Psychologist could help prop up the Straw man

December 23, 1990|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers, without question, have strengthened themselves with the free-agent signings of outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Brett Butler and pitcher Kevin Gross, but what may be their most significant off-season acquisition won't be listed on their roster.

He is Dr. Herndon Harding, a psychologist out of Worthington, Ohio, a descendant of President Warren Harding and previously employed by the Ohio State Medical Department. Herndon agreed to terms a week after Fred Claire, the Dodgers' general manager, had signed the sometimes-troubled Strawberry to a $20 million contract.

The assumption was that Herndon was hired as Strawberry's personal shrink. But Jay Lucas, a Dodgers spokesman, insisted Monday this is not so, that Claire had been scouting Herndon for more than a year and would have brought him aboard earlier had he been able to free himself from his Ohio duties.

Whatever, Lucas said Herndon will not travel with the team. So Strawberry will be on his own when the Dodgers are on the road. That's unfortunate for the Strawman because his previous shrink, Alan Lans of the New York Mets, was a constant companion who sometimes popped for dinner.

Little-known outside of New York, Lans is baseball's reigning psychologist. He has been with the Mets, home and away, for the last four seasons. The Mets signed him in April 1987 out of the Smithers Center in Manhattan after he had helped Doc Gooden conquer the so-called chemical dependency problem.

I have known Lans ever since. He sometimes sits in the press box and is a man of remarkable good cheer. The Mets players call him "Sparks" or "The Sparker." Joe Durso, the distinguished New York Times baseball Boswell, says Lans is amused by the monicker and believes it derives from the caricature of Frankenstein fastening electrodes to a victim's head.

Although deserving a footnote in baseball lore, Lans is not the first diamond physician trained to probe the psyche. So far as is known, Philip K. Wrigley, the late Cubs caretaker who left no stone unturned, was into this sort of thing in the mid-'30s when he hired Evil Eye Finkle, a certified hypnotist who occupied a box seat behind home plate. His assignment was to put the hex on the opposition.

I called Billy Herman at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and asked if he knew Evil Eye's real name. Herman was the Cubs' star second baseman of the time. "I don't remember any Evil Eye," Herman said. Then he said, jesting, "Maybe that's why we won so many games."

But Gabe Paul, a baseball lifer, 58 years in the business, has a precise memory of a psychologist on the Cubs' payroll. Paul told of a day when the Cubs were in Pittsburgh. The Cubs' shrink spent the morning at the hotel counseling Larry French, preparing him for his start against the Pirates.

The doctor was late getting to the ballpark. Upon arrival, before the first inning was completed, he discovered French was not on the mound. He hurried to the dugout and told manager Charlie Grimm:

"Charlie, I spent all morning with Larry French. Why isn't he pitching?"

Replied Grimm: "You're too late. He's already been knocked out of the box."

The best known of the baseball psychologists was Dr. David Farrell Tracy, who worked for the downtrodden St. Louis Browns. According to St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg, Dr. Tracy was a "gimlet-eyed guy from New York, a good drinker, with an eye for the ladies."

Tracy was with the Browns during their 1950 spring training exercises and lasted about a month into the championship season. Broeg and others are convinced that Charlie and Bill DeWitt, brothers who then owned the Browns, hired Tracy mostly as a publicity stunt.

Tracy was a strong believer in the power of hypnosis and constantly advised the players of the importance of being relaxed. His first week on the job he put Freddie "Bootnose" Hofmann, a Browns coach, into a trance.

Zack Taylor, the Browns' manager, was unimpressed. Scoffed Taylor, "I could have done that with a few beers."

Tom Ferrick, 76, and now retired, was a pitcher with the 1950 Browns. Ferrick has a vivid memory of Tracy, who also wrote a book, "Psychologist At Bat."

"He turned out to be a baseball fan who would have given anything to manage a big-league club," Ferrick said. "He was a big publicity seeker. And, after a while, he began second-guessing Zack's moves."

Ferrick also recalled that Tracy, on more than one occasion, "Put the whole club under, then he'd snap his fingers and we'd come out of it. Once, he had Owen Friend lie down across two chairs, stretched him out. And he had a couple of us stand on top of him."

A light-hitting infielder out of Granite City, Friend hit two home runs in one game, an unprecedented accomplishment for him. Delighted with his new-found power, Friend gave Tracy the credit.

"He taught me how to put myself to sleep," Ferrick said. "Even today, when I have trouble falling asleep, I follow his advice. I keep repeating, 'My eyes are getting heavy. My body is getting heavy.' It still works for me."

Ferrick laughed. "The owners got it backwards. The way they're throwing money around, they're the ones who need a psychiatrist."

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