#653: The Patron Saint of the Belly-Itchers

June 29th, 2016

Catch. Throw. “Ah, I overthought it.”

Catch. Throw. “I could feel it slipping.”

Catch. Throw. “Oof. Sorry, Dan.”

As I mentioned last month, I’ve been asked to throw out the first pitch at an upcoming Kane County Cougars minor league baseball game in August. I’m sort of a sports Einstein (in that I play like an elderly physicist), so for the last several weeks I’ve been practicing.

I know I’m not going to get great, but as visions of 50 Cent’s and Snoop Dogg’s humiliating first pitches swirled my brain (and Carly Rae Jepsen’s was no prize either), I decided to drive to the suburbs once a week to get pitching lessons from a friend who coaches his son’s Little League team.

And the son, OK? The 11-year-old boy is giving me tips as well.

I’m legitimately getting better now that I know things like “how to hold a baseball” (apparently, the position of the seams matters), but it’s a hard slog.

When I get discouraged, I think of Lennie Merullo, 1917-2015. The 98 year old was the last living person to play in the World Series as a Chicago Cub.

Merullo played shortstop for the Cubs from 1941-1947 and was, by all accounts, terrible. Slow and error-prone, his record of four errors in a single inning wasn’t matched until 1986.

He described himself as a “no-hit, very erratic player” in a 1983 letter * to newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

“However, it was not from not working at it,” Merullo added. “I worked at it too hard. I was not relaxed. Too tense.”

The letter was in reference to Royko’s yearly Cubs quiz. The columnist would kick off each new season by asking the most unbelievable Cubs trivia of the reader, from an outfielder who once missed a game claiming his eyelids got stuck (“the immortal Jose Cardenal”) to a player who made a throw from the outfield that went into the dugout, bounced through an open door and landed in a toilet (“the immortal Dave ‘Ding-Dong’ Kingman”).

But Royko always saved a barb for the terror and disappointment of his youth, “the immortal Lennie Merullo.”

Like this one, originally from 1968:

Q: The immortal Lennie Merullo couldn’t field or hit, and he wasn’t fast. What was he known for?

A: He was best known for not being able to field, hit or run fast.

Or this one, original date unknown:

Q: Everyone used to laugh at the immortal Lennie Merullo because he made so many errors at shortstop. And they laughed at the way he hit. But in 1947, he led the Cubs in stolen bases. How many bases did he steal that year?

A: Four. They laughed at him for that, too.

In that 1983 letter to Royko, Merullo talked about his life. He had become a well-respected scout, had a big family, still loved Cubs baseball. Royko in turn promised to knock off the Merullo-bashing, which, aside from when the Trib would reprint old Cubs quizzes, he did.

Merullo’s life was better and more amazing than he let Royko know. He still had a scar from the 1945 World Series, telling the New York Times in 2014 that he picked the scab for weeks, just so it would scar. He wanted a Series souvenir.

He was the Cubs’ chief scout from 1950-1972, later moving to the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau. He would end his stellar scouting career in 2003 at the age of 85.

That four-error inning, a feat the Associated Press reporter covering the game called “a new modern mark for errors,” was because he had just been told his first son, Len Merullo Jr., was born.

“The headline the next day in the Boston Globe said ‘Boots Is Born; Merullo Boots 4,’” Lennie Merullo told MaxPreps.com in 2010. “His own wife still calls him Boots.”

Boots Merullo grew up with baseball. He played in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system in the early ‘60s, but never quite came back from a broken leg in his first season.

“I grew up as a kid with Wrigley Field as our lawn,” Boots told MaxPreps.com. “We sawed the barrels off the bats so we could swing them. The clubhouse guy gave us sandwiches and then we sat in the stands and watched the games. It was huge, but it was always positive. It was like having 30-some uncles.”

Boots’ son Matt did take the family back to the majors, playing from 1989 to 1995 for various teams, mostly the White Sox. He later managed an Orioles minor league team and currently runs a youth baseball camp in Connecticut.

Nick Merullo, the fourth Merullo in the game, played for a few years with the Orioles system himself before returning to his hometown as a high school baseball coach.

Lennie Merullo started a four-generation almost-made-it dynasty. The Cubs’ goat became a legendary scout, honored and beloved at the end of his 98 years.

And he still sorta sucked.

“Perhaps my contribution to baseball can be described as being able to understand and have a feel for the player who is having a bad day—as I have had many, and know the feeling,” the immortal Lennie Merullo told Mike Royko one day in 1983.

Catch. Throw. “I let go too late.”

Catch. Throw. “Pushed it.”

Catch. Throw. “I don’t even know what happened with that one.”

As I learn at the age of 36 how to be a pitcher, not a belly-itcher, I take some comfort in my patron saint of Lennie Merullo. Maybe my one-pitch career will be a disaster, a la 50 Cent and Carly Rae, but even if it is, I know it will all be OK.

Read Merullo’s memories of baseball, Dizzy Dean and a declining Babe Ruth

Buy my coach’s latest book

Meet the Chicago Salmon “Base Ball” team

Why we play

My dad and I pretend to enjoy sports together

Cap Anson, Hippo Vaughn, Dandelion Pfeffer, Piano Legs Gore, Toothbrush Dailing and the other major Cubs error-makers of the last 140 years

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* The date is sometimes incorrectly given as 1989 because that’s when Royko’s syndicated column ran it, but it was originally published Aug. 21, 1983 in the Sun-Times.

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