THF, Jr.

Days of Yore and Lore

(July 20, 2013) — In honor of the 100th birthday of my late dad, Thomas Harold Forbes, Jr. — “Harry" to his many buddies — I am lightly editing and posting the first of a series of emails we exchanged nearly 20 years ago with the intent of, perhaps, collaborating on a book about his days as a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the 1930s. We ventured into other areas, such growing up in New Rochelle, NY. After a while, though, I came to the conclusion that although we had some nice anecdotes, they didn’t really add up to a book. The project fizzled out. I know Pop was disappointed that his tales never saw light; I will continue to post selected entrees over time. Pop died Jan. 19, 2003.

What’s Going On With Burgess Whitehead?

On January 6, 1994, I emailed Pop:


I don't remember you talking very much about the stories you covered when Jim and I were growing up, but a few names stick in my mind. Players like Bill Terry. Mel Ott. Carl Hubbell. Drinking buddies and colleagues like Bill Toomey and Lawton Carver and Jimmy Powers, your editor, and Paul Gallico, who preceded him at the Daily News and started the Golden Gloves. A few stories stick in my mind, too. Like the way that Freddy Fletcher, the outdoor columnist who preceded you, got caught in some scam—like pretending he was covering skiing in the Laurentian Highlands in Canada while he was actually on the beach in Florida-and was bounced from his column by Mr. Patterson, the Daily News owner. But the one thing that really sticks out in my mind—and I never read the articles you wrote about this until last night—is your telling us about how you brought Burgess Whitehead back to the Giants spring training camp the year after he missed a season because of a nervous breakdown. It's also the story that you thought we should begin this dialogue with, and you thought so even before we learned that Whitehead died six weeks ago.

What was so special about this story? 

On Feb. 26, 1994, after every conceivable computer, email, document formatting and domestic snafu anyone who has had an elderly parent can imagine, Pop's first response finally successfully navigated CompuServe's email service. As you’ll see, he was primed to weave a Hot Stove League yarn from the get-go.

"You know, Pop, I don't remember you talking very much about the stories you covered before Jim and I appeared on the scene," son Thom reminisced one cold winter night as we sat before the Franklin stove in his turn-of-the-century home in suburban New York City with ice on the sidewalks outside and the temperature well below the freezing mark.           

A wonderful atmosphere to enhance reflections on my early years of sportswriting and a great opportunity to embellish a thoughtful, inquisitive mind.     

"I do remember," he continued "among other stories, writing and playboying, names that still stick in my thoughts like Hubbell, Ott, Schumacher, Terry and so many others, in many different sports. But one event that really begs for exploration is how you brought Burgess Whitehead back to the Giants. Why was that so special?"         

It ended up with Whitey telling Jack Cuddy, a top sports columnist for United Press..., that "Forbes was one of the smartest young newspapermen around”

"Well, let me tell you it was a most unusual story of the time, a story given the same set of circumstances that I doubt very much would be allowed to develop in the same fashion today. More on that later. 

"The situations involved Whitey, one of baseball's finest second-basemen, a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina, who once was a teammate on the St. Louis Cardinal's glamorous 'Gas House Gang,' who had lost confidence in his ability to again play top-notch baseball after a nervous breakdown following a 1938 appendectomy and who was politely refusing to report to the Giants 1939 training camp in Baton Rouge, LA, while reposing at his farm in Lewiston, NC (Pop. 750). 

And, on the other side of the situation, was a frustrated manager, Bill Terry, who could never believe if the ballplayer he desperately needed would report or not. To complete the odd triangle was yours truly, who, I guess in a spirit of youthful exuberance and a newsman's inherited sense of a possible good and unusual story, decided to go to Lewiston himself, to find out just what was going on in what was once the peanut capital of the country. After all, Thom, it ended up with Whitey telling Jack Cuddy, a top sports columnist for United Press, who did an interview with him later that summer, that "Forbes was one of the smartest young newspapermen around”—words from a Phi Beta Kappa that still bring joyful thoughts to my head and a grin to my lips.                             

