The Coracoid Process
by Robert Sachs
by Robert Sachs
Benny Mellman, who wouldn’t turn twenty-two for another six weeks, had been throwing hard for two innings and the pain in his right shoulder was scaling up. He was sweating, lightheaded. For most of May, the pain had been getting worse, and he worried now that each pitch would be his last. Before starting the top of the third, he called time and motioned for the pitching coach to come out to the mound. The umpire moved to his left and held up one hand. Crawley, the leadoff hitter, moved out of the batter’s box and tapped his cleats with his bat. C.W. Moss, the team’s pitching coach, was used to pitchers who flounder, but Benny had struck out the first six batters he’d faced.
“Hang in,” C.W. told Benny. “You’re doing great. We need this game. Give me five good ones, then Bosworth will take over. Can you do that?”
“Okay,” Benny said, reaching for the rosin bag. “It’s getting worse.”
“Stay with it. Just ‘til the fifth. Can you do that?”
Benny rubbed his right shoulder. “I’ll try,” he said.
He struck out Crawley. Belson dribbled one to the mound, Benny scooped it up and threw underhanded to first. Fitzsimmons fanned. Benny, grimacing, walked off the mound holding his right shoulder. In the dugout, the trainer iced it, gave Benny some pain pills, which he downed with a cup of Gatorade. He was hoping for a big inning so he could sit and give the ice and the pills time to work. But his teammates didn’t cooperate—it was three and out, and Benny was once more on the mound. Two more innings.
Zwirn, the National League homerun champ six years earlier, led off the top of the fourth. He was tall and wide and hugged the plate. His thirty-six ounce bat looked small in his bear-sized hands. Benny brushed him back with a fastball. Zwirn spit tobacco juice down the first base line and dug in his cleats. Lowdenback signaled a slider, the pitch that hurt Benny’s shoulder the most. He shook him off. Shook off a curve, the second most painful. He came in with another fastball and Zwirn popped it foul. Lowdenback asked the ump for time and jogged out to the mound.
“Can’t throw it,” Benny said.
“How about a cutter?” the catcher asked.
“Almost as bad.”
“Okay, but keep it low,” Lowdenback said.
Zwirn hit the next pitch, a low fastball, 525 feet into the center field bleachers. As the hefty slugger jogged around the base path, Benny was on one knee, holding his right shoulder, a tear rolling down his cheek.
He grew up in an apartment building across from a drainage canal that fed into the North Branch of the Chicago River. His father was killed by the Japanese in World War II. His mother worked as a biller at Art Publishing. She was a detail person and nothing ever slid by her. The sales force did its thing, but it was Charlotte Mellman who made sure the bills went out and the customers paid on time. While she was at work, Benny stayed with his grandmother. Annie Coopersmith was the best kind of grandmother to have. She was sixty and looked forty. She worked out at a gym three days a week. On weekends, she partied with young friends and drank Scotch. Unlike Benny’s own, her house was filled with music and books. When he was young, she read to him. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Good Earth, The Great Gatsby. These she read to him before he was six.
He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
The words, if not the meaning, fascinated Benny. He loved the sound of his grandmother’s voice.
She walked with him to school until he was old enough that it embarrassed him. She made sure he ate breakfast and she packed a good lunch for him. But what he remembered most about his mother’s mother was that she taught him how to throw a baseball.
“Thumb here, fingers here,” she would say. “Stand like this.” And she would put her left foot in front of her right. “Toss it with your whole body.” She showed him how. “Every boy needs to know how to throw a baseball,” she told him.
At two, Benny could toss stones across the drainage canal. At five, he could throw a baseball harder and faster than boys twice his age. And it was his grandmother who took him to his first Cubs game. It was 1945 and the Cubs were on their way to winning the pennant and facing Detroit in the World Series. This game was on Saturday, July 14. The Cubs were hot that month. They scored five runs in the first inning and held on for a 6-5 win. Benny got excited each time Phil Cavarretta came to bat. Cavarretta was batting clean-up and hitting .368, but on that day he couldn’t connect. Lenny Merullo, the shortstop, who was hitting a measly .266, went three for four.
