Origins: We offer this amusing baseball anecdote not because it's an amazing example of a real-life "too good to be true" story, or because its veracity has been the subject of much debate, but because it provides telling evidence why people's memories of events
Our story features Tony "Poosh 'Em Up" Lazzeri, the great Yankee second baseman, and "Indian Bob" Johnson, a star outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics, both of whom were fond of the practical joke. Lazzeri, according to legend, spent two weeks preparing for the prank he planned to pull on Johnson, doctoring a baseball by pounding it with a bat, soaking it in soapy water, and rubbing dirt into it, then coating it with white shoe polish to restore its resemblance to an ordinary ball. The result, in the words of Bill James, was a ball "as dead as Abe Lincoln"
Lazzeri sprang his trick on
So much for a harmless, long-ago baseball prank. The aspect of this story that interests us occurred twenty-five years later, when umpire Bill Summers recounted the incident for an article in Look magazine. Summers claimed that he remembered the event well, as he was the home plate umpire that day. He recalled that he immediately knew what had happened because he saw the ball stuck in Lazzeri's back pocket when Lazzeri turned around, he ruled the foul ball a valid strike even though Wicker had clearly thrown an illegal pitch using a tampered baseball, and he overruled the protests of Johnson and his teammates in order to protect Lazzeri from being punished by the American League for his antics.
But, all the details that Summers "remembered" long after the fact are contradicted by the account of the game published in the following day's New York Times:
Johnson fouled off the pitch back of the plate amid a guffaw from the crowd of 4,425 fans and dignified silence from the umpires. The game was held up, the foul strike was ruled out by Quinn, and on a suggestion from the Athletics' bench Umpire Bill Summers ran out to Lazzeri and extracted the ball that should have been in play from the veteran's pocket.
It all passed off innocently enough, as viewed from the stands, and the crowd had a good laugh, although the umpires seemed to be doing some snappy criticizing on the field as they met each rush of protest from the Philadelphia bench.
Between games, however, it developed that an official report will be made of the incident. Umpire Quinn will call to [American League] President Harridge's attention a violation of the rule covering tampering with the ball.
- Bill Summers was not the home plate umpire during the game in question. Johnny Quinn was the one calling balls and strikes in the first game of the doubleheader (when the "mushball" prank took place); Summers didn't work the plate until the second game.
- Summers didn't immediately realize what had occurred. He figured out the prank only after the Philadelphia bench suggested he check Lazzeri's back pocket for the real ball.
- The foul ball Johnson hit did not count as a strike. Quinn voided the pitch as soon as he determined it had been made with a doctored ball.
- The umpires did not cover for Lazzeri. Quinn resolved to report Lazzeri's breaking the rule against tampering with a baseball to the American League office that same day. (No follow-up article appeared in the
New York Timesindicating whether Lazzeri was punished, possibly because the issue became moot when he was released by the Yankees a few weeks later and changed leagues during the off-season.)
Last updated: 2 January 2006
Dawson, James P. "Yanks Score Their 100th Victory, Then Get Only One Hit to Bow, 3-0." The New York Times. 30 September 1937 (p. 26). James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0-684-80697-5 (p. 671). Thorn, John. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001 (7th edition). ISBN 1-930844-01-8. The New York Times. "Lazzeri's Release Suggested by Cubs." 20 October 1937 (p. 30).