Baseball memories: The bench jockey
He had a sarcastic way of saying things that always got your goat—he was a first--class needler, an original, maybe the best in the game.
The bench jockey
“Birdie” Tebbetts knew how to get under a guy’s skin
Baseball stories by Murray Franklin as told to his son, Dell Franklin
Tebbetts was a very good catcher and a pretty fair hitter and he knew the game inside out, and especially pitchers. He knew just how much gas a guy had left in the tank, when he was losing his stuff and ready to get shelled, and he could get on somebody pretty good, really get under your skin. He was intelligent and had a piercing, twangy voice, which was why they called him “Birdie,” an ob-noxious voice that carried all over the field and cut right through you, and he had a sarcastic way of saying things that always got your goat—he was a first--class needler, an original, maybe the best in the game. He was what you call a bench jockey, a lost art these days, what with all these guys making so much money and swapping teams and having agents and fraternizing like pals, being so sensitive and all and not wanting to hurt each others’ feelings.
One day in St. Louis, Tebbetts was on a pitcher with the Browns named Vern Kennedy, a guy he’d caught a few years earlier with Detroit, a big strapping guy from Kansas, a former track star and football player. It was very hot, sweltering, and it doesn’t get any hotter than it gets in St. Louis in the summer. You can’t breathe on a day like that, the outfield grass was baked brown and the field hard as pavement, almost like the field was breathing fire. Birdie was riding Kennedy. At first it was playful, because they were old teammates and all, but then Kennedy started having problems on the mound, and Birdie’s saying he ain’t got this and he ain’t got that—“you’ll be gone by the fourth inning, Kennedy, you can’t get your curve down, your fastball’s straight as a string, you’re meat, ain’t got enough to physique a good-sized jaybird”—just sniping away, and sure enough Kennedy doesn’t have it that day, gets knocked around, and by the fourth inning he’s gone, and Birdie’s crowing and gloating, and Kennedy, he’s sopping wet, got beat up for nine or ten runs suffering in that goddamn heat, gets booed off the field by his own fans.
Birdie’s on the bench that day, not catching, and he keeps right on crowing and gloating when Kennedy walks to his dugout. But instead of leaving for their clubhouse and getting his early shower, like all pitchers do after they get knocked out of a game so they can throw things around and cure themselves, Kennedy sits down in that stifling hot dugout with a towel around his neck and takes his cap off, and he sits there like that for the rest of the game, and all during that time Birdie sees him over there and stays right on his ass, obnoxious as ever.
Well, our ball club has to get to our clubhouse through their dugout, and when the game ends and we pass through their dugout, it’s empty except for Kennedy, who’s still sitting there, towel around his neck, a very quiet and polite gentleman who minds his own business and never has anything bad to say about anybody, he stands up smiling and asks Birdie if he has anything more to say, and before Birdie can open his mouth Kennedy decks him with one punch, knocks him down and out, hits him so hard that for a minute or so we think he might be dead.
Kennedy picks up his glove and cap and walks out of the dugout, the towel still around his neck, and we have to carry Tebbetts into the clubhouse and lay him down on the training table where the doc gives him smelling salts. It takes a while to revive him, and he is pretty foggy, and the next day he is pretty quiet, too, and still groggy, and misses the game, and everybody on the ball club’s on his ass, calling him “one-punch Tebbetts” and “Canvas Back.” He took it pretty well in stride. Birdie knew the business and took it as well as he gave it out, and the next time we played the Browns and Kennedy pitched, Birdie got on him again, and we beat Kennedy, but when Kennedy walked off that mound you didn’t hear a peep out of Tebbetts. Like a mouse. §
Baseball Memories is excerpted from a memoir by Dell Franklin, which recounts his father Murray Franklin’s Major League career. Dell can be reached at email@example.com.
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