by Matthew Taylor
This week’s “Flashback Friday” features Daniel Okrent’s colorful description of John Lowenstein from the classic book, “Nine Innings.”
Perhaps the most enduring visual image of Lowenstein features the platoon outfielder, arms raised triumphantly to the sky, drawing a rousing ovation from the home crowd during the infamous 1980 stretcher incident, a highlight I watched several times as a young fan at Memorial Stadium. Words don’t do it justice, but blogger Urban Shocker offers a description of that night, as does Lowenstein himself in John Eisenberg’s book, “From 33rd Street to Camden Yards.”
Okrent’s narrative about Lowenstein’s general mien serves as an enduring complement to the classic video. Okrent does with words what the Memorial Stadium highlight reel did with images; namely, encapsulate the unique character that was “Brother Lo.”
“There were two outs when Weaver reached into his tool kit for the last of his outfield parts, John Lowenstein.
If Dwyer was valuable because of his varied attributes, Lowenstein was priceless. If Dwyer was rare – because of his dedication, his itinerant career, his accounting degree, his uncomplaining willingness to adapt – Lowenstein was unique. He was a beak-nosed man of 35 and had played in more than 100 games only twice in his eleven-year major league career. When he was with Cleveland, the Municipal Stadium organist took to playing a different ‘theme’ for each Indian player, and signified Lowenstein with ‘Hava Nagila’; instructed that Lowenstein wasn’t Jewish, the organist switched to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ By the time he had his three hundredth major league at-bat, Lowenstein had played every position but pitcher and catcher. He had a B.A. in anthropology from the University of California and was without question the wittiest man in the American League, the ready supplier of cogent and clever quotes for any desperate writer. And he had the engaging quality, desperately rare in baseball, of self-deprecation, ready to turn his wit on himself. In the middle 1970s, he had given an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he made the case for mediocrity in baseball, citing himself as a model example. That was around the same time that Lowenstein, having discouraged some Clevelanders from forming a fan club in his honor, instead gave his blessing to a ‘John Lowenstein Apathy Club.’
But Lowenstein was more than a pleasing ornament to baseball; he had become a fine player, too. He had always had speed, and had employed it well by mastering the walking lead off first base, enabling him to steal bases by surprise and to reach third on routine singles. He knew how to play the outfield, could fill in virtually anywhere else, and had become an able hitter. In 1979, his first Baltimore season, he hit 11 home runs in only 197 at-bats. (By way of comparison, that 1-HR-in-18-at-bats ratio stood up well to, say, Gorman Thomas’s 1:17 ratio in 1981, or to the fact that Eddie Murray had only once in his prodigious career exceeded a 1:20 ratio.) In 1980, Weaver used Lowenstein so well that he hit .311 in 104 games. And thus far in 1982, with the season less than one third over, Lowenstein already had 11 home runs while still serving as a platoon player.” (pp. 196-197)
[Image source: Baseball Almanac. Click photo for original]