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Spike and Joe
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There were a dozen of us kids crowded around Spike Hennessey, the legendary baseball scout, at Funston Playground in San Francisco on a sunny day in the early 1940s.

Spike, then a roving baseball instructor for the city's Park and Recreation Department, was telling us about some of the many players he'd helped develop during a half-century of coaching and managing, much of it at Funston. Working as an independent scout, he also helped them get their first professional contracts. His "lambs," Spike called them.

There were more than 160 in all -- 54 of them major leaguers, including four members of baseball's Hall of Fame, Joe Cronin, Harry Heilmann, Tony Lazzeri and Joe DiMaggio. Four became major league managers, 11 minor league managers.

The New York Yankees owed much of their dominance of baseball in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s to Hennessey pupils. There was DiMaggio, of course. But mainly there were infielders, beginning with shortstop Mark Koenig and second baseman Lazzeri of the 1927 Yankees -- still considered by many to be the best team in the entire history of baseball.

Later came Babe Dahlgren, who replaced first baseman Lou Gehrig on that day in 1939 when a fatal illness ended Gehrig's string of 2,130 consecutive games, and Frankie Crosetti, Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown, later president of the American League.

The Cincinnati Reds were almost as dependent on Hennessey. For three years during the 1920s, the team's entire infield was manned by players he had trained -- Lew Fonseca, Sammy Bohne, Ike Caveny and Babe Pinelli.

As a matter of fact, there wasn't a team in the major leagues, or in the Pacific Coast League, the country's top minor league, that hadn't used a Hennessey-trained player. For five decades there was scarcely a player in the San Francisco Bay Area, professional or amateur, young or old, who was not touched by Spike Hennessey's influence.

Spike could talk for hours about all of them, and he often did. But we wanted to know about Joe. How did Joe break into the pros?

We crowded around the rough wooden bench where Spike sat, a slight man in a frayed dark suit in his 70s, bent with age, stark white hair parted precisely down the center of his scalp setting off his broad florid peasant face. Spike laid aside a brown bat he had been using to demonstrate the art of bunting. He leaned forward to us, yet another audience for his favorite story.

"Well," said Spike, "it was back in '32 that I spotted Joe -- he was just 17 then, boys -- a third baseman, sometimes a shortstop, with a great arm but no aim at all, and a pure natural hitter ....

"Anyway, there he is lying on his stomach outside Seals Stadium, trying to look at the game through a crack in that left field fence.

"I knew Joe, of course -- played for me right here at Funston -- and I says, 'You come up to the stadium office with me and we'll see Mr. Graham and get you a ticket.'

"I told him... you know what I told him? I told him he shouldn't never stay on the outside looking in unless it's jail ...."

Spike chuckled and peered at us from under his thick bushy eyebrows. Then he told us about Charles Graham, the owner of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

Graham's team was a rarity among minor league teams -- it was not a major league farm club -- and Graham kept the independent Seals going in part by selling players to the major leagues, many of them players brought to him by Hennessey. Uncle Charley, as the sportswriters called Graham, was a former Boston Red Sox catcher and Seals manager, and a very smart man. He even put a restaurant under the grandstand just to wine and dine visiting major league scouts.

"....But you fellas want to know about Joe. Mr. Graham was always looking for good young ballplayers -- like Joe's big brother Vince, he was already with the team -- so I figure why not get Joe a tryout along with his ticket. He got it, and you know what happened after that ...."

Of course we knew. By next season, Joe DiMaggio was a $225-a-month outfielder who hit in 61 consecutive games for the Seals and, in the season after that, a .398 hitter under the Seals' new manager, ex-major league star Lefty O'Doul, another Hennessey "lamb."

Then it was off to the Yankees to join two other "lambs," Crosetti and Lazzeri.

Uncle Charley didn't profit much, though. One of DiMaggio's knees was hurt -- he twisted it severely getting out of a cab after a game -- so $25,000 was all the Yankees would pay for him. As Spike told us, the Seals sold another of his "lambs," third baseman Willie Kamm, to the Chicago White Sox nearly 15 years earlier for four times as much, and Crosetti was sold to the Yankees just a few years before for three times as much.

That didn't really seem to bother Spike. "But you know," he said, "there is one thing I am sorry about. I've never seen Joe play for the Yankees."

Spike Hennessey had in fact never seen a major league game. He never would see one.

Copyright Dick Meister