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Who Were the Fastest Pitchers?

Amos Rusie with Cincinnati, at the end of the line in 1901.

Amos Rusie with Cincinnati, at the end of the line in 1901.

I sort of fell into this subject on Facebook earlier today in response to a woodcut I posted of Amos Rusie’s drop ball. With his legendary fastball, I suggested, why would he ever need to throw a drop? Walter Johnson pitched almost his entire career throwing one pitch. When Walter Johnson came along in 1907, writers seeking to compliment the young fireballer called him “another Rusie.” As Mike Gershman wrote in Total Baseball, “Baseball paid Rusie the ultimate compliment in 1893 when it changed the rules because of him. The mound was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches, and several authorities claim the change was intended to make Rusie’s heat less intimidating. (Rusie’s first catcher, Dick Buckley, padded his glove with a thin sheet of lead to help absorb the impact of Rusie’s hummer.) The Indianan led the league in strikeouts five years out of six and won 30 games or more four years in a row.”

In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only five feet shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate but the back line was five and a half feet further, creating an effective distance of 55’6″. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, the Hoosier Thunderbolt may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.

The Rusie drop ball, depicted in 1900.

The Rusie drop ball, depicted in 1900.

Let’s try a math exercise: Rusie’s 95 mph–my approximation; his pitches were never clocked, but Connie Mack said he was as fast as Johnson or Bob Feller–speedball of 1892, thrown from 55’6″ (the back-foot distance) would have arrived at the plate in 0.400 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing 95 mph from 60’6″ would reach the plate at 0.434 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing at 100 mph would reach home plate at 0.413 seconds. If Rusie threw routinely at 95 mph (as opposed to a peak mark like Aroldis Chapman’s 105) he was, from a batter’s viewpoint, the fastest ever,  Q.E.D. (Yes, Chapman’s fastest-ever pitch arrived at the plate in 0.393 seconds, but that is a reliever’s apple to a starter’s orange.)

Jim Creighton, first to pitch with a planted back foot.

Jim Creighton of the famous Excelsior Club, first to pitch with a planted back foot.

To such musing my friend Rod Nelson replied, “how long for the fastest fast-pitch softball to reach the plate?” This interested me because in men’s fast-pitch leagues the pitching distance is 46 feet, only one foot longer than baseball’s original pitching distance, first specified in 1857. Let’s say, I replied, that a pitcher could maintain a 95-mph pace, as above. (Eddie Feigner’s peak of 104 is an anomaly, like Chapman’s 105 above.) That 95 mph windmill pitch would arrive at the plate in 0.330 seconds (though the ball is bigger and theoretically easier to hit). Imagine Jim Creighton Of the Brooklyn Excelsiors of 1860 pitching, with a straight arm and no windup–let’s say for argument–an 80 mph fastball at the 45 foot distance (which was really a 50 foot distance from the back foot, and is thus calculated). His ball would have arrived at the plate in 0.426 seconds–faster to the plate than the modern pitcher at 95 mph.

Interesting, no?

John C. Tattersall

John C. Tattersall

John C. Tattersall

This morning SABR announced the 2014 recipients of the Henry Chadwick Award, established “to honor the game’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past.” The five new Chaddie winners are Mark Armour, Marc Okkonen, Cory Schwartz, Ernie Lanigan, and John C. Tattersall, whose brief bio I wrote for the forthcoming Baseball Research Journal. As perhaps the least well known of the five (at least to those under the age of sixty), Tattersall deserves, in my opinion, something of a sneak preview. For snapshot profiles of all five honorees, see: http://sabr.org/latest/sabr-announces-2014-chadwick-award-recipients

John Tattersall (1910–1981) was a great authority on home runs and early baseball records. His scrapbooks of multiple box scores for nearly every game from 1876 to 1890 proved vital for three generations of baseball encyclopedia: Turkin-Thompson in 1951, ICI/Macmillan in 1969 (for which he was listed as “Consulting Editor”), and Total Baseball in 1989. Tattersall’s day-by-day records have been lost, but what has survived is a batting and fielding summary and a pitching summary for each club in each year.

Tattersall first gained national attention for his baseball research in 1953 when The Sporting News ran his story on the correction of Nap Lajoie’s 1901 batting average from .405 to .422. (In that same year he self-published The Home Run Parade, “a complete exposition of the home run production of all active major league baseball players.”) Lajoie had originally been credited with a .422 average, with 220 hits in 543 at bats. After a number of years, someone noticed that if you take these at bats and hits, the average comes out only to .405, so his average was changed. Turkin-Thompson gave Nap a mark of .409 in its first edition, in 1951.  Later in the 1950s, Tattersall had his doubts and decided to go through his newspaper collection of box scores. He found 229 hits for Lajoie, not 220—the error had been in the figure for hits, not in the figure for batting average. Thus his average was restored to .422, which happened to be the highest in American League history. ICI/Macmillan research in this area came up with a .426 mark (232 for 544, based on newspaper accounts), which was his average as published in the 1969 Baseball Encyclopedia.

The Baseball Encyclopedia, ICI/Macmillan, 1969

The Baseball Encyclopedia, ICI/Macmillan, 1969

Tattersall also found disputed hits in Anson’s record for 1879; compiled pinch-hit, Hit by Pitcher, and Batters Facing Pitcher records where none had existed before, and established the home run log, which SABR purchased and maintains. The home run log was digitized and has been licensed for use by baseball-reference.com.

Tattersall was born in Holyoke, MA in 1910. He attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., receiving a BS in 1933 and a Masters the next year.

His interest in baseball had been stimulated by visits to Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta to see the Crackers play in 1922–23. He saw his first major league game in Boston on June 19, 1926, and remembered Pirate pitcher Vic Aldridge stealing the only base of his career. His interest in home runs developed from watching the Yankees and Babe Ruth, his particular favorite. He became fascinated by statistical research and stole time from his studies at Georgetown to do baseball research at the Library of Congress.

He went to work in the shipbuilding industry in 1935 in New York, later moving to Boston and then Philadelphia (with time out for work with the War Shipbuilding Administration in WWII). In Boston in 1941 he purchased from the Boston Transcript, which was going out of business, a large number of baseball scrapbooks and sports pages dating back to 1876 when the National League was founded with Boston as a charter member. He soon found himself in possession of a very large amount of material which, after years of cataloging and filing, gave him almost every box score in major league history.

Home Run Parade, 1953

Home Run Parade, 1953

After joining SABR in 1971, shortly after it was formed, Tattersall began organizing his home run material for publication. He supplied several interesting articles for the Baseball Research Journal and in 1975 published on his own Home Run Handbook, now scarce. The following year he published The First Season, a centennial reproduction by photocopy of all the box scores of the NL in its initial season of 1876. In 1977 he reconstructed the Early World Series, 1884-1890.

It was in 1977 that he retired as vice president of his shipbuilding company in Philadelphia and moved to Del Ray Beach, Florida. He passed away in Boca Raton on May 29, 1981.

The Dawn of Athlete Endorsements

Red Stocking Cigar Poster

Red Stockings Cigar. Click to enlarge.

Today many athletes earn far more from their endorsement deals than from their efforts on the playing field. As the table below demonstrates, Tiger Woods is the king of active player endorsements, last year raking in $65 million compared to his $13.1 million in prize money from golf tournaments. As a retired player, Michael Jordan is not counted, yet if former athletes were in the mix, Jordan would top everyone with his $80 million in royalties from his own brand. Yet for ratio of endorsement dollars to athletic ones, the king among sport’s top 100 earners is perhaps a surprise: Usain Bolt, who garnered only $200,000 on the track but $24 million off it. (Endorsement income is an estimate of product/service sponsorship deals, appearance fees, and licensing fees for the twelve months through June 2013, as tabulated by Forbes in its annual survey of the 100 highest-paid athletes.)

Many high-salaried athletes had negligible endorsement income (Floyd Mayweather, for example, earned $34 million in the ring and not a penny outside it). Among the 27 baseball players on the list, of prime interest to the readership here, no one gained more off the field than on it, and the highest earners via endorsements were Derek Jeter with $9 million and Ichiro Suzuki with $6 millon.

