He still has great hands.
There are rivers of veins, and gullies between the knuckles. They are an American landscape.
The left pinky angles in juxtaposition to the rest of the hand. The index finger of his throwing arm points permanently south, toward spring training. They were said to be the biggest hands in baseball. Believe it. His baseball card says it is so.
These hands have fielded 10,000 ground balls, maybe more, bouncers and liners and bunts and chops, wicked hops and hot smashes. They are big enough to encompass an entire era. And they do.
Ossie Bluege, the only living player who was on all three Washington Senators pennant-winning teams, rises out of his wheelchair. He is 84 now. He has had two strokes in the last year and his heart, biologically, is not what it was. He has lost the sight in one eye. The vision in the other is blurred. Fourteen months ago he was in the hospital, paralyzed on the right side. When they wheeled him into his room at the nursing home he sat up, got off the stretcher, and walked to his bed. His wife, Wilor, told him he could come home.
He stands in the living room, knees bent, ready to charge the ball. Wilor holds her breath. You know what they say about old ballplayers: The legs go first. He is oblivious to her concern. He is young again. The third base line stretches before him, chalk dust waltzing in the breeze. He can see the ball coming. He always could.
"I was the best third baseman in baseball, young lady. I was as good a third baseman as you're going to find anywhere. I could throw from here on a bunted ball, charge it, pick it up, boom, get it over to Joe Judge at first.
"I'd like to do it again," he says. "Yessir. I'd like to do it again. There's a time when you're out there playing day in and day out and you wonder when the hell it's going to end. You get a little tired."
He sits back in the hated chair. Wilor relaxes. "All I wanted to do was play ball," he says, his voice thinning with fatigue. "And I did. Oh, I loved it. No getting away from it."
He played 18 years in the majors, 1,884 games and every one for the Washington Senators. He played in every World Series the Nats reached -- 1924, 1925, 1933. He remembers how Washington was ablaze with fireworks that night in 1924 when the Senators won their first and last World Series. He remembers how he allowed himself a beer at Gus Buchholz's Occidental Restaurant.
Ossie Bluege is all that survives of the Nats' winning ways. He is Washington's winning tradition.
There is no evidence of this in the living room except for the 12-piece silver goblet set his teammates gave him on Ossie Bluege Day in 1933, a few days before the Senators captured their last pennant ever. The bats and balls and pictures of the Big Train, Walter Johnson, fill the basement.
Bluege witnessed it all. He spent 50 seasons in baseball from his rookie year in 1922 to his last as manager in 1947 to the day he retired as controller of the Minnesota Twins in 1971. He met presidents -- Coolidge and Roosevelt and Truman and his favorite, Ike -- and dined at the White House. He wasn't impressed. He saw the Senators win and he saw them lose and finally he saw them leave town. "I felt sick," he says. "Nothing to do but sit and take it."
"No," his wife says, gently. "You were comptroller of the team. You did some of the work negotiating the move."
"Not much," he says.
There has been talk of another team for Washington, a National League club perhaps, backed by Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Redskins. "I hope so," Bluege says. "I hope in the time I have to live, they'll bring a club back to Washington." He still gets seven letters a week asking for his autograph.
"The capital of the nation. We carried the ball, so to say, to sell the product to the public. We did all right all those years. Well, not all those years."
The clippings of a lifetime are pressed neatly between the cellophane pages of the scrapbooks the youngest of his three daughters assembled.
"Studious Young Chap to Battle in World Series." "Bluege Brilliant Play Big Factor in Flag Fight." "An Unsung Hero, Bluege Real Star of Diamond Pastime." "Great Tribute to Bluege, Bluege Feted in 11th Year of Service With Nats." "Bluege, Capital Career Man, One Player Griff Would Never Trade."
Only one date is missing -- that of his last game, when he was 39 years old. He says he doesn't remember it. He says he had no regrets. He says he was ready to retire to the coaching box. (In 1940 he signed contracts as both a player and a coach, but did not play.)
Scrapbooks do not lie. There among the contracts ($2,000 in 1922) and the record of his 1924 World Series share ($5,959.64) is the notice of his release on Feb. 26, 1941, and the letter he wrote to owner Clark Griffith asking to play one more year.
"Dear Mr. Griffith," he wrote. "I was in hopes that such a decision on your part would be deferred. Obviously, it expresses but one thing and presupposes that my value or valuation to you or to baseball in general as an active player is nil. With which opinion, I beg to differ . . . "
"I don't remember that," he says.
