Over the Plate: Arlie Latham’s Own Baseball Stories, No. 3
No. 3 – Old “Tacks” Parrot, Star Pitcher in the Early ’90s, Certainly Was the Real, Official, League Double-Stitched Article of an Eccentric – Played Cornet All the Time He Wasn’t Playing Ball and Wore Oregon Whiskers That Kept the Whole Team Guessing – Could “Ketch” Ball Some, Too. [Today the record books render his name as Parrott, but here we will preserve Latham’s spelling.]
In this, number three of the series which the famous baseball comedian is “twirling in the big Magazine league,” as he characteristically expresses it, we have some racy reminiscences of another of those old, bygone individualities of the game, so conspicuous in their day, so completely forgotten shortly after….
Old “Tacks” Parrot was a character. No one ever quite knew what Tom was capable of, and no one ever knew what he was going to do next. I’ve seen a good many bugs when I was in the game militant—from fellows who would go fishing in a mud puddle with a safety pin, a piece of thread and a limb of a tree, to eccentric gentlemen who would steal anything from second base to your best girl. But for the real, official, league, double-stitched article I never knew any one that had it on Tom Parrot.
Tom was a pitcher in the early nineties, and when he wasn’t playing ball he was playing first cornet, or something, in a bush orchestra back in his home town. Before a game Tom used to pitch up in practice for more than half an hour, and when he thought he was pretty well warmed up he’d go out into centerfield and shag flies until his tongue got sunburned. Then he’d come in and pitch his head off in a game. When the game was over Tom would run for a hogshead of ice water and thrust his pitching arm into it. He said that sort of treatment kept the salary wing in condition. I never could figure out whether he had a good whip because of this treatment or in spite of it.
Well, along in the early nineties, before I developed gum-hoof and umpire’s crouch, I was playing with the Cincinnati team. We trained in those days in Dallas, Tex. On the day I speak of there were a lot of rookies upsetting the pepper box around the infield and whooping things up generally. The grounds were open, and pretty soon in strolled a big, lanky six-footer, with a full set of bushes and a build like a bunch of coach whips.
He strolled over to one of the ballplayers and asked him “if he could borry his glove and ketch a few.” The player asked him if he could play any ball.
“Why, I’m a right smart ballplayer, I am.”
The player looked hard at the other’s whiskers for a second, and then said: “I’ll bet I know who you are. You’re Pete Bush of the Alfalfa League.”
“No, I hain’t,” replied the other; “I’m a local boy.”
Well, the player gave him his glove, which was a lefthand one, and the busher put it on his right hand. Then he moved over to first base and yelled for some “hot ones.” He got them. And he got a hot reception, too. The minute the players spotted those whiskers they started to ride him.
“Get out from behind that bush!”
“Take off those rabbit nests!”
“Who’s the guy with the steel wool on his map?”
“That’s Herr Shoot!”
“Don’t throw the ball into that alfalfa – he’ll lose it!”
The big fellow never batted an eye at all this; he simply stood there waiting, with his arms stretched straight out before him, the heels of his palms closed and his fingers stuck out at all angles like the blades of a jack-knife.
And they let him have it. Every one that got the ball picked it up and let drive at the busher with enough force to send the ball clean through him. And there was old “Brush” on first, making all sorts of stabs at them and, somehow or other, stopping them. And the more success he had in stopping the balls the harder the players threw. In about ten minutes there wasn’t a man on the field that did not have a sore arm.
After a time the big first baseman changed his glove to his left hand and started to “ketch” them in earnest. He speared them from all angles. He grabbed them out of the air, and picked them up from his shoe-laces. And he shot them back at the other players so fast that when they hit you could hear the smack all over the field.
Then they tumbled. The fellow with the sedge grass on his chin was “Tacks” Parrot!
You see, “Tacks” lived up in Oregon, where it was so cold that you could sharpen a piece of ice and use it for a razor all winter, and so he used to grow those whiskers to protect his throat. Knowing he’d have a little fun, he left them on when he came to Dallas.
