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10 Baseball Hall-of-Famers Who Had Weird Off-Season Jobs

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In the days before it was routine to sign contracts worth the GDP of a small country, baseball players often had to put down their bat and gloves during the off-season and earn some extra scratch away from the diamond. Each of these Hall-of-Famers found unique ways to fill their pockets when they weren't filling box scores. 

1. John McGraw

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The temperamental McGraw is best known for his three-decade reign as manager for the New York Giants, during which time he earned the nickname “Little Napoleon” because of his diminutive size and fiery demeanor. His antics often left players scowling in the dugout, but the Truxton, NY native was capable of drawing smiles and laughs, too.

In 1912, McGraw went on a 15-week tour on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, appearing alongside acts like “Odiva the Goldfish Lady.” He immediately became the highest paid performer in vaudeville at the time, but despite the pay, McGraw was lax about rehearsing. Bozeman Bulger of the New York Evening World, who wrote most of McGraw’s material, helped the manager memorize his lines by sticking the skipper in a taxicab and telling the chauffeur to drive around Central Park until McGraw put the lines to memory. Two nights later, McGraw made his debut and didn’t miss a line, with Bulger noting that McGraw “[became] a delightful speaker.”

Performing six days a week in New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago, McGraw survived the experience, but in the end, he felt more comfortable in the dugout than the theater. “I’ll admit I cannot get used to this stress,” he said. “It’s a daily reminder that I have nerves.”

2. Honus Wagner

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One of the game's first great players was actually paid pretty well compared to some contemporaries and was constantly trying —and failing—to find successful investments for his earnings. After receiving one particularly big raise in 1908, the Pirates shortstop made what proved to be fruitless investments with Geyser Oil Co. and the Felcht Auto Co.

The most notable of his failed ventures that winter, though, was the Wagner Brothers Circus. Honus Wagner was to bankroll the operation, with brothers Al and Luke set to operate the show. Besides providing the startup money, Honus Wagner’s role with the circus was a little unclear.

Wrote The Sporting News, “His contract does not call for his personal presence with the company, but it has been pointed out to him that it would be a tremendous advertisement and do much to swell the box office receipts to have him lead the daily parades in his big white automobile, or better still, armed with a baseball bat, astride one of the huge elephants.”

Sadly, the Wager Brothers Circus venture collapsed before producing its first show, and The Flying Dutchman never got his elephant ride.

3. Christy Mathewson

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In the early days of pro baseball, players were often underpaid by their teams but presented with unique opportunities because of their fame. Among the first players to truly take advantage of his reputation for profit was Mathewson.

Hailing from Factoryville, Pa., the right-hander spent just about all of his 17-year career pitching for the New York Giants. Baseball grew into national interest during his career (1900-1916) and became a matter of the utmost importance in New York. Children impersonated Mathewson’s pitching motion in the streets, men talked of his greatness in pool halls, and thousands came out to see him pitch at the famed Polo Grounds each summer.

Mathewson became one of the first ballplayers to begin signing endorsement deals, using his name to help companies sell their products. Among the goods he shilled were Arrow shirts, collars, leg garters, undergarments, sweaters, and athletic equipment.

The hurler explored other opportunities, too, including the chance to put his name on a saloon, but was shot down by his mother, who asked, “Do you really want your name associated with a place like that?”

4. Babe Ruth

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During the 1920s, Ruth became a transcendent star, catapulting himself to become baseball’s most famous player. But before the Sultan of Swat earned his crown and the riches that came with it, he, like most other ballplayers of his time, spent his off-seasons looking for ways to turn his moderate fame into a quick buck.

In 1920, the Babe earned some extra cash and further vaulted himself into the national spotlight by starring in a movie titled Headin’ Home. Ruth, not exactly the most fleet of foot in the outfield, showed comparable range on the big screen. The Yankee slugger starred as a country bumpkin who makes it big time as a baseball player (not too deep of a reach for the star slugger who arrived for his first spring training a quiet country kid).

The film wasn’t quite award-winning material. Per Variety, “It couldn’t hold the interest of anyone for five seconds if it were not for the presence of [Ruth]." Or, as one IMDB reviewer puts it, “Babe Ruth was as wooden as one of his bats.”

5. Mordecai Brown

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The long-time Chicago Cubs right-handed pitcher is most remembered for his brutally honest moniker, “Three Finger” Brown. The Nyesville, Ind., native lost most of his pointer finger to a piece of farming equipment as a child, a curse-turned-blessing when Brown discovered his mangled hand allowed him to do unprecedented things while throwing a baseball.

“Three Finger” was only one of two nicknames Brown went by, the other being “Miner.” Indeed, Brown spent his teenage years working as a coal miner and playing on weekend teams against miners from other locations. It was while playing for the Coxville mining squad that Brown was discovered by an opponent from nearby Brazil. The skipper offered Brown more money than what he was making, so Brown jumped ship. The move jumpstarted his ascent to the majors, a journey completed when he debuted for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1903 at the age of 26.

6. Yogi Berra

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Berra became famous as a baseball player with a way for words, but he also had a gift for convincing people to take him at his. The Yankee catcher found tremendous success as a salesman throughout his career, a talent he’s maintained into the 21st century.

The backstop spend the early part of his baseball career working off-seasons in various odd jobs, including as a salesman in the hardware section of a Sears Roebuck and also as a head waiter. Then in 1951, he and teammate Phil Rizzuto found offseason work at the American Shops in Newark, N.J.

