When I was a kid, I'd often go by myself down to Merrymount Beach in Quincy, which was located right at the foot of our street, at low tide and, using a stick as a bat, hit stones out onto the clam flats. There was never anyone around then, just a few clam diggers plying their trade. Most of them were out beyond my reach, but I never aimed in their direction. Clam digging was allowed in that area back then.
Using a small shovel or something called a clam fork, the diggers would upturn the mud in the flats and pick the clams from it. That mud had lain undisturbed since perhaps forever, and, when exposed to the air, it reeked to high heaven. When the breeze was blowing in from the bay, the stench would permeate the entire neighborhood but not for long. When the tide came in, the seawater rinsed away the smell, the air would return to normal, and the sun bathers would begin to arrive.
That would bring an end to my stone-swatting for the day.
One year, it must have been about 1949, the entire neighborhood was filled with excitement when word got around that Birdie Tebbetts, the Red Sox catcher, had rented a place just two or three doors up from the water for the season.
Tebbetts, who had come by his nickname because he had a high-pitched voice and his constant chatter behind the plate was reminiscent of a chirping you-know-what, was an all-star during his Red Sox years and was generally considered to be the best catcher in the American League; but he was painfully slow afoot. One year toward the end of the season, Dom DiMaggio was going over some team statistics and noticed that Tebbetts was leading the Red Sox in stolen bases. Both DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky were excellent base runners but were under orders not to steal while Ted Williams was at bat. It would leave first base open and prod the opposing side to walk him, thus taking the bat out of the great slugger's hands. DiMaggio approached Tebbetts and explained that the Red Sox would be a laughing stock if the slowest runner in the league were to lead the team in stolen bases. Did Birdie mind if he (DiMaggio) stole a few? Tebbetts didn't mind at all; the only reason he ever stole was that he was so slow that the opposition never paid attention to him when he reached base. A few days later, Dom reported back. "I think I've got enough now," he said. "Besides, Ted's starting to get ticked off."
Anyone doubting the veracity of that story should check the Red Sox team statistics for 1949. They show that Dom DiMaggio led in stolen bases with nine, followed closely by Johnny Pesky and Birdie Tebbetts with eight each.
We kids couldn't wait for the season to start. Maybe we'd get to know Birdie. Maybe he'd hold a cookout to which all his teammates and the kids in the neighborhood would be invited. "Excuse me. Ted, could you pass the mustard, please?" Anything was possible, at least it was in our fertile imaginations.
Alas, none of it was ever to be. Despite our best efforts, no one even made so much as a sighting of Tebbetts all that year. I was always mystified by how he managed to avoid us for so long.
At last, in 1986, almost 40 years later, I had a chance to find out. He was a guest at the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner to receive the Judge Emil Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to baseball, and, at the head table reception, I asked him if he remembered renting a place by the water in Quincy. "That place," he said. "It stunk!" Then he described awaking on his first morning there. Apparently, the breeze was blowing in from across the clam flats that morning and the tide had yet to come in and rinse the air. That was enough for Birdie. He moved out that day. So the mystery of how he'd managed to avoid being spotted was finally solved.
We were chasing an empty apartment all that summer.
The only ballplayer who moved to Quincy and stayed was Sam Mele. A native of Queens, New York, in 1950, he married Connie Clemens, the prettiest girl in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, and put down roots there. When his playing days were over, Sam became the manager of the Minnesota Twins and, in 1965, led them to their first pennant in team history. The Twins lost the World Series that year in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Sam built a home for his family on Adams Street, about two miles from where Birdie Tebbetts had almost once lived. Sam died there in 2017 at the ripe old age of 95.
Dick Donovan, a 20-game winner with the Cleveland Indians in 1962, was actually from Quincy (North Quincy High School, class of '45). He had a 15-year major league career, made five all-star teams, had the lowest ERA in the American League in 1961, and had the league's winningest percentage (16-6) while pitching for the White Sox in 1957. However, although he remained active in Quincy business throughout his post-playing career, he had moved to Cohasset by that time.
I wonder if any of those guys ever batted stones onto the clam flats of Merrymount Beach.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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