by Bill Denehy with Peter Golenbock
Reviewed by Frank Siraguso
Bill Denehy is not an easy guy to like, and his autobiography is not an easy book to read. This is nothing against veteran sports writer Peter Golenbock, who helped Denehy tell his story. As much as possible, Golenbock seems to have turned on the recorder and let Denehy have at it.
The structure has a stream-of-consciousness feel that’s a little disjointed and episodic, especially in the early chapters. But you really get the sense that this is Denehy speaking.
His sardonic sense of humor, not really self-deprecating, is evident in the first sentences of the introduction. “I’ve always loved Ray Charles and wanted to be like him, but not like this. I wanted to sing like him, not be blind like him.” In his 60s, Denehy went blind from cortisone shots he received during his baseball career.
With no help from Golenbock, then, Denehy comes across as a whiny, hotheaded asshole who blames everybody but himself for his problems. He seems to have been born with anger issues. And losing made him crazy.
The nuns did it
In Catholic grade school, the nuns made fun of his poor academic performance and beat him for un-named offences. (I went to Catholic schools myself. Some nuns were OK, and some were walking booby traps: we never knew what might set them off.) One story he does tell is that one time, as class monitor, he slugged a student for not saying the rosary (He sounds worse than the nuns) and ended up in Sister Superior’s office. When she tried to whack him with a yardstick, he grabbed her lunchbox and threw it, missing her head but breaking a window.
Part of being smart is recognizing your best skills, but Denehy has an inflated valuation of his own worth. “My adolescence was further filled with frustration, resentment, and anger because my high school basketball coach was a prick who resented how good I was, and that I was a lot smarter about basketball than he was.”
Boys will be boys
After Denehy finally makes it to the Mets’ farm system, in 1964, he settles down a bit to tell more about baseball and minor-league frat-boy tales. This includes the time he and four other Mets minor-leaguers were driving back to the training facility in Homestead, Florida, after a night of drinking in Miami. Somewhere along the way they stopped at a marina and talked some fishermen out of a six-foot shark they had caught. They put the “smelly, oily, ugly, scary, toothy, leathery, three-hundred-pound” shark in the trunk, took it back to their Homestead hotel and threw it into the pool. Their plan was to freak out Mets scout Joe McDonald in his early-morning swim, but a church bus full of senior citizens got there first. McDonald had the boys running laps all afternoon as punishment.
Major league pain
Oddly, after all his time in the minors waiting for the big time, Denehy never actually tells us exactly when he started with the Mets. He offhandedly mentions it by telling us that, during spring training, he and fellow teammate, pitcher Tom Seaver, were on a Topps baseball card featuring top rookies for 1967. That season, he and Seaver also shared a team rookie strikeout record — eight in one game — that stood until 2012.
Early that May, Denehy experienced the defining tragedy of his life. He was pitching against the San Francisco Giants. Just before Denehy took his warm-up throws, pitcher Don Cardwell gave Denehy a black beauty (a potent form of speed). “Take this,” Cardwell said. “It will add three feet to your fastball.”
Denehy had never taken anything like that before and was amazed at the feeling of power. “Whoosh!” He had struck out two batters, and then faced Willie Mays. Before the game started, catcher Jerry Grote reviewed the Giants’ hitters. “Fuck Willie Mays,” Grote said. “First time up let’s throw right at his face and knock his ass down. Let’s see if he can hit your pitches after that.” Denehy knocked Mays down and struck him out. Mays came to bat again in the fourth inning. As Denehy threw his sizzling slider for strike three, it “felt as though someone had stuck a knife into my shoulder.”
The injury was near his rotator cuff, on the back of his shoulder “where the triceps tendon attaches.” Denehy says that in 1967 there was no known surgery for his condition, and that “Tommy John” surgery would not be developed until 1974. (Tommy John surgery repairs the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, and seems to have nothing to do with the shoulder.)
Denehy’s pitching was never the same. He bounced around the majors, playing with the Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers, and then went to the minors. He tried radio, and was pretty successful, but the station went broke. He coached a baseball team at University of Hartford, but his temper got him canned.
In a game against Amherst, Denehy got in a fight with Bill Thurston, their coach, “a real prick who liked to run up the score. In the third inning, it was already 9-0 in Amherst’s favor. Denehy body-blocked Thurston and knocked him to the ground, his forearm around Thurston’s throat. “Every time I applied pressure to his neck, his eyes would bulge and a little bit of chewing tobacco would come out of his mouth.”
Not quite redemption
Along the way Denehy got married, had two daughters, took up drinking, cocaine and smoking dope. His shoulder never recovered. His wife left him.
He found the road to recovery during a visit with his family in Connecticut. His younger daughter, Heather, wanted him to play catch with her, something he had never done. On his way back to Florida, he vowed never to use again. It was June 15, 1992. He had yet to deal with his anger. It would be Denehy’s most difficult undertaking.
Bill Denehy’s life has not been easy. Much of the difficulty is of his own making. At the moment of his injury, he didn’t fly into a rage. He was scared and hurting. Looking back, he wishes Cardwell had never offered him the black beauty, and that he had never taken it. Denehy doesn’t ponder that, black beauty or no, he might still have torn his rotator cuff at some point. He still needs someone to blame.
Even if Denehy never torn his rotator cuff, he would still be an asshole, except nobody would care because he could well have made it to the Hall of Fame. Yet, by the end of the book, Denehy’s struggles and humanity reveal him to be like everybody else. If less likeable.
Frank Siraguso's blog can be found at http://www.frankiesez.com.