Joe Schlabotnik: My Favorite Player
One of the features I miss from my old blog is the “Guest Author” posts. When I moved to this new & improved website, I wanted to continue to feature guest authors, but haven’t had the opportunity until now. I am happy to welcome Dr. Charles H. Brown, who will tell us about his favorite ballplayer…
LIKE MOST KIDS back then, I had a favorite ballplayer. In those days, you found a player that for some reason or another caught your attention and you stuck with him through the thick and thin. This was your guy, and you were his fan.
The other kids on my block idolized the great Giants players of the era – Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey – but my guy was Joe Schlabotnik. I can’t really tell you why I gravitated towards Joe; I’d like to say it was because he was a tremendous power hitter or all-star center fielder, but he wasn’t any of those things. Yet, for the length of his big league career, some five seasons, I believed he could have been any of those things and more. That’s what being a fan meant back then, sticking it out and rolling with the high and low points of your favorite player’s fortunes on the field. The problem with ol’ Joe was there really wasn’t any highs, and the lows often reached subterranean levels.
But Joe Schlabotnik was my guy, and I believed in him.
IT TOOK ME a long time to get any biographical information on Joe. I had no idea where he came from or what teams he played with before the Giants. Back in those days, there wasn’t the internet, and those big colorful magazines and baseball guides that appeared on the newsstand at the first sign of spring every year were too expensive for a kid like me. No, in those days us kids got all our baseball dope from the back of our baseball cards. From as early as I can remember, I knew how many wins Jim Bouton had, what Stan Musial batted last season and how many career home runs Willie Mays had under his belt. See, I had all their cards, but the one I longed for in every unopened pack was Joe’s card. I just couldn’t seem to get my hands on one. I don’t know if his card was short printed to keep the kids buying fresh packs – I know those companies did that in the past – or maybe I was just unlucky. That’s what my pal Pattie used to say, and maybe she was right.
Case in point: it was 1962 when my aunt gave me a five dollar bill as a birthday gift. A five spot was a lot of money back then, especially to a kid. Instead of socking it away or only using some at a time, I had the brilliant idea to end my quest for a Joe Schlabotnik card once and for all. I ran straight down to the corner drugstore and bought 500 1-cent packages of baseball cards. Surely there would be more Joe Schlabotnik’s in the 500 than I would know what to do with! While I was lugging the sack of packs out of the store, my sometimes friend Lucy (who today would be termed a “toxic aquaintance”) showed up. Seeing me with the big sack of baseball card packs peaked her interest, and she bought one of the remaining loose penny packs I had left on the shelf.
By the time Lucy and I returned home, word had spread throughout the neighborhood about my giant haul of baseball cards. The whole gang stood around with their checklists, waiting for me with the expectation that there would be an awful lot of trade fodder soon made available. In the shade of my dog Snoopy’s doghouse, I opened up pack after pack. Aaron, Robinson, Drysdale, Cepeda, Maris, Mantle, Kaline, Ford – there were doubles of doubles of the game’s greatest superstars – but not a single Joe Schlabotnik!
That’s when Lucy took the single penny pack she had purchased out of her pocket and tore the wrapper off – revealing a pristine Joe Schlabotnik! I offered a dozen Mantles, a brace of Aarons and a fistful of Mays, but she would not trade. I upped the ante to all 500 cards – but still no. Lucy was like that when we were kids, always busting my chops, but I thought that this time it would be different. It had to be. Then she uttered the phrase that no boy could possibly understand: “He’s kinda cute. I’m keeping him.”
And that was that. I heard later from my pal Franklin that Lucy allegedly threw away ol’ Joe’s card sometime soon after when her feelings towards his looks changed.
TURNED OUT that was the last chance I had to get a Joe Schlabotnik card. The Giants went to the World Series that Fall, playing the dreaded New York Yankees. Joe famously missed the first game when he showed up bright and early at Yankee Stadium the morning of Game 1, not realizing that the first two games were being played on the other side of the country in San Francisco.
By that time, though I failed to realize it, Joe’s fate had already been cast. Al Dark, the Giants skipper, never really liked Joe all that much. A year before the Yankee Stadium gaff – that’s what my friend Linus delicately termed it – Joe had led the league in errors. It got so that the Giants radio announcer would say “and Schlabotnik makes a spectacular play on another routine fly ball…” The other kids thought it was a hoot, but I felt bad for Joe and stood by my hero. In those days you just had to.