"Well, let's get back to what actually happened," a restless Thom ordered. "You can sleep all morning; I still have to earn a living at the work place." 

“Sorry," I responded. "I don't get much of a chance to pat my back these days. The details are:     

"I called the paper and got Charley Hoerter, the erudite assistant sports editor who, as a teenager, went south to the Dodger training camp in knickerbockers years ago, and told him I'd like to fly to Lewiston and interview Whitey. I said Ken Smith, of the rival Daily Mirror (Ken later became executive director of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and always gave my 90-year old Aunt Amy a season pass!) would cover me at training camp with a daily round-up story.   

Next, I felt it only proper to tell Terry of my plan and, when his room phone went unanswered, caught him in the lobby of the ancient Heidelberg Hotel (a structure that had seen much better days and today is only memory, but it did have the best Remoulade salad dressing anywhere). 

"Bill," I interrupted as he was talking to the desk clerk and retrieving mail, "when you get a moment I want to talk with you for only 60 seconds."

"Well, shoot," Terry said. "I know every newsman thinks he know how to win championships better than most managers."

"Well, pardner, what's your problem?"

"I haven't got a problem, you have, and I've got an idea that might solve it for you" 

"Well, shoot, I know every newsman thinks he know how to win championships better than most managers. Anyway, let's have it."

"Bill," I countered, "what is Whitehead's problem? Will he come to training camp at all, will he quit baseball, where will the Giants be without him?"   

He didn’t immediately respond. 

"Look, we all know you're all in a quandary, so have you any objections if I fly to Lewiston to see just what is what? The paper has okayed my idea. I only thought it proper to get your okay as well so I can tell Whitey the Giants have no objections. I'll fly up there and get to him somehow, after you phone I'm coming and we'll take it from there. What say?" 

"You go to it," Terry exuberantly replied. "Maybe you can solve the problem or at least get a first-hand knowledge of what's really going on up there. Good luck!" 

"Well, this should be interesting. Starting with getting there, transportation being what is was in those days,” Thom observed. "How did you manage all this?"   

"First of all, we went to Terry's suite and put in a call to Whitey. Bill explained what we had in mind and asked him to speak to 'Forbes, himself.'"     

This was no problem as Whitehead was a sincere, likable individual and I always felt there was a mutual respect between us, a relationship that does't seem to be too prevalent between athletes and sportswriters today, reading the papers.       

After the usual exchange of "how are your?" I remember saying:  

"Whitey, most of the baseball world, especially Giant fans in New York are wondering just what is going on with you. That's why I'd like to fly up there, if I wouldn't be intruding, have the two of us just sit down and talk about it all. You know me well enough to know I'm not looking for anything sensational, just what your problems are, if there really are any, whittle a couple of sticks or take a walk in the woods or whatever. I can get a train from here to New Orleans shortly and fly up to Richmond and, I guess, get a cab to Lewiston from there. How does that all sound?"                    

"Fine," Whitey answered, "and I'll do you one better. You will stay with the family and myself while you are here and we'll show you New Yorker a little of the life in Carolina."     

"Thanks, and I'll either phone or Western Union you when to expect me tomorrow morning. I'm sure there is a Western Union operator around your railroad station." 

Actually, the travel schedule was no problem. I got an afternoon train out of Baton Rouge for the town the Mardi Gras made famous. Then a cab to an Eastern DC-3 of fond memory and away we went. I remember arriving in Richmond at a hour when they were starting to put the chairs on the tables in the New York booze parlors and was able to convince a cab driver it would be worth his while to drive a person (whom he no doubt considered a first-class idiot) to Lewiston (where is that???????), North Carolina. I had taken the precaution of getting a road map of the USA. We struggled around with that pre-Interstate job for a few minutes and finally took off. Not before agreeing on a set price, $50, as I best remember.     


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