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The colorful contry boy & the cake bakers.

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I put down Mark Kurlansky's new book, "Hank Greenberg: 1-he Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One," in a wistful mood and thought, "Had it not been for the high cost of baking flour in 1939, my name might have been Hank Greenberg Jr."

In that Depression year, on a brisk February day, my provenance was being worked out in a kitchen on Hazelwood Avenue in Detroit. The house was just down the street from Boesky's Delicatessen, the old haunt of the Purple Gang.

In that kitchen, two sisters--Ruth, 18, and Pearl, 20-were trying to figure out how they could express their love for the Detroit Tigers as they listened to the broadcast of a spring training game from Lakeland, Florida. The two Ortmann sisters were about as ardent in their devotion to the Tigers as the owner himself, Walter O. Briggs, who never drew a dollar in pay as the president of the Detroit Baseball Club.

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What team it was that the Tigers were mauling that day is lost in the mist of the past, but Ruth--who recently turned 91--remembers that the game was exciting, with strong pitching and even stronger hitting boding well for the 1939 season.

From the mid-1930s, Detroit had been one of the two most formidable franchises in the big leagues. In 1934, the Tigers played in the World Series, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven. The next year, the Tigers got by the Yankees to win the American League title and the right to play the Chicago Cubs for the championship (their first, which they won in six games). In 1936 and 1937, the Tigers were plagued by injuries, with on-field manager Mickey Cochrane sidelined for two years and Hammerin' Hank Greenberg for most of 1936. Despite these setbacks, in both years the Tigers outplayed every other team in the American League, except for the Yankees. Although the 1938 season wasn't nearly as successful, the Tigers managed to win 84 games while losing 70. They finished in fourth and had to watch the Yankees make it three in a row.

But 1939 would be different. Didn't the Tigers have "Murderers' Row"--Rudy York, Charlie Gehringer, and Hank Greenberg? In 1937, as a rookie, York hit 18 home runs in August alone to establish a major league record, finishing in fourth place for most home runs with a total of 35. In the same year, Hank Greenberg drove in 183 runs. In 1938, Gehringer hit a league-leading .371 and was named Most Valuable Player. He just beat out Greenberg, who had hit 58 home runs (two shy of Babe Ruth's record), scored 144, and drove in 146--just one shy of the league season record. The Ortmann girls had plenty to be excited about.

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So, as they listened to the broadcast of that spring training game, they began to hatch ideas about how they could show their support for the Tigers. Another fan club? Poems sent to the Detroit Free Press eulogizing the baseball prowess of each man on the roster?

As Ruth recalls, it was her idea to do something more personal. Now don't get the wrong idea. This was 1939, and these were two of the most well-brought-up young ladies in all of Detroit. Despite the femme fatale that appears in the movie "The Natural," groupies did not gather around the grandstands of Briggs Stadium, and they certainly didn't emerge from strict German Lutheran households.

What Ruth suggested to Pearl was that they choose a player and bake him a cake each time he hit a home run. Now Pearl knew exactly which player she wanted to root for: none other than Hank Greenberg. Was he not the most dreamy slugger on the team? At 6'4", he actually filled out that baggy wool uniform.

That sounded like a great idea, except for one thing: In 1938, Hammerin' Hank hit 58 lopers! If he had another year like that--devoutly to be wished, of course-the Ortmann gifts would have to buy a lot of flour, a lot of eggs, a lot of salt, and a lot of butter. There was no instant cake mix in those days, and not a whole lot of discretionary bank notes either.

Ruth had a better idea: They could bake a cake for a hurler each time he won a game! This was shrewd thinking since no one on the pitching staff was likely to give Ruth a sore arm from mixing cake batter. Sad to say, one of the great stalwarts of the staff--Lynnwood "Schoolboy" Rowe--had won only one game over the last two seasons.

This plan, however, was not cheered on by Pearl, who had been looking forward to presenting a cake to the Tiger's tall, dark, and handsome first baseman. So, when Ruth said, "Let's bake a cake for a pitcher!" Pearl muttered glumly, "I don't care."

