February 4th, 2012

Thinking About Football

Jim Thorpe at Carlisle.

One of the game’s greatest trivia questions is this: Can you name the three Hall of Famers who hit a home run in their first major-league at bat? The answer appears at the bottom of this post, the title of which may offer a clue.*

I love baseball, of course, but I am a fan of football too, and write about it now and then. But even on this Saturday before the Super Bowl, when I think about football my mind drifts back to baseball. Who was the greatest of all the many two-sport stars in professional ranks? Bo Jackson? Deion Sanders? Brian Jordan? Or more obscurely, Vic Janowicz, Christy Mathewson, or Rube Waddell? The only athlete to reach Hall of Fame status in more than one major team sport is Cal Hubbard, a charter enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963; in 1976, he was inducted into the baseball hall for his work as an umpire.

Many men played, however briefly, in both the NFL and MLB. Several collegiate All America football players chose baseball and reached stardom. Surprisingly many members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame played major-league ball: Ernie Nevers, George Halas, Paddy Driscoll, Red Badgro, Ace Parker, and the aforementioned Neon Deion. Several other Canton worthies played minor league baseball: Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson, Joe Guyon, and Ken Strong.

But when you think about pigskin and horsehide, you start with Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete in the world, hero of the 1912 Olympics; outfielder with the Giants, Reds, and Braves; and the incomparable football player who, perhaps more than anyone, made the NFL happen. So much has been written about Jim Thorpe that I will not attempt to encapsulate his life here. But in baseball he had one odd moment of immortality, as the man who drove in the winning run in a double no-hit game.

On May 2, 1917, two mediocre teams, playing on the worst field in the big leagues under weather con­ditions that would keep all but the intrepid at home, combined to pre­sent the greatest game ever pitched. The teams were the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs, destined for fourth and fifth place, respectively. Looking at them on the field that day, it was hard to imagine that the Cubs would be NL champs the very next year, and the Reds would win the World Series the year after that.

Federal League Park, today’s Wrigley Field.

The place was Chicago’s Weeghman Park, constructed in 1914 for the Chi­cago Whales of the Federal League. When the outlaw circuit folded after the 1915 campaign, Whales’ owner Charles Weeghman, whose fortune was built on a Chicago lunchroom chain, was permitted to buy the Cubs. He immediately endeared himself to the fans by proclaiming a policy, new to baseball, of permitting them to keep any ball hit into the stands, and by transferring the Cubs from their crumbling West Side Park to his spanking-new edifice.

In later years this smallish park, which at first seated only 14,000, would be expanded to become Wrigley Field. But on this day Weeghman Park had no need for extra seats—only 2,500 curi­ous souls came out to see how baseball could be played in a 38-degree chill, which because of high winds gusting off Lake Michigan felt colder still. What’s more, the arctic conditions caused the topsoil dumped on this cow pasture of a playing field to crack and shift. Seeing the infielders wrestle with ground balls on this grassless, “skin” diamond was guaranteed to amuse; and since there was an uneven slope between the infield and the outfield, even routine pop flies beyond the infield carried an element of risk.

Hippo Vaughn.

The eight Cubs in the field were not an impressive crew: retreads from other clubs such as former Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, catcher Art Wilson, and first baseman Fred Merkle. Slugger Cy Williams was their only real comer. But on the mound, that was another story. Jim “Hippo” Vaughn was a fireballing left-hander whose nickname derived less from his size—6’4″, 220 pounds—than from his lumbering gait. In the last three years he had won 57 games with little support, and in the next four he would win 85 more. He was particularly tough on the Reds, whom he had defeated in Cincinnati the week before, fanning eleven.

The Reds, on the other hand, featured a few genuine stars. At third base was Heinie Groh, the man whose odd “bottle bat”—an enormous barrel atop a  long, skinny handle—made him famous. At first was Hal Chase, the previous year’s batting champ, known as “Prince Hal” for his haughty manner as well as for his peerless play at first, even if it was prone to inept instances at critical moments. The outfield featured three future Hall of Famers: two bound for Canton, one for Cooperstown.

