Sunday, November 27, 2011

Java Jack

(another piece of unpublished fiction, circa 1991)

Just after the All-Star break I was driving west on Interstate 80, heading to the Bay Area to interview this year's rookie phenom, Stan Barnes. Barnes was just a kid - 20 years old - who went straight to the majors from high school, where he had outrageous stats and behavior to match them. I was the first writer to get an extensive sit down with him. Or make that, him and his agent, and it had cost my magazine plenty to get it.

After driving all night and most of the morning, I pulled off for a rest at a truck stop in Bucket, Wyoming, where I noticed hanging on the wall behind the counter, a photograph of a baseball player in a 1940s-era Chicago Windies uniform.

The featured player was so diminutive that if not for the deep lines on his face you might think he was a child. To almost anyone with an interest in the game's past, the player was unmistakable. Appropriately mounted above the coffee maker was a photo of Jack Coffey. Java Jack! The Starmaker.

John Martin Coffey owns some of the most extraordinary pitching statistics in baseball history. He was born in Drawerton, Idaho on May 1, 1921, and left home when he was 16 to play minor-league ball with the legendary Standish (Kansas) Greenies in the Class B Prairie Dog League. The Greenies dominated the league during Coffey's tenure. In his first season he posted a 45-2 record, with 512 strikeouts and a 0.81 earned run average. Standish cruised to the pennant by a 33-game margin and swept Norb Bacon's great Hazel Grove Scouts on the way to the Miller Cup.

The next three years Coffey lost only five games while winning 42, 37 and 44 games respectively. He led the league in strikeouts (627, 499, 717) and ERA (0.99, 0.85, 0.37) i n each season. Each year the Greenies won the pennant by no fewer than 28 games and captured the cup without ever suffering a loss.

When the Prairie Dog League ceased operations in 1941, Coffey signed with the Clacksburg (Missouri) Haymakers, a barnstorming team on the Ham & Eggs Circuit. The team traveled from town to town, playing whatever team the locals could assemble. Sometimes it was an exhibition game against the town's minor-league entry. Other times they played high school teams, factory teams or rag-tag pick-up teams. But whatever the case, Coffey again put together amazing numbers. In two years with Clacksburg he won 98 games and lost three.

In a 1943 game against a semi-pro team in Chien Rouge, Lousiana, he struck out 31 batters in a nine-inning win. The only opponents who reached base did so because Java Jack was throwing so hard that his catcher let four third strikes sail past his mitt.

During his seven-year minor-league career, Coffey led his teams to six titles. Along the way he posted remarkable statistics - a 302-14 record, 3,735 strikeouts and an overall ERA of 0.92. Additionally, he threw eight no-hitters and three perfect games.

Coffey is generally regarded as the greatest minor-league pitcher of all time. But few people remember that. What they will long remember about Java Jack Coffey are the dubious credits he earned in the majors. His name will forever be linked with "Homering Hoppy," the "Shot of Ry" and the "Cup of Coffey." These are infamous moments which have become deeply entrenched in baseball lore. But they're also moments that unfairly tarnish an otherwise respectable career in the majors.

Coffey's arrival in the major leagues in 1944 was long overdue. While scouts were for years aware of his eye-popping records, they were reluctant to sign him to a contract because of what they considered a literal physical shortcoming. Coffey stood only 4' 7", and while it initially delayed his entry, it ultimately provided him with his ticket to the bigs.

World War II came very close to destroying major-league baseball. Teams were depleted by armed service call-ups and there was some thought of suspending operations until the war ended. However, the President, who was an avid fan, asked that the games go on to lift the spirits of the nation.

In order to fill rosters, many players who had been career minor leaguers got their first taste of the majors. Many of these men were well past enlistment age (and their playing prime), or did not meet the physical standards for military service. In Coffey's case, he fell one inch below the minimum height requirement.

Java Jack Coffey finally reached his goal of playing in the majors, however he soon discovered it had been more fulfilling getting there than being there.