Despite her sister's lack of enthusiasm, Ruth plunged ahead with the plan. The obvious task was to choose the pitcher who would be the beneficiary of their culinary rooting. It went against Ruth's conscience to self interestedly pick a veteran likely to have another losing season. "Sis, we need to choose a rookie pitcher," she explained. Pearl, still miffed about losing an opportunity to cake walk under the appreciative gaze of hunky Hank, coolly said, "I don't care."

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Gazing at her mixing bowls and wooden spoons, Ruth remembered reading something about a rookie pitcher who had been dubbed "Dizzy" by Detroit sportswriters-and apparently for good reason. While setting pitching records in Beaumont, Texas, Paul Trout had taken his pet duck out to the pitching mound. And once, on an unusually cold Texas day, he built a small fire behind the mound to keep his hands warm. He was also known to wipe off his eyeglasses by pulling from his hip pocket a red bandanna as big as a matador's cape, waving it around to the delight of the crowd and the exasperation of the batter.

This colorful country boy from Sandcut, Indiana had been called up in 1938, but had not lasted long enough to throw an official pitch. Why? Well, before he had time to find his locker, he commenced to commandeer a traffic cop's motorcycle from Trumbull Avenue and ride it around the warning track during batting practice. The crowd loved it, clapping and roaring. As he sped by the dugout, spewing red cinders over puddles of tobacco juice, he yelled out to the hard-nosed manager Mickey Cochrane, "How am I do'n, Mickey?" "Just great, Diz," came the response. "But you can just drive that damn thing all the way to Toledo, 'cause that's where I'm send'n ya." And he did. The Toledo Mudhens were glad to have him on the team because Diz liked ducks.

Since Ruth enjoyed a little zaniness in her life--her Hollywood pinup was the Marx Brothers--it didn't take long for her to come to a decision. "Pearl, I've got just the rookie pitcher! Paul "Dizzy" Trout. What d'ya think?" Pearl replied, "I don't care."

Ruth forged ahead and wrote a letter to the lucky young man. Weeks went by with no response. "Pearl, should I write again? .... I don't care." Ruth wrote again. This time she got a reply. "Pearl, d'ya want to read it?" "I don't care." The letter thanked Ruth for the offer, and said that when he won a game he'd like an almond cake with--naturally--nuts on it.

Opening day came, and the girls were huddled around the radio just waiting for the rookie to make his successful appearance in the lists. They waited--bowls at the ready--for over a month, until May 24. But the wait was worth it. Diz beat the Yankees in the House That Ruth Built by a score of 6-1, striking out two Hall of Famers twice each.

With the game won, the cake was baked; it came out of the oven just right. But the transport of the delicate prize was fraught with hazards. First, it had to be placed in a safe container. Since there was no Tupperware in those days, a hatbox was pressed into service. Ruth could not drive, so her father Arno drove her to the Leland Hotel through rush-hour traffic. She held the hatbox aloft to keep the cake from moving back and forth as if caught in a rundown.

When Ruth went up to the front desk holding the box, the clerk said, "Around to the service entrance for all deliveries, madam." She explained that the box contained a gift for Mr. Trout of the Tigers. The clerk smiled and called the room where Diz was living with another rookie pitcher named Fred Hutchinson. When there was no answer, he helpfully grabbed the hatbox--Ruth could hear the cake sliding in it--and assured her that he would see to it that it got into the very big hands of Mr. Trout.

While reading the sports page the next day, Ruth found out that the desk clerk had not eaten the cake. A gossip column called "Tiger Tales" revealed to the world that Diz Trout had received a cake from a female fan and that Hank Greenberg, after tasting the cake, had said to the rookie, "Diz, you should marry this girl."

