I sent a fevered missive to my colleagues on SABR’s 19th Century Baseball listserv on November 5, 2002, and followed up with additional finds. This was nearly nine years before publication of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, my book for which research had commenced twenty years earlier. I am grateful to have lived long enough for that book to be completed, and I am frankly tickled to remain an enthusiastic tiller in those fields. Until this post, no one had spotted an image of “Collier’s Rooms,” the upstairs saloon owned by 32-year-old character actor James Walter Collier where, on the rainy evening of March 17, 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. Delegates from 10 professional baseball clubs met at the saloon at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, just across from Wallack’s Theatre, where Collier frequently trod the boards. The clubs had come together at the invitation of the Mutuals to establish a new professional National Association, based largely upon the rules and regulations of the amateur organization from which they had just departed.
Friends, I shouted out loud when I found this image on the web one Sunday night, in total serendipity. I was looking for a longshot—an image of Gilmore’s Garden, the successor to P.T. Barnum’s (original) Hippodrome on the northeast corner of Madison Square in New York. Maybe a photo of Collier’s Rooms—the saloon where the National Association was founded on St. Patrick’s Day, 1871–is not the Holy Grail of pictorial research, but it’s an image I never expected to see. The image is one of 70,000 in the “Robert Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views, Photography Collection, Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, The New York Public Library.” Here is more precise bibliographic info:
Stereoscopic views of theaters and other entertainments, New York City. MFY Dennis Coll 91-F214. View catalog record Image ID: NYPG91-F214 026F.
Looking at the web page of thumbnail views, I saw a big Romanesque building that was unfamiliar to me. The information on the back of the stereocard, which is viewable online, indicates that the view is of Wallack’s Theatre. When I enlarged the view on screen–as you may do by clicking on the image above, twice to yield the enlargement–I spotted Collier’s in the foreground and gave out with my Eureka!
Being a New York City buff with a respectable collection of older books on the subject, I confirmed the street address of Wallack’s Theatre as Broadway and 13th Street, the known address for Collier’s. The mount of the stereocard provided a clue as to its date, which initially I regarded as ca. 1870. Then I found an alternate mount from the same studio series as the Collier’s stereo; it was labeled “New Series” and 1873–thus the Collier’s photo is certainly 1872 or earlier, dead-on for the National Association’s founding date.
The name affixed to Wallack’s Theatre became The Germania in 1881, and The Star in 1883. Saloonkeeper Collier himself was an actor who presumably had only to cross the street to ply one trade or the other.
I could never have located this image by searching for Collier’s Rooms, as it is not cited in the web page’s text or in its underlying metadata.
Oh, and I found Gilmore’s Garden, too, ca. 1875. Leased to Patrick Gilmore, the composer of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” by its owner, P.T. Barnum, in unchanged form it became, in 1889, the first Madison Square Garden. Of particular interest to us is its address: the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue, notable as the proximate playing grounds of the men who would become the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club–ca. 1842, before they were thus named. If you look at woodcuts of the old New York & Harlem Railroad terminal on this site ca. 1838 it’s clear that the same structure, with its Tuscan tower, evolved into the Hippodrome and then Gilmore’s Garden.
In a final burst of good fortune, while humming “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah,” I enlarged a view of Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre, again ca. 1870. On the second floor is a sign for the “Mutual Club House.” The address of the theater proved to be 442 Broadway.
I don’t expect any of you to be as transported by all of this as I was, but I just couldn’t keep it to myself.
Finally, who was actor/barkeep James Walter Collier? This from the New York Times of July 7, 1877: “Thomas Woods, alias Gus Fowler, of No. 152 Macdougal-street, was arrested yesterday on a charge of attempting to stab Benjamin A. Whiteman, the bartender in James J. [an error, middle initial was W.] Collier’s saloon, at Broadway and Thirteenth-street, on Sunday morning last.” He continued to act after opening his saloon, taking the lead role in a play in 1879, entitled “Coney Island,” at the Union Square Theatre. And he was present at Madison Square Garden on September 12, 1892 to fete James J. Corbett.
The 1869 and 1870 New York City Directories had listed him as “Collier James W. actor, h[ome] 101 Charles.” That he is not listed as proprietor of a business indicates his saloon was not yet established. In the 1871 directory, however, he is listed at the same residence but now with a liquor business at 840 Broadway. “Our” James Collier is not, in any event, the one born in 1839–that James Collier was living in Herkimer, NY in 1870 (age 30). Our gent is the James W. (erroneously listed on ancestry.com as “James H”) who was 34 years old and living with his mother and siblings in 1870, with no listed occupation. In the 1880 census James W is still single, living in a boarding house on East 14th Street, and lists his occupation as “actor.” After a benefit staged in his honor in 1897, he died on May 13 of the following year, at age 62.
Peter Morris asked some years back: “Who on earth is Con Yannigan? I have long been seeking the exact origins of the term ‘yannigan,’ used to describe a player on an inexperienced side (usually during spring training). I have narrowed down the period of its origin and have found some interesting accounts about it, but nothing on the exact etymology. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary goes so far as to say ‘there is no clear link between this word and a word in another language or an earlier form of English or an English dialect.’ This seems promising; can you elucidate?”
Peter had spotted what stands as a first usage to date: Sporting News, July 22, 1893, “Baltimore’s Yannigan Treadway with the hoarse laugh and the round tanned face made a hit in Chicago.” (By this was meant merely that Treadway was, in 1893, a newcomer to the big leagues.) Today I found an earlier citation, a suggestive one that tends to support a story I have been telling for three decades. On May 23, 1893, the New York Herald‘s O.P. Caylor reported on a National League game played between Washington and Brooklyn:
Pfingst Monday [a.k.a Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday, observed by many Christians in Germany] was appropriately celebrated at Eastern Park yesterday afternoon. In honor of the occasion George Schoch, David Foutz, Karl Farrell, Teddy Larkin, Jim O’Rourke, Connie Yannigan Daily, and the other Germans on the two teams each wore a small Prussian flag pinned to the bosom of his shirt front.
Some thirty-five years ago I found an undated news clip from the 1898 New York World titled “Armless, Legless Pitchers,” in the Cy Seymour Scrapbooks in the National Baseball Library. After a preamble on Charlie Bennett (famous catcher who lost his legs in a rail-station accident), Hugh Daily (the one-armed star of Baltimore and Buffalo), and Tom Deasley, who wound up in an insane asylum, the story focused on Herbert Van Cleef –a remarkable legless pitcher from Trenton, NJ who in the following year managed a basketball team of one-legged players. I included the piece in my second Armchair Book of Baseball (1987), and one day may publish it here at Our Game, too.