I noticed that the picture of Java Jack was autographed and I asked the man behind the counter to tell me about the shrine. He explained that Coffey lives in town and runs a barbershop just down the hill from the truck stop. I thanked him for the information, paid for my coffee and left.

I drove a mile down the hill into the center of the very small town. There was one intersection, with businesses stretching a couple hundred yards in either direction. Taking a right turn at the lone traffic signal, I could see a red-white-and-blue-striped barber pole three doors down on the left side of the street. On the shop window was stenciled, "Coffey Cuts." I parked and went in.

As soon as I stepped inside, I was greed with, "Howdy. Have a seat." The man who barked the greeting was a completely bald, stout little gentleman standing atop a wooden stepstool. It was Java Jack.

I sat and waited five minutes while Coffey finished with the customer in front of me. He pulled off the apron, collected his fee and wished the man well as he left. I stood, walked to the chair and introduced myself. I told Java Jack that I was a writer and would like to talk with him.

"I only talk when I'm cutting hair and haircuts are seven bucks. I charge an extra five if the talk's baseball in general - ten if it's my baseball," Jack blurted as if he'd been reciting those same lines for years.

I have the baseball player-barber-storyteller $20, told him to keep the change and to clean me up around the edges.

After clicking on my recorder, I asked Jack if he had any regrets about not being called up to the majors any sooner.

"No, not really. If my stay up there had been better, maybe I would. I did okay. But people are always going to remember me for those few bad things. On the other hand, I was a big shot in the minors. People came to games just to see me. And I was good. Got to remember, we weren't really playing the game for money in those days. Even most big leaguers had to get jobs in the off-season to stay afloat. That's why I took up barbering. We loved the game, not the money, so as long as I was playing somewhere, I was happy."

I mentioned that lots of people claim he was unlucky, maybe even jinxed. He responded without hesitation.

"I don't see how a many can be so lucky in one league and then completely run out of luck in another. I was considered very lucky in the minors.

"When I was with the Haymakers, we had a catcher named Delbert Scott. We called him 'Marblehead,' and I'll tell you why. I think it was in 1942 and we were playing the Anton (Tennessee) Tanners. They were maybe the best traveling team except for us. I believe we were somewhere in Alabama at the time. Delbert was catching and I was throwing. I say 'throwing' because I didn't have much on the ball that day.

"It was late in the game and we were winning by a run. I got the first two guys out. Anton had this big son-of-a-gun - Fuller - who played first base. He wasn't much of a hitter, but he came up and stuck his bat right on a curve that didn't curve. The ball dropped just over the head of our center fielder, Davy Mitchell, and rolled to the fence. By the time Davy got the ball back to the infield, the big guy was at third.

"That shook me up a little and I walked the next guy, a kid named Close. He was one of Anton's speed demons.

"Delbert came out to the mound and told me to settle down. He said Close would probably be heading to second base. Delbert was never a particularly good hitter, and sometimes he had trouble hanging onto the ball, but he had a cannon of an arm. We decided to pitch out the first two throws to the next batter.

"Del went back behind the plate. I threw once or twice to first to keep Close close. Then we tried the first pitchout and Close wasn't going. On the next pitch, all heck broke loose.

"Close got a good jump and was off to second. But Fuller was running, too. He took off on the pitch and was coming home. A double steal. Delbert threw off his mask and jumped up to take the pitchout. But he got distracted by the runner coming home and took his eye of the ball for an instant. The ball hit him square on the hard part of his forehead and shot back to me like a line drive. In the meantime, Fuller stopped and started stumbling back to the bag. When I got the ball, all I had to do was toss it to Showboat Hart at third and he tagged Fuller out. We won the game and Delbert got called 'Marblehead' ever since. Now I think that was pretty doggone lucky, don't you?"

I asked Java Jack why he didn't have any better success in the majors.