Athletes Who Earned More via Endorsement than Sport
Tiger Woods $65M to $13.1M
Roger Federer $45M to $7.7M
Phil Mickelson $44M to $4.7M
Lebron James $42M to $17.8M
David Beckham $42 M to $5.2M
Kobe Bryant $34M to $27.9M
Mahendra Singh Dhoni $28M to $3.5M
Usain Bolt $24M to $200K
Maria Sharapova $23M to $6M
Lionel Messi $21M to $20.3M
Derrick Rose $21M to $16.4M
Rafael Nadal $21M to $5.4M
Sachin Tendulkar $18M to $4M
Rory McIlroy $16M to $13.6M
Ernie Els $16M to $3.5M
Li Na $15M to $3.2M
Novak Djokovic $14 M to $12.9M
Dale Earnhardt $13M to $13M
Serena Williams $12M to $8.5M

You would not be wrong to think that athlete endorsements were few and far between until the pioneering efforts of Babe Ruth and his agent, Christy Walsh. But who was the first ballplayer to endorse a product and, presumably, be paid for the persuasive power of his celebrity? Authors Bernard Mullin, Stephen Hardy, and William Sutton suggest, in their 2007 book Sport Marketing: “According to Bert Sugar, the first recorded instance of a modern athlete’s leasing his name (to endorse a sports product) occurred on September 1, 1905, when Honus Wagner … of the Pittsburgh Pirates gave the J.F. Hillerich & Son Company permission to use his name on its Louisville Slugger bats for a consideration of $75.”

George Wright, by Warren

George Wright, by Warren

This is surely incorrect. A poster from 1874, featuring Hall of Famer George Wright of Boston promoting the Red Stockings Cigar, tops Honus with three decades to spare. A splendid lithograph from the firm of J.H. Bufford & Sons, the only example known to survive, has now emerged from a private collection to be placed at auction in the spring. That it is handsome you may judge; that it is important in the history of baseball and sport altogether—as the earliest tangible evidence in any sport of an athlete endorsing a commercial product—permit me to describe. There are three stories to tell here: that of the ballplayer, another of the lithographer, and the last about the cigar and its makers.

Before Babe Ruth rolled his own cigars or endorsed candy and tobacco products, before he became the baseball hero of the nation with 54 home runs in 1920, his first season with New York, there was another titan whose name was synonymous with the emerging national game: George Wright. Although he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame two years before that institution opened its doors to the public, George Wright is not a name that, like Ruth’s, shines as brightly as ever.

His stats are readily available for the years since the debut of the game’s first professional league in 1871, but he was already a legend by then. In the undefeated 1869 campaign of the Cincinnati Reds, in the 57 contests that came against National Association clubs, George Wright’s bat produced an average of five hits and ten total bases per game; he collected 49 home runs among his 304 hits and batted .629. To the argument that the opposition was frequently soft: In the club’s 19 games against fellow professionals (the Reds won all, of course), he hit 13 home runs and batted .587.

First Nine of the Cincinnati Red Stockings

First Nine of the Cincinnati Red Stockings

Selling his services to the highest bidder each year, he had played for the top club in the country in nearly every year since the end of the Civil War: the Unions of Morrisania; the Nationals of Washington, DC; the Cincinnati Red Stockings; the Boston Red Stockings; and the Providence Greys. Indeed, from 1866 through 1879 only three times was his club not the champion, and one of these years was 1871, when despite an outfield collision that limited him to half of his club’s scheduled games, he hit a resounding .413.

In the New York Evening Journal of 1911, four decades after Wright played his last game, Sam Crane declared, “There have been many great shortstops, but for all-round ability there has been none who ever played the position who has been able to force George Wright from the top-notch rung of the ladder of fame.” Crane, a second baseman who began his career in the National League as George was winding own his, wrote this at a time when Honus Wagner was at the height of his powers: “I have known them all and have seen them all play, but to George Wright I give the credit of being the best ever.”

He was so popular a figure in his Boston years that he became the first player to author (or, more probably, affix his name to) a book: Record of the Boston Base Ball Club, Since its Organization, With a Sketch of All its Players for 1871, ’72, ’73, and ’74, and Other Items of Interest. Rockwell and Churchill of Boston published the 52-page book in 1874, surely recognizing the value of attaching George Wright’s name. This was also the year in which George and his teammates, along with the Philadelphia Athletics, crossed the Atlantic to introduce America’s new game to England.

Red Stockings Cigars

Red Stockings Cigars, 1870s

And 1874 was also the year when the fledgling firm of Nichols & Macdonald, Boston cigar makers, secured an image of George Wright for a 14– by 10–inch advertising poster. Produced for them by the venerable lithographer and job printer J.H. Bufford’s Sons of 490 Washington Street, it is a graphic and historic landmark. Wright’s image within the poster dates to 1871 or ’72, when Warren’s Photographic Studios of Boston issued it as a cabinet card. The address listed for Bufford in the city directory for 1875 is 666 Washington, so we may deduce the date of the poster as no later than 1874. The young cigar makers are not listed before 1874, so there we have the date of issuance with certainty.

The lithographic house of John Henry Bufford (1810–1870), and its successor entities run by his sons, went back to 1829, when he began as an apprentice of William S. Pendleton in Boston. He labored alongside Nathaniel Currier, who had started with Pendleton one year earlier. Bufford worked under his own name in New York from 1835 to about 1840, sometimes working under commission for George Endicott and for Currier (Currier and Ives would not form until 1852). He then returned to Boston where, from 1845, J.H. Bufford & Co. became a major lithographic establishment of the period. If Bufford is less highly regarded today than his contemporaries, it may be because where Currier early on tilted toward “framing prints,” Bufford continued as a multipurpose job printer who sometimes co-published works with other companies. Bufford ran the firm until his death in 1870, after which his sons—Frank Gale Bufford and John Henry Bufford, Jr.—took over operations, continuing until about 1910.

Union Pond, Williamsburg, L.I.

Union Pond, Williamsburgh, L.I.

Starting as an apprentice, Bufford appreciated not only the practice of lithography but also the need to employ apprentices with artistic talents. Of these, none went on to greater fame than Winslow Homer, who trained with Bufford from 1855 to 1857. While with Bufford, he produced a group of undistinguished sheet music covers. In 1862, working on commission for Thomas & Eno, he produced his only image with baseball associations—a spectacular lithograph of “Union Pond, Williamsburgh, L.I.” This site became the Union Base Ball Grounds of Brooklyn, to which patrons were charged ten cents for their admission.

Testifying to the senior Bufford’s interest in sports are four magnificent lithographs produced under his aegis. The earliest is “The Eleven of New England: Cricket Match at Boston, September 18th, 1850.” Another is a beautifully detailed litho, with 250 recognizable portraits, of “The International Contest Between Heenan and Sayers at Farnborough, on the 17th, of April 1860.” A third is “Camp of the 37th Mass. Vol’s. near Brandy Station, Va.” with a detail showing soldiers playing wicket. And the last is well known to advanced baseball collectors: “The Base Ball Quadrille” of 1867, dedicated to the Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club of Boston—pioneers of the New York Game—and depicting its top player, Frank Prescott. After John H. Bufford’s death in 1870, his sons gave even more attention to sport—particularly baseball—by publishing trade cards, handheld-fan illustrations, and of course this momentous poster from 1874.

The Eleven of New England, Morgan, Bufford, 1851

The Eleven of New England, Morgan, Bufford, 1851

Messrs. Nichols and Macdonald were not the first to name a product for a baseball club—that distinction goes to Ohioan Fred Burrell, who manufactured a Red Stocking cigar in 1869 or ’70 to honor the unbeaten Cincinnati nine. A generic baseball player adorns the cigar-box label; its model may have been either Harry Wright or Charlie Gould, as they were the only two Red Stockings to sport a goatee. But the image is sufficiently indistinct to presume that neither was paid for the use of his likeness.

