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Drop and Drive
How far does this through-line stretch?
Well, for me, it reaches all the way back to 1883, when a journeyman catcher named Dell Darling had a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League, alongside future Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, Deacon White, Pud Galvin, and player-manager Jim O’Rourke. Darling collected three hits in 18 at-bats, over six games, although if you described his short tenure in this caffeinated way he wouldn’t have had any idea what you were talking about.
A cup of coffee? What the hell was that?
This particular Darling would come back a couple years later and stick with Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings, establishing himself as a reliable utility man, and he rates a mention here because of his name, which in a sidelong way also happens to be mine. See, like a lot of baseball-mad kids, I was in the habit of losing myself in the statistics and ephemera on the backs of the baseball cards I used to flip and trade with my brothers. I was a sucker for baseball history, and with a name like Darling it was only a matter of time before I started scouring the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia to see if there were any other Darlings who’d played the game. I suppose I would have done the same thing if my name had been Smith, or Jones, or Molina. These days, of course, I could do a search online and see if I shared not only a name but a birthday with any of the all-time greats, or a hometown, or a hobby, but when I was a kid our search engines were pretty much confined to alphabetical order—a familiar crutch I’ll lean on as these pages develop.
What’s worth remarking on Dell Darling’s otherwise unremarkable career, which spanned a total of 175 games over parts of six seasons, was how it ended—and, relatedly, how it bumped against a story that made an indelible mark on what was left of my childhood.
Here’s the front end of that tale:
About a year after his final big league game, Darling married a woman from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, named Anna Crum. The couple wound up having seven children, but before all those kids started piling up my namesake made a whole new name for himself, when he was connected to a series of railroad heists that seemed to borrow a page from the stagecoach robberies that had once been a sad fact of life in the Wild, Wild West. Allegedly, Darling and the other suspects would hide out on these passenger trains, and while everyone slept or drank or stared at the passing scenery they’d toss luggage and other belongings from the moving cars. Then they’d hop off the train and double back to assess and collect their ill-gotten gains.
Quite a legacy, huh? No, it’s not like we were related or anything, but I had enough trouble wearing a name like Darling when I was growing up, so it’s not like this black mark would have done me any favors if I thought to mention this loose connection to any of my friends.
It turned out Darling’s role in these robberies might have been overstated, because he was released shortly after his arrest, together with several of his former teammates, including a somewhat more accomplished ballplayer from Erie named Lou Bierbauer. With that bit of unpleasantness behind him and the stain on “our” good name not as bad as it first appeared, Darling tried to latch on with another professional club, eventually retiring to Erie, where he found work doing odd jobs, mostly as a blacksmith and painter. He died just after the birth of his seventh child, at the age of forty-two—quite possibly from the long-term effects of an old baseball injury, according to some newspaper accounts. What was curious about Darling’s passing was that he died around the time his purported accomplice Bierbauer was widowed as well, throwing the former Mrs. Darling into the arms of the suspected train robber. Anna Darling wound up marrying Bierbauer, and the couple went on to have two children of their own, who joined the Darling kids and Bierbauer’s three children from his previous marriage to form a bustling Brady Bunch–type household.
Some story. And the bridge to the next story I want to tell is that it marked one of the first times in baseball history that teammates ended up sharing the same spouse, a rarity that would serve as the backdrop to one of the most sensational stories of my own baseball-aware childhood. As reaches go, this one’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit. But when you follow the bouncing ball you never know where it might land …
In 1973, as many readers will surely recall, New York Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich ended up trading wives, a domestic shuffling that confused the hell out of this twelve-year-old Massachusetts kid. Oh, man … this was a big, big deal, more Peyton Place than SportsCenter, about as far removed from a turn-of-the-century Brady Bunch scenario as you could get, and a sure sign to us Red Sox fans that the hated Yankees were in league with the devil. Actually, the two teammates didn’t just trade wives—they swapped out their entire families, right down to the family dog. It was a weird, wild story, and a sign of the times, I guess, only at twelve years old I couldn’t think what to make of it. It was exciting and lurid and a little bit creepy, and it had almost nothing to do with baseball other than the concomitant fact that the game just happened to be the place of business for these two friends and teammates. Still, whenever I heard the name of Fritz Peterson, who went on to pitch 11 seasons for the Yankees, Indians, and Rangers, or Mike Kekich, who pitched for the Dodgers, Yankees, Indians, Rangers, and Mariners over nine big league seasons, I was taken back to the Swingin’ Seventies, where players wore shag hairdos and porn mustaches and wide-collared leisure suits that would have made their predecessors lift an eyebrow and wonder what the world was coming to.
