Over the Plate: Arlie Latham’s Own Baseball Stories, No. 2

Charlie Frank

Charlie Frank

No. 2—In Baseball, a Great Deal Depends on What You Can Get Away With—Charlie Frank of the New Orleans Team Used to Hand Out “Punk” or Rubber Balls, According to Circumstances, and “Umps” Could Do Nothing, Even After Getting Wise to the Trick.

This is the second of a series of unusual entertaining stories told by Arlie Latham, reminiscent of the old days of baseball, and of some of the things, ludicrous and whimsical, that go to make up a player’s life. Arlie—who was christened Walter Arlington—will be remembered with the Giants of late years as coach and scout.

He played his first professional ball in 1882 with the Philadelphia team of the Alliance League. [The latter is today termed the League Alliance, and it was not Arlie’s first appearance in pro ball: he began with Springfield of the National Association in 1879, moved up to Buffalo of the National League in 1880, and back down to Philly in the Eastern Championship Association in 1881.] Later he joined the St. Louis “Browns,” with whom he remained nine years [in fact seven, from 1883-89, then another few games with St. Louis of the NL in 1896, Washington in 1899, and the Giants in 1909]. Subsequently he played in Chicago, Cincinnati, and then back to St. Louis. He was one of the best third baseman and baserunners the game ever turned out, and was known the country over as baseball’s foremost comedian.

It is estimated that while he was under Chris von der Ahe, in St. Louis, he was fined an aggregate of $1,000,000 for his pranks. But Chris never collected the money. Recently Latham opened a delicatessen store in New York City, and failing to see any great future in it, he went umpiring in the Colonial League.

Latham HeaderThe “ways that are dark” of the heathen Chinee have nothing on the ways of some ball players I have known. They could fox Solomon in all his glory, and he’d have to acknowledge that he was not as wise as the least of these.

And they were none of your smart youngsters, either. They were old hands: fellows who had broken into baseball about the time of the Franco-Prussian Serious and who had grown gray in their old tobacco-stained unis. They knew more tricks than a circus monkey: and if the other side gave them the slightest opportunity to “do” them—well, that other side was done.

I’m not breaking into the Muck-Raking League in giving these things away, because they are pretty well known to the profession. Besides, in baseball a lot depends on what you can get away with. If the ump isn’t looking you can cut fifteen feet inside third base on the way home; and if you get away with it, all right. If you don’t, just smile it off, hitch your pants, and sit down—after you’ve called the umpire a blind bum. Of course we know that here are some managers who wouldn’t do anything that looked like trickery; but there are others who don’t think o any more of losing a game than they do of their right eye.

Some years ago a man named Charlie Frank managed the New Orleans team [1905-13]. Charlie was the greatest hand for throwing dust in an umpire’s eye (or anyone else’s, for that matter) that I ever saw. And he had the neatest little device for doing it with.

1905 New Orleans

1905 New Orleans

Charlie came out to the game every day with a little valise like the one Dr. Pill used to carry. He kept that valise under his hand always; and if anyone came near it Charlie would hop around like a hen whose eggs are threatened. You’d think he carried bombs in it, or dope to inject into his players. Yet he only carried baseballs!

In that valise were for rows of baseballs. The first row consisted of new, good baseballs. The second row of new, punk balls. Those in the third row were balls that had been dirtied and which had an abnormal amount of rubber in them. The fourth row also held dirty balls, but they were as dead as Caesar. And according as Charlie’s team was in the lead or behind, he would throw out those balls.

The scheme Charlie worked with the new balls was this: He’d break the seal of the box of course, take out the balls, tie a piece of cord around them and hang them up in a dry refrigerator for a few days. At the end of that time you could slam them on the ground with all your might and they wouldn’t bounce half an inch. The fourth row of balls he had in his valise was of the same sort.Latham Phony Pill

Now if a ball were fouled over the grand stand, naturally the umpire would ask Charlie for a new ball. If his team was winning and the other side was at bat, Charlie would throw in a good ball and take his chances. But if they were behind, out would come a punk, new ball. Of course, it is customary for the umpire to examine the cover of the new balls to see that the seal is not broken. But Frank had a way of getting around that, too. Instead of handing the ball to the umpire, he’d take it out of his valise and slam it in the ground. The box would burst open, the ball would roll out and the ump, suspecting nothing, would hand it to the pitcher.

The pitcher would then wind up and shoot a fast, straight one across. The batter would see it coming, get set for it and lean against it with enough force to tear the stitches off it.

“Fupp!”

There was no stinging smack to that ball. It sounded as though the batter had hit a bag of mud.

And instead of breaking a board in the outfield fence with it, he wouldn’t knock it out of the infield. It couldn’t be dome. If Samson himself had hit that ball with a telephone pole he couldn’t have broken a pane of glass with it.

But when his team came to the bat Charlie worked another ball. He generally had one of those rubber skyrockets on tap and when he needed runs he’d use it. Crack! When a batter hit one of those things he sent it into the next county. Talk about artillery practice! Why, when that ball was passing over the centerfield fence it was only just getting under way. I don’t know whether they ever stopped.

