Following in the footsteps of our fake oral history of the 1952 Hickory Huskers, it’s time for another look back at one of the great sports teams in movie history. This time it’s the 1939 New York Knights, led by the incomparable Roy Hobbs. As we did with Hickory, we managed to track down all the participants involved in that magical season, even though you’d think most of them would be dead or in prison. So here now, the story of the 1939 New York Knights.
THE REGULAR SEASON
The 1939 New York Knights actually played two seasons — one before Roy Hobbs arrived, and one after he limped into the dugout the first time. Playing in front of hundreds of fans, the Knights appeared destined to a last-place finish in the National League. Then scout Scotty Carson signed the 35-year-old Hobbs after seeing him with a semipro squad that was either called the Hebrew Oilers, the Heeber Oilers or the Hebron Oilers. Max Mercy’s still tracking it down with his thousand calls out to newspapers.
The Judge: Knowing what I know now, I really wish I could ask Scotty Carson what in the hell he was thinking when he signed Hobbs. His job as my head scout was to find bad players so I could get the team from Pop. Instead he finds a guy who hits a home run every 3.2 at-bats and I bet that ratio was even better with that semipro team. He told me Hobbs was a joke.
Scotty: Of course I knew Hobbs would dominate. I went way back with Pop and I knew he might not like a 35-year-old rookie being imposed on him but I thought maybe he could help him get that pennant. I saw him play two semipro games and he went 8-9 with seven homers.
Pop Fisher: Do I remember the first time Hobbs walked into the dugout? Of course. I was thinking about how I should have been a farmer and in walked a scraggly-looking rube with a contract for 500 bucks. How was I suppose to know it was some weird move by Carson to get me a dominant player under the Judge’s nose?
Only one man really knew where Roy Hobbs came from — the sportswriter Max Mercy. Sixteen years earlier he watched as Hobbs, a young prospect on his way to Chicago, struck out the Whammer at a local fairground.
Max: Course it didn’t hit me until I saw Roy throw that pitch in batting practice and it stuck in the net. Then it all came back, the way he’d embarrassed and emasculated the old Whammer. So I knew him as a pitcher, where in the hell did he get those hitting skills? Then I found out what happened with that crazy Harriet Bird, but that still didn’t answer all my questions. Hobbs told Iris — according to a source — that he was in the hospital “for years” after he got shot. Years? With what? It didn’t kill him and obviously didn’t cripple him. And what did the doctors do, since they left the damn silver bullet in him, which caused problems at the end of the ’39 season. I’m sure it affected him mentally so was he institutionalized after being shot? These are the questions Hobbs avoided and I still want answers.
Angry at having a player forced onto the roster, Pop refused to play Hobbs until right-fielder Bump Bailey died while running into the wall.
Max: That was weird, right? Bump ran “headfirst” into the wall and died. Except if you watch the old film he went shoulder first. Always thought they botched the autopsy. And was it safe to release his ashes over the ballfield when they honored him? Is that what people want falling on their heads? I should have drawn a cartoon about that.
Roy: Did I feel bad? Yeah, it was a real loss for the game that an underachieving player who belonged to the bookies bit it. Try getting shot.
POP ON THE BENCH
He was one of the most lovable managers of his time, but people have long wondered just how much credit Pop Fisher deserves for the Knights’ pennant. He could spin delightful stories and wasn’t afraid to confront his players, but his in-game decision making occasionally proved confusing.
Red: Well…look it was a different game back then. The manager filled out the lineup, sent his pitcher out for nine innings and tried keeping some chemistry in the locker room. Should he have played Hobbs earlier? Of course. But you have to understand his bitterness toward the Judge at that time.
Pop: Should have been a farmer. Even with that pennant, think I would have been happier. That’s what I spent most of the game thinking about. Forget pitching changes or pinch-hitters. I sat there wondering what I’d do with a few acres and some goats, chickens. All that land, all that peace.
Roy: I love Pop like my pops. But here’s what you need to know about his talent evaluation: You remember that display I put on in batting practice, then the next game I literally knock the cover off the ball. You’d think you might find a place for me in the lineup next game. What’s Pop do? He gives a little speech to Bump Bailey and puts him BACK IN THE LINEUP! You know, the guy who’d wrecked the season up to that point and not just because he was throwing games. If he doesn’t die, we probably lose 100 games and no one’s ever heard of Roy Hobbs so no one’s stopping me on the street to say “There goes Roy Hobbs. The best there ever was.”