In my introductory remarks to the 1898 tale I wrote that the clip was “replete with unexpected pleasures” that included “the stunningly offhand solution to one of game’s most perplexing mysteries–the origin of the epithet ‘yannigan,’ reserved for scrub or second-rate players.” Here, from the World:
Another cripple who was famous as a ballpayer was “Con” Yannigan, who made a big reputation around Hartford, Connecticut, several years ago. He was a first baseman and had a cork leg. Yannigan was brought out by “Steve” Brady, of the “Old Mets.” “Steve'” considered him one of the best first basemen he ever saw. A great play of his was to block off base runners with his game leg. Opposing players could sharpen their spikes to a razor edge, but “Con” didn’t scare for a cent.
Is this a Davy Crockett sort of yarn? Maybe. But there it is, a legend in 1898 but rooted in September 1880, when Brady played for the original Metropolitan club–along with Daily and Deasley–years before they joined the American Association and “before he made a big reputation.” How was Cornelius “Con” Daily, a veteran big-league catcher connected with Con Yannigan? Perhaps only in the nickname of Con, shared by so many named Cornelius who have played baseball. Caylor may have recalled a real player who went by the name of Con Yannigan, or made sly reference to an emergingly legendary one.
This may not be the final answer as to how yannigans came to be called yannigans, but it moves us in that direction.
This outstanding article–a personal favorite, I will say–is from the June 1902 number of Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation. Its author is Clarence Deming (1848-1913), celebrated captain of Yale’s baseball and football teams in his youth. Moving on to editorial positions with the New Haven Palladium and the New York Evening Post, he penned for the latter an article entitled “An Old Yankee Ball Game: Wicket,” recalling his days of playing that now forgotten sport when he was a lad in Litchfield, Connecticut [I had long searched in vain to locate this, following the bum steer of a 1903 citation; see Comments section below]. His fanciful reconstruction of how rounders and base merged is not to be credited, but all in all this is a splendid memoir of someone who played ball before professional league play. A phrase that may well jump out to the modern reader is this: “The shortstop for many years shifted ground to a point between first and second bases if a left-handed striker was at bat….” Another stunner: “a shrewd, up-country team of Connecticut in the early sixties did not miss the mark when it bored out a set of huge bass-wood bats and filled them with corks.” Read on.
There was in Old England a game of bat, ball, and base-runnings called “rounders.” There was in New England a contemporaneous and similar game called “base.” At about the middle fifties a genius lost to renown compounded the two games and gave us the basic lines of modern baseball. The new sport, with its variety and grace, caught the American taste. By the year 1857 it had risen to the dignity of an association of clubs and official rules. It eclipsed the scientific but torpid English cricket and the more vigorous but less refined “wicket” of Yankeeland. The Civil War hardly gave it pause, and up to 1868, when professionalism and gate money were first officially allowed, the game was sovereign, if not despot, of the American sports of the sward.
The game is still national and popular; it draws in the cities and around academic diamonds its thronging hosts, and is an institutional sport; but the youngsters of to-day should have seen it as it was in 1866 and 1867, when it reached its climacteric and a frenzy for the game swept the land. Each little village and hamlet boasted its nine, and in the larger towns of the eastern states the clubs were enumerated by the score. There were national championships, state championships, and county championships, fierce, even, vindictive in their rivalries, and in narrower fields with smaller prizes of victory the passions were not less tense. Across the long reach of years two incidents come back to mind as tokens of the acute quality of the sport in those days. One was the edict of the factory owners in a large New England town imposing special pains and penalties on absentees at ball games during working hours. The other is the vision of weeping women turning homeward as the umpire’s last “out” signalled defeat for their pet nine in an inter-town match.
It was on those rural fields in the heyday of baseball that the sport, if less refined, was more picturesque. That the game was vocal goes with the saying. In our present baseball day there is the familiar trick of organizing the nine as a kind of “claque” to chattel away the nerves of opponents at the bat. But a generation ago the claque was both spontaneous and noisy, and included spectator as well as player. Not far away from the truth was the country captain who described his team as “men who can’t bat much, or field much, but first-rate talkers.” To dispute the umpire on every close decision was orthodox duty—a fashion not yet outlived—and it made the rural ball game forensic as well as spectacular.
The country umpire, who was usually selected by the home team, merits his specific picture. In the earlier days of the sport he was chosen for knowledge of the rules simply because the opposing bucolic nines had so little knowledge themselves. Later, technical lore became somewhat secondary as a credential, and in the ideal rural umpire was sought a kind of Boanerges—a Son of Thunder, bellowing out his decisions until the welkin echoed, and able on the one hand either to placate the crowd by good temper or to daunt it with strong speech. That is to say, the umpire of the time and place had to own no middle terms of personal temperament, but be either extremely crisp or superlatively good-natured and tactful.
The umpire’s place was usually a point even with the home plate and about twenty feet away. There on armchair was set for him and, on sunny days, he was entitled to an umbrella, either self-provided or a special one of vast circumference, fastened to the chair and with it constituting one of the fixtures of the game. He had freedom of movement, but the prerogative was rarely used. In his pocket was a copy of “Beadle’s Dime Baseball Book,” then the hornbook of the game, and often in requisition. In his airy perch, shielded by his mighty canopy, the umpire of those days made an imposing figure, bearing his honors with Oriental dignity, though hardly with Oriental ease.
A pressing thorn at the umpire’s sat of judgment was the right of an offended team to demand a “change of umpire,” and such transitions in old rural baseball were not rare. In that connection a typical incident comes to mind. It was at an inter-town match, when for some reason, not now recalled, the visiting team supplied the umpire. He gave three successive decisions which angered the home players. On their demand the umpire was changed; then the captain of the home team asked from the new umpire a reversal of the last decision, and, as it seemed, by the very audacity of the demand obtained it. Such an ex post facto ruling illustrates the wide range of umpiring in old baseball.
There were few uniforms in the rural nine and such as they were they were not uniform. The country player rose to quite a peak of dignity if he could “sport” the old-fashioned baseball cap with its huge visor, or a belt in place of the more useful than ornate “galluses.” Baseball shoes, for such as had them, were of the homespun pattern, with spikes made by the village blacksmith and set in the soles of ordinary shoes by the local cobbler, who also not seldom tried his hand at covering with calfskin the balls used for practise games, the orthodox “white” ball being used only for match games—often the same ball for two or three matches.
If a country club could secure a fairly level meadow for its play it was in high luck, and the local vagaries of the soil were no small factor in the result of match games. Thus a team wonted to the hard-packed dirt of the village green, and, by ground hits vanquishing visiting teams easily, found grief and rustic Waterloos when, visitors in turn, it faced foes on soft and irregular turf, with grass so lush that it is of record that the ball was sometimes lost inside the diamond, and a home run scored on the equivalent of the modern bunt. If the home field was bounded by a near fence, thicket, or stream, all the better for the home nine after it had learned the local hazards. These variations of the field made the game fantastic in its changes. Nor was the country editor in a New England town, which boasted for those days a good field, without genuine if caustic wit, when after an acrimonious victory won on the home grounds he closed his account of the match with the words: “The visiting club labored under the difficulty of playing on a level field and in the presence of gentlemen.”
