Yes, this one is about baseball. Trust me, I can find baseball ethics stories even when there’s no baseball. It is also about moral luck, how unethical conduct can have good results and vice-versa, and Chaos Theory, which posits that in complex systems, even insignificant changes can set into motion unpredictable chain reactions, and where they stop, nobody knows.
On Oct. 2, 1983, the Boston Red Sox said goodbye to Carl Yastrzemski at Fenway Park. I was there, along with my wife, thanks to the kindness of a good friend (who eventually real-life de-friended me over a political disagreement in an episode I will never understand. I don’t like to think about it,) Yaz got a great send-off for his final game, with an hour-long pregame ceremony, the retirement of his No. 8 jersey and a letter, read aloud to the crowd, from President Reagan. Yaz, memorably, rounded the park, touching the hands of the fans, and dramatically ripped off his jersey as he went down the steps of the dugout for the last time as a player. I’ll never forget it.
Since the retirement of a Red Sox legend after 22 years was the biggest story in the city as well as in baseball, the Boston sports talk radio show “The Sports Huddle” on WHDH decided to play a little joke. Let me interject here that “The Sports Huddle” was always a vile feature of the sports scene in Boston, uncivil, unfair, with loutish hosts and the kinds of callers who epitomized the worst stereotypes of Boston fans. It’s gone now, and good riddance. But I digress….
The show decided it would be funny to ignore Carl Yastrzemski, who the show and its callers had been generally vicious about for a decade, and to devote its four-hours on Yaz’s day to a joke tribute to as unremarkable a baseball figure as they could find. The producers settled on the first-base coach of the Montreal Expos, 55-year-old Vern Rapp, who had once managed the St. Louis Cardinals without distinction, and who had announced that he would end his baseball career at the end of the the 1983 season. Of course, only the most hard- core baseball fans in Boston would have any idea who Vern Rapp was.
The Sports Huddle jerks decided to play it all straight, presenting a solemn ,extended tribute to the mediocre, obsure,Expos coach. They tracked down former minor league teammates of Rapp’s, friends from his time in St. Louis, and Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, interviewing them all about Rapp’s fine qualities as a baseball man and human being, and how much baseball would miss him. Then they interviewed Rapp himself. Nobody suspected that it was all a put-on.
At least nobody dumped a bucket of blood on his head, like they did to Carrie White.
No ethics alarms rang, because the Sports Huddle creeps didn’t have any…still don’t, since they see nothing wrong with their joke even today.
So Vern Rapp agreed to spend his last night in baseball, after the final game with the Expos, taking part in a fake tribute from a radio show in Boston, feeling honored and appreciated when they were really mocking him. The producer even wrote a song parody to serenade him called “Bye Bye Vern Rapp,” set to the melody of the title song of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Mike Shannon spoke so movingly about how much Rapp had meant to the Cardinals organization when he was the team’s manager that Rapp broke down in tears. Nevertheless, the producers of the show kept the joke going for the full four hours.
Mid-broadcast they discovered that Rapp had once been a part of the Cincinnati Reds organization, so they contacted Sheldon Bender, vice president of player personnel for the Reds, who told them he didn’t know Rapp was retiring. He got on the air to tell Rapp how much he respected him, and Vern got all choked up again.
By sheerest chance, Bender was involved in a yet undisclosed effort to find a replacement for the Reds manager at the time, Russ Nixon, whose contract was up at the end of the season, and who was regarded by the brass as too easygoing. Rapp had not been considered a candidate until the radio show, but when Bender thought about it, the Expos retiring coach did have a reputation as a a tough disciplinarian, and he had managerial experience. He conferred with Reds management the next day, and the team hired Rapp as its surprise choice as field manager on October 5. The cruel fake valedictory had turned into a huge gift to Vern Rapp.
That’s moral luck. It didn’t make the gag less cruel or more ethical. It just happened to workout well for its victim.
For a while…
Rapp was a complete flop with the Reds. The players detested him, and he was fired mid-season.
The Reds now decided they needed to find a “players manager.” They concluded that the perfect candidate was Pete Rose, then a 43-year-old , pathetic, declining baseball great who could barely play any more but who was desperately trying to hang on with the Expos long enough to break Ty Cobb’s hit record. The Reds traded a journeyman utility infielder to Montreal for Rose, and hired the Cincinnati hero to be a player-manager. Soon he was just a manager, and it was as a manager that Rose gambled on baseball, breaking the game’s most unbreakable rule. This got him banned from baseball, just like Shoeless Joe Jackson, and it is why baseball’s all-time hit leader isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
And all because some sports talk show jerks thought it would be funny to ignore Carl Yastrzemski on the day he said farewell to Boston, and to play a cruel trick on Vern Rapp instead.