A Story Of A Story

added 2/8/2010 by Cot Deal

To be a good hitter takes nerve,
And good vision to see a ball curve;
But a blazing fast ball
Gives no time at all
To read curveball, slider or slurve.

For a lot of years almost anyone connected with baseball in any way has known of the Richman brothers. I met Milt and Artie shortly after World War Two. They were budding New York sportswriters. I was a rookie trying to break into the big leagues.

It was a friendship that was to last and grow. Every time I went to New York we would have dinner together, go shopping; I would visit their offices - or, always something. Most of my next few years, though, were spent in the minor leagues as a player, player-coach, or manager, but the friendship was sustained by visits during spring training, an occasional phone call or an occasional note in the mail.

In 1970, I was a coach for the Cleveland Indians. That fall Artie, as coordinator of USO tours, took me with Sam McDowell, Bud Harrelson and Jim Rooker on a three-week trip to visit our wounded from Vietnam. So time passed, but not the friendship.

In 1984, I was coaching for the Houston Astros. Early in the season, Artie came in with the New York Mets. He had switched from writing sports and was now doing double duty as publicity director and traveling secretary for the Mets.

Our get-together this time, however, was saddened - suddenly and without warning. Dickie Thon, our young All-Star shortstop, was hit in the face by a 92 mile-an-hour fastball. The sound was not that of a ricochet off the protective helmet, or when a crisp crack signals a ball well hit. It was a thud - a sickening thud.

There were screams. There were gasps, then a hush - an awesome, nauseating hush that swept over the Astrodome. It bordered on mass shock as all eyes were glued on the hub of frantic activity around the inert form lying in the batters' box. Doctors scurried to get there - some officially, some voluntarily. Trainers from both teams rushed there, as did managers, coaches and players. Dickie's wife, as she fought her way through the crowd, came onto the playing field.

Time passed very slowly. Sound was restored but it was more like a gigantic beehive than the usual din heard at a baseball game. Eventually Dickie was carried off on a stretcher.

This was a major story for the news media. Dickie was in real trouble. The cheekbone had a triple fracture just below the left eye, so there was serious question about how much damage had been done to the eye. He would not play again that season, and maybe not ever. People everywhere, not only baseball fans, were concerned about Dickie. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television all were checking his status carefully.

We finished the home stand. Dickie, of course, was unable to make the road trip with us. Although we were far from Houston, we were constantly asked, "How's Dickie Thon?"

The convalescent time, the ophthalmologists told us, would be very slow. How well he would be able to focus, how he would be able to register light rays on the retina, how the images could be recorded and interpreted by the brain - they simply could not determine at this stage.

When we came home from the road, Dickie was one of the first ones at the stadium. Everyone loved Dickie before the accident, but this love was of a different dimension. It was concern, apprehension, and empathy; a sort of vicarious misery. Those of us in uniform had hit against 92 mile-an-hour fastballs and had gotten our uniforms dirty from dodging them, but we had been lucky.

Toward the end of the season, he was putting the uniform on every day and was working out in a limited way. He worked out in the exercise room, he ran, fielded easy ground balls hit by the coaches and, most encouraging, took batting practice. Yes, balls were thrown to him by coaches with good control and not very fast and, yes, under the watchful sanction of the ophthalmologists.

Dickie was determined to make it back. The 1984 season ended and for Dickie Thon those months until the middle of February were to be long and psychologically ponderous. He came to spring training early in 1985. Dickie had spent the winter in his native Puerto Rico except for periodic checkups back in Houston. Although of Norwegian ancestry and fair complexioned, he was quite tanned. He looked good. The improvement had been moderate, at best, but the same keen desire that had driven him to becoming a National League All-Star in 1983 was manifested in his battle with this seemingly insurmountable handicap.

Bob Lillis was the manager and has never been given due credit for the way he handled this very sensitive situation. He was as solicitous of Dickie as he would if he were his own son.

He played Dickie against lefthanded pitchers only so he would get a better look at the ball. Dickie was a righthanded hitter. This is why, theoretically, it is an advantage to switch-hit (to hit righthanded against lefthanded pitchers and lefthanded against righthanded pitchers). Not only does the batsman get a better look at the ball, but the chances of getting hit by a pitched ball are much less.

