A Good Old Fashioned Dusty Rhodes Cage Match

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When it comes to names, there aren’t many better than Dusty Rhodes. There have been quite a few people going by that name, but two stand out from the crowd. Dan Ennis tries to determine who represented the name better in a good old fashioned Dusty Rhodes cage match.

“All ship’s carpenters are named ‘Chips,’ all radio engineers ‘Sparks.’ By similar custom, anyone named Rhodes will end up with the nickname “Dusty.”

–Stephen Jay Gould,

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball

Professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes died on June 11, 2015. When the news got out, there must have been people – New Yorkers of a certain age – whose thoughts flashed to the Dusty Rhodes who was a star pinch hitter in the 1950’s for the New York Giants, and who died on June 19, 2009. The two men were not kin, nor were they of the same generation. They probably never met. Just a weird resonance – two beloved athletes with the same name dying at the death of spring, both generating affectionate tributes. There have been many a Dusty Rhodes in American sports – one pitched for the Yankees and Red Sox in the 1930s, posting a lifetime 43-74 record; another was captain of the University of Nebraska football team and was killed in the first World War; a third was a pioneering female executive for the short lived World Football League. But for most fans, the name invokes one of two people – the pinch-hitting MVP of the 1954 World Series, or “The American Dream” of the squared circle.

This makes for some confusion. When obituaries for baseball’s Dusty Rhodes appeared online in 2009, some assumed the wrestler Dusty Rhodes, who was still active in the WWE, had unexpectedly passed away. The kayfabe fans at wrestlingclassics.com started an “in memoriam Dusty Rhodes” thread, but it was quickly deleted – probably because a moderator realized that the dead Dusty was the ballplayer from the 1950’s, not the wrestler who in 2009 was still a regular presence on Raw and Smackdown:

Now, with both of the most famous of the many men named Dusty Rhodes deceased, it’s time to decide which one will be allowed to hold the name in perpetuity. This calls for a breakdown. Metrics will be used. Chairs will be cracked against backs. Only one Dusty Rhodes will claim the name.

HOW THEY GOT “DUSTY”

Wrestling Dusty Rhodes’s real name was Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr. He knocked around wrestling’s minor leagues in the 1970s, but by the eighties he was nationally known, and eventually he wrested in all the “major” leagues: the NWA, the WCW, and the WWF/WWE. Over the years, he developed a range of equally colorful nicknames, such as ”The American Dream,” “The Boogie Man,” and “The Son of a Plumber.” Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr. chose to call himself “Dusty Rhodes” as a tribute to John Wayne, who played a character of that name in the 1931 film “Maker of Men.” Rhodes often namechecked Wayne in interviews, usually claiming that there had been “two bad men in the world, one was John Wayne, and the other is Dusty Rhodes.”

Baseball Dusty Rhodes’s real name was James Lamar Rhodes. Like Wrestling Dusty Rhodes, James had a hardscrabble background and a penchant for the dramatic. James Lamar Rhodes probably picked up his nickname while picking cotton in Depression-era Alabama. Hell, half the farm boys in the Depression probably went by “Dusty.”

Advantage: Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr.

DEFINING MOMENT

James Lamar Rhodes was astoundingly great in 1954 and pretty darn good in 1955. Almost exclusively a pinch hitter (everyone agrees that he was a terrible fielder), Rhodes was locked in for those two seasons and merely mortal for the balance of his career. He slugged .695 and blasted 15 homers in just 164 at-bats in the 1954 season, and got even hotter in the postseason. As Leo Durocher put it, “He thought he was the greatest hitter in the whole world, and for that one year I never saw a better one.” That World Series game in which Willie Mays made that crazy over-the-shoulder catch to rob Vic Wertz? Dusty Rhodes won that game with a pinch-hit three-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. Bob Feller declared the homer the biggest play of the Series. Indians starter Bob Lemon was so frustrated he threw his glove into the air:

Life Magazine’s summary of the series, entitled “That Willie, that Dusty, that Leo, THOSE GIANTS,” mentions Mays and Durocher, but most of the article is about Rhodes, “a terror at the bat.” The Giants went on to sweep the favored Indians, and James Lamar Rhodes had seven RBI in seven plate appearances, posting a 2.381 OPS. 