Pride plays tricks with memory.
"That was 1941? I wasn't ready for it. Tired?" He smiles. No one gets tired of playing baseball.
There is a difference between a ballplayer and a baseball man. A ballplayer stays young in the game. A baseball man grows old with it. Ossie Bluege is a baseball man. An organization man. A player's player. A cog. That's what the newspapers said: "A priceless cog in the only three pennant-winning teams in Washington history."
"I was an unsung hero," he says. "I didn't parade around like a lot of guys do, strutting around. I was never a pop-off guy."
They called him the Cat and they called him the Dutchman, though his family was German. Mostly, they called him colorless. He blended in like the beige house he and Wilor have lived in since 1961. In the off-season he worked as an accountant, auditing the books at Washington's best hotels. He looked the part.
"He was a quirkless man," says former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was a scoreboard boy at Griffith Stadium when Bluege managed there.
"It t'aint no use, I tell you," a former teammate said in a 1924 story. "That kid's got the bookies. Get me, he goes to his room and he gets his soup and beans and gives the lamplight a plug and about 10, when you and the rest of us are having a good time, he hits the hay. He sure is a freak."
He didn't smoke and he didn't drink, not even a bottle of beer, until he passed out after a game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis and the doctor prescribed a brew a day to build up his strength. "I was a good boy," he says. "Too good."
He met his first wife, Margaret, in the hospital where she was his nurse. She died of cancer after they had been married 11 years. Wilor, who is 19 years younger than her husband, was working in the Senators' front office when they met. They were married in 1940. Bluege had been her mother's hero.
"I didn't chase women," Bluege says. "Or did I? No, I didn't."
But he could cuss. "Boy, I'm saying he had words you never heard of," says Calvin Griffith, who was the bat boy in Bluege's first year and became president when his uncle died in 1955.
Bluege's world was divided into quiet unassuming players, of which he was usually one, and happy-go-lucky guys. Hank Greenberg was a quiet unassuming player. Babe Ruth was a happy-go-lucky guy. "He had more women around him than Carter's has liver pills," Bluege says. "But he could hit. Ruth was a glamor guy who liked to pose in front of the stands. He liked the attention. Lou Gehrig used to talk German to me me at first base. 'How do you do, Landsmann?' he'd say. He was a quiet unassuming guy."
"Bluege is one of the two quietest men in baseball," the newspapers said.
"Walter Johnson was the other," Bluege says. "He was as poor a man to interview as I was."
Clearly, that has changed. The years, and the inevitable realization that there are not an infinite number of them, have loosened his tongue. "I was quiet," he says. "I've learned my lesson now."
Maybe if he had been a pop-off guy, if Washington still had a team that nurtured tradition, he'd be in the Hall of Fame now. Five or six years ago he and Wilor circulated some petitions and sent them to Cooperstown, N.Y. Calvin Griffith always talks him up, but, as he says, "other people have friends, too."
Cooperstown offers a hint of immortality. For Bluege, feeling as mortal as he does now, the pain of exclusion is fierce. He has outlived most of the men he played with and more of the men who covered the team. "I'd like to be there," he says. "I should have been there. Don't know whether I'll ever make it now. I guess there's something they don't know that I know."
He hit .272 lifetime. They said he was a sucker for a curve. "Who wasn't?" he says.
In 1983, two third basemen were inducted: Brooks Robinson and George Kell. "They couldn't hold my glove," Bluege says. "Do you know what Pie Traynor says? He was attending a game in Baltimore and he was walking on the field and . . . "
He looks to Wilor for help. "And somebody asked Pie what he thought of Brooks Robinson's spectacular play," she says. "And Pie said, 'Bluege would have made those plays look easy.' "
"That's right," he says. "I didn't stand on my head enough. I did everything the way it was natural for me. And it looked easy."
One time in spring training, Luke Sewell, the former Nats catcher, was asked to name the greatest team of all time. This is a ritual in the spring. "I can't name the best all-time team, but I can tell you the two greatest infielders who ever played in my time," Sewell said, pointing to Bluege. "And there he is over there hitting fungoes."
There was a dance in his step and a song in his arm. His hands moved in deft syncopation. "Fast as a streak of lightning," said Sammy West, an outfielder with the Senators from 1927 to 1932.
"I never saw him fooled by a bad hop," said Walt Masterson, a pitcher who arrived in Washington just as Bluege was retiring. "One time there was a bad hop and he picked the ball off his cheek with his glove. He was that quick."
