Inside Sports - July 31. 1980
When Dave Kingman, Steve Carlton and Vida Blue Don’t Talk, Everybody Listens
By Vic Ziegel
“A baseball writer’s relationship with a ballplayer is a cop-and-crook relationship. You’re not there as his buddy, as his fan. It’s an adversary relationship. Let’s face it, the average ballplayer considers the writer a spy.” - Jimmy Cannon, from No Cheering in the Press Box
Uh, Oh. Dave Kingman’s locker, as luck would have it, occupies the most remote corner of the railroad flat that is the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse. There are several approaches to Kingman’s little acre. All lousy.
The post-game route is under the stands and into the leftfield corner. A visitor to BeautifulWrigleyField is told to look for a red door with a peephole. Ah. (Sound of fist on door.)
This is the day I talk to Kingman, the handsome home-run champion, about ballplayers who aren’t talking to sportswriters. Kingman is an expert on the subject because he’s one of those ballplayers. (He did give an interview to Sport magazine this year, but has not talked to writers since.) He’s also a sportswriter, having taken on a Sunday column for the Chicago Tribune. This can be a strange thing, the business of older people on deadline asking sometimes embarrassing questions of younger, stronger, often naked athletes. Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton, the National League’s premier lefthanded pitcher, is another non-talker. The silent file also includes Cardinal outfielder George Hendrick- whose conversation for 1980 appears on page 23- and Vida Blue, the Giants’ splendid pitcher, who was mum and worse for part of last season.
Obviously, this story isn’t about Muhammed Ali.
I knew all that when I found myself on the other side of the red door and in the office belonging to Preston Gomez, the Cubs’ manager. Gomez was with the Dodgers’ organization when they lost the 1962 pennant in the playoff with the Giants. “The players didn’t want to let the press in,” Gomez recalls. “Walt Alston, he threw the door open and said, ‘You got beat. Now’s the time you have to show what kind of men you are.’ That really showed me something.”
What it showed him, is that 1962 was a long time ago in a galaxy far away. Here’s Gomez on Kingman’s refusal to play ball with the press: “I told him, the press has a job to do, they have a right to be around, but if you don’t want to talk to them, that’s your prerogative.
“That’s between the players and the media. When coaches and managers get together the first thing we talk about is how players are different these days. The way they dress, their hair… no way you can talk to players today the way you did 20 years ago. Just like there’s no way I can raise my kids the way my dad raised me.”
The other door in Gomez’s office leads to the Cubs’ clubhouse, perhaps the most cramped home-team facility in baseball. That’s the reason, the manager says, he has the press wait 10 minutes before entering after a game. The Cubs were losers this afternoon, beaten by Vida Blue. Kingman, who bruised his shoulder when he fell crossing home plate the day before, would miss the series against the Giants. Fortunately, he had already delivered his column to the Tribune: a surprising swipe at the Wrigley ground crew for failing to cut the grass when the Cubs went against Randy Jones, the San Diego sinker-baller. And a second shot for cutting it at the wrong time, when Rick Reuschel, Chicago’s sinker pitcher, was working. The Cubs lost both. No wonder why they haven’t won a pennant since 1945.
Out of action, on the losing side, this was not the best time to be dropping by Kingman’s locker. Certainly not after columnist John Schulian, in that day’s Chicago Sun-Times, had likened Kingman’s rolling drive for a fly ball to “an empty paint can being thrown from a car at 60 miles per hour.” Schulian also described the play in which Kingman was injured as if he were pitching a screenplay for the Three Stooges.
What you must understand about Kingman is that he’s six feet, six inches tall, and he solved one problem with a sportswriter by flinging a bucket of icewater at him. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. Wonderful. I asked if he had a few minutes. No, he was leaving. Tomorrow? “I’m not sure I’ll be here tomorrow. I’m not sure what my schedule is.” He was gone. Why did I think Robert Mitchum would have handled it better?
The next day I told Kingman what the piece was about: the difficulties between certain players and the press. His eyes brightened just a bit. He gave me a rueful half-smile. “I haven’t got time now.” He hit the last word fairly hard. It sounded as if he meant not now, not next week and not in the next life. I suggested tomorrow. He said he didn’t know if he’s be around.