Cincinnati Red Stocking Cigar Box

Burrell’s Cincinnati Red Stocking Cigar Box

When the Cincinnati Red Stockings disbanded after the 1870 season, manager Harry Wright took the name and several key players— brother George, the aforementioned Gould, Dave Birdsall, and Cal McVey—and formed a club in Boston to compete in the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Harry also brought the discarded nickname to Boston; the Red Stockings are today, in an unbroken line of descent, the Atlanta Braves.

David L. Nichols, as a career salesman and the older partner in the firm of Nichols and Macdonald, is probably the one who came up with the idea to create a Boston version of Burrell’s “Red Stockings Cigar” and to promote its sale through a highly recognizable George Wright. As Crane would recall in 1911, “he had a thick crop of dark curly hair, a small mustache and a dab on either cheek for a bluff at ‘siders’ … his prominent teeth would gleam and glisten in an array of white molars that would put our own Teddy Roosevelt and his famed dentistry establishment far in the shadow.”

Born in West Newbury, MA in 1836, Nichols fought in the Civil War with Company F of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry and with Company D & M of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. He was mustered out on September 3, 1865. Little more than two years later, on January 14, 1868, he married Mary M. Carter, daughter of Isaac Carter and Maria Manson Carter. Upon her husband’s death, Maria married again, in 1843, to Hugh Macdonald (also spelled as McDonald); in 1850 they produced Frederick William Macdonald. In short: David L. Nichols would join in cigar-making partnership with his brother-in-law, Frederick. So close were the two that they shared the same household in Cambridge, with Maria Macdonald, who had been widowed once more.

David L. Nichols, 1863

David L. Nichols, 1863

Nichols and Macdonald sold their Red Stocking cigar at 114 Broad Street in Boston in 1874 and 1875, but at some point in 1876 the firm failed. Nichols was reduced to becoming a seller of butter and cheese at Faneuil Hall Market. At 2 PM on October 9, 1878, wrote the Boston Journal of the following day, he took a room at the Carlton House, No. 5 Hanover Street,

stating that he wanted to sleep a couple of hours, and leaving orders to be called at 4 o’clock. An hour or so after he entered the room the report of a pistol shot was heard…. At 4 o’clock the occupant was found dead on the bed, with a bullet hole in his head. A new pistol was lying by his side on the bed, also a box of cartridges, one of the cartridges only having been removed. There were two or three letters in the room, left by deceased….

David L. Nichols’ widow continued to live in the Macdonald household until her death at age 78, in 1916. She was buried alongside her husband in West Newbury.

Red Stockings Cigar, ca. 1905

Red Stockings Cigar, ca. 1905

In 1884 Fred Macdonald, now married to Theresa A. Brown of Cambridge, reappears in the Boston city directory as a cigar manufacturer or seller at 15 Oliver. In that year a design patent taken out by Nichols and Macdonald in 1874 was transferred to Macdonald alone, though the Red Stocking (no longer plural) Cigar may actually have been revived in the previous year. (The Cambridge Chronicle reported September 15, 1883 that “Bailey’s Key West and Red Stocking Cigars are the best 10 cents cigar in town.”)

The Red Stocking brand’s identification with the national pastime was reinforced in 1886 by the issuance of sample cards that are among the greatest rarities in the hobby. Only three Red Stocking Cigar cards are known: Charlie Buffinton, John Morrill, and Hoss Radbourn.

For the rest of his life, Fred Macdonald was a success in the cigar-making line and so was his Red Stocking brand, by now a somewhat wistfully obsolete reference, as Boston’s National League ball club was no longer called by that name. A notice by Ren Mulford in the Cincinnati Post of May 18, 1905, testified that the brand was a nostalgic one: “The Red Stocking cigar is a Boston weed named for the Beaneaters.” The twentieth century label for the Red Stocking Cigar features the Bufford background of 1874 but replaces George Wright with an unidentified Boston NL player of the 1901–1905 period, given the lace front of the jersey; I think it’s Fred Tenney.

In 1889 another instance of player endorsement predating Honus Wagner was memorialized in a fine lithographic advertisement for E. and J. Burke’s ale and stout. According to Charles Zuber of the Cincinnati Times-Star:

Anson and Ewing promoting ale and stout.

Anson and Ewing promoting ale and stout.

There is only one case of record where ball players received a large remuneration for acting as models for an advertisement. Those players were Capt. Ewing and ‘Old Man’ Anson. It was before the Brotherhood War, when Ewing was in the very zenith of his glory. A certain ale manufacturing concern wanted a taking ad. for its goods and decided that a base ball picture was the best thing. So when the Chicagos came to New York this firm arranged for Ewing and Anson to sit in front of a tent on which the ad of the company was emblazoned. Barrels and cases of the product were placed in close proximity and Ewing and Anson, in their uniforms and each with a glass of ale poised graceful in his hands, were in the foreground. The ad made a big hit and Ewing and Anson received $300 and a case of ale each. It was quick and easy for them.

In 2008 this baseball advertising piece sold at auction for $188,000. What will the Red Stockings Cigar poster bring?

Slivers, the Baseball Clown

Slivers Eccentric Rag

Slivers Eccentric Rag

Circus clown Frank Oakley, born Frank Anderson but known as “Slivers,” was born in Sweden in 1871. His most famous act, the pantomime “Ball Game,” played on the baseball fan’s fantasy trope, “Kill the Umpire.” According to a Detroit writer of the day, quoted by John Pult in his fine essay “Chalk Face” [http://goo.gl/01k18z], Slivers, after setting up a diamond in the center ring of the big tent,” emerged as a catcher, with his ‘bird cage’ mask and heavily padded mitt. He popped his fist in the glove a few times and set up, crouching behind the plate. He feigned receiving a pitch, and then in the midst of the motion of tossing the horsehide back to his battery-mate he suddenly wheeled to argue the call with the imaginary ump, throwing off the mask, gesticulating wildly and jawing with his adversary. Later he took a turn at bat, and, after working the count full, ‘hit’ one in the gap, but was thrown out trying ‘to stretch a three-bagger into a home run.’ Another rhubarb with the umpire ensued. By all accounts, at this point the crowd watching Slivers was delirious. One circus memoir of the period references the need for extra medical personnel because so many in the audience were passing out from laughter. ‘The entire act was in pantomime,’ the writer states. ‘No one but Oakley was on the stage. But so realistic was every move and gesture, so convincing, that he never failed to carry the house.'” 

For ball fans of a certain age, this recalls not only Max Patkin, Al Schacht, and Nick Altrock–who was termed “The ‘Slivers’ of the Diamond”–but also Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, film pantomimists who surely emulated Slivers as well. Barely ten years after his death, he was legendary. “Every Spring visit to the [Madison Square] Garden,” wrote George MacAdam in the New York Times in 1925, “brings back to me the memory of Slivers. To the generation of youngsters that now crowds the circus, Slivers isn’t even a name. But some dozen or so years ago he was the king of clowns. Never before, never since,, has the whirl ceased in all three rings while a clown ‘pulled his stunt'; Slivers had the huge arena to himself while he played his one-man game of baseball and thousands rocked with laughter.”

The passage below by Wyndham Martyn is from Pearson’s Magazine, July 1916, some three months after his suicide, also reported at length in the New York Times [http://goo.gl/vrlZ43]. It is an excerpt from his larger article, “Concerning Clowns.”

NONE among modern American clowns was so widely known or universally liked as Frank Oakley, better known to his public as “Slivers.” Less than three months ago he died by his own hand and the sorrow this deed created showed how deeply he had crept into the hearts of those who knew him.

