June 25th, 2012
I’ll soon be running off to Minneapolis for the 42nd annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research, where I’ll be delivering the keynote speech. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to post an entry of customary length this week, so may file a couple of odd squibs like the one below. These were great plays, as viewed in 1913, yet unknown to me; some have lost their claim on immortality, so let’s dust them off now, nearly a hundred years after William Shepard Walsh offered them up in his Handy Book of Curious Information.
One of the most spectacular of recorded feats in fielding is credited to ”Wee Willie” Keeler, in a match played at Baltimore, in the early nineties, between the Baltimores and the Bostons. Keeler was right fielder for the home club. Right field there and then was a terror to visiting players, and a discomfort even to the visited. It ran down a rough and weedy hill and was backed by a fence which sloped upward at an angle of 65 degrees. The two clubs were engaged in a frantic duel for the pennant. [This detail, plus the fact that Stahl did not play with Boston until 1897, establishes that year as the likely date, rather than “the early nineties,” as the author recalled.] Late in the game, with runners on bases, [Chick] Stahl, of the Bostons, drove to right field a long fly that looked like a certain winner for his club. Keeler, realizing that the ball would be out of reach from the field itself, leaped nimbly upon the slope of the fence, and, mounting higher and higher, reached for and caught the ball just as it was sailing over the fence. His momentum carried him further up the incline and ended by precipitating him over the other side of the fence, but he firmly held the ball aloft as he disappeared. His reappearance a moment later was greeted with what the reporters, with a nice mixture of metaphors, called “a rousing ovation.”
Up to date this had been the greatest individual feat ever performed on the field. In 1895, however, Bill Lange, center fielder for the Chicagos, established a new record in Washington. Incidentally he saved himself from fines, aggregating $200, imposed upon him by Captain Anson. Having missed a train from New York he had arrived on the ball-field only just in time to join in the game. In the first half of the eleventh inning Chicago broke a tie by scoring one run. Washington in its half had one man on first base with two out, when “Kip” Selbach, its hardest hitter, sent the ball flying over Lange’s head. “Home run!” howled the Washington fans. Lange, a man weighing 225 pounds, turned his back to the ball and sprinted desperately toward the center-field fence. Then, as the ball was going over his head, he reached and caught it, turned a somersault, crashed against the fence, broke through it, and crawled back out of the wreckage, never having let go of the ball.
The crowd stood up on the benches, stamped, howled, whistled, went mad.
Lange limped in home.
“Fines go, Cap?” he asked, briefly.
“Nope,” said Anson, more briefly.
Hugh S. Fullerton, an expert authority, writing in the American Magazine for June, 1910, signalizes as the greatest episode in base-ball history the famous tenth inning in a game played at Columbus, Ohio, between the home team and the St. Louis. It was the last day of the season . St. Louis and Brooklyn were almost a tie for the championship, the situation being as follows:
If both teams lost or both won, St. Louis would capture the pennant for the fifth consecutive time, an unparalleled record. A fortiore the same result would follow if St. Louis won and Brooklyn lost. On the other hand, Brooklyn could only become champion if on that last day Brooklyn won and St. Louis lost.
In the early stages of the St. Louis-Columbus game, the victory of the Brooklyns (playing in the East) was announced. The championship, therefore, depended on the success or failure of the St. Louis club. One can imagine the excitement and suspense of the spectators at Columbus and the fans all over the country when the ninth inning left the two antagonists close-locked in a tie. St. Louis scored one run in her half of the tenth inning. More excitement, more suspense. Then came a moment of almost frantic unrest with two men out and a runner on second base. “Big Dave” Orr came to the plate for Columbus. Three balls! Two strikes! The next ball pitched must decide the greatest event of the base-ball year. It whirled from the pitcher’s hand, it was met fair and square by Orr’s bat, it sailed back over center field,–the longest hit, some say, ever made,–and home came the man from second base and home came Big Dave.
This last story illustrates well the perils confronting one who would grasp baseball history on the fly. Received wisdom is often not so smart. (I’ll spare you the Doubleday-Cartwright patter.) It turns out that Dave Orr DID hit a walkoff homer at Columbus to defeat the Browns but the event took place on September 1, with 45 days left in the season schedule. Orr’s victim on the Browns, by the way, was ambidextrous pitcher Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain, who won his nickname for the cool demeanor with which, while in the box, he caught flies (the insect variety) and ate them.
Oh, the stories could keep running, but summer is a-coming in, and we really ought to save such ramblings for the hot stove league.