I remember listening to a game against Cincinnati, one of the few that Joe played in its entirety. My hero went 0 for 5 and committed three errors in the outfield. I was inconsolable for days, locked away in my bedroom. When my little sister Sally asked me why I was so blue over a ballplayer I had never even met in real life, I could only utter, “when he suffers, I suffer.”
That’s just the way it was back then.
THAT BRINGS ME to “The Slump.” Joe’s career of unrealized greatness actually landed him a spot in the record books. During the ’63 season Joe batted .004 – the new record for lowest batting average for any player recording 200 or more at bats. His sole hit during that stretch came in the ninth inning of a 15-3 Giants win over the Mets, a bloop single that somehow eluded Choo-Choo Coleman’s glove. Another memory I have from that season was when Joe promised in a pre-game radio interview to hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. Sure enough, Joe’s turn came up with one out in the bottom of the ninth with the Giants down 7-6 and Jim Davenport on second base with the tying run. After digging in, and some say gesturing towards center field, Joe popped out to shortstop. Much to the amazement of the crowd and his teammates, Joe tossed his bat aside and circled the bases anyway. However, in doing so he passed Davenport on second base, causing him to be called out, prematurely ending a Giants rally and the game.
I remember writing letter after letter to Joe (none of which was answered) telling him that I believed in him. I even started the first (and only) chapter of the Joe Schlabotnik Fan Club. As president, I faithfully typed up a newsletter in expectation of the forthcoming membership applications I believed would soon arrive from the large contingent of Joe Sclabotnik fans I knew were out there. Unfortunately, the club never really got off the ground. My neighbor Schroeder took a copy of the newsletter, but I’m pretty sure he did so out of childhood solidarity and the fact that he was familiar with an obscure early 20th century Slovenian pianist with a similar surname. The final nail in the coffin of the Joe Schlabotnik Fan Club was when Lucy skimmed over the contents of issue number one, and as it slipped from her fingers and into the trashcan muttered the cutting words: “who needs it.”
I needed it and I just knew inside that Joe did, too.
THAT SUMMER OF ’63 was a sad one for both of us. My old man took me to a game at Candlestick Park, the occasion which I often think back on as the actual end of my childhood. On the way to the game, the car radio carried the news flash that would alter both our lives: “…outfielder Joe Schlabotnik is unconditionally released to the minor leagues.”
I fought back tears as I scanned the Giants dugout from my seat in the upper deck. But Joe was not to be seen. My old man told me he was probably cleaning out his locker. That broke the dam and the tears started. After the game, my old man led me around the back of the ballpark where the team bus waited to take the team to the airport, the Giants bound for Chicago and Joe ticketed for the bush leagues. I watched as Willie Mays, Felipe Alou, Jack Sanford and all the other guys paraded past and boarded the bus. My old man and I waited for what seemed like hours, but still no Joe.
It was when I looked up to the heavens, stopping short of my goal, that I saw Joe’s dejected face smushed up against the bus window three feet above me. I yelled “Joe! Joe! I’m your biggest fan!” and other kid nonsense trying to get his attention. Finally, I saw Juan Marichal shake Joe’s shoulder and point to me below his window. My idol slid the pane open and gazed blankly at me. Suddenly confronted with Joe Schlabotnik in the flesh, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Neither could he. We looked at each other blankly for a moment, and then my old man tossed the baseball he had been holding for me up through Joe’s window. He missed it and the ball made a “thump” sound as it hit the metal floor of the bus and rolled under a seat. Joe disappeared for a while, and I felt like my moment had passed. My old man put his big hand on my shoulder as we turned to go, when Joe reappeared in the open window. I watched in awe as he took a felt tip marker and inscribed his name. But, I suppose realizing that this would be the last ball he would sign as a major leaguer, tears began welling up in his eyes, crescendoing into a torrent by the time he got to “botnik.” As the bus started up, Joe handed the ball down to me. The Giants bus roared off, leaving us all in a haze of blue smoke. When it cleared, I looked down at the ball, the sweet spot covered in a blue smudge, and the signature made illegible by my heroes own tears.
