The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

 

Eliot Asinof (1919-2008) and the Mystery of Rocky Perone

The obituaries have been all too full of familiar names in recent weeks, men whose life's work brought me a great deal of joy, countless hours of entertainment, and plenty of food for thought. Since Memorial Day alone, we've lost director Sydney Pollack, actor Harvey Korman, musician Bo Diddley, and sports broadcaster Jim McKay. Today's bad news is the passing of writer Eliot Asinof. He was 88.

A former minor-league ballplayer, Asinof's best-known work was about the national pastime. He's most famous for Eight Men Out, the story of the Black Sox scandal which involved the fixing of the 1919 World Series. I'll cop to never having read the book, but I've seen the movie version several times. Asinof and director John Sayles took what appeared to be a black-and-white (sox) crime and morality tale about the throwing of ballgames and turned it into a much more thorough critique of the forces which created the scandal: power, capitalist inequity and the working conditions of Reserve Clause-era ballplayers. Sox owner Charles Comiskey should have been the first guy to take the fall.

What follows here is a piece I've had on the back burner for ages, with roots that date back to my own childhood. It's written about one of Asinof's lesser-known works, so obscure that it's never been anthologized. Today it seems only fitting to dust off this roundabout tale.

• • •

When I was nine, I got my first subscription to Sports Illustrated, having discovered its existence in the library of my elementary school when we moved across the Salt Lake City valley in the the fall of 1978. For the next decade, I read the magazine religiously, so much so that I still remember specific articles and covers -- right down to the blurbs -- nearly 30 years later.

What a treat, then, that SI.com has made available a massive amount of its archives via the SI Vault, which went online a couple months ago (the covers, many of them icons in their day, had been online for awhile already). Sadly, the great photography hasn't made the transition, but there's still a bounty of riches to be had.

Over the years I've tracked down a small handful of SI back issues with pieces that meant something to my childhood. This Nolan Ryan one ("How Close It Was!"), occasioned by the near miss of what would have been his record-setting fifth no-hitter in the summer of 1979, was one. Tracking down that issue revealed a hidden gem in that week's television column, noting the planned launch of a 24-hour cable TV sports network:
Last winter Getty Oil paid $10 million for a majority interest in a hitherto unknown and practically non-functioning little cable TV company in Plainville, Conn. called The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, Inc., or, more informally, ESPN. Indeed, Getty's decision to underwrite the firm seems to have had more than a few overtones of extrasensory perception and supernatural insight: ESPN may become the biggest thing in TV sports since Monday Night Football and nighttime World Series games.

ESPN plans to launch the nation's first 24-hour sports network by Dec. 1, a nonstop telethon that will ultimately result in 8,760 hours of annual programming—every single possible hour, and seven times as many hours of sports as the three major networks combined now air in an average year. ESPN will present a mind-boggling (and, perhaps, numbing) flow of games, matches and contests, ranging from live tennis from Monaco shown at 3 a.m. to taped NCAA football games on view from 8 a.m. to midnight on most autumn weekends to a mixed bag of volleyball, water polo, fencing, crew, etc., etc.

As 23-year-old ESPN vice-president Scott Rasmussen puts it, "What we're creating here is a network for sports junkies. This is not programming for soft-core sports fans who like to watch an NFL game, then switch to the news. This is a network for people who like to watch a college football game, then a wrestling match, a gymnastics meet and a soccer game, followed by an hour-long talk show—on sports."
Cool as that was, my favorite find was another 1979 issue which I hunted down only after solving a long-standing mystery thanks to The Baseball Index, SABR's bibliography resource available via BaseballLibrary.com.

I had remembered the subject of a feature story a man who faked his identity and wormed his way onto the San Diego Padres under the assumed name of Rocky Perone. As it turns out, the story was written by the great Eliot Asinof, author of the seminal Eight Men Out. Though I've seen John Sayles' movie version a handful of times, I've never read the original book, and in truth only own one Asinof book, his first one, Man on Spikes, a novel about a bush leaguer who takes 16 years to make it to the majors. Not far off from the plot of "The Secret Life of Rocky Perone":
It was the greatest feeling in the world — or maybe the worst. Five years ago, there I was in a San Diego uniform about to take a pregame workout with the Padres. Warming up on the sidelines were the champion Cincinnati Reds — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, those guys. This was the big time. This was where I belonged. Nobody ever wanted to be anywhere more than I wanted to be in this spot.

