Steve with Baseball Personalities
Billy Rogell (1904-2003) I had a number of wonderful phone conversations with Billy from 1999 to the early 2000s. The sparkplug shortstop and leadoff hitter of the great Detroit Tigers of the mid-1930s, Billy was also on the Boston Red Sox, back in 1925 and 1927-1928. I visited Billy just a few weeks before his death (see photo). What struck me was how physically fit he still was, yet how detached and forlorn he was. My sense is that when he returned to Detroit (where he had been a star and later a city councilman), so many of his contemporaries were gone and so few people remembered who he was, that his spirit was gone. (Some may remember that Billy appeared in the 1998 movie, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.")
I will remember Billy more for our animated phone calls of a few years earlier. He enjoyed recounting the famous World Series incident, when he threw a relay toward first base as the St. Louis baserunner, pitcher Dizzy Dean came bearing down on second base, trying to break up a double play. The throw hit Dean squarely on the temple and knocked him unconscious. Billy enjoyed recounting the newspaper headline the next day, after Dizzy was x-rayed for a concussion "Nothing there," the paper declared. Billy jokingly gave Diz a metal helmet the next day.
Billy felt that Lou Gehrig once needlessly spiked him. He felt that Gehrig did not have to slide; the resulting spike tore Billyís pants and created a wound that required seven stitches to close. Billy grabbed Gehrig and pushed him into the dirt. Billy felt that, as a leadoff hitter, he had to take a lot of pitches, to let his teammates get a good look at the opposing pitcherís "stuff." Billy felt his career batting average would have been significantly higher than .267 ("it cost me twenty points in average, but that was my job") had he been able to focus on his own numbers and not take pitches for the team.
Billy remembered a specific day I asked him about, in early September, 1928. Connie Mackís Philadelphia Athletics had just swept a doubleheader in Boston, against Billyís Red Sox, and the fans gave the visiting Aís a huge ovation. Mackís team had rallied from 13 Ĺ games back of the Yankees in early July, to move into first place that Saturday, September 8. Boston fans were saluting Connie Mack, who was closing in on the pennant after almost fourteen years "in the wilderness." That day and the next are significant in my baseball research, as a future book will tell. (The Athletics would not win the pennant until 1929, though).
Billy said he had recently gotten a letter from the Commissionerís office that said he would receive $2,500 every three months, a pension from the owners. He felt he should have been getting around $130,000 a year. Yet he did not believe in unions and felt they did not belong in sports. He spoke very complimentarily about Alex Rodriguez, "the best of all of them" (and this was back in 1999 or 2000).
Billy felt that Ty Cobb was not a dirty player (a view Iíve heard from a number of players of his era, either in my talks with them or in interviews Iíve listened to). Billy liked Cobb and said that managers wanted their men to play like Cobb. Bill knew Eddie Cicotte, the pitcher banned for life after his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Eddie lived in Detroit and worked at Ford Motor Company. He did not like to talk baseball, said Billy. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Red Ruffing was Billyís roommate in Boston. "We were just a couple of kids back then," he recalled.
Billy remembered Urban Shocker, whose reputation was "good, real good . . . never threw at you" [Shocker hit only 37 batters in his career.] Billy felt the 1927 Yankees "would have killed todayís Yankees [of 1999]." He noted that ballparks back then were very different than those of today. "We played on rock piles," he said. He spoke of how one player can make a difference on a team, how one man can be "the missing piece" for a championship team. Such was the case when Mickey Cochrane joined the Detroit Tigers before the 1934 season. They won the AL pennant the next two years and captured the World Series in '35.