Lenny Shecter is best remembered as the man behind Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four but for a generation of sports fans who followed Shecter’s columns in the New York Post in the late Fifties and the early Sixties he stands as one of the great sports writers of them all. He had a quick-witted, thoughtful and irreverent style and did not give a damn about knocking down any False Gods.
Shecter eventually wrote for magazines and did write a few books, including The Jocks, a fierce and cynical collection of essays about the world of sports. It was published the year before Ball Four and Shecter’s take on the famed Mantle-Berra-Ford Yankee teams is much tougher in The Jocks than in Bouton’s book.
A few years ago I hit the microfilm room in the main branch of the New York Public Library in search of Shecter's Post columns.
Here's a small sampling of his ledes from 1961 when he covered the Maris-Mantle home run chase, and 1962, the first season of the Mets:
April 7, 1961
The Yankee spring training camp had to be the strangest in ten years. It was run as though it was a St. Petersburg subdivision of General Motors and while there has long been an air of cold efficiency which hovers about the Yankees like the odor around the beach at low tide, an important softening ingredient was missing. Casey Stengel.
October 2, 1961
Great events of history are over swiftly. A ball, even if it’s the first in the long and noble history of baseball to be hit for a 61st home run, takes only a few heartbeats of time to be propelled from home plate to the outfield seats.
For those who were at Yankee Stadium yesterday, some 24,000 people, it was over all too quickly. It would have been better if the ball leaped in exaltation, turned in the air and wrote a saucy message (like WHEEE!) against the blue sky, dipped nobly and shed a tear over the monument to Babe Ruth in center field.
But the way it was the count was two balls and no strikes. Roger Maris hitched up his trousers, pumped the bat once toward the pitcher, Tracy Stallard, young Boston righthander, then waited.
March 23, 1962
When Casey Stengel walked into the special press room here last night he was wearing a blue serge suit, slicked back hair and a cat that ate the canary expression.
The hard-nosed reporters, radio and TV men present, who had been guzzling Mrs. C. S. Payson’s booze, and gobbling her caviar and horo d’oewvres, broke into applause. It was the most heart warming exhibition of emotion since Shirley Temple declared her undying love for Steppin’ Fetchit.
Stengel raised his large hands and waved them like a Philharmonic conductor deprecating applause and asking for silence. “It shows you,” he said, “how easy this business is.”
It was the climax of a triumphant day, probably there hasn’t been one like it since the Allies marched into Paris. For it was the day in which the new New York team beat the old New York team and the way it happened couldn’t have been more thrilling. It was good for the Mets, it was good for baseball. It may have even been good for the Yankees.
April 8, 1962
The recent machinations of the Chicago White Sox have been observed with mingled fascination and pity; it’s been like watching a fat lady wriggle into a tight girdle. The White Sox have tried everything including shoe horns, were rewarded with a pennant in ’59, had nothing but that laced up feeling in suceeding years. Now they’re trying to do it again the way they did in ’59. Somehow the girdle has shrunk.
October 2, 1962
The day that ended so well for Willie Mays started off badly. “I didn’t have breakfast,” he said. Then he explained why. “First, I have no maid. Second, I have no wife. Third, I can’t cook.”
So on an empty stomach he hit two home runs and a single, was on base four times, scored three runs and knocked in the same number including the important first two. It was quite enough to beat the Dodgers, just as a single home run was enough to beat the Dodgers. It all left Al Dark, the cautious manager, talking about the greatness of Willie Mays. And it left Willie Mays telling jokes.
The following Day…
Choke is what you do when you get chicken in the throat. It’s possible to be so scared you can’t stand up and what man knows how he’d react to a gun in the belly until it’s there?
That makes “choke” a harsh word, but until they scored seven runs in the sixth inning yesterday on the way to winning what must go down as one of the most exciting games in the crowded annals of baseball, that’s the word that was being applied to the Dodgers.
This is a give-up city and when the Dodgers couldn’t do any better than tie in 162 games only 25,000 or so turned out for yesterday’s playoff game and the talk was about choking and not having heart (which is what you gotta have, miles and miles of it).
October 17, 1962
When the game was over, crack, snap, like a breakfast cereal, the crack off Willie McCovey’s bat, the snap into Bobby Richardson’s glove a heartbeat later, Ralph Terry threw his baseball glove into the air. Then he threw his hat.
Sure as Mrs. Wagner makes apple pies his shoes and socks would have gone next except that Clete Boyer and Bill Stafford came along, picked him off his feet and carried him to the clubhouse.
The last time a Yankee was carried off the field like that MGM made the picture and it was fiction. But truth is stranger than etc. and the only reason this happened to Terry is that he deserved it.