Red: I didn’t understand why we couldn’t have both Roy and Bump in the lineup. They both played right field? Well, okay. It’s not like we had Mays, Mantle or Snider in center. Move Bump to center, put Roy in right. But hey, it worked.
Roy: And how about the hypnotist he brought in? That was how he attempted to stop our losing streak.
Three women dominated Roy’s life: Iris Gaines, Harriet Bird and Memo Paris. One was the love of his life, one was the thrill of his life and one was almost the death of him.
Harriet: I had it all planned out. I would meet the Whammer on the train, hook up with him in a hotel room and plant a silver bullet in his ample gut. That’d complete the trio of killings I had planned. But then that train stopped at that fair.
Roy: I saw her get on the train and I’d never seen a woman in black like that. So mysterious. I instantly forgot about Iris, who I’d made love to the night earlier back home in the barn.
Harriet: Max Mercy told me the Whammer was the best there ever was and the best there’d ever be. Even taking into account a sportswriter’s exaggeration I thought it was true. Then I saw the young Roy Hobbs strike him out on three pitches and I instantly changed my plan. Instead of killing the most famous baseball player in America, I’d kill someone no one had ever heard of, a farm hick, simply because he’d used talent and a little luck to strike out a free-swinging power hitter.
Roy: If I could go back in time I’d never have struck out the Whammer. It wasn’t worth being shot or losing 16 years of my life. And has Harriet never heard of small sample size? One at-bat and I struck out the Whammer. Okay, great, it was a thrill. But if I faced him 9 more times who’s to say he doesn’t take me deep three times. Based on those three pitches, she switched sights and stalked me and shot me and ended my chance of being a Hall of Famer.
Harriet: I thought I had killed him, yeah. Didn’t think anyone could survive a silver bullet. But no one realized I faked my death. Why would I leap out of a window? I had more men to kill. But actually I mellowed out and went into hiding. Moved to Hickory, Indiana, and became a man-hating tutor to hermit-like superstar basketball players. It was a nice change for me.
Iris gave birth to Roy’s son and then waited 16 years to see him again.
Iris: The question people always ask: What in the hell did I think happened to him? I guess they wonder that because we had been friends since we were little kids and then lovers. He leaves for a train to Chicago one day…and I never hear from him again. You’d think I’d investigate or wonder what happened to the old Hobbs farm but no, it really didn’t seem that weird to me. Just went on with my life, gave birth to his kid, put him out of my mind. Then I heard the two guys talking about him at my lunch spot 16 years later and wanted to get back in contact. There was nothing strange about that in the ’30s. Honestly.
Roy: Gosh I loved Iris. And what can I say about Harriet and Memo? I’m a ballplayer, I have needs.
Memo Paris dated Bump Bailey until his tragic death and then went out with Roy, although the main man in her life was the gambler Gus Sands, who bankrolled her.
Memo: Did I love Bump or Roy? No. But Gus didn’t pay me to love them. He paid me to get them into bed and negatively affect their performance. I was like an early Jessica Simpson when it comes to wrecking a star athlete’s performance. I would have kept the Knights from the pennant, too, if it wasn’t for Iris standing up in white in that game in Chicago.
THE PLAYOFF GAME
With Hobbs playing like a combination of Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and the Whammer, the Knights became unbeatable and looked like they’d cruise to the pennant. However, Gus and the Judge had other plans. At a late-season party, Memo gave Roy a mysterious treat and a few minutes later he was struck down with a severe stomach ailment.
Roy: I still don’t know what she coated that thing with. It was sort of like when a Sacramento hotel poisoned Kobe Bryant with a bad hamburger before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002.
The Knights choked away their lead and found themselves in a one-game playoff against Pittsburgh. The Judge attempted to buy Roy off but the superstar refused. Still, the Judge wasn’t worried.
The Judge: When you have the starting pitcher paid off you expect to win. All these years later I still don’t understand how one little speech from Roy to Fowler on the pitching mound convinced him to start doing his best. What the hell did I pay him for if not to pitch — badly — through the doubts about what he was doing?
Fowler: After I failed to throw the game, I spent the next 15 years looking over my shoulder, waiting for the mob or one of Gus Sands’s henchmen to take me out. But nothing happened, guess they enjoyed the Roy Hobbs show as much as anyone.
