Van Lingle Mungo

Van Lingle Mungo died on February 12, 1985. He’d spent 1931 through 1945, with the exception of a year in the Army in 1944, playing for New York N.L. teams, the Dodgers until 1943, and then the Giants. On the 14th, the New York Times obituary said he “broke into baseball as an outfielder with the Charlotte Hornets at the age of 18 in 1929. It may have been his lilting name that first attracted major league scouts, but it was his powerful arm that propelled him to the Dodgers in 1931 after the club’s manager, Wilbert Robinson, saw him throw.

Although he once tied a major league record by striking out seven batters in a row, he also led the league several times in walks. His penchant for attempting to overpower good and poor hitters alike often cost him in the late innings.

There was also the distraction of his combative personality on a team known as the ”Daffiness Boys.” He fought with opponents and teammates, was frequently embroiled in disputes with the front office and inevitably ended a season demanding to be traded.

Once, when a Dodger outfielder, Long Tom Winsett, muffed a ninth-inning fly that cost Mungo a victory, the pitcher stormed off the field, broke things in the clubhouse and then strode directly to a telegraph office to send his wife a wire that became legendary: ”Pack up your bags and come to Brooklyn, honey. If Winsett can play in the big leagues, it’s a cinch you can, too.”

Mungo returned to his hometown of Pageland, S.C., to run several different businesses.  After his death, a man named Larry Yaffa wrote a letter to the Times with some tales about Mungo:

During the 1947 World Series (Dodgers vs. Yankees), I was pleasantly surprised to see Van in the lobby of the New Yorker Hotel. He was cordial, appreciative of being recognized, and laughed as he commented, ”I never made it to the series as a player, but I want Brooklyn to beat the hell out of them!” Later at the game, the sight of Mungo and Dazzy Vance, sitting together in seats behind the Dodger dugout, perhaps Brooklyn’s most famous right-handers, brought a consciousness of how they labored throughout their careers for Dodger clubs that just didn’t have the talent to challenge champions. How they would have appreciated being supported by a cast such as the 1947 team!

My brother drove 120 miles out of his way during a business trip to visit Mungo at a shoe shop in Pageland, S.C., where his family owned several businesses. The big guy was not only eager to relive some of the past, the good times of course, and talked baseball, old Brooklyn as he remembered it, but spoke very fondly of the atmosphere at old Ebbets Field. He relished the dialogue with my brother who reveled in the visit with his old hero.

Anyone following Van’s career was aware his off-the-field antics overshadowed performances on it, but some scenarios stand out in my mind such as:

Polo Grounds, New York, last weekend of the 1934 season. Defeating the Giants in the rain, a pennant-deciding contest, depriving the Giants and aiding the cause of the Cardinals, who won the pennant.

Again, Polo Grounds. Opening series of the season. Dick Bartell, Giant shortstop, dragging a bunt down the first-base line to draw Mungo to cover the bag. They tangled, rolling over and over down the foul line like a couple of howling alley cats, a mismatch, the huge Mungo and the shorter, feisty Bartell, with Bartell giving no quarter.

Also the Polo Grounds, a Sunday double- header, perhaps a holiday occasion, Leo Durocher, manager of the Dodgers in a fist fight with Giant first sacker, ponderous Zeke Bonura, which emptied both teams’s dugouts. Mungo led the charge from his dugout brandishing a bat overhead until one of the umpires wrested it from him, thus saving some skull from mutilation.

And a favorite, absolutely true vignette: A spring exhibition game between the Yankees and Cleveland, preseason, long after Mungo had retired from competition. Stengel was the Yankee manager, Al Lopez, former Dodger and a protege of Casey’s was the Indian manager. Casey describing the scene: ”I see this big guy shufflin’ across the field from the Cleveland dugout in civvies – I would recognize the walk, those big feet, anywheres. Anyways, it’s Mungo and he has a strapping kid along with him in his teens. He introduces me to his son Van Jr. and I says he had the build of a ballplayer. He is, says Mungo, and I just talked to Lopez about Cleveland signing him to a minor league contract. I then say, Hey, why didn’t ya have him talk to our people? He gets this grin on his face, and I repeat why not the Yankees, after all I was your manager! He looks down and pawed the dirt a bit, then said quiet-like, ‘I know, Casey, but Lopez was my catcher.’ ”

Pageland’s pride and joy leaves behind an indelible image of that elongated wind- up, the big left foot up in the hitter’s face, the thump of that baseball whacking Al Lopez’s mitt!

Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 5:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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