Though a cutup, the farm boy from Indiana had manners, and so he called the Ortmann house to thank the cook for the delicious cake. "Should you ever want to come to a game," he added, "just call me for tickets." She did, and like the good girl she was, took her father to the game. After the contest, the pair hung around the gangway where the players came out of the clubhouse into the stadium. "There he is!" Ruth cried as she scurried up to Diz, introducing herself and her father. And the three proceeded to talk Tiger baseball. In no time at all, Diz said, "Call me for more tickets." When Ruth got home, she asked her sister if she'd like to know about her encounter with the appreciative fast-bailer. "I don't care," she replied. "Well, sis, let me tell you, he's almost as gorgeous as Hank Greenberg," was Ruth's retort.

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The next week, Ruth asked Pearl if she would like to go to the game. Again, "I don't care." After the game, Ruth asked, "Pearl, would you like to meet him?" You can guess the response.

They waited in the stands until he came out of the clubhouse, freshly showered and sporting a light-green gabardine, double-breasted suit. According to Ruth, it looked awfully good on him. Though not quite as tall as Greenberg, his shoulders were broader thanks to pitching a lot of hay, and--at 6'2"--he was still a good head taller than most men of the time. Pearl took one look and blurted out--to the surprise of both--"Ruth, let me have him." Ruth, of course, had never thought that he was hers to give away.

As the three of them walked to the team bus, Paul, standing between them, never took his eyes off Pearl.

A couple of weeks later, Paul borrowed a car from a hotel bellhop and took Pearl on a ride around Detroit. They drove around Belle Isle and then to Grosse Pointe. As they drove past the mansions along the way, Paul looked over at Pearl and said, "Someday we're going to live in a house like this." All Pearl could do was look out the window, call to mind his nickname of "Dizzy," and mutter to herself, "I don't care." When she got home, she told Ruth that she couldn't believe what this brash young man was saying. Could he be serious?

On the next road trip, Paul wrote Pearl a letter a day. In one of them he said, "When I get back into town, we're going to get married. And when you read this, don't look out the window and say 'I don't care.'"

When he returned to Detroit, Diz--a charmer if there ever was one--convinced Pearl to elope. On September 27, 1939, they got married in Toledo. Nobody remembers how they got there, but it was not on a commandeered motorcycle.

I guess one could say that, thanks to my aunt Ruth, I was born Paul Trout Jr. and not Hank Greenberg Jr. I know my mom never regretted winding up with the dizzy pitcher and not the Hall of Fame slugger. The two of them fielded 10 children, including one major-league pitcher, and were together until Diz died in 1972.

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Ruth told me this story of their courtship at her home in Romulus, Michigan, while we were eating her most recent birthday cake which she let someone else bake.

Paul Trout Jr. is an emeritus professor of English at Montana State University, and author of "Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. " He is the oldest of Pearl and Paul Trout's 10 children, whom he says all have a "dizzy" streak in them.

DIZZY IN HIS PRIME

In his first four seasons (1939-1942) with the Tigers, Paul "Dizzy" Trout never had a winning record. But during the war years, he hit his stride.

Trout led the American League in wins in 1943 with 20, then turned in his best season in 1944 when he won 27 games and lost only 14. He also set the records that year for ERA, complete games, shutouts, and innings pitched. He finished second in the league to his Detroit teammate, Hal Newhouser, in wins and strikeouts. In 1945, he was a workhorse in the pennant drive, pitching six games and winning four over a nine-game, late-season stretch. In Game 4 of the World Series, Trout beat the Cubs 4-1 on a five-hitter. The Tigers ended up winning it all that year.

In 1952, a blockbuster trade sent Trout, George Kell, Hoot Evers, and Johnny Lipon to Boston for Walt Dropo, Don Lenhardt, Johnny Pesky, Fred Hatfield, and Bill Wight. Trout started only 17 games for the Red Sox before retiring. He also played briefly for the Baltimore Orioles.

During the rest of his Michigan years, he called playby-play for the Tigers on WKMH radio and WJBK TV. He also hosted "The Knot-Hole Gang," a sports show aimed at children.
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Title Annotation:Paul Trout
Author:Trout, Paul, Jr.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Sep 1, 2011
Words:2385
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