Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats, Part Three

Rufino Linares, 1985

Rufino Linares, 1985

Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats.  I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/BkxPPk)—-the product of research first undertaken in 1988.

30. Rufino Linares, October 6, 1985. Linares’s slogan was “I hit in any league.” Until his 30th birthday, however, the only ones in which he got the chance were the minor and the winter leagues. In 1980, the outfielder hit safely in 43 of his first 44 games for Savannah, finally attracting some attention. A year later, he was a 30-year-old rookie on the Braves, with a swing that reminded writer Furman Bisher of “a house painter falling off a ladder.”

Linares batted .265 for the Braves in 1981, and .298 in ’82. That winter, he suffered a devastating ankle fracture in winter league play, causing him to miss most of the 1983 season. After slipping to .207 for the Braves in ’84, he was released, winding up back in the minors. A year later, he was picked up by the Angels.

Linares homered in his first at bat for California on July 20, and in his last on October 6. He came to bat just 43 times for the Angels, but collected three game-winning homers. The last came off Rick Surhoff at Texas.

Going into the eighth inning of the season finale, the Rangers held a one-run lead. Linares, who had already singled twice and scored a run, now connected for a three-run homer. The Angels won, 6-4.

Linares returned to the minors for two more seasons. In his last, 1987, he finished second in the Mexican League in doubles and batting average, hitting a blistering .389. Rufino returned to his native San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, where he died in a 1998 auto accident.

37. Gregg Olson, April 20, 1998. Pitcher Gregg Olson led his high school team to four straight Omaha State championships with a 27-0 record. He went on to Auburn University, earning two All-America selections. At age 21, he became the fourth overall pick in the 1988 draft.

Olson was pitching for the hapless Orioles less than three months later. In 1989, Olson helped the O’s improve from 54 wins to 87 with a 5-2 record, an AL rookie record 27 saves, and a 1.69 ERA. He did not allow a run after July, and won the Rookie of the Year Award over Tom Gordon and Ken Griffey, Jr.

In 1990, Olson completed a run of 29 straight scoreless appearances, encompassing 41 innings, and made the All-Star team. He went on to become the first man to earn 20+ saves in each of his first four full seasons, and extended it to five in 1993. On September 21 of that year, he became the first Oriole pitcher to bat since 1972. He struck out.

But also that year, Olson suffered a partially-torn ligament in his pitching elbow. Over the next four years, he bounced from the Orioles to the Braves, Indians, Royals, Tigers, Astros, and Twins, plus a stint in the minors, earning a total of just 12 big league saves.

Olson made a nice comeback with the Diamondbacks in 1998. He saved 30 games with a 3.01 ERA over 64 appearances, and he even contributed with the bat. On April 20, Olson came to the plate for just the fourth time in his career, and slammed a 403-foot home run, helping Arizona pad a 15-4 victory.

Olson appeared in 160 more games over the next four seasons with the D’backs and Dodgers, but never again came to bat. He finished his career with 217 saves and a 1.000 slugging percentage.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle

39. Albert Belle, October 1, 2000. Few players have encountered as much controversy as Albert Jojuan Belle. After playing parts of two seasons as .220-hitting Joey Belle, the youngster went through alcoholism treatment, returning in 1991 as Albert Belle, and becoming one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Over the next decade, Belle would average 37 homers, 120 RBIs, and a .298 average each year.

But almost every year was marred by controversy linked to his erratic behavior and temper. In 1991, Belle was suspended for throwing a ball at a fan’s chest. He was suspended in each of the next three seasons as well, for infractions including a corked bat, charging the mound, destroying a bathroom, and hitting a fan with a Ping-Pong paddle. In 1995, he was fined for a World Series clubhouse tirade against reporter Hannah Storm, and sued for knocking down a kid who had egged his house on Halloween. In 1996 he fired a ball at a Sports Illustrated reporter’s hand, and earned a suspension for stiff-arming 170-pound second baseman Fernando Viña on a force play. In 1997, he was fined for an obscene gesture toward fans, and named in a gambling scandal. In 1998, he was charged with battery in a domestic dispute. He staged a clubhouse tirade in spring training, 1999. Along the way, Belle beat out Barry Bonds in a sportswriters’ poll to name “Baseball’s Biggest Jerk.” Even after his career, Belle made headlines with a DUI in 2002 and a stalking charge in 2006.

But, oh, how Belle could hit a baseball. In 1993, he led the AL with 129 RBIs. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he batted .357 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs (projecting to 52-145 over a full season). In 1995, also abbreviated by strike, Belle led the league in runs (121), doubles (52), homers (50), RBIs (126), and slugging (.690), becoming the first man ever to hit 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season; pro-rated for 162 games, he might have amassed 59 doubles and 56 homers. In 1996, he won his third RBI title, collecting 48 homers and knocking in 148 runs. After joining the White Sox as a free agent, and becoming the highest-paid player in the game, Belle came through with 49 homers, 152 RBIs, and a league-leading .655 slugging average in 1998.

Late in 2000, Belle was en route to his ninth straight 100-RBI season, but suffering from the pain of an arthritic, degenerative hip. Few could have guessed that his career was coming to a close at age 33. Belle’s home run off Denny Neagle, helping the Orioles to a 7-3 win, proved to be the final swing of his career. He retired the next spring, naturally amidst controversy: he fought to have insurance pay his salary for the remaining years of his contract.

Belle finished his career with 381 homers and a .564 slugging average over 1539 games.

39. Todd Zeile, October 3, 2004. Todd Zeile was born in Dodger country – Van Nuys, California – on the same day Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game at Dodger Stadium. He grew up wanting to play for the Dodgers, and got his wish – but they were only one of 11 teams Zeile played for.

Zeile began his career with the Cardinals in 1989, replacing popular catcher Tony Peña. He would be converted to third base in 1991 and first base in 2000, also playing the outfield and pitching during his career.

Todd Zeile

Todd Zeile

Zeile had his ups and down in St. Louis. After a decent rookie year and solid second season, he slumped in 1992 and was demoted to the minors. He came back to knock in 103 runs for the Cards in 1993 and 75 in the strike-shortened ’94 season, but a dispute with management the next year sent him packing. Thus began the most nomadic decade in any player’s career, as Zeile went from the Cardinals to the Cubs, Phillies, Orioles, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers, Mets, Rockies, Yankees, and Expos – 11 teams in a little over eight years.

But he produced almost everywhere he went, including 99 RBIs in 1996, 90 in ’97, 94 in ’98, and 98 in ’99. He reached his career high of 31 homers with the Dodgers in 1997, and became the first player ever to hit home runs for ten and then eleven different teams. Two of his bats made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Zeile returned to the Mets for one last season in 2004. He planned to pursue a career in film-making after the season. He couldn’t have written a better script for what happened on his last day in the majors.

Before the game, the Mets honored Zeile with a ceremony, including a video tribute to his career and a framed uniform. Wanting to go out the way he came in, Zeile donned the tools of ignorance to catch one last game. It was also reliever John Franco’s final game, and Zeile made the putout on Franco’s last pitch.

Zeile came to bat with two on in the sixth inning, and blasted a 3-1 pitch off the Newsday sign on the facing of the mezzanine level in left field for a home run. Two innings later, he strolled to the plate for one last ovation, then was replaced by pinch-hitter Daniel Garcia. The Mets won, 8-1. Zeile finished his career with 2004 hits and 253 homers.

“I can’t tell you how special it was,” Zeile said after the game. “I can’t even describe that at bat right now. The moment doesn’t seem real. I don’t think anything went through my mind. You can’t process things at moments like that. I’m glad I went out this way [instead of somebody] telling me to take the uniform off.”

40. Ray Lankford, October 3, 2004. Duplicating the feat of long-time teammate Zeile earlier in the afternoon, Ray Lankford ended his colorful career with a home run. Lankford batted for pitcher Dan Haren with a 4-3 lead, helping the Cardinals to a 9-4 victory. Lankford came up once more in the game, but walked. “It might be my last regular-season game,” said Lankford of finishing with a bang. “Yeah, I thought about that.” Lankford finished as the all-time Busch Stadium home run leader (123), a record later broken by Albert Pujols. The Cards went on to the World Series, but Lankford did not play in the postseason.

Lankford began his career with the Cardinals in August, 1990, replacing Willie McGee in center field. Retaining his rookie status for ’91, he led the majors with 15 triples, stole 44 bases, and hit for the cycle. He had a dozen mostly productive seasons with the Cards before landing in Tony LaRussa’s dog-house in 2001. He was traded to San Diego, but played only 121 games there before sitting out the 2003 season with a hamstring injury.

Lankford returned to the Cardinals for one last shot in 2004, but lost his starting job due to nagging injuries. He finished his career with 238 home runs, 258 stolen bases, and a .272 average.

46. Jim Edmonds, September 21, 2010. With 393 career home runs, Jim Edmonds ranks behind only Ted Williams among players who homered in their final at bats.

Edmonds made it to the majors with the Angels in 1993, remaining with the team through 1999. Rod Carew took him under his wing early on, and Edmonds blossomed as a hitter, averaging 28 homers, 86 RBIs, and a .298 average from 1995-98. He also became one of the best defensive center fielders in the game’s history, winning his first of eight Gold Glove Awards. Many consider his 1997 catch against Kansas City’s David Howard – Edmonds sprinted back and caught the ball over his shoulder while diving into the warning track – the greatest of all time.

Jim Edmonds

Jim Edmonds

Edmonds suffered a severely injured right shoulder in 1999, and missed the first four months of the season after arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum. His shoulder, as well as the foot he broke (but kept playing on) in 1995, plagued him the rest of his career. For some reason, Edmonds had also acquired a negative reputation in Anaheim: someone who didn’t always play hard, who showed off, who wasn’t a team player. In March, 2000, the Angels traded him to the Cardinals for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy.

Edmonds played with the Cardinals from 2000-07, helping them to two World Series, and earning the nickname “Jimmy Ballgame.” He finished in the top five in MVP voting in 2000 (42 homers, 108 RBIs, .295) and 2004 (42, 111, .301). Edmonds starred in the 2004 NLCS, hitting a 12th-inning homer to win Game Six, and making a miraculous catch to save Game Seven.

Injuries cut into Edmonds’ playing time in his last two years with the Cards, and they dealt him to San Diego for future postseason hero David Freese after the 2007 season. Edmonds lasted barely a month with the Padres before they released him. Picked up by the Cubs, Edmonds had a strong performance in a reserve role, but then took the 2009 season off. He returned to play in 2010 for the Brewers and Reds, finishing his career with 1949 hits, 437 doubles, 393 homers, 1199 RBIs, a .284 batting average, and a .527 slugging mark.

Edmonds’ final homer was a second-inning solo shot off Milwaukee’s David Bush. He was signed by the Cardinals to a minor league contract in February, 2011, but retired for good two weeks later. He threw out the Cards’ ceremonial first pitch in Game Four of the NLCS that October.

47. Adam Kennedy, September 7, 2012. Adam Kennedy was never considered a power hitter, yet he had several home run highlights. In 2000, he narrowly missed becoming the 12th player to hit two grand slams in one game. In 2002, he became just the fifth player ever to belt three homers in a postseason contest. And in 2012, he finished his career with a four-bagger in his last at bat.

A shortstop-second baseman, Kennedy was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1997 draft. He moved up quickly and was named the Cards’ minor league player of the year in 1999, after batting .327 in 91 games. That earned him his first call to The Show.

But on March 21, 2000, Kennedy was traded to the Angels along with pitcher Kent Bottenfield – ironically, in exchange for Jim Edmonds, another future “Out with a Bang” player. Kennedy wasted no time in making his mark in Anaheim. On April 18, he knocked in eight runs in one game, with a grand slam, a bases-loaded triple off the center field wall, and an RBI single among his four hits.

Kennedy’s career highlight came on October 13, 2002, in the final game of the American League Championship Series. He slammed three home runs – the last after a failed sacrifice bunt attempt – in a 4-for-4 day that clinched the pennant. Kennedy was named ALCS MVP, and his bat wound up going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He then helped the Angels to a World Series win over the Giants, finishing with a batting average of .340 and slugging percentage of .660 in postseason play that year.

Kennedy had a nomadic career after that, going to the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rays (minor league organization), A’s, Nats, Mariners, and back to the Dodgers between 2005-12. He batted .312 in 2002 and .300 in ’05 (helping the Dodgers to the NLCS), but never hit more than 13 home runs in a season.

Kennedy’s final homer came in the sixth inning with no one on base, off the Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award-winner, Tim Lincecum. It was pulled down the right field line at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Kennedy was replaced by Luis Cruz, and the Dodgers went on to lose, 5-2. Kennedy never played again, finishing his 14-year career with 80 homers and a .272 average.

53. Nyjer Morgan, May 11, 2014. Morgan was not a strong candidate to homer in any at bat, never mind his last. He had only 12 round-trippers in 1953 major league ABs, in one season failing to homer in 509 trips.

Nyjer Morgan

Nyjer Morgan

While not a power-hitter, Morgan was a dynamic leadoff man and center fielder with an equally dynamic personality. He could be the most popular player on a team, or the biggest troublemaker. He gave colorful nicknames to his teammates, and even created one for himself: “Tony Plush.” In a 2012 Sports Illustrated poll of 297 players, Morgan was easily voted the most eccentric player in the bigs, receiving 19 percent of the votes; Giants’ closer Brian Wilson was a distant second with 12 percent.

Morgan’s first love was hockey, and he pursued a pro career in that sport. By age 20, all he had to show were seven games in the minor Western Hockey League, and he shifted his focus to baseball. Morgan was drafted in the 33rd round in 2002, and was 27 when he finally reached the majors with the Pirates in 2007.

Morgan was traded to Washington in a four-player deal on June 30, 2009, and thrived for his new team, batting .351 the rest of the year, though he was sidelined after breaking his hand sliding on August 27. He still finished the season second in the NL in stolen bases (42) and tenth in batting (.307).

Morgan’s 2010 season was not as good (.253), and was punctuated by an eight-game suspension for multiple altercations involving opposing players and fans. He was traded to the Brewers on March 27, 2011.

Once again, Morgan had a rebirth in his new surroundings. He batted .304 and became a fan favorite. Morgan’s walk-off single in Game Five of the NLDS sent the Brewers to the League Championship Series.

But once again, he sputtered (.239) in his second year with the team. Morgan wound up going to Japan for the 2013 season.

Morgan resurfaced with the Indians in 2014 and, true to form, got off to a fast start. After his homer to deep right-center field on May 11, he was batting .341. But in his next game three days later, Morgan sprained his right knee in the outfield before he could bat again. When he finally got off the DL in August, the Indians released him.

Morgan signed to play in South Korea for 2015, but after just ten games there he hung up his spikes.

56. Ramon Santiago, September 27, 2014. The Dominican-born Santiago joined the Tigers in 2002, starting a 13-year career as a good-field-no-hit reserve infielder. Other than stops in Seattle (2004-05) and Cincinnati (2014), his whole career was with Detroit.

Santiago had just 30 homers in 2436 career at bats, but the final one stands as the most dramatic final at bat in baseball history. On September 27, 2014, he connected for a tenth-inning, walk-off grand slam to give the Reds a 10-6 win over the Pirates. He is the only man to hit a bases-loaded homer in his final at bat.

