Homeracing

Van Lingle Mungo: Baseball star and racehorse

Profile Picture: Nicolle Neulist

April 22nd, 2021

In the post parade before his maiden win at Golden Gate Fields on December 26, 2013, Van Lingle Mungo tossed his head and hopped. The chestnut gelding pulled away from the outrider, against the short rein jockey William Antongeorgi III was giving him. He looked like a loose cannon.

It was a tiny, perhaps even uncharacteristic moment of his racing career. But, a little bad behavior was a fitting callback.

Van Lingle Mungo. "Horse names are weird," some may say with a giggle.

Others may remember "Van Lingle Mungo" as in the jazz song that featured Dave Frishberg crooning names from a baseball encyclopedia with a bossa nova lilt. The lyrics to the tune sound a little bit like a list of old-time baseball horses Van Lingle Mungo's breeder Nick Alexander has named, most prominently Grade 2 winner Pee Wee Reese.

Mungo — first name Van, middle name Lingle like his mother's maiden name, Mungo like his father's surname — was not only an old-school baseball pitcher, but could be every bit as tough to deal with as his namesake in the post parade. He had more than his share of scuffles, and racked up more fines than anyone else in his era.

As manager Casey Stengel put it once, "Mungo and I get along fine. I just tell him I won't stand for no nonsense, and then I duck."

But, Mungo had pitching talent. His first big performance came at age 15 with his Pageland, South Carolina, town team, when he beat a rival squad helmed by eventual major league pitcher Bobo Newsom. After graduating high school in 1928 he went to the minors. He got called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931, at age 20. He pitched a gem in his first game, a three-hit shutout over the Boston Braves.

The equine Van Lingle Mungo didn't start his career quite so hot. As keyed up as he was before his maiden win at Golden Gate Fields, that victory came in Van Lingle Mungo's seventh career start. He wasn't worse than fourth in any of his first six starts, and even went off the favorite twice, but finally figured it out that December day at Golden Gate. First off the Aggie Ordonez claim, he shot through on the rail into the lane and bounded clear to win by five lengths.

But, like his human namesake, Van Lingle Mungo's racing career had a lot more "almost" than triumph. He raced for five years, finding the superfecta in 35 of his 41 starts, banking $103,723 in the process. However, he only won four times.

That made Van Lingle Mungo the horse a little luckier than the pitcher. From the time Mungo joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931 until he threw his final Major League pitch in 1945, it was a familiar refrain: this is going to be the year Van Lingle Mungo will win 20 games. Mungo claimed it. Fans wanted to believe.

He came close a few times: 18 wins in 1934 and 1936, 16 in 1933 and 1935. But, often he was one of the few bright lights on a dim Dodgers squad. He struggled through the late '30s and into the '40s, partly due to an injury he suffered pitching in the 1937 All-Star Game. Though, in 1945, Mungo came as close as he had in nine years to that elusive 20-win mark, but a separated shoulder in September stopped him at 14 wins.

Van Lingle Mungo's baseball career ended with some trademark nonsense. A dispute with Mel Ott during spring training got him cut from the Giants. After two conflict-laden years as a minor league player-manager he returned to Pageland where he owned a movie theatre and a trucking company.

As for Van Lingle Mungo the horse? His career ended with far less conflict. A bowed tendon ended his racing days, and he retired through CANTER California in 2018.

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