Remembering ‘Mr. Baseball’, Part 1: The greatest Stathead ever

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John Weekes was Mr. Baseball.

Calling John Weekes “Mr. Baseball” was not to use a nickname: John won the title at a national competition of baseball aficionados in Los Angeles. One by one, like batters at a plate being mowed down by a great power pitcher, the contenders were retired. Finally, it was down to John and one other “Stathead.” The tie-breaker was to name all the World Series winners. John Weekes knew all of them, and much more.

His opponent for the national title “Mr. Baseball” only made it safely through 1928, a year the World Series was won by John’s beloved New York Yankees. John Weekes’ opponent struck out swinging at 1929, a year the Yankees did not win the pennant, let alone the World Series. When it was John’s turn at bat, he hit it out of the park: The Philadelphia Athletics. And with that gem of diamond lore, John Weekes officially was crowned Mr. Baseball.

John’s opponent was not the only fan who fanned at 1929. So did I, on air.

Many lovers of the Summer Game, those both casual and seasoned, as well as that rarer breed known colloquially as “Statheads,” know that team owner-manager Cornelius McGillicuddy’s second (and last) dynasty won three straight American League titles from 1929 to 1931. Yes, and many a baseball fan knew that Connie Mack’s End of the Jazz Age/Beginning of the Depression Era-Philadelphia Athletics won two World Series and lost one, but which one?

The 1929-31 A’s was one of the greatest teams in baseball history.  It was a powerhouse sporting four future Hall of Famers, including catcher Mickey Cochrane and outfielder Al Simmons. (Future Red Sox Hall of Shame member Pinky Higgins also was on the roster.) Its biggest stars were two All-Time Greats, 300-game winner Lefty Grove, and Double-X, Jimmy Foxx, both of whom eventually were brought to Boston by Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, himself a Hall of Famer.

Foxx, the plough boy plucked from a Maryland field and transplanted to the field at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park at the tender age of 17, was the first player other than Babe Ruth to hit 50 homers in more than one season. Jimmy’s career season high of 58 in 1931 was matched only by Detroit’s Hank Greenberg, and surpassed only by The Babe and yet another left-handed hitting Yankee right fielder, Roger Maris, until PEDs gave whiplash to the game’s record-keepers. Foxx’s Red Sox record of 50 homers in a season stood for 68 years, until broken by future Hall of Famer David “Big Papi” Ortiz in 2006.

When I first heard the story of how Mr. Baseball officially became “Mr. Baseball” from John Weekes himself, live on TV, I “remembered” that the Athletics had lost the 1929 World Series, and won the other two. On my own show, I actually said, in Mr. Baseball’s presence: “Didn’t the Cubs win the World Series that year?”

Now, my time with John Weekes educated me on my own weaknesses as a Stathead, not unlike the fanatic who lost the “Mr. Baseball” title to John. By the way, the word “fan” was a shortening of the word “fanatic” by sportswriters, “fanatic” having replaced the word “crank,” as those batty for baseball were first called, when sportswriters struggled with explaining, in language signaling the fanaticism of the baseball cranks we now call “fans” because of sportswriters, to readers of the sports pages, cranks and fanatics and random page-passersby, alike. Got that?

Like the Stathead/Crank/Fan who blew his shot at the “Mr. Baseball” national title in Los Angeles, I had blown it. Under pressure, under the lights, in front of the tube.  Broadcasting live to Manchester, I had stumbled, not unlike the failing athletes whose disgrace was featured in the intro to that venerable TV sports  show, ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

What went wrong?

I “remembered” that Joe McCarthy – Marse Joe – the only manager to win seven World Series titles other than Mr. Baseball’s nemesis, Casey Stengel, had won six with the Yankees and one with Cubs. I believed this, even though every baseball fan and not just Statheads knows that the Cubs hadn’t been in a World Series since 1945, and hadn’t won one since 1906. Or was it 1908? (This incident happened before the Cubbies won it all in 2016, which Mr. Baseball correctly prognosticated.)

So how could Joe McCarthy have won with the Cubs in 1929? In my mind, Casey Stengel was one of two managers to win seven World Series, but the only one that had won ‘em all with one team.

How wrong I was! McCarthy won all his seven with the Bronx Bombers, including a record four straight from 1936 through 1939, with a team blessed with that gift from the baseball gods, Joe DiMaggio. The Joe McCarthy-managed Cubs won the National League pennant, but lost the 1929 World Series in five games. (I just had to look that up. Mr. Baseball wouldn’t have had to.)

When the Hon. Joel Elber (before he was Honorable) first told me that he and Peter White were having someone billing himself as Mr. Baseball on The Morning Show, I cooked up a good question for Joel to pitch at the guy. It was a “high hard one,” as Kirby Higbe of the Brooklyn Dodgers team that lost the 1941 World Series to the Yankees called his fast ball, which had been compared to Bob Feller’s. For the life of me, I can’t remember the question, but I remember the answer: Gavvy Cravath. Joel stumped Mr. Baseball with the question, and I invited him to come on my show.

We must have done a hundred shows since the first. Let me tell you, stumping Mr. Baseball was a very rare occurrence.

1928 NY Yankees

What a game baseball is. There is none other like it. No other sport is so bound to its history, which is as tightly interwoven with its players, and ultimately the fans. Baseball history is akin to the 363 yards of wool and cotton yarn wrapped around the core of the pill, almost as many yards as there are days of the year. It’s the sport with the longest season, followed by a “Hot Stove” off-season in which its fans ruminate over what was, and what will be in the year coming up. Any Stathead will tell you: It’s not trivia. When it comes to the statistics, each stat has a human story that leads to more human stories.

What did I find out about Mr. Baseball after all our TV shows together? John Weekes was born in France in 1940, a year the Yankees DID NOT WIN THE PENNANT. (Hank Greenberg’s Tigers did, but they were beaten by the Reds in seven games in the World Series.)

Mr. Baseball’s mother was a Russian, a Russian émigré. This is fitting, as on one show featuring Mr. Baseball along with Matt Connarton and Matt’s “Moscow Correspondent,” Victoria Antonova, she confirmed the truth of Russia’s claim that they had invented the game of “bazbol.” The Russians also invented TV, which gave the world the wonder of televised sports, if not public access TV.

John Weekes grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, and played baseball there. He also spent part of his time growing up in Watsonville, California, in the northern reaches of Steinbeck Country, Monterey County, where I spent a good deal of my adulthood.  While living in California, he attended the 1959 World Series at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the year the L.A. Dodgers of Koufax and Drysdale first won it all.

Mr. Baseball saw Sandy Koufax pitch his last game, beaten by a 20-year old future Hall of Famer, Jim Palmer, a win that gave the Baltimore Orioles’ the 1966 World Series.

Mr. Baseball thought Billy Martin was the greatest manager of the Yankees, and the greatest baseball manager ever. I disagreed, though I did offer the opinion that Billy should be in the Hall of Fame.

Mr. Baseball also was of the opinion that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter ever. I disagreed.  When I went to the records, I had to tip my hat to John Weekes. A perusal of the stats revealed that Ted Williams likely was the greatest hitter ever. And John might have been the greatest Stathead ever.

John Weekes was Mr. Baseball.

A celebration of John’s life is scheduled for Sunday April 14, 4-8 p.m. at at Billy’s Sports Bar & Grill, 34 Tarrytown Rd, Manchester. All are welcome.

Coming tomorrow: Remembering ‘Mr. Baseball’, Part 2: The greatest Stathead ever