Santiago signed with the Blue Jays on February 3, 2015, but hit just .202 in 33 games with their AAA team in Buffalo.

Deane chart 2aa

Deane chart 3a

Deane chart 3aa

 

 

 

 

Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats, Part Two

Tony Kubek, 1965

Tony Kubek, 1965

Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats.  I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/kWhaon)–the product of research first undertaken in 1988.

16. Marv Blaylock, September 28, 1957. Blaylock was in the throes of an 0-for-summer slump: he had not had a hit (in 16 at bats) since June 15, and had not even come to bat since July 27. The Phillies’ first baseman had lost his starting job to rookie Ed Bouchee, and was now finishing his career as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Jim Hearn.

Batting against Brooklyn’s Rene Valdez in the fifth inning, Blaylock blasted a solo home run. “The ball cleared the scoreboard in right center field in Connie Mack Stadium, which was a good distance,” recalled Blaylock more than 30 years later. The Phils lost, 8-4, and Blaylock’s contract was sold to Cincinnati after the season. The Reds “wanted me to report to Havana or Seattle,” Blaylock said in explaining the end of his career. “I refused.”

Blaylock died at age 64 on October 23, 1993. A few years before his death, he expressed appreciation for this research effort, and his inclusion on the list. “It’s nice to be remembered,” he said.

19. Don Gile, September 30, 1962. Gile was playing first base for Boston the day Ted Williams hit his farewell homer, but no one would have dreamed Gile would end his career in similarly dramatic fashion two years later.

The 6’6” Gile, who also caught for the Sox during his four-year career, entered his final day in the big leagues with a lifetime average of .142 – more than 200 points lower than Williams’s – and all of two home runs. In this season, he had a perfect record: 34 times up, 34 times retired. He broke the slump with a single in the first game of a season-ending doubleheader but, by the last inning of the nitecap, his 1962 record stood at 1-for-40. It seemed clear that Gile’s services would no longer be required after this.

Boston’s Bill Monbouquette and Washington’s Jack Jenkins were engaged in a pitchers’ duel. There had been 16 strikeouts and only 12 hits in the game. Going into the bottom of the ninth, the score stood at 1-1, as it had since the third. Boston had one out and a man on first, with the bottom of the order due up: Gile (.025), Chuck Schilling (.230), and Monbouquette (.096), a combined 0-for-9 in the game. Extra innings seemed imminent, but Gile stepped to the plate and boom! As suddenly as the ball disappeared from the confines of Fenway Park, it was all over: the game, the season, and Don Gile’s big league career.

20. Ed Hobaugh, September 2, 1963. “Hoby” had been called up from the minors for the third and final time. He had been pitching professionally since 1956, when he went 11-4 (including a no-hitter) in the Three-I League, and had won 9 of 19 decisions in his previous trials with the hapless Senators. On this day, he was picked to start at Cleveland in the second game of a doubleheader.

Cleveland led, 3-2, going into the fourth, when homers by Don Zimmer and Ed Brinkman gave Washington three runs. Jerry Walker then came in to pitch to Hobaugh, a career .111 hitter with nary a home run to his credit. Nevertheless, Hobaugh recalled “a very strong feeling that I was going to hit the ball out of the park.” Walker delivered a high fastball, and Hobaugh deposited it over the left-center field fence.

Hobaugh was knocked out of the box in the bottom of the inning, but the Nats held on to win, 8-7. The 29-year-old righty would appear in eight more games, all in relief, and walk in his only plate appearance on September 7 (he didn’t remember whether he offered at any pitch). After the season, Hobaugh was traded to the Pittsburgh organization. He pitched for six more years in the minors, finishing his pro career with 97 wins and 68 losses, then became a manager in the Pirates’ system.

Hobaugh was aware he had homered in his final at bat. It provided him little satisfaction, however, serving only to remind him that “It ended too soon for me.”

Ed Hobaugh

Ed Hobaugh

21. Tony Kubek, October 3, 1965. You might say that Kubek was born to play ball: his father and two uncles all played in the high minors. Raised in a “Polish ghetto” in Milwaukee, Tony excelled in football, basketball, and track, in addition to baseball, in high school. He passed up scholarship offers to go straight to the minor leagues, where he jumped from Class-D to Triple-A in two years, batting over .330 at each level. His propensity to hit line drives earned him the nickname “Rope.”

Kubek joined the Yankees in 1957, alternating between third base, second base, left field and center field. He batted .297 in 127 games, technically earning unanimous selection as A.L. Rookie of the Year (the lone dissenting vote went to an ineligible player). Teammate Mickey Mantle called him “the best young ballplayer I ever saw.” To cap it all off, Kubek starred in the first World Series game ever played in his hometown. On October 5, after manager Casey Stengel had predicted “Tony will do something big yet in this Series,” Kubek blasted two homers and drove in four runs to lead the Yanks to a 12-3 victory over Milwaukee.

Kubek became the team’s regular shortstop, making the All-Star team three times, and helping the Yankees to seven pennants. He reached a peak salary of $37,500, big money in the early 1960s. However, his batting averages started to tumble after 1962, a year in which he was in military service until August. Tony didn’t realize it then, but a touch-football injury suffered in the service had literally broken his neck: three vertebrae in the cervical section of the neck were crushed, imperiling his spinal cord and impairing his reflexes and mobility. The injury was finally diagnosed after the 1965 season, and Kubek was forced to retire at age 29 rather than risk permanent paralysis. He finished with a .266 career average and 57 homers.

Before he quit, Kubek had had one last hurrah. In his final game, at Boston’s Fenway Park, he went 3-for-4 with a sacrifice and three RBIs. In his last at bat, facing monstrous relief pitcher Dick Radatz in the ninth inning, Tony poled a two-run homer to pad a New York victory. Kubek didn’t realize he had homered in his last at bat until 1988, when he and Radatz were chatting near the batting cage at Fenway. “Dick talked about how easily he got Mickey out and the trouble he had with me,” recalls Kubek.

With his playing career over, the well-read Kubek had several other activities to fall back on. He had done some radio announcing for WRIT in Milwaukee. He was vice-president and sales manager of a cheese company in Wausau, Wisconsin. He was a team ring salesman in the same area. And, he was signed to scout for the Yankees in 1966. In the end, broadcasting won out over the vocations.

Kubek was hired to do color commentary for NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” series starting in 1966. Three years later, he was promoted from the backup-game team to join Curt Gowdy in the national booth. Kubek became known as a bright, outspoken analyst, not afraid to ruffle feathers. He sometimes became embroiled in controversies with those he criticized, most notably George Steinbrenner in 1978.

Kubek was with NBC until 1988, also doing telecasts for CBC in Toronto. He later broadcast Yankees’ games for the MSG cable network. In 2009, Kubek won the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting.

23. Ken McMullen, September 14, 1977. Unlike most of the players on this list, McMullen was an accomplished slugger. Despite playing his entire career in pitchers’ parks, he hit 156 home runs, reaching double figures seven times in a row. His last circuit clout was unexpected, however.

McMullen was signed by the Dodgers as an 18-year-old bonus player in 1961, having been a three-sport standout in high school. After two solid seasons in the minors, the youngster was called up for his first taste of the majors at the end of the ’62 season. Ken helped the Dodgers into the 1963 World Series, although a leg injury kept him out of the Fall Classic. The team couldn’t find a regular lineup spot for him, however, and they sent him to Washington with Frank Howard in a six-player deal following the 1964 campaign.

With the Senators, McMullen blossomed into one of the best third basemen in the AL. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1965, after hitting 18 homers for a ninth-place club. A year later, he tied an all-time record with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Mickey Mantle called him “the most underrated player in the league.”   

Ken McMullen 1977

Ken McMullen 1977

McMullen socked 20 home runs in 1968, “the year of the pitcher,” then had his best all-around year under manager Ted Williams in 1969: 19 homers, 87 RBI, and a .272 average, plus his usual sterling defense. A year later he was traded for two solid players to California, where he hit 21 homers in 1971 and won the Owner’s Trophy as the club’s MVP. After the 1972 season, McMullen and Andy Messersmith were traded to the Dodgers in exchange for five players, including future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

McMullen was troubled by a bad back during Spring Training, 1973, and his position was filled by rookie Ron Cey. McMullen became a Wally Pipp story: Cey did not give up the job for ten years, and McMullen was relegated to the sidelines. Ken became a star pinch-hitter for the Dodgers over the next three seasons, but had only 191 at bats over that period, being typecast as a bench player. He also suffered personal tragedy during this time, as his 30-year-old wife, Bobbie, died of lymphatic cancer four months after giving birth to the couple’s third child.

McMullen went to Oakland in 1976, the year he remarried, then finished up his career with Milwaukee in ’77. His last appearance came a week after he tore a nail off one of his fingers. “I didn’t expect to hit for another week,” recalls McMullen, “but (I) got called to pinch hit [for Jim Gantner] and was just trying to hit a sacrifice fly to score the run.” It was the eighth inning of a game at Seattle, and the Brewers were clinging to a 6-5 lead. Tom House – best-remembered as the man who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th home run ball in the Braves’ bullpen in 1974 – was on the mound. “I took a pitch for a strike,” says Ken, “and then swung at the next pitch almost one-handed and it went out.” Milwaukee won, 8-5.

McMullen was released on December 14, then retired to his Camarillo, California home. He began devoting more time to his hobbies of golf, tennis, and gardening, to the “Ken McMullen Baseball Camp” he had established during his playing career, and to watching his kids grow up.

McMullen was aware of his last-at bat feat. “I’ve never wanted to brag about it,” he says, “but it’s the only way to finish a career.”

25. Mike Cubbage, October 3, 1981. Cubbage hit only 34 home runs during his eight-year career, but many were noteworthy ones. Four were grand slams, one each in 1975 (his first major league hit), ’76, ’77 (when he drove in five runs in one inning), and ’78. One was part of a “cycle” performance in 1978. And, one was hit off the last pitch he received in the majors in 1981.

After playing two years of semipro ball, and attending the University of Virginia (where he was a shortstop and quarterback), Cubbage began his pro career in 1971. He moved up the ladder and made his first big league appearance at age 23 with the 1974 Texas Rangers. Two years later he was dealt to the Twins, developing into a solid third baseman. After an injury-plagued 1980 season, Cubbage signed a lucrative free agent deal with the New York Mets. He was expected to solve the team’s third base problems, but instead lost his job to rookie Hubie Brooks. By the season’s final weekend, Cubbage had accumulated just 79 at bats, with no home runs.

With the Mets down by two runs against the visiting Expos, Cubbage came in to pinch-hit for Doug Flynn in the bottom of the eighth. Facing ace reliever Jeff Reardon, Cubbage cracked a solo home run, but the Mets lost anyway, 5-4. Cubbage was released during spring training, 1982, agreeing to a demotion to the minors. He remained with the organization, becoming the Mets’ third base coach and serving a seven-game stint as their manager.

26. Joe Rudi, October 3, 1982. Of the perpetrators of this feat, only Ted Williams had hit more than the 179 home runs collected by Rudi. And, Rudi is the only man to homer in his last at bats in both regular-season and World Series play.

Joe Rudi 1982

Joe Rudi 1982

His Norwegian-born father “kept telling me to stop this foolishness and concentrate on preparing myself for a real career,” Rudi recalls. Nevertheless, Joe went straight from high school (where he lettered in baseball, football, and wrestling) to the minor leagues in 1964. He began a long climb, failing in three trials with the A’s in the late 1960s. He finally stuck with the big club in 1970, batting .309 in 106 games, with help from Oakland batting coach Charlie Lau. Joe would reach his zenith two years later.

In 1972, Rudi led the A.L. in hits and triples, batted .305, and finished second in the league MVP voting. The outfielder made the All-Star team, and paced his club to the first of three consecutive world championships. In Game 2 of the World Series, his homer provided the margin of victory in a 2-1 contest, and his spectacular leaping, wall-crashing, backhanded catch – one of the best in Series history – in the bottom of the ninth saved the game for Oakland.

Rudi had another big year in ’74, leading the A.L. in doubles and total bases, and again finishing second in MVP balloting (he is one of 13 players to twice finish second without ever winning the award). He also won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards. “Fundamentally, the best player of this generation,” marveled rival manager Billy Martin. “He’s one of the best ever to play this game, and nobody knows him!” Rudi’s teammate, Reggie Jackson, concurred. “Nicest guy in the league,” said Reggie, known more for talking about himself than about others. “Underrated, underpaid, a self-made ballplayer, and the best left fielder in the American League.” Others, including broadcaster Tony Kubek, picked up on Rudi’s “underrated” label. “I get more ink about not getting any ink than about the things I do,” noted Joe.

Rudi, who owned two sporting goods stores in California, stayed with Oakland through 1976, before signing a rich free agent deal with the Angels. Hampered by injuries, his career spiraled downhill. He went to Boston in 1981, then finished out his career back with Oakland in ’82. This set the stage for his farewell homer.

Rudi was not a stranger to dramatic dingers. On June 7, 1970, fresh out of service in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Joe arrived in the eighth inning of a game against Detroit and hit a three-run, pinch homer to win the game, 5-3. In September 1972, having been sidelined for two days due to dizzy spells and fatigue, Rudi climbed out of bed to again beat the Tigers with a three-run homer. In the final game of the 1974 World Series, Joe homered in his last at bat to give Oakland a 3-2 win and the world title.

On this date – a year to the day after Mike Cubbage’s farewell homer – Oakland was wrapping up its season at Kansas City. Rudi had doubled and scored (on a homer by Dave McKay, also playing his last game) in the second, and the game was tied at three when Joe came to bat in the fourth. Rudi walloped a two-run homer off Larry Gura, and was replaced by rookie Kelvin Moore. Rudi watched as the A’s held on to win, 6-3.

Bothered by a torn Achilles tendon, Rudi retired following the season. He did not realize he had homered in his last at bat, recalling “nothing unusual” about the event.

Willie Mays Aikens

Willie Mays Aikens

29. Willie Aikens, April 27, 1985. When Aikens’s mother gave birth to a boy in 1954, 15 days after Willie Mays’s historic World Series catch off Vic Wertz, she named him after his uncle, Willie. The doctor who delivered him suggested the middle name “Mays” (although it was never officially added to the birth certificate), predicting that the newborn would become a “famous ballplayer.” Two decades later, the prediction was well on its way to realization, as Willie Mays Aikens became the Angels’ number one pick in the January 1975 free agent draft.

The big first baseman led the Midwest League in RBIs in ’75, then topped the Texas League in runs, homers, and RBIs the following year. Aikens got a shot at the majors in 1977, but didn’t stick. After winning the PCL home run crown in ’78, Willie was called up to stay.

Aikens helped the Angels to the AL West title in 1979, batting .280 with 21 homers and 81 RBIs in 116 games before tearing knee ligaments while sliding late in the season. In December he was traded to the Mets, but the deal was quashed, and he went instead to Kansas City (taking uniform #24, the one used by Mays). Aikens had 20 homers, 98 RBI, and a .278 average for the Royals, helping them to the 1980 World Series.