Well, what it was coming to was … this.
For years afterward my mind would flash back to the tabloid headlines that had attached to this story, and when I was chosen in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Texas Rangers, a team that had been Peterson’s last stop in 1976, and one of Kekich’s last stops in 1975, I thought about it yet again. Keep in mind, I didn’t think about it a whole lot—it was just a fleeting thought, really, but once I learned what it was like to move about in the game, and to throw in with a group of twenty-four other guys in pursuit of a shared goal and our separate and hardly equal livelihoods, I began to look on this story in a whole new light. For some reason, I was dimly aware of this Texas connection, since I’d half-followed the career arcs of these two men with a kind of prurient interest, and in my own racing imagination at least it went from being a soap opera sideshow to an instructive lesson on what it meant to be part of a major league clubhouse. Surely, I thought, there would be players and coaches and front office personnel still active in the Rangers organization who had played with or coached or generally managed one or the other—and, I’ve got to be honest, I was wondering what it must have been like to hang around the locker room with these guys, when all of this was going down. Trouble was, I could never bring it up. When you’re a rookie, you’re expected to keep your head down and your mouth shut, so for me to have shown up in camp in 1981 asking all these Peeping Tom–ish questions about two players who had last pitched for the Rangers five and six years earlier would have been to call way more attention to myself than my plain station deserved.
Plus, it just wouldn’t have been cool.
And yet every time I crossed paths with someone who might have played with one of these guys, I took note. Just to be clear, I still never said anything, or pressed for any details, basically because it still wouldn’t have been cool, but a part of me was always dying to know what things were like in that Yankee clubhouse in that scandalous summer of 1973.
How do you look at your teammate after something like that goes down? What do you say to one of the “traded” wives, when she shows up at the team’s spring training complex? Or, worse, when she brings her kids to one of those “family days” baseball teams are always hosting? Was it something you could razz a guy about, same way you’d throw it back at him if you caught him wearing women’s underwear, or passing out after an epic bender, or was it off-limits?
Whatever it was that drew me to this Peterson-Kekich affair, I just couldn’t shake it—hey, when you hear a story like this at twelve years old, you’re stuck filtering it through the lens of an adolescent male child for the rest of your days. In fairness to me, I had no choice but to snicker.
One of the first times I encountered a former teammate of Peterson’s and Kekich’s was when I joined the Mets and was in the habit of taking my meals by myself at an Italian joint in my neighborhood—Pino’s, run by a former Red Sox pitcher named Jerry Casale. A lot of ballplayers hung out at Jerry’s place, I would soon learn, including Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin, who just happened to be sitting at one of the tables one night having a big old time. I was maybe a couple years into my career, and this had become my routine, following a home game. I’d shower and dress at Shea Stadium, head back to the city, and stop in at Pino’s for a nightcap and a bite to eat.
I’ve told this story before, most notably in my book Game 7, 1986, but I wasn’t focused on the Peterson-Kekich connection in the previous telling. And it won’t really make its way into this account, either, other than this bit of reaching and stretching in the setup. See, these three Yankee greats had all retired by the time of this notorious “wife-swap,” but Mickey and Whitey had played with Peterson for a couple seasons before hanging up their cleats, and Billy ended up managing the Texas Rangers for part of Kekich’s one and only season with the club, so these guys knew the deal. Plus, they’d been drinking—a lot—so it’s not like they would have been in any position to judge me for trying to tease out this story.
But, regrettably, it never came up—and the reason it never came up (natch!) was because I was once again too chickenshit to bring it up. The thought ran right through my head, and left with the first round of drinks, after these Yankee greats invited me to their table. They knew who I was, I’d been in the papers, and they were baseball lifers at heart. One of them kicked a chair out for me and said, “Sit down, rook.”
So I sat down—a baseball lifer in training.
Copyright © 2019 by Ron Darling