Van Lingle Mungo
"Pray for Sain" proclaimed the headlines following the recent passing of the former Boston Braves righthander. Johnny Sain died on November 7, 2006, at a nursing home located in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. He was 89.
Although most famous by his inclusion in a poem about the 1948 Boston Braves' pitching rotation alongside portsider Warren Spahn, Sain's career made him a veritable Forrest Gump in baseball history. On April 15, 1947, he became the first to face Jackie Robinson in a major league contest. A year later, he defeated the legendary Bob Feller in the opening game of the World Series. Although the Indians triumphed in 1948, Sain won three World Championships as a member of the New York Yankees. He served his country as a Navy test pilot in the Second World War. As a pitching coach, Sain oversaw the emergence of Minnesota's Jim Kaat, Detroit's Mickey Lolich, and Chicago's Wilbur Wood. The M&M Boys. McLain's record of 31-and-6. Ted Turner's experiment in the dugout. Sain, a native of Havana, Arkansas, saw 'em all.
With Sain's passing, there are only six living members of the original 38-man roster to be immortalized in Dave Frishberg's novelty hit "Van Lingle Mungo."
According to Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris, authors of "The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book," Van Lingle Mungo is perhaps the only major league player best known as a song title, "...with the possible exception of Blue Moon Odom and Sonny Siebert." Mungo, a fireballer and strikeout artist born in Pageland, South Carolina in 1911, pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants from 1931 to 1945. Mungo averaged 16 wins from 1932 to 1936 pitching for the perennial second division dwelling Dodgers.
"Mungo and I got along just fine," reported Casey Stengel, his manager on the Dodgers. "I won't stand for no nonesense, and then I duck." Frustrated that an inept supporting cast prevented him from achieving a win-loss percentage to match his latent, he frequently allowed his wildness and his mercurial temper to get the better of him. Mungo led the senior circuit with 238 strikeouts, but his career began to unravel after sustaining an arm injury in 1937. Over the next four seasons, the righthander yielded nine wins and one bizarre spring training injury, prompting his release from Brooklyn in 1941. Purchased by the Giants a year later, Mungo amassed a comeback as a junkballer, posting a 14-7 record in his finale season of 1945. Tommy Lasorda, although a lefthander, earned the childhood nickname of 'Mungo' to his resemblance to Van Lingle on the pitcher's mound.
Nearly a quarter century later had passed. In 1969, Van Lingle Mungo's notoriety on a baseball diamond was about to be eclipsed by his celebrity in sheet music. Jazz pianist Dave Frishberg was about to pen his first vocal album. The 36-year-old's resume already boasted accompaniments for Carmen McRae, Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. After two series of lyrics were rejected by record companies, he turned his lonely eyes to his childhood passion of baseball. After buying an original edition copy of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, Frishberg sorted through the pages when he glanced across Mungo's name. Inspired, he began to compose lyrics to a song consisting almost exclusively of the names of baseball players from his youth. Only 'big' and 'and,' as in "Big Johnny Mize and Barney McCosky," elude the pages of Big Mac or Total Baseball. The result was an accidental hit single, which for Frishberg, became his signature tune for decades.
As homage to his own youth, Frishberg's composition was designed to create a sense of nostalgia in the listener. "Van Lingle Mungo" harkens back to a time when ordinary men became superheroes for the youth of America simply by assuming a baseball uniform. It was an age when legendary voices of radio transmitted their colossal achievements on the diamond while baseball cards provided them with a human face. Perhaps a listener will remember an achievement, a footnote, or a personal connection:
- Heinie Majeski: An original member of the modern Baltimore Orioles
- Johnny Gee: Before Randy, no baseball player was taller than him
- Eddie Joost: He was the last manager in Philadelphia Athletics history
- Johnny Pesky: He was a neighbour of my cousins in Swampscott
- Thornton Lee: He surrendered a home run to Ted, as did his son Don
The song opens with a mellifluous instrumental on the piano, evoking the pastoral imagery of Rockwellian America - possibly of an autumn day in Frishberg's native Minnesota. As Frishberg begins to sing the names of the players, the mind is transferred to the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema. The softly sung recital on a bossa nova background would blend in splendidly with a soundtrack of hits by Sergio Mendes or Astrud Gilberto. Some listeners even assumed that the lyrics to "Van Lingle Mungo" were written in Portuguese!
Mungo and Frishberg met on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969. Backstage, according to Frishberg, "[Mungo] asked me when he would see some remuneration for the song. When he heard my explanation about how there was unlikely to be any remuneration for anyone connected with the song, least of all him, he was genuinely downcast. 'But it's my name,' he said. I told him, 'The only way you can get even is to go home and write a song called 'Dave Frishberg.''"