Aikens excelled in the Fall Classic. In Game One, on his 26th birthday, Aikens smashed two home runs and drove in four runs, becoming just the third player to collect two round-trippers in his first Series game. In Game Four he became the first player ever to have a pair of two-homer games in one World Series, leading the Royals to a 5-3 win. All told, Aikens batted .400 in the six-game Series loss, with a triple (his first in the majors), four homers, eight RBIs, and a 1.100 slugging percentage.

Aikens helped KC to the postseason again in 1981, batted .281 in ’82, and reached career highs with 23 homers and a .302 average in ’83. Regrettably, those were not the only highs Aikens experienced that year. Convicted of cocaine possession, Willie spent three months in a Fort Worth, Texas prison, and was suspended for the 1984 season. The suspension was lifted on May 15, 1984, by which time Aikens had spent time in rehabilitation and been traded to the Blue Jays.

Aikens played sparingly in 1984, batting just .205, and by early 1985 the writing was on the wall. On April 27, he came to bat for the last time, pinch-hitting at Texas in the ninth inning. Batting for Tony Fernandez against Tommy Boggs, Aikens crashed a dramatic, game-tying, two-run homer, and Toronto went on to win, 9-8. Three days later, Aikens was “designated for assignment,” winding up in the minor leagues. “There’s no doubt in my mind I can still hit,” said Aikens. “I don’t think it’s over yet.” But it was.

Aikens batted .311 for the Syracuse Chiefs, but never got the call back to the bigs. He became convinced that he was persona non grata in U.S. baseball. Released by Syracuse, Aikens signed with the Puebla Black Angels of the Mexican League for 1986, at a salary of $2,500 per month.

Aikens had one of the best seasons in minor league history that year. In 129 games for Puebla, he led the league with 202 hits, 154 RBIs, and a staggering .454 batting average. He scored 134 runs, hit 46 homers, and had a slugging percentage of .863. Surely, this performance would earn him a call back to the majors, Aikens thought. But the call never came.    

Willie stayed in the Mexican League for five more seasons, batting .354, .352, .395, .358, and .299, still wondering why lesser hitters were in the majors and he was not. He finished his minor league career with 276 home runs and a .344 average; combined with his major league figures, he had amassed 386 homers, 1524 RBIs, and a .318 mark. Aikens also played in the short-lived Senior Professional  Baseball Association in the winter of 1989-90. For the last-place St. Lucie Legends, Aikens batted .345 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs in 66 games.

Willie Mays Aikens lived in Seneca, South Carolina, but made an unplanned move. On August 17, 1994, he was convicted by a federal jury on four counts of distributing crack cocaine and one count of using a gun in a drug transaction. He was fined $18,000 and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, without parole.

Deane chart 2aa

Deane Chart 2a

Deane tail

Part Three tomorrow!

Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats

Williams stamp, by Kadir Nelson

Williams stamp, by Kadir Nelson

Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats.  I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, from research first undertaken in 1988.

On September 28, 1960, Ted Williams closed out his career in grand fashion. The legendary slugger came to the plate in the eighth inning for his final big league at bat, against Baltimore’s Jack Fisher. On the third pitch, Williams launched a blast into Fenway Park’s right-center field bullpen for his 521st and last home run. It was a story-book finish to a Hall of Fame career.

I had heard it claimed that Williams was the only player ever to finish his career with a homer, but found it hard to believe. In 1988 – long before Retrosheet or Baseball Reference – I set out to research it. I started by sitting down with The Baseball Encyclopedia for some 30 hours, going page by page and player by player. I looked at the statistics of each of the nearly 14,000 men who had played major league baseball, noting each one who hit at least one home run in his last season (or his last season with any official times at bat). This left me with a list of a little more than 2,000 candidates for the “home run, last at bat” feat.

Next, I went to the official day-by-day sheets for each of these 2,000 player-seasons. The official sheets are housed at the National Baseball Library & Archive in Cooperstown, New York, and show each player’s day-by-day record, as recorded by the league statisticians, for virtually every season. In years for which no official sheets were available, an organization called Information Concepts, Inc. (ICI) assembled computerized unofficial day-by-day sheets, from boxscores and game accounts, in preparation for the first Macmillan Encyclopedia. The ICI sheets (except those for the 1876-90 N.L. seasons) are also on file at the NBL&A. Examination of these sheets whittled my list of 2,000+ down to about 80 players who had homered in their last big league games, or their last games with any at bats. Among these were Benny Kauff (July 2, 1920) and Jackie Robinson (September 30, 1956). Dozens more, incidentally, homered in their next-to-last games, including Harry Hooper, Walter Johnson, Wally Pipp, Moe Berg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Kluszewski, Jackie Jensen, Tony Perez, Jose Cruz, Ron Kittle, and Joe Carter. Cruz’s homer was a grand slam, and Anson and Pipp each hit two homers in his next-to-last contest.

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1969

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1969

The final part of the process was examining accounts of the 80 or so contests in which a player homered in his final game, to see which of those had done it in his last at bat. This was the only part which required serious detective work, with which I received invaluable help from SABR members Bob McConnell and Bob Tiemann. This left a list of 31 players who had “gone out with a bang”; the number is now up to 56 (among players inactive in 2015), listed at the end of this article.

I gathered biographical information on the perpetrators from the clipping files at the NBL&A. I wrote to most of the living ones, receiving responses from ten. I accumulated data on the historic games and on tangential subjects. And, having completed the fun parts of the project, I procrastinated for years before finally putting all the material together for SABR Presents the Home Run Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1996).

Each year after 1988, I checked all the players who had homered in the previous season but not batted in the current year, spending a couple of hours to update the list each year. In 2000, Dave Smith of Retrosheet created a program to do this task in minutes. With the help of Smith and Dave Vincent, I now have the list complete and up-to-date to include all players who didn’t play in 2015.

Most of these men performed their feats in virtual anonymity, with observers neither realizing nor caring that a career was coming to a close. Record books duly note players who homer in their first major league appearances, but none had ever listed those that did it in their last, because it had never been documented. The list includes a few well-known names and a whole lot of little-known ones. There is a story to go with each name, and this article will tell some of those stories.

3. Hercules Burnett, September 29, 1895. He was not the first to accomplish this feat, having been preceded by Cleveland’s Buck West in the National League of 1890 and the Phillies’ Frank O’Connor in 1893 (see below for the full list corresponding to this part of the essay). Playing in his sixth and final major league contest, center fielder Burnett had already singled, tripled, stolen a base, and scored two runs when he came up in the seventh inning. Facing Cleveland’s Phil Knell, Burnett completed his Herculean performance by drilling a solo home run. His Louisville Colonels (NL) won, 13-8, in a home game stopped by darkness after eight innings. Louisville was not only Burnett’s team, but his home: he was born there in 1865, and died there in 1936.

4. Ed Scott, August 3, 1901. In one of the most dramatic ends to a career, Scott pitched a 10-inning victory at Milwaukee, and hit the game-winning home run over the left field fence. It came off Bill Reidy with nobody aboard in the top of the tenth, and gave Cleveland an 8-7 win in an American League game marked by “wretched” umpiring. Ed had hit only one homer in 170 previous big league at bats. Scott was employed at the Toledo Furnace Company after his playing career, and he died in that city at age 63 in 1933.

Chick Stahl

Chick Stahl

5. Chick Stahl, October 6, 1906. Stahl was completing his tenth season in the majors, having established himself as a star of the game. The outfielder sported a .305 lifetime average and had played for four pennant-winners, all in Boston. He was now acting manager of the Red Sox, who were closing their season at home against the New York Highlanders.

New York led by three when Stahl batted in the bottom of the eighth. Stahl was not much of a home run threat, having hit but 35 in 5,068 previous big league at bats; nevertheless, he connected for a two-run shot off Tom Hughes. It wasn’t enough, as the Sox lost 5-4.

Less than six months later, Chick Stahl was dead at age 34. Though his career had ended with a bang, his life ended with a gulp. The papers reported that he had been despondent and overcome by the pressures of managing (he resigned as manager three days before his death). More likely, he was overwhelmed by the demands of a pregnant groupie with whom he had had an extramarital affair. In any case, Stahl ended his life by drinking three ounces of carbolic acid on March 28, 1907.

8. Walt Kinney, May 9, 1923. Kinney was a hurler for Connie Mack’s Athletics during one of their hapless periods. He had more success during his career as a batter (.280 average) than as a pitcher (11-20 record). On this day, the 29-year-old Kinney was brought into a game at St. Louis, inheriting a 3-0 deficit score in the third inning. He held the Browns at bay until the sixth, when Philadelphia scored three to tie up the game. Contributing to his own cause, Kinney hit an Urban Shocker pitch into the right field stands for a solo homer. But, in the bottom of the frame, Kinney was knocked out of the box during a four-run rally. The A’s lost, 10-5; ironically, as it turned out, Kinney’s homer had made him the pitcher of record – on the losing side!

Kinney was out of organized baseball for four years, put on the “ineligible list” for playing in an outlaw league. He returned to pitch six seasons in the Pacific Coast League before retiring in 1932, and died 39 years later.

10. Johnny Schulte, September 20, 1932. Schulte had joined the Braves late in the 1932 season, having been literally plucked from the stands for a job. Released by the Browns earlier that year, the St. Louis native was watching a Cardinals’ home game when Boston catcher Pinky Hargrave broke a leg. Manager Bill McKechnie sent a courier into the stands to fetch Schulte, and signed him after the game. It was the second time that year Schulte had been hired out of the Sportsman’s Park seats, having joined the Browns when Rick Ferrell broke his hand in a game Johnny was watching. Schulte made a career out of being in the right place at the right time.

In Schulte’s final big league appearance, he drove a solo home run into the lower right field stands at New York’s Polo Grounds. It came off the Giants’ Fred Fitzsimmons in the ninth inning, but did not prevent a 13-3 New York victory. It was Schulte’s 14th major league homer, but his first in four years. This merely ended one chapter of his remarkable career.

Schulte had played semipro baseball and soccer in St. Louis before starting his pro career in 1916. The catcher had his first cup of big league coffee with the Browns in 1923, then resurfaced with the rival Cardinals four years later. There he picked up the nickname “Eagle Eye,” when he twice within a week drew game-winning, bases-loaded walks in pinch-hitting appearances, both on 3-2 counts. From St. Louis, Schulte went to the Phillies in 1928 and the pennant-winning Cubs in ’29. It was at Chicago that he established a professional relationship with Joe McCarthy that would keep him employed until 1950. Schulte was a coach for McCarthy with the Yankees from 1934-48 (being part of eight pennant-winners and seven World Championships), and with the Red Sox in 1949-50.

“As a catcher,” said historian Bob Broeg, “Johnny Schulte was a better coach. As a coach, he was an even better scout.” Indeed, it was for his scouting tips as a Yanks’ coach that Johnny was best remembered. He was principally responsible for the signing and development of Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. Following his coaching career, Schulte scouted for Cleveland before retiring in 1963. He died of cancer in 1978, aged 81.

Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils' base runner Pinky Whitney. preseason exhibition, 1933

Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils’ base runner Pinky Whitney. preseason exhibition, 1933

11. Mickey Cochrane, May 25, 1937. When Cochrane hit a game-tying solo home run off the Yankees’ Bump Hadley in the third inning, nobody realized it would be the final official at bat of Mickey’s career. At 34, the Tigers’ catcher-manager was still at the top of his game. The homer had brought his season average over the .300 mark for the ninth time in his 13 big league seasons. Cochrane was regarded as the best all-around catcher in the sport, probably the best of all time.

Two innings later, Cochrane lay prostrate at Yankee Stadium’s home plate, his skull fractured in three places. A Hadley fastball on a 3-1 count (3-2, by some sources) had sailed inside, crashing into Cochrane’s temple with a sickening sound. “Good God Almighty,” Mickey mumbled. “I lost the ball.” He would battle for his life, slipping into and out of consciousness for some ten days before recuperating. Except for a one-inning stint in a 1938 exhibition game, Mickey Cochrane would never play again. His career had ended not with a bang, but with a thud.

Cochrane was hardly a one-dimensional performer. While attending Bridgewater State Teachers’ College and Boston University, he had starred in football, basketball, track, and boxing, in addition to baseball. He later became an expert trap shooter, an amateur glider pilot, and a saxophone player. As a ballplayer, he had speed enough to bat leadoff, power enough to hit three home runs in one game (May 21, 1925), and defensive skills that would earn him accolades as “the most successful handler of pitchers baseball ever had.” Cochrane began his pro career in 1923, using the name “Frank King.” Some say he did this to protect his amateur status, but Cochrane explained that “if I was a flop, nobody would know who I was, and I could start all over again someplace else.”

Mickey made it to the majors with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1925. On April 14, Cochrane batted for regular catcher Cy Perkins and drilled a two-run single, helping the A’s to a come-from-behind 9-8 win. “I knew I’d lost my job,” Perkins recalled. Cochrane went on to bat .331 in 134 games, leading the A’s to a surprise second-place finish and their first winning season since 1914.

Cochrane continued to excel, winning the American League Award as the circuit’s most valuable player in 1928, and sparking his team to three consecutive league titles in 1929-31. “More than any other player,” said Mack, “he was responsible for the three pennants.” Financial straits forced Mack to sell off his stars shortly after this. The Detroit Tigers were looking for a player-manager for the 1934 season, and bypassed Babe Ruth to get Cochrane for the princely sum of $100,000.

Mickey promptly led the Tigers to their first pennant since 1909, winning his second MVP Award to boot. Detroit won again in 1935, and Cochrane scored the winning run in the World Series. But, with the team struggling the next year, the intensely competitive catcher suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent weeks at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital and recuperated at a Wyoming ranch.

Back on the lines in 1937, Cochrane seemed to have his life on track again. The Tigers were battling the Yankees in the pennant race as the two teams began a crucial series on May 25. “This first game is all-important,” said Cochrane. “If we can win it we’ll take the series.” He had respect for the opposing pitcher that day. “He has everything,” Cochrane had once said of Hadley. “A fastball that buzzes by your chin, and a curve that has you breaking your back when you swing at it.” When Cochrane poled a Hadley pitch into the right field stands, the score stood at 1-1. It was the same when Mickey batted two innings later. “I relaxed, thinking it would go by,” Cochrane later said about the fateful pitch. “All of a sudden I lost sight of it…. I think I could have played four or five more years, but there’s nothing that can be done about that now.” Mickey finished his career with a .320 lifetime average.

Cochrane returned as Tigers’ manager in 1938, but without the same fire. He just wasn’t able to lead as effectively from the bench as from the field. With Detroit in fifth place, he was fired on August 6. Mickey made a few brief returns to baseball: as a coach and later general manager with the Athletics in 1950; as a scout with the Yankees in 1955; and as a scout and later vice-president of the Tigers between 1960-62. On July 21, 1947, Cochrane was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with former battery-mate Lefty Grove, who had debuted in the majors on the same day as Mickey.

Between his baseball sojourns, Cochrane’s post-playing career included a job with the Dryden Rubber Company in Chicago; a three-year hitch as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy; and operations of a Detroit-to-Chicago trucking line, a dude ranch in Montana, and an automobile sales agency. Following a long illness, Mickey Cochrane died in 1962.

