When the Toronto Blue Jays gave away Derek Bell’s car, and other pranks

Derek Bell once owned a car. Maybe he still owns it. I have no idea. But in 1992, when Derek Bell was a rookie, he owned and loved a very specific car. It was, perhaps, not much to look at, but it had been decked out with a sound system which ‘cost more than the car.’ This was the sort of thing that Derek Bell, who was a rookie, apparently appreciated very much.

I’m emphasizing that Bell was a rookie to telegraph what happened next. Rookies who own beloved, flashy (or, in Bell’s case, loud) cars tend to have bad things happen to those cars. In this case, Bell’s tricked-out Ford Explorer was — without his knowledge or consent — given away as a prize on Fan Appreciation Day:

The prank was devised by Joe Carter and Dave Winfield, who were indulging in a spot of trolling, continuing a tradition of baseball pranks which stems from time immemorial. Let’s take a look at Bell’s various faces to see if the prank landed right:

Derek Bell looking baffled

Derek Bell looking perplexed

Derek Bell looking surprised

Gonna give that a 10/10. (They did not actually give away the car, don’t worry.)

Baseball is rife with legendary pranks, presumably because baseball involves a lot of standing around doing nothing over an extremely long season. Most of these pranks are nowhere near as good as what Carter and Winfield did to Bell. This is in large part because most pranks kind of suck, but also because even in the ‘good’ pranks there’s a very thin line between humor and outright sadism.

Here, for instance, is MLB.com detailing what they claim is the fourth best baseball prank in history:

During Milwaukee Brewers Spring Training in 2007, Jerry Hairston, Jr. got two of his friends from the Police Department to issue a warrant and arrest Gerald Laird on fake unpaid child support charges. The officers led him out of the clubhouse in handcuffs and he was said to be in tears in the back of the squad car before Hairston finally let him in on the gag. That is almost just mean, but still hilarious.

I don’t even know what to do with this other than feel terrible for Gerald Laird and also everyone Jerry Hairston Jr. has ever met. What the fuck!

(The third prank on that list is Ken Griffey Jr.’s famous cow-in-office stunt, which is and will forever remain incredible.)

The reason that the Bell car prank works so well is the short-term surrealism Carter and Winfield imposed upon him. It’s a scheme so outlandish that Bell couldn’t possibly have taken it seriously, yet there it was, being played out in front of his face. For a little while, at least. Was it mean? Sure. But it was meanness being played out in an alternate dimension where that sort of thing is more permissible.

Where’s the line? I have no idea. Sometimes it shifts. For instance, Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous (and repeated) car prank is undoubtedly mean, but I can’t help but find it uproariously funny. If you haven’t heard this story, it basically goes like this:

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson buys an Amphicar, which can operate on land or in water.
  • When guests come to stay at Johnson’s ranch, he takes them for a drive.
  • On President Johnson’s property is a lake.
  • He pretends to lose brakes while on an incline heading towards that lake.
  • Humor ensues.

Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Special Assistant to President Johnson (as well as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter administration), related the aftermath of his personal pranking:

As we putted along the lake then (and throughout the evening), he teased me. “Vicky, did you see what Joe did? He didn’t give a damn about his President. He just wanted to save his own skin and get out of the car.

Mean? Yep. But unimpeachably hilarious.

Lyndon B. Johnson in his Amphicar

Now we’re I’m talking about non-baseball pranks I might as well expand beyond the merely automotive and end, as all good articles must, in Renaissance Florence. Specifically, in the studio of Sandro Botticelli, who very much enjoyed a jape.

One day, one of the apprentices in his workshop, a young man by the name of Biagio, copied one of Botticelli’s Madonnas in order to make a sale. Botticelli himself took care of the transaction, agreeing six-florin fee with a citizen whose name escapes the histories. Returning to his workshop, Botticelli told Biagio to hang it as high as possible for display so that the purchaser would be able to see his work in good light the next day.

Giorgio Vasari relates what happened next:

“O, my master,” said Biagio, “how well you have done.” Then, going into the shop, he hung the picture at a good height, and went off. Meanwhile Sandro and Jacopo, who was another of his disciples, made eight caps of paper, like those worn by citizens, and fixed them with white wax on the heads of the eight angels that surrounded the Madonna in the said picture. Now, in the morning, up comes Biagio with his citizen, who had bought the picture and was in [on] the secret. They entered the shop, and Biagio, looking up, saw his Madonna seated, not among his angels, but among the Signoria of Florence, with all those caps. Thereupon he was just about to begin to make an outcry and to excuse himself to the man who had bought it, when, seeing that the other, instead of complaining, was actually praising the picture, he kept silent himself.

Biagio left the workshop to collect his fee from the citizen, whereupon Botticelli and Jacopo undid their modifications and restored the angels, apparently convincing poor Biagio he’d been imagining the silly hats the whole time. Gaslighting is rarely funny, but I’ll make an exception here. Whenever you next encounter a Botticelli, remember that he painted it while amusing himself by messing with his apprentices. Humanizing the old masters makes them much more interesting.

Much like his prolific and profound artistic gifts, Botticelli’s sense of humor apparently failed to survive Florence’s encounter with noted asshole Girolamo Savonarola. The bonfire of the vanities, indeed.

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