A dinner after the game, usually contributed by the friends of the home nine, was for a number of years conventional, and salved many wounds of temper in the actual play. This hospitality was possible when the matches of a season were few, but as games multiplied it was dropped on the ground of expense. Now and then the country teams played for a dinner as the stake of the match—a suggestion from the earlier “wicket.”
On college and urban fields the early game in its amateur epoch was played with more system, better temper, more deference to the umpire, and higher skill. But its technique was of the crudest quality, even among teams of the championship class. Team play, as now interpreted, was almost unknown. The heavy hitter, rather than the good fielder, was the Nestor of the game. The catcher, in the few emergencies when he dared throw to second base to catch the runner, stood perhaps ten feet behind the batsman, and if he actually nipped the runner, the fact was red-lettered in a match. The shortstop for many years shifted ground to a point between first and second bases if a left-handed striker was at bat; basemen throughout a game hugged their bases far more closely than now; the outfielders played much farther afield; “backing up” infielders, save in most moderate degree, was still a dream; and with gloves, pads, and masks unknown the aroma of arnica was rich, and the old game unto this day registers its honorable lesions in the finger joints of the graybeards.
Scores of course ran up in ratio as skill was down. In the middle sixties clubs reckoned strong piled against each other scores of fifty runs or more in a game, and when a hard-hitting nine faced relative weaklings, three figures for runs were not uncommon. So late as 1867, when a nine of one of the large colleges scored thirteen runs to eight against a strong state club, the figures were deemed almost phenomenal. Certain special causes of these huge scores will be referred to hereafter.
Between the “big” clubs of the Atlantic, Athletic, and Eckford type—doubtless masking some professionalism—and the higher class of college players there was much the same disparity as now—not so much in the strength as in the regularity of the batting, and more in the fielding than in the batting as a whole.
The later professionals in their amateur period, and before the days of gate money, included some heroic figures. There was Harry Wright, who as captain of the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings was the pioneer in team play; his brother George, for years recognized as the best all-round professional and the first baseball man who dared at shortstop to play well behind the base line; Charley Mills, of the New York Mutuals, with a novel trick of throwing to bases by the same motion with which he returned the ball to pitcher; Pete O’Brien, of the champion Atlantics, who could knock a sky ball until it looked like an aerial marble; John Hatfield, of the Mutuals, whoso throw of 133 yards, 1 foot, and 7-1/2 inches, stood for twelve years as the record; Joe Start, of the Atlantics, who survived as a professional first baseman for a decade or more after his old colleagues had passed into the dusk of the baseball gods; and finally Arthur Cummings, pitcher of the Star Club of Brooklyn, first of his race under the restraints of straight-arm pitching to “toss” a curved ball. If from personal observation the opinion may be stated here, Cummings’ famous curve was a mild out curve for right-handed batsmen, accomplished by a cleverly disguised underhand throw.
The “lively” ball used in those archaic days would amaze the player who handles the “dead” ball of to-day. When betimes in the modernized and super-scientific game we see the ball strike an infield obstruction and leap high over the head of shortstop or third baseman, we get a dim inkling of the old lively ball’s chronic habit, but hardly of its persistency of bound and roll, and of its bullet-like far-fetchedness in sky and line hits. In a game on the hard soil of Boston Common, between the Harvard and Lowell clubs, dating back to the days when the first bound was “out” on both fair and foul balls [note: before 1865–jt] , it is related that a batted ball striking inside the diamond was caught on the first bound by the left fielder standing in his normal place. This eternal briskness of the ball was secured by hard wound yarn and a plentiful admixture of very elastic rubber, blended with a small “centre ball” of the same resilient quality. Externally and by the eye it would be hard to tell the old and the modern ball apart. For a year or two in the later sixties there came into vogue a “red dead” ball, maroon in hue, less resilient than its forebears, but animated enough in contrast with the ball used now.
Couple the lively ball leaping by the dazed fielder with the old-fashioned slow pitching, in its most liberal phase a kind of swinging toss—albeit the pitcher stood only forty-five feet from the home plate— and the big scores of old baseball days become clear, without emphasis on the earlier defaults in skill. Wide latitude in the form, size, and material of the bat also favored hard hitting as against slow pitching and lively balls. A hard wood bat was rarely or never seen. The regulation stick was long, thick, and of the ” pudding-stirrer” shape, made of spruce, bass, chestnut, and the lighter woods; and a shrewd, up-country team of Connecticut in the early sixties did not miss the mark when it bored out a set of huge bass-wood bats and filled them with corks.
One or two of the customs of the old game were unique. Such for instance was the habit of the better class of clubs of exchanging, just before each match, silk badges imprinted with the club name. The players wore these accumulated trophies pinned upon the breast, sometimes with startling color effects; and the baseball man was proud, indeed, who could pin on the outside of his deep strata of badges a ribbon from the mighty Atlantics, Mutuals, or Eckfords, attesting his worth for meeting giants, if not mastering them. A custom lasting some years, of presenting the ball won in a match to the player making the best score on the winning side, had the odd feature of fixing the “best” score, not by base hits or lack of errors, but by the gross number of individual runs. But those were days when even the official scores of big games recorded only outs, runs, left on bases, fly catches, outs on fouls, outs on bases, home runs, and time of game—sometimes even less, scoring being the subject of personal opinion rather than of formal rule.
The ardent devotee of the baseball of to-day, with its precisions, curved pitching, and close play behind the bat, may smile at the oddities and crudities of the old game. Yet may the laudator temporis acti claim for the older sport certain vantages. It had speed, range, breeziness, and a horizon; it made fun while not lacking intensity; nine men played it, and the battery did not focalize the match game; on the larger scale of runs and fielding the better team more often won than in the sport of to-day, where the timely base hit or untimely error wins victory or loses it, and, paradoxically, has made the game more uncertain in proportion as it is more scientific; and the term “professional” had not then entered the baseball vocabulary. Yet, were the virtues of the old days in baseball purely legendary, the gray-headed ball player would still love them. Again with memory’s eye he would mark the rough diamonds of the shaggy country land, the outgoings in the sunlight and the homecomings under the moon; hear the cheers for victory, and see the forms of the old players against so many of whom in college triennials the Great Umpire has set his final “out” and marked his sad asterisk of death.
Here is a scheme with echoes reaching to the present day, involving Cap Anson and Albert G. Spalding. As Anson described the prospectus in later years, “The fellow who invented that was certainly a crackerjack at his trade, and it wasn’t very difficult to discover what his trade was.” From Anson’s 1900 memoir, A Ball Player’s Career:
Just at this stage of affairs  my plans for the future were apparently a matter of great interest to both press and public, and if the statements made by the former were to be believed, I had more schemes on hand than did a professional promoter, and every one of them with “millions in it.” I was to manage this club and manage that club; I was to play here and play there, and, in fact, there was scarcely anything that I was not going to do if the reporters’ statements could be depended upon. One of the most senseless of these was the starting of the A. C. Anson Base-Ball College, the prospectus for which was typewritten in the sporting-goods store of A. G. Spalding, and read as follows:
Location.—The school will be located on what is known as the A. G. Spalding Tract, covering the blocks bounded by Lincoln, Robey, 143d and 144th streets, upon which Mr. A. G. Spalding will erect suitable structures, fences, stands, dressing-rooms, etc. The site is in the celebrated Calumet region and is easy of access.