The trouble was, it wasn't me. Or, to be more exact, nobody knew it was me. The guy on the field was known as Rocky Perone, supposedly a 21-year-old rookie from Sydney, Australia. At least, that's who the Padres thought they had signed. Actually, my name is Richard Pohle, and I'm from Lisbon Falls, Maine. And my age, by God, was 36!

Except for Satchel Paige, I probably was the oldest rookie ever signed to a professional baseball contract. But look, at 36 I was desperate. I had to do something. I wasn't some rinky-dink from Pipe Dream City. Over the years, I'd proved myself repeatedly. I had to prove myself again just to be here. I'd had to show them something. The hoax about my age was just a device to get the scouts to look at me, to really look at me. Can anyone picture a scout giving a tryout to an American shortstop who is 36?

God knows the number of places I'd gone for tryouts, how many times I'd hitched to spring-training camps, traveling from Maine to Florida or from California to Florida, and how close I'd come to making it years ago. The trouble with scouts is that they seldom believe what they see. What they want to see is some big rangy kid with a sensational high school rep, a .575 hitter with power, someone destined for a big bonus, someone about whom the scout can tell the front office what it wants to hear. But who was Richard Pohle? Just some dumb kid from Maine, a little guy who was already 18 and no one had ever heard of him. They can really cut a man down. Year after year, I kept coming back for another shot, and then I would end up playing ball in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Cape Cod. It seemed like I was never more than a month or two away from the opening of a season. I even went to England, Sweden and Australia. Name places where anyone plays decent ball, and I've been there.
I had always assumed that Perone, like the protagonist in Man on Spikes (which, to be truthful, I've never read for more than a handful of pages) was a fictional character, particularly because the story is written in the first person. The fact that Perone's game action came not with the Padres but with their minor-league affiliate in Walla Walla -- where my grandparents lived and where I spent a good portion of that summer, ironically enough -- meant that he left no major league stats behind and further strengthened that supposition.

A bit of investigation thanks to the Vault set me straight. The Vault includes both digitized thumbnails of each page of the magazine -- so you can see the ads, yippee! -- as well as the ancillary stuff that makes up each issue, including their weekly letters to the editor column, "The 19th Hole." The issue two weeks after the Perone story was published contained five letters in response, including this one:
Sir:

I remember Dick Pohle from a baseball school we both attended in Cocoa, Fla. in 1957. He impressed me then with his tremendous desire and love for the game. It would be nice if a greater number of the more gifted athletes in the big leagues had some of that burning desire. God bless Dick Pohle. He's beautiful!

ED MCCLOSKEY
Pittsburgh
A few minutes in Google led me to an excerpt of a book called When Towns Had Teams mentioning Dick Pohle as one of Lisbon, Maine's better players in the early 1960s. Soon after discovering that, I came across Harold Parrot's often-hilarious account of front office shenanigans, The Lords of Baseball, which devotes a brief passage to the Perone saga in discussing the ineptitude of the mid-Seventies Padre front office, and in particular that of Peter Bavasi (son of Buzzie) and his attempt to bring psychological testing to the realm of player development:
Peter Bavasi often quit his job and went home in frustration, too, but his mother would get him on the phone and talk sense, and get him back to his charts and tests. The whole outfit seemed ready for the psychiatrist's couch.

Not long after that Rocky Perrone [sic] appeared.