13, Paul Gillespie, September 29, 1945. In the second game of a doubleheader at Pittsburgh, Gillespie hit a two-run homer off Rip Sewell. It keyed a five-run rally in the fourth frame, two innings before darkness ended the contest with the Cubs victorious, 5-0. It completed their 20th doubleheader sweep of the season, a record that is surely safe for all time. Gillespie did appear in a game the following day, but did not come to bat; the catcher also played in the 1945 World Series against Detroit, going 0-for-6, but retained his distinction of homering in his last regular-season at bat. Gillespie had also connected in his first big league at bat, for the Cubs on September 11, 1942; thus, two of his six career four-baggers made history.

Gillespie returned to the minor leagues, playing until 1949. He died in 1970, aged 49.

14. Bert Haas, August 26, 1951. Haas knew that he was going to be released outright the following day, allowing him to hook on with Montreal of the International League. The 37-year-old utility player had played in nine big league seasons for five teams, and had accumulated just 21 career home runs in 2,439 at bats. The youngest and most successful of nine ballplaying brothers, Haas had begun his pro career in 1936, and became an All-Star with the Reds before suffering a fractured skull in 1948. He would perform as a minor league player and manager until 1962.

The White Sox sent him up to pinch-hit for pitcher Howie Judson in game two of this Comiskey Park doubleheader against the Yankees. It was the seventh inning, there was a man on base, and lefty Art Schallock was pitching. “I knew (Yankee manager Casey Stengel) thought he could get me out by having Schallock throw me a curve ball,” Haas recalled decades later. Schallock did, and Haas deposited it out of reach. The Sox lost, 8-6, but Haas had ended his big league career in style. “At the time I thought it was great,” Haas wrote me from his Tampa, Florida home. “And still do.” Haas died in Tampa in 1999.

Deane Chart 1a

Deane tail

Part Two tomorrow!

The Kid and the Babe

Kid and Babe, July 12, 1943

Kid and Babe, July 12, 1943

Matinee-idol good looks; a lithe, powerful frame; offhand, unaffected charm; blistering intensity—that was the catalog of Ted Williams you formed in the first minute you met him. But there was more to the man, far more, so much of it visible beneath the thin skin that we were tempted to think we knew him, really knew what made him tick. We didn’t.

Once he was gone, the knights of the keyboard (Ted’s memorably derisive term for sportswriters) recalled his heroics and his frailties and tried to assign him his place in the history of baseball. Yet even in death Ted resists categorization: Was he our last classic American hero, in the style of John Wayne (who once said to Ted, “I only play the hero; you live it”)? Did he live the life he wanted, his way, without regret? How did he transform himself from Terrible Ted, the pincushion of the Boston scribes, to become patron saint of the game and paterfamilias to a new generation of stars? Did Ted mellow in his later years, or did he remain the same, always True North, while our compass needles slowly swung around to him?

Inevitably, the question baseball fans will wish to argue is this: Was Ted Williams the greatest hitter who ever lived, or was it Babe Ruth? Both may be challenged by Barry Bonds or Ty Cobb, but today, nearly 15 years after Ted’s passing, it seems to most observers that he and Ruth have the field to themselves.

Ruth, March 1920

Ruth, March 1920

To choose between them is a statistical, historical, and philosophical conundrum. We cannot know what numbers Ruth would have compiled had he not missed so many at bats in the five years in which he was principally a pitcher; nor can we know what prodigious figures Williams would have amassed if we could restore to him the nearly five years he was serving his country; and so on. Then there are the differences in the state of the baseball world in 1914-35 (the 22-year period of Ruth’s ascendancy) and 1939-60 (the 22-year tenure, with interruptions, of Williams), and the level of competition and the quality of the pitching in those respective eras.

The Babe and The Kid: not only their nicknames but also their life stories make them better suited as companions than combatants. Though neither was an orphan, both wandered the streets (of Baltimore for Ruth, San Diego for Williams) as their parents allowed them to raise themselves. The Ruths had their saloon to manage; May Williams had the Salvation Army, which she joined in 1904 and made her single-minded mission until she died in 1961. (“Ted is a wonderful son,” she said in 1948. “He loves baseball just like I love my Salvation Army work.”)

ruth_st marys2

Ruth at St. Mary’s, 1912

At the age of seven Ruth was incarcerated in the St. Mary’s juvenile home for orphans and incorrigible youth, where he stayed until he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles at age nineteen; Williams made a home of the North Park playground, often coming back to his nominal home long after dark to find that no one was there. It was during these years that Ted recalled looking up at the night sky and wishing to the stars that he could become the greatest hitter who ever lived, greater even than Babe Ruth. Baseball turned out to be the one thing each of these lost boys would love that could give love back.

In 1935, as Ruth’s career was winding down, Ted was the star pitcher and slugger of San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School. In 1935, as a junior, he batted .586 and the pro scouts took notice. When he reported to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1936, Ted had reached his full height of 6’3”, but he weighed only 150 pounds. (His appearance was so ghastly that Detroit Tiger scout Marty Krug declined to sign him, saying that a year of professional ball would kill him.) Where did the power come from? Not from the physique, although that would become impressive over time, but from technique: God-given talent harnessed with hard, hard work. Amid the swirl of accusations about steroid use in baseball, it is worthwhile to reflect that the basic formula for success has not changed.

Ted Williams 1941

Ted Williams 1941

When the splintery youth first reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in 1938, after two years of methodically stuffing himself with eggs, milkshakes, bananas, and ice cream, his reputation had preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than he was; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.

When Ruth had come to Boston after a brief minor-league career in Baltimore and Providence, teammates were amazed at what a “green pea” he was. He knew his baseball, all right, but he knew nothing about the wide world, from table manners, to courteous talk with women, to managing money. He was utterly if sometimes charmingly without self-control. After all, Ruth had spent more than a decade in an orphanage, without a single visit from either of his parents. The world was a wading pool for him, and he joyously splashed about with few civilizing restraints.

Williams was less naïve, but just as needy; without praise at home, he praised himself, inspiring scorn and laughter from teammates, management, and writers. His unvarnished directness and unyielding intensity didn’t seem to fit in Boston. Whatever Ted did: talk, hit, fish—all were done with that characteristic, magnetic force. Fly-tying was always a way for him to relax, but Ted even relaxed intensely. He used to laugh when people attributed his prowess to a natural hitting ability, or to exceptional eyesight. Ted knew that his greatness was inseparable from his intensity, that it was in fact a product of it, as it had been for Ty Cobb or Jackie Robinson, if not Babe Ruth.

Ted Williams, Look, October 15, 1946.

Ted Williams, Look, October 15, 1946.

Baseball in the 1940s belonged to Ted. Starting out, he wrote in My Turn at Bat, “I had been a fresh kid. I did a lot of yakking, partly to hide a rather large inferiority complex.” By mid-decade, feeling spurned and still no more comfortable with himself at the core, he stopped pursuing acclaim as if it were love and substituted the solitary pleasure that comes with achievement. He withdrew from the fans, which seemed only to heighten their ardor for him (as it had with Joe DiMaggio). Although he bade farewell to baseball repeatedly in the 1950s, each closing of the curtain proved only a curtain call.

Returning from Korea to play his first full season in three years, the Kid broke his shoulder in spring training of 1954 and missed the early going, but showed he had not lost his zest or his eye by hitting .345 with 136 walks in 117 games. (The walks cost him the 400 at bats then required to qualify for the batting title, which Bobby Avila won with a mark of .341.) Critics complained that he would have been more valuable to his team had he gone after the bad balls. By the time that same “failing” attached to Barry Bonds, the value of reaching base had been broadly accepted and the critics were easily dismissed. In Williams’ day, this charge was difficult to refute. The concept of on-base average was understood by only a few in baseball, and the statistical congruency of on-base percentage and slugging percentage to team run-scoring was altogether unknown. Indeed, when Williams retired after the 1960 season, with the all-time record for on-base percentage of .482, no one, including Williams himself, knew it.

The Ruth Swing.

The Ruth Swing.

Ruth ranks second in lifetime on-base percentage (.474) but the roles reverse when it comes to slugging percentage, the other key measure of offensive prowess, with Ruth’s .690 mark comparing to Williams’ .634. When you combine the two statistics to produce the now ubiquitous On Base Plus Slugging (OPS), and then refine the comparison by adjusting each record for the era in which it was achieved (measuring against league average performance) and even for the home parks of each, Ruth still stands above Williams. There are other measures of Ruth’s dominance—his 60 homers in 1927 when no other team in the American League (besides his own Yankees) hit that many; his leading the league in slugging percentage 13 years out of 14, and more. In terms of dominance, Williams can’t match Ruth.

Yet that is precisely why we ought to evaluate Williams’ record more highly. Ruth’s dominance was not only the measure of Ruth; it was also the measure of the competition he faced. To the extent that the league performs at a low level, a colossus may so far outdistance his peers as to create records that are unapproachable for all time. When Williams retired, it was beyond comprehension that we could reasonably compare batters of one era against batters of another simply by measuring the extent to which they surpassed the league average; now it is commonplace.

But the large question that remains unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable, is: how to compare the average level of play of one era to that of another. In swimming, track, basketball, football, hockey, golf—any sport you can name—the presumption is that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, better trained, and, on average, more proficient. A star in one era would probably be outstanding, if not equally dominant, in another, if he could be magically transported in time and enjoy the benefits of enhanced training and nutrition. But the average baseball player of 1876 or 1920 might well find it difficult to make a big-league roster today.

In the case of Williams and Ruth, reflecting on the distinctions between their eras does provide a strong guide. Reflect that Ruth faced pitchers who threw complete games about half the time (today it is barely 2 percent), and thus faced the same delivery through four to six plate appearances (not to mention that he faced no relievers as we understand them today, dominant closers). Reflect that Ruth never had to hit at night. Reflect that African Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they done so, many white players would have lost their positions and the overall level of competition would have risen. One could add that Ruth never faced a slider or a split-fingered fastball; rarely faced a pitcher who would throw a breaking ball when behind in the count; and on. Ruth may have been greater than any baseball player ever was or will be (though I for one don’t believe so); however, it defies reason to claim that Ruth’s opposition was likewise better.

Baseball was better in Williams’ day than it was in Ruth’s; it is better yet today. Ted did succeed in precisely the goal he established for himself as a skinny, lonely San Diego teenager: he became the greatest hitter who ever lived.

And when that title passes on some kid who is now playing tee-ball with a strange and wonderful intensity, that’s just as Ted would have had it.

 

Not Too Late

Thorn at Davis Marker CeremonySubscribers to Our Game will not have received notice of a significant update to an older, somewhat forlorn story that in its first form dates to mid-2005. For the uplifting conclusion to the story of James Whyte Davis, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/12/31/too-late-to-reach-home-plate/

 

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Three

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

Repeating the introduction from Part Two (see http://goo.gl/fT1zRa): On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Three

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

Perhaps the most important outgrowth of World War Two military baseball was black-white integration. A full year before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodger organization contract, Hal Hairston, a black pitcher formerly with the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League, was hurling for the Army against the Navy in the Service World Series in Hawaii. A year later, Calvin Medley, another black pro, was pitching for the Fleet Marine team on Oahu Island. Two thousand miles away from the U.S. mainland, on a group of islands populated with Hawaiian natives and American, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants, racially integrated baseball could become a reality. Blacks and whites could play together on service teams and black, white, and yellow people could perform as a unit in the Honolulu semipro league. Back in the continental United States, black and white service teams would remain segregated until after the war. Thus the white Great Lakes team won 48 and lost only 2 in 1944, while the black club went 32-10 and won the championship of the Midwest Service League. Larry Doby, star shortstop on the black team and later the first man of his race to play in the American League, could not play with whites in Illinois but was welcome to play softball on Ulithi Atoll a year later with white professionals like Mickey Vernon and Billy Goodman. Negro League stars Leon Day and Willard Brown couldn’t as yet crack the color barrier back home, but they could lead a team comprised almost exclusively of white semipro players to victory in Nuremberg’s famous stadium, site of the massive Nazi Party rallies of the 1930s. Against the hand-picked professionals of General George Patton’s Third Army club, righthanded fireballer Day led the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) club to a 2-1 victory for the European Theater of Operations (ETO) championship before a huge crowd.

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, Leon Day at right, bottom ; next to him, Willard Brown

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, Leon Day at right, bottom; next to him, Willard Brown

No description of military baseball during the period would be complete without mention of what transpired in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun had been on a war footing since the Marco Polo Bridge incident in Beijing, China, on July 7, 1937. Professional ballplayers had been drafted at least from 1938 on, as evidenced by the induction that year of Eiji Sawamura, the country’s most famous pitcher. In fact, Sawamura was to be taken into the Army three times: in 1938, 1941, and again in 1944. With the coming of global war following Pearl Harbor, intense Japanese nationalism and militarism manifested themselves in many ways regarding baseball. Team names on uniforms were changed to Japanese characters from Roman letters, and the traditional baseball cap took on a military look. The Tokyo Giants were renamed Kyojin Gun or “Giant Troop.” Baseball terms imported from the foreign enemy, the United States, were changed to Japanese equivalents. “Strike” became yoshi (“good”) and “ball” became dame (“bad”). “Safe” was transformed into ikita (“alive”) and “out” to shinda (“dead”). A shortstop became a yugeki (“free-lancer”).

Eiji Sawamura

Eiji Sawamura

After 1942, many outstanding players, both professionals and collegians, were drafted into the military. The two most famous collegiate baseball clubs, those of Keio and Waseda Universities, had an emotional farewell game before 30,000 students in October 1943. The presidents of both universities had negotiated successfully with the government for this contest to be held, and after it was over tears flowed freely as both players and spectators wondered if they would ever see another game. Their sadness was well founded. Among the three million Japanese, military and civilian, who died on the home islands or in the Pacific, China, and Southeast Asia were a great number of good players, including the best, Sawamura, who was killed on a troop transport in the Taiwan Strait on December 2, 1944. Today the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, given annually to the best pitcher in each of the American major leagues, is named in his memory. Ironically, Japan’s number two pitcher, Victor Starffin, was spared because as a child immigrant from the Soviet Union he was exempt from conscription.

By 1944 only six clubs were competing for the professional championship and the season was only thirty-five games long. In 1945, the last year of the war, play was suspended altogether as cities were ravaged by fire bombing, the economy collapsed, and the two atomic bomb detonations hastened Japan’s surrender late that summer.

Victor Starffin

Victor Starffin

When the last of the American wartime draftees was mustered out of the service and returned home during the 1946 season, it marked the beginning of a temporary halt in the influence of the military on baseball performance but not on fan interest in the United States. The strong desire of many who had been in the service to put rigorous or traumatic wartime experiences aside, to get on with one’s life, to get out, relax, and enjoy a ballgame sparked a large increase in attendance at professional games and a rise in the number of minor leagues that was to peak in 1949 before the advent of television took its toll.

In defeated Japan, the victorious Allies, particularly the United States, were calling the shots, and the American military had the fate of Japanese baseball in the palm of its hand. Fortunately the resurrection of the game was in line with the aim of the occupation forces, namely to reform Japanese political, economic, and social institutions so that they would more closely reflect those of the Western democracies.