Membership.—All accepted applicants for membership will be required to submit to a thorough physical examination and go through a regular and systematic course of training, calculated to prepare them for actual participation in base-ball games. Upon entering they will subscribe to the rules and regulations of the institution, which will demand obedience and provide for discipline, abstemious habits, regular hours, proper diet, in fact everything which tends to improve the health and physical condition will be required. They must also pass an examination made by Captain Anson as to their natural aptitude for becoming proficient in the game of base-ball.
Instruction.—The course of instruction will consist of physical training by the latest and most approved methods, with the special intention of developing the body and mind, so that the best possible results may be obtained looking to perfection of base-ball playing. Daily instruction will be had in the theory and practice of the game.
Engagements.—As soon as students are sufficiently developed and display skill to justify, efforts will be made by the college management to secure lucrative engagements for those who desire to enter the professional field. Arrangements will be made with the various professional and semi-professional clubs throughout the country by which students of the college will come into contact with managers and be enabled to make known their merits.
Application for Admittance.—Persons who desire to become students of the college will be required to fill out and sign the regular application blank provided by the college, which must give information regarding the applicant, such as name, place of residence, height, weight, various measurements, past vocation, habits, state of health, etc., etc.
Charges.—Accepted students will be required to pay a tuition of $2 per week, at least five weeks tuition to be paid in advance, and must supply their practice uniform. The college will provide all team uniforms for use in games and all materials and utensils necessary for practice.
Then followed a showing of financial possibilities that would have done credit to the brains of a Colonel Sellers [http://www.twainquotes.com/ColonelSellers.html].
It is unnecessary for me to say that this scheme never emanated from me, or that it never received any serious consideration at my hands, the real plan being to create a real-estate boom and enable Mr. Spalding to dispose of some of his holdings, using me as a catspaw with which to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.
It seems like only yesterday that we learned Mickey Mantle had lost his last battle. In the days after Mickey’s death on August 13, 1995, his fans left flowers, and a poem, and other modest, heartfelt tributes beneath his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame Gallery. The Mick was sixty-three when he succumbed to liver cancer–too soon, but not truly an athlete dying young; he had outlived Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson by ten years. We mourned as much for ourselves, for a vital part inside of us that died, as we did for him.
We remember where we were and, more importantly, who we were when “The Commerce Comet” picked up a random bat (a Loren Babe model), strode to the plate at Griffith Stadium one afternoon in 1953, and parked a Chuck Stobbs pitch 565 feet away. We remember his astonishing blend of power, speed, and grace; his dash into left-center field to snare a Gil Hodges line drive and keep Don Larsen’s perfect game alive on October 8, 1956. We remember his chase of the Babe’s record in 1961, when he kept pace with Roger Maris until a September injury forced him to the sideline. We remember his baseball cards, and his Maypo commercial, and that silly movie he and Roger made with Doris Day and Cary Grant. We remember the Copacabana scrape, and the drinking and carousing, and the bad business deals he got into.
We remember the pain he endured, from the bone inflammation that almost cost him his leg as a teenager to the torn-up knee in his rookie year to the wrecked shoulder, and the wounds that the yards of tape could never heal, especially his belief that he, like his father, would die young. “If I’d have known I was going to live this long,” he would say, half jokingly, “I would’ve taken better care of myself.” Yes, we will remember him.
“As a ballplayer,” President Clinton said after the announcement of his death, “Mickey inspired generations of fans with his power and grit. As a man, he faced up to his responsibilities and alerted generations to come to the dangers of alcohol abuse. He will be remembered for excellence on the baseball field and the honor and redemption he brought to the end of his life.” Maybe in some larger way his passing even served to redeem baseball itself.
Heroes provide role models through their achievements and their ability to overcome adversity. Their greatness enlarges us all. The greatest achievement of Mickey Mantle’s life was not his home runs or MVP trophies or World Series heroics; it was the dignity he brought to his death, when he said to America’s youth, “Don’t be like me.” As Lou Gehrig’s death did so much for the funding of treatment and, one day, cure of ALS, Mickey Mantle may have done more than anyone for the cause of organ donation.
His exploits are on display in the record books, his likeness on a plaque at the Hall of Fame; his legacy, not so easily captured, is everywhere.
On this day in 1880, Christy Mathewson was born in Factoryville, PA. This seems like a good opportunity to share a story I wrote for Narratively last year of which I am particularly proud. It has not run at Our Game before. http://narrative.ly/the-very-respectable-adventures-of-gentleman-matty-and-dime-novel-frank/
In the Black Sox Scandal, eight men who were involved in fixing the 1919 World Series were banned from baseball for life. Of these two men, the great hitter Joe Jackson and the fine third baseman Buck Weaver, continue to grip our attention as possible victims as well as perpetrators: Jackson, because he was illiterate, had a change of heart and tried to give back the money, and had twelve hits in the Series; and Weaver, who was approached to take part in the fix, declined, but failed to report the plot to his manager.
Despite the romantic apologies made for these two especially, all eight were, in my view, guilty enough to warrant their punishment, even though ballplayers had been throwing games left and right for decades. The principal gripe of men like Weaver and Fred McMullin may have been that they were left holding the bag without getting any of the swag. The other six pocketed some money, if not all that was promised, so what is there left to say.
Jackson appealed for reinstatement several times, and so did Weaver. Their descendants and devotees continued to appeal for decades after the players’ deaths, unsuccessfully. While Major League Baseball enforces no postmortem suspensions of banished players, the Hall of Fame continues a policy of keeping off the ballot anyone whose suspension was not repealed.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued his ban, placing the eight indicted Black Sox on the ineligible list, on March 12, 1921. As their court trial dragged on toward Opening Day, he feared that in the absence of a conviction an argument would be made that the men should be allowed to play for Chicago in 1921. His ban was thus preemptive—none of the eight could play in Organized Baseball even if the trial and its verdict were postponed.
Ultimately the trial did drag on, and the Black Sox were acquitted in Cook County court on August 2, 1921. However, the “eight men out” had already been banned as of March 12. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis said after the acquittal, “no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” This last phrase was surely directed at Weaver.
Weaver applied six times for reinstatement to baseball, beginning in 1922. In March 1927 Landis replied to his request by stating that his decision of December 1922. Landis wrote to Weaver:
“You testified that preceding the 1919 series, Cicotte, your team’s leading pitcher, asked if you wanted to ‘get in on something”—fix the world series—and you replied: ‘You are crazy; that can’t be done.’
“The world’s series then was played, and so played that even during the series, your manager, at a meeting of the players, stated something was wrong. You knew your club officials were seeking to ascertain the facts, but you kept still.”
