3097717994_f2898bfd7d "Do you know baseball?"

These were the first words spoken to us in conversation upon arriving in New York. This was a trip, just for fun, for Alisa and me about 15 years ago.

The flight attendant had said, "Bye bye." The taxi dispatcher had asked, "Where to?"

But this was the taxi driver offering the first New York conversation. He was a middle aged white guy in an old baseball cap.

"Do you know baseball?"
Perhaps we had just passed Shea or Yankee Stadium. Or maybe there was a sports report on WINS 1010 radio. ("News, traffic and weather on the 10s. Give us 10 minutes and we'll give you the world. WINS 1010 News Radio time is…")

The cab was like any other. A little cramped by the Plexiglas divider, which was open. Dingy. Worn. The smell of 10,000 strangers, slightly concealed by a cardboard pine tree hanging from the rear view mirror — his eyes were on us in the mirror.

"Yeah, I know baseball." I'm not a big sports enthusiast, but Alisa and I like to see baseball from time to time. It's partly for the food and drink, but it's mainly for the atmosphere and the mathematics. I love the constant statistics calculations made by players, coaches, and spectators — each one set up by a moment's action.

"Want to hear a trivia question?" asked the cabbie.

"Oh, I don't know trivia," I said. "I like baseball, but I don't know trivia."

At summer camp in my youth, there was a camper — a savant — who knew baseball. He could be asked random questions — the outcome of the fourth pitch to the second batter in bottom of the third inning in the 27th game in Cincinnati during the summer of 1941 — and he would immediately answer, "Strike" with the name of the batter, the pitcher and anything else about that or any other game. Another camper, sitting nearby with a Baseball Almanac confirmed every answer.

Question #1
"You'll like this," said the taxi driver. "What are the eight ways for a player to get onto first base? Go on. Try."

"Eight ways?" Alisa and I started the list with the obvious ones:

  1. Hit
  2. Walk
  3. Hit by pitch

"Right," said the cabbie. "Keep going."

"… 4. Uncaught third strike. … 5. Catcher's interference. … 7. Balk."

"No. Not balk," said the cabbie. "Batters cannot reach first base on a balk. Balk only advances the base runners."

"7. Fielder's choice."

"No. That's a scoring distinction."

The last one took most of the trip. It turned out to be cheesy: 7. Placed on First Base as a Pinch Runner. That didn't seem to be in the spirit of the question (how batters reach first base), but it was clever and we smiled.

If you think this essay is about baseball, here's a link the a real discussion of the ways to get to first base. (Warning: this discussion suggests that the list above is incorrect. I don't understand it all.)

"Great," said the taxi driver. "Here's another."

No PepperPepper
"You ever see the signs that say 'No Pepper' at ball parks?"

"Sure," I said. I've seen those signs on the fence behind home plate. I think I remember seeing it stenciled on the brick backstop in beautiful Wrigley Field.

"Know what pepper is?"

"Yeah. It's when a single batter is surrounded by a semi-circle of fielders who toss balls at him, rapid fire. It's a batting exercise that focuses on reflexes."

Rarely do I think I impress my wife. This is one of those times.

Of course, knowing pepper doesn't impress one's wife.

It merely impresses one's self.

"Then here's question #2: Why is pepper outlawed?"
"I have absolutely no idea." I threw in the towel immediately. I just didn't know. (If you care, you can read this.)

"Here's why," explained the cab driver. "You know who Ernie Banks is, right?"

"Of course. Hall of Famer. Chicago Cubs shortstop." I don't know much about individual baseball players, but Ernie ("Mr. Cub") Banks is among the most widely known players.

"Right." The cabbie told this story…

Well, Banks wasn't called up from the Negro Leagues until partway through the 1953 season. That's because the shortstop position had been originally filled by a college phenom out of University of North Dakota named Steve Greenberg. Greenberg was destined to be one of the best shortstops in the history of baseball. Every baseball reporter said so.

But Greenberg was playing pepper one day during practice, when one of the balls hit him in the shoulder — and injured him, ending his career. Just like that. The balls move too fast in pepper, the players are too close to the batter. One ball, and Greenberg's career was over.

That's why pepper is outlawed.

Greenberg was lost in the history of baseball. He never set the records everyone thought he'd set. He played only one third of a season. Gone.

You can check this by looking into Banks' career. It starts with only two thirds of the 1953 season. He was called up to replace Greenberg.

What Happened To Greenberg
"That's tough," I said. "Whatever happened to Greenberg?"

We pulled up in front of the hotel. The ride was over.

"What happened to Greenberg?" The cab driver took off his cap and turned it around so we could see its front. It was an old baseball cap. University of North Dakota.

He pointed with the cap to the hack license in the lighted holder next to the meter on the dashboard: Steven Greenberg.

I remember saying something like, "Get out! That's amazing. I'm sorry, but that is a great story."

The cabbie was silent. He said nothing else. The ride was over — and the story had been perfectly timed to end as he threw the switch on the meter.

I paid the fare, collected our bags, and we walked into the hotel — stunned.

Stolen base. But a great story.
In the 15 years since, the Internet should offer some confirmation, but a casual search today reveals nothing. It didn't happen.

Yet the rookie almanac says that Ernie Banks debuted in September, playing only the last 10 games of the season. But, before that, for the Cubs during 1953, Roy Smalley played shortstop during 82 games; Tommy Brown, 25; Eddie Miksis, 53.

Maybe I have his name wrong. Maybe — probably — the cabbie was a former actor, or a former playwright, but not a former baseball player.

In any case, this wasn't about baseball. This was about New York. And storytelling.

And how any cab driver can get the biggest tip from a fare.