In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.
Yeah, so that Power Rangers series I promised I’d finish two years ago? You’re going to keep waiting. Today, we’re going to the 1950s to read a story from Marvel’s Strange Tales #36, circa 1955. Well, sort of, you see, this is actually a story from Atlas Comics, which is what Marvel was called at the time. It’s a short, four-page story in the middle of an issue full of them, and calls to mind later stories like the Sidd Finch hoax… and how it could go horribly wrong, especially if he wasn’t used right.
Go below the jump for more:
I believe I have mentioned in the past that the 1950s were a strange era for comic books. After WWII, superheroes lost their appeal with the public, to the point where only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman continued to be regularly published. Instead, the focus of comics shifted to other genres like horror and true crime, often with graphic (for the time) covers depicting violence and sexual innuendo. This (along with concerns about some of the superhero comics) led to a best-selling book, congressional hearings, and ultimately the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory apparatus meant to keep comic books safe for kids by severely curtailing and sometimes outright eliminating violence, sex, drugs, questioning of authority, and the like.
It was against this backdrop that Strange Tales #36 came out. The series was, as the name suggests, a comic book about… strange tales. Initially one of the (to 1940s/50s sensibility) gruesome horror comics, after the Comics Code it moved to stories of science fiction, magic, and heavily-neutered monster tales. Marvel (again, called Atlas at the time) had several magazines like this alongside romance comics that were popular at the time- it was still years before they’d get back into superheroes again.
Anyway, here’s the cover of Strange Tales #36:
As you can see, there’s no indication that a story about baseball is in it. That’s because Strange Tales was an anthology- lots of stories were in each issue, most of them (including “The Discovery”) quite short.
Oh, one last thing before we start, required legal note:
All characters and logos in the comic are property of their respective owners. The excerpts from this comic used in this post are being used under fair use doctrine and are meant merely to support and enhance the opinions and facts stated in said post.
Now, let’s go to “The Discovery”, shall we? This story is like so many before and after it: the amazing out-of-nowhere pitching find that changes everything. An old trope that has popped up in (deep breath) Rookie of the Year, The Scout, Major League (sort-of), Roogie’s Bump (which Rookie of the Year was based off of), The Bad News Bears, the villain in Mr. Go, the story of Sidd Finch, and kid books about baseball since time immemorial.
It isn’t known who wrote the story, but a Marvel wiki says it was drawn by Bob Powell, who Wikipedia says is best known for his work on “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” and “Mr. Mystic”.
Want to read it yourself? You can find it on the Marvel Unlimited service, which has… more Marvel comics than you could ever possibly read.
Our story (which is only four pages so don’t expect many pictures) begins on a farm in the middle of nowhere, where Mike Sloane, a scout for the “Green Sox”, comes across Ernie Watkins throwing rocks with the speed of Aroldis Chapman and the accuracy of Greg Maddux:
As you’d imagine, Sloane is soon giving Watkins a baseball to see if he can throw a baseball as well as he can a rock. Guess what? He can. In fact, he outright destroys the side of a barn with it. Sloane immediately offers him a $50,000 contract, which is about $471,597.01 in today’s money.
While that isn’t much money by today’s baseball standards even after inflation (it isn’t even MLB minimum) that is actually a ton for 1955. Whitey Ford was only paid $26K in 1955. Robin Roberts was paid $40K in 1955. Bob Lemon was paid $45K. To be sure, there were some guys getting paid more than $50,000, but they were mostly position players- Ted Williams, for example, was paid at least $67K.
But here’s the thing, for all that money and for all of Watkins’ supernatural throwing abilities (to the point where the catcher can barely stay upright), the Green Sox don’t use him. At all. Their manager, Handley, doesn’t use him down the stretch. In fact, he doesn’t use him until Game 7 of the World Series! And not even as a starter, he waits until the 9th inning when the Green Sox are down 3-2.
My god, how stupid is Handley?!?! Okay, I can maybe see not using him much down the stretch if the Green Sox are running away with the league. I can even understand not using him in Game 1 of the World Series because maybe he wanted to use a veteran.
BUT WAITING UNTIL GAME 7 OF THE WORLD SERIES, AND THEN WAITING UNTIL THE NINTH INNING, WHEN YOU ARE DOWN IN THE GAME!?!?!?
This makes Buck Showalter’s usage of Britton in the Wild Card Game against Toronto look like genius in comparison. At least Britton had been used in games to get that point!
Oh, and remember, this is pre-DH, so the pitcher has to hit. And, what do you know, Watkins gets a hit… but doesn’t run. He sticks at home when he should be getting a game-winning inside-the-park home run, or at least a game-tying hit. Why?
Now, obviously there is the fact that it’s absurd that Watkins didn’t catch on as to what he’s supposed to do at the plate and on the basepaths from just watching the games as he rode the bench. But, no, I’m going to blame Handley here, because maybe if he’d used Watkins at all during the season he’d know about this and done something!
Next time on Bizarre Baseball Culture: Something involving baseball and culture that is bizarre.
Previously on Bizarre Baseball Culture:
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
20. Shortstop Squad
21. Cosmic Slam
23. Mariners Mojo
32. Mr. Go
36. Dick Cole
48. Fallout 4
51. Kool-Aid Man
53. Human Target
57. “The Discovery” from Strange Tales #36 (you are here)