Weaver’s final petition came in 1953, when he requested reinstatement from Commissioner Ford Frick.
“A murderer even serves his sentence and is let out,” Buck observed at that time. “I got life.”
He died from a heart attack on January 31, 1956, at age 65, a cautionary tale for all major leaguers who followed.
Yesterday we gathered in Cooperstown to celebrate the annual Baseball Hall of Fame Induction, honoring Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. This day was about the players, and their fans, and the game, and the glimpse of immortality that baseball provides. It is about celebrating the past and its continuing vitality in our lives, symbolized in the plaques for these men that will speak to future generations of the glory that was theirs. They will become fixtures in the Hall of Fame Gallery, a magnet for fans, but a small part of the museum and library complex that links baseball’s present day with past times.
In an age of sabermetrics, analytics, and microscopic recording well beyond the simple statistics of a century ago, it is instructive to harken back to a time when Outs and Runs were the only categories tracked. Today we know that many things go into the manufacture or saving of outs and runs but, in the end, victory and defeat boil down to these same primitive measures.
The trade card shown at the left is part of a six-card series contrasting “New Style” (1880s) and “Old Style” (1870s). Depicting “The Scorer,” it casts light on an old mystery that I referenced many moons ago in my book Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote:
We have heard the stories all our lives, and we share them warmly with our children. But we come to the Baseball Hall of Fame to see, to see the instruments of glory, the stuff of legend, the tangible remains of departed heroes and forgotten fields. This is a museum like no other because it is about baseball, that singular American institution by which we mark our days. Not simply historical relics, these artifacts spur us to recall to life an image dormant in our brains for decades. They connect us not only to our own childhood and to our parents, but also to a national, collective past, one whose presence we sense but whose details have been lost.
Time stops in the Museum in the same way it does at a baseball game. At the museum it attaches itself to those things that make us halt in our tracks and reflect upon their essence … and ours. Time doesn’t truly stop, of course; we do. We imagine that we bend time and somehow elude it through the pleasure of play and remembrance.
Which is where I come in, with a “memory” of King Kelly, whom I never saw play, as vivid as my recollection of Mickey Mantle, whom I did. There was a time, in 1980 or so, when during one of my frequent research trips to the National Baseball Library I held in my hand an object that had a story to tell, but I was not yet wise enough to hear it. Looking back, I believe this incident provided the germ of the idea for the Treasures book, and perhaps Baseball in the Garden of Eden too.
At that time, long before its 1993 enlargement, the library was cramped for space and pressed for cataloging services. Some large boxes were filled with unrelated items of mixed provenance and scant documentation. In one such box, packed loosely among some truly notable curios (I recall Cy Young’s rookie contract from 1890 and Christy Mathewson’s from 1899) was a thin wooden stick, with irregular hand-hewn notches along part of its perhaps ten-inch length. With the unquestioning confidence that only comes with ignorance, I snorted at finding this insignificant piece of kindling, in a plastic bag without any indication that it had been cataloged as a gift to the Museum. “I know you’ll take anything here,” I laughingly announced to some library staffers, “but I thought at least it had to have something to do with baseball!”
All of us were puzzled by the stick, and none of us had an answer as to how it had entered into the collections or why it was being retained. I thought no more about the stick for the next five years, until I was reading through Henry Chadwick’s scrapbooks, on deposit at the New York Public Library … and then the stick became The Stick, depicted as the “old style” of scoring in the trade card above. There, in Volume 20, which was dominated by cricket stories, I came upon the following innocuous note:
Previous to 1746, the score was kept by notches on a short lath: hence the term notches for runs. The notching-knife gradually gave way to the pen, and the thin stick to a sheet of foolscap.
The fool’s cap should have been placed on my head. I had dismissed as inconsequential what was surely a scorer’s stick from a very early game of baseball, an artifact perhaps earlier than Doubleday or Cartwright.
I offer this story to illustrate the difficulty of hearing the stories the artifacts have to tell, particularly the ancient ones. Large objects like statues and trophies and plaques may wag comparatively small tales, while small items like pins and ribbons and newsprint may speak volumes. Generally, the more removed the object is from the event that inspired or employed it, the less interesting it is to the historian and the less rich its associations with other events in baseball and the world. What is most fascinating and what moves us most deeply is seldom the stuff that was created in order to be treasured by future generations, although commemorative pieces (like the gifts for Lou Gehrig on his farewell day, July 4, 1939) can be beautiful and meaningful, too. But in my view, the best artifacts are the ones that were meant to be tossed aside yet improbably survived.
This essay appeared in Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American, the companion book to an exhibition of the same name that launched at the National Museum of American Jewish History in 2014. In the following year “Chasing Dreams” embarked on an extensive national tour; it is currently on view in two locations: a popup exhibition at The American Jewish Historical Society in New York City and a fuller representation, complete with artifacts, at The Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. As chief consultant to the exhibition I am grateful to curator Josh Perelman and the staff of the museum for permission to publish this story, in some measure a personal one, on the web for the first time.
Fight or flight. That is how a Jew, like anyone else, deals with adversity in life or in that charmed realm that is our present subject, baseball. Contemplating prejudice, one may perceive a rich range of responses—modulated, grayed, complex–hardly binary, it would appear. A plausible, if unsustainable, third alternative may also exist: sitting on the fence in hope that the threat will pass. In real time, though, it all boils down to fight or flight.
Both are honorable choices. Neither victory nor defeat will confirm character; one does what seems possible in the moment. When a Jewish baseball player changed his name in 1905 it was a sensible response to a rabidly anti-Semitic fan base, especially in the rural minor leagues. So was, in later years, challenging a dugout heckler to a fistfight, declining to play on Yom Kippur, or most potently, letting results talk.
Ostracized over centuries, Europe’s Jews gravitated to the occupations permitted them. As immigrants to these shores they at first did the same. How could they know that in America, as in baseball, anything—yes, anything—was possible?
Like other minorities, Jews turned adversity on its head, making of it a fuel for performance and the glue of a faith and a people. As Jews ventured into mainstream culture, perhaps from a “disreputable” profession like theater or sports—in both of which they were “players,” i.e., not themselves—they might be forgiven if they forgot for a moment that they were Jewish. Until the very recent past, however, they could be certain that the world would remind them.
Chasing Dreams—the title of the exhibition that inspired this book—is in large measure a Jewish tale, but it is also the story of all the outsiders who struggled to claim a rightful share of the American Dream, only to find their grip slipping on a traditional, distinct identity. As an immigrant boy myself, born in a displaced persons camp in 1947 to Holocaust survivors, I wished for nothing more fervently than to be one of the gang. Still, I was unwilling to let go entirely of that feeling of being odd, singular, special. Baseball eased the transition, permitting me to be that contradiction in terms describing each member of an American minority: the same but different. As a game emphasizing individual accomplishment within the context of unified effort, baseball offered a model of how one might become part of the team … how an outsider might be an American. To the tempest-tost of Europe, like me, baseball seemed fair: effort would be rewarded no matter where you came from.