Sometimes a batter would get wise to the “punks,” and after he’d been thrown out a city block at first he’d ask to see the ball. Charlie’s second baseman generally had a good new ball stuck somewhere in his shirt, and after a punk was hit like that, it was always thrown from the first to the second baseman. Then, of course, the second baseman would stick it in his shirt and throw in the good ball.

“There’s somtehin’ phony about that pill,” the batter would say. “I hit hard enough to knock it over the fence.”

Athletic Park, New Orleans. Home of the Pelicans of the Southern Association, 1901-1907.

Athletic Park, New Orleans. Home of the Pelicans of the Southern Association, 1901-1907.

Charlie always got sore when they began to talk like that. If there was anything that hurt Charlie’s feelings it was an implication that he was crooked. He couldn’t hit that sort of delivery at all. It was too low.

“Lay off that stuff!” he’d yell. “What’re you trying to do? Show someone up around here?”

Then he’d bounce the good ball on the ground, and, of course, it would rebound in great shape.

“There. Are you satisfied? You’ve got some crust, you have. You’re some fresh busher. Because you can’t hit don’t try to make a crook out o’ me. Next time you get up, keep your bat in the bat bag. It’ll be just as much use to you there as in your hands.”

And it would, too. A man never had a chance with Charlie Frank.

But if all these things failed, old Charlie had another deck up his sleeve from which he could slip a card any time he wanted one.

On top of the grand stand he had a kid stationed that no one but himself and his team knew of. When a ball was fouled off and landed on top of the grand stand it was the duty of the kid to throw it back. And so he did. But not always the same ball that went up.

Latham The KidHe had a peep hole up there, and before he threw back a ball he’d take a glance at Charlie through the hole and wait for a sign. If Charlie’s team was leading, he’d throw in a good ball. If they were behind, out came a new “punk.” Even at that Charlie wouldn’t give the other team an even break for their money, because as soon as it became a little dark, instead of throwing in a new “punk,” he’d sign the kid to throw in a dirty one, which they barely could see coming at them. Fat chance a team had of winning a game from that gent, if he could help it.

One day the umpire got suspicious of the ball He grabbed it and put it in his pocket. Then he took out his knife to cut it open. As soon as Charlie saw it was all up, he made a run at him. His team followed him, got around the poor ump and started to push him all over the field. Oh, they were a foxy bunch! In the scuffle Charlie got the “punk” out of the ump’s pocket and put in a good ball. Then when the ump got away he cut open the ball—and found it O.K.!

But when the umpires got wise to Charlie’s game at last, what could they do? Nothing. He’d got away with it and that’s all there was to it. They had a good laugh and put Charlie down as an old fox. And so he was.

Charlie wasn’t alone in his glory in those days. Old Buck Ewing was his equal any time. And the peculiar thing about both of them was that they both pulled the same stuff. Buck was managing Cincinnati at the time. I was umpiring in the National League and it was I who finally gummed up his cards.

Buck used to hand out his punks from the bench, all the while looking as innocent as a pet billygoat. You’d never suspect him in the world. He was a wonder. His favorite pastime was reading the standing of the clubs in the Land League in the Irish World.

1895 Spalding League Ball

1895 Spalding League Ball

One day I took one of the ”punks” out of his hands just as he was about to throw it on the ground. I saw that the seal was broken.

“Nix on this stuff,” I said, “give me a new ball.”

Buck was indignant.

“What d’you—Hah! What d’you know?”

I told him I was onto his little game, and if he wanted me to tell someone about it, why, I’d be glad to do it. That killed Buck, and, a far as I know, he never threw another “punk” into the diamond.

There are all sorts of ways of giving the other team less than is coming to them, from getting their signs (which used to be a science with one club I could mention) to shining a mirror into the batters’ eyes. I don’t know that the latter mentioned trick has ever been pulled, so I suppose it isn’t feasible. If it were it would have been pulled long before this. But as I have said, it’s not what you do in baseball but what you get away with.

8 Comments

Glorious stuff from Arlie Latham via John Thorn. One question, is the “ways that are dark” from the Bret Hart poem?

Yep.

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain …

Unrelated to this post (which is great, btw). I am taking an online sabermetrics course and you were credited with trying to come up with a fielding runs metric to better evaluate fielding stats of players. Well done!

Thanks. Any stat innovation for which I may be credited (OPS, Linear Weights, etc.) is the product of my long collaboration with Pete Palmer, who is truly the innovator.

I meant to mention that he did give credit to both you and Pete Palmer. I saw your name and said to myself, Hey, I follow his blog!

Excellent, thanks.

Hi John, apologies for going off topic on what is another excellent post but I hope I can ask your advice! I’m a huge fan of both baseball and the way you write about it. I’m about to start an MA in History and want to write a dissertation on baseball history (more specifically pre-war baseball and how it contributed to the American identity).
Since I’m English primary sources would be a huge struggle for me to attain and I don’t know how I would find enough first hand evidence to make my paper worthwhile. Do you have any suggestions on how best to find primary sources in my situation or indeed on the idea as a dissertation in the first place? I’m contemplating joining SABR but don’t know if it would be useful.
Thanks for any help you may give!

Joining SABR is a very good idea. In the Age of the Internet, may useful sources are available to you free or via subscription services. The good folks at the Hall of Fame Library will be happy to advise, once you have landed on a topic.

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