Thursday, July 19, 2012

Robert Creamer, 1922-2012

Robert W. Creamer died yesterday. He was born in Bronxville, Westchester County, New York, on July 14, 1922, and just made it past his 90th birthday when he passed away from cancer.

In 1984, he published Stengel: His Life and Times, a biography of Casey Stengel, a comical but decent-playing outfielder who became a comical but genius manager, winning 7 World Series and reaching 3 others with the Yankees from 1949 to 1960.

In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley said the Stengel book was the second-best American sports biography. The best was Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. Creamer wrote that, too, publishing it in 1974, just in time for Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs to be approached and broken by Hank Aaron.

Although Leigh Montville's recent The Big Bam debunked a lot of legends about Ruth, and corrected a lot of mistakes that Creamer, not knowing they were tall tales rather than accurate facts, had reprinted, Creamer's Stengel bio is still the definitive work on the Ol' Perfesser.

In Ken Burns' 1994 miniseries Baseball, Creamer was one of the interviewees, and he said, "I think Stengel is, outside of Ruth, the most interesting man who's ever been involved with baseball."

I don't think so. In fact, I would say that Ruth isn't even in the top 10 of most interesting baseball personalities. I would put Branch Rickey on top, and I would also put the man that Rickey signed to integrate baseball, Jackie Robinson, ahead of Ruth and Stengel.

But Creamer did manage to examine the "clown" myth of Stengel, and show that, while an important part of his personality, it hid the fact that Casey was one of the sharpest minds in baseball history.

His manner of speech, both mocked and celebrated as "Stengelese," wasn't something that just happened. It was a purposeful gimmick.

"Stengel hated dead air," Creamer explained -- just like nature abhors a vacuum. Casey would put in a lot of "Well, well... " and "You see... " before he could think of the point he wanted to make. And then he'd go off, and do 15 minutes, running the gamut from today's game to some game he played back in 1917 that had only a tangential connection to today's game, but halfway through, the reporters forgot what they wanted to know about.

In other words, by making the sportswriters focus on what he was saying, he could take their minds off of mistakes -- on the field an off -- that his players were making.

Stengel was always seen as an old man, but he never lost his childlike enthusiasm. Likewise, Ruth was an overgrown kid, always more comfortable around children than adults.

And yet, Creamer (and, later, so did Montville) helped to dispel the myth that the Babe was a simpleton. More like a savant: What he knew, he knew very well. He couldn't remember names to save his life, but he remembered batters' swings and pitchers' tendencies.

Come to think of it, Stengel also had trouble with names: He'd remember a name as something similar to a name he knew. When he managed the Mets at the end of his career, he had a catcher named Chris Cannizzaro. Casey called him "Canzoneri," thinking of Tony Canzoneri, a great boxer who won the bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight titles in the 1930s.

My favorite Creamer book is Baseball in '41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever -- in the Year America Went to War. There have been lots of books about baseball in 1941, but most of them focus on Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak, or Ted Williams gunning for a .400 batting average and becoming, to this day, the last man to do it.

Creamer discusses those astonishing feats, but also the great National League Pennant race between two rising teams that would dominate the NL in the 1940s: The Brooklyn Dodgers, who were damn close to going out of business not long before, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Creamer also focused on how World War II was affecting American life, including baseball, even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of the calendar year. He, himself, would soon enlist, and be wounded in combat.

He also wrote "as told to books" with Mickey Mantle (in 1964, while Mickey was still playing), Ralph Houk, broadcaster Red Barber and Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlan.

In 1954, Creamer would be hired on the founding staff of Sports Illustrated. When the magazine celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 1984, there were only 2 names on its publication box that were there at the beginning: Those of Creamer and magazine founder Henry R. Luce (who also co-founded Time, and founded Life and Fortune). Creamer left the next year, but still occasionally contributed.

When interviewed by Burns in 1994, he was asked what's so great about baseball. "It's fun," he said. He said something after that, but it was just details. What else needs to be said? "It's fun."

So was Bob Creamer.

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