Come 17 July, there’ll be an induction not immediately recognisable to many baseball fans. But it should be. The inductees: Pete Gray, Maury Wills, and the San Diego Chicken.
The Baseball Reliquary, Inc., which formed in 1996, will induct three to its Shrine of the Immortals. Call it a contra-Hall of Fame if you wish. The Shrine of the Immortals sets to honour those in and around the game whose performances may not quite have been worthy of Cooperstown canonisation, statistically or progressively speaking, though there are some Hall of Famers on the Shrine’s roll thus far: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and Casey Stengel.
The Shrine also has a place for a good number of baseball iconoclasts. Jim Brosnan, the relief pitcher who showed the first from-the-inside peeks into the seasonal doings of baseball teams (in The Long Season and Pennant Race), is one. Jim Bouton, the one-time Yankee standout who saw and raised Brosnan by letting their personalities in a little deeper, and a lot more vividly, with Ball Four, is another. Bill Veeck, who actually respected players and fans alike, was willing to let them believe baseball was still entertainment, and exposed no few owners’ shenanigans, is a third. Marvin Miller, who like Veeck really does belong in the Hall of Fame, and who shepherded players out of the reserve era’s enslavement, is a fourth.
Characters? Assuredly. Put in Jimmy Piersall, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, Moe (The Catcher Was a Spy), and Bill (Spaceman) Lee. Groundbreakers? Welcome, Dummy Hoy, Gibson and Paige, Clemente, Minnie Minoso, Jim Abbott. Challenge the reserve clause in earnest at last? Your table’s waiting, Curt Flood. Tragic heroes who proved to be more dumb than dishonest? They built it, and Shoeless Joe Jackson came. Record-breakers who weren’t allowed to be heroes? Welcome home, Roger Maris. Pitch a no-hitter from somewhere in the fifteenth dimension? Come fly with us, Dock Ellis.
Why, the Shrine even has a place for mascots. Especially those of the leghorn variety, who don’t bellow like foghorns but rival Chaplin as mimes. Monday’s inductees include Ted Giannoulas, whose name means little unless you know him better as the Chicken—San Diego or Famous, that is. Probably the greatest humourist among baseball’s customarily dubious mascots, never mind that Philadelphia might demand equal time for the Phillie Phanatic, the Chicken has one credential that no baseball mascot can claim: he’s been upheld in the federal courts.
You don’t know the story? In 1999, the Chicken decided to stand in for those who despise Barney, the infamous purple dinosaur. His routine for a time included wrestling a Barney lookalike to the grass behind the on-deck circle. The real Barney’s creators were unamused. Enough to take Giannoulas to court. Barney’s people lost and appealed. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Chicken. And you thought baseball lacks parody.
The Chicken once got into a sort-of brawl with Lou Piniella, when Piniella was a Yankee outfielder. Piniella was unamused when he thought he saw the Chicken put a hex on Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry. He chased the Chicken and threw his glove at him. When the Chicken visited Yankee Stadium around the same time, various Yankees said things from how unamused they were to what mayhem they were going to wreak on the mischievious leghorn. What’s the big deal, asked Bouton, working that night as a WCBS sports reporter? “I’ve seen some Yankee games this year where I thought the Chicken should have been playing.”
These days the Chicken limits himself to fifty gigs a year, almost strictly in minor league ballparks. After all, he’s not a young chick anymore. But he’s in it for the baseball. It’s why he once spurned an attempt by Ted Turner to land him for the Atlanta Braves. Turner was even willing to trade a backup catcher to get him. The Chicken couldn’t have been bought for an entire starting rotation.
A lot of Maury Wills’ opponents would have preferred the Chicken on the bases to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ road runner. Wills didn’t exactly rack up a Hall of Fame career, and he probably won a Most Valuable Player award he didn’t really deserve in 1962, merely because he was the man to break Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record with 104. As with Roger Maris, Commissioner Ford Frick insisted it be listed as a separate record, because Wills turned the trick in a 162-game schedule.
Wills lived something of a roller coaster life during and after his playing days. Much of it tied to alcohol and, in due course, cocaine. If you believe then-general manager Buzzie Bavasi, few on the Dodgers were sorry to see him go, when he was traded after the 1966 season for jumping a team tour of Japan.
The Baseball Reliquary is just a little too effusive in crediting Wills with re-introducing the stolen base to baseball as a consistent and lethal weapon. Wills was in the minor leagues when the steal returned in earnest; Luis Aparicio making it his calling card was one of the main reasons why the pennant-winning 1959 Chicago White Sox were known as the Go-Go Sox. Wills may have amplified the awareness but he didn’t launch it. He may also have been the single worst manager in major league history; he took over an already disastrous Seattle Mariners club, in August 1980, finished the season 20-38, opened 1981 6-18 after running a brutalitarian spring training (and developing his cocaine trouble aroud that time), and was canned after he’d reduced his team to an indecisive and confused shambles.
Wills has long since cleaned up, long since admitted (perhaps a little too candidly) his foolishnesses and his callousnesses. His time nowadays is spent on the golf course, in spring training with the Dodgers as an instructor, and in hopes of reconciling to his son, former major leaguer Bump. (The two men became estranged over the elder Wills’ memoir, in which he admitted too candidly that his first marriage was a loveless marriage on his part. Wills says today he hopes for a reconciliation but a “lot of forgiveness has to be done there, on both parts.”) And he’s still the first man to steal 100 or more bases in a major league season.
Most of Pete Gray’s right arm was stolen from him in a childhood accident, but it didn’t stop him from pushing himself to become a baseball player. He taught himself to catch balls, toss them up in the air a moment, and tuck his glove under his right shoulder (his arm was amputated above his elbow) before spearing the ball and throwing in. Perhaps miraculously, he tore up the Southern League, batting .333 and stealing 63 bases for the Memphis Chicks. He was even named the league’s most valuable player.
The St. Louis Browns bought his contract and brought him to the Show for 1945. The club thought the courageous amputee would be a gate attraction, which the Browns needed desperately even winning a wartime pennant in 1944. In April 1945, Gray caused a small sensation when he rapped five hits in a doubleheader sweep against the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium. Gray also showed prodigious bunting and a tough approach to fastballs.
But in short enough order his handicap became his undoing: he was also unable to check his swing or adjust against breaking balls, and he began receiving a steady diet of breakers. He finished with a .218 batting average; he was released on V-J Day, went back to the minors for a period, then hung it up for good, haunted, it was said, by the question of whether he’d gotten to the majors because he was good or because he was a novelty. (Various former Browns teammates said over the years that Gray was only too well aware he was being exploited, which probably didn’t mix well with his determination to play the game he loved.)
Shy and brooding by nature, Gray didn’t mix well with teammates who were said to resent his presence as a novel gate attraction, and was thought to be in a quiet rage about his lot until his last minor league days. Teased and ridden mercilessly enough, Gray retired to his native Pennsylvania. He battled alcohol for a time, then settled in and lived a quiet, reclusive life, reputedly operating a pool hall, almost never talking publicly about his past, but making himself available to teach baseball to local children—handicapped or otherwise. Which was of a piece with his frequent amiability, during his playing days, to children who’d lost limbs or suffered otherwise as he had.
Now Gray, who died in 2002, can be honoured without exploitation. It might have been wonderful to see him live long enough to accept it. Even with a hug from the Chicken.