When Dave Frishberg died at age 88 on Nov. 17 he left many mourners.
Some identified him as the composer of “I’m Just a Bill” from ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock.” Some identified him as the sophisticated composer of such tunes as “My Attorney Bernie,” “I’m Hip,” “Peel Me a Grape,” and “I Want To Be A Sideman.” Others identified him as a valued piano accompanist of such A-list jazz performers as Carmen McRae, Ben Webster, Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims.
And there are those among us who will always thank him for commemorating baseball with his wonderful song, “Van Lingle Mungo,” whose entire lyrics contain the names of baseball players from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
I’m sure he startled many in his music world by writing such a song in 1969. For whatever reason, he picked up the Baseball Encyclopedia and decided to write a song dedicated to his childhood love. He set it to a quasi-bossa nova tempo and made it work. I first heard it sung by Sue Raney, but in order to feel its full power you must listen to it sung by the composer. It’s quite easy to find on the Internet.
Including the title player, there are 37 players (and in one incarnation, one umpire) named in the song. Frishberg tinkered with the lyrics slightly over the years. It’s a song, so one object was rhyming lyrics. But what he wound up with was a beguiling mix of baseball players, whose names will surely stimulate the imagination of the passionate baseball fan.
“I first heard it on the WNEW Jonathan Schwartz Super Bowl program,” says Terry Cashman, composer and singer of the seminal baseball anthem, “Talkin’ Baseball” (a.k.a. “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke”), “and I was intrigued with all the lyrics being names of baseball players.”
Schwartz, the legendary New York radio personality, is a lifelong baseball fan, and for years he had an entire baseball-themed show on the day of the Super Bowl, just because.
“I’m sure it influenced me when I wrote ‘Talkin’ Baseball,’ which reflected growing up in the ‘50s when people stood around on street corners waiting for newspapers and talking about baseball,” says Cashman. “I’m sure I was at least subconsciously influenced.”
Cashman never met Dave Frishberg. “But I once contacted his publisher to get the sheet music, although I’ve never recorded it,” he says.
The names range from Hall of Famers to the obscure. The former list includes “Big” Johnny Mize, Early Wynn, Roy Campanella, and Lou Boudreau. The latter list includes Augie Bergamo, Pinky May, Sigmund Jakucki, Bob Estalella, Frankie Gustine, Hughey Mulcahy, and Eddie Basinski. The 99-year old Basinski is the only surviving person in Frishberg’s lyrics — as well as the oldest living ballplayer — and I must say that his rather amazing personal story is worthy of, at the very least, a “30 for 30″ style documentary.
Perhaps the most fascinating entries in the Frishberg lyrics are the moderately famous players named, starting with a man who needs no introduction in these parts. I am speaking of Johnny Pesky, who gets rhymed with Barney McCosky. That group of worthy players who fall shy of Cooperstown includes, among others, Whitey Kurowski, Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta, Augie Galan, Johnny (double no-hit) Vander Meer, Ferris (two batting titles) Fain, Johnny Sain, Harry Brecheen, Claude Passeau, Hal Trosky and the aforementioned McCosky, a .312 lifetime hitter.
Among the true journeymen players names is Frenchy Bordagaray. He was a pretty good utility player for five major league teams, but his ultimate claim to fame is that he reported to spring training for the Dodgers in 1936 with a hairy growth under his nose at a time when baseball players were officially ordered to be clean-shaven. He had grown the mustache while playing a bit role in a movie and decided to keep it. That was a definite no-no. Dodgers manager Casey Stengel had this to say: “If anyone’s going to be a clown on this club, it’s going to be me.” But that ‘stache is the only reason Frenchy Bordagaray is remembered today.
So why “Van Lingle Mungo?”
Really . . . why not? Who can ignore the name “Van Lingle Mungo?” “Lingle” was his mother’s maiden name. Had it been “Smith,” or “Johnson,” or “Ryan” would it have had such a lilt? Of course, not.
Van Lingle Mungo was a hard-throwing righthander who was fated to play for the exceedingly mediocre Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1930s. He twice won 18 games for those sorry ball clubs. He twice led the league in starts. He had 20 career shutouts. But he was equally known as someone who liked his, well, partying after the games were concluded. In short, people assumed his name meant he wasn’t 100 percent serious to begin with, and, let’s face it, once you hear the name, you can’t suppress a smile. Don’t lie.
Frishberg and Mr. Mungo met once. Van Lingle Mungo being Van Lingle Mungo, he wanted to know where his check was. Frishberg told him that if he wished to derive royalties from a song he should write one entitled “Dave Frishberg.”
Van Lingle Mungo died in 1985. If he wrote such a song, he didn’t tell anyone.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.