Slivers at the Hippodrome

Slivers at the Hippodrome

Slivers possessed the genius which can devise new business or adapt old clown stuff to new conditions. He blazed trails that his rivals tried laboriously to follow. It was Slivers who organized the clown band in the old Forepaugh show. And who can forget the fun he caused in the early days of this same show at Madison Square Garden by his antics with fireworks that would not go off as they should? But his funniest stunt probably was his one-man baseball game made possible only by his great gift of pantomimic mimicry. Slivers’ feet were no less distinctive than those which have earned Charlie Chaplin a half million dollars a year. His row with the umpire, his brilliant fielding, his run-making and the hundred and one of the fixings that went with this dash of pure humor will never be forgotten by those who saw it. An English visitor, probably the same man who in describing Philadelphia said it was a city ruled by a family named Scrapple, and had biddle every morning for breakfast, saw the national game first as Slivers played it. He was immensely impressed and was writing an account of it to the London Field when a friend assured him that it was not always played that way.
Slivers in His Baseball Uniform, Kansas City Star, 1908

Slivers in His Baseball Uniform, Kansas City Star, 1908

Frank Oakley was born of English parents in Sweden and came here when a child. In 1898 he ran away from home. Boys of English stock when they forsake the parental dwelling either go to sea or follow the horse tents in the circuses. Slivers was attracted to the traveling show of John McMann where he became a groom. It was not long before Oscar Lowander, of a well-known circus family, discovered that Slivers had more talent than was needed by a horse masseur. In fact the boy was brimful of whimsicalities and promise. He jumped at the opportunity to be for a time the least of the troupe of clowns. He did not long remain the least among them. Probably no man in his profession ever made good in a shorter time. Fame and money were speedily his and older heads might have been turned by the reward his wit brought him. Not so with Slivers.Like Jules Turnour, he had a serious cast of countenance when not playing. He was very tall and slim—his nickname was gained from his build—and in ordinary life sparing of speech. Sometimes he fell into introspective moods and a certain habit of brooding melancholy. But these moods were never such as to make him anything but kindly to those about him. When his old friends came to see him for the last time as he lay in an undertaker’s room last March one of them pronounced a truth about him which could very well be called the most fitting epitaph. “He never made any one cry. He brought laughter to the hearts of a million people.”

Circus folk see a good deal of tragedy of which the public knows nothing. When an accident occurs the music must never stop, the clowns must keep on with their antics and the beautiful ladies on the prancing horses must keep on smiling and dancing. The public must never be permitted to feel other than light-hearted. Slivers had belonged to the “Big Top” long enough to have seen many such accidents. The miscalculation of a gymnast that meant broken limbs or death, the misstep of a rider that might mean a broken back, all these Slivers had seen and for all these he was prepared in so far as any man may be prepared for the death of those whom he likes and with whom he works. But he used to brood on these accidents and never weary talking of them.

Frank Oakley, a.k.a. Slivers

Frank Oakley, a.k.a. Slivers

A fellow clown, Dan Luby by name, met his death on the tan bark one night when he was doing his trick of jumping over four elephants. When his audience saw that he did not get up as usual they thought it merely another laugh-provoking stunt. And they shrieked with pleasure when the other clowns solemnly picked him up as though dead and carried him away. Slivers used to talk about this tragedy a great deal.”We picked him up,” he said, “and carried poor old Dan off, doing funny stuff every minute while the spectators roared with laughter. When we got Dan behind the scenes we cried over him. That’s two sides of a clown’s life all in a nutshell.”

Some few years ago his wife died, leaving him with a daughter named Verona, who is now in the care of a once famous bareback rider, Josie Dermott Robinson. It was thought by some that his death resulted from grief at his loss. But it was an even more pathetic thing than that.He became very much attached to a girl who is now serving a three-year sentence at Bedford Reformatory for the theft of the jewels that belonged to the dead Mrs. Oakley. To regain the gems that were to have come to his daughter when she grew up, he put the matter into the hands of the police. He was sorry almost directly be had done so but could not stay the prosecution. But he tried to procure her release, although in vain.

Slivers the Clown in Baseball Gear

Slivers the Clown in Baseball Gear

The girl went to serve her sentence and Slivers went back to his work and people watching him thought it was greater than ever. Yet all this time he was brooding over the imprisonment his charge had brought to the girl he realized he loved. A week before his death he went to Bedford. And there, before the superintendent of the institution and a friend, he asked her to marry him directly she was released.

The girl absolutely refused. She was impatient at the very suggestion. Then he broke down and cried so bitterly that she relented sufficiently to say she would think it over and let him know.

Slivers came back to New York rejoicing. Although the girl had been sentenced for a crime and deserved what punishment she received, he could not forgive himself for bringing the Bedford sentence upon her. He wanted her forgiveness and waited for it with terrible eagerness.

When the letter came it was from Mrs. Moore, the superintendent. And it was written not to him but to the friend he had taken to the institution. “I have had a long talk with her,” she wrote. “She has no interest in Slivers, neither has she a desire to marry him now or at any other time. I again advise you to disillusion him.”

So the man who used to be billed as “the college-bred king of grotesque fools,” the man who never made any one cry in his life, had about him when he lay dead a few blocks from Madison Square Garden where he had scored such great successes, a group of friends, not one of whom had dry eyes.

ADDENDA:
Buster Keaton said that Slivers, in a tie with fellow pantomimist Marceline, was his  favorite comic of all time. His homage to Slivers (from The Cameraman, 1928) may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CM9SDKQRQc.
A Nick Altrock and Al Schacht pantomime may be seen at the thirty-second mark here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHOK8AGUiGk.
Max Patkin’s act is captured here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaIHB65l6YI.
Last, this snippet of a documentary film, about Slivers himself, is especially evocative: http://goo.gl/YxhxZf.

The Day Rocky Pitched

Rocky Colavito, 1958

Rocky Colavito, 1958

Today’s post is by guest columnist and old friend Bill Ryczek. He wrote Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War (McFarland, 2009) which is part of an outstanding trilogy, alongside When Johnny Came Sliding Home and Blackguards and Red Stockings, covering baseball up to the early professional era. But Bill is not fixated on baseball’s olden days, or even on baseball. He has written books about the Yankees and Mets of the 1960s, as well the football Titans/Jets and the pre-merger AFL. Here he reflects on a singular day in baseball history which left home run hero Rocky Colavito with a pitching record of 1-0.

They played a lot more doubleheaders in the 1960s. There were two games most Sundays, and postponements created more twin bills late in the season. Playing fields of that era didn’t drain as well as current day facilities, and many more games were lost to rain. Owners didn’t mind scheduling two games in one day, for they often drew twice as many to a doubleheader as to a single game. While playing two games in a single day is now viewed as an almost unbearable endurance contest, for which reinforcements must be summoned from the minors, fifty years ago it was a weekly occurrence.

At the end of the summer, if there had been a rainy spring, a doubleheader was more than a weekly event. A rash of twin bills put a strain on pitching staffs, which generally numbered no more than ten, and fresh arms were not, as they are now, shuffled on and off the roster on a daily basis. Managers played the hands they were dealt. A couple of doubleheaders in a row created an “all hands on deck” situation under which starters relieved, relievers started, and starters who were knocked out in the first game of a twin bill might relieve in the second. And sometimes, in a dire emergency, a position player might be pressed into mound duty.

In a five-day period beginning Friday night, August 23, 1968, the Yankees were scheduled to play three doubleheaders, and a total of eight games, between Friday and Tuesday. The first three days of the sequence, against the league-leading Detroit Tigers, produced the most exciting weekend of Yankee baseball that summer.

The first leg of the marathon was a twi-night doubleheader on Friday evening. The opener was fairly uneventful, as the Yankees’ Stan Bahnsen beat the Tigers on a home run by Tom Tresh.

With no starter available, New York manager Ralph Houk turned to reliever Joe Verbanic to pitch the second game. Verbanic lasted five innings, and in the seventh, veteran forkballer Lindy McDaniel entered the game with the score tied, 3–3.

McDaniel had been a star reliever in the National League in the late 1950s and early 1960s before hurting his arm. For the first half of the 1968 season, he languished in the bullpen of the San Francisco Giants, pitching in just 12 games before a trade sent him to the Yankees in mid-July.

Lindy McDaniel with brother Von, This Week, April 27, 1958

Lindy McDaniel with brother Von, This Week, April 27, 1958

In New York, McDaniel re-discovered the magic of his early career. Prior to his appearance against the Tigers, he’d been in 14 games and posted 2 wins and 7 saves, after having just 11 saves during the past three and a half seasons. In his previous two outings, Lindy had retired nine men in a row. On this night, he set down 21 more in succession. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the Tigers’ John Hiller, who had entered the game in the eighth, was mowing down the Yankees with nearly the same degree of regularity.

