GOING, GOING, GONE

Okay, let's hear it for Fat Billy Maharg.
Whaddya mean you never heard of him? Spring training opens today, doesn't it? Just about the time many of you see this, the boys of summer will be cantering onto emerald outfields in camps from Kissimmee to Tucson, feeling their spikes grab thrillingly in the low-cut grass. They will take new white baseballs in hand, won't they?--and soft-toss them to each other in the sunshine, re-establishing the rhythm of seasons past, renewing the silent conversation by which ball players know each other.

They will smile. Because it's starting again. The cycle of renewal, the joy of spring. And all the players, from the green rookies to the leather-faced journeymen, will turn the game's sweetest secret over again in their minds: They pay us to do this. Amazing. They pay us. They don't know what they're missing.

Well, this is spring. Right? And that's what's supposed to happen. Isn't it?
Not this year. Because this year, the ghost of Fat Billy Maharg is squeezing back into his flannels. He's the one who will come stumbling out of that cornfield in Iowa. And that will make all the difference in the world.

Still don't remember Maharg? Think back to the 1912 season, if you will, to Wednesday, May 15, in New York's old Hilltop Park. On that fateful afternoon, you may recall, Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, heard something in the third-base bleachers he didn't particularly like and responded the way he often did. He charged into the stands, snatched up the offending heckler and, in the account of newspaper columnist Arthur "Bugs" Baer, gave him "a dry shave with his knuckles."

As it happened, the man Cobb beat up had only one hand. Even in that rude era, the incident was too much for American League president Ban Johnson. He suspended Cobb indefinitely while league investigators got out their magnifying glasses.

The nasty, brawling Peach was anything but a favorite among his Detroit Tigers teammates, but they believed firmly in his right to pound on one-handed loudmouths in the 35-cent seats.

Reinstate Cobb, they said, or we won't take the field, either.
Thus came the first players' strike in major-league history. It took two days for the Tigers to get their act together, but on Saturday, May 18, 1912, they walked out before a game with the world-champion Philadelphia Athletics.

Then, just as now, management was appropriately prepared.
On Friday Detroit scouts Joe Sugden and Deacon Jim McGuire had set out in the City of Brotherly Love to recruit a team of "replacement players" from sandlots, the nearby St. Joseph Seminary and, if legend can be trusted, a couple of neighborhood saloons. The starting (and finishing) pitcher that day for the declawed Tigers was twenty-year-old Aloysius Travers, St. Joe's assistant manager. He took the job for a good reason: It paid $25; the other players got ten bucks. Some things never change.

When it was over, Travers had given up 25 hits and 7 walks to Connie Mack's A's in a 24-2 loss.

The losing pitcher, who came down from baseball to the Jesuit priesthood, got the kind of help you might expect from his fellow "replacements." Both Tigers scouts, whose combined ages totaled ninety, suited up, as did the hero of our story, the illustrious William Joseph "Fat Billy" Maharg.

In truth, Fat Billy was not a baseball player at all, but a 31-year-old lightweight boxer. He stood five-foot-four, and in the game, he played so deep at third base that the Athletics continually laid base-hit bunts along the line. He also went 0-for-1 at the plate. But this one-shot wonder was not quite done: Four years after the Tigers' single-game walkout (Johnson and Cobb settled up), Maharg talked someone with the Philadelphia Phillies into getting him into the last game of the 1916 season--so he could say he played in both leagues.

Fat Billy Maharg's lifetime batting average? Zero zero zero.
Of course, that's no worse than Billy Clinton's.
America's commander-in-chief proved no more adept last week at talking sense to baseball's stubborn mill- and billionaires than he has been at getting health-care reform passed, straightening up the Bosnia mess or throwing Gennifer and Paula off his back for good. Clinton's "deadline" for progress in the baseball talks was February 6--Babe Ruth's 100th birthday--but that came and went without the president laying the hickory to anyone or anything.

The next day he wound up blowing smoke instead of throwing it, and players and owners both told him to take a shower. Clinton was reduced to begging Congress for legislation to produce binding arbitration in the six-month-old baseball strike. That's about as likely as Newt Gingrich starting for the Braves in the World Series--if anyone ever plays another World Series.

Of course, there's no point blaming the president for the low ebb baseball has reached this spring, and the sins of owners and players have been so well chronicled since last summer that there's no point recounting them here. However, one thing is worth noting: When Coors Field, all $215 million worth, opens its gates in April, a whole army of Fat Billy Mahargs will likely lumber onto the field to attempt something like baseball. The same travesty will be repeated in every so-called major-league city except Baltimore--where the Orioles owner has said no to scab ball. We should hang our heads.

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