Some memories from Nellie's time in the farm teams in the 1950s.
Being tall and thin (6’6”, 180 lbs.) always made me a target for the usual comments — “Don’t drink any cherry soda, you’ll look like a thermometer by the fourth inning!” The most original remark I heard in my eleven seasons of baseball occurred in Macon, Georgia, in 1950. Half a century later, I still can still hear the comment and see the hitter who uttered the remark.
The hitter's name was Phelps, a left-handed hitting outfielder. I went the distance for the win, making up for my less-than-overpowering velocity with control and a good moving sinker. Phelps went 0-4 in the game, and following each out, his frustration and anger grew. In the first at-bat, he grounded out to second base on an outside sinker. From the dugout, I heard him holler, “Is that as hard as you can throw skinny?” The next time up, he popped up to first base. From the dugout, I heard: “How the hell did you ever get into this league throwing that crap?" This line of attack continued after he flied to right field in his third time at bat.
On his final at bat in the ninth, he grounded to first base, and as I covered the bag for the out, I expected to hear his comment up- close. But surprisingly, he quietly returned to the dugout. I thought, "well, okay; he’s done for the day," and was looking in to get the sign from my catcher when I heard Phelps bark out, “You tall skinny sonofabitch! What the hell do you do in the off season — clean the insides of rainspouts?” I laughed like hell, as it was the first and only original comment I’d heard from a “bench jockey.”
In baseball, most of the verbal abuse coming from dugouts or coaches, other than that directed at umpires, is directed at the pitchers. The reason is simple: Pitchers control the flow of the game. If you can break their concentration, you can affect their performance. The baseball term for these vocal pests is “bench jockeys.” To be effective, they need an audience, and pitchers who respond to their taunts become known as “rabbit ears,” since they hear everything.
During my 11-year professional career, I found ample support for my belief that bench jockeys’ vocabularies were equal to their batting averages. After all, why else would they be sitting on the bench, rather than playing? A pitcher’s ability to tune out bench jockeys is always related to the number of years he's spent in the game. When I was 17 and pitching in my first year of semi-pro ball, I listened to one third-base coach ride me constantly. I had rabbit ears, and he knew it. Late in the game, with a runner at third, he suddenly went quiet and then gently asked me, “Hey kid, let me see the ball.” I was about to throw it to him when a veteran teammate loudly informed me that that wouldn't be a wise thing to do....
(Photo: Nellie enjoying the Gulf of Mexico on his last trip to Florida in March 2005)