The game went deep into overtime. Each inning, McDaniel set down three Tigers in a row. Unlike closers of today, who generally don’t pitch until the ninth inning, McDaniel was a closer who started early. He typically pitched two or three innings, and, as a former starter, could go longer if needed. After each perfect frame, McDaniel returned to the first base dugout, hoping the Yankees would get a run and end the game. They didn’t, and finally, in the 15th, Houk removed McDaniel for a pinch hitter. He had thrown just 59 pitches in seven innings of relief.

Dooley Womack took the mound in the 16th and was nearly as effective as McDaniel, pitching four scoreless innings, but still the Yankees could not score. At that time, American League rules decreed that no inning could start after 1:00 a.m., so when Andy Kosco popped to Tiger shortstop Ray Oyler at 1:07, the game was over. It went into the record books as a 19-inning tie that would have to be replayed in its entirety.

The makeup game was scheduled as the second game of a doubleheader on Sunday, and the Yankee ordeal became nine games in five days. The 19-inning game might as well have counted as two, so effectively the Yanks were playing 10 games in five days. That presented a problem for Houk, whose best relievers, McDaniel and Womack, had thrown 11 innings on the first night.

Gene Michael, 1969

Gene Michael, 1969

The Yankee manager prepared for the worst, and the worst was that a position player would have to take the mound and save the real pitchers for another day. Houk had two non-pitchers who he thought might be able to step up in an emergency. The first was backup shortstop Gene Michael, who had a strong arm and had pitched 16 games for Kinston of the Carolina League in 1963, plus a couple of games in the International League the following season. In 1966, after he batted just .152 for the Pirates, Michael was traded to the Dodgers, who sent him to the Fall Instructional League in an attempt to convert him back to pitching; the experiment failed. One of the reasons Michael was a shortstop was that he hadn’t pitched very well in the minors, posting an ERA of nearly 7.00 in ’63, but he might be able to struggle through a couple of innings in a pinch.

The other potential Yankee pitcher was outfielder Rocky Colavito, who had joined the team in mid-July after being released by the Dodgers. At one time, Colavito had been one of the top power hitters in the American League, but by 1968 he was at the end of his 14-year major league career.

For Colavito, joining the Yankees was the culmination of a dream. Rocky was a Bronx native who grew up watching Joe DiMaggio from Yankee Stadium’s center field bleachers and who had really wanted to play for the Bombers. When they offered him a bonus of just $3,000, however, and wanted him to be a pitcher, Colavito signed with the Indians, who offered $4,500 and the opportunity to play the outfield.

Throughout his career, there had been rumors that Colavito would be traded to the Yankees, but a deal was never consummated. He played in Yankee Stadium many times, of course, as a member of the Indians, Tigers, Athletics, and White Sox, and made headlines on numerous occasions. One of those instances occurred in 1961, when he raced in from right field and jumped into the stands behind third base to protect his father, who’d gotten into a fight with some Yankee fans. By the time Rocky arrived on the scene, the fracas had been brought under control by the stadium police, but it took four teammates, four policemen, three ushers and one umpire to keep the enraged Colavito away from the man who had attacked his father.

Colavito had always been known for his powerful throwing arm, and his rocket launches from the outfield were legendary. “If he short-hopped you,” said former Athletics catcher Doc Edwards, “all you could hope to do was stop it, because you weren’t going to catch it. It would come in like a ball on a billiard table, hitting your shin guards, then your chest and your lips.” Bill Bryan, another Kansas City backstop, said, “Rocky always liked to warm up with a catcher, because he liked to show his arm off.”

There is a vast difference, however, between throwing hard from the outfield and pitching to hitters during a game. “I’ve seen it happen so many times,” said Edwards, “a guy like him throwing from the flat ground, and then when they get out on the mound, they don’t throw as hard because they’re not used to it.”

In 1958, Indian manager Joe Gordon announced that he intended to use Colavito as a pitcher on occasion. He appeared only once, however, shutting out the Tigers and allowing no hits in three innings of relief.

On July 25, 1968, Houk had tested Colavito and Michael against Syracuse in an exhibition game. Colavito threw two hitless innings and Michael followed with two scoreless frames. Houk said he would use them in a regular season game if the right situation arose.

On Saturday, with only one game scheduled, the bullpen got a day of rest, as Mel Stottlemyre pitched a complete game and beat the Tigers, 2–1. The victory gave the Yankees 10 wins in 13 games and put them just two games below .500, the closest they had been to the breakeven point in nearly four months. After a last place finish in 1966 and ninth place in 1967, the old champions were stirring for the first time in several years. They were in sixth place, eighteen games out of first, but only six behind the third place Indians, and playing good ball.

Andy Kosco

Andy Kosco

On Sunday, veteran lefthander Steve Barber, who had been suffering from a sore elbow and the aftereffects of the flu, started the opening game of the doubleheader. He insisted he felt fine, but he didn’t look fine, struggling right from the start. The Tigers scored twice in the first inning and twice more in the third. During the Detroit uprising in the third, Colavito ran out to the right field bullpen to warm up. Barber managed to get out of the inning, however, and Rocky sat down. In the fourth, with one out, Barber walked the opposing pitcher, Pat Dobson, and Colavito started throwing once more. When two singles followed, the score was 5–0, and Houk went to the mound and signaled for Rocky.

When Colavito walked in from the bullpen, passing Andy Kosco in right field, the crowd of more than 30,000 roared. It looked like the Yankees were going to lose, but at least there would be some excitement at the Stadium. “I was wondering how hard he could really throw,” said Kosco, “and if the hitters could get around on him. It was a treat. It was very exciting.”

The first batter Colavito faced was his old teammate Al Kaline. His first pitch was a strike and the crowd roared again. The second pitch was a ball and they groaned. So it went, with the fans reacting on every pitch. Rocky got Kaline on a grounder to short and Willie Horton on a fly ball to retire the side. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout.

The fifth inning was a struggle. Colavito was wild, getting behind nearly every hitter. “It’s really tough when you haven’t been on the mound,” said catcher Jake Gibbs. “You don’t have pinpoint location. A regular pitcher sometimes has trouble with location, and a guy coming in from right field was really going to have trouble. I called mostly fastballs, because he had pretty good velocity. I’d call a fastball and put my glove in the middle of the plate. I wasn’t trying to hit any corners with him. I was hoping they’d pop up or ground out or something like that.”

Colavito didn’t take a windup; he just put his hands together, reared back and threw as hard as he could. “He had a good fastball,” said McDaniel, “and if you’re only going one or two innings, that’s all you need.”  “My slider worked better in the bullpen,” Colavito said after the game, “than it did on the mound, but it was there.”

“Here I was a catcher,” Gibbs recalled, “and he was an outfielder. I thought I usually called a pretty good ballgame, but he ended up shaking me off a lot. I’d call for a fastball, and he wanted to throw a slider.” Despite two walks, Colavito got out of the fifth unscathed. In the bottom half of the inning, Bill Robinson singled in a run to make the score 5–1.

In the sixth, Colavito notched his first strikeout, getting shortstop Dick Tracewski on a called third strike. With two outs, Kaline doubled, the first major league hit off Rocky. The inning ended when Horton lined to Bobby Cox at third. Colavito had pitched two and two-thirds scoreless innings, but he had thrown 55 pitches on a 92-degree day and was getting tired, despite pitching on ten years’ rest.

Dooley Womack

Dooley Womack

In the bottom of the sixth, with two out and no one on base, Kosco hit a lazy fly ball to left field. Horton drifted to his left, but did not flip his sunglasses down. Suddenly, he lost the ball in the sun and shied away. The ball hit him on the shoulder and Kosco stood at second with a double. Tresh walked and Robinson followed with a three-run homer that made the score 5–4. Cox, the next batter, also hit the ball into the left field seats and the score was tied. Colavito walked, went to third on Horace Clarke’s single and scored on another hit by Gibbs, giving the Yankees a 6–5 lead.

