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6/21/2003
Worst, wildest, weirdest
From notorious fixers to drinkers and wife-swappers, Spokane Indians rosters have included all sorts

» John Blanchette / The Spokesman-Review

Never mind the best. Who's the baddest?

Baseball history doesn't stop at the Hall of Fame -- though, yes, there are seven links to Cooperstown with a single degree of separation from the Spokane Indians.

There's also the Hall of Shame, the Hall of Infamy, the Hall of Raising Cain -- and the Hall of Strange.

Spokane is well represented in all halls. The besotted, the venal, the haunted, the flaky, the star-crossed -- all played here alongside the baseball heroes of 100 years.

The worst and the weirdest, right next to the best.

Exhibit A: Of the 15 players permanently banned from baseball this century, two played in Spokane -- in the same season.

The more notorious was, of course, Charles “Swede” Risberg -- one of the eight Chicago White Sox players guilty, if not convicted, of conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. The other was pitcher Shufflin' Phil Douglas, who was expelled in 1922 for offering to throw games.

They were teammates on the last-place 1913 Spokane Indians -- though Risberg, a raw teen, was here but three weeks.

A third-grade dropout, Risberg not only was one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox, he threatened to kill Shoeless Joe Jackson if the star outfielder confessed to the plot.

“The Swede is a hard guy,” Jackson told prosecutors. “Some guys are hard but they know when to stop. The Swede don't know when to stop.”

Indeed, Risberg later tried to smear teammates who hadn't been in on the fix -- the “white lilies,” he called them -- by alleging they'd chipped in to bribe Detroit to throw games in 1917. During a hearing, Tigers pitcher Bernie Boland yelled at Risberg, “You're still a pig!”

Douglas, meanwhile, wasn't feared, he was footloose -- and frequently drunk.

A strapping right-handed pitcher, the Shuffler was optioned by the White Sox to San Francisco out of spring training in 1913, but his gadlfy ways got him released to Spokane before midseason. And after he went off on a toot here, the Indians couldn't wait to sell him to Cincinnati.

His undoing was an alcoholic AWOL from the Giants that earned him a vicious reaming from manager John McGraw. That's when Douglas penned an incoherent letter to Les Mann of the Cardinals, seeking a bribe to throw the pennant and double-cross his hated boss.

“He should have never been thrown out of baseball,” insisted George “Highpockets” Kelly -- one of those Spokane Hall of Famers and a Giants teammate. “But he wouldn't speak out to save himself. He was a man. He was no wishy-washy guy.”

Other world-class drunkards wore the Spokane uniform -- especially in the pre-Indians era. Pitcher George Borchers once abducted a prominent citizen's daughter in Sacramento. Outfielder Fred Jevne belted an umpire for a called third strike. Infielder Heinie Reitz disappeared on benders three times in 1902.

But it wasn't confined to one era.

Art Fowler from the Dodgers farm clubs of the late 1950s became Billy Martin's pitching coach/drinking bobo, stirring up trouble in saloons and teaching Billy's pitchers the spitter.

Catcher Jim Pagliaroni, a '60 Indian, was famously quoted in Jim Bouton's ground-breaking “Ball Four” grousing about early batting practice: “Ten-thirty? I'm not even done throwing up at that hour.”

And the lowlight for 1981's fill-in manager, Ken Pape, wasn't his 43-77 record, but a DUI he rang up after an off-day golf outing.

But breakfast could be as dangerous as the bottle. In 2001, pitcher Rafael Garcia stabbed catcher Jose Durand with a paring knife during an argument at their apartment on Havana.

At 10 a.m.

And there have been as many oddballs as bad actors.

Lenny Randle, a free spirit from the '73 Indians, once dropped to his hands and knees to blow a bunt foul when he played for the Mariners and later cut a comedy album. J. Murray O'Flynne, a pre-WWII pitcher, became a baseball clown. Shortstop Joe Abreu (1937) knew 400 card tricks.

And Mike Kekich made his wife disappear.

A pitcher who did three stints in Spokane with different organizations, Kekich swapped wives, children and dogs with Fritz Peterson when both were with the Yankees in 1973. Alas, Peterson's new coupling took; Kekich and Peterson's wife never clicked.

“We may have to call off Family Day,” deadpanned a Yankees exec.

The Indians have had their tragic figures, too.

First baseman Doug Blosser, sent home for violating team rules in 1996, returned to have a great season in 1997 -- spurred by scolding from his older brother, Greg, a former big leaguer. But that winter, Doug and a high school friend died in a rollover on a dark, two-lane Florida road.

And no one was more haunted than Danny Thomas.

A top Milwaukee prospect, Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown and turned for salvation to the Worldwide Church of God -- announcing at spring training in '77 that he would not play on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

He was the Sundown Kid.

Thomas started the season with the Brewers, but was sent to Spokane in May, eventually with an ultimatim to play full-time or be suspended. But it wasn't until August -- with Thomas hitting just .237 -- that the Brewers demoted him again, just two weeks after his wife, Judy, gave birth to a son at Valley General Hospital.

“It's like they're asking me, `Do you want to stay in the minor leagues the rest of your life? Conform or get out,”' Thomas said.

He got out. The next year, he won a Northwest League batting title for an independent Boise team. But he remained a troubled soul, and in 1980 came word that he'd hanged himself in an Alabama jail cell, facing charges that he'd raped a 12-year-old.

Danny Thomas found religion, but no salvation.

 
 
 
 
 
 
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