It's a classic story: scout drives out to the sticks to check out some big-fish-small-ponder, reared in blue-collarsdom, a southpaw with an unhittable curve, and turns up something better—a top prospect completely off the radar. So was the case when New York Yankees lookout Wynn Benston traveled to Linton, Indiana to investigate a pitcher by the name of Elroy McKenney (who, Benston would later add, was tremendously talented in his own right and might someday, with further training, make a fine addition to the organization). He came upon MURPHY IF FOUND PLEASE DIAL KL 5-9872 on his way back to the hotel. As Benston watched him sprint laterally to his Cadillac, leaping to take chomps at the side view mirror, he noted, in his official report, an athleticism beyond any prospect he'd ever evaluated.
Back in New York, MURPHY blew away the competition. Four players, collected from the most cobwebbed corners of the country. The tryout took place at a nearby city high school. It was attended by several coaches and agents and an assistant to the general manager. Morning showers had soaked the field to a muddy pulp and the wind continued to gust in uneven spurts. The conditions didn't discourage MURPHY. He obliterated the first baseline in a blur of fur, recording the fastest ten-yard split in team history. In the outfield, he chased down balls with a tenacity and persistence that led the coaches to compare him with another famous ball shagger, the one they looked up to when they were kids, Jimmy Sheckard. "Can he bat?" they wondered. With the bat clamped between his teeth, he made gentle contact with the ball, nipping it a few inches in front of the plate. The bat dropped from his mouth, its grip tarred with slobber. "Well, if he can run like that, it doesn't matter how he is at the bag."
He signed the contract with an inked paw.
The arrangement was proposed as an empty pleasantry, certainly not something he expected him to accept—not just accept, but leap at. Benston, a widower, hadn't lived with anyone for sixteen years. He didn't receive visitors. He and his wife had never had children (they tried, briefly, without any success). He had a few friends, but most—like himself—were scouts, and their relationship was built on that single commonality. His family had winnowed to one. The second bedroom in his apartment was filled with scouting reports and scorecards, thousands of them, mostly high school and minor league games. They were organized in boxes by date, and the boxes were stacked by whim, like some unattributed ancient ruin. He masoned the boxes against the far wall, until it was uniformly brown, dragged in the second mattress from his bedroom (his back could cope for a few nights). He picked up the damp towels that normally would have been ignored for weeks, scrubbed the dirty dishes in the sink. He stocked the bathroom with extra toilet paper and soap. He dusted the cabinets, puffed pillows, swept underneath the couch.
Benston heard the soft patter of MURPHY's paws outside his door and went to let him in. MURPHY stood in the door frame, the leather handle of a gladstone between his teeth.
"Come on in," Benston said, waving him inside. MURPHY dropped the luggage and looked around the room. "Can I give you a tour?"
Benston started walking and MURPHY followed. He showed him the two bedrooms, the bathroom, the closet where he kept the fresh towels and linens. He went over how to start the washing machine, how you had to jiggle the knob a certain way. ("Bet you've never seen one of these top-loaders before," he said, slapping the side of the contraption.) In the kitchen, he directed him to the breakfast cereals, the plates and glasses and silverware. He showed him the living room, which required little in the way of an explanation.
"And that's about it," he said. "Not too fancy, but it does the job."
MURPHY sniffed along the edge of the carpet, at last settling below the living room window. The curtains parted, the sun gilding his mussed fur.
Questions about his race were raised. No one knew exactly what to make of his coat, an even blend of darker and lighter tones. The Yankees had yet to host a mixed-race athlete and some fans believed the team wasn't ready for change of this scale. Others saw it as a great step forward, since nearly half of the league had already integrated. The Yankees refused to release his birth records to the public, which only fueled further speculation, and not just about his race, but about his age and his place of birth. He was listed at twenty-eight years old, but there were rumors floating around that he was as young as four. The story was propped on a tee for the media; they swung and swung hard. Parodies on evening TV. Jokes between radio personalities. The front page of the New York Post featured a drawing of MURPHY in a pinstriped diaper, a pacifier in his mouth. On Meet the Press, a panel of baseball experts was brought in to debate the case. "How do we know he is who he says he is? What if this kid is a spy for the Reds, sent to steal the secret of the American curveball? And I don't mean those kids from Cincinnati, though God knows they could use the secret too. I'm not saying he is a spy or he isn't, just don't be surprised if we suddenly see a team of comrades with one foot breakers, come to challenge our boys to a game of ball with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance," the one expert said, hammering his fist against the table, saliva scattering from his mouth with each syllable. The other experts nodded in consensus.
