Sixty years ago (at this writing), the Pittsburgh Pirates completed one of the worst seasons in Major League Baseball history. The Buccaneers finished with 42 wins and 112 losses, to stagger in an astonishing 54.5 games behind the National League Pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers.
Pirates superstar Ralph Kiner, about whom we have written in this blog, slipped to a still-most-impressive total of 37 home runs.
When he asked for a raise, management was purported to have said: “Ralph, we could finish in last place just as well without you.” In fact, Kiner would be traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1953.
(From the same general era, longshoreman Timothy J. Dugan would part with his coat in On the Waterfront, observing, “Mine’s more full of holes than the Pittsburgh infield.” Even Hollywood knew how bad the Pirates were.)
About the only spot of light on the 1952 Pirates was Joe Garagiola. Better known for his colorful announcing and television work in the 1960s and 1970s, Garagiola batted a respectable .273 and played 105 games at backstop. It was his best season.
Garagiola’s backstop backup was Clyde McCullough. Like Kiner, McCullough would find himself with the Cubs in 1953. Altogether, McCullough had a fifteen-season career, catching all but four of his 1,098 games when not inserted as a pinch runner or pinch hitter. He was a good if unspectacular player.
Between the disastrous ending of 1952 and spring training in 1953, McCullough was tooling down a highway, either in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, in his Nash Rambler, when three bohemian hitchhikers caught his attention. Improbably, one of them would become a legend in death fewer than three years later.
James Dean was discouraged by two things that fall of 1952: no roles outside of commercials and the turn down of his marriage proposal to modern-dancer Liz Sheridan—who would attain some fame forty years later as Jerry Seinfeld’s TV mom. The third hitchhiker was a budding-screenwriter and Dean’s best friend, Bill Bast.
At Dean’s instigation, the three struggling and half-starving showbiz-bitten young people were returning to Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana, for a good meal.
Bast sat next to McCullough while Dean and Sheridan (sans engagement ring) cuddled in the backseat. There is no further record of this odd encounter between a solid major-league ballplayer and the mercurial, soon-to-be legendary actor.
One could only imagine.
(Postscript: Dean’s first supporting-stage roll, in See the Jaguar, was announced via a long-distance call or telegram to the Dean-family farm. James Dean was summoned to the theater. The three would have to return to New York—and probably not be picked up hitchhiking again, this time by, say, Ralph Kiner chasing an East Coast dream of his own, driving his famous home-run hitters’ Cadillac.)