He was. Sitting on his canvas chair- all the other Cubs have prison-assembly metal chairs- and staring into his locker. On the wall, just over his head, hang a pair of Viking horns and a bumper sticker that reads, “I’d rather be fishing.” When Kingman sits that way, all he offers a visitor is the home-run hitter in profile. So I proffered a greeting to his left ear. “I can’t do an interview,” Kingman said. “I’ve got a headache.” (A headache? This was a request for an interview, not intercourse.)
There was a time when sportswriters didn’t bother sticking their pencils into the locker room after every nine innings. Television, night games, black players, California, designated hitters, Astroturf, union meetings, all of that was years away when one young writer broke in on the baseball beat for the St. Louis Star. The salary was $40 a week, and Red Smith was delighted to be earning it in 1929. “We didn’t go to the clubhouse every day, but we went many times,” Smith says. “There simply wasn’t the feeling that you had to go to the clubhouse. The afternoon papers went in because they needed an overnight story. But all the morning papers cared about was who won, what was the score and how did it happen. He didn’t need to go to the clubhouse for that.”
The first morning-paper man to make that trip regularly, when he began covering baseball in 1944, was Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “I just decided that a lot of things that happened on the field were left unsaid, and I wanted them explained to me. So I went into the clubhouse and asked a lot of questions.”
And those questions begat more questions. Notebooks, microphones, tape recorders, television cameras, photographers, women, by God… it isn’t unusual to see 40 people bearing down on Reggie Jackson.
Why are some players, especially baseball players, turning off their sound? Here are some theories:
The Very Rich Are Different: The average baseball salary is $149,700 a season, and most players are on multi-year contracts. The phrase “September salary drive” has disappeared from the baseball lexicon. “Guys used to come up to me late in the season and say, ‘Write something nice about me, I’m going in about my contract.’ Sure I helped them out,” says one writer. That service is no longer asked for.
Don’t You Guys Ever Go Home: The baseball writer is often on the job seven days a week, home and away, 162 games in every season, seven weeks of spring training, and the mandatory exhibition game with the Triple A club. Nag, nag, nag. Even the worst football players rarely lost more than once a week. “They’re here in swarms before and after every game,” says Smith, “and I guess some players, the churls, get sick of it. While I respect a conscientious effort to cover a game, I do believe that if some writers weren’t so conscientious the reader would be spared many columns of banalities.
Pow! How Would You Like to be the First Sportswriter on the Moon?: The major league athlete was always a star. Little League, high school, college, minor leagues. Stars are treated very nicely. They get fan mail. When they slump, they are sent lucky charms. The manager, usually a stone-age player, has learned to live with his players’ preference for booming disco. Life would be beautiful if it weren’t for the writers. They print your batting average, no matter how low it goes, high ERAs, errors. They probably hate Donna Summer.
The Writer Is a Butcher: Players complain that writers don’t care about the games. Writers are only looking for “sensational” stories. Writers misquote players. “When I was playing,” says Richie Ashburn, who starred and now broadcasts for the Phillies, “we used to think of Dick Young as a poison pen. Now there’s guys around who make him look like a saint.”
The Casey Jones Theory: Life was better when the major league teams, all 16 of them, traveled by train. And no further west than St. Louis. “We played rummy with the Cubs for hours,” says Jim Enright, who covered Chicago baseball for 30 years. “We were all on the trains, in the diner in the bar car, all tossed together.
The Chuck Barris Theory: The ballplayers and writers of another era were great hotel lobby-sitters. “There was just nothing else to do,” Young remembers. “Now the player can stay in his room and watch television all afternoon. And hotel lobbies aren’t what they used to be either.”
The Glib Gap: “I’m convinced,” says Young, “that the reason Thurman Munson stopped talking to writers was because they were always coming to him with something clever [Reggie] Jackson said about him [Munson]. Thurman just couldn’t compete with Jackson.” In 1962, after his 61-homer season, Roger Maris decided he had seen enough post-game interviewers to last a lifetime. On days he wasn’t communicating, Maris placed a small statue on the stool in front of his locker: a fist with the middle finger extended.
Vida Blue was the American Leauge’s Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner in his first full big league season, 1971. He blazed on five of Oakland’s division-winning teams and was an easy talker in the clubhouse. Traded to the Giants in 1978, he was instrumental in their strong run at the division title that season. So far, so good. Last year was a disaster. The Giants broke badly, struggled to stay around .500 and dropped out of sight in August. Blue finished with a disappointing 14-14 record and his earned run average of 5.01 was surprisingly high. Most uncharacteristic were his locker-room performances.