Casey Stengel, Manager
"I don't care what the newspapers say about him. Those journalists are always yammering about something. I can never figure it out. All I know is that this kid has got talent and he's going to help us chase the pennant, this year, next year, and for a lot of years to come."
Every morning Benston would find a small nest of hairs built over the shower drain. Those tiny hairs, they got everywhere. He unraveled them from the fibers of his clothes, from the weave of the rug, from the bowls of bran cereal he poured in the morning. Cohabitation—it was a strange thing at his age. He could gauge MURPHY's stress level just by counting the hairs on his pillow—a number which seemed to be growing steadily. The Yankees practice schedule was ruthless. MURPHY set out before Benston woke, and when he arrived back at the apartment wanted nothing more than to curl up on his bed and sleep. Benston helped out in what little ways he could. He took to sewing the socks the boy tore through with his long, ungainly nails. He cooked enough for seconds and offered MURPHY the leftovers, acting as if he'd made an error in measurement. At night, when Benston couldn't sleep, he pressed his ear to the wall and listened for the sound of scratching in the next room. He found the sound terrifically soothing, like falling rain.
The Valley of the Sun
In February, the team made their annual pilgrimage to Phoenix, Arizona for spring training. In an act of "camaraderie" (the word used to explain their actions to the third base coach, Frankie Crosetti, who popped each of them on the back of the head), veteran shortstop Phil Rizzuto and curveballing middle reliever Johnny Schmitz flooded MURPHY's locker with shaving cream—reprisal, it was presumed, for his steadfast refusal to shave the thick pelt of hair that covered most of his face, despite enduring requests from the organization for a neater appearance. He was given an empty cubby in the corner for the day, while the cleaning crew scraped the crusted cream from the edges of the locker.
Feeling a sudden swell of sympathy for MURPHY, outfielder Eugene Woodling and starting pitcher Whitey Ford, recalling glumly their own struggles to earn respect within the clubhouse, invited him out to a jazz club one night. The evening, however, was cut short when some roughneck with skin as tanned and fists as large as catchers' mitts accused MURPHY of making advances toward his busty blonde companion, and then attempted to kick him with one of his wingtip shoes. MURPHY dove from the shoe's path and sprung at his left calf, fastening his teeth around a fat hock of muscle. The man screamed and wept and when finally the two were separated, MURPHY had stripped a sizable chunk of flesh from the leg. Photographs of the brawl were taken—the man swinging his left leg, veins etched across his forehead, MURPHY dangling from the calf as if attached to a ceiling fan—but the Yankees, as was the fashion, paid handsomely to keep the pictures out of the papers.
A heat wave brought the cities along the southern border to a boil. Temperatures were running upward of 105 degrees. Three games into Cactus League play, during an exhibition against the Indians, MURPHY fainted. Eight pitches passed before his comatose figure was noticed in centerfield and time was called. From the bleachers Benston had watched him swoon in the shimmering heat, marooned in the deepest third of the outfield. He had shouted to the officials, a number of times, but no one heard him. They carted him off the field on a stretcher. Benston followed the ambulance in his car.
In the waiting room he thumbed through year-old magazines, too agitated to follow any narrative thread for longer than a few seconds. When he asked the nurses for updates they said they would check on him but never returned. The team physician told Benston he could go back to the training facility, and that he was confident MURPHY would be fine—the boy was responsive, after all. But Benston wanted to know for sure. He'd seen too many curveballs in his day to assume the best of any situation.
"I keep thinking about this story I read in the paper the other day, about a woman who was struck down in the road. She was walking home with a bottle of milk, and that was it. Eighteen cars passing before someone finally stopped, saw that she was badly hurt, and went to get help. Sometimes you wonder what it's all about. I used to think I was doing something important, something that mattered to people. Sometimes it feels like I made the wrong choice, that I was better off in a different line of work. Sometimes I'm not sure it wasn't a mistake bringing you here."
So Long, Arizona
Dehydration was the official diagnosis. MURPHY sat for the next two games, resting. The physician ordered a water bowl be placed in the corner of the dugout. The episode earned him the nickname "Princess" among teammates, and even some of the coaching staff. After practice he would often find a tube of lipstick or a lacy brassiere in his locker. But as the weeks passed and Cactus League play neared its end, the clubhouse warmed to him. His play on the field was beginning to win out. His energy was infectious. He led pregame wind sprints and warm-ups, and when the team returned to New York at the end of spring training he'd even made a few friends.