“Go figure,” Annie Coopersmith said. “That’s the beauty of the game.”
Benny, too, saw the game as beautiful and he decided back then that he would become a baseball player.
His teachers told Charlotte that Benny was a good kid, popular with the other children, and never a disciplinary problem. He was well liked, but he was having trouble reading. He seemed to love books, but his comprehension was substandard. At their recommendation, she had him tested at the county board of education building downtown. They said Benny lacked something. They didn’t know what, but he was slow on the uptake. Charlotte remembered “slow.”
“The kid’s a slow learner,” she told her mother. “Like his shithead father.”
“He’s not at all like Elliott,” Annie told Charlotte. “He’s a good kid. He’ll learn when he’s ready to learn.”
Charlotte began to cry. “I don’t want him hurt,” she sobbed.
Annie told her to be supportive. “The worst thing we can do is make him feel like an idiot.”
Benny was not an idiot, but neither was he a scholar. Because he was cute and had an endearing smile, because, unlike many of his classmates, he never caused trouble, teachers took to him. On tests they gave him the benefit of the doubt. He graduated elementary school barely able to read. He was soon on the baseball team of the local high school, where, as a junior, he pitched three no-hitters. He was drafted by the Cubs upon graduation and sent to Mesa. He threw hard with the usual assortment of pitches, with the exception of a slider. Web Northrip, the pitching coach at Mesa, worked with Benny to develop one.
“It’s a bread and butter pitch, kid. You’ve got to master it if you want to make it to the show.”
And that’s what Benny wanted more than anything—a chance to pitch in the big leagues. This is what he was good at, what he loved to do. He worked on his slider long after the other players had left the field, long after there was anyone around to catch him.
But he knew there was something wrong. He asked Northrip for help.
“It’s not breaking enough,” he told the old coach. “What am I doing wrong?”
Northrip had Benny try different grips without success. He had Benny throw at a slightly different angle, but nothing he did made Benny’s slider more effective. It dropped slightly, but then just hung there, a sweet target for a right handed batter with patience.
“It’s a shoulder thing,” the coach concluded. “Seen it once before. Short of surgery, nothing will help.”
Northrip said he knew a surgeon who had developed a method of shaping part of the scapula—the coracoid process. “If it works, you’ll be able to throw a big league slider,” he told Benny. “Trouble is, don’t always work.”
Benny decided to meet with the surgeon.
“You’ll miss a season,” the doctor said. “I’ll fix it with the team. No guarantees, of course.”
Benny was told the surgery had to be a secret. He’d have to pay for it himself, but later, the organization would bump up his salary for a year to reimburse him for the cost.
After the surgery, Benny’s shoulder was sore. Physical therapy helped some.
“Give it time,” the surgeon said. “Three more months.”
Benny sat out the three months. He started easy runs after that. Stretching exercises three times a day, and then one day in August, the surgeon told him he could start throwing. Easy does it.
Benny did it easy. Iowa was out of contention, as were the Cubs, so there was no pressure to move things along. His only pressure was the pressure in his mind telling him he needed to get back into the rotation.
The surgeon was right. Benny could throw a slider better than before, better than any he’d ever seen. Northrip showed him how, if he dropped his shoulder a certain way—something he couldn’t do before the surgery— the ball developed a side spin that tailed away from right handed hitters about three feet in front of home plate.
The following year he was bumped from Mesa up to Daytona, where he pitched 34 straight scoreless innings before the Cubs organization moved him up to their Iowa farm team. Triple A ball was as close to the show as you could get without actually being there. He was doing reasonably well, but far from burning up the league. His slider was effective, but it came with increasing pain. He was taken out of the regular rotation and used as a late inning closer. When Benny was twenty-seven, he begged the manager to put him back in the starting rotation. Benny knew this was the year. If he didn’t do it now, he’d be too old.