Each of the players in "Van Lingle Mungo" tells his own story. Five of the players made their way onto bronze plaques in Cooperstown. Besides Mize, the Hall of Famers include Brooklyn catching legend Roy Campanella, 300 game winner Early Wynn, his Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau, and Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi. Two other players, George McQuinn and Sigmund Jakucki, represented the St. Louis Browns in their only World Series appearance in 1944. The Brownies lost to the crosstown Cardinals, featuring Augie Bergamo, Harry Brecheen, and Whitey Kurowski (Howard Pollet was serving in the military at the time). There was the Dutch Master, Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched two consecutive no-hitters in 1938. And there was Frank Crosetti, a Yankees infielder and coach who earned the most World Series rings in baseball history. Eddie Waitkus was shot in a hotel room by a deranged fan after he was traded from the Cubs. Included among his Chicago teammates were Phil Cavaretta, Augie Galan, Stan Hack, and Claude Passeau. There were All-Stars (Frank Gustine) and Daffiness Boys (Frenchy Bordagaray). Batting champs (Ferris Fain) and Losing Pitchers (Hugh Mulcahy). Fathers (Pinky May and Hal Trosky) and grandfathers (Bob Estalella) of future big leaguers. All were immortalized by Frishberg in "Van Lingle Mungo."
"Van Lingle Mungo" was one of Danny Gardella's favourite songs. The Giants' outfielder canted a few stanzas during a 1997 interview with Douglas and Jeffrey Lyons for their trivia book, "Out of Left Field." Gardella was even depicted on the cover conducting unusual calisthenics involving a baseball bat and the defiance of gravity. After two seasons for the Gothams, he was one of several players who jumped to the Mexican League in 1946. Gardella drew a five-year suspension from baseball, prompting a lawsuit challenging the sport's antitrust exemption. A Federal appellate court ruled in his favour, prompting the Lords of the Realm to settle with him rather than obliterate the only legal monopoly in the United States.
As cited early, only six players named by Frishberg remain living today. Like Harry Brecheen, Max Lanier pitched for the Cardinals in the 1944 World Series, and like Danny Gardella, he was suspended for defecting to Mexico two years later. Now 91 years old, the father of infielder Hal Lanier lives in Dunnellon, Florida. Eddie Joost and Phil Cavaretta both celebrated their 90th birthdays in 2006. Joost, who worked as a sporting goods representative after hanging up his spikes, lives in Santa Rosa, California. Cavaretta managed both Chicago teams and later served the Mets as a batting instructor. He lives in Villa Rica, Georgia. Johnny Pesky is 87 and still works for the Red Sox. John Antonelli, at 76, is the youngest of the living players. He is retired from the tire business and still lives in the Rochester area.
As for Dave Frishberg, his career as a singer-songwriter blossomed after "Van Lingle Mungo." In addition to performing his own tunes, including "Dodger Blue," he has written songs for Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, and Mel Torme. Frishberg, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, calls Portland, Oregon home - as does 84-year-old ex-Dodger and fiddler Eddie Basinski. Mungo died in 1985, and along with his demise probably sealed the fate of the song "Dave Frishberg."
To paraphrase Toronto music historian Roger Ashby, that is the story behind the hit "Van Lingle Mungo."
1. Baseball Library.
3. Atteberry, Phillip D. "A Conversation with Dave Frishberg," in The Mississippi Rag. Minneapolis: April 1996.
4. Boyd, Brendan C, and Fred C. Harris. The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1973.
5. Canter, Andrea. "Getting Some Fun Out of Life: Back in St. Paul with David Frishberg," in Jazz Police: March 13, 2006.
6. Fusselle, Warner. "Baseball's Greatest Hits." Santa Monica, CA: Rhino Records, 1989.
7. Lasorda, Tommy, and David Fisher. The Artful Dodger. New York: William Morrow, 1985.
Lyons, Jeffrey and Douglas B. Out of Left Field. New York: Times Books, 1998.
8. Marazzi, Rich, and Len Fiorito. Aaron to Zuverink. New York: Avon Books, 1984.
9. Pave, Marvin. "Johnny Sain, 89, Star Pitcher in Rhyme About '48 Braves," in The Boston Globe: November 9, 2006.
Maxwell Kates tried his hand at radio broadcasting and standup comedy before deciding to become an accountant. He has lectured on baseball at York University, Seneca College, and at the 2006 SABR Convention in Seattle. His work has appeared in The National Pastime, Elysian Fields Quarterly, and on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. An Ottawa native now living in Toronto, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He also serves as director of marketing for that organization's Hanlan's Point Chapter.