Pop: We had no offense again. Hobbs accounted for 97 percent of our home runs that season so getting him just out of the hospital severely limited our offense.
Roy: Yeah I struggled my first few at-bats. But I had to chuckle when I went back and listened to the radio broadcast of that game. At one point the announcer says you have to expect me to struggle with timing after being out for a few days. Really? I was out 16 years and in my first Major League at-bat I knocked the cover off a ball. It wasn’t about timing — it was the fact I was bleeding through my stomach. My intestines were leaking out. That affects the swing.
Hobbs struggled in his early at-bats but late in the game Iris had a letter delivered to the dugout. In it, she revealed that Roy’s son was in the stands watching him.
Iris: I literally had to spell it out like that for him. God knows I tried telling him in Chicago in so many words when we were in my home. His father’s not around. He needs his father. “His father lives in New York.” What else was I supposed to say?! That his father wore number 9? I thought he’d pick up on it there but obviously he didn’t so I had to write it down on a piece of paper: When we made love in the barn, I got pregnant. I gave birth to a son who is now in the stands watching you. I even drew stick figures of us in the barn 16 years earlier just to drive home the point.
Trailing 2-0 entering the ninth, the Knights finally put together a two-out rally and had runners on 1st and 3rd with Hobbs coming to the plate.
Gus: I’m sorry, how did the Pittsburgh manager not intentionally walk Hobbs in that situation? Yeah, it puts the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first, but there was no chance the guy hitting behind Hobbs comes through in the clutch. And I know that earlier in the year Hobbs actually connected on a pitch during an intentional walk but that wasn’t happening again.
Pittsburgh manager: I pulled Youngberry and brought in my young stud, John Rhoades. Best fastball in the game. I liked the lefty-lefty matchup, Hobbs was one swing away from death and he’d done nothing in that game. Unwritten rules of baseball say you don’t put the winning run on the bases.I don’t regret that decision at all.
Gus: He said that? Jesus Christ.
Roy: Did I see myself in young Rhoades when he walked to the mound with a certain swagger? Was I back at that hick fair striking out the Whammer in front of Max and old Sam Simpson? I suppose.
Rhoades: Wanted to bust him inside.
With two strikes, Hobbs turned on a Rhoades fastball and swatted one down the right-field line that just went foul. In the process he broke Wonderboy.
Bobby: I couldn’t believe Wonderboy shattered but part of me was sort of happy that Roy would get to use the Savoy Special. What made it special? Corked the hell out of that bat.
Max: Here’s the crazy thing: Even after Hobbs nearly went deep on Rhoades, the Pittsburgh manager again chose not to walk him! I don’t care if he had two strikes, at that point it felt almost like fate that Hobbs was going to hit a game-winning home run.
Rhoades tried again to get a fastball past Hobbs and he again failed. This time Hobbs hammered it into the top part of the stadium, shattering all the lights in New York — and all the hearts in Pittsburgh.
Roy: That was pretty crazy. And how did one light being hit lead to all of them exploding like that? I don’t know, ask an engineer. But knowing what we know about the Judge, there’s a decent chance he didn’t pay electricians enough to maintain the electrical system in that stadium or maybe it had something to do with his weird craving for dark so the whole thing was rigged to go out if one of them did.
Max: Quite the ending, great story for the paper. Was like something out of a movie. If it had been a book maybe you go a bit darker, maybe have Hobbs take the money and strike out at the end.
Pop Fisher always said all he wanted to do was get to a World Series, he’d be satisfied win or lose. He got his wish, but without Hobbs — who was hospitalized again after the game — the Knights were swept by their nemesis from the city, the Yankees, who outscored the Knights 38-3 in the four games. Hobbs retired to the farm with Iris and his son. He didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame, but his bat Wonderboy did, along with his bloody shirt from his final game.
Roy: Regrets? None. No, who am I kidding. I would have hit 800 home runs and won six or seven World Series if I hadn’t been shot. So yeah, regrets. It’s why I spent my days on the farm drinking and sitting in the dark like the crazy old Judge, wondering what could have been.
Max Mercy wrote the best-selling book The Natural about Hobbs in 1952, where he revealed all the details of the slugger’s bizarre past.
Max: I always thought the Whammer was the best I’d ever seen but I’ll say it. Roy Hobbs was the best there ever was.