Glenn Schwarz of the San Francisco Examiner first sensed “something was wrong” in June. The explosion came a few months later. “That first sign,” Schwarz said, “was when we went into the clubhouse and Blue was hollering, ‘Here they come with their arsenic pens.’ There was a tough loss in St. Louis, and he intimidated the security guard into keeping the writers out of the clubhouse. Naturally, we wrote about that, none too kindly.”
Schwarz contributed a diary of that August road trip to his paper and mentioned that several of the Giants had broken the no-drinking rule on the flight home. “The front office asked the players if they had been drinking, and Blue was one of those who admitted it,” Schwarz said. “Two days later, Blue took me behind the lockers. ‘I’ll pay the fine,’ he said, ‘that’s not what bothers me. Just remember, there’s 24 hours in the day. Always know where you are. Always know where you’re going.’ I was astonished. I’ve been dressed down before by players but nothing as chilling as that. The next day they lost again, and he said, ‘I’ll do anything to keep you guys away. I’ll bring guns, pistols, shotguns, knives, bats, I’ll blow you guys away.’ He was irrational.”
Blue didn’t raise his voice for the rest of the schedule. Not a syllable. His voice returned in spring training when he was asked to plug the San Francisco station that carries the Giants’ games. There he was, the microphone in his hand, people listening, the sun shining… what the hell.
This season’s Giants are still struggling, a last-place team, but Blue is talking again- although he has the uncanny ability to call a writer “sir” and sound more like a state trooper overhauling a speeder than a Cub Scout selling cookies.
“Our team started having bad times last year just the same as we’re having now, and for some reason we had the worst relationship with members of the media. They were nasty to us last year. I told them, ‘Superman couldn’t play on this team because everybody’s pen was full of Kryptonite.’
“Sure, I took a lot of the things they wrote about the team personally. Especially when they quote the pitching staff’s ERA. It’s not like we go out there and purposely give up home runs or two-run singles. That’s part of the game. I asked the writers in spring training, ‘When you write a derogatory article- what a player would consider a derogatory-type article- you know, one-for-25, six errors in the last eight games, don’t you think the player is going to be offended by that? Do you feel as though you can just walk in the dressing room, with your chest stuck out, and not have this player show some bad feeling, or some type of bad response, toward you?’”
A newspaper ran pictures of five Giant players, including Blue, alongside pictures of goats. “The goat issue, that was one,” Blue said. “That offended me. I’m not the goat. Because I know I go out and give 100 percent each and every time.”
He was labeled “mouth-off of the month” after being critical of the manager’s pitching rotation. “I feel I have a right to give my opinion. Not just as a baseball player but as a person. I may be criticized, but it’s my opinion, and I want to be respected for that. You can stick a dog on the tail with a hot rod 10 times. That 11th time, if he doesn’t bite back, you lose a lot of respect for him.
“Okay, the goat incident and the mouth-off. Plus always quoting the pitching staff’s ERA. Then I had a writer tell me, and this is quoting him, ‘There’s rumors that now that you have your lucrative-type contract, you’re not as aggressive as you once were.’ Another guy wrote I was over the hill, couldn’t throw the fastball by National League hitters, blah-blah-blah. It just built up.
Blue pointed to the same tough loss in St. Louis. “That was the topper. We lose by a run, we go into the dressing room, and I asked the writers, ‘Please don’t come in tonight. You guys have crucified us.’ I actually stood in the door and said, ‘No, I don’t want you in the dressing room.’ Which might have been bad, I don’t know. And I said, ‘If I had a gun, I would keep you out of here tonight.’ I said it because I was really upset about the loss. I go out, pitch my heart out, and we end up giving the game away. Anyway, the next thing I know I have the head of National League security calling our office in San Francisco. ‘Does he have a gun? Did he point a gun at this sportswriter, blah-blah-blah.’ Somehow, the quotes came out that I was going to blow this guy away. The only thing I did say was that if I had a gun…
“I know the writers got to do their job. They got to report what happened. And I know I didn’t pitch up to my capabilities last year. But for me to be the goat, for me to be the reason the Giants weren’t in first place, no way they can put that on me. I was almost suspended for the whole month of September so I started saying, ‘No more interviews.’ They can distort your image. They can make me look like an ass. I realized that silence was my only weapon.”