The city press was relentless. MURPHY's muted—as some described it, arrogant—manner earned him few fans among journalists, who were unable to get the sound bites they wanted, only grumblings and growls, hardly coherent and vaguely threatening. The mystery man angle was infuriating. Where was his family? His wife? Who was he? Who was he really?
"You know, you dream of this your whole life, playing in the big show. And you get there and it's a hoot at first—the crowds and the hotels and all the fancy meals—and you're loving every minute of it. But then you forget about the crowds, you start blocking out the noise, the hotel rooms are always too small, and the food don't seem so fancy anymore. The money's never enough. And you got a woman waiting for you at home, but she ain't as pretty as the girl asking for your autograph. And you take the girl out for a meal while your old lady is at home, cooking and cleaning, raising your kids. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I don't feel nothing anymore. Nothing. It's just another day at the office, you know. What I wouldn't give to feel that way again, the way I used to feel when I stepped onto a diamond."
Tuesday, March 24, 1953
House Un-American Activities Committee
Chairman Velde: Can you state your full name and occupation for the record?
Chairman Velde: Can you speak up?
Mr. Tofflemire: He said his name is MURPHY KL 5-9872 and he plays centerfield for the New York Yankees.
Chairman Velde: Mickey Mantle plays center.
Mr. Tofflemire: Mantle is a better fit in left with his bum knee.
Chairman Velde: KL 5-9872, you say? I don't suppose that's a Russian last name.
Mr. Tofflemire: He's a Hoosier, your honor.
Chairman Velde: Chairman is fine, Mr. Tofflemire.
Mr. Tofflemire: I apologize, sir. Force of habit.
Chairman Velde: Mr. Tofflemire, if you insist on answering every question for your client, can you tell me why a healthy, twenty-eight year old boy, an athlete no less, has no record of military service?
Mr. Tofflemire: The military doctors deemed him unfit for service. In both conflicts.
Chairman Velde: Unfit? Now why is that, Mr. Tofflemire.
Mr. Tofflemire: Fleas.
Chairman Velde: Fleas?
Mr. Tofflemire: Yes, fleas.
Chairman Velde: Am I meant to believe that on two separate occasions a case of fleas kept this boy from serving his country?
Mr. Tofflemire: Yes.
Chairman Velde: What do you have to say about these fleas, Mr. KL 5-9872?
A passion for baseball-themed films that traced back to his days in college (before the inception of sound), Benston once watched The Pride of the Yankees sixteen times when it first was released. He would well up with tears each time Gary Cooper delivered his farewell address to the fans. Tonight he was watching It Happens Every Spring on his film projector, a Revere 8mm. How many times had he seen it? Fifteen? Twenty? More? He traded a kid who worked at the cinema a baseball autographed by the entire 1950 World Series team for the machine, which the boy didn't exactly own, but he knew the theatre manager would be too distracted to notice its disappearance. The kid showed him how to load the reels and Benston continued to pay employees in paraphernalia to smuggle him new films. MURPHY, red eyed and dog-tired from practice, scuffled through the kitchen, into the living room. He gestured with his head toward the image on the wall. "It Happens Every Spring. Ray Milland," Benston said. "Ever seen it?" MURPHY hopped wearily onto the couch. He nosed forward, toward Benston, sniffing his lap before gently letting his head down. Benston, surprised, rested a hand on his shoulder, and then his head. He ruffled the hair between his sagging ears. Both were asleep before the closing credits.
Opening day: the tick of turnstiles, the yowl of vendors, the pristine dirt and lush green fields, incinerated with light, faces wide and bright with anticipation. The players performed their pregame routines (Rizzuto took practice cuts outside the batter's box, then stamped his bat in the grass like a used cigar, ashed two donut-shaped weights. Martin and Collins tossed the ball across the infield. Berra moved his legs up and down like he was dancing some kind of traditional jig). The stadium filled quickly. Father and son, brother and brother, man and wife. Leather gloves swelled from wrists. Flannel suits and fedoras aslant, flowered dresses and Easter bonnets. Children brandished felt pennants, IFFOUNDPLEASEDIALKL59872 ironed on in a narrowing font. The players finished their prerequisite drills and lined up in front of the dugout. Hats on hearts, they leveled their postures for the national anthem. The ceremonial first pitch was tossed and the team posed for several photographs with a local Boy Scout troop. The umpire called play ball, in the most operatic voice he could muster, and MURPHY and the rest of the team took the field to a deafening applause.