Baseball Dusty Rhodes gives us one easy choice for his “Greatest Moment,” but Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr. had such a long career that it is hard to pick a single moment in the sun. Youtube is chock-full of worthy contenders. One could make a “defining moment” case for the 1978 Texas Bullrope match in which Rhodes defeated Superstar Billy Graham by smacking him in the skull with a cowbell. In terms of prominence, however, the choice has to be drawn from the series of matches between Rhodes and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Flair and Rhodes contended for the NWA title six times between 1984 and 1987. In a 1986 Rhodes-Flair cage match at The Great American Bash (the NWA’s response to “Wrestlemania”), Flair tried to pick up Rhodes for the slam, but instead The American Dream flopped his considerable bulk over and pinned The Nature Boy. Some might say that’s the one.

The discerning fan, however, will see more merit in a relatively obscure “American Dream”-”Nature Boy” match from earlier in 1986. It wasn’t scheduled as a matchup of two of the industry’s biggest titans. Instead, Rhodes was scheduled to face a nobody and disposed of his opponent in, literally, ten seconds; I couldn’t even find out the name of the jobber whom Rhodes tossed aside. The scheduled match supposedly over, Dusty pranced around until Flair (at that point the defending champion) strolled into the arena and climbed into the ring. Titans clashed, pandemonium in the stands. Rhodes flung Flair out of the ring, followed up with devastating bionic elbow, got a two-and-a-half count, then jerked Flair off the top rope and slammed him to the canvas, ready for the finish.

It was not to be.

As Flair lay prone, three of the Four Horsemen staged a run-in. Virgil was beaten within an inch of his televised life:

With that, the hero of the downtrodden was, well, trod down, and the crowd of 1980s working stiffs, who had to scrape up the money to attend that wrestling match, howled in pain.

Wrestling Dusty Rhodes hung around pop culture for four decades, long enough that his death was national news, but his was a slow-building fame, as much about endurance as transcendence. Baseball’s Dusty Rhodes showed up out of nowhere, was impossibly good under the brightest lights 1950’s America could muster, and won the kind of championship that can’t be lost.

Advantage: James Lamar Rhodes

WORKING CLASS HERO 

In that 1986 match against Flair, fans saw the quintessential wrestling everyman. Rhodes entered the ring to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” (even in ‘86, this was a square choice). He was fat and looked like he cut his own hair. There was the ill-fitting t-shirt. Flair, by contrast, wore a spangled robe, had a carefully sculpted blond mane, and boasted musculature that suggested he has already discovered the steroids that would later destroy his health. The American Dream fought for all of America’s underpaid Seger-loving proles; he says as much in a 1985 rant that has garnered over six million views online. Hyping a match against Flair, Dusty gives his take on Reaganomics:

“You don’t know what hard times are, daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers of this country are out of work and got four or five kids, can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work, and they tell ‘em ‘go home,’ and hard times are when a man has worked at a job thirty years – thirty year[sic] – they give you a watch, kick you in the butt, and say ‘hey, a computer took your place, daddy.’ That’s hard times. That’s hard times.”

The refrain of “That’s hard times” is pitched somewhere between Martin Luther King and Eugene Debs. His tie loosened, sweat beading on his scarred forehead, he puffs out his aria for the working man. He closes by demanding the title from Flair – because the title belongs to the people.

