Whether he instigated it or was goaded into it, Bryce Harper cemented his heel turn this week when, after yet another homerun (14 in all, with a .341/.433/.607 line), he blew a kiss at the opposing pitcher just before he crossed homeplate. Harper seems to have decided to embrace his inner villain, and fulfill the prophecy of Kevin Goldstein’s famous article that reported he was “just a bad, bad guy.” And thank goodness (or badness, in this case) for it, as villains have long made the game more interesting. Indeed, while the game itself is wonderful, a classic, mustache-twirling baddie can raise the level of drama and allow a ballgame to transcend itself and become something larger.
Its much like a great James Bond movie. While the film itself may be a relatively standard action picture, a truly memorable and awesome villain can elevate Goldfinger far above, say, Diamonds Are Forever. And while all of Bond’s gizmos and quips and rendezvous are cool, they really can’t save a clunker like Die Another Day, whereas Maximillian Largo can upgrade even the remake of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again, to classic status. So here are the some of the greatest villains in baseball history. Hopefully, Harper will be more Max Zorin than Professor Joe Butcher.
Carl Mays is like Francisco Scaramanga
Ah, The Man With the Golden Gun, in which Bond is sent to track down the world’s greatest assassin and shootist. Scaramanga is so talented that he only needs one bullet to kill any target. He has no alliances, no allegiances. He lives virtually alone on his private island, with the exception of Nick Nack, his diminutive servant. But Scaramanga is not just an icy killer, he’s also a fiery competitor, who yearns to meet his match, and thus lures Bond to his island to engage in a deadly game of hide and seek.
Like Scaramanga, Carl Mays became famous as an assassin. But the similarities don’t stop there.
Even before Carl Mays struck Ray Chapman with with a fastball in the temple, he was not well liked. He was known as a headhunter who led the American League in hit batters in 1917, and finished second in both 1918 and 1919. While the dingy condition of the baseball, and the lighting (it was apparently twilight), probably played at least as large a role in Chapman’s death, Mays bore the brunt of the blame for the incident in the popular imagination. Ty Cobb urged opposing pitchers to throw at him. There was “considerable protest against the submarine hurler not only from fans, but from Boston, Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington players.” Ban Johnson went on record saying he didn’t think that Mays should be allowed to pitch again. And, after Mays talked about the condition of the ball making it hard to see and control, AL Umpires said that “No pitcher in the American League has resorted to more trickery than Carl Mays in attempting to get a break on the ball which would make it more difficult to hit.”
Ultimately, Mays didn’t miss a start, and he also did not attend Chapman’s funeral. Bob Shawkey alleged that Mays not only continued to pitch inside, but urged others to do so as well. He became a bogeyman, the pitcher who killed a batter and felt no remorse. This, of course, was grossly inaccurate. Mays felt incredibly guilty over what happened to Chapman, and his HBP dropped considerably after the incident. But his reputation was cemented, and perhaps because of it, he got even better. Indeed, above all his supposed crimes, perhaps the worst was that he continued to have incredible success in the Major Leagues. After winning 26 games in 1920, he won 27 the next year, leading the AL in wins, winning percentage, games pitched, saves, and innings. He pitched for 9 seasons after the incident and ironically spent time after his career was over scouting for the Indians.
Drax is, of course, the central villain in the laughable Roger Moore film, Moonraker. He is a believer in eugenics (in the book, he’s a former Nazi), who seeks to destroy all of humanity, except for his small group of “perfect” human specimens, who will then repopulate the Earth. Drax creates an orbital space station, from which he will launch spores to kill the rest of the planet’s population. Alas, Bond gets in the way, destroying the station’s radar jamming equipment and allowing the United States to launch its space marines (!) for an in-space laser battle with the forces of Drax. Eventually, Bond shoots him with a poisoned dart and shoots him out an airlock.
