Old Well-Well

Back in the day, when Fred Flintstone and I were young, boys who were baseball mad would tend to read about the game as well as play it, watch it, and listen to it. Before I hit my teen years I had devoured the once inspiring if today naive baseball tales of such authors as Clair Bee, John R. Tunis, Owen Johnson, and Zane Grey. The last named author may come as a surprise, in that while most everyone has heard of him (his 85 books sold more than 100 million copies and inspired 111 films, all of them Westerns), few recall that his first success came as a writer of baseball stories, most of them between 1909 and 1911.

Born in 1872, Pearl Zane Gray — that was the name he was born with, not changing it until his twenties — grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, a dentist’s son who found school confining; fishing, woodsmanship, and baseball were his life. When he was eighteen the family moved to the state’s capital, Columbus, where his pitching skills on behalf of the amateur Capitol club drew the attentions of an ivory hunter for the University of Pennsylvania.

Enrolling at the rather advanced age of twenty, Grey struggled through four years to earn his degree in dentistry, distinguishing himself on the varsity ball field far more than in class. He shifted from the pitcher’s box to the outfield in 1893, his sophomore year, when the lengthened distance to home plate of sixty feet, six inches straightened his curveball. During his four years of varsity ball, his many exploits included a great catch at New York’s Polo Grounds to help Penn defeat the New York Giants in a spring exhibition contest, and a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth inning to vanquish the University of Virginia.

While still enrolled at Penn, he even played professional ball for Wheeling in the Iron and Oil League of 1895, under a false name to maintain his college eligibility for 1896; this maneuver was so common at the time that even a player as prominent as Eddie Collins, Hall of Fame second baseman, began his career with the Philadelphia A’s as a moonlighting collegian, playing under the name of Sullivan. Over the next four years Grey played in such minor leagues as the Interstate, the Atlantic, and the Eastern. Even after setting up his dentistry practice in New York City in 1899, Grey continued to play on weekends for the powerhouse Orange Athletic Club of Orange, New Jersey, a semipro outfit that played Sunday exhibitions against big-league clubs and frequently defeated them.

Zane’s red-haired brother Romer “Reddy” Gray, with whom he had played back in Columbus, was an even better ballplayer, playing a single game with the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates of 1903. Reddy and his buddies in the Buffalo Bisons’ outfield of 1897, Billy Clymer and Red Gilboy, formed the basis of brother Zane’s most famous baseball story, “The Redheaded Outfield.” But I get ahead of myself: that story appeared in Grey’s last baseball opus in 1920.

It was in 1902, at the age of thirty, dispirited about his lack of success as a dentist, that Zane Grey determined to become a writer. His not yet fertile imagination produced Betty Zane, a historical potboiler about his great-great aunt that no commercial publisher would touch; he borrowed money to have it printed and in 1903 issued it himself. A sequel to this book, featuring one of the subordinate characters, appeared in 1906 (The Spirit of the Border).

So when Grey wrote The Short-stop in 1909, he was neither famous nor successful. Despairing of ever making his mark in the writing trade, he tried his hand at a tale for “all the girls and boys who love the grand old American game.” Of course Grey needed the money that his publisher was willing to advance for a book about the national pastime, then at its apex of success, but more importantly, he had come to realize that his work would have to be grounded in personal experience, and he knew baseball as no other American novelist has.

The Short-stop proved a hit, going through three printings in its first six months after publication. Its success inspired Grey to embark upon a personally grounded series of juvenile books featuring hero Ken Ward, including The Young Pitcher (1911). Before completing the boy-hero cycle with Ken Ward in the Jungle and publishing his landmark Riders of the Purple Sage, both in 1912, Grey wrote a bundle of baseball stories for various magazines, which years later were collected in The Redheaded Outfield and Other Stories.