In his autobiography, wrestling Dusty Rhodes mentioned how he grew up in “a small poor-ass looking house.” He described working as a hay baler in West Texas so he could afford to buy a $1.50 ticket to watch wrestling at the Amarillo Fairgrounds. He talked about getting paid “twelve dollars a fucking match” when he turned pro. Out of cash in the early 70’s, he lived on a Gulf Oil charge card. Late in his career, when he interspersed special “legends” matches for the WWE with sideline appearances, Rhodes served as the simple, salt-of-the-earth foil to the rich and corrupt McMahon clan. He also played the put-upon, down-home father opposite his son Cody, who was presented as a primped and privileged pretty boy. The old man was derided as a “coupon-clipping, Copenhagen-dipping, son of a plumber.”

Baseball’s Dusty Rhodes matched the wrestler in hardscrabble authenticity. The ballplayer was described in his New York Times obituary as “a fun-loving, hard-drinking country boy.” Stephen Jay Gould couldn’t help but love Dusty Rhodes, “a strictly average ballplayer who had a moment of glory.” Queens-born to working-class immigrant parents, living with a father who was a self-taught Marxist, Gould identified with the pinch hitter: “We loved Dusty Rhodes because he was a man like us.” This Dusty Rhodes was such an Average Joe that he didn’t do product endorsements, prompting his agent to predict that the outfielder would be broke when he was finished with baseball. The ballplayer’s reply was as Dusty Rhodes as it can get: “Well, I was broke when I started, so it ain’t gonna be no come-down.”

After leading the Giants to the championship, Rhodes was showered with attention: “On the airplane flight to Montgomery, Dusty said he was still agog at the whirlwind of activities surrounding him during the past two weeks. Dusty appeared awed at all the fuss being raised over him but appeared take it with resignation.” Rhodes, in a 2003 interview conducted by Rick Swift the Society Of American Baseball Research, still seemed surprised – almost four decades later – that people knew who he was: “When I went back to Alabama they didn’t even know I was from Alabama – Montgomery – they give me an automobile.” He was thankful for the automobile, since in 1954 – unlike today – the World Series MVP was not awarded a free car.

After he retired from baseball in 1959 James Lamar Rhodes moved into a modest house on Staten Island and took a job on a tugboat, that most working-class of seagoing vessels. The tugboat detail is so evocative that when Raul Ibanez smacked a late-inning pinch-hit home run in 2012, Joseph Berger celebrated Rhodes in his story about Ibanez, calling the old player “a jack-of-all-trades on New York City’s tugboats, a job that Rhodes said he thoroughly enjoyed.” The tugboat is embedded in every “where are they now” story written about James Lamar Rhodes after his baseball career ended: The Sporting News in 1979, New York magazine in 1989, the Washington Post in 2009.

A 1981 New York Times story presented Rhodes as the protagonist in an Arthur Miller play (or a Springsteen song). Reporter Ira Berkow met the former ballplayer at the bar Rhodes owned with his wife:

“Rhodes is a steerer, deckman, and cook – depending on how he is needed – on the Peter Callahan, a tugboat for the Manhattan Oil Transportation Company out of Mariner’s Harbor on Staten island. He rises every morning at 5 – a habit he is used to after 17 years as a boatman – and on off-days, as this one was, he accompanies his wife to open the tavern.”

Yes, Dusty Rhodes even worked on his day off. Hard times? Rhodes lost his World Series ring in 1963 when he got mugged on the subway. That’s hard times.

This category, however, should reward the working man, and, paradoxically, wrestling Dusty Rhodes worked harder at being perceived as a working man than baseball Dusty Rhodes did. The wrestling Dusty Rhodes fashioned his persona night after night, cutting himself with a razor so as to bleed in matches, hollering about how tough it was for the blue-collar wrestlers and wrestling fans of America. Baseball Dusty Rhodes made being a working stiff look too easy.