With New York in front and Colavito out of gas, Houk brought in Womack to protect the lead. Dooley put the first two Tigers on base and fell behind Jim Price, three balls and one strike. Fate was with the Yankees on this day, however, and Price popped up an attempted bunt. Womack caught it on the fly and threw to Mickey Mantle at first for a double play. He got the third out and yielded to McDaniel in the eighth.

McDaniel retired the side in the eighth and got the first two batters in the ninth. The third batter, Don Wert, hit an easy ground ball to short. It looked as though the ball game would be over and Rocky Colavito would get his first major league win. Tresh bobbled the ball, however, and Wert reached first, bringing the dangerous Jim Northrup to the plate as a pinch hitter.

Northrup swung at McDaniel’s first pitch and grounded to Mantle, who stepped on the bag to end the ballgame. It had been quite a game, a script that Hollywood might have rejected as too improbable. Not only had Colavito been the winning pitcher; he had scored the deciding run. “That Houk had guts,” Yankee GM Lee MacPhail said after the game. For putting Colavito in, he was asked. “No,” MacPhail replied, “for taking him out.”

In the second game of the doubleheader, Colavito started in right field and hit a third inning home run off Mickey Lolich that tied the score at 3–3. Steve Hamilton came out of the bullpen to throw five shutout innings, and the Yankees went on to win 5–4, giving them 12 wins in 15 games and raising them up to the elusive .500 mark.

The following day, in the nightcap against the California Angels, Yankee starter Al Downing was hit hard, and was trailing 5–1 when he left for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. Houk brought in Michael, his second secret weapon, who received the same enthusiastic reception that greeted Colavito the previous day. Michael pitched a scoreless seventh, but his luck ran out the following inning. An error and a flurry of base hits resulted in five unearned runs, and the Yankees lost 10–2. Still, Michael managed three strikeouts and fanned ex-Yankee Roger Repoz with the bases loaded. In two days, New York had gotten five and two thirds innings from an infielder and an outfielder, both of whom retired their toe plates with perfect 0.00 ERAs.

Colavito hit his 374th and final home run on September 24th. He wasn’t the player he’d been ten years earlier, but the Yankee fans loved him, cheering his every move. Kosco, who’d been the regular right fielder most of the year, found that the fans preferred Rocky. “Then, sometimes,” Kosco said, “I’d take Mantle’s place at first, and the fans would start yelling, ‘We want Mickey. We want Mickey.’  I was kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

The win over the Tigers was the last big moment of Colavito’s career, and he retired at the end of the season. He’d only been a Yankee for a couple of months, and he didn’t hit many home runs, but fans who were at the Stadium on August 25 would never forget the day Rocky pitched.

The Spur to Memory

The Scorer: Old Style New Style (H804-13)

The Scorer: Old Style New Style (H804-13)

The 1880s trade card to the left came up on eBay this week. I placed a bid but do not hold out much hope of snagging it. More important, it cast light on an old mystery that I referenced fifteen years ago in Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote:

We have heard the stories all our lives, and we share them warmly with our children. But we come to the Baseball Hall of Fame to see, to see the instruments of glory, the stuff of legend, the tangible remains of departed heroes and forgotten fields. This is a museum like no other because it is about baseball, that singular American institution by which we mark our days. Not simply historical relics, these artifacts spur us to recall to life an image dormant in our brains for decades. They connect us not only to our own childhood and to our parents, but also to a national, collective past, one whose presence we sense but whose details have been lost.

Time stops in the Museum in the same way it does at a baseball game. At the museum it attaches itself to those things that make us halt in our tracks and reflect upon their essence and ours. Time doesn’t truly stop, of course; we do. We imagine that we bend time and somehow elude it through the pleasure of play and remembrance. (The Latin root of “elude” is ludere, to play.) Like Proust’s magical biscuit, the artifact recovers for us a lost bit of time. Look at Babe Ruth’s locker, forever open to display the Yankee uniform he last wore, and a shiver of unforeseen emotion comes over you.

This is the experience of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, an experience enriched by the stories embedded within the objects. But for many artifacts, it may have been so long since the tale was last told that hardly anyone remembers what it was. The descriptive lines that accompany each item on display at Cooperstown provide a key to its identity, but only rarely do they expand into a story. For that you had best be equipped with a lifelong experience of the game or, better yet, have an old-timer as your personal tour guide.

Which is where I come in, with a “memory” of King Kelly, whom I never saw play, as vivid as my recollection of Mickey Mantle, whom I did…. There was a time, in 1980 or so, when during one of my frequent research trips to the National Baseball Library I held in my hand an object that had a story to tell, but I was not yet wise enough to hear it. Looking back, I believe this incident provided the germ of the idea for this book.

Christy Mathewson, ca 1901

Christy Mathewson, ca 1901

At that time, long before its 1993 enlargement, the library was cramped for space and pressed for cataloging services. Some large boxes were filled with unrelated items of mixed provenance and scant documentation. In one such box, packed loosely among some truly notable curios (I recall Cy Young’s rookie contract from 1890 and Christy Mathewson’s from 1899) was a thin wooden stick, with irregular hand-hewn notches along part of its perhaps ten-inch length. With the unquestioning confidence that only comes with ignorance, I snorted at finding this insignificant piece of kindling, in a plastic bag without any indication that it had been cataloged as a gift to the Museum. “I know you’ll take anything here,” I laughingly announced to some library staffers, “but I thought at least it had to have something to do with baseball!”

All of us were puzzled by the stick, and none of us had an answer as to how it had entered into the collections or why it was being retained. I chalked this up to the early accessions policy of the Hall of Fame, which, like that of so many American museums and archives, was not overly discriminating. This endearing commitment, as baseball’s attic, to accept even the most humble offerings from fans everywhere is the magic that brings the multitudes to Cooperstown. I thought no more about the stick for the next five years, until I was reading through Henry Chadwick’s scrapbooks, on deposit at the New York Public Library … and then the stick became The Stick. There, in Volume 20, which was dominated by cricket stories, I came upon the following innocuous note:

Previous to 1746, the score was kept by notches on a short lath: hence the term notches for runs. The notching-knife gradually gave way to the pen, and the thin stick to a sheet of foolscap.

The fool’s cap should have been placed on my head. I had dismissed as inconsequential what was surely a scorer’s stick from a very early game of baseball, an artifact earlier than Doubleday or Cartwright, perhaps the most resonant of all items relating to the prehistory of the game as we know it.

I offer this story to illustrate the difficulty of hearing the stories the artifacts have to tell, particularly the ancient ones. Large objects like statues and trophies and paintings may wag comparatively small tales, while small items like pins and ribbons and newsprint may speak volumes. Generally, the more removed the object is from the event that inspired or employed it, the less interesting it is to the historian and the less rich its associations with other events in baseball and the world. What is most fascinating and what moves us most deeply is seldom the stuff that was created in order to be treasured by future generations, although commemorative pieces (like the gifts for Lou Gehrig on his farewell day, July 4, 1939) can be beautiful and meaningful, too. But in my view, the best artifacts are the ones that were meant to be tossed aside yet improbably survived….

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

To give an idea of how large a story one trinket may tell, and how rich in association it may prove, allow me to present a baseball pin no larger than a dime, along with a common nursery tale: “Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl,” went the Mother Goose rhyme; “if the bowl had been stronger, then my rhyme had been longer.” Mother Goose, or Songs for the Nursery, was first published in London in 1760, based upon English and French sources, including Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye (1697). Not a propitious beginning for a baseball story, is it? But look at the accompanying photograph, of a pin worn by members of the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York in the 1850s. Let’s track the story back even further, to 1460, when the “Foles of Gotham” were first mentioned in print, and a century later, when the absurd doings of the people of that village (seven miles from Nottingham, in England) were collected in a book, Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham.

