By Glen Sparks
Jazz pianist David Frishberg released a catchy little tune in 1969, “Van Lingle Mungo.”
Supposedly, Frishberg wrote the melody first. He couldn’t decide on the lyrics, though.
So, he did what any good songwriter might do. He picked up a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. There, he found the name Van Lingle Mungo. Well, that had some ring to it. It was certainly unusual.
Maybe, Frishberg figured, that name might just make for a song.
Now, Mungo had been out of major league baseball since 1945. The high-kicking right-hander, born on this date in 1911 in Pageland, S.C., compiled a 120-115 won-loss record over 14 seasons and an ERA of 3.47. He won 102 games as a Brooklyn Dodger (1931-41) and 18 as a New York Giant (1942-42, 45).
The 6-foot-2-inch Mungo hurled a hard fastball. He led the National League in strikeouts in 1936 with 238. Twice (1934 and ’36), he won 18 games. Twice (1933 and 1935), he won 16. The guy tossed a two-hit shutout in his debut, against the Boston Braves, and struck out 12.
Mungo was usually around the plate. Well, near it, anyway. Ok, he was very often in the general vicinity. Mungo led the N.L. in walks three times. Over his career, he gave up 868 free passes and fanned 1,242, a K/BB ratio of 1.43.
Baseball knew Mungo for his fastball and his fast temper. The pitcher once estimate that he paid out $15,000 in fines during his playing days, a princely sum if true.
Mungo hurled insults and punches. He was a tough guy in an old-school, put-up-your-dukes sort of way. The solid son of the South bickered with and bedeviled teammates, managers and opponents. He didn’t mind putting his long-suffering wife into the middle of it all, either.
Mr. Mungo took it personally one day when Brooklyn outfielder Tom “Long John” Winsett made an error. The miscue cost Mungo a victory. So, the pitcher, still sore about the loss, raced to the local telegraph office. He sent a message to Mrs. Mungo: ”Pack up your bags and come to Brooklyn, honey. If Winsett can play in the big leagues, it’s a cinch you can, too.”
Mungo peaked in 1936 and suffered an arm injury in 1937. From 1938-43, he went a combined 13-25. Following a stint in the Army in 1944 during World War II, Mungo regained some of his old form and enjoyed a 14-7 comeback season in 1945 with the Giants.
By the spring of 1946, Mungo was out. He feuded with Manager Mel Ott, got suspended and was eventually released. Later, he managed for one season (and got suspended for taking part in a melee that escalated into a riot) and operated a few business in his native South Carolina.
He probably was mostly forgotten by time Frishberg wrote his song, done with a Bossa Nova flair. Thirty-six other players get mentioned in “Van Lingle Mungo.” Part of it goes like this:
Johnny Vander Meer
Van Lingle Mungo
You get the idea. The tune continues on that way. Van Lingle Mungo is the final name in each verse.
Frishberg, who also wrote songs that Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney have recorded and who wrote the Saturday morning classic “I’m Just a Bill,” said he once met Mungo. Frishberg was appearing on The Dick Cavett Show in New York City, and the producers flew in the title character.
Mungo and Frishberg talked for a few minutes. The old ballplayer wanted to know if he might be seeing some money down the road. Nope, sorry, Frishberg said. “But, it’s my name,” Mungo said.
Frishberg told Mungo to go home and write a song titled “Dave Frishberg.” Mungo brightened up. “I’m going to do it!”
Mungo died Feb. 12, 1985, at the age of 73. If he wrote a song, he kept it to himself.
(Trivia: Eddie Basinksi, included in Verse 4, is the only one of the ballplayers mentioned in Van Lingle Mungo who is still living. The former infielder from Buffalo, N.Y., is 93.)