General Headquarters encouraged the revival of spectator sports, and in November 1945, just three months after the unconditional surrender, the Japanese professional baseball league was reorganized as many players returned from duty in Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. There were problems at first because the occupation forces controlled the ballparks, used them for their own entertainment, and made the Japanese professional and college leagues negotiate for their use; but key people in the Allied administration aided the Japanese in their negotiations and smoothed the way for ever-increasing privileges. General Douglas MacArthur, head of the occupation government, personally issued the order to clean up Korakuen Stadium, home of the Tokyo Giants, which had been used as an ammunition dump during the war.

In 1946 Japanese professional play resumed with a total of four hundred and twenty games being contested. By 1948, there were eight teams in the league, and such great progress was made that in 1950 two leagues were formed. There were fifteen teams that year, but the number eventually dropped to twelve, six teams in each league, which is the present setup.

Such was the situation on both sides of the Pacific when on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South and the Korean War began. For the second time in a decade, the specter of large-scale military conscription and its inevitable effect on players and pennant races loomed over the American professional baseball scene.

The effect of the war was felt before the 1950 season ended. The Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” were out in front of the National League pack and aiming for their first pennant in thirty-five years when on September 10, their number two pitcher, Curt Simmons, who had already won 17 games, was called away when his Pennsylvania National Guard unit was mobilized.

Simmons’s loss, as well as injuries to three other key players, took the steam out of the Phillies, but they managed to hang on and win the pennant on the last day of the season against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Simmons received a furlough to attend the World Series, but Phillie manager Eddie Sawyer decided not to put Curt back on the eligibility list because of his limited baseball activity while away. The Phillies lost the Series to the New York Yankees in four straight games.

Curt Simmons

Curt Simmons

The following spring, veteran sportswriters making their predictions about the 1951 pennant races focused in part on the possible effect of the draft. The consensus was that veteran teams like the Boston Red Sox in the American League and the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Braves in the National League would stand better chances of winning because they would be the least likely to lose players. Comparatively young clubs like the Philadelphia Phillies would be the most vulnerable, while teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, with a combination of veterans and rookies, might stand the best chance of all. They would do well in the first half of the race with their youngsters, then would come on strong in the second half with their veterans as Selective Service took its toll.

The entire line of reasoning proved almost meaningless because a large-scale call-up never took place. The war was limited. What happened instead was that a handful of individuals got drafted, usually one or two players per team, for a period of two years. This pattern continued throughout the decade of the 1950s, even after the Korean War ended in 1953. The only service that had a general recall of its World War Two veteran ballplayers was the Marine Corps, which took its Reserve aviators. This recall involved only two key players–Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams and Yankee second baseman Jerry Coleman.

Williams’s farewell was especially poignant. Shortly after the 1952 season began, on April 30 to be exact, a Wednesday afternoon crowd of 24,764 took part in pregame festivities. The Splendid Splinter was given a Cadillac and a memory book containing 430,000 signatures. The fans held hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” Williams didn’t disappoint them. He hit a two-run homer off Detroit Tiger pitcher Dizzy Trout in the seventh inning in his final at-bat of the game to lead the Red Sox to victory. Given The Thumper’s age (thirty-three), many felt they would never see him play again.

Ted Williams, Korea

Ted Williams, Korea

Ted’s experience as a fighter pilot almost proved their thinking correct. He completed thirty-eight combat missions in Korea, was hit by antiaircraft fire three times, and almost didn’t make it back on the second occasion. He was awarded an Air Medal with two Gold Stars in lieu of his second and third Air Medals before being transferred back to the United States for a nagging inner ear and nose ailment that ultimately left him partially deaf in one ear. He was discharged on July 28, 1953. After a little over a week of conditioning, Teddy Ballgame returned to major league play and hit a phenomenal .407 in 37 games, with 13 home runs and a whopping slugging percentage of .901. Seven more years of superb hitting were to follow.

While the Red Sox plunged to sixth place without Williams in 1952, other contending clubs who lost players to the service didn’t fare that badly. The Yankees were so deep in talent that they won five straight pennants between 1949 and 1953 despite the loss of ace lefthander Whitey Ford (1951-1952), third baseman Bobby Brown (1952-1953), and infielder Jerry Coleman (1952-1953). They lost to the Cleveland Indians in 1954 without the services of their crack second baseman, Billy Martin, but still managed to win 105 games. Only a tremendous 111-win season by the Indians outdid them; however, Martin returned late in the 1955 campaign, in time to spark the Yankees to the top of the heap again.

The Dodgers won pennants in 1952 and 1953 without their top righthander, Don Newcombe, but lost to the Giants in 1954 when he returned. Newcombe went on to be the bellwether of the Brooklyn staff in the Dodgers’ 1955 and 1956 National League championship seasons. The Giants won in a playoff with the Dodgers in 1951, Willie Mays’s rookie season, but lost without him in 1952 and When the Say Hey Kid returned in 1954, they won again.

Don Newcombe

Don Newcombe

The Army got practically all of the professional ballplayers who were drafted during the Korean War, and thus it had some outstanding teams, both stateside and overseas. The 1951 Fort Myer, Virginia, club featured pitchers Johnny Antonelli (Braves) and Bob Purkey (Giants), infielder Danny O’Connell (Pirates), and catcher Sam Calderone (Giants). That same year, the Brooke Army Medical Center team in San Antonio, Texas, boasted outfielder Dick Kokos (Browns), second baseman Owen Friend (Browns), pitcher Glenn Mickens (Dodgers), and catcher Gus Triandos (Yankees). In 1953 the All-Army champions at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, had Dick Groat (Pirates) at shortstop and Tom Poholsky (Cardinals) on the mound. Fort Jackson, South Carolina, could call on outfielder Faye Throneberry (Red Sox), catchers Frank House (Tigers) and Haywood Sullivan (Red Sox), and pitcher Joe Landrum (Dodgers).

Several players wound up in the Far East Command, where the real action was. With Japan being used as a staging area for Korea, a few servicemen found themselves playing with or against Japanese professionals. In 1953, Leo Kiely of the Red Sox and Phil Paine of the Braves pitched a few games for the Mainichi Orions and Nishitetsu Lions, respectively. Two years earlier, ex-Pacific Coast League southpaw Ken Lehman of the 40th Infantry Division had been the star performer of the Far East Command, with a 14-1 record on the mound and a .408 average at the plate. Among his accomplishments during the 1951 season was defeating a group of Japanese All-Stars, 1-0, before 32,000 fans at Miyagi Stadium in Sendai. When Lefty O’Doul brought a group of top-flight major leaguers to Japan for an exhibition tour after the American season ended, Lehman was invited to play with them and pitched excellent ball in two games, one a start against the Japanese Central League All-Stars. He later went on to pitch for the Dodgers, Orioles, and Phillies.

Only one ex-big leaguer lost his life in combat during the Korean War: Bob Neighbors, an Air Force major, who died in North Korea in August 1952. He had played in seven games for the St. Louis Browns in 1939 and also served his country in World War Two.

Bob Neighbors

Bob Neighbors

After the cessation of overt hostilities in Korea in 1953, Army baseball continued to feature a smattering of professional players who were two-year draftees; but in 1957 the All-Army championship tournament was discontinued, and the following year the level of competition was reduced to intramurals at the lowest unit level possible. Because the Navy wasn’t drafting people and had not been a force to be reckoned with in baseball since the end of the Second World War, the Army’s actions effectively spelled the end of top-flight military hardball. Over the last quarter century, softball has been the serviceman’s game.

The Vietnam War, like the Korean conflict, was limited in scope. This fact, coupled with the availability of Reserve programs which required only six months of active duty, made the impact of the military on professional baseball slight from 1964, the year the war escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” to 1973, when the United States began to pull its forces out of Vietnam and terminate the draft.

Most players and executives who were eligible for the draft entered Reserve components of the armed forces, particularly that of the Army. They were obliged to do six months of basic training and spend six years attending one weekend meeting or four weekday meetings each month, and two weeks of active duty for training each fiscal year. The sixth year was basically inactive in the sense of the Reservist not having to attend meetings or do the two-week stint. The active duty obligations were normally performed during the off-season. Monthly attendance at drills became a problem on occasion, and a player might miss a weekend’s worth of games here and there, but many Reserve units used the players in public relations roles for recruiting or image-building purposes and, as such, meetings could be staggered to suit the individual.

Jim Lonborg 1967

Jim Lonborg 1967

While pitching the Red Sox to their “Impossible Dream” pennant in 1967, Private First Class Jim Lonborg had to fly down to Atlanta and do his two-week Army Reserve duty. His fortnight began on Sunday, July 30, in the heat of the pennant race, and ended on Saturday, August 12. Fortunately, he was able to work out with the Atlanta Braves and with the aid of passes, didn’t miss a start. After being shelled by the Minnesota Twins two days before his departure, he flew back to Boston and worked 5 1/3 innings against the Kansas City Athletics on Tuesday, August 1, giving up three runs and eight hits but gaining his fifteenth win of the season. On Sunday, August 6, he lost to the Twins in Minnesota, 2-0, in a rain-shortened, five-inning contest. His counterpart, Dean Chance, pitched a perfect game. On Wednesday, August 9, he beat the Athletics in Kansas City, 5-1, for win number sixteen, tops in the majors. With his two-week sojourn over, he lost to the California Angels, 3-2, on the West Coast on Sunday, August 13.

While military duty may have caused Lonborg a mild inconvenience, youngsters like Al Bumbry and Garry Maddox were serving in Vietnam. They would go on to make their mark as top-quality major league outfielders in the 1970s. With the demise of the draft, future ballplayers wouldn’t have to worry about such unpleasant career interruptions.

If there is another major war ahead of us, the influence of the military on baseball should remain minimal and not approach the high-water mark of World War Two, when both the length and the extent of the conflict had a pervasive effect on the game, both at home and abroad. As venerable and fascinating as the link between the military and baseball is, let us hope it remains low-profile in the future.

 

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

Repeating the introduction from Part One (see http://goo.gl/NJXTdw): On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

During and immediately after the war, baseball was played in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, and the German Rhineland. There was enthusiastic talk in the Reach and Spalding Baseball Guides of the period about baseball becoming a major sport in England and France, but such a development failed to take place. Colonel Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, part owner of the New York Yankees, guessed the result correctly. Upon returning to the United States from France after sixteen months in the Army, he commented that if American soldiers had been in Europe for at least another year, baseball might have taken hold, but the soldiers were returning home too fast to make a lasting impression.

Ruppert, Landis, Huston (l-r)

Ruppert, Landis, Huston (l-r)

The influence of the military during the period between the world wars was negligible, save for the occasional ballplayer who served a hitch in the armed forces. “Barnacle Bill” Posedel joined the Navy in 1925 while still in his teens, put in four years of active duty, later became a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees on the eve of World War Two, served four more years in the Navy during that conflict, and eventually became a major league pitching coach. Nemo Gaines was a star pitcher for the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1921. Upon graduation, he received permission to take special leave and pitch for the Washington Senators. After four appearances with the Nats, he went on active duty and served until 1946, when he retired with the rank of captain. Pitcher Sig Jakucki, who was to become an important cog in the St. Louis Browns’ drive to their only American League pennant in 1944, was in the Army from 1927 to 1931 and starred for the Schofield Barracks team in Hawaii as an outfielder and occasional hurler. As was customary, American servicemen brought baseball with them wherever they went. On July 29, 1937, sailors from a Navy squadron formed two teams and played a softball game in the sports stadium of the port they were visiting. The locale? Vladivostok in the Soviet Union!

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War Two was on in Europe. As the war clouds drifted across the Atlantic and became more ominous over America, the United States government instituted a military draft in the autumn of 1940, the first in its history during peacetime. It required the registration of men ages twenty-one to thirty-five. The first major leaguer to get drafted was Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy in March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. The next to go was a star–Detroit Tigers slugger and 1940 American League Most Valuable Player Hank Greenberg. Hammerin’ Hank had led the Tigers to the pennant the year before. After hitting two homers in a 7-4 win over the Yankees on May 6, he entered the Army the next day, the same day the Tigers officially raised their 1940 championship flag. Thus began a parade of professional ballplayers into the armed forces, a parade which would continue unabated until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Hank Greenberg, 1942.

Hank Greenberg, 1942.

Perhaps no other statistic better expresses the extent to which the military put its stamp on professional baseball during World War Two than the one which appeared in the New York Times in the spring of 1945: as of January of that year, 5,400 of the 5,800 pro baseball players in the country at the time of Pearl Harbor were in the service. With an impact of that magnitude, it would take a decent-sized book to describe in detail military baseball alone during the war years, not to mention pro and military ball combined, a task which has already been accomplished twice in recent memory. How then should one approach the topic? By emphasizing that the military is ultimately made up of people.

Over fifty professional ballplayers made the supreme sacrifice while serving in the armed forces. The majority of them died in combat. Two were ex-major leaguers who appeared briefly in the American League in 1939. Harry O’Neill, who caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, died on Iwo Jima in March 1945. Army Air Corps Captain Elmer Gedeon, an outfielder in 5 games for the Washington Senators in 1939, was shot down over France on April 15, 1944, his twenty-seventh birthday. The first pro player to enlist, minor league outfielder Billy Southworth, Jr., joined the Army Air Corps in December. He was the son of the St. Louis Cardinals’ manager and compiled quite a war record as a bomber pilot in Europe before being killed in a crash after takeoff on a routine flight from Long Island to Florida on February 15, 1945. He had attempted an emergency landing at LaGuardia Field but plunged into Flushing Bay after overshooting the runway. His grieving father was not alone among major league pilots. Ex-Tiger skipper Mickey Cochrane and former Cub boss Jimmie Wilson also lost sons in the war.

Several men who played major league ball were wounded in action, among them Army Air Corps fighter pilot Bert Shepard, who was shot down by antiaircraft fire over Germany in May 1944 and had his right leg amputated below the knee. After spending the better part of a year in a German POW camp, he was repatriated in a prisoner-of-war exchange and, with the help of an artificial limb, pitched in one regular-season game and several exhibitions for the Washington Senators in 1945. Others in the category of the wounded included the St. Louis Cardinals’ John Grodzicki; the Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack Knott, Bob Savage, and Lou Brissie; the Cleveland Indians’ Gene Bearden; and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Tommy Warren–all of them pitchers.

Bert Shepard

Bert Shepard

Yet another pitcher, Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics, spent nine months in a German prison camp while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Cecil Travis, the star Washington shortstop, had his feet frozen at the Battle of the Bulge and lasted only two seasons after the war due to his limited mobility. The major league careers of hurlers Hugh Mulcahy of the Phillies and Charlie Wagner of the Red Sox were effectively curtailed by weight loss brought on by dysentery contracted in the Philippines. Two other pitchers, Johnny Rigney of the White Sox and 1942 rookie sensation Johnny Beazley of the Cardinals, threw their arms out while pitching service exhibitions. Outfielder Elmer “Red” Durrett hooked on with the Dodgers in 1944 after being discharged from the Marine Corps. He had suffered shell shock on Guadalcanal. It took a while for infielder Billy Cox and outfielder Monte Irvin to recover from the emotional effects of their Army experiences before they hit their stride again. Cardinal second baseman Frank Crespi broke his left leg in a game at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1943. While convalescing at a military hospital, he got into a wheelchair race, slammed into a wall, and broke the leg again, thus ending whatever chance he had of returning to the Redbirds after hostilities had ceased.