At that time the simplicity of the inhabitants was legendary. One absurdity attributed to them was the building of a thornbush round the cuckoo to secure eternal spring; another was an attempt to rid themselves of an eel by drowning it. But the archetypal tale of Gothamite behavior was when King John intended to establish a hunting lodge nearby. The villagers, fearful of the cost of supporting the court, feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived. Wherever the king’s men went, they saw the fools of Gotham engaged in some lunatic endeavor. When King John selected another spot for his lodge elsewhere, the “wise men” boasted, “We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.”

Merrie Tales, Gotham

Merrie Tales, Gotham

How did this tale come to resonate with the members of the Washington Base Ball Club, formed in 1850 as the second club after the Knickerbockers–or, as its members claimed, formed before the Knicks, in the 1830s–and two years later renamed after the proverbial wise fools? Gotham is understood today as Batman’s hometown, but it is also a common synonym for New York and has been so since our English cousins began to refer to those “fools” who sailed from the mother country (three men in a tub) to make their fortunes in New York as residents of the “New Gotham.” Washington Irving also applied the name of Gotham to New York in 1807, in some of his Salmagundi letters from Mustapha-Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan. (“Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub…”)

Proper businessmen scorned the young men who played baseball in the New York area around 1850 for acting like fools, trying to extend their youth beyond the time when men should give over childish things. So the Washington Base Ball Club, in a defiant stance against the British, cricket, and their elders’ puritanical attitudes toward play, renamed themselves the Gotham Base Ball Club and made up this little badge of honor for its members. This example, the only one known to survive, was issued to charter member Henry Mortimer Platt and was donated to the Hall in 1939 by his daughter.

Some Baseball Tricks: The Unfair Means by Which Some Games Were Won in the 1860s

Tom Barlow 1873

Tom Barlow 1873

Found this neat piece while looking for something else (aint’ that always the way?). I spotted it in the Omaha Bee of March 25, 1888 while digging for scraps about Tommy Barlow’s possible death date. (No, we still don’t know when he died, this man who invented the fair-territory bunt or “baby hit” with the aid of an eventually banned two-foot-long bat.) It seems the story originally appeared in the New York Mail and Express.

As far back as 1862, the records will show that the Mutuals of this city won a game through the cleverness of Ed Brown, the second baseman. In that year the Mutuals visited Newark to play the Eurekas. Ten innings were played before a victory was gained. The score was thirteen to thirteen when the Mutuals went to bat in the last half of the last inning. The first two men were quickly retired. Things began to look somewhat dubious, when Brown came to bat. He managed to reach first base ahead of the ball, but only by a nose , as it were. A passed ball advanced him to second. He reached third on another close shave. This time the crowd thought he was out, and so gave vent to [its] feelings. However, the umpire thought he was safe and said so. Brown, who was up to all kinds of tricks, then stopped on the base and offered to fight the man who said he was out. At this the Eureka players, who were all gentlemen, gathered around third base to quiet Brown. Of course this left home plate unguarded, and Brown started for it and tallied the winning run.

Levi Meyerle

Levi Meyerle

A singular incident happened in Baltimore in 1869. The Athletics, of Philadelphia, went to the Monumental City to play the Pastime club. The latter was one run ahead in the ninth inning when the Athletics came to the bat. Levi Meyerle, after two men were out and two on bases, hit a line ball directly at the pitcher. It struck him full in the chest and knocked him insensible. The ball bounded back over the fence behind the catcher, and Meyerle made the circle of the bases, sending in the two men ahead of him before the ball was recovered. It was the late little Tommy Barlow who introduced the trick of hiding the ball under his arm after it was returned from the outlfield when a hit had been made, and then catch the base-runner napping on a neat throw to the base-man , who would be on the lookout. It was Dickey Pearce who conceived the idea of touching the top of tho ball with his bat and making the famous fair-foul hits, which were practiced by others with such telling effect, Barlow, Barnes and Pearce being noteworthy at that style of butting the ball.

Hartford 1876

Hartford 1876

Probably one of the most remarkable events in the history of the national game was the double ball racket, which was worked to such perfection by the old St. Louis league club. It was in the season of 1876. Whenever the St. Louis players went to the bat they would have a lively ball to bat , but when their opponents were at the bat a dead ball would be worked in on them. The ball the club had made especially for its own use. The Hartfords were victimized by the Mound City club, and a most remarkable thing occurred which led to the discovery of the two balls. The Hartfords were scheduled for three games, on July 11, 13 and 15, and the St. Louis team won all three games, as follows: first, 2 to 0; second, 3 to 0; third, 2 to 0. Up to this time the Hartford club had not been shut out by any other club in the league, and it had a demoralizing effect on the team, and did more than anything else to keep the Hartfords from winning the championship of that year.

Home Field Advantage in the World Series

Boston Red Sox logo_aThis short piece appeared in the 2013 World Series program in edited form, as a sidebar to a longer essay by Stan McNeal titled “Feeling Right at Home.” With the Red Sox clinching at home for the first time since 1918, the trend toward home-field clinchers would appear to be confirmed for all time … maybe.

Clinching a World Championship at home is more exciting for victorious players and their fans. And since 1980, there has been much cause for celebration, as teams with home-field advantage have won 25 of the 32 World Series played [including 2013, now 26 of 33]. But that is a deceptive statistic because in most of these years the winner wrapped up the Series in fewer than seven games—indeed, the losing club in a five-game Series that commenced in the opponents’ city will have had three games at home.

The ultimate World Series thrill has to be winning at home in a seventh game. And in a seeming repeal of the rules of probability, the home team has won Game 7 in each of the last nine World Series that went the distance (the first in 1982, the most recent in 2011).

What’s going on here? Some have laid responsibility at the Commissioner’s feet, for rewarding the All-Star Game winner with home-field advantage, but that decision came in 2003 so clearly is not the answer. The long-established home-field advantage in any one game is 54-46—in other words, the host club may be expected to win any particular game 54 percent of the time. Yet when the home-field advantage is distributed across four games, it diminishes to 51 percent. So what are we to make of the fact that—again, since 1980—the home team in the World Series has won 109 of 175 contests, a winning percentage of .623?

As has long been my custom, when presented a puzzle beyond my understanding, I consulted with old friend and collaborator Pete Palmer. The sample size of World Seriessince 1980, he pointed out, led us to a calamitous conclusion—the sky is falling!—by conveniently lopping off the years 1950-1979, during which the home team lost the seventh game 12 of 15 times (!).

“The actual World Series home team winning perecentage,” Pete said, “is 55 percent,” counting all games since 1903. “But for some reason, the rate since 1969 is significantly higher at 61 percent, even though the divisional series is 52 percent and the championship series 54 percent. And over a seven-game series, that 61 percent translates to only 52 percent overall: 3 [games] x .39 + 4 [games] x .61) / 7.

“So,” Pete concluded, “it would appear the home team advantage in the World Series is minimal.”

Alarmists inclined to jump out the window are advised first to confirm that they are on the ground floor.

Obstruction!

2013 world seriesLast night presented baseball fans with something they had never seen: a World Series game ending on an obstruction / interference call. Veteran observers instantly recalled Game 3 of the 1975 World Series when Ed Armbrister, pinch hitting for reliever Rawly Eastwick, was NOT called for interference with Carlton Fisk on a critical tenth inning play. Attempting a bunt, Armbrister paused in the batter’s box, leading to a collision with catcher Carlton Fisk, trying to reach the ball. In any event, the controversial play did not end that game.

Returning to my hotel after last night’s classic contest, I wrote on Twitter, “I can’t recall ANY game ending on an obstruction call, let alone a WS game.” My fellow tweeps were quick to fill in the blank spots in my recall.

