The baseball term, “snake jazz”, refers to those squiggly pitches (curve, slider, screwball, etc.) that deviate from a direct path on their way to the catcher. This could also describe the strange and sometimes amusing twists in Dave Baldwin’s progress on his way to the big leagues.
As a skinny, awkward kid in the 1940s, Dave learned to throw under the searing Arizona sun amidst cacti and snakes. Despite that modest beginning, his father convinced him that success would come with focused hard work. His dad’s encouragement enabled him to become one of the most highly sought-after pitching prospects in the nation as a teenager. Scouts and sportswriters said he was a “natural,” “another Bob Feller.” He began to see his ability as a gift. Scouts had a favorite mantra – “We can teach a kid to throw a curve, but he has to be born with a fastball.” Upon hearing this often from the “experts,” Dave lost the idea of self-development his father had instilled. If baseball skill is genetic, there’s nothing to be done. Either the kid has the genes or he doesn’t.
This philosophy seemed to work well enough until one day during his sophomore year at the University of Arizona he threw a curveball that severely damaged his arm. All that “natural” ability went out the window.
This would have ended his career before it began except he couldn’t see life continuing without baseball. Thus, he started a desperate eight year struggle that culminated in his transformation into an unorthodox but successful major league pitcher - the drastic changes in his throwing style inspired by insights gained from his study of ecological genetics and advice he received from Max Surkont, an aging pitcher in Dave’s first spring training camp.
On Dave’s baseball odyssey he found a roommate who sleepwalked swinging a bat, another who chewed Gillette double-edged razor blades, and still another who was working up to a stretch in prison. He eavesdropped on the witty repartee aboard a burning airplane and a death-defying bus trip, during epicurean brushes with the criminal underworld, and in that awkward moment right after a bullet had ripped through a taxi window. He got to dodge tornadoes, lightning, and baseball hobgoblins. He experienced the bonding effect of minor league pranks and comedy acts, and got a taste of what it was like playing baseball askew in the metaphysical whirl of Steppenwolf and the hippie generation. And he learned the irresistible attraction of Janis Joplin and the dry spitball.
The odd adventures didn’t end once Dave made it to the major leagues. He spent a season busily tormenting Ted Williams, and once he unexpectedly found himself teaching the knuckleball to Seri Indians in a remote desert village in northern Mexico.
Snake Jazz includes a number of anecdotes reflecting the world around baseball during the 1960s and ‘70s, such as the beginnings of the Viet Nam war and the impact on baseball of racial bigotry during the Civil Rights Movement. One chapter recounts the peculiar and dangerous situation of American ballplayers in Havana shortly after Fidel Castro’s rebels had gained control of Cuba.
Snake Jazz is more than a series of remarkable anecdotes, however. It is a demonstration of the importance of motivation and mindset in reaching objectives. Dave’s dream of playing major league baseball and his stubborn determination drove him to overcome the notion that ability is inherent. If his dad was right, there must be some way to make it to the majors through hard work, even after inherent advantage had been lost. The big question was, “Work hard at what?” He needed a good pitching coach to give him that critical suggestion that would turn his career around. He rarely saw a pitching coach in the minor leagues, and those few that were available did more harm than good.
He continued to work hard to improve, but he was still practicing the
Dave Baldwin played professional baseball from 1959 through 1974, pitching for the Washington Senators, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago White Sox. He attended the University of Arizona during those years, earning a Ph.D. in genetics and M.S. in systems engineering. Subsequently, he was a genetics researcher, engineer, and professional artist. His articles on science and baseball have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, American Scientist, and other diverse journals. In Scientific American, Steve Mirsky wrote, “Dave Baldwin… is surely the only person to publish in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington and to pitch for that town's team.”