But in 1955, a stroke of fate—a golf shot, to be precise—helped make Berra the face of a budding U.S. institution. While playing 18 holes on a course in Haworth, N.J., Berra met two members of the Oliveri family, owners of the Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink company. Berra began appearing in ads for them soon after, and by February of 1956, he’d been named a vice president in the company.

Berra didn’t receive compensation for his ads, but instead took stock in the company. Berra convinced fellow Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford to do endorsement deals, helping Yoo-Hoo develop into one of the country’s fastest growing beverages.

7. Roy Campanella

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Another famous New York catcher, Campanella became one of the first black ball players to find success in the Major Leagues after following Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.

Campanella penned his first Dodger contract in 1946, spending two seasons playing in the team’s minor league system. He took a hefty pay cut from his Negro League salary to do so, and was eager to find alternative sources of income.

While playing for Nashua in the Eastern League, Campanella came into some easy cash when a local poultry farmer offered a reward of 100 baby chickens for every Nashua homer. Campanella led the league with 14 round-trippers that year and used his 1,400-chicken reward to begin a farming business, which his father operated for him.

After he reached Brooklyn and found success, Campanella opened Roy Campanella Choice Wines and Liquors in Harlem, where he spent his offseason working daily. It was while leaving the liquor store one day in January of 1958 that Campanella was permanently disabled in an auto accident, effectively ending his career and forcing him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

8. Lefty Gomez

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It didn’t take long for Gomez to earn his way to the major leagues, debuting with the Yankees as a 21-year-old in 1930 before embarking on a 14-year career as a left-handed pitcher. The path to earn that big league spot, though, was a messy one.

After the teenage Gomez was turned away by the San Francisco Seals Pacific Coast League team in 1923, he took a summer job with Union Oil, scraping sludge out of the refinery’s stills. His hope was to join up with the company’s baseball team, but Lefty and a group of coworkers were left off the squad by its manager, who referred to the group as a bunch of “screwbeanies.”

Lefty and the group formed their own team instead, adopting the “Screwbeanies” as a team name. The ‘Beanies went on to finish 15-5 and win their league title, while the Union Oil squad reportedly finished last in its own league.

A few years later, Gomez was given an invite to join the Yankees at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., but they didn’t give the hurler train fare for the cross-country trip. Instead, Gomez spent the offseason working as an assistant at Universal Studios in Hollywood, where he pitched on Sundays for the Hollywood Hills club team.

As his career wound down, Gomez found himself strapped for cash and worked as a recreational director for a defense company in lower Manhattan while playing semi-pro ball in Brooklyn. After he retired, he latched on as a top salesman with Wilson Sporting Goods, working for the company for over 30 years.

9. Lou Brock

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In the mid-1960s, Brock bloomed into one of the game’s most exciting players, leading the league in stolen bases eight times and earning his way into six All-Star Games.

"Larcenous Lou" may have become famous for his lightning-fast legs, but he also boasted something of a green thumb. As the Associated Press’ Charlie Barouh outlined in a 1969 article, one of Brock’s first off-field investments was a flower shop in St. Louis, which he owned and operated.

Brock entered the business without a floral background, but was unfazed by his inexperience—he asked one bemused reporter, “Did anybody ever ask Rockefeller why he went into the oil business?” While Brock’s flower shop never grew to the size of Standard Oil, it did very well, giving Brock a good chunk of alternative income.

10. Pie Traynor

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Traynor enjoyed a 17-year career as a third baseman with the Pirates, but was often concerned about his financial security. Prior to signing his first contract, Traynor played ball sparingly while working as a “car checker” in West Virginia during World War I. The future Hall of Famer rode on horseback 12 hours a day, checking arriving and departing railroad freighters for explosives.

After he turned pro, Traynor unwisely decided to invest alongside Wagner, his teammate in Pittsburgh. The pair opened a doomed sporting goods store together that lasted for less than two years, separating Traynor from some of the little money he’d earned playing ball.

Money problems plagued Traynor at the end of his career, but not long after retiring he launched a successful sports talk radio show, “The Pie Traynor Club,” which ran on KQV for 21 years until he was displaced by Howard Cosell’s syndicated sports show.

Honorable Mentions from Outside the Hall:

Don Rudolph

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Rudolph had a six-year career as a pitcher with the White Sox, Reds, Indians, and Senators, but he gained far more fame for what he did during his off-seasons.

In 1954, Rudolph and a few pals ventured into a burlesque show featuring Patti, a popular stripper known nationwide as the “Coed With the Educated Torso.” Rudolph sat through three of Patti’s shows before declaring it “love at third sight.” Patti—full name Patricia Brownell—initially rebuffed Rudolph’s advances, but eventually caved and wound up marrying him.

The pitcher spent his off-seasons working as Patti’s manager and publicist. Among his chief duties: catching Patti’s clothes when she flung them offstage, packing and unpacking the 6-foot-2 mannequin she used in a “Parisian number,” and ensuring her lipstick was the right color.

Richie Hebner

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Hebner spent most of his career as an infielder with Pittsburgh, belting 203 home runs and finishing 21st in the MVP voting in 1974. Good as he was at launching baseballs into the air, it was what Hebner put in the ground that caught the most attention.

Hebner, like his grandfather and father before him, spent a good chunk of his life digging graves at his family-owned cemetery in Massachusetts.

“My grandfather had it first, and then my father had it, and then my brother took it over,” Hebner told MLive in 2011. “I dug graves for 35 years with a pick and shovel.”

As MLive outlined in that story, the West Michigan Whitecaps honored Hebner’s second career with a “Grave Digger” Richie Hebner bobblehead, featuring Hebner in a Detroit Tigers uniform with a shovel in his hands.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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