Benston preferred to watch the games from the comfort of his den, where he could lean in close to the screen, spot small tics and hitches in swings and throwing motions. However, he didn't feel like watching the game alone. The organization sent him a ticket for opening day. No box, no guests, just a single seat—stiff as a board—along the first baseline. No thanks. He found a hole-in-the-wall bar down the road, took a booth near the radio. He rarely drank but ordered a gin and tonic and sipped at it slowly. Two men at the bar made jokes about MURPHY, the way he looked, the unmerited praise. Benston wanted nothing more than to walk over to the bar and sock each of them in the mouth, but he was too old now and would undoubtedly impose more damage on himself than anyone else. So, instead, he said to them, "Can you pipe down? I'm trying to listen to the game." They looked at the old man, pityingly, and continued their conversation.
YANKS FALL ON OPENING DAY
NEW YORK—The Yankees' bid for a fifth straight pennant encountered an early roadblock yesterday after the defending champions were blanked by the Philadelphia Athletics. Allie Clark and Ray Murray each clocked a longballs for the visiting A's, who tallied five runs as a team. Alex Kellner, the crafty southpaw, was nearly unhittable on this frigid April night, surrendering just six hits on the way to a complete game shutout. "What can I say? He got the best of us this time around," said Gil McDougald, the Yankees' third baseman. "You take your cuts but sometimes it just ain't your night."
MURPHY IF FOUND PLEASE DIAL KL 5-9872, the marquee acquisition this offseason, never found his playing form. At his first appearance at the plate, Kellner struck him out on three consecutive pitches, two knucklers and an inside fastball. MURPHY was able to reach first at his following at-bat, on a slow-rolling bunt, crossing the base before the catcher could get a clean handle on the ball. However, two pitches later, he was the victim of a pickoff attempt after Kellner caught him napping, curled around Eddie Robinson's left cleat.
An exciting moment occured in the top of the third when the A's Gus Zernial connected on a stray curve, driving the ball hard and straight. MURPHY raced back toward the warning track, leapt and kicked off the wall. With the sharp jerk of his head he caught the ball between his front teeth, spurring a sudden outpouring of applause. However, the excitement quickly diminished after he failed to deliver the relay. The runner on second tagged up and started toward third, but MURPHY continued to gallop along the warning track, snapping his head back and forth, tearing the stitches from the ball. Crackerjacks and peanut shells rained down from the upper decks as the runner rounded third and headed home. Finally, once the runner had returned to the dugout, MURPHY dropped the ball in front of Hank Bauer in right field, waiting anxiously for him to throw it.
After the game, when asked to give an evaluation of MURPHY's performance, manager Casey Stengel shook his head, "He's just a kid. He'll have some bumps along the way." He declined to answer any further questions about the young player. The Yankees face the Athletics again tonight, with Allie Reynolds taking the mound for the Bronx Bombers.
Another biting incident—this time, an umpire—earned MURPHY a suspension of twenty-nine games. Back in pinstripes, rumors began circulating that the club was planning to ship him downriver to their minor league affiliate, Kansas City, to see how he fared on the farm, though no one could cite their source. During the seventh inning stretch, when the camera panned across the dugout, viewers might have spotted him at the end of the bench, a dark hat sitting crookedly on his head. His pelt looked somehow less voluminous, or less lustrous, than it had at the start of the season. His tongue drooped from the side of his mouth like the flag of a rival team, trampled and dragged through dirt. After most games Wynn Benston would wait for him outside the player locker rooms. MURPHY's face brightened when he saw him; his tail recaptured some of its verve. Benston took his duffel and they walked to a public field near the stadium. The city was dark, thinned out. He pulled a chewed up ball from his pocket, and MURPHY started jumping in circles around him. A pale moon hovered above the bleachers. Cars hummed serenely from the outlying streets. He began by whipping grounders down either baseline, which MURPHY retrieved with little difficulty. Then he threw the ball deeper, past the infield. And deeper, until he felt a jolt of pain spread through his elbow and his shoulder. And, still, he kept throwing the ball, farther and farther, as far as he could throw it, stifling the urge to wince. There was always a moment when Benston lost his form to the darkness, even his panting, the jingle of his necklace, for a few short seconds, slipped away, and he was always hoping the boy had overrun the ball, caught his stride, the wind in his fur, a compass of stars, and hurdled the fence in a single, elegant motion, and kept running, swiftly, beautifully, toward home . . . But no, here he was, once again, the ball gleaming in his mouth, pinned between spectral teeth, just hanging there, in his shadow, like a lone flashlight combing the dark for some small and irreplaceable trinket.