"I know this sounds like I'm making excuses, but I just never felt comfortable up there. The cities were too big. Too many people. One of the most important parts of pitching is being able to relax right up until you let the ball fly. I never could completely relax up there like I did in the smaller towns. But keep in mind, I did okay up there. Nothing like the minors, but nothing to be ashamed of."

Which was true. In five years with Chicago, Coffey compiled a 91-50 record, had 793 strikeouts and a career earned run average of 3.42. But when people recall Java Jack Coffey's major-league career, they almost always first remember the three events that earned him the unfortunate nickname, "Starmaker."

The first incident occurred on June 14, 1945 against the Cleveland Grovers. It was on that day that wiry second baseman Arnold "Hop" Henderson went on a home run barrage like nobody else before or since. The 147-pound lead-off man hit five homers in one game. All five came off Coffey.

"That day when Hop Henderson hit all those home runs, people don't remember that I was the winning pitcher. I only gave up seven hits and we won that game 14-6. Back then pitchers finished games they started more often than not. Hop just had a good day - a great day - at the plate. I don't know if anybody'll ever hit five home runs in a gain again.

"People always ask, 'Why didn't you just walk him?' Why should I have? We were way ahead and he only came up once with anyone on base. Plus, what were the chances that he'd just keep popping them out like that? But he did. They guy probably only hit something like 50 homers in his career, but he got five of them that day and I don't deny him any credit for doing it."

The "Shot of Ry" came in 1946 as the Windies were challenging the Boston Canes for the league title. Chicago had pulled within a game with a week left in the season and was hosting the Canes in a critical four-game series. Coffey got the call to pitch the first game.

After allowing eight hits in six scoreless innings, Jack went to the mound in the seventh, hoping to protect a two-run lead provided by a Gene Stevens home run.

Coffey struck out Chico Vellez and Hank Thomas. Then Polly Thatcher came up and lined Coffey's second pitch into center. The key in setting up the incident may have come when Bill Verdi was hit by a pitch that he made no effort to dodge. Windies manager Chuck Hayes was ejected in the ensuing argument and the entire Chicago team appeared to lose its composure.

When the scene calmed, Coffey went back to the mound and Ry Patterson stepped into the batter's box to pinch hit for pitcher Maury August.

"I faced Ry many times in the minors and in the bigs. I don't think he'd ever had a hit. Couldn't get around on my fastball and he was a lousy curveball hitter. That pitch may have been the only curve he hit in his entire career.

"He missed bad on my first two fastballs. Pete (Dalton, the catcher) signaled for more heat, but I shook him off. I wanted to set him up with a curve.

"I guess Ry had been praying I'd throw him something a little slower. When that curve came up, the think I remember most was how big his eyes got. He just swung as hard as he could and connected really good. That was really about the only thing of note he ever did in the majors, but he really picked his moment."

The Canes held on to win that game 3-2 and swept the series on the way to the pennant. The next year, Ry Patterson was out of baseball.

But of all the Starmaker events, the "Cup of Coffey" is far and away the most remembered. Not only is it the one play which is most closely associated with Java Jack Coffey, it is one of the most legendary, and most arrogant, stunts in the storied career of Wham Baker.

It happened during the 1947 series between the Windies and the mighty New York Tartans. It was the first and only appearance Chicago has ever made in the fall classic, but it was the Tarts' eighth-straight visit.

"We were all pretty tight going into the series. Nobody had beaten these guys for years, but we felt if we played at the top of our game, we could do it. New York won the first game, but we came back and won the second behind Jimmy Baugh. I pitched the third game in Chicago."

The Windies staked Jack to a three-run lead, but the Tarts scrapped back with a run in the fourth and two in the fifth. In the Tartan sixth, Harry Wells led off with a walk and was sacrified to second by Tall Tom Tucker. Stew Moroni reached first when Chicago second baseman Frank Waiters bobbled his grounder. That brought Baker to the plate.