I remember another funny incident connected with Tom. I was playing with the Cincinnati team at the time, and was living in one of those very quiet, refined sections of the city where the tradesman deliver their orders through the basement, where the people all bat .300 in the Finance League, and where you never hear a stray cat singing to his love or an organ grinder playing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” Before the season actually had started I awoke one morning about 5 o’clock and lay abed half awake, thinking idly of one thing and another.
Suddenly, somewhere in the neighborhood, the notes of a cornet rang out. This was at 5 o’clock in the morning. The fellow that played the cornet ran all the way down the scale, and then he ran all the way back again. Then he came down again and stopped in the middle as though he had made only a two-base hit. He hung around second for a while, blowing on the same note; then he made a break for third, got there and, without slackening speed, made for home. The last note was a sharp, snappy one, so I guess he slid and was called safe.
Well, that fellow blew everything out of a cornet that was in it except the hole.
This sort of thing continued every morning until the season opened. All the time we were wondering where Tom Parrot was. Up to the time the season opened no one had seen him. On the opening day we were all dressed and ready to go to the grounds, but still no Tom Parrot.
I might have suspected that the cornetist that bothered me in the morning was Tom; but somehow I didn’t. As I say, on the day the season opened we were all ready and waiting for Tom. Not a sign of him. Finally along came the conveyance that was to take us to the grounds. We all climbed aboard and expected to see Tom come running up at any minute. But he didn’t.
At last we were about to start, and had given “Tacks” up for lost, when a brass band on its way to the grounds swung around a corner and headed for us full blare. But it wasn’t the band that caused us to nearly fall off the tallyho; it was something else. There, at the head of the musicians, dressed in a long linen duster and sombrero, and blowing a cornet so hard that his face came to a point at his mouth, was the missing Tom Parrot! And then I knew who the morning soloist was.
When we took trips on trains Tom never bothered to waste his time talking or playing cards; he’d just take the mouthpiece of his cornet out of his grip and practice making his lips flexible until we came to our destination.
On boat trips Tom was as good as a play. First he’d take a seat near the orchestra and watch the cornetist. Little by little he’d edge up to him until he looked as though he belonged to the orchestra. Then Tom would pull one hand from behind his back and there would be the cornet. And the next thing we knew Tom would be playing away for dear life and paying attention to nothing else.
I can very well remember the trips we used to take to Washington when old “Tacks” was along with us. After we had dressed in our hotel we proceeded to the ball grounds in a tally-ho. (That word “proceeded” always reminds me of a vacationist’s diary – “we proceeded from the lake to the next village and thence took the eight-sixty-three airship back to the boarding house” – you know.)
After we had climbed to the top of the conveyance, Tom would bring his cornet from under his duster and begin to wet his lips. Next he’d straighten up, throw out his chest and then stretch his arms out in front of him. By this time Tom was all warmed up and ready to go on the mound.
Ladies and gentlemen! Tom Parrot is now about to pitch (his cornet), and if necessary, to play any position, or tune, in the musical field.
After Tom had made a few preliminary passes through the air with the cornet he’d put it to his lips and let her go. People in the street would look in amazement after the tally-ho, and those in front of us would line up along the curb, thinking that a circus or a band was coming down the street.
Tom would keep this up all the way to the grounds; he never paid any attention to the people on the street, but kept his eyes rolled up at the sky, as though there wasn’t anything on earth, except the cornet, worth looking at. Tom wasn’t a slouch with the stick, but he used to make bigger and more hits on the way to the grounds than he ever did in them.
When we’d get to the grounds someone would have to jog his arm to make him quit playing. If this were not done he would continue to play until there wasn’t a note left in the cornet.
I don’t know what Tom is doing now; but I think it is very probably he is the owner, manager and captain combined of some bush league orchestra up in Portland, Ore., and throwing them over with a good, free (musical) delivery, holding his opponents hitless and getting a few blows (out of his cornet) himself.