Cal Abrams, a Jewish native of Brooklyn, was a major league outfielder in the 1950s who started out his big league career with the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately, Abrams 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 regularly, 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' primary legacy among Dodgers fans is a negative one -- many remember him 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. (Brooklyn lost that game, and the pennant, to the Philadelphia Phillies.)
As Abrams described his situation several decades later, the Dodgers brass always seemed to have a handy excuse for not giving him much playing time, with the implication that anti-Semitism was a factor behind his limited role. And the late sportswriter Roger Kahn, who covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952-53, noted that Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen "didn't care for Cal Abrams" and "was capable of cruelty."
One purported example of Dressen's supposed cruelty towards Abrams was a tale of mean-spirited revenge recounted by Kahn in his 1993 book about baseball in New York, The Era: 1947-1957. As told by Kahn, Dressen deliberately set 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. Yet a check of the basic facts produces some puzzling results.
The Dodgers did begin a series against the Reds in Cincinnati on June 6, 1952, the two teams did play a double-header on June 8 (although the Dodgers won the first game 11-7, not 6-1 as claimed), and the Associated Press reported the following day that Cincinnati had purchased Abrams' contract from the Brooklyn club. 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 during the regular season, 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). In any case, Abrams didn't suffer too long under Hornsby's management, as the two only spent about fifty games together on the Cincinnati Reds club before Abrams was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of the 1952 season.
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."