Musical Jocks

Article by Phil Hanrahan

One afternoon in July 1995, pitcher Jack McDowell gave the finger to his own fans at Yankee Stadium. McDowell was a great hurler — the 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner and a three-time All-Star — but he just didn’t have it on this day and got rocked for nine runs and 13 hits in four and 2/3 innings. As he left the mound after getting pulled, Black Jack — nicknamed for his gunslinger stare, the black look he gave hitters — got lustily booed. Feisty as ever, the tall, goateed McDowell raised his pitching arm and gave the crowd a one-finger salute. Then he twirled his hand around for good measure.

JACK ASS shouted the Daily News. THE YANKEE FLIPPER blared the New York Post. Later we learned music had something to do with McDowell’s poor performance. He’d been drinking into the wee hours with two music buddies, Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey of R.E.M.

A musician himself, Black Jack was friends with a number of rockers, including guys in the Smithereens and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder. In fact, two years earlier he’d been partying with Vedder in New Orleans and got knocked out by a bouncer during an altercation. Vedder was arrested for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace. Black Jack walked away with a black eye.

I’ll always associate those 1995 Yankees with music. I had just moved to New York City and it seemed like every other day there was a print, radio, or TV story about the chops of both McDowell and center fielder Bernie Williams, a classically trained guitarist.

By this point, Black Jack had toured with the Smithereens and had a new band, stickfigure, whose first album, Just A Thought, compiled memorable songs in a jangly, alternative-rock vein, written and sung by Black Jack. The band would go on to release three more solid albums, with bass from Mike Mesaros of the Smithereens and drums from Frank Funaro and later Josh Freese. (Funaro left to drum for Cracker; Freese had earlier drummed for Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.) As for Williams, who led the Yanks in hits, runs, and total bases that year, and batted .429 in the playoffs, he wasn’t trying to put out records at the time, but it was clear he kept up his skills. I watched him strum a couple Latin-inflected tunes during a local-news segment and thought, Damn, Bernie can play.

One of the greatest Yankees to ever don pinstripes, owner of four World Series rings, his No. 51 officially retired, Williams went at music hard as the new century began. Playing and composing songs in different styles (jazz, Latin, classical, pop), he released a pair of major-label albums, both of them cracking the U.S. jazz charts top-five. These records included collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Rubén Blades, banjo wizard Béla Fleck, and other greats. After leaving professional baseball in 2006, Williams studied guitar and composition at a state university, and just a couple of years ago received a bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

Black Jack and Bernie — two of the most legit music-making sports stars we’ve ever seen. But who’s their competition? Who else has excelled as a professional athlete while also achieving musical excellence, as opposed to mere novelty-act notoriety?