As the most ridiculous Bond villain, really there’s only one man to compare Drax to. When he left the Mariners in 2001, A-Rod became the highest paid player in baseball. His salary was so astronomical that 10 years later it’s still the 2nd richest deal in baseball history (second only to his own follow-up deal with the Yankees), and the third highest in annual value (behind only his own and Roger Clemens’ deal in 2007, which is deceptive, since Clemens only signed mid-season. The insanity of A-Rod’s career only accellerated after he was traded to New York, where the match of the game’s highest paid player with the game’s richest team seemed at once predestined and obnoxious. After divorcing his first wife, A-Rod proceded to cycle through stripper after stripper, and starlet after starlet, most recently sharing popcorn with Cameron Diaz at the Super Bowl. His steroid use is now a matter of public record, as is his tone-deaf taste in art and posing. A-Rod has gone round the bend from diabolical to silly, and with every new revelation gets more and more enjoyable.
Jaws is a huge point of contention in the Bond franchise. He’s undoubtedly intimidating, a 7’2″ giant with a mouth full of metal dentures, and the physical contrast between him and Bond is amusing. At the same time, Jaws was used for comedic effect as well, in that he keeps surviving through ridiculous coincidences, seems practically indestructable, and eventually ends up helping Bond at the end of Moonraker. Intense Bond fans seemingly have no time for Jaws, seeing him as the silliest part of the silliest era of Bond excess. But casual fans might appreciate Jaws for being an interesting character and a menacing presence, especially in The Spy Who Loved Me.
So too are baseball fans divided about Barry Bonds. Undoubtedly the greatest slugger of the post-integration era, Bonds is widely acknowledged as a PED users, but also as the single-season and all-time homerun leader. Yet, he was a hard man to like. Abrasive and brusque, Bonds personified the transition from the speed game of the 1980s and 1990s (when he would 30-40 bases easily) to the big slugger era of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He also defied normal aging patterns, probably with help, refusing to die already and enjoying his greatest seasons after his 35th birthdayMany fans admire his incredible accomplishments, especially from 2001-2004 when he hit .349/.559/.809 with 209 homers. Many others admire the sure-fire Hall of Famer he already was prior to 2000, when the PEDs seemingly took over. And still others can’t stand him and all he represents about baseball over the last 15 years. There’s never been a player who has so fractured baseball’s fans.
Hal Chase is like Ernst Starvo Blofeld.
Blofeld is the head of SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a criminal organization that Bond battles accross six movies. Very little is known about Blofeld, except that he a) is evil, and b) likes cats. He’s constantly seen stroking a white cat, a plot device that has become shorthand for villainy in pop culture in everything from Austin Powers to Inspector Gadget. Blofeld is also the ultimate evil villain, the black hand that corrupts and directs criminal activity around the globe. And he proves to have remarkable staying power.
Chase, similarly, is the root of all evil in the baseball world. His nickname was Prince Hal, but probably should have been Prince of Darkness. Perhaps Bill James, as he often does, expresses it best,
“Could he really have existed, or was he perhaps invented by Robert Louis Stevenson…? Hal Chase is remembered as a shining, leering, pock-marked face, pasted on a pitch-dark soul. There is some evidence to say that he appeared in the flesh, but I lean more toward the invention teory. What mother, if he was real, what Rosemary could have given birth to such a creature…? His parentage is not much discussed in the literature, but he should have been, I would say, the bastard son of a bishop, by way of a woman down on her luck.”
As dishonest as the day is long, Chase was accused of fixing ballgames almost as long as he was playing in them. But fans loved him because he was flashy and charming. He was legitimately one of the greatest fielders of all time at 1B. But his associations and his greed constantly got the better of him. Despite allegations of throwing games, he orchestrated the firing of the manager who was accusing him, George Stallings, and got HIMSELF appointed the new skipper. Master of manipulation, Chase got countless other players to join in his schemes, and is said to have been an organizer of the throwing of the 1919 World Series. He was finally persona non grata after that, but presumably still had some followers out there somewhere. Plotting for his return.
There are more. Pete Rose is certainly like Le Chiffre, the gambler from Casino Royale who is deeply in debt to his employers and must win to pay back his debts. Eddie Cicotte is probably like Alec Trevelyan of Goldeneye, whose love of gold causes him to betray his country and eventually all of his comrades. Frank Thomas might be like OddJob, a largely silent but incredibly dangerous foe. And Reggie Jackson, one of the first big-money free agents, who became a larger than life figure in NYC, is undoubtedly like Auric Goldfinger, who attempts to destroy the US’s supply of gold so that his own beloved stockpile would be more valuable. Got more?