Trade Bait

Unfortunately, even the national pastime is known for episodes of cruelty inflicted upon its practitioners.

  • Published 3 August 2003


Dodgers outfielder Cal Abrams was ordered to publicly berate the Reds' manager, then was traded to that team a few days later.



Cal Abrams, a major league outfielder in the 1950s who started out with the Brooklyn Dodgers, traveled the same career arc as many an unfortunate baseball player of his era: a fine talent signed to a team with too many established stars for him to be able to crack the starting lineup, he found himself relegated to pinch-hitting and occasional starting or fill-in appearances year after year, bound to his team in perpetuity by the reserve clause that provided players with no leverage to demand trades or declare free agency.

Abrams’ legacy among Dodgers fans is that he’s remembered primarily as the player who was thrown out trying to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the last game of the 1950 season, a contest Brooklyn had to win in order to force a playoff for the pennant. (They didn’t.)

As Abrams described his situation three decades later, the Dodgers brass always seemed to have a handy excuse not giving him playing time (with the implication that such excuses were based in anti-Semitism):

When I first joined the Dodgers, in the clippings I have pasted in my scrapbook, it says: ‘Cal Abrams comes up from the minor leagues and [Dodgers manager] Leo Durocher says, “I’m going to give him every opportunity.”‘ And then I only played eight games. Then you get the next manager, Burt Shotton, and he says, ‘[Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey told me that Cal Abrams is going to be our right fielder, and I agree with him because Cal is one of the finer minor league players coming up.’ And then I play thirty-eight games. Even [Dodgers coach] Clyde Sukeforth says in the papers, ‘Cal Abrams can throw as hard and as accurately as [Dodgers outfielder] Carl Furillo.’ And all these clippings, and you wonder why you never got a full season under your belt. If I went 0 for 15, they’d say, ‘Cal Abrams is in a slump,’ and I’d be out of the lineup. Yet other fellows, like Jackie [Robinson] went 0 for 27, [Gil] Hodges had 0 for 20, and they’d still play every day. So I’d say to myself, ‘There has to be a reason why.’ But you were so afraid to say anything that would in any way jeopardize your career. We had nothing but baseball. You had all your eggs in one basket, so you didn’t dare voice your feelings or walk up to a guy like [Dodgers manager] Charley Dressen and say, ‘How come I’m not playing tonight?’

And in 1952 they didn’t play me at all. [Dressen] said I wasn’t hitting. They told me they were looking to build a young ballclub, and I was twenty-eight, and yet they went and got Andy Pafko for left field, and he was [three years] older than I was!

Even worse for Cal Abrams, his manager’s apparent dislike for him meant that even when he did get into games, he was called upon infrequently and often under difficult circumstances:

I always had the feeling that Charley Dressen only played me enough to give me rope to hang myself. I remember one game, I hadn’t been playing, and it’s the ninth inning, bases loaded, two outs. Dressen puts me in to pinch hit. I popped up. Meanwhile, there was an opportunity in the sixth and the seventh for a left-handed batter, and the fans were yelling, ‘We want Abrams,’ and he wouldn’t put me in. He waited until the ninth. Then there was the time Pee Wee Reese had two strikes on him and Dressen sent me in to pinch hit. I don’t recall in the history of baseball where any major leaguer ever had the same situation. Two strikes and to go up and pinch hit? Never in a million years. I could understand it if it was a rookie, but [Hall of Fame shortstop] Pee Wee Reese was up there. And two strikes? I popped out.

As Roger Kahn, a sportswriter who covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952-53 noted, Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen “didn’t care for Cal Abrams” and “was capable of cruelty,” a characterization borne out by another incident recalled by Abrams:

In 1951 I was living in Levittown. We came home after I had had a beautiful road trip, and I had practically all of my friends and relatives there. Levittown was giving me Cal Abrams Day [at that day’s Dodgers game], and I come out of the clubhouse and I have my glove on, my chewing gum in my mouth, ready to show the home folks, and I looked on the wall where we kept the lineup card, and my name wasn’t on it.

But the coup de grace, the anecdote that inspired this page, was a delicious tale of mean-spirited revenge recounted by Roger Kahn in his 1993 book about baseball in New York, The Era: 1947-1957, which had Dressen deliberately setting Abrams on a rival team’s manager, knowing full well that a deal had already been completed to send Abrams to the team whose manager he had been tricked into loudly berating:

[Dressen] didn’t care for Cal Abrams and [Dodger outfielder] Duke Snider remembers that on June 6, 1952, at Cincinnati he issued a hard order. “Abrams, you ain’t hitting. The only thing that can keep you with this club is your mouth.”

The Dodgers broke nicely in 1952. By June 9, the team was in first place.

“The guy managing the Reds is Rogers Hornsby,” Dressen said.

“I know that,” Abrams said. “I know who Rogers Hornsby is.”

“If you want to stay with my club, get on him,” Dressen said. “Call him every goddamn name you can think of. I want you to get him so mad he can’t think straight.”

Abrams spent the first game of a double-header bellowing and screaming taunts at Hornsby.

The Dodgers won the first game, 6 to 1. Hornsby was raging. In the clubhouse, Dressen said to Abrams, “Don’t bother to dress here. You’ve been traded. You’re playing for the Cincinnati Reds. Abrams, your new manager is Rogers Hornsby.”

Considering that Rogers Hornsby was one of the most intensely disliked players and managers of his era, detested by both those who played with him and those who played for him, one has to wonder how Cal Abrams managed to survive the rest of the 1952 season.

But first we have to wonder, is this anecdote true or just another tall tale? Sportswriter Roger Kahn was there, covering the Dodgers day in and day out in 1952, when this event supposedly took place, and his version of the story includes such details as specific dates and game scores. Still, we always try to check at least the basic facts before presenting anecdotes as true, and in this case the results were puzzling.

The Dodgers did begin a series against the Reds in Cincinnati on 6 June 1952, and Abrams was traded to Cincinnati on 8 June, a day on which the two teams played each other in a double-header (although the Dodgers won the first game 11-7, not 6-1 as claimed). But this story collides with reality when one notes that on the day Cal Abrams was traded, Rogers Hornsby was managing the St. Louis Browns, not the Cincinnati Reds. Hornsby was fired by the Browns two days later, and he didn’t take over as skipper of the Reds until two months after Cal Abrams was traded to that club.

Moreover, this discrepancy can’t be explained away as a case of confusion over dates (i.e., maybe Abrams had been yelling at Hornsby earlier in the year), because the Dodgers and the Browns were in different leagues and didn’t play each other at all, so Abrams never had an opportunity to berate Hornsby before they were united as members of the Cincinnati Reds.

The only way this anecdote makes sense as told is if Cal Abrams had been ordered to abuse not Rogers Hornsby but Luke Sewell, who was manager of the Cincinnati club the day Abrams was traded from the Dodgers to the Reds. But then this isn’t nearly as good a story, both because Sewell was far less irascible than Hornsby and because Sewell resigned as manager of the Reds a month later (thereby saving Abrams from having to spend several years in baseball purgatory).

Perhaps this anecdote is just another of the national pastime’s tall tales, or perhaps it involved different teams and personnel whose identities have been obscured with the passage of time. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify” — to which we add: “and be prepared for a little disappointment.”