Among these was “Old Well-Well,” which appeared in the July 1910 issue of Success. The author went to New York’s Polo Grounds in search of the man who was “famous from Boston to Baltimore as the greatest baseball fan in the East.” The author went to the ballpark on a Saturday afternoon hoping to meet up with Old Well-Well:

His singular yell had pealed into the ears of five hundred thousand worshippers of the national game and would never be forgotten.

At sight of him I recalled a friend’s baseball talk. ‘You remember Old Well-Well? He’s all in — dying, poor old fellow! It seems young Burt, whom the Phillies are trying out this spring, is Old Well-Well’s nephew and protégé. Used to play on the Murray Hill team; a speedy youngster. When the Philadelphia team was here last, Manager Crestline announced his intention to play Burt in center field. Old Well-Well was too ill to see the lad get his tryout. He was heart-broken and said: “If I could only see one more game!”

The recollection of this random baseball gossip and the fact that Philadelphia was scheduled to play New York that very day, gave me a sudden desire to see the game with Old Well-Well. I did not know him, but where on earth were introductions as superfluous as on the bleachers? It was a very easy matter to catch up with him. He walked slowly, leaning hard on a cane and his wide shoulders sagged as he puffed along. I was about to make some pleasant remark concerning the prospects of a fine game, when the sight of his face shocked me and I drew back. If ever I had seen shadow of pain and shade of death they hovered darkly around Old Well-Well.

Old Well-Well was no invention, as I have learned rather recently. Zane Grey had been a Polo Grounds regular from 1892 to the middle of the following decade, and many times must he have heard the booming cry “Well! Well!! WELL!!!” with which Giants rooter Frank B. Wood annotated the tensest moments of a game. But Grey was eerily prescient in returning his character to the Polo Grounds after a long absence, to emit one last, near-fatal whoop. In fact Wood had been barred from the Polo Grounds since 1906 and, at the time Grey wrote his story, had not been permitted to return.

More than four years after Grey had concluded his story by packing his prostrate protagonist into an ambulance after emitting one final cry, death in fact came to Frank B. Wood, fan, age sixty-nine, on December 9, 1914. In an obituary in the New York Tribune two days later, Heywood Broun wrote:

Fans of the modern Brush Stadium [another name for the Polo Grounds, reconstructed after a fire in 1911] have forgotten him, but fifteen years ago every rooter knew Frank B. Wood, who died yesterday at his home, 259 Hudson st. They did not know him by that name, though, but as “Old Well, Well”! …

So regular was “Well, Well!” in his attendance at the Polo Grounds that he was known to all the players on the circuit.

Wood was a Giant rooter at a time when the fortunes of the team were at their lowest. Nothing could dampen his optimism. Often he would seek to root his team home against leads of anywhere from 8 to 10 runs….

With the coming of better teams came finicky fans. To them the loyal rooting of Wood seemed just so much tireless reiteration. His catchwords remained unchanged and the sudden and ear piercing shout of ‘Well, Well, Well!’ did not always please strangers who sat close at hand. In fact, complaints were made and Wood was barred from the park for many years.

One day last year Tom Foley, the Polo Grounds chief of police, saw a man hanging about the gate disconsolately. Every cheer from the field inside seemed to give him acute physical pain, and at length Foley passed him in. Mike Donlin stepped to the plate as Wood reached his seat, and for the first time in seven years the Polo Grounders heard the “Well, Well, Well!” slogan.

It was not so loud now, but Mike heard and he remembered the call for it had come to him tagged with abuse back in the days when he was a foe and played with the Reds. He waved his cap to the bleacherite, and then struck out.

For the rest of the game Wood was silent. Not only his voice had weakened, but his optimism, too. He left in the seventh inning because the Giants were four runs behind. He did not come back all season, and no one heard his call again.

3 Comments

This is wonderful. Broadening Zane Gray’s baseball background and introducing 21st century readers to Wood AKA “OH Well Well” in one piece is masterful.

Well written, John. I think there is still a place for baseball fiction.

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