"Wham hit me real hard his first time up. Doubled down the right-field line. He hit the ball hard the second time, too, but it was right at Marion Parker, our third baseman. The third time he struck out. Later someone told me he thought I'd called him a name after he struck out. I never did. Never would have. But he thought I did and said that's why he went into his act next time up."

As Baker walked to the plate in the seventh, he paused before entering the batter's box. Then he went into his act. He turned to the crowd and, with a mischievous smile, stretched and yawned as if he'd just awakened. He then gathered himself together and stepped to the plate.

"I didn't know anything was up before that first pitch. But Wham just stood there with his bat on his shoulder. It kind of looked like his eyes were closed, but he was standing right there at the plate. I waited for him to get ready, but he wasn't budging. Dalton was catching and motioned for me to bring it to him. So I did, and the first pitch went by Baker without him so much as flinching."

When the ball hit Dalton's mitt, Baker opened his eyes and slowly turned his head toward umpire Bill Ketchell, who called it a strike. Wham stepped out of the box, calmly yawned for a second time, then resumed his sleepy pose.

"The second time I knew he was up to something. I was just trying not to get caught up in it. If he wanted to stand there and take strikes, that was his business. Mine was to get him out."

Coffey threw strike two past the slumbering Baker. This time, though, Wham stepped out and went into a full pantomime. He yawned again, but this time he set his bat down and acted as if he had picked up a cup and was filling it with coffee. He poured and took a couple of sips. Then he sprang to full attention. He picked up his bat, took a violent slash through the air and then bounded to the plate.

"When he came to the plate for the third pitch, he hollered out to me, 'Good morning!' I shrugged it off. I took the sign from Dalt and came with an inside fast one. Wham swung and took it out. It was far from a spectacular home run. Matter of fact, it barely cleared the wall. But of course, he'd put on such a demonstration that most people today think that ball's still traveling.

"Wham Baker was an arrogant son of a bitch. He was good, but if he hadn't been, I think his own teammates would've killed him."

The "Cup of Coffey" won the game for New York. That's generally the first thing that comes to mind about the '47 series. But the Windies ran the series to seven games and won their only World Championship in extra innings. Few remember that Coffey started the seventh game and pitched eight scoreless innings before being pulled for a pinch hitter in the ninth.

Java Jack Coffey played two more years with the Windies. Today, only hard-core baseball aficionados and rural elders who remember seeing his minor-league exploits hold Coffey in the esteem he deserves.

As for his greatest thrill in baseball, Jack said, "Just playing the game as long as I did. Not too many little guys like me ever get a chance. Not only did I get a chance, I did something with it. Everybody's always trying to get to the majors. I got there and I'm glad I did. But I really enjoyed my days in the minors far more. And that's not just because I fared better down there.

"A lot of players are so intent on getting to the big clubs that they don't take the time to appreciate what they're doing and where they are along the way. I made some good friends in the minors. Good players. Some of them great players. Too many of them are gone now. And you see some of the prettiest place on Earth. Big cities give you a lot to do, but they aren't much to look at. Small towns can be mighty pretty, and I saw an awful lot of small towns in my playing days. And the people there seem friendlier, more appreciative of what you're doing. They seem to understand that you're entertaining them. City folks have high expectations. They always want you to be perfect."

When asked if he follows today's game, he said, "I check now and then to see how the old teams are doing, but too much has changed. It hurts to see what's happening to baseball. Too much money's ruining everything."

I asked if he'd ever heard of Stan Barnes. "I think there was a Stanley Barnes who used to play for the Greenies. Why? Did he die?"

I told him I must be thinking of a different Stanley Barnes. He set down his scissors and comb, pulled off the apron and told me he was through. I glanced at the mirror. My hair looked perfect.

The next night I arrived in the Bay Area and was granted my short "extensive" interview with Stan Barnes and his agent. At the time, Barnes was hitting .256 with six home runs. While his stats were modest, he was making more money for that night's game than Java Jack Coffey made in his entire career. But then again, Stan Barnes never spent a day in the minors.

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