D.J. Short reminded me of a game that I had seen only six years ago (the mind is the second thing to go, I replied to him, with thanks). The Phils defeated the Mets 3-2 on August 28, 2007, as Marlon Anderson’s hard take-out slide was ruled interference (not obstruction, which can only be committed by the defensive team) and became the final out of the game. [http://goo.gl/FKyQ07]

Jacob Pomrenke directed me to a game I truly did not recall, Mariners at Devil Rays on August 6, 2004. In the bottom of the tenth, with the game tied at one apiece, Carl Crawford was awarded home plate when third-base umpire Paul Emmel ruled that Jose Lopez obstructed Crawford’s view of a catch made in left field while Crawford tagged up; Lopez was called for obstruction. [http://goo.gl/q3riIp]

Adam J. Morris and Dan Wade pointed out a game from 2009 when the final out of the game was called for interference because third-base coach Dave Anderson helped runner Michael Young to retreat to third base after starting for home. [http://goo.gl/QGAx9o]

But surely, I thought, there must have been a game in baseball’s Pleistocene Era when such a thing occurred. Maybe when an umpire caught Orioles’ third baseman John McGraw holding onto the belt of a runner rounding the bag for home?

Checking the log of forfeit and no-decision games at retrosheet.org, I find these interesting denouements—not the same sequence of events as last night, but in the same ballpark, so to speak.

08/21/1876, Chicago at St. Louis (NL): With the score tied 6 to 6 in the 9th, St. Louis put a runner on third. The next batter hit a drive down the third base line that hit the runner. The runner was allowed to score. Chicago left the field in protest. The game was awarded to St. Louis. New York Times, 08/22/1876, p. 2 (St. Louis).

08/11/1884, Buffalo at Chicago (NL): In the first inning, with a runner on first, the Chicago batter hit a groundball to the second baseman, who ran the runner back toward first to tag him. The runner threw his arms around the fielder to prevent him from throwing the ball. The umpire called the runner and the batter out. Cap Anson of Chicago did not think the batter should be out and refused to continue. Washington Post, 08/12/1884, p. 1.

05/03/1899, Louisville at Pittsburgh (NL): Louisville was ahead 6-1 going into the home half of the ninth inning. Pittsburgh scored three runs and had two men on base when a strange play occurred. Jack McCarthy hit a ball down the right field line. It looked foul but the umpire called it fair. The ball hit a snag in the field and kicked to the right. The ball headed toward a small boy standing near a door to the dressing room. As the ball approached, the boy opened the door, the ball and the boy passed through it, and the boy closed the door behind them. By the time Charlie Dexter, the right fielder, opened the door and retrieved the ball three run had scored. Louisville claimed fan interference, but umpires Oyster Burns and Billy Smith thought otherwise. Louisville protested the game. It was later called a no-decision. Chicago Daily Tribune, 05/04/1899, p. 4.

Willie Keeler with New York

Willie Keeler with New York

08/22/1905, Washington at Detroit (AL): Detroit and Washington battled through 10 innings with the scored tied 1 to 1. In the Washington half of the 11th inning with two out, two on, and a three-and-one count on batter John Anderson, Hunter Hill, the runner on third, bolted for the plate as George Mullin wound up to deliver the pitch. Jack Warner, the catcher, brushed past the batter, caught the ball and tagged the runner out by at least 10 feet. Umpire Jack Sheridan ruled the runner safe because of the catcher’s obvious interference with the batter. Anderson was awarded first on a walk. The Detroit club objected and started to argue. Sheridan calmly waited the required two minutes and called the game. The crowd then rushed the field to confront the umpire. The Tigers team surrounded the umpire and escorted him to safety. The police were called to quell the riot. New York Times, 08/23/1905, p. 4; Washington Post, 08/23/1905, p. 9.

09/03/1906 , Philadelphia at New York (AL): With two outs in the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader, the New York team was awarded a forfeit win after tying the game at 3. With runners on second and third (Willie Keeler and Wid Conroy), Jimmy Williams came to the plate. Plate umpire Silk O’Loughlin called two strikes before Williams hit a ground ball toward third baseman John Knight. Knight took a step backwards to field the ball and stepped into the path of Keeler. Keeler fell flat on his face while the ball rolled into left field. Keeler got up and scored. Several Philadelphia players stormed the umpire demanding that he called out on runner’s interference. Two of the players, Harry Davis and Topsy Hartsel, were very vocal and kept arguing. O’Loughlin finally had enough and called the game. After the game he said that the third baseman clearly obstructed the runner. Washington Post, 09/04/1906, p. 9.

Pesky: The Man, the Myth, the Truth

Johnny Pesky

Johnny Pesky

Another offering from old pal John B Holway, especially relevant as we near the third game of the fourth World Series matchup of the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.

Do reporters report the news? Or invent it?

Hark back 65 years to the first Red Sox-Cardinal World Series in 1946. You’ve heard the story: Johnny Pesky held the ball while Enos Slaughter streaked home on Harry Walker’s hit to lose the final game. People who never saw the game–who weren’t even born yet–swear to it as the truth.

But those lucky 34,000 who were at the game didn’t see Johnny hold the ball. They couldn’t have, because the official film of the game didn’t see it either. I’ve studied the film again and again in slow motion and stop action.

It just didn’t happen.

Marty Marion and other Cardinals agreed: Johnny got a bad rap.

For 30 years Johnny and I have had a standing offer: If you will watch the film and you still honestly believe he held the ball, we’ll buy you a steak dinner for two.

We’ve never had to buy a dinner yet.

Yet most of the newspapers of that pre-TV day told us that he really did hold the ball. Why were they so positive that something that didn’t happen, did?

The following should be required reading in every freshman journalism class in America. It’s a classic example of how newsmen sometimes don’t report the news. They invent it.

My theory: Six years earlier, in the 1940 World Series, Detroit shortstop Dick Bartell did hold the ball, allowing a Cincinnati run to score in a 2-0 defeat. Six years later the play was fresh in some scribes’ minds. I believe that Jack Lang of the AP yelled, “Did you see that?  Did you see that?  Pesky held the ball!  Pesky held the ball!”

There was no instant replay then.  But Lang was so positive that it did happen, the others were too embarrassed to admit that they missed it. Some may have sheepishly inserted it in their stories.

As for the others, when their stories arrived on their editors’ desks, Lang’s  AP story had gotten there ahead of them, and the editors decided they better insert it.

I have looked up 18 major major papers that sent writers to cover the game. Half of them didn’t say a word about Pesky holding the ball. The other half mentioned it briefly, half-way down in their stories.

Enos Salughter

Enos Slaughter

Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, one of the country’s two most famous sportswriters, wrote that Pesky “carefully studied” the signature of league president Will Harridge on the ball while Slaughter raced home.

Vicious sardonic humor, the kind that made Povich famous.

But worthless as journalistic reportage.

Because of such mendacious journalism, Slaughter, a .300-hitting outfielder, was voted into the  Hall of Fame, and Pesky, a .313-hitting shortstop, was locked out.

Meantime two other examples of journalistic manipulation were going on.

First, some reports said Slaughter ran through a ”stop” sign by third base coach Mike Gonzales, who was holding up his arms and yelling, “No! No!” This gave us the picture of the daring Anglo-Saxon ignoring a timid Latin to bring victory to his team.

The truth: Gonzales was frantically waving his arms and yelling, “Go! Go!” But that’s not the story the sportswriters wanted to write and their readers wanted to read.

Second, the official scorer ruled Walker’s drive a two-base hit. It’s not unusual to score from first on a double, so Bob Broeg, a cub reporter for the St Louis Globe-Democratic, ran screaming to him: “You’re ruining a great story!”  He pleaded with the scorer to change it to a single. It was reported as a double the next morning but was changed to a single the following day. About two weeks later it became a double again, which it remains to this day.

Thus do sportswriters–and other newsmen–create the news they are supposed to be reporting. And their readers and future historians never realize what has been done to them.

There is an addendum to the story that you never read about.

The Red Sox still had three outs in the ninth. Bobby Doerr spanked a single. Rudy York lined  another single, sending the tying run to third with no out. But the bottom of the batting order was up, and they went out 1-2-3. The final out was a ground ball. Second baseman Red Schondienst (.289 lifetime) gloved it, but the ball rolled up his arm, and he just did nip the batter at first.

“If I had dropped it,” Red shuddered, “I would have been the goat.” If so, he might not be in Cooperstown today, and Johnny, now shorn of his goathood, would.

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