Advantage: Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO RACE RELATIONS

James Lamar Rhodes was born dirt-poor, and that poverty helped him connect with his black teammates. Mays and the handful of black players scattered around the majors in 1950’s faced daily abuse, with reactions ranging from condescension to outright hostility (such as when Roy Campanella was pelted with eggs when playing in Milwaukee in 1953). Rhodes saw things differently: “To be honest, we never thought a thing about it. In my case, I grew up with blacks. We picked cotton side-by-side. I didn’t know or care anything about race. Willie, Monte [Irvin] and Henry [Thompson] were probably my closest friends on that team.” Check out this amazing photo of Mays and Rhodes:

The two men were close, and when Rhodes was asked what position he played, his response was, “Me and Willie play left field” – a reference to Mays’s range, but also to their friendship. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Mays felt isolated in his new city – in part because Rhodes did not play for the Giants that season. If you had to guess which white New York Giant was closest to the black players on the 1954 team, would you have picked the white guy from Jim Crow Alabama?

Race for Dusty Rhodes the wrestler was… problematic. When speaking on camera, the American Dream let his West Texas cadence and accent slide toward something like ebonics. There’s a hint of Southern Baptist preacher in Rhodes’s orations, but also some appropriations of James Brown and T. D. Jakes. Conscious or not, it is a little off-putting to see the pasty white Rhodes shout “the Boogie Man is gonna git yah,” refer to men as “Daddy,” and call women “Mama.” By the 1980’s Rhodes’s Lincoln Osiris speech patterns were so racially coded that when the WWF introduced a new black wrestler, he was christened “Virgil” in a backhanded compliment to Dusty Rhodes. It probably isn’t fair to lay the subsequent humiliations inflicted upon Virgil at the feet of Dusty Rhodes, but Rhodes is culpable for taking part in vile promotion from 1989-90. A black woman called “Sweet” Sapphire (real name: Juanita Wright) was written in as Dusty’s manager, only to be purchased (yes, purchased) by Ted DiBiase. 

Advantage: James Lamar Rhodes.

THE NO-DECISION

We’re tied up in the bottom of the 10th (page), so something dramatic has to happen to force a decision. There have been all sorts of people named Dusty Rhodes – musicians, war heroes, politiciansscam artists – and there’s something predetermined about being a Dusty Rhodes – your name is dirt, plus a journey. Guys named Dusty Rhodes can’t put on airs – a “dusty road” is, literally, down-to-earth. And all Dusty Rhodes are destined to end up dust, as our two heroes have. The Bard had it right: “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!” So here’s the problem with breaking this tie and ending this essay: To pull off the dramatic, the unexpected, the jaw-dropping reversal, and to do it without pretension, from an unlikely angle, on the big stage…well, you need a Dusty Rhodes, and now we’re fresh out. Sure, we can hope for a Dusty Finish, but which Dusty is the heel and which Dusty in the babyface?

The title can’t pass hands in a draw, but there is another possibility. Somewhere out there is a kid with a flair for athletic drama. That kid is bound to be unheralded and unassuming, but marked for glory. We haven’t heard of the next great Dusty Rhodes yet, but we will. Maybe Jerome Rhodes, a Division III track and field champion, will take on the nickname “Dusty” and make the Olympics. Could be that William and Mary linebacker Luke Rhodes has a breakout senior year, drops “Luke” in favor of “Dusty,” and makes the NFL. Abby Rhodes scored the winning goal to lead her high school to a state soccer championship in Raleigh, NC. Are we a name change and eight years away from her Women’s World Cup heroics? Where have you gone, Dusty Rhodes? A nation of waitresses and welders, of guys who drink domestic mass-market beer and gals who don’t mind a beer or two as well, of janitors and fry cooks, this nation turns it lonely eyes to you. Sorry for the sentimental finish… it’s getting a little Dusty in here.

Dan Ennis has written a mock review of Fever Pitch 2, an article about Jake Stahl and the Boy Bandits, and about the Peter Gammons hype machine.

Follow us on Twitter @SoSHBaseball.

Check out Justin Gorman’s article about general managers.

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