The Giants were losing regularly when Blue went nine innings to beat the Cubs. Afterward, he was surrounded by a half dozen writers who couldn’t come up with a single thrilling question. My favorite was the fellow who asked Blue if he thought the victory would give the Giants momentum. “Momentum, sir?” Blue said incredulously. “No. Uh, uh. Not in one game. We haven’t been consistent. Nobody. The pitching, the offense, the defense, we haven’t done anything. I’ll tell you the truth, sir, we’ve been consistently bad.” Not Blue. Not this year. So far, so good.
The Phillies have a pair of 35-year-old lefthanders. Tug McGraw, hanging on by the seams of his screwball, and Steve Carlton, closing in on 250 victories and still at the top of his game. McGraw, who wrote a newspaper column for most of last season, enjoys himself around sportswriters. He talks endlessly, wittily. Carlton began turning his back on sportswriters in 1976. He was a starting pitcher in the last All-Star game but stunned the league office by passing up the traditional press conference and avoiding the only workout. His last well-attended interview was a tooth-pulling session during the 1978 playoffs. He did allow Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News a 20-minute audience after a one-hitter against the Mets last July. But this spring, lest anyone think Hochman had become his Boswell, Carlton slammed and locked a door in Hochman’s face.
Carlton’s silence to writers, in its own strange way, is almost admirable. (He does speak on radio and television, on the theory that he can’t misquote himself.) Unlike Kingman, he would never think of going public with a ghost-written column. Munson always had his favorites; none of that for Carlton. (When a Philadelphia writer approached the pitcher during for an off-the-record, heart-to-heart, break-the-ice talk, Carlton wouldn’t hear of it. “Policy is policy,” he told the man.) Blue shut down last year because his temper was getting away from him. “Some guys are paranoid, they play afraid,” said Del Unser, Carlton’s teammate. “Lefty has a concentration that borders on the unbelievable. An I-know-I’m-going-to-do-it attitude that’s very different from the Lefty of 1973, 1974.”
He was a Cy Young winner in 1972, a 20-game loser a year later. Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News considered himself a friend of Carlton’s back then. “During spring training we’d go deep-sea fishing, our families would have dinner together, my daughter baby-sat for his sons.” Conlin wrote what he calls “a sensitive story” about the pitcher’s “search for serenity and concentration.” In 1973, Conlin says, when Carlton was losing, “I wrote that he was still preaching concentration and serenity but he wasn’t living up to what he preached. In retrospect, I think his arm was bothering him, but he didn’t want to let on.”
That’s right on the mark, according to Tim McCarver, Carlton’s buddy and former battery mate. “With Lefty there’s no middle ground,” says the newest Phillies’ announcer. “It’s either penthouse or outhouse. There was anger initially, around 1973, when he felt writers had used some of the personal things he told them. But not anymore. I’ve never seen him more at peace with himself than this year.”
McGraw was sitting in the hotel lobby during an Atlanta series early this season. He said if he pitched that night he’d be showing off his new variety of fastballs: the Cutty Sark (“It sails.”) and the Peggy Lee (“After they swing and miss they say, ‘Is that all there is?’”). Conlin had suggested another Tug fastball, the Frank Sinatra (“After they swing and connect, it’s fly me to the moon.”). Then again, Carlton was the starting pitcher, and the chances of McGraw’s being needed were slim. When I told Tug I was hoping for an audience with Carlton, he shook his head. “I don’t like your chances,” he said. But he volunteered to say something to Carlton on my behalf. Who knows?
“Here’s the problem,” McGraw said later. “Lefty says it he talks to you, then he has to talk to everybody. And if he doesn’t talk to you, he knows you’ll rip him.” We debated whether this was a problem or a dilemma.
Carlton pitched six innings, two hits, before he was given the rest of the night off. When the sportswriters entered the clubhouse after the game, Carlton was gone. “He makes it easy for you not to talk to him,” one writer said cheerfully.
Luckily, the Phillies understand. Their 1980 yearbook contains interviews with all the players. Actually, a list of a few of their favorite things. If you listen closely, while reading Carlton’s list, maybe you can hear his voice.
Favorite color: Green.
Favorite Song: I enjoy classical music.
Favorite singer/group: Jascha Heifetz.
Person you’d most like to meet: Socrates, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Jesus Christ, Gandhi.
Favorite book: Philosophical works.
Favorite TV show: M*A*S*H, Mork & Mindy.
Boyhood idols: None.
Vic Ziegel is a contributing editor at New York magazine.