"He just seemed to glide," said pitcher Jack Russell, who was traded to the Senators in 1933.
"He was the best I ever saw," said pitcher Tommy Thomas, who arrived in 1932. "The best in the world. I can tell you. He was just uncanny."
In 1925 a sportswriter wrote: "Paradoxically enough, the greatest barrier that Bluege must vault in order to obtain the recognition that is his by right is his own grace as a fielder."
"It is a paradox," Bowie Kuhn says. "He had that smoothness that stood out. He never seemed to strain at the position. There was nothing dramatic. I think Bluege was so quick, you almost never saw the rough edges. He was a natural."
Bluege is energized by the words. Reflex propels him out of his chair. He is an athlete, a ballplayer. He is trying to answer the question: What makes a good ballplayer?
"On your feet!" he says, and everyone stands with him. He has a ball in one hand, signed by the members of the 1965 American League Champion Minnesota Twins, and a glove in the other. Stiff, but still a good piece of leather.
"On the balls of your feet! And you're moving all the time. You're moving this way and that way, not flat-footed. You got to be loose and free with your legs. That's the way I played. That's the way I got a jump, too. I could run, madam. I had a good pair of legs till I hurt that knee.
"I played a shallow third base. I got to the ball quicker. I had the quickest release of anybody you ever want to look at. I copied it from Charlie Pechous. He played in the lot adjacent to my home."
Ossie Bluege was born and bred on the sandlots of Chicago. He was the starting shortstop for the St. Mark's Lutheran Church team when he was 14. He lied about his age and got a job in the accounting department at International Harvester, which also fielded a team. "What do you have to do to play ball?" he asked the office manager. "He says, 'Are you a player?' I says, 'I think I am.' "
He became the starting shortstop that day. "I was an upstart," he says.
He played for the Logan Squares, one of the best semipro teams in the country, and was offered a contract with the Peoria Tractors in the Three I league. He was underage and asked for his father's consent. "Was?" Adam Bluege replied in German, consenting only after his son promised to quit if he didn't make the major leagues in two years.
And he did -- sold to the Washington Senators for $3,500. He had injured his left knee sliding into second base, and several teams, including the Philadelphia Athletics, had lost interest in him. He says Joe Engel, the Senators' scout, lined up three players and told Bluege that if he beat them to the center field fence he had a job.
The morning he arrived at the Senators' spring training camp, Clyde Milan, the manager, hit grounders to him for an hour. When they were done, he says, Milan summoned Clark Griffith from the golf course and told him he had to come see the new kid whose name he couldn't pronounce. "Blu-ghy," the kid explained.
"Griff Strong for Windy City Rookie," the spring training headline read.
On opening day Bobby LaMotte, the regular third baseman, got hurt. "Clyde Milan, the manager, comes up and says, 'Hey kid, can you play third base?' " Bluege says. "I say, 'If it's a ground ball, I can field it,' " which is how he became a third baseman.
"Bluege and Peck Show Fans a Thing or Two About Baseball."
He charged bunts and cut off ground balls in front of Roger Peckinpaugh, the shortstop. "Bluege electrified the bugs," the morning paper said.
They went on to Chicago, where he says his friends held an Ossie Bluege Day and gave him flowers at home plate. But he only stayed with the team for 19 games before being banished to the minors in Minneapolis because of "light stick work." He batted .313 there and, he says, set a record one day for fielding 27 chances during a double-header. A year later he was back in Washington for good. The turning point of his career came on July 17, 1923, when Gorham Leverett struck him out five times. "I probably didn't see the ball," Bluege says.
The next day he received a standing ovation the first time he came to bat. Bluege doffed his cap and got a hit. "To left center," he says.
He was a regular by the time the Senators won the pennant in October 1924. "The '24 series?" Bluege says. "We were lucky."
The final game against the New York Giants was played at Griffith Stadium with President Coolidge and the first lady in attendance. The series was tied 3-3 and the seventh game 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th. Downtown a crowd of 8,000 gathered under the Washington Post scoreboard. With one out, "Muddy" Ruel lifted a pop foul behind home plate. But the Giants' catcher became tangled in his mask and dropped the ball and Ruel doubled. Walter Johnson bounced to short but the fielder bobbled the ball. Earl McNeely came to the plate. He hit a bouncer to the third baseman and providence intervened. Legend has it that the ball hit a pebble and bounded into left field.
"Meusel fielded the ball and Muddy's running like hell and that's when Meusel stuck the ball in his pocket," Bluege says. "He could have thrown Muddy Ruel out.