In left field on this day was reserve Manny Cueto, a 5’5″ Havana import. Greasy Neale, the regular left fielder and a future inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, moved over to center to fill in for Edd Roush, a fu­ture baseball enshrinee who sat out with a bum leg. Around in right was Thorpe.

On the mound for Cincinnati was Fred Toney. After a spectacular performance in minor-league ball when he threw a seventeen-inning no-hitter, striking out nineteen, Toney came up with the team he faced today. But the big right-hander did not stick with the Cubs. This year, under manager Christy Mathewson’s easygoing directorship, Toney will flourish, going on to record 24 wins. He threw a variety of stuff: spitballs, fastballs, curves, and an over­hand sinker that faded away from left-handed batters just as Matty’s “fadeaway,” or screwball, once had.

Fred Toney.

Both sides went down quietly through six innings, without a base hit. If the game were being played today, everyone in the park would realize that something unusual was going on. But in 1917 a six-inning no-hitter, though it was hardly a common event, did not arouse much notice. The contest proceeded hitlessly though nine innings. Among the more than 200,000 major league games that have been played before and since, it remains an unmatched occurrence.

Vaughn’s first op­ponent in the tenth was pinch hitter Gus Getz, who sent a pop straight up the chute in front of home, which catcher Wilson grabbed easily. The next bat­ter was light-hitting shortstop Larry Kopf, who in three trips to the plate had hit into two twin killings and grounded out. Vaughn ran the count to three and two, then fired in the fastball that had already produced ten strikeouts. But this time Kopf connected, driving the pitch on a line between Doyle and Merkle, who dove for the ball but missed by a foot or so. With this single, the magic spell was over; perhaps an avalanche of hits would follow. But Neale lifted the ball to center, where Williams settled under it for out number two. Chase followed with an easy liner to center—but Williams muffed it. Kopf reached third as Chase reached on the error.

The batter now was Thorpe, twice a strikeout victim. On Vaughn’s first pitch, Chase dashed for second and stole it with­out a throw—Wilson held onto the ball for fear that Kopf would score while the play was being made at second. Vaughn now went to the curveball, Thorpe’s weakness. Struggling to hold his weight back on the pitch, Thorpe swung awkwardly and hit it off the hands. The ball bounded in front of the plate, then dribbled up the third-base line.

Larry Kopf.

Kopf (who told me the story himself in 1980, when he was eighty-nine) raced toward the plate with the tie-breaking run. Vaughn hurried over to make the play, knowing his third baseman could never reach it in time. He also knew he had no hope of catching the fleet-footed Thorpe at first and, in a clever bit of impro­visation, shoveled the ball home. When Kopf, who was right behind Vaughn—so close that were Hippo to turn around, he could have tagged him—saw this, he stopped dead in his tracks.

But the catcher froze. He just stood at home plate, according to Kopf, arms at his sides, as Vaughn’s toss came to him. The ball struck Wilson’s chest protector and dropped to the ground. He failed even to make the instinctive move to grab the ball once it hit him. Kopf, seeing Wilson standing there like a zombie as the ball rolled a few steps away, dashed home with the run.

Vaughn looked over his shoulder and saw Chase rounding third and heading for home. He turned back to Wilson and shouted, “Are you going to let him score, too?” At this remark, Wilson snapped out of  his deep freeze, grabbed the ball, and tagged the sliding Chase to end the Reds’ half of the inning. Toney retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning, though Cueto had to make a catch at the wall and Williams barely missed a double off the wall in right.

In the Cubs’ clubhouse afterwards, owner Weeghman stuck his head in the door and cursed his players. Art Wilson sobbed like a baby, saying to Vaughn, “I just went out on you, Jim—I just went tight.” And Jim would say to a reporter, “It’s just another ballgame, just another loss.” But it wasn’t.

* Answer to trivia question above: Earl Averill, Hoyt Wilhelm, and … Ace Parker, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Parker also played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937-38. Don’t hate me; use this to win a drink.

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