What goals were sought by Lipman Pike and Andy Cohen? Barney Pelty and Erskine Mayer? Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax? The very same ones pursued by Jackie Robinson and Minnie Minoso, Hank Aaron and Ichiro Suzuki, Roberto Clemente and Shin-Soo Choo. A level playing field, with respect on and off it.
Issues of inclusion and exclusion plagued baseball from the start: men vs. women (in England both had played baseball separately and together in the 18th century), then gentlemen vs. laborers, then native-born vs. immigrants, then amateurs vs. professionals. Later it became a way to discourage women, Jews, and Hispanics of light skin color, and ultimately a door was closed to African Americans after it had, tantalizingly, been left open in the 1870s.
English immigrant Henry Chadwick, the only writer inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (all the other writers are in a separate category) wrote in 1876:
What Cricket is to an Englishman, Base-Ball has become to an American. . . . On the Cricket-field—and there only—the Peer and the Peasant meet on equal terms; the possession of courage, nerve, judgment, skill, endurance and activity alone giving the palm of superiority. In fact, a more democratic institution does not exist in Europe than this self-same Cricket; and as regards its popularity, the records of the thousands of Commoners, Divines and Lawyers, Legislators and Artisans, and Literateurs as well as Mechanics and Laborers, show how great a hold it has on the people. If this is the characteristic of Cricket in aristocratic and monarchical England, how much more will the same characteristics mark Base-Ball in democratic and republican America.
Chadwick’s vision of baseball as a model democratic institution would have to wait for the turn of the century to be fully articulated, and for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey to be fully realized. But his belief that baseball could be more than a game—could become a model of and for American life—has proven true. As Robinson ringingly titled his 1964 book, Baseball Has Done It.
The outsider experience as it has played out on the ball field and in the stands has been a great experiment in equality, the goal of the continuing great experiment that is America itself. Like liberty, baseball lifts a lamp to the entire world. It is a meritocracy more nearly perfect than the nation whose pastime it is, and as such can be both inspiration and scold. “Second only to death as a leveler,” wrote Alan Sangree of baseball in 1907, forty years before Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league field.
After a brief era of good feeling in the 1870s and 1880s when African-Americans and a single Cuban-born American played alongside whites at the highest levels of baseball, people of color were explicitly barred. Irish immigrants had had a relatively easy progress through the baseball ranks, for while they regularly endured attacks on their faith and their allegiance, they at least could sidestep the American obsession with skin color.
So too with the Jews, who, while they participated in baseball to no great extent in the nineteenth century, were never barred or banned. Indeed, Jews began to play the game quite early on (Seaman Lichtenstein, with the New York Base Ball Club of 1845); act as umpire (David D. Hart, with the Knickerbocker Club one year later); lead the first professional league in home runs (Lipman Pike each year from 1871 through 1873); and own a major-league club (Aaron S. Stern of the Cincinnati Reds, beginning in 1883). And yet, by 1905 only ten Jews had played in any of the major leagues.
Unflattering explanations were offered. The Indianapolis News noted in a November 2, 1903 headline: “FEW HEBREWS, SPORT LOVING THOUGH THEY ARE, PLAY BASE BALL.”
“One thing that puzzles me,” says Barry McCormick [infielder with the Chicago Cubs], “is why Jews don’t play base ball. The only Jew in the game today, as near as I can recollect, is Kane, the pitcher, whose right name is Cohen. Back in the ’70s there was a crack Jewish player, Lipman Pike, and Ed. Stein, Anson’s pitcher, was a Hebrew, I believe. Somehow or other, the Jew does not play ball. He is athletic enough, and the great number of Jewish boxers shows that he is an adept at one kind of sport, at least. I see Jewish names in the foot ball elevens and Jewish boys making good in track teams. Jewish gentlemen of means back the ball clubs, and are good, game backers too. Yet the athletic Hebrew does not play ball. Why is it?”
In the month before McCormick’s remarks, the Pittsburgh Pirates, owned by Barney Dreyfuss, a Jew, had been defeated in the first World Series of the modern era. That Dreyfuss had been the driving force behind the institution of a championship series between the National League and its upstart rival, the American League, has been monumentally important and won for him a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Another Jewish owner of the same period, Andrew Freedman of the Giants, was infamous for his highhanded treatment of players, issuing fines that the other owners had to make good so as to avoid lawsuits against the National League. Indeed, Freedman was so roundly hated that his fellow owners responded only half-heartedly to an anti-Semitic remark hurled his way by Baltimore Orioles’ outfielder Ducky Holmes, who formerly played for Freedman in New York. (Before a July 25, 1898 game, Holmes, responding to razzing from his former teammates, shouted across the diamond, “Well, I’m ——- glad I don’t have to work for a sheeny no more.”) Freedman ordered his men off the field, forfeiting the game to Baltimore, despite his own players’ sympathy with Holmes (or antipathy toward Freedman). Holmes was suspended, Freedman was fined. When the suspension was rescinded but the fine was left to stand, intramural conflict followed, boiling over into a war that gave birth to a rival, and saved baseball from destroying itself.
So if they were not barred from the field or the front office—or the press box or the radio booth—what has been the Jews’ particular adversity in baseball, the special obstacle with which they had to contend? Hatred. Jews were distrusted or despised not merely because they were different but also because they seemed recalcitrant about giving up their identity. In The Century of September 1921, Herbert Adams Gibbons offered:
This clannishness would eventually break down were it not for the deliberate efforts of Jewish leaders who are determined that Israel shall remain an imperium in imperio. If the Jews persist in maintaining a distinct ethnic consciousness and an exclusive community life, anti-Semitism will thrive in America as it has thrived in Europe. The American nation, itself the result of fusion, will not tolerate without protest a foreign element in it.
New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote a decade later regarding basketball, a game Jews then dominated, that it “appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smartaleckness.”
These Jews were crafty, and they were obdurate. No matter how they may have longed for inclusion, exclusion was what bound them together. They would not cease to be Jewish any more than African-Americans would cease to be themselves. And that is why Jews were hated, I believe, more than any alternative explanation residing in the thousands of academic studies on the subject of anti-Semitism.
As an overserious boy I had asked myself, in the 1950s, that if the slaughter in Europe could happen and be permitted to happen, what made them hate us so much? Must it not be in some measure our fault? It is in a Jew’s nature to look in the mirror when trouble comes, but this was introspection beyond all reason. Though I ceased to ponder this question long ago, when I gave up boyish musings, I have taken comfort recently in discovering—at a sports auction site, no less!—an offering of a letter in German from Albert Einstein to a Mr. Braunstein, who had extended help to a Jewish refugee. Einstein wrote:
Dear Mr. Braunstein, I feel I must thank you especially for the important help that you were willing to lend your namesake. The person is well worth it in every regard, as I have come to learn through reliable information. Judging by our enemies, we Jews must be a very remarkable little people. That is not usually so obvious! I send you my friendly greetings, Yours, A. Einstein.