"Was he fast? You wouldn't call a catcher that caught 154 games fast. We were on top of the bench, pulling like hell. I remember Nemo Leibold standing up along side of me, pumping, 'C'mon, Muddy. C'mon, Muddy,' trying to pull him across home plate. When he did, we jumped liked hell and we greeted everybody and kissed everybody. But there was no champagne at that point in time. We didn't believe in champagne."
The fans danced on the dugouts late into the night. President Coolidge, who barely managed to get out of the stadium, issued a statement commending the teams. White ribbons, bearing the words "I Told You So," magically appeared on the streets of the city. Horns honked. Fireworks exploded. Confetti rained. At midnight, a funeral procession in honor of the "late" John J. McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.
"City in Carnival, Whirlwind of Joy Sweeps Capital in Big Demonstration," The Post headline said the next day. "Milling Crowds Combine Armistice and Mardi Gras Outburst."
Wilor still wears the pendant from that World Series around her neck.
The next year the Senators won the pennant again, and Babe Ruth named Bluege the most improved player in the league. In the second game of the World Series he came to bat against Vic Aldridge, the Pirates' starting pitcher, at Forbes Field. "As I walked up to the plate Earl Smith, the catcher, says, 'What the hell are you going to do up here?' " Bluege says. "And I say, 'What do you think? I've got a bat in my hand.' Not thinking at all that this was a knockdown pitcher.
"He hit me right here," he says, pointing to a spot behind his left ear. "That's when I forgot to duck."
"Bluege Still Groggy."
Rumors circulated in the capital that he was dead. Ring Lardner devoted a column to him. Clark Griffith spread the word that the X-rays had come back negative. "In fact," the doctor told Griffith, "we believe Mr. Bluege's skull is the thickest we've ever X-rayed."
He missed two games and returned to the lineup in time to face Aldridge again. "When I walked up to the plate, Earl Smith is still digging me, see? He says, 'What are you doing here?' I says, 'What the hell do you think? I've got a bat in my hands.' "
Bluege doubled to left.
He grows quiet, remembering. The hits, the errors, the seasons, the memories have all run together in sweet profusion. The time Ty Cobb took a run at him with his spikes high and ripped Bluege's shirt and undershirt. Bluege never let go of the ball, and later named his dog Tyrus Raymond. The way Griff gave free passes to all the clergy in the city and they came and sat along the third base line like a bunch of bird dogs.
He remembers that he earned his top salary, $10,000, in 1929 and in 1931, in the midst of the Depression, and that the Yankees offered $40,000 for him in 1933 but Griff wouldn't let him go. That was the year he got the silver goblets and a Pontiac and flowers at home plate on Ossie Bluege Day. The same year Griff ordered him to stop working as an accountant because it was ruining his batting eye.
And opening day 1936, with FDR sitting in the President's Box and Bobo Newsom on the mound. Ben Chapman bunted the ball but Bobo got in the way and for once Bluege's throw didn't make it to first base. Bobo staggered. Bobo stalled. Bobo stayed in the game and won 1-0.
Later Bluege said: "My arm must be going. I hit him in the head and it didn't hurt."
He was past his prime. He stayed on for three more years as a utility man and then as a coach. In 1943 Griffith made Bluege the manager. His teams finished second twice, losing to the Tigers in 1945 by 1 1/2 games. He was named Manager of the Year. One day in 1947 he got into a scuffle with Burt Hawkins, a reporter who had written about dissension on the team. They called each other liars and Bluege threw a punch. "That SOB. I'm still mad at him," he says.
"I stand by my story," Hawkins says.
The next year Bluege became farm director and and in 1957 the comptroller of the team. When the Senators left for Minnesota, Bluege went with them. He bought a house 10 minutes from the stadium, which was abandoned in 1982 for an indoor palace carpeted in Astroturf.
"We went where the grass is greener," he says. "Where it's permanently green."
Fatigue dims his memory. He slams the ball into his glove at his inability to remember the name of a friend. His wife suggests a nap. "I'm not going to lie down," he says. "I have a lot to say."
He could talk baseball forever. "It's supposed to be improved, improved, improved," he says. "What are you going to improve? It's the same old game. You catch the ball and throw it."
The clock chimes 5. The afternoon is almost gone. "I'm a ballplayer," he says. "I was a ballplayer. That's what I am."
He flexes his hands. He caresses the ball. "I could go out there right now and play," he says, and looks toward the window.
"Has it stopped raining out there?"