Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri once pulled an on-field practical joke using a doctored baseball.
Origins: We offer this amusing baseball anecdote not because it's an amazing example of a real-life "too good to be true" story, or because its veracity has been the subject of much debate, but because it provides telling evidence why people's memories of events
Our story features Tony "Poosh 'Em Up" Lazzeri, the great Yankee second baseman, and "Indian Bob" Johnson, a star outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics, both of whom were fond of the practical joke. Lazzeri, according to legend, spent two weeks preparing for the prank he planned to pull on Johnson, doctoring a baseball by pounding it with a bat, soaking it in soapy water, and rubbing dirt into it, then coating it with white shoe polish to restore its resemblance to an ordinary ball. The result, in the words of Bill James, was a ball "as dead as Abe Lincoln"
Lazzeri sprang his trick on
So much for a harmless, long-ago baseball prank. The aspect of this story that interests us occurred twenty-five years later, when umpire Bill Summers recounted the incident for an article in Look magazine. Summers claimed that he remembered the event well, as he was the home plate umpire that day. He recalled that he immediately knew what had happened because he saw the ball stuck in Lazzeri's back pocket when Lazzeri turned around, he ruled the foul ball a valid strike even though Wicker had clearly thrown an illegal pitch using a tampered baseball, and he overruled the protests of Johnson and his teammates in order to protect Lazzeri from being punished by the American League for his antics.
But, all the details that Summers "remembered" long after the fact are contradicted by the account of the game published in the following day's New York Times:
Tony Lazzeri and the left-hander Kemp Wicker, whose pitching had the protection of aFrom this account we glean that:
Johnson fouled off the pitch back of the plate amid a guffaw from the crowd of 4,425 fans and dignified silence from the umpires. The game was held up, the foul strike was ruled out by Quinn, and on a suggestion from the Athletics' bench Umpire Bill Summers ran out to Lazzeri and extracted the ball that should have been in play from the veteran's pocket.
It all passed off innocently enough, as viewed from the stands, and the crowd had a good laugh, although the umpires seemed to be doing some snappy criticizing on the field as they met each rush of protest from the Philadelphia bench.
Between games, however, it developed that an official report will be made of the incident. Umpire Quinn will call to [American League] President Harridge's attention a violation of the rule covering tampering with the ball.
Last updated: 2 January 2006
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