Babe was crowd-crushing hit in Japan, too, Cascarella recalls

John Steadman

January 10, 1992|By John Steadman

This was one of those exciting steps back into time, a chance to find out again what it was like to be managed by Connie Mack, to try to get a pitch past Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx and to have known an era of baseball when some players were two-fisted drinkers, stayed up to see dawn's early light but never shortchanged the game in the afternoon.

Joe Cascarella was a Philadelphia A's rookie in 1934, winner of 12 games with a fifth-place club and is only one of two living members of the U.S. All-Star team that toured Japan later that year and went unbeaten in 16 encounters. Cascarella and Charley Gehringer, roommates on the trip, remain as survivors since all the others have moved on to the Great Adventure.

It has been reported that a million Japanese turned out to see Ruth the day he arrived. "That's wrong," said Cascarella. "Far more than that." There's a picture of Cascarella and Ruth in an open car as they were welcomed to Tokyo, surrounded by frenzied fans seeking a glimpse of America's most famous player. Police came to their rescue.

Cascarella and a friend, Sig Hyman, were at lunch in the dining room of the Suburban Country Club on a winter afternoon. They weren't exactly talking ancient history, merely incidents of six decades ago. What made it such a sterling occasion is Cascarella was able to relate firsthand, with photographic recall, what had evolved around him.

"When you have an unspectacular career, there's a way of

remembering things that no one else cared about but which were important to me," he said. Cascarella rarely turns the key to open his dugout memories and, when he does, it's usually in a humorous, self-deprecating way. Never one to take himself seriously but amiable to offer insight to some of the following:

Babe Ruth: "There was never a player or personality to compare. He was a great athlete. He could pitch and hit. And as an outfielder, he was superb. He could also steal a base. Truly a natural. His strength to swing a 52-ounce bat with unbelievable rhythm was unique. He did what only the great ones do, meet the ball just out front, before it gets to the plate.

"He could drink his share but so could a lot of players. He was never a drunkard, just an overgrown kid who was unspoiled and loved fun. The world wanted to touch Babe Ruth like no other celebrity. In 1935, the last game he played, he hit three home runs and the last one was the first ball ever driven completely over the top deck of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field."

Connie Mack: "I was asked if he ever came in the dressing room. The answer is never. The players went to his office in the tower at Shibe Park. Connie wore a straw hat in summer and a high collar, tie and suit on the hottest of days. When he talked to an umpire, he didn't charge the field. He requested the umpire come to the A's bench. His reputation was he never threw money around. True. He might have shot the buffalo on every nickel he had."

Lou Gehrig: "Somewhat distant. I remember him talking to me one time near the batting cage and saying how much he enjoyed the opera. I saw him have a better year than Ruth in 1934. He was a great hitter, but couldn't light up a room or a ballpark in the manner of the Babe."

Jimmie Foxx: "It's no secret he liked to drink. But a kind, wonderful fellow from the farmland of Maryland's Eastern Shore. He had brute strength. I saw him pick up Eddie Collins with one zTC hand, while horsing around, and put him in a locker and shut the door. I don't think Jimmie ever had an enemy. Just a simple man who was much beloved."

Charley Gehringer: "When our team went to Detroit, I expected to find him at the railroad station waiting to carry my bags. I'm sure he never wanted anything to happen to me. He hit me like it was batting practice. His swing was smooth and easy. Such natural grace."

There were some momentous moments for Cascarella, now 83, before he hurt his arm. It never got any better than his first appearance, Opening Day of 1934 against the New York Yankees in his hometown of Philadelphia. Cascarella came on in relief in a hitless eighth inning, struck out two, got the victory and it made for a neighborhood celebration.

If there was one individual who made a lasting impression on Joe it was catcher Moe Berg, who could speak eight languages, graduated Princeton and studied at the Sorbonne. "On board the luxury ship, Empress of Japan, it was Berg's desire to learn Japanese and he did -- between leaving Vancouver and arriving in Yokohama," recalled Cascarella. "He made a speech in their tongue and even autographed pictures by signing his name in both English and Japanese."

It was Berg, of course, who worked as undercover agent for the U.S. State Department while a ballplayer and made photographs of Tokyo from a hospital roof that were filed away and used in 1942 when the Air Force made its first raid. Berg, during World War II, was a spy who traveled in disguise all over Europe and contributed immensely to the American cause.

"Moe never told me at any time what he was doing," said Joe. "We had dinner once at the old Emerson Hotel when he was on his way to Washington and all he told me was he was involved in something important for the government. He was a one-in-a-million genius and character."

For Joe Cascarella, suave, impeccably mannered, who dresses better than an international diplomat, the simple world of baseball, as he knew it, was a paradoxical stage that even William Shakespeare, who couldn't hit off-speed pitches, wouldn't have been able to remotely understand because of the varying complexity of the strange characters who passed in review.

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