There were the great ones–men like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Hank Greenberg–who lost between three and five of their prime years to the service, thus giving rise to a multitude of “what if?” questions regarding their lifetime statistics had there been no war. Then there were the legions of players who didn’t stick with their former clubs because of the personnel crunch in the spring of 1946, when the mix of returning veterans and wartime holdovers was so great that many men never had a chance to get back into shape gradually and compete for jobs effectively. Although major league clubs carried thirty men rather than twenty-five on their 1946 rosters in an effort to mitigate the problem, the remedy was hardly adequate to accommodate the flood of returnees. A few players–Tony Lupien, Merrill May, Bob Harris, Bruce Campbell, Steve Sundra, and Al Niemiec–either threatened legal action or undertook it in an effort to protect their reemployment rights under the then-new GI Bill, but most of them settled out of court on the issue of pay, and none stayed with their former teams.

Bob Feller, Street & Smith, 1941

Bob Feller, Street & Smith, 1941

For every sad story, there was a courageous or heartening one. Jack Knott of the Athletics and southpaw Earl Johnson of the Red Sox won battlefield commissions after showing bravery under fire. Former first baseman Zeke Bonura won the Legion of Merit as an Army corporal for organizing and promoting sports programs for service men and women in North Africa. General Dwight D. Eisenhower personally pinned the award on him. The aforementioned Bert Shepard served as an inspiration to all disabled servicemen when he made occasional appearances on the mound for the Senators. The opportunity to gain valuable experience by playing service ball with and against seasoned professionals presented itself to people like outfielder Del Ennis, who jumped from one year in the low minors to the major leagues after discharge. For others, it served to showcase their talents as prior amateurs or semipros. Johnny Groth, an eighteen-year-old wonder fresh out of Chicago Latin High School, proceeded to win a starting berth in center field for the 1945 Great Lakes Naval Training Center team with which he hit .341. He was signed to a Detroit organization contract at war’s end and went on to have a long and productive major league career despite key injuries along the way. Maurice “Mo” Mozzali was a Louisville area semipro who impressed his teammates while performing for submarine-base teams at Pearl Harbor and New London, Connecticut. He signed a pro contract in 1946 and rose to the level of Triple-A as an All-Star first baseman with Columbus of the American Association.

Several prominent players had triumphant returns to the major leagues after completion of their service hitches. On August 24, 1945, after forty-four months in the Navy, Bob Feller made his first start against the Tigers in Cleveland. His appearance resulted in Cleveland’s biggest baseball crowd in three years (46,777 fans). Bullet Bob struck out twelve, gave up only four hits, and won easily, 4-2. In his second game versus Detroit late that summer, he one-hit the Tigers. When he pitched in Yankee Stadium on September 10, a total of 67,816 spectators were present. Hank Greenberg heralded his return to the Tigers on July 1, 1945, by hitting a home run against the Athletics before 48,000 hometown fans. On the final day of the season, his grand slam home run in the rain against the Browns clinched the American League pennant for Detroit. Tiger righthander Virgil Trucks was discharged from the Navy less than a week before the 1945 season ended. He started the Tigers’ pennant-winning 6-3 victory over St. Louis and followed that up with a 4-1 complete-game win over the Chicago Cubs in the second game of the World Series.

Navy duty during the war resulted in the beginning of new professions for Max Patkin and Dusty Cooke. Patkin began his long and famous career as a baseball clown while pitching first for Aiea Hospital and then for Aiea Barracks in Hawaii in 1944. Cooke was trained as a pharmacist’s mate. This training came in handy after the war. In search of a baseball job, he hooked on with former teammate Ben Chapman and the Philadelphia Phillies as club trainer and later went on to coach and even manage the team for a few days in 1948 between the departure of Chapman and the arrival of Eddie Sawyer.

Army Air Force Sergeant Joe DiMaggio and Navy Chief Specialist Harold Reese, July 7, 1944

Army Air Force Sergeant Joe DiMaggio and Navy Chief Specialist Harold Reese, July 7, 1944

At times there was an embarrassment of riches on military teams. In the first two years of the war, former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney’s eight-week enlisted athletic specialist training course was located at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval Training Station. Thus the Norfolk NTS manager, Gary Bodie, had his pick of the numerous professional athletes who were taking the course. In 1943 he was faced with the difficult yet wonderful prospect of choosing between two of the premier shortstops in baseball, Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, for his ballclub. He kept Rizzuto and sent Reese a mile down the road to Norfolk Naval Air Station, where he became part of NTS’s opposition.

The Army stockpiled its talent in the Hawaiian Islands at the Seventh Army Air Force, Hickam Field, in 1944. Manager Tom Winsett, a former major league outfielder, had three top-level second basemen–Joe Gordon, Gerry Priddy, and Dario Lodigiani–at his disposal that summer. Priddy and Lodigiani were the first to arrive, with Lodigiani staying at his normal position and Priddy playing shortstop. When Priddy was transferred, Gordon replaced him.

There were also some wacky trades. After the Tunney school was shifted from Norfolk to Bainbridge, Maryland, former St. Louis Browns outfielder Red McQuillen went through the program. Norfolk NTS needed an outfielder and Bainbridge needed a life raft, so the deal was made. The raft turned out to be defective upon receipt in Bainbridge, but the deal wasn’t voided and McQuillen went on to bat .367 and lead the Norfolk club in hits and triples in General William Flood, commanding officer of the aforementioned Seventh Army Air Force at Hickam Field, wanted Eddie Funk, a good pitcher with a little experience in the low minors, for his ballclub. Funk was at another facility on the island of Oahu, and his CO was anxious to keep him; however, the CO had two dogs which he loved, and they were sick. General Flood had the only veterinary service among the military stations in Hawaii, so he made a proposition to Funk’s boss: you give me Funk and your two dogs will get well. The deal was consummated, and Funk went on to pitch excellent ball for the Seventh Army Air Force.

It was common for the top service teams to have past or future major leaguers at every position. Both the Army and the Navy had outstanding teams at several of their installations around the country. For instance, Navy outfits at the training centers in Norfolk, Great Lakes, Bainbridge, and Sampson, New York, were superb. The Army aggregations at the Seventh Army Air Force, Fort Riley, Kansas; New Cumberland, Pennsylvania; and the Waco, Texas, Army Flying School distinguished themselves. The Marine Corps had fine clubs at Quantico, Virginia, and Parris Island, South Carolina, and the Coast Guard teams at Curtis Bay, Maryland, and New London, Connecticut, were excellent. There was also a multiplicity of top-notch clubs on the West Coast.

Most of these teams rang up outstanding won-lost records against all types of opposition–for example, the magnificent 48-2 log achieved by the 1944 Great Lakes club. Many exhibitions were played against major and minor league teams, with the majority being won by the service clubs. Some of the scores are legendary, like the 17-4 slaughtering the Great Lakes sailors gave the Cleveland Indians in their 1944 season finale, or the pastings administered to the Boston Red Sox (20-7) and the Cleveland Indians (15-2) by the 1944 Sampson Naval Training Center nine. Were the major leaguers trying? Evidence indicates that they were, although second-line pitchers were often thrown against the service clubs and sometimes the pros played a position other than their normal one. Because big league clubs often took fewer than the normal twenty-five players on road trips during the war, it was not uncommon for players to be platooned at an unfamiliar position–as, for example, a pitcher playing in the outfield.

All Star Service Game, July 7, 1942

All Star Service Game, July 7, 1942

Service players participated in some great war-benefit games. Perhaps the most famous was the American League All-Stars-Service All-Stars contest at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland on July 7, 1942, when 62,094 fans saw a one-of-a-kind ballgame in which the American Leaguers triumphed, 5-0. The gross receipts from the spectacle totaled $143,571; $100,000 of the net went to the Bat and Ball Fund and the rest to Army and Navy Relief. A month earlier, the Norfolk NTS team had played a group of Army ballplayers in the Polo Grounds in New York. The year 1943 saw the $2 million war-bond game between the Norfolk NTS squad and the Washington Senators, won by Norfolk, 4-3, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, on May 24; the Service All-Stars-Boston Braves contest at Fenway Park, Boston, on July 12, in which the All-Stars, managed by Babe Ruth and featuring Ted Williams, nipped the Braves, 9-8; the July 28 game in Yankee Stadium between North Carolina Pre-Flight (Navy) and a combined team of New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, called the “Yank-lands” and managed by Babe Ruth, in which North Carolina Pre-Flight triumphed, 11-5, and $30,000 was poured into the Baseball War Relief and Service Fund, Inc.; and the $800 million war-bond game at the Polo Grounds on August 26, when a combined team of Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants beat a group of Army All-Stars, 5-2, before 38,000 people. It is interesting to note that the only picture supposedly taken of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth together in uniform was snapped at that Fenway Park contest in July.

Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, July 12, 1943

Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, July 12, 1943

A few takeoffs on the World Series occurred. At the end of the 1943 season, the Norfolk Naval Training Station and Norfolk Naval Air Station clubs engaged in an exciting best-of-seven series, which the Training Station won, four games to three. Following the 1944 baseball campaign in Hawaii, the cream of the crop of Army and Navy ballplayers participated in the famous Service World Series. What started out as a best-of-seven affair limited to Oahu Island wound up as an eleven-game extravaganza, with the final four contests being played on the islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai. The Navy, shored up at the last minute with reinforcements from the continental United States and Australia, won the first six games and finished with an 8-2-1 record for the series, the tie being a fourteen-inning 6-6 humdinger in Hoolulu Park, Hilo, Hawaii. The following fall, the Navy had its own World Series in the Hawaiian Islands, featuring the American League against the National League. The AL squad was favored, but the National Leaguers won, four games to two. As in the previous year, an additional contest was played for the benefit of service men and women, with the Americans beating the Nationals; so the final tally was Nationals four, Americans three.

Baseball was played all over the world during the Second World War. In late February 1945, twenty-eight Navy ballplayers boarded two Marine Corps planes and proceeded to make two tours of the forward areas of the Pacific, with both of them ending on Guam; then the players were dispersed among Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Peleliu, and Ulithi. Shortly afterward, Army Air Corps players did the same thing. Right after the war in Europe ended, many pro players had German and Italian POWs build fields for them and top-flight competition ensued. An Army All-Star team was formed and toured Europe, visiting cities in Germany, France, Italy, and Austria.

Concluding Part Three tomorrow!

Baseball and the Armed Services

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

It is regrettable that the average fan has little or no knowledge of the historical relationship between the military and baseball, considering that the links between the two date back to the beginning of the game’s evolution in North America approximately 150 years ago. Perhaps it is because most people associate baseball with pleasure and military service with anything but that; or it may be that those who have never served in the armed forces have no appreciation of the value of baseball in relieving either the stress or boredom of military life, depending on one’s circumstances. Whatever the reasons, the connections between the armed services and this truly international pastime are long and storied, and deserve our careful and devoted attention because the military has had a profound impact on the propagation of baseball worldwide and on the development of the game as a social leveler and instrument of international relations.

A story about the origin of baseball was advanced by a committee of the game’s elder statesmen in 1907. The committee, led by former player and sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spalding, said that Abner Doubleday had designed the first baseball diamond at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. This version was quickly accepted as official by the baseball moguls and held sway for several decades, but it is now considered a myth by serious baseball historians.

Abner Doubleday in Saltillo, 1847

Abner Doubleday in Saltillo, 1847

Doubleday fought in the Battle of Monterey during the Mexican War; sighted the first gun in defense of Fort Sumter when it was fired on by Southerners on April 12, 1861, thus starting the Civil War; fought at Second Bull Run and Antietam; distinguished himself at Gettysburg by helping to repel Pickett’s Charge, the Confederates’ major attack of the battle; and eventually retired from the Army as a general in 1873. He was dead, however, by the time the committee put forth its opinion, so no one could get his views on the matter. There is nothing in his writings which suggests he invented the game, and other early commentators such as Henry Chadwick advanced different theories regarding the origin of the game. Nevertheless, the name of Abner Doubleday, a career soldier, remains inextricably linked to baseball in the popular mind.

To discover the first bona fide influence of the military on baseball, and a tremendous one at that, we must move ahead to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Baseball before the Civil War was almost exclusively a gentleman’s game, with the upper classes of society participating and the true amateur spirit and British rules of sportsmanship holding sway. Most of the prominent teams were in the East, with a few, such as those in Chicago and St. Louis, in the Midwest. During the war, baseball became a sport played by people of all social classes over a wide geographical area. It was played among Union troops during their leisure hours and an unheard-of crowd of 40,000 soldiers watched a game in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on Christmas Day, 1862, between the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryea’s Zouaves) and a team picked from other Union regiments. A.G. Mills, later to become president of the National League, played in that contest.

Baseball was known in the South prior to the Civil War. Soldiers were said to have played baseball during the Mexican War, the game was popular in New Orleans, and many people south of the Mason-Dixon Line subscribed to Northern periodicals which featured baseball news. Nevertheless, the growth of the sport in Dixie was greatly stimulated by Northern prisoners playing the game to relieve boredom or tension in Southern POW camps. Their guards first watched, then decided they wanted to try, and finally organized teams to play against their captives. Southern POWs returned home similarly enlightened about the game. With more than a million men under arms during the conflict, is it any wonder that the game proliferated when the veterans went home to practically every town in the nation?

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

The Civil War accelerated two trends that were first discernible in the late 1850s: increasingly fierce competition and with it increased commercialism. Diaries written by Union troops in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia show that as the war went on and baseball became ever more popular and competitive, emphasis on skill was the great consideration. If a player was good, he got to play. Teams in Army units may have been promoted by officers or high-ranking noncoms, but the players on the field were the most skilled. In 1863 and 1864, some outfits had first and second teams based on skill levels. This idea of skill predominating over social or military rank certainly fit the competitive pattern of post-Civil War baseball, as more emphasis on winning led to keen rivalries between cities and the rise of professionalism.

In 1873, eight years after the cessation of hostilities in the United States and twenty years after American ships under Commodore Matthew Perry had succeeded in opening Japan to the West, two American missionaries named Wilson and Maget introduced baseball to the Land of the Rising Sun. The game took root in part because influential Japanese of that time, such as Kido and many former daimyo (feudal lords), supported its growth. They originally viewed baseball as an American version of a martial sport like Japanese judo or kendo. Practicing the sport was in their minds a way of getting at the essence of the American fighting spirit, and thus baseball was played every day, regardless of weather conditions.

Japan Baseball, 1870s Children's Book

Japan Baseball, 1870s Children’s Book

As time went on, the game evolved into a high school and college sport. From 1888 until 1902, the top team in Japan was that of First High School, now known as Tokyo University. It sometimes played games against American residents in Yokohama and teams from U.S. Navy battleships. Whenever the battlewagons made port calls in Yokohama, the First High School club would challenge them and usually would win the contests. Judging from a few of the scores, the Japanese students had ample reason to feel good about their progress in the sport: in 1902, they slaughtered the U.S.S. Kentucky, 35-1, and the next year clobbered the same ship again, 27-0!

The United States involved itself in war with Spain and its colonial possessions in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean in 1898. The Spanish-American War was short, lasting roughly the length of the baseball season. The war didn’t have a significant impact on the game at home but undoubtedly influenced its spread to Puerto Rico, and other lands which border on the Caribbean, and the Philippine Islands.

