to the Pilots’ offense).
The telegram was, of course, a fake, written by Bouton (he said he didn’t write the paternity suit, though he was blamed for it): “Thank you very much for making our lives so happy Mr. Talbert. We feel we must share our good fortune with you. A check for $5,000 will be sent to you when the money arrives.”
Talbot showed the telegram to Oyler, who asked if it was legit. Talbot said it was. “If one of the guys had done it, he wouldn’t have misspelled my name,” Talbot said.
Which was, of course, exactly why they did — to prove its legitimacy. As the season went on, though, the money never arrived, and there was no more communication from Dubois — no tweets, no emails, no PayPal.
Bouton asked one time too many, and Talbot realized, like the poker player who can’t find the easy mark at the table, that the joke was on him. When catcher Jim Pagliaroni’s homer won $2,700 for another contestant, he really did get a check for $100, which only compounded Talbot’s bitterness (Pagliaroni immediately thought he was being played, and suspected Bouton). When asked what he hoped Dubois did with his money, Talbot said: “I hope he gets drunk on it, wrecks his car and kills himself.”
Talbot and Bouton were only teammates for three months in 1969 — Talbot came by trade from the Yankees in May and Bouton went to Houston by one in late August. When the book came out the next year, Talbot hated it. “How the hell am I going to keep my wife from reading that g–damn book?” Talbot asked Mike Marshall, according to Bouton’s second book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally.
That Talbot was innocent in the paternity suit prank didn’t temper his anger (no word on his wife’s, if any). Bouton said he got a less-than-enthusiastic response on hotel stationary from Des Moines, Iowa, where Talbot pitched, the next year; the unsigned message defended the Yankees and said Bouton “would make a maggot throw up.”
“I have an idea who sent it,” said Bouton in his follow-up book. “It was either Fred Talbot, who was mentioned 48 times in Ball Four, or Bob Meyer, who wasn’t mentioned at all . . . One doubt, though. Neither was famous for his imagery. And the one about the maggot isn’t bad.”
Ten years after Ball Four, Bouton added an epilogue, called it Ball Four Plus Five and updated the whereabouts of all his old Pilots’ teammates. “When I telephoned Fred at his home in Virginia to ask what he was doing he said, ‘Well, I’m still living,’ and hung up,” Bouton wrote. “I didn’t even get a chance to say I was glad.”
My favorite Fred Talbot lines from Ball Four: