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BASEBALL’S BAD APPLES

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With every volcanic eruption caused either by his wooden bat or thick head, Albert Belle follows in the footsteps of immortals, and not only to Cooperstown.

Who says we don’t have the great ones in our midst anymore?

At a breakneck--or break-arm or break-nose--pace that would please his feisty forebears, the Cleveland Indian outfielder has fired a ball at a fan in the stands, driven his car at Halloween trick-or-treaters, thrown a ball at a photographer, thrown a forearm at a diminutive second baseman, barked at a woman and, probably, howled at the moon.

Of course, Ty Cobb did 100 worse things, usually in a mood so foul that his hand-picked biographer, Al Stump, later called Cobb “the most violent, successful, thoroughly maladjusted personality ever to pass across American sports.”

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Ring a Belle?

“All the bottled rage he seems to have on the field, the fights, the incidents with fans, the social dysfunction--that’s all Cobb,” said Ron Shelton, a former minor league player who wrote and directed the recent film “Cobb,” which examined the darker sides of the Georgia Peach’s life.

“When I see Belle play, I think, ‘That’s how Cobb must have been.’ ”

Belle has trod unchastened, time and again, before the irritated lords of baseball, his most recent suspension starting today, for two games.

Of course, then-Brooklyn Dodger Manager Leo Durocher was suspended for the entire 1947 season, for reasons that remain cloudy, other than his being an associate of gamblers and a general pain in Commissioner Happy Chandler’s backside.

And Ted Williams, at odd moments of his career, spat at hometown fans and manhandled sportswriters.

Baseball in this century has always been two-sided: both the gleaming national pastime and the playground for rogues, miscreants, misfits and outright misanthropes--from Cobb, the American sporting world’s landmark psychopath, to Babe Ruth, John McGraw, Billy Martin, Alex Johnson, Vince Coleman and various other demi-demons.

“Wake up the echoes of the Hall of Fame,” the late Bill Veeck, one of baseball’s wry thinkers, once said, “and you will find that baseball’s immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils, like the Third Army busting through Germany.”

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The game has had its soaring souls, of course--Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr., to name a few.

But it has also had the Black Sox and a fixed World Series, dozens of crooked managers and owners, and almost always a reckless spirit that spills out in the messiest ways.

“I think scandal seems to be part of the history of the game,” said Dan Gutman, who, as author of “Baseball Babylon,” has become a chronicler of baseball’s wild side. “There’s something about young wealthy men with a lot of spare time that kind of lends itself to misbehavior.”

Why does baseball, more than any other American sport, seem so larded with infamous incidents?

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“I think it has to do with the fact that they play every day,” Shelton said. “You can’t hide your rage when you’re playing every day like you can if you were playing once a week. You’re around your teammates and everybody else every day. You can’t get away from them.”

Said legendary baseball writer and columnist Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News: “No doubt, familiarity breeds contempt. You travel together every day of a six-month journey, and there’s no way you can avoid it.”

Here, then, is a quick spin through some of the lore of baseball’s boors:

--Cobb is the standard-bearer, and no paragraph can do justice to his misadventures. But . . . when not playing, he usually packed a gun. He spiked players, hit players, screamed at players and once even tried to fight Gehrig. He was an open racist. He is reported to have killed a man who tried to mug him. He jumped into the stands during the 1912 season to fight a fan, who happened to be handicapped. And in 1921, as the Detroit Tigers’ player-manager, he slammed the head of umpire Billy Evans against a slab of concrete after a game, under the stands.

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“They were all against me . . . tried every trick to cut me down,” Cobb once said. “But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”

--Rogers Hornsby was one of the game’s greatest players but also one of the least liked, according to Richard Scheinin’s scalding book on baseball, “Field of Screams.”

Hornsby was a dominant, pitiless and arrogant player--and an inveterate gambler--who, in an echo of Belle’s season last year, hit .424 (the highest average this century) for the St. Louis Cardinals and was denied the National League most-valuable-player award when one voter did not include him in his top 10.

The award instead went to Brooklyn pitcher Dazzy Vance. In 1995, despite his more impressive statistical season, Belle lost out to Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn.

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Scheinin points out that Hornsby, at the peak of his career, played on four teams in four seasons beginning in 1926, mostly because nobody could stand him for long.

--Durocher was king of the bench jockeys during his 45 years as a player and manager. Writes Scheinin:

“Throughout his playing career and decades managing the Dodgers, Giants and later, the Cubs, Durocher was baseball’s bad boy. He dropped $100 bills inside the lockers of pitchers who threw at opponents’ heads. He said he would trip his mother if she tried to get by him on the basepaths, and no one doubted it.”

Durocher, it seems, was almost universally derided. Before his one-year suspension, Durocher was condemned by the Catholic Youth Organization for “undermining the moral training of Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic youth.”

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--The next era’s Durocher was battler Billy Martin: He set the tone for his life and career on his 29th birthday, May 16, 1957, when, during a visit to the Copacabana nightclub in New York with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Hank Bauer to see Sammy Davis Jr., the players became involved in a melee that triggered a grand jury investigation and brought about his first departure from his beloved team.

Among his other brawls, Martin fought two team traveling secretaries, two of his own pitchers, his own superstar, Reggie Jackson, in his own dugout, and, perhaps most famously, in 1979, Joseph Cooper, a marshmallow salesman.

He also had a turbulent time with owner George Steinbrenner, who hired and fired Martin five times. Martin summed up Jackson’s relationship with Steinbrenner: “They’re perfect for each other; one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.”

--Alex Johnson spent two tortured seasons with the Angels, despite winning the American League batting title hitting .329 in his first year with them, 1970. In 1971, the sensitive, antisocial Johnson was fined 29 times for not hustling, and, amid a hostile clubhouse atmosphere Manager Lefty Phillips fretted could result in violence, accused teammate Chico Ruiz of pulling a gun on him in the clubhouse.

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Johnson played for eight teams in his 13-year career, never lasting more than two seasons in any city.

--Dick Allen was the 1964 rookie of the year with the Philadelphia Phillies, but his relationship with the Philadelphia fans soured quickly: Allen said the ill feelings were caused by racism, took to wearing his batting helmet for protection from flying objects when he played first base and occasionally drew words in the dirt as sarcastic messages to the crowd.

“He wasn’t mean-spirited,” Hochman said of Allen. “He just wanted to be left alone.”

--Vince Coleman, on July 24, 1993, in a Dodger Stadium parking lot, set new standards of malevolence by tossing an explosive device far more powerful than a regular firecracker out of a car window into a crowd of fans waiting for autographs after a game.

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Coleman’s action crystallized the growing gulf separating players and fans, and the kind of coldness cultivated by a new breed of surly, super-rich stars--think of Barry Bonds barging past fans with interview and autograph requests--that may or may not have been contemplated in Cobb’s days.

“That one seemed to show the disregard that some of the recent players have for the fans,” Gutman said of Coleman’s incident. “Just the idea of tossing a firecracker at a fan because they ask you for an autograph--I don’t think they would have done that 30 or 40 years ago.

“But, I could be wrong.”


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