The question of alcoholism and the ex-player

There is another story from Friday afternoon I have been meaning to tell here.

After covering the Fred David estate sale in downtown Sacramento, I interviewed another old Sacramento Solons player, Sam Kanelos, at his bar across the street from the sale, Old Ironsides.  Kanelos played more than 50 years ago with a Sacramento native I’m interested in writing a book on, Joe Marty.  As I’ve recounted here before, Marty came up on the San Francisco Seals in the 1930s with Joe DiMaggio and was once thought to be a better prospect.  He played with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies from 1937 to 1941, though injuries and World War II shortened his career.  There are rumors he was alcoholic as well.  He ran a couple of bars during his life, and one old-timer told me, when I did my high school senior project on the Solons, that Marty became his own best customer.

I asked Kanelos, while sitting at his bar, if he thought Marty was an alcoholic.  The longtime bartender bristled at this and repeatedly said no.  Kanelos stressed that while Marty liked to go out after games and also would generously sometimes buy $200-300 worth of drinks for friends at social events in later life, he never drank before games during his career.  He said there was a lot of misinformation about Marty floating around.  I tried rephrasing my question, asking Kanelos if he thought Marty was a hard-drinker, and this rankled him too.  He said he couldn’t label another man an alcoholic.

That’s certainly fair.  I knew as much, already, but this question of how to address Marty’s drinking has perturbed me since I first settled on doing research for a book on him a couple months ago.  The journalism school graduate in me wants to tell Marty’s story in all its gritty glory, whatever that may be.  I want to know if his drinking was, indeed, problematic, if he was ashamed of it, if he ever tried to get help. I want to know who he was as a man, for better and for worse.  A mythical, saintly story doesn’t seem like it would do anyone much good.

But — assuming Marty did have a problem — I also know every recovering addict or alcoholic deserves some measure of anonymity, unless they choose to breach it.  Granted, we live in an age where more Americans can probably name what Tiger Woods went to rehab for than the current Secretary of State.  It has been widely reported that Don Newcombe got sober.  Maury Wills and Dennis Eckersley reportedly did too.  And many baseball fans know the story of Paul Waner, an oft-hungover .300 hitter who was escorted back to the bar, after he quit drinking in 1938 and his batting average dropped to .241.  Their stories would seem incomplete without these components.

All this being said, 12-step groups still ask that the full names of their members not be printed in the news.  In addition, a part of me thinks it wouldn’t be fair to level accusations about Marty without him able to defend them, as he died in 1984.  Then again, writing this sort of story now, following someone’s death at least wouldn’t undermine their recovery.

What I’ll probably wind up doing is asking every question I can during the research stage of this process.  Only then can I sort through all the information and determine truth.

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