Chosen. Distinct. Exclusive. Scheming. Flashy. Smart-alecky. At least others were worse. And with each insult or assault came affirmation that we were indeed a very remarkable little people.
So if we were so sure of ourselves, so cocky, why did five ballplayers named Cohen change their names before entering the major leagues? Blacks did not routinely change their names to avoid detection. As David Spaner wrote in Total Baseball:
In 1980, Dorothy Corey Pinzger, the widow of Edward Corey, who pitched for the White Sox in 1918, explained her husband’s decision. “The name was changed from Cohen to Corey due to the ethnic slurs….We have a clipping in the scrapbook which noted that in his appearance in one of the Midwest League games, Ed was loudly and continuously derided about his ethnic background from a few of the unintelligent fans. The clipping further noted that the greatest majority of the fans were ‘good sports,’ but just those few harassed him. The name was changed by this method: The H in COHEN was dropped and the R inserted; likewise the N was dropped, and the Y inserted, and the name became COREY.”
Sammy Bohne and Phil Cooney were also born as Cohen, as were Harry Kane and Reuben Ewing. Jesse Baker was born Michael Silverman. Henry Lifschutz became Henry Bostick. Joe Rosenblum became Joe Bennett. James Herman Soloman became Jimmie Reese. “There must have been at least half a hundred Jews in the game but we’ll never know their real names,” Ford Frick wrote in 1925. “During the early days of this century the Jewish boys had tough sledding in the majors and many of them changed their name.”
Around the time of Frick’s observation, something clickednd Jews began to be courted as box-office draws. Mose Hirsch Solomon—dubbed the Rabbi of Swat after hitting .421 with 49 homers for the Hutchinson Wheat Shockers of the Southwestern League—proved a short-term project for John McGraw’s Giants, washing out after only two games. Andy Cohen enjoyed more success playing The Great Jewish Hope in the late 1920s, lasting two seasons as the Giants’ regular second baseman. The Yankees, desperate to please their Jewish fans in the 1940s—their first Jewish player had been the one-gamer Phil Cooney—even persuaded Ed Whitner to use his stepfather’s name of Levy. “You may be Whitner to the rest of the world,” said general manager Ed Barrow, “but if you are going to play with the Yankees you’ll be Ed Levy, understand.”
Women had been courted as fans (even nonpaying ones) ever since the game’s dawn. Baseball management hoped that their presence would lend “tone” to the proceedings and keep a lid on the rowdies, in the stands and on the field. In fact, women played the game and were involved in management, beginning with St. Louis Cardinals owner Helene Britton. Jewish women, too, from a surprisingly early onset.
Women entered the playing arena at the Seven Sisters schools of the Northeast, at which Jews were less than welcome. In 1866, Annie Glidden, a student at Vassar College wrote home describing campus life: “They are getting up various clubs now for out-of-door exercise….They have a floral society, boat clubs and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it highly, I can assure you.” Ultimately, women’s baseball largely devolved from such high-toned clubs to novelty acts with a girlie-show air, generally in the form of scantily clad Blondes versus Brunettes, with exotic geographic locators applied to each.
Pulchritudinous Broadway stars like Helen Dauvray would be seen at the Polo Grounds simply to be seen, though they exhibited some interest in baseball and its handsome practitioners. Miss Dauvray went so far as to marry one of them, Giants’ shortstop John Ward. In 1887 she funded the first World Series trophy (the “Dauvray Cup”) and ornate gold pins for each member of the winning Detroit Wolverines. Born Ida Gibson, Miss Dauvray was half Jewish, her mother having been born Louisa De Young, brother of M.H. De Young, future editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Though nonobservant in her practice of the faith, she gave benefit performances in San Francisco for Congregation Shaari Zedeck on March 25, 1875, and Congregation B’nai Israel on July 15, 1875.
The first woman to play in Organized Baseball was not Jewish. On July 5, 1898, Lizzie (Stroud) Arlington, with the blessings of the president of the Atlantic League (a Class B minor league) Ed Barrow, later famous as the man who made pitcher Babe Ruth an everyday player, threw an inning for the Reading Coal Heavers against the Allentown Peanuts. She gave up two hits but no runs.
Women also played with professional traveling teams like the Boston Bloomer Girls (based in Kansas City, actually). Ida Schnall, a Jewish immigrant from Austria and famous swimmer, started up the New York Female Giants and her two squads, composed of Jewish and Gentile young women, played exhibition contests in 1913. Ida invariably pitched. In later years she would make an “aquacade” movie (Undine, 1916) that exploited her curves.
Women were never formally barred from playing in the big leagues (three women played in the Negro Leagues), any more than Jews were. The presumption may well have been that they wouldn’t be good enough, so why bother? Women still await their Lipman Pike, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax.
Fight or flight? Evading confrontation, eluding adversity—these were the tactics that made sense all the way up to World War II. There was a memorable fight in 1933 between second baseman Buddy Myer of the Washington Senators and the Yankees’ Ben Chapman, who, in 1947 as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies gained infamy for his taunting of Jackie Robinson. Chapman spiked Myer and then hurled a number of anti-Semitic epithets at him. Chapman and Myer’s fight spread to the dugouts and the stands. Myer’s father was Jewish and his mother Christian, and he never considered himself a Jew, but he never felt the need to correct press accounts of his Judaism and, anyway, he took offense at Chapman’s slurs. Only years after his retirement did Myer bother to state publicly that he had always felt he was German rather than Jewish.
Hank Greenberg fought in his own way. A formidable figure who could challenge an entire dugout, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger did his best work in overcoming adversity by letting his bat speak for him. Cleveland’s Al Rosen followed Greenberg’s path—though not averse to using his fists, he spoke loudest through his accomplishments. In 1953 he fell one thousandth of a point shy of winning the batting title that would have given him the American League Triple Crown.
Greenberg’s experience of dealing with prejudice intersected with Jackie Robinson’s struggles as a Brooklyn Dodger rookie on May 17, 1947. Robinson collided with Greenberg, finishing up his career as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman, on a close play and heard the catcalls from the stands. When Robinson reached first base again later in the game, Greenberg reportedly complimented him on his stoic demeanor: “Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin.”
I was a month old, not yet an American, when this now legendary moment occurred. But by 1952, only five years later, I had become strongly attached to Robinson—he was still a big-league star, with a dazzling baseball card. Greenberg meanwhile had moved off center stage though still, unbeknownst to me then, a major figure in the game. Jews tend to go with the underdog for obvious historical reasons, and Robinson seemed to me a real hero. He was hated for no good reason. Jews know something about that.
My parents and the Polish immigrants in their New York City social circle, unlike so many Holocaust survivors, told their grisly tales with an unnerving gusto: Max Linden, the jeweler, never tired of telling, over dinner, how he had lain overnight under a pile of corpses, waiting for the propitious moment to act upon the surprising intelligence that he, unlike everyone else who had been shot, was not dead. Thrilling as the story was to me as a very young boy, I soon could not bear to hear it, for all its undertones of dread, helplessness, and dumb luck.