The Oglivie-Bavasi mind-reader must have given Rocky a fine personality rating; that, along with creams and facials to take out his age lines and a hair piece to cover his bald head, fooled all the Padre experts. They rated Rocky as a hot prospect at shortstop, and he actually got to play in one game to win a bet he had with the bartender. Then he confessed he was a thirty-eight-year-old busher who had bee knocking around semipro sandlotws since the Dodgers fled Brooklyn.
Further drilling in Google yielded a homepage for Richard Pohle, who's apparently now a baseball instructor in California:
Rich Pohle has been featured in Sports Illustrated, SPORT Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Portland Press Herald, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. He has worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants. Pohle's reputation brings players from all over the country to train under him. He is also available to travel to any location throughout the United States for special consultation sessions and seminars. Pohle (pronounced POE-Lee) has played and coached baseball all over the world, including Australia, Germany, England, Sweden, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. If you want to play professional baseball, Rich can help you in the pursuit of your dream. If your goal is to play college ball, he can also help open that door. Rich will teach you the Pro way - hitting, catching, pitching, infield play and base running.
Pohle's site features a photo of his son Richie, who spent two years in the Phillies and Mariners systems and last year played in the independent Golden Baseball League; he has a stat page at the Baseball Cube. An older version of the site (which has been changed since I began working on this piece) pictured Pohle pupils D.J. Houlton (a former Dodger now playing in Japan) and Phil Seibel (a Red Sox farmhand) -- both of whom I've covered in Baseball Prospectus annuals -- as well as a picture of the original Sports Illustrated article's opening page, and links to the SI article and to a couple of newspaper pieces about him.

The newspaper pieces themselves are missing in action since the site's recent update, but the story gets better. As it turns out, Pohle helped a few other over-age players get contracts under false pretenses, including a 38-year old reliever who signed with the Royals and a pair of players who signed with the Giants. "Flimflam man who gently hoodwinked the Giants," reads the headline of a 1983 San Francisco Examiner piece on Pohle's site. From the article, scanned from the original newsprint:
The San Francisco Giants' front office never knew it. Hardly anybody did. But baseball's perennial flimflam man, Richard Pohle, orchestrated one of baseball's most elaborate and long-running stings, and the club was snookered.
Between that article, one from the Portland Press Herald, and Pohle's own bio it's revealed that baseball lifers like Phoenix Giants manager Rocky Bridges, longtime Giants scout Jack Schwarz, Padres minor league director Mike Port and Padres scout Jim Marshall were conned by the assumed identities of Pohle or his proteges, among whom five such ballplayers are named:

• Barry Stace, the aforementioned reliever, a 38-year-old lefty who was purportedly the first Australian to play baseball in the U.S. He's not listed on the Baseball Cube site (their minor league stats only go back to 1978), but a Midwest League page confirms his presence at Waterloo in 1973, albeit with no birthdate given.

• Tom Rowan, the most successful of the bunch. At 24, he evolved into 21-year-old Tom Anthony and lasted four years (1977-1980) in the Giants system, starring at Class-A Great Falls of the Pioneer League, where he hit .333, drove in 62 runs in 63 games and tied for the league lead in triples. He made it as high as Double-A Shreveport; his Baseball Cube page is here, though it omits the Pioneer League numbers; the Cube's stats for Great Falls begin in 1978, though the franchise was founded in 1969.

• Mark Worley, who at 31 became 21-year-old Nick James and served as Rowan/Anthony's teammate. He hit just .227 at Great Falls in 1977 and drew his release after the season.

• Joe Parga, who at 26 became 22-year-old Jose Hernandez and hit .286 in his first year in the Angels' organization. I couldn't find him at the Baseball Cube, so it's quite possible he never rose above short-season ball.

• Rick Brown, whose age and alias aren't given but who apparently rose from Rookie ball to Double-A in the Braves system according to the Press Herald piece.

Pohle himself went 1-for-1 with a walk and a steal in his sole game with the Walla Walla Padres, but he got another shot in the Northwest League. In 1980, at the age of 42, playing as Richard Perone, he appeared in a game for a Salem club that knew what it was getting, a performance that earned him his own Baseball Cube page.

Anyway, in Asinof's hands, the tale of Rocky Perone is a gripping and entertaining saga, one that I hope is enriched by this bit of back story. You probably don't have time to read Eight Men Out on your lunch hour today, but you could do worse than to check out "The Secret Life of Rocky Perone" (PDF version scanned from original magazine here).

Update: Alex Belth has a lengthy tribute to Asinof including excerpts and fresh quotes from other great writers here.

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