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the fierce fun of ducky medwick

26 september 2007

Biographies of less-canonical baseball players have to steer for a middle ground. Include too much information on the everyday doings of a ballplayer who played hundreds of well-documented games, and you choke the book with boxscores. (See William McNeil's Gabby Hartnett or James D. Szalontai's Close Shave, on Sal Maglie.) Include too little information, and you end up with a text that doesn't teach fans much more than they already know (as with Alfred M. Martin's Mel Ott). Once in a while, a bio finds a happy medium and tells a coherent story, nicely amplified with anecdote. Thomas Barthel's Fierce Fun of Ducky Medwick is such a book.

The Fierce Fun is not a flawless book by any means. It is unashamedly biased. In Barthel's eyes, Joe Medwick could do no wrong on the field, and very little off. There are villains in Barthel's story – chief among them Branch Rickey, though Dizzy Dean also comes in for scorn – and there are two-faced characters who play hero sometimes and villain at others, like Leo Durocher.

Despite the advocacy that Barthel exerts on behalf of Medwick and against other celebrities, The Fierce Fun is an enjoyable, thoroughly documented look at the life of one of the National League's higher-profile stars of the 1930s.

Medwick was a Hungarian-American kid from industrial North Jersey, a can't-miss hitting talent hoovered up by Rickey's St. Louis Cardinals farm system. Never remarkable for fielding or baserunning, Medwick hit wherever he went in the minors. He was one of the National League's top hitters as a 21-year-old rookie for St. Louis in 1933, starting a wonderful seven-year run where he would win three RBI titles, set the National League record for doubles in a season with 64 in 1936, and win the Triple Crown and an MVP Award in 1937.

Medwick was most famous for two violent incidents, both of which Barthel covers in detail. In the seventh game of the 1934 World Series, with the Cardinals ahead 7-0 in the top of the sixth at Detroit, Medwick slid viciously into Tiger third baseman Marv Owen. Incensed by Medwick's adding injury to insult, Detroit fans heaved fruit and bottles at Medwick when he took his position in left field in the bottom of the inning. Over protests from the Cardinals, and to the chagrin of the Tigers, who tried their best to mollify their own fans, Medwick was removed from the game by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

It was a sour close to the Gashouse Gang season. Medwick became known as a combative, selfish player. Barthel, partisan as always, deflects these contemporary criticisms of Medwick. But even if unmerited, image became reality. Rickey traded Medwick to the Dodgers in mid-season 1940. Later, as general manager in Brooklyn, Rickey would trade Medwick again, reacquire him, and release him yet again – hence Rickey's status as patron devil in Barthel's eyes.

Facing St. Louis on 18 June 1940, Medwick was beaned severely by Cardinal pitcher Bob Bowman. No feuding seemed to be involved; Medwick was just the sort of guy you buzzed. Nor, perhaps, did the beaning have lasting effects. Medwick hit well late in 1940 and all through the Dodgers' pennant season in 1941. But he did not age well. In his 30s, Medwick became a part-time player, a hired bat who made several stops with different franchises. At 36, that string ended, and Medwick bounced around the minor leagues as a player-manager for a while before retiring. He would die of a heart attack in 1975.

Medwick spent his last decades hunting, golfing, and teaching baseball (both at St. Louis University and in the Cardinals' minor-league system). Some of Barthel's book is a Hall of Fame brief for Medwick – an otiose one, as Medwick was inducted to Cooperstown in 1968. It's hard to share Barthel's vicarious bitterness over the 20-year gap between Medwick's retirement and his induction. Medwick was an outstanding hitter (he has also been elected to Baseball Think Factory's Hall of Merit). But he was not an obvious first-ballot choice for either Hall. He was a bad-ball hitter, an Andres Galarraga type, though Medwick was consistently better at his peak. He is an "outer-circle" immortal, though secure in that immortality.

Barthel delivers some choice anecdotes. He recounts a wild at-bat in a 1935 game, when "blond nightclub entertainer" Kitty Burke seized a bat from Dodger on-deck batter Babe Herman and stood in against the Cardinals' Paul Dean (98). Burke tapped an underhand pitch back to Dean, who retired her at first. Cardinal manager Frankie Frisch argued that the play should be scored an out, as if Burke had pinch-hit normally for Herman, but the umpires ignored him.

No, I don't know what that has to do with Joe Medwick. But another incident shows Medwick's feistiness. As a member of the 1932 Houston Buffaloes, Medwick was so famous in Texas that a local entrepreneur introduced a line of candy bars called "Duckie-Wuckies." Medwick got a royalty on each bar sold. When the slugger was called up to the Cardinals in mid-season, he realized that he would not be able to monitor candy sales back in Houston very closely. So he confronted the candy dealer and demanded that he unwrap every Duckie-Wuckie bar. Medwick crammed the wrappers into a bag and got on the next train north.

That's a very intense young baseball player. To paraphrase what someone said of one of Medwick's contemporaries, we'd want him on our side.

Barthel, Thomas. The Fierce Fun of Ducky Medwick. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2003. [American Sports History Series No. 25]