This age of horrors and heroes, ended before I was born, shaped my parents so indelibly that it inevitably shaped me too, fostering fear, shame and, most damaging to a creative soul, a sense of overriding caution. Baseball became my real visa to America and to becoming (almost) one of the guys. Like the American West with its cowboys and Indians, baseball provided an institution with legends that could stand up to Nazis and Jews. And unlike America’s Western frontier, closed since 1890, in baseball heroism still seemed possible.
By my teen years Sandy Koufax had come into his own and, as Greenberg had done, made Jews proud to see one of their own proclaimed as the best. It is now hard to imagine, but when Koufax and the Dodgers left Brooklyn for California in 1958, the Holocaust was thirteen years past, not yet safely distant in the rearview mirror. Looking back now, nearly sixty years later, it may be hard for young Americans to grasp the resonance of a Jewish baseball hero at that time. No similar emotion attached to Ryan Braun when he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011; let us hope that America’s Jews never have reason to need a new hero as they needed Koufax.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie relief pitcher Larry Sherry became the hero of the 1959 World Series, winning two games and saving the team’s other two victories, I was keenly aware that he—like Koufax, who had lost a 1–0 thriller in Game 5—was Jewish. By the time of Koufax’s sudden retirement after the 1966 World Series, it seemed no longer important that he was a Jew; the principal storyline attaching to him was that he was a great athlete whose time in the sun had sadly been cut short.
This was Sandy’s success, and Jackie’s, and Hank’s. In the end the only question to be asked of those who followed was, “Can you play?”
And then came the murders at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In case we had forgotten, we were Jews. Mike Epstein, the massive slugger of the Oakland A’s who had won the good-natured nickname “SuperJew”—in itself a sign of our people’s rising acceptance—donned an armband in remembrance of the slain Israeli athletes. So did Jewish teammate Ken Holtzman and outfield star Reggie Jackson, an African-American. When the A’s squared off against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series a month later, Jackie Robinson was honored for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his breaking the color barrier. Nine days later he died.
With Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson had forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while intentionally excluding anyone. Although the baseball playing population of African Americans in the major leagues has diminished from a high of, in some published estimates, 28 percent in the late 1960s—actually it peaked near 20 percent in 1975—to perhaps 8 percent today, more people of color play the game in the major leagues than have ever done so before. If you count all dark-skinned people—whatever their nation of origin—the number is over 40 percent today, and the upward trend is inexorable. America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth.
Recent years have seemed a golden age for Jewish players in Major League Baseball, with sixteen in 2013 alone. Beyond Greenberg and Koufax, Steve Stone won a Cy Young Award and Ryan Braun became an MVP. On May 23, 2002, Shawn Green established a single-game record for the ages, with 19 total bases on four home runs, a double, and a single, scoring five times. Kevin Youkilis became a Moneyball hero. It is today routine, rather than remarkable, for Jews to be baseball players—stars and supernumeraries just like every nationality or creed.
Is that a triumph? Yes, but it is also a challenge. What are those things that make Jews special—chosen, even—if not their outsider status? What will drive us to prove our people’s individual excellence, by ourselves or through our heroes? As a people forged in adversity, America’s Jews will have to find something else to supply the tie that binds. As in the past, baseball will be a help.
My friend Richard Malatzky–SABR’s supersleuth in genealogical research–wrote to me the other day:
John, here is something you may want to share online. I know that you put in a great effort to identify obscure players for Total Baseball so here is a reversal of something Peter Morris, Bill Carle, and I did several years ago regarding Sterling of the infamous game of October 12, 1890.
Early in September 1890, the Athletics of Philadelphia of the American Association went bankrupt. Rather than following the path of minor league clubs and folding, they started letting go of their more well-known players and signed several local minor leaguers … plus some whom we still cannot identify.
I noticed on a research trip to the Hall of Fame Library in 1979 that the Heilbroner books which listed the addresses of all of the umpires had a John F. McBride living in Phillipsburg, NJ but it later turned out that he would have been around 10 years old in 1890 when he is thought to have played in his one game on October 12, 1890. I checked the other missing players from the box score on that game who were listed in the I.C.I. (Macmillan) Baseball Encycopedia of 1969: George Crawford, Sweigert, James (“General”) Stafford, and John Sterling.
Years later I discussed this topic with Morris and Carle and we decided to delete the first names of the four players for whom the Baseball Encyclopedia had supplied them..
There has been a long discussion over many years about the construction of the Baseball Encyclopedia from the earlier Official Encyclopedia of Baseball compiled by Hy Turkin and S.C. Thompson (1951, with subsequent editions). Our theories have been verified by Dick Thompson, who worked with Tom Shea, who had more to do with the I.C.I./Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia than with that produced by Turkin & Thompson.
Tom Shea told Dick Thompson that Turkin & Thompson were disappointed that there were so many blanks in the book … so they put in incorrect names and biographical info from places like the Sporting News so that the book would seem less empty. Most of the work that SABR’s Biographical Research Committee has done recently has been correcting Turkin & Thompson.
Morris has been completing so many projects recently that we had worked on together, with great help from Newspapers.com, that I thought that if I put in the same effort I might find some missing players.
The most info that we had among these five was for Sterling. First of all, the Athletics played Sunday games in Gloucester City, NJ, from August 1888 forward. Sunday, October 12, 1890 was the last game of the season, against Syracuse. The starting pitcher for the A’s was a Camden pitcher wearing an unusual black uniform. The original listing (T&T and Baseball Encyclopedia) of John Sterling had been changed so we didn’t have any leads because of lack of access to Camden papers in 1890.
I searched the Times of Philadelphia for “Sterling P” in hopes that a boxscore would have a pitcher named Sterling. I found that Lancaster had a Sterling into midseason A look at the minor-league section of baseball-reference.com showed a John A. Sterling who was with Ashland, PA in 1888, Philadelphia in 1889, and Lancaster for 14 games in 1890. I also found an 1888 roster of Ashland with John A. Sterling. Another article in 1888 says that John Sterling had to go back to Philadelphia because he was sick.
I searched the Philadelphia CDs for John A. Sterling and found him listed in 1888, 1890, and 1899, all as a blacksmith. I searched in New Jersey and found one in 1891 in Camden, also a blacksmith. The listing had him residing with a Henrietta. I looked for Henrietta Sterling in the 1870 census and found his family there in Philadelphia: father Jesse, and John born 1865 in Pennsylvania.
So what do have here? Sterling was from Camden and John A Sterling was living in Camden at the correct time. He was married to Maggie A. and they had a son born in Pennsylvania in 1890 (from the 1910 census) and there was a stillborn child in Gloucester City in early 1891. The other children were born in NJ.
He died November 10, 1908 and Peter Morris found an obit in Billboard that says he died in Gloucester City, NJ, was a minstrel for years (thus explaining the Billboard notice of his death) and in his youth was a baseball pitcher with Minneapolis and Albany.