Dr. Arlie Pond was pitching for the Baltimore Orioles of the National League when the war started. He had won 16 games for the Orioles in their pennant-winning season of 1896 and followed it up with 18 victories in 1897, but at the start of hostilities he entered the Army, joined a medical unit, and went first to Cuba and then the Philippines. After the war and the Philippine Insurrection, he left active duty but stayed in the Philippines and devoted the rest of his life to combating disease there, except for World War One, when he returned to the States and became assistant surgeon general of the Army with the rank of colonel. Near the end of the war, he went with the U.S. forces to Siberia following the Russian Revolution. In 1919, he returned to the islands after again relinquishing his Army commission and died there in 1930 at the age of fifty-seven.

A year after the war, Dave Wills quit his medical studies at the University of Virginia to play first base for Louisville of the National League. After hitting only .223 in twenty-four games, he decided to join the Marines and wound up staying twenty years in the service. He served as a paymaster in the European Theater with the rank of major in World War One and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery upon his death in 1959. A little more than a decade after the Spanish-American War, Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, a Negro League great, was first recognized for his baseball ability while serving with the Army (1911-1915) in the Philippines.

Popular Magazine, April 17, 1917

Popular Magazine, April 17, 1917

World War One began in Europe in August 1914, but the United States didn’t enter the conflict until April 1917. Before the Yanks went “over there,” Canadian units in the British Army took the lead in teaching many Englishmen and Australians how to play. In the fall of 1917, a series for the championship of the Canadian forces overseas was played in England. One hundred and one teams took part, with several minor league and semipro players dotting the rosters.

By the end of 1917 there were seventy-six American major league players in the service: forty-eight from the American League, including fifteen Boston Red Sox, and twenty-eight from the National League. Forty-two were in the Army, twenty-one in the Navy, and thirteen in other branches of the service.

In May 1918 there occurred the promulgation of a “work or fight” order by the provost marshal of the armed forces, General Enoch Crowder. It was designed to force all men of draft age out of nonessential work and into the Army or war-related employment in order to aid in the prosecution of the war. Baseball players were classified as nonessential while actors, opera singers, and movie stars were deemed essential. This was because the baseball magnates didn’t present their case in person, as did representatives of the other specially exempted occupations.

Relatively few players left baseball, however. The great majority remained with their teams. When the July time limit set by the Crowder order was reached, various draft boards issued conflicting orders to the players, some saying their work was essential and others saying it wasn’t.

Eventually the Crowder edict was enforced and Organized Baseball shut down its operation by the beginning of September 1918, although two additional weeks were allotted for the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Despite the fact that the Crowder edict applied only to men of draft age, the owners decided not to finish the season with players younger than eighteen or older than thirty-five. The magnates made it clear to the players, however, that the reserve clause was still in effect, that the players weren’t free agents, and that they would be bound to their former teams upon resumption of play.

Babe Ruth Draft Card

Babe Ruth Draft Card

By the end of the war in November 1918, 144 American Leaguers and 103 National Leaguers were in the military. Very few players went into war-related work. Of the 144 American Leaguers serving Uncle Sam, a considerable percentage of them were known to be overseas. At least eighty-three were in the Army and forty-one in the Navy. The Detroit Tigers led the league with twenty-five servicemen, while the team with the fewest was the St. Louis Browns with thirteen, even though the Brownies had won American League prexy Ban Johnson’s $500 prize for performing best in military close-order drill (using bats as rifles) in 1917. Among the National Leaguers, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates tied for the lead in enlistees with eighteen apiece, while the Cincinnati Reds had only six. Boston Braves catcher Hank Gowdy was the first major leaguer to volunteer for military service. He was eventually sent to France, as were other prominent players and executives such as Cincinnati Reds manager Christy Mathewson, Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Sherry Smith, Chicago White Sox catcher Joe Jenkins, Boston Braves executive Percy Haughton, and St. Louis Cardinals executive Branch Rickey. Haughton and Rickey received their commissions as majors and Mathewson was a captain in the Army’s gas-and-flame division. Mathewson suffered gas poisoning during his service. It led to tuberculosis and his ultimate demise in 1925. Former major leaguers killed in action were infielder Eddie Grant, who had played for four teams between 1905 and 1915, in the Argonne Forest in October 1918; Robert Troy, who had been born in Germany and pitched and lost one game for the Detroit Tigers in 1912, at the Meuse in October 1918; and Alex Barr, also with one game in the big time as a New York Yankee outfielder in 1914, on his twenty-fifth birthday, November 1, 1918, a mere ten days before the armistice.

Servicemen’s baseball was alive and well in Europe in both 1917 and 1918. In addition to the aforementioned Canadian championship series in England in the fall of 1917, an Anglo-American League was formed. It was composed of regular teams of American and Canadian soldiers, and was organized in London by W.E. Booker and former big leaguer Arlie Latham. The league played a regular weekend schedule in London, the English provinces, and Scotland. Every team had four or five professional players. A benefit game between American Army and Navy teams at Chelsea, London, on July 4, 1918, drew more than forty thousand spectators, including the King of England and Allied military notables. The regular season ended on September 7, 1918, but the clubs continued to play Sunday ball until September 29.

Whereas the Canadians had initially taught baseball to the British and Australians, the Americans introduced it to the French. The game was not exactly new in Paris because Americans had occasionally played it there before the war. Once the Yanks began arriving in large numbers, games were played every Sunday in the Bois du Boulogne and other public parks. The YMCA organized an Association League in France, with thirty teams playing a fifteen-game schedule each Sunday up to the middle of September. Shortly before the armistice, French soldiers were under orders to learn baseball! Their primary teacher was erstwhile National League great Johnny Evers, who had been sent to France by the Knights of Columbus for that purpose. Where did all the equipment come from? There were three sources: the aforementioned YMCA, the Knights of Columbus and the Ball and Bat Fund, headed by Clark Griffith, manager of the Washington Senators. The fund disbursed $63,865.29 worth of baseball gear, although the supply ship Kansan, with its load of equipment for the American Expeditionary Force, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine while en route to Europe.

King George, Lt. Mims, London, July 4, 1918

King George, Mike McNally of Red Sox, Chelsea, London, July 4, 1918

“Minooka Mike” McNally of the Red Sox, who was captain of the Navy HQ team in London.

“Minooka Mike” McNally of the Red Sox, who was captain of the Navy HQ team in London.

The top service teams of World War One (1918) included the 342nd Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Force club, which featured Grover C. Alexander and several other major leaguers and beat all comers; the Second Naval District, Newport, Rhode Island, aggregation, with a handful of big leaguers on its roster; the Great Lakes, Illinois, Naval Station club, piloted by White Sox outfielder Phil Chouinard and later Senator shortstop Doc Lavan, which posted a 30-8 won-lost record and had Hall of Fame pitcher Urban “Red” Faber and pro football great George Halas; the 85th Division, Battle Creek, Michigan, nine, which lost only one game, beat the Great Lakes club, and had the Browns’ Urban Shocker hurling for them; the Camp Dodge, Iowa, club, which logged 27 wins against 8 setbacks and counted six major leaguers among its players; the San Diego, California, Naval Training Camp team, with a 78-10 record to its credit; and the Kelly Field club in San Antonio, Texas, which won 42 games and lost only 8.

Second part tomorrow!

 

 

 

Strangest of All Baseball Attractions!

Paul Mooney, House of David, 1920

Paul Mooney, House of David, 1920

In 1883-1884 the craze for all things baseball spawned not only a new professional league (the Union Association) and the World Series (Providence Grays against the New York Mets) and night baseball (at Fort Wayne, Indiana), but also a proliferation of eccentric nines matched in what were called “novelty games.” There was an all-Chinese nine (the John Lang team), a “Colored Girl” team from Chester, Pennsylvania, called the Dolly Vardens; the fat man’s team, the Jumbos, who played against the lean men, the Shadows. The most distinctive games of the season matched the Snorkey Club of Philadelphia (named for the crippled hero of the famous melodrama Under the Gaslight), whose players each lacked an arm or a hand, against the Hoppers of Washington–all one-legged or on crutches. Not a pretty picture, for sure, but certainly poignant and a mirror of that brutal age: most of the crippled players on both teams had been railroad workers.

Snorkeys vs Hoppers, Police Gazette, October 29, 1887

Snorkeys vs Hoppers, Police Gazette, October 29, 1887

Fat vs. lean, married vs. single, old vs. young–any combination a promoter might dream up could be counted upon to draw a crowd, at least for a season. Exhibitions of women’s baseball had generally taken the form of Blondes versus Brunettes, with varying geographic modifiers applied to each. These pulchritudinous nines typically used a smaller than regulation ball made only of yarn, played the game on a fifty-foot diamond, and barnstormed their way through a legion of appreciative “bald-headed men,” a code name in theatrical circles for voyeurists of a certain age who liked to sit in the first row.

The great Svengali of women’s baseball exhibitions was Sylvester F. Wilson (one of many names he went by, though he was born Christian Wilson). The Brooklyn Eagle called him “the abductor of girls on base ball pretexts.” Although he proclaimed that none of his players came from the stage and that his exhibitions were of the highest class and virtue, he had been arrested in New York for kidnapping a sixteen-year-old girl from her home in Binghamton. The Kansas City Star, commenting on the five-year sentence meted out to Wilson in 1891, wrote, “He has been arrested more than 100 times and for various crimes, and Secretary Jenkins of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says he has ruined more young girls than any man living.”

1879 Female Baseball Broadside

1879 Female Base Ball Broadside

On September 2, 1880, two baseball teams composed of employees of Boston department stores—Jordan Marsh and R. H . White—groped their way to a 16–16 tie under dim artificial lights at Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts. The experiment was repeated on June 2, 1883, with little more to recommend it, in a game between the Northwestern League squads of Quincy, Illinois, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the home of the latter.

Fort Wayne was also the home of George J. E. Mayer and his wife, Lizzie (later to become the mistress and, ultimately, second wife of Albert G. Spalding). In 1888, he was on the road with two teams of Chinese players. “In their practice-work,” reported the Chicago Inter-Ocean, “they showed that they were catching on with a wonderful celerity. When one of the men made a hit, the others all yelled at him in a most sidesplitting manner.” The Brooklyn Eagle added that “Speculation as to the relative merits of the two teams has been rife, and many a good dollar has been wagered by the Mongolians [Chinese] on their favorites. The betting last night was $4 to $3 on the Chicagos, and if the San Franciscos win there will be wailing and weeping in many Celestial laundries.”

Dolly Varden Sheet Music

Dolly Varden Sheet Music

Novelty games were particularly prominent in Philadelphia; ethnic teams, “colored” male and female ball teams, Native-American nines, crippled clubs, and so on. John Lang, a white barber from Philadelphia who had “temporarily deserted lather and razor” to organize pioneer black baseball clubs such as the Orion, found his true métier in New York with his Chinese teams. In Chester, Pennsylvania, Lang also created a fetching nine of “colored girl” professional players whom he named the Dolly Vardens after the fluffily and colorfully costumed lass in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Lang’s Dolly Vardens, created in the 1880s, are sometimes confused with several Philadelphia-area all-male clubs bearing that name as early as 1867.

The bearded barnstormers of the House of David were devised as a money-making promotion for the House of David or Branch Davidian colony at Benton Harbor, Michigan, around 1910. They were disciples of Benjamin Purnell, an Ohio farmer who in 1903 had a vision in which he was proclaimed the Sixth Son of the House of David, with a mission to unite the Lost Tribes of Israel before Judgment Day. He and his fellow colonists swore off sex, smoking, drinking, and shaving.

Once on the baseball field, however, the only thing that was hidebound was the baseball itself. The House of David men were indeed “Fast and Clever Players,” as a broadside indicated, renowned especially for their Harlem Globetrotter-like pepper games [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7IGp0gC-Pw]. And they were not averse to welcoming an occasional ringer like Babe Ruth or Pepper Martin.

Louis Fenn Wadsworth: Baseball’s Man of Mystery and History

The Laws of Base Ball

The Laws of Base Ball

I gave this talk at the Litchfield Historical Society on April 24, 2016. While Louis Fenn Wadsworth came in for some discussion in my 2011 book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I felt I could try the patience of general readers with a great deal of biographical detail unrelated to his baseball exploits. However, now that the trio of documents relating to baseball’s 1857 convention (see: http://goo.gl/VndQXx) sold on Sunday for a prodigious sum, the timing could not be more right for some talk about Wadsworth, the man who reversed the convention’s original ruling that baseball should be a game of seven innings, and made it, instead, nine.

Only yesterday, some documents from 1857 that constitute the first draft of baseball’s rules as we know them today were auctioned off for 3.26 million dollars. With the rediscovery of these “Laws of Baseball,” crafted for presentation by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to the first convention of baseball clubs, we have tangible evidence of the genius of Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, a rediscovered hero who was the top vote-getter among old-timers on last year’s ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Daniel L. "Doc" Adams

Daniel L. “Doc” Adams

At the dawn of the twentieth century, baseball’s origins were already too old to be remembered, so stories were devised to rationalize what was otherwise baffling. Baseball history then was in the hands of folklorists, not historians. Members of the Mills Commission—also referred to as Albert Spalding’s Commission, for he formed it in 1905 to determine the true origin of the national pastime—lacked the mundane primary documents that typically aid historians of everyday life in the reconstruction of events. Accordingly, they looked to octogenarian reminiscences of events witnessed long ago if at all; thus we were handed a pretty story of Abner Doubleday as baseball’s inventor, supposedly in Cooperstown one bright day in 1839.

Almost immediately upon the Commission’s naming the Civil War hero as baseball’s dad, others came forward to declare the story a fable … insisting that instead it had begun in 1845 with another father figure: Alexander Cartwright, a teammate of Doc Adams on the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (KBBC). Both men had gone to their graves not knowing they had invented baseball.

While Doubleday gave Cooperstown an excuse to establish a fine museum in an economically challenged upstate village, Cartwright (unlike Doubleday) was awarded a plaque in the Hall of Fame that credits him as having “set bases 90 feet apart” and “established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as [a] team.” This is demonstrably false, as none of these aspects of the game were settled until 1857, some eight years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return east. 

Cartwright Plaque

Cartwright Plaque

In 1868, Henry Chadwick, the only writer inducted into the Hall of Fame, wrote, “our present National game [is] a great step in advance of the game of base ball as played in 1840 and up to 1857.” Yes, 1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation of a national institution. Adams was the guiding force; William Henry Grenelle rendered his teammate’s draft into the presentation, in fine Spencerian script, that was placed before the convention. They were two of the three Knickerbocker Club delegates to the convention, which convened for its opening session on January 22, 1857.

The third Knick member was Louis Fenn Wadsworth, about whom so little was known for so long, but whose compelling story is the one that principally concerns us today. It was Wadsworth who stood up at the convention, which had just ratified the Knickerbocker club’s preference for a game of seven innings—an outcome that was reported in the press!—and turned the delegates around to his proposal of nine innings. That Wadsworth may have been responsible for a great deal more in baseball’s evolution—including the provision of a new diagram of the game, and becoming the game’s first professional player—will come in for discussion today, too. But it is his life story—with mysterious details that did not yield themselves to me until after more than twenty years of digging—that may be most interesting in the end. Only when I was able to place his missing pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of baseball’s origins story did I write the book that was published five years ago as Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. 

