Big John's Curse
from the novel The Grand Fool Double
One of the few happy circumstances in the history of the Memphis Blues is its name. Long before anyone knew the crucial role that negro music would play in the life of the city, the Blues were named for the color of their uniforms, in the manner of the Cincinnati Redlegs or the Chicago White Sox.
Interestingly, one of the first to recognize the appeal of the music was the team owner, Sal Withers, who began to bring negro musicians to his Bijou Hotel in the early ‘20s. Since he was already flouting the law by selling illegal hooch, Withers saw little added risk in introducing “race music.” When he discovered that the new music shared a name with his ballclub, he liked the idea even more.
The biggest draw among the blues players was Big John Spillums, a guitarist and singer from New Orleans. In 1924, three months after the Blues won their second straight World Series, Spillums played a full month at the Bijou and packed them in, every night. At the end of the month, when he went to collect his final week’s pay, he was told he wouldn’t be getting it.
“Lodgin’ fees,” said the manager. “Meals, drinks, toiletries. Did you think these things came free of charge?”
“I was told specifically that they were,” said Big John. “I made you people a fortune.”
“Nonsense. Those people are here for the gin. We could have a string quartet, for all they care.”
“Now you know that ain’t true. I got people comin’ all the way from St. Louis to see me!”
The bartender, a big Irishman with a face like an old cheese, appeared at the manager’s shoulder, smacking a billy club against his palm.
“This nigger givin’ you trouble, boss?”
Big John, well-acquainted with white justice, decided he’d best be content with his three weeks’ pay. He was standing outside in the rain, planning his next move, when Sal Withers’ Pierce-Arrow pulled up.
“Mr. Withers!” said Big John. “There’s been a mistake, sir. They took out my last week’s pay.”
But Big John, whose size always made him look more threatening than he was, was standing too close for the liking of Withers’ driver, Jimmy Collins. Collins shoved Big John into the mud. What was worse, Big John landed on his guitar, smashing it to pieces. Sal Withers turned at the top of the stairs to admire Jimmy’s work.
Big John struggled to his feet. Seeing the remains of his beloved instrument, he turned to Withers and called out in a voice bolstered by years of singing in juke joints. It was said that half of Memphis could hear him.
“You done it now, Withers! That ball team o’ yours ain’t never gonna win again! You done messed with the wrong man!”
Withers laughed, and walked inside. Big John left his guitar where it lay and headed for the train station.
His words would have disappeared into the gumbo of history, were it not for Duffy’s Drop. That very season, Duffy Webster, the best oufielder in the league, dropped an easy fly ball that would have iced the pennant. The Blues lost their last two games, and the Boston Braves went to the Series. Such a horrific turn of events had to have a cause. When Memphis sportswriter Pops Caulkins dug up the tale of Big John Spillums, the bluesman with the voodoo powers, the fans ate it up like Crackerjacks.
The Drop was followed by Bob’s Big Boot in 1947 and the sixth-game collapse in the ’58 Series. In 1964, Teddy James took Skip Henry’s Doofus Pitch – a high, arcing slowball that had not once in ten years been hit over a fence – and homered to win a three-game tiebreaker. In 1983, a team-wide outbreak of the flu caused the Blues to waste a seven-game division lead in the last ten days.
In 1998, Memphis had what many considered its best team ever: Ted Fitzsimmons in center, Pasco Fernandez at short, Richie Campbell firing 97-mile-per-hour heaters from the mound. Memphis fans loosened up the scar tissue around their hearts and began to take a few perilous steps toward hope.
In the opening series, the Blues made short work of the Marlins, sweeping them in three games. In the championship series against the Cardinals, they quickly built a lead of three games to one, but lost the fifth game behind their weakest pitcher, Peter Kowalevski.
Still, things were looking good, because Blues manager Fred Silvestri had made an unusual gamble. In Game 4, the Blues opened a 9-0 lead after three innings, and Silvestri took the extraordinary move of pulling Campbell, letting his highly regarded bullpen put the icing on an 11-3 cake. Now, Silvestri was ready to cash in: a rested Campbell, all set to put the final touches on a Series championship.
Richie, however, was strangely off his game, struggling to find the tiny strike zone of home plate umpire Tony Canigula. The Cards answered with knuckleballer Augie Stephens, whose pitches were dipping and dunking like drunken mosquitoes.
The Blues managed to stay within striking distance, behind 4-2, and found their opening in the eighth inning. Stephens suddenly lost his touch, walking the first two batters, and they put in reliever Pedro Piñon. Piñon got the first out on an infield pop, then Brent McCarthy singled to score the runner from second. Cal Davis struck out, leaving the Blues behind 4-3, with two outs and men on first and third.
On the first pitch, Pasco Fernandez reached out and slashed the ball down the right-field line. It landed a foot fair, spun to the right, then struck the bullpen mound and took a high hop toward the stands.
Withers Field is a quirky old place, and there along the foul line the stands jut out at an odd angle. Through the years, a handful of right fielders found themselves in situations where they couldn’t throw home – because they couldn’t see home.
Seated at the high left-hand corner of this impediment was a Memphis jazz singer named Billy Saddle. Saddle was the only one of 45,000 fans who had a chance at this unusual ramp-shot. Sadly for Blues fans, he also had some skills, having played ball in college.
In a standard situation, once a ball has crossed the invisible plane between field and stands, all bets are off – and the spectators are free to pursue every fan’s dream of the ultimate souvenir. But Billy Saddle had not thought out the unique nature of his position. A careful perusal of the replay (one of the most-watched replays in baseball history) reveals the outcome. Saddle extends upward for a beautiful barehanded grab. He immediately clutches his prize and turns around – perhaps anticipating the pummeling often given to catchers of valued baseballs. From this vantage he can see past the back railing, down onto the field – which is precisely where the ball would have landed had he not interfered with it. Saddle’s face takes on an expression of shock and anguish that is difficult to watch.
McCarthy, the runner on first, was a speedster. With two outs, he was off at the crack of the bat, and would easily have scored the go-ahead run. The reaction from the hometown crowd was immediate and angry. As a squadron of security guards escorted Saddle from the stadium, fans pelted him with hot dogs, beer, chocolate malts and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The ground rule double left McCarthy at third. Fitzsimmons flied out to end the inning. The Cards scored in the top of the 13th to take the game, then beat the Blues 8-2 the next day to take the pennant.
Billy Saddle was the most hated man in Tennessee, perpetrator of a crime some radio host deemed the Grand Fool Double. Someone published his address and phone number on the Internet, and he received a steady stream of death threats. A regiment of six patrol cars was assigned to his house, and the FBI offered to place him in their witness protection program. The mayor of St. Louis offered sanctuary, as well.
There were some who came to his defense. His Little League team marched outside Withers Field with banners of support for their coach. Several Blues players called it a freak incident, and blamed themselves for not winning the game long before. Reporters noted that Saddle was a devoted fan who had gone to Florida the year before to watch the team in spring training.
Saddle did what he could to quell the uproar. He submitted an apology, declaring the incident “the most dismal, agonizing moment of my life.” He turned down interviews, book deals and requests for autographs – anything that might look like an attempt to cash in on his infamy.
It didn’t matter. The threats continued, Saddle was unable to leave his house, and he seemed to have no chance at regaining a normal life – at least, not in Memphis. By the time pitchers and catchers reported for spring training in 1999, Billy Saddle had vanished.
Today, Blues fans visit that right-field abutment – now called the Saddlehorn – as if it’s a tourist attraction. Saddle’s seat is covered with Blues stickers, perhaps one more attempt to drive away the curse of Big John Spillums.
Photo by MJV