Rocky Rhodes: Lowlights for the Highlanders

After losing Tuesday’s series opener at Fenway Park, the Yankees are 0-6 this year against Boston, a mark of futility they hadn’t achieved since before World War I. So I thought it would be instructive to get some perspective on that era from a man who was there: America’s oldest living sports writer, Rocky Rhodes. His weekly sports column, “The Cat’s Pajamas”, still appears in 7000 newspapers nationwide when not bumped for “The Lockhornes Meet Drabble” or “Classic Police Calls”.

rocky.jpgFrankie, my favorite orderly here at the rest home, let me watch SportsCenter in the break room last night (all it cost me were a couple of Vicodins), and I saw that the Yanks had their worst start against the Sox since 1912. I remember that time like it was yesterday, because in my advanced state of dementia, I’m often convinced that it’s still 1912. I also frequently fear that giant squirrels will steal my medicine, but that’s another story.

Back then, the Yankees were still called the Highlanders. That’s because one of their alternate home uniforms had a kilt instead of pants. To this day, the 1912 Highlanders have the lowest steal total for a year: one. That one base was stolen by Frank “Crazy Legs” Doogan, who was immediately rushed to the hospital thereafter with an injury I won’t describe here, though it still haunts my nightmares.

The Highlanders were a colorful bunch. They were always joking around and playing pranks, like hitting each other with cream pies and setting fire to the neighborhood stable. They had guys like Joe “Shaky Lips” Miller. Hans “Vinegar Arm” Schaefer. Steve “Hominy Grits” Jones. Fred “Lackawanna Hoodoo” Smith. Nate “Shoe Stealer” Arden. They also had a great utility player, Luigi Russo, who was known affectionately as “The Fucking Wop”.

Their best pitcher was Mike Hagerty, also known as The Giant Mouse. He loaded up the ball with a special mixture of spit, licorice, tobacco juice, castor oil, and his own blood. It was sure hard to hit, because batters didn’t want to come within ten feet of the mess he put on the ball. One guy hit a homer off of him and was laid up for the rest of the season with hepatitis.

The Highlanders had a patented double-play combo where second baseman Harry “Ol’ Knobby” Hooper would feed the ball to shortstop Billy “Tiny Toes” Tyler for the first out, then Tyler would zip the ball at the head of the guy running to first. Back then, if you were knocked unconscious, regardless of the cause, you were called out.

That’s why so many catchers had mitts made of brick or cinder block. They caused a lot of passed balls, but nothing was better for knocking a runner at the plate out cold. In a few years, though, they had to ban the really hard gloves. So many skull-crushings at the plate slowed down the game, because you had to call the morgue to remove the body, which took forever in the day of the horse-drawn hearse. Not to mention all the grieving widows laying wreathes at the plate and whatnot.

A fun bunch, the Highlanders were, but they were no match for Boston. The team wasn’t known as the Red Sox yet. Sometimes they were called the Beaneaters, sometimes the Pilgrims, sometimes the Ralph Waldo Emersons. Then, the Henry David Thoreaus, or the Nathaniel Hawthornes. That was eventually shortened to a more convenient, catch-all nickname: The Transcendentalist Literature Enthusiasts.

Within a few years, they started wearing crimson stockings, and I referred to them in my column as the “Boston Encarnadine Foot-Coverings”. The name stuck! Albeit in a different and far less unwieldy form.

Boston had some great sluggers, like Bobby “The Robert” Tompkins, who clubbed 8 four-baggers in 1912–and only one of those bombs was cow-assisted! Back then, if the ball was eaten by an animal grazing in the outfield, it was scored a home run. The sports world lost a real star when he was gored by a bull at Briggs Stadium in 1921.

Boston also had Jim “Occasional Lighning” Brady, who hit 45 triples that year. He was an expert at pulling the ball all the way into the left field corner. Then, when the fielders ran after the ball, he would run from first to third in a straight line. He’d usually jump-kick the shortstop on his way there, for good measure.

Was it legal? Absolutely not, but back then nobody played by the rules. That’s what made it so damn fun! Pitchers would lob balls made of dry clay to the plate. Batters used to stand 20 feet from the mound and dare the ump to move them back. It was a like a marvelous chess game, but with a lot more heavy drinking. And punching. And the occasional on-field suicide.

But those days are gone forever, and nothing’s gonna bring them back. Except for my senility-induced time-slippage. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to shoo a giant squirrel away from my Flomax.