L.F. Wadsworh, Plainfield, NJ 1875

L.F. Wadsworth, Plainfield, NJ 1875

***

In the late eighteenth century, Berkshire County in Massachusetts, eastern Dutchess County in New York, and northern Litchfield County in Connecticut basically formed one community, with travel up and down the Housatonic valley, so these areas could be considered cohesively one. The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been a matter of contention, and was settled only in 1787, while the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until … 1857.

Ball play was rampant in this “Housatonic Triangle.” Pittsfield, in 1791, enacted a bylaw that barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of a newly constructed meeting house. Of these, baseball appears to have been the dominant game in Massachusetts, and wicket the preferred game in Connecticut, though certainly both games were played in each state.

Enter Louis Fenn Wadsworth, born in either Amenia, New York—where an elder brother had died in infancy in 1823—or Litchfield, or Hartford, by various accounts, on or about May 6, 1825. His father was Amos Cowles Wadsworth, born in 1787 and buried in Litchfield in 1850, where he had descended into boarding-house poverty. Louis’s mother, Amanda Mann Wadsworth, had gone west to Michigan with Amos around 1845 and remained there, in Allegan County’s township of Owosso, with her other surviving son—Charles Waldstein Wadsworth, a year older than Louis—until her death in 1885.

Washington College, Hartford; Episcopal Watchman, March 26, 1827

Washington College, Hartford; Episcopal Watchman, March 26, 1827

The family resided in Litchfield when Louis left it in the fall of 1841 to begin his freshman year at Washington College in Hartford, long since renamed as Trinity. Louis’ early years proved a bit simpler to reconstruct than his later ones, but I get ahead of myself.

***

While Philadelphia, New York, and New England played their distinctive regional variants of baseball, in Connecticut an odd game called wicket or wicket ball reigned. It resembled what Britons thought of as “country cricket,” a game that by the 1750s had been utterly supplanted in England by the standardized modern game. Wicket had gone wherever Connecticut emigrants settled: to the Western Reserve of Ohio and Michigan, or with the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii.

Wicket was played along a seventy-five-foot alley of hard ground, rolled, skinned of grass, with the wicket bowler having to skip the ball along the ground, touching down at least once in his own thirty-seven-and-a-half-foot portion; it bears mentioning that this figure represented baseball’s 1857 pitching distance of forty-five feet reduced by one-sixth, which was its probable original distance and the one long after recommended for inexperienced players.

The bowler would skim the ball toward a low wicket some five feet in length but only inches off the ground. The batsman held a long curved club with an enormous gnarled bulb at its curved end. The bare wicket alley, unlike the manicured grassy pitch of cricket, survives in baseball as the mysterious strip of dirt between the pitcher’s mound and home plate that is sometimes evident today … in unwitting reference to a game perhaps older than baseball.

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

Little recalled or understood today, wicket was the diversion of choice for young Nutmeggers until nearly 1860. One of wicket’s hot spots was Hartford, on the campus of Washington College, where it may well have been played by Louis Fenn Wadsworth, Class of 1844.

***

No one credited Wadsworth as an innovator, let alone a possible Father of Baseball, until the winter of 1907, when the Mills Commission neared the end of its three-year mandate. Abraham G. Mills had received the Commission’s findings so late that he could not finish his review; he dictated a letter to his stenographer in the afternoon of  December 30, 1907 in which he hurriedly stated his conclusions and anointed Doubleday as per his friend Spalding’s wishes. Still, he commented on an unsettled question:

A.G. Mills

A.G. Mills

“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’” Duncan F. Curry had made the statement to reporter Will Rankin in 1877, and Rankin had written about it to Mills in 1905.

With that report the Commission’s work was done, and its conclusions were published in Spalding’s Official Guide for the 1908 season. No more was heard about Wadsworth until 1973, when Harold Peterson wrote a book about Alex Cartwright called The Man Who Invented Baseball. In it he observed: “Mr. Wadsworth, whose Christian name, occupation, residence, and pedigree remained secreted in Mills’s bosom, was never heard of before or until long after that fateful afternoon [meaning, in 1877, when Curry spoke with Rankin].”

Rankin wrote in The Sporting News in April 1908 that in 1886 he “had forgotten the name of the person mentioned by Mr. Curry, so I went to see Mr. Thomas Tassie, and when I related to him that which Mr. Curry had told me, he said, ‘That is true, and the name of the man was Mr. Wadsworth, a very brilliant after-dinner talker, the Chauncey M. Depew of that day. He held a very important position in the Custom House….’”

But Rankin told Mills that he had erred in recording Curry’s man as Wadsworth — upon reflection nearly thirty years later, he was sure that Curry had said Cartwright. Furthermore, he bullied the elderly Tassie into allowing that perhaps he too recalled Cartwright … though Cartwright had left New York in 1849, years before Tassie became involved in baseball.

In his final official function Mills concluded his commission’s report by writing:

“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be. [He never was to learn anything further, of course, despite his documented attempts.]

Here are the last words of the Mills Commission report:

“My deductions from the testimony submitted are:

“First: That ‘Base Ball’ had its origin in the United States. 

“Second: That the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N. Y., in 1839. 

“Yours very truly,

“A. G. Mills [signed]” 

The commission report thus anointing a single inventor was published on March 20, 1908. A. G. Mills’ imagined double-play tandem of Doubleday to Wadsworth did not pan out, but it was not long before writers would speculate about a similar handoff from Doubleday to Cartwright, with Wadsworth disappearing from the discussion. Wadsworth had left so cold a trail for the Mills Commission that his time on earth could not be recalled accurately nor could his current whereabouts, above ground or under it, be confirmed. Sixty-five years later, not even Cartwright’s biographer could pick up a clue, and conveyed that “Mr. Wadsworth” was a fanciful concoction.

***

By the 1980s, before the advent of digitized newspapers, this mysterious fellow had eluded me, too, as well as the several genealogical experts I had enlisted to find him. Even Wadsworth family histories and historians offered no clue. I knew Lou Wadsworth had played first base with the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from the early 1850s to 1862, had parlayed his Whig Party sentiments into patronage posts, and was generally recorded in the press as L. F. Wadsworth, but where did he live after that, when he disappeared from the New York City directories?

Slowly the details came into view. What cracked the ice was stumbling upon an obituary in the New York Times not findable with a search for “Wadsworth”; instead OCR (optical character recognition) had “filed” it under “Wacsvorth,” thus assuring that no one could find it by direct means. From the Times of March 28, 1908—eight days after the issuance of the Mills Commission report—under the heading “Once Rich, Dies a Pauper,” here is the obituary that no one in baseball ever saw:

Wadsworth Obit, NYT, March 28, 1908

Wadsworth Obit, NYT, March 28, 1908

“Plainfield, N.J., March 27.—Louis F. Wadsworth, once worth $300,000 [$8 million in today’s dollars] and a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., died a pauper at the Plainfield Industrial Home to-day, a victim of drink. His father was a wealthy New England merchant. Wadsworth became identified with Tammany Hall and obtained a lucrative position in the New York Custom House. In 1873 he moved to Plainfield. He took to drink, and though he maintained his political position for many years his fortune dwindled away. In 1898 he was admitted to the Industrial Home after swearing that he was unable to support himself.”

This was the crowbar that rapidly opened onto all the rest, although details continue to emerge that round out his life. Just days before handing in my manuscript of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, for example, did I learn that he had applied unsuccessfully to West Point in 1845. And only in preparing this talk did I hit upon a document showing that he also registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, though he was not called to duty.

The story of his later years has continued to fill in, with additional if not crucial detail that had been unavailable to me for Eden. Let’s proceed to do a racehorse run through the life of Louis Fenn Wadsworth, baseball’s man of mystery.

***

Envelope for Wadsworth's West Point Application Envelope

Envelope for Wadsworth’s West Point Application Envelope

After graduating with honors from Washington College in 1844 and applying to West Point, he lived in Michigan, where his father had obtained a land grant from President Martin Van Buren in 1838. By 1848 he had returned east to embark on a legal career on Wall Street (in those days—and perhaps ours!—a  law degree was not a necessary predicate; one had only to pass the bar examination). In 1853 he was nominated by the Eighth Ward Democratic Whigs, for whom he was the recording secretary, to the patronage position of School Inspector. His daytime job was as, Thomas Tassie had declared, a naval office attorney in the Custom House.

A tempestuous character, Wadsworth commenced his ball playing days with the Gothams, a venerable club that actually predated the Knickerbockers, with whom he quickly achieved prominence as the top first baseman of his time. Then, on April 1, 1854, he switched his allegiance to the Knickerbockers … perhaps for “emoluments,” as recompense was euphemistically known then; his skilled play would increase the Knickerbockers’ chances of victory. It is these circumstances that incline me to believe that Wadsworth may thus be termed baseball’s first professional player. Within a few years the practice of switching clubs in season, or “revolving,” became sufficiently pervasive for it be banned in Doc Adams’s new rules ratified at the 1857 convention.

One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of the old players for the New York Sun in 1887, said: “I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.”

In his time with the Knicks, Wadsworth found his notions thwarted on at least two occasions, resigning each time before reconsidering and permitting the restoration of his name to the membership rolls. But things came to a head in 1856.

***

Along with Doc Adams and other progressives, Wadsworth backed a motion in a Knickerbocker meeting to permit non-Knickerbockers to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Nine men to the side had been the standard for match play to this point, and Wadsworth and his allies thought it more important to preserve the quality of play than to exclude those who were not club members. Duncan Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded (at least by match standards).

Seven or nine? The KBBC fight.

Seven or nine? The KBBC fight.

The Curry forces, referenced in the Knickerbocker minutes as the “Old Fogies,” prevailed, 13-11. Just as Chadwick would later match the innings in his proposed ten-man model to the number of men on the field, the Knicks were now resolved to recommend a seven-inning game to replace the old custom of playing to 21 runs, which had recently produced a highly unsatisfactory 12-12 tie game, called on account of darkness.

This proved to be one of the most heated and divisive votes in club history, so at this point member William Ladd suggested that a committee be formed to cooperate with other clubs to decide upon the proper number of players for a match, with its concomitant effect on the number of innings if the 21-run rule were to be scrapped. This motion carried unanimously, and the committee appointed was Curry and Ladd; Ladd declined, and Adams took his place, thus placing one seven-inning advocate alongside a nine-inning advocate, as the Knicks pointed toward their next meeting, at Smith’s Hotel on 462 Broome Street, December 6, 1856, for the purpose of considering a convention of all the clubs.

The hotheaded Wadsworth had offered his resignation to the Knicks on July 31, 1856, then withdrew his resignation on August 26. Curry resigned on December 6, the very day of the meeting at Smith’s, testifying to how heated the discussions had become. The Knicks proceeded to establish a three-man commission to enlist the attendance of other clubs at a convention for the purpose of standardizing the rules. The three were Wadsworth, Adams, and Grenelle … which brings us back to the documents auctioned yesterday.

In the aftermath of the convention’s adoption of seven innings, on motion of Mr. Wadsworth, the aggregation reconsidered Section 26 and modified the Knicks’ proposal of seven innings to nine. Clearly, in enlisting the support of other teams, Wadsworth was following his own lead—and the expressed preference of the Adams contingent against the Curry forces—rather than that of the Knickerbocker majority.

Porter's Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857; Gothams vs. Eagles

Porter’s Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857; Gothams vs. Eagles

Wadsworth’s victory was Pyrrhic as far as his own future as in the club. Made to feel uncomfortable, the Knicks’ “ringer” failed to appear for a game on June 8, 1857 against the Eagles, though he had been named to play. Six days later he resigned for the final time, and by the following month he was again manning first base with his accustomed panache for his former club, the Gothams.

***

In 1859 Louis F. Wadsworth married Maria Isabel Meschutt Fisher, a wealthy widow nine years his elder with two children from her first marriage. As a Meschutt, she had been born into a family of restaurateurs and café proprietors in New York and New Jersey that dated back to 1777, with Meschutt’s Metropolitan Coffee House in operation at 433 Broadway. (James Meschutt invented the doughnut.) After a brief residence in Michigan and a return to New York, the Wadsworth family (stepson Charles kept his Fisher name; stepdaughter Marianne, who had been adopted, became a Wadsworth) settled in Rockaway, New Jersey in 1863. By 1872 or so, the family had resettled in Plainfield, New Jersey, where Louis became a justice of the peace and then a judge. After his wife’s death in 1883, drink and poor management of his assets left him a pauper—only recently have I learned that his wife’s will left most of her fortune to her sister, Susan Meschutt Sparks. After some years of selling Sunday newspapers on the streets of Plainfield as his sole source of income, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse.

Wadsworth, Inmate at Plainfield Industrial Home, 1900 Census

There, according to his obituary in the Hartford Daily Times, belatedly published on April 4, 1908, though he had died on March 27:

“He became sadly dissipated, and it was not long before he was reduced to absolute want. In 1898, the [Plainfield Industrial Home] was the only haven, and for ten years he has spent most of his time reading. A veritable book worm, day after day, he would sit reading. The bent old man, on his trips between the home and public library, was a familiar sight. Always carrying books, and with few words for those he met, he went back and forth. In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.

“His associates came to forget him. Politicians who had sat in state conventions where he presided and where his exercise of parliamentary rules was able and astute lost him out of sight. Society, that had insisted on calling him Judge Wadsworth, passed by on the other side. For the last eight months he had slowly failed, through infirmities of old age. Until his mental capacity was obscured he rarely if ever mentioned his birthplace or Alma Mater, but in his decay he would speak of Hartford, and of old times “’Neath the Elms.” He had no family of his own, and it is hardly likely that any of his brothers and sisters can be located. He rarely mentioned them and as no letters ever came to him, the attendants at the home surmised that he preferred not to let them know where he was.”

But someone knew where he was, for only three days after his death his body was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in a family plot along with James Meschutt; Susan Meschutt; Phillip Meschutt; William Sparks and his wife Susan Meschutt Sparks; Maria Isabel Meschutt Jackson Wadsworth; and Sophia Lines.

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

While Abraham G. Mills was searching for the baffling “Mr. Wadsworth,” his possible trump card to Doubleday, no one connected Louis F. Wadsworth, long-term inmate of the Plainfield Industrial Home, with baseball’s invention. With the death of all the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club members from their first decade of play—unbeknownst to the baseball world, Wadsworth was the last to go—no one was left to gainsay the declaration by Bruce Cartwright in 1909 that his father had been the one to invent baseball. Journalists who should have known better rallied around this alternative theory in reaction to what they saw as the absurdity of the claim on behalf of Doubleday.

***

In three weeks I will be at Green-Wood Cemetery for the dedication of a grave marker for James Whyte Davis—a member of Curry’s “Old Fogy” contingent that backed the seven-man and seven-inning plan—who was buried there in pauperdom in 1899 (see: http://goo.gl/j4k6qp). I will also visit the gravesite of Louis Fenn Wadsworth. As I did twenty years ago when I made the pilgrimage to Green-Wood to visit the graves of Henry Chadwick and 1860s star pitcher James Creighton, I will leave a baseball for him, with a message.

 

 

 

 

 

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