The question Ken Webster hears all the time, and the one he might hear forevermore, is this: “Why was John Bateman your favorite ballplayer?” He doesn’t have a good answer, other than the fact that Bateman was the Astros’ catcher when Ken was growing up in Port Arthur, TX in the ’60s. Ken always had dreams of becoming a catcher, so John Bateman became his favorite player. The more remarkable thing is that after 3585 plate appearances, a 77 OPS+, and half a century, he still is.
One of the many marvels of baseball is the way its treasure chest of history, statistics, and legend allows the average fan to experience and enjoy the game at any age and through any prism. For some, it’s collecting baseball cards. For others, bobbleheads. Or visiting each and every major-league park.
For Webster, artistic director of the Hyde Park Theatre in Austin, that prism has been an all-consuming passion for the career of Bateman, who lived just 56 years and died in 1996. Whether through sly, often hilarious daily Twitter posts in Bateman’s voice, or through his short stage shows paying homage to Bateman, or through his never-ending search for testimonials from still-living ex-Astros like Jimmy Wynn and Norm Miller, Webster’s lifelong tribute to his boyhood idol remains forever kindled.
The Twitter account began in early 2011 as a “daily diary” of Bateman’s 1966 season with Houston. Originally, it was meant to last just one year, but Webster began getting followers who had fun playing along with his fiction, and he decided to keep it running. He has since documented each year of Bateman’s career—including offseasons—with tweets that are mostly about actual baseball events, but sometimes also about the American culture of the era. Currently at @JohnnyBateman7, he is in Spring Training of 1971, having been traded two years ago to the expansion Montreal Expos. Webster admits he picked up “a ton” of new followers from Expos Nation after Bateman arrived at his new Canadian “home”:
“Reported late to camp today. Had to take my son Lance to the doctor. I’m at 202 pounds. Mauch says I have till Wednesday to get down to 199.”
A few weeks earlier, he had offered commentary on Hall of Fame elections:
“BBWAA didn’t elect a single player to HOF this year. Yogi Berra, Early Wynn Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges all fell short of 75%. #drunkenfascists”
And noted some popular television shows of the day:
“Freda & I are going to watch The Brady Bunch, Nanny & the Professor, Partridge Family, That Girl, Odd Couple, & Love American Style tonight.”
Freda Bateman, John’s ex-wife, is also one of his Twitter followers. Others include Bateman’s daughter Pam, three of Bateman’s grandchildren, several current and former big leaguers, numerous sportswriters and sports-radio hosts, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, Montel Williams, SABR, and writer Bruce Dowbiggin, who was Bateman’s neighbor when Bruce was a kid in Montreal.
The tweets are often funny (“At breakfast, Rusty Staub said ‘Beware the Ides of March’. I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time.”) or fiendishly clever (“@DonDraper We play the Mets in New York City May 10th. I’ll leave you a couple of tickets at will call.”) Similar in concept to but extremely different from the well-known Twitter “player account” @OldHossRadbourn, Bateman’s feed provides light commentary on our cultural past, as well as a daily entryway into baseball life.
Webster says he has thought about writing a book about Bateman, but for now is content with just gleaning every gold kernel of information on him. Webster contributed to Bateman’s SABR biography, which gives some indication of the catcher’s personality:
“With a strong penchant for temper displays, Bateman led his teammates with six ejections. His blunt, earthy humor earned him the title of the clubhouse’s laureate wit while his leadership drew lavish praise. ‘On the field I’d say he’s the leader of this team,’ claimed Hall of Famer Joe Morgan in Sports Illustrated, June 6, 1966.”
Though he never became a household name, and was squeezed out of a full-time job in both Houston and Montreal by fellow non-household name Ron Brand, he had a strong 1966, hitting .279 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs in a pitcher-friendly era while toiling in the Astrodome. After his stint with the Expos and a trade to the Phillies in 1972, Bateman caught the majority of Steve Carlton’s 27 victories for a last-place team that won Carlton the Cy Young award. Lefty was reportedly not pleased when Bateman was released in early 1973.
Webster has been involved in acting and theater for well over 30 years. Back in 1981, his first acting troupe was named, oddly enough, the John Bateman Players. Since then, he’s performed in over 100 plays and directed over 100 more. He’s done voiceover work and a few small parts in TV and movies—including a scene with Claire Danes in her award-winning HBO film, Temple Grandin.
His Hyde Park Theatre is an intimate setting in Central Austin that showcases established and emerging playwrights, and collaborates on the annual FronteraFest, a month-long series of performance events, in which Webster’s evening with Bateman has been included. It’s a short, low-key show that can also be seen on YouTube, but Webster changes it up constantly, reading from his tweets, inviting members of the audience to participate in a goofy “human Bateman timeline,” and at the end, always dancing with his wife Kathy to former Astros outfielder Lee Maye’s rendition of “Will You Be Mine.” He displays his Bateman baseball cards blown up to poster size, and his actual Bateman bat, clearly relaxed and enjoying himself in his Batemanian world.
When I ask Webster on the phone what will happen to his Twitter feed when Bateman “retires” in 1973, he doesn’t have a clear answer. And when I ask the obligatory “Why are you so consumed with John Bateman?” question, he replies, “I’m rehabilitating Bateman’s reputation.” Oh, okay. Growing up in New England and not in southern Texas, I tell him I wasn’t even aware Bateman had a bad reputation, or even a reputation at all. He says that Bateman, who drew frequent criticism for his large frame, “was so much more than a guy who battled weight issues,” that he was “a very good catcher, team leader, a great handler of pitchers, and a really funny guy.”
As a great handler of pitchers, the facts bear him out. On those ’72 Phillies, six of Carlton’s eight shutouts came with Bateman behind the plate. Earlier, when he pitched for the Astros, Hall of Famer Robin Roberts had said, “This fellow is just a real fine catcher—I’m really impressed with the job he’s doing.” Indeed, Bateman started 510 games for the Astros from 1963 to 1968, the team finishing with a .447 winning percentage in those contests. In games where Bateman was injured or riding the bench, Houston played .393 ball.
By Twitter-chronicling Bateman’s years from 1966 to 1971, Webster admits he has also relived moments from his own past—the death of his father and great-grandmother, and “my own less-than-successful athletic career.” It all reminds him of a line uttered by the character Bob Jones, who he’s currently portraying in The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno: “I’m sorry. Real life to me, it’s just sitting here thinking about some dumb thing, or when I was a kid.”
So somewhere in America, there may be another fan obsessed with Denis Menke, or Chico Carrasquel, or Ruppert Jones, or maybe even someone rehearsing a one-man play about Roy Cullenbine. For now, though, in some shadowy theater wing in Austin, TX, it’s a good bet there is a man thinking about John Bateman in between his lines. Wonderful, glorious Bateman.
Image courtesy Ken Webster
Jeff Polman writes about baseball and culture for The Huffington Post and other websites, and has his own lifelong obsession, Strat-O-Matic. He has written four historical baseball novels inspired by full-season replays, Mystery Ball ’58 and Twinbill being the latest creations.