Dickie had a good spring. Lillis let him hit against an occasional righthander - one with good control - and he surprised everyone. He wasn't the 1983 Dickie Thon but he played well enough to earn a job platooning with Craig Reynolds, a lefthanded hitter. Again, as it had been the year before, the news media followed his progress closely.

We opened the 1985 season. Dickie handled himself very well in spite of the many interviews. The Astros were holding their own in the tough National League race.

One day, when we were in Atlanta, my hotel telephone rang.

"Hello, Cot? Milt Richman."

"Milt, how are you? What's going on?"

"Well, everyone seems to be writing about Dickie Thon. I need to write a story, and I'm thinking about doing one on Dickie, but I wanted to check with you first. Got any ideas?"

"Boy, am I glad you called. I think I have the makings of a beautiful story for you - and Dickie will be the protagonist."

I told him we had just come from Los Angeles.

"Do you remember Ralph Schwamb?", I asked.

"Do I? He was an outstanding prospect for the old St. Louis Browns, and in the winter of 1948 was sent to San Quentin for what was reported as having been one of the most heinous crimes in Los Angeles history."

"Well, I talked with him yesterday at Dodger Stadium. Let me tell you about it."

I related the circumstances in which I had seen Schwamb and suggested he call Jim Muhe, the visiting team clubhouse attendant. Jim would be able to add even more.

Jim Muhe and I had been friends a long time too. I usually went to the stadium about one o'clock in the afternoon before a night game - partly to do some paper work and partly because it was a peaceful atmosphere. Jim kept big band music on his radio (until the players arrived then, of course, they wouldn't have it) and we would try to name all the bands, the singers, and names of the songs, but our favorite diversion was trying to recall names of former baseball players.

"You remember some of the great arms the Brownies had?", Jim asked.

"I certainly do," I answered. "Bob Turley, Don Larsen, but there was another one I played against in the American Association whose stuff was just as good - or better, that..."

Jim didn't let me finish. "I'll bet you're talking about Blackie Schwamb."

"That's right, but I'm surprised. He didn't play out here in the Pacific Coast League." Jim grinned.

"He's from here. I grew up with him."

We talked more about this 6'5" righthanded fireballer who was sent to prison for life for the brutal murder of a man who had befriended him. Schwamb earned his release on good behavior after serving ten years. Jim said he lived not too far from Dodger Stadium and that he saw him once in a while.

Then, as an afterthought, he said, "As a matter of fact, he's coming to the game tomorrow night."

"Any idea what time he'll get here?"

"He said around six o'clock. He wants to watch batting practice and infield."

"Good. I'll be on the field then, but when he gets here, send word out to me so I can come in and say hello to him."

Blackie made it, and Jim sent word for me. I hadn't seen him for 37 years. I didn't recognize him. As I neared the dugout, I felt uneasy.

"Ralph, I don't know whether you remember me or not," I said, knowing Jim had told him who I was.

"I remember you with Louisville," he responded warmly, "you were having arm trouble and were used mostly as a pinch-hitter. Isn't that right?"

That made me feel good. He had remembered.

"I appreciate your coming off the field to see me."

It was a nice chat. We lived in the past for a few minutes and then I had to excuse myself and go back to work.

Milton Richman did call Jim Muhe - and yes, he did write the story. Here is its finish:

Schwamb, now 58 and on complete disability because physically he is unable to work, expressed a wish to meet one particular player. The player was Dickie Thon, the Astros' shortstop, who was hit below the left eye by a pitch a year ago, was out the whole season, and still struggling with his vision.

Schwamb did meet Thon. He told him how he was praying for him every night; praying that he makes it all the way back. The Astros' little shortstop thanked him.

Blackie Schwamb then walked back to his seat in the stands. He kept looking straight ahead, hoping nobody would notice the tears in his eyes."

A few days later Milt wrote me: "I'm sending you a copy of the column as I wrote it thinking you'd like to see it."

Milton Richman had become Senior Sports Editor of United Press International. He is now referred to as the late Milton Richman, but Milt lives on. Needless to say, the column and the note are among my cherished mementos. This was typical of him - one of the reasons he is in baseball's Hall of Fame.

Cot Deal coached the Colt .45s from 1962-1964 and coached the Astros from 1983-1985. He also managed Houston farm teams in Oklahoma City during 1968 and 1969 as part of a career in baseball that spanned five decades, including as a major league player with the Cardinals and Red Sox.

The above stories are used by permission from the book Cot In The Act (c) 1992 by Cot Deal. All rights reserved.