THAT DAY cemented my personal outlook on life, which I’ve carried with me all these years since: some kids baseball heroes hit home runs, others get sent to the minors.
Joe’s career took him back to the Green Grass League from where he came from six years before. Playing for Stumptown, a team so low-budget that there was no money for a nickname, Joe tried restarting his career. I followed him as best I could through the Sporting News, the Green Grass League box scores usually found between the Mexican League and the ads for muscle supplements and sea monkeys. Once I came upon a rare mention of Joe in the brief report of a game. Excited as I was to see my old heroes name again in print, it was not for the reasons I had hoped, “Joe Schlabotnik struck out in the bottom of the ninth as Stumptown of the Green Grass League sank deeper into the cellar.”
The next season Joe was given the managerial job with the Waffletown Syrups. I knew Waffletown, wherever it was, was far from the San Francisco Giants, but maybe this would be the first step of Joe’s triumphant return to the majors as a skipper of his own team. But, it just wasn’t meant to be. Joe was fired by the unforgiving Waffletown management when he blew his first game, a loss highlighted by his calling for a squeeze play with no one on base. I knew it was a rookie mistake, beginner’s nerves, but it didn’t matter. Joe’s career as a ballplayer was over.
I KIND OF gave up on baseball after that. Sure, I still followed the Giants and even pitched for the JV team during my freshman year at Pepperdine, but there was no more favorite player for me. Joe was my guy, and he was no more.
Two decades later came the big Baby Boomers nostalgia craze, and all the old ballplayers were rounded up and featured at banquets where their old fans could meet them. As a 35th birthday present, my old pal Linus van Pelt bought us a pair of tickets to a Bay Area banquet with a cornucopia of stars. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were there, along with Muhammad Ali and Peggy Fleming. Greats all, but my old friend Linus had intentionally purchased the tickets seating us at the Joe Schlabotnik table. It was the most thoughtful birthday present anyone had ever given me, and my enthusiasm was only slightly diminished when Joe failed to show, having marked the wrong event, city and date on his calendar.
By this time, my first book, Rocks in Your Trick or Treat Bag: Coping with Holiday Stress had been on the Times Best Seller List for four straight months. As a way of saying thanks, my publisher and the university where I held tenure teamed up to hold a testimonial dinner for me. It was a great honor, the highlight of my career to that point. But what really excited me was the announcement that my literary agent had secured Joe Schlabotnik to give the evening’s keynote address. Unfortunately, Joe failed to show as he had gotten lost driving down from his car wash job in San Bernardino.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived from the company that handled Joe’s speaking engagements, apologizing for his gaff and enclosing a signed 8×10 of my childhood hero. I hung it in my study, beside the award I was given the night of the testimonial. A few years later the photo was confiscated by the FBI and used as an exhibit in their famous “Operation Bullpen” sting that prosecuted a large-scale ring of autograph forgers.
THESE DAYS I’m not sure where Joe Schlabotnik is, but I keep that old blue-smudged baseball in the glove box of my Volvo, just in case I run across my hero at the grand opening of a new liquor store or at my local car wash, hand-drying SUV’s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Charles H. Brown is a retired psychiatrist and pioneer of the self-help book genre. His seminal volume Rocks in Your Trick or Treat Bag: Coping with Holiday Stress has gone through 37 printings and remains the yardstick against which all pop psych books are measured. He is Professor Emeritus at Chapman University and the 1985 recipient of the prestigious Schultz Medal for Distinguished Research in Early Childhood Anxiety. Dr. Brown lives in Santa Rosa, California with his wife Heather (née Wold) and their beagle Snoopy and canary Woodstock
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Alright, if you haven’t figured it out yet, this has been a parody piece written from the perspective of an adult Charlie Brown. If you are a fan of the Peanuts comic and the television specials, you will know that artist Charles Schulz was a long-time baseball fan, and the hapless Joe Schlabotnik was Charlie Brown’s favorite player. Schulz introduced Schlabotnik in the early 60’s and carried this thread through the entire course of the strip. This wealth of material gave me many stories and anecdotes from which to form this piece. I had a great time working out the details with my wife Andrea, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did creating it!
With much respect and apologies to Charles Schulz…