He won four in a row. The Cubs needed a third starter and decided to give Benny a long look. He won his first three starts against Philly, San Francisco and New York.
Two scouts were in the stands when Zwirn hit his home run. But they weren’t looking at the big guy rounding the bases. They had their eyes on Benny, who had fallen to one knee.
“Heard he had surgery a couple of years ago,” one said. “Maybe something went wrong. A guy his age shouldn’t be in that kind of pain this early in the game.”
“Sorry kid,” the manager said a few days later. “We’re releasing you. With a bad wing, management won’t take the chance. If the shoulder heals, let me know. I’ll try to get you on with another club.”
Benny packed his bags and took a bus back to Chicago.
“Go back to school,” his grandmother said, but he had no interest in being a student. A friend from high school got him a job as a forklift operator at the Matteson Paper Company on the far south side. The pay was good and it was regular hours. He joined the union. He used the facilities at a nearby YMCA to build back strength in his right shoulder. Matteson had a baseball team that played in an industrial league around Chicago. Word spread quickly through the plant that Benny had pitched Triple A ball and had a few games in the big leagues. His foreman encouraged Benny to join the company team.
“Do well and you’ll have your choice of jobs,” the foreman said.
Benny found he rarely had to throw the slider and he could go seven or eight innings without too much pain. Behind his pitching, the Matteson Warriors won the league trophy that year and for the next seven years. Benny was made an assistant sales manager. His employees liked him, as did the customers. He was easy going and cheerful. Later, he was made manager of the Mid-West region. He married Carla, a woman he met at Matteson, and they had a son they named Carl.
When Carl was three, Benny got him a mitt and a baseball and showed him how to throw.
“Don’t,” Carla said.
“Every boy needs to know how to throw a baseball.”
His wife began to cry. “Just don’t,” she said again. This was shorthand for an argument they’d had before. Carla knew that Benny’s fondest hopes were dashed when his bad shoulder kept him out of the big leagues. She was afraid that Benny would set Carl up for the same disappointment
Benny didn’t argue then, but there was something he needed to find out. The following day while he was at work, Benny called the surgeon who had operated on him. “I’ve got a son. Can you tell this early…”
“If he needs the surgery?” the doctor asked. “No, probably by fifteen or sixteen. No earlier.”
When Carl was seven, Benny enrolled him in Little League. The old argument resurfaced.
“You’re not going to force him into being the pitcher you never were.”
“I’m not forcing him,” Benny said. “He’s got a good arm.”
“So did you,” she said.
In the early Eighties, Matteson was sold to a Netherlands company and the company was reorganized. They told Benny his job had been eliminated and gave him a year’s pay. After three months he found a job at Crane Company on the loading dock. His foreman introduced him around. “This guy was three and oh for the Cubs in Seventy-five.”
“How did it feel pitching in the majors?” a manager named Wilson asked him.
“Felt great,” said Benny. “Until it didn’t. If it hadn’t been for my bum shoulder, I think I’d still be there.”
A forklift operator named Simpson said, “I saw you throw against the Giants. You looked unbeatable. Think you would have ended up one of the greats?” The questions never seemed to stop. Who had he met? What were they like on the way up? On the way down? What about the groupies in Triple A ball? Was there a lot of action? What was it like pitching against Bobby Murcer? Larry Bowa? Rusty Staub? How about starting a team here at Crane?
Each question was like a jab to Benny’s right shoulder. He felt the quivering of his coracoid process. The pain was real. He answered with a studied politeness, smiling through the pain. After a while, the questions ceased and in a strange way, Benny missed them. He missed the way other people linked him to the game. One minute he was the guy who pitched against Tom Seaver, the next he’s just another dock jock.
Some evenings, especially in the summer, Benny would sit with Carl on the back porch of their apartment listening to the radio broadcast of a Cubs road game. He’d rub his right shoulder, trying to feel the sculpted scapula that was going to make him a winner, and wondering what went wrong.