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” [], 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 []. 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.

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:
A Nick Altrock and Al Schacht pantomime may be seen at the thirty-second mark here:
Max Patkin’s act is captured here:
Last, this snippet of a documentary film, about Slivers himself, is especially evocative:

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.


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. []

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. []

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. []

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, 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.

World Series Centennial: 1913

Game 1 of the 1913 World Series, A's and Giants

Game 1 of the 1913 World Series, A’s and Giants

The 1913 Fall Classic matched two historic rivals—the Philadelphia Athletics and the New York Giants—that exist today if not in their original cities. This tenth World Series of the modern era marked the third between these clubs, who met in a spirit of rancor that cannot be understood without a bit of backdrop.

The upstart American League had defeated the Nationals in the 1903 World Series, but in 1904 John McGraw’s NL champion Giants refused to play because of their scorn for the new league. In 1905 the Giants topped their league again but this time were compelled to play in the World Series. Opposing Connie Mack’s “White Elephants,” as McGraw had derisively termed the AL champion Philadelphia Athletics, the Giants’ manager dressed his men in black. The theatrics prevailed, as the Giants defeated the Athletics in five games, all of them shutouts by future Hall of Famers: one by the A’s Chief Bender, another by the Giants’ Joe McGinnity, and three by Christy Mathewson.

In 1911 McGraw returned to the World Series for the first time, and found himself again matched up against the A’s. A superstitious sort, resorted to black uniforms for his Giants, and Matty topped Bender in Game 1, allowing a single run. But then the black magic wore off, and the A’s went on to take the Series in six. Giants lefthander Rube Marquard lost the second game on a home run by A’s third baseman Frank Baker. In his newspaper column the next morning, Matty criticized Marquard’s pitch selection, but in Game 3, he too surrendered a home run to Baker—who won a new nickname and, as Home Run Baker, would earn a plaque in Cooperstown himself. Six days of rain stood between Games 3 and 4—the longest mid-Series delay until these two clubs, relocated to the West Coast, were interrupted by earthquake in the 1989 World Series.

Frank Baker T205

Frank Baker T205

When the Giants and A’s met again in 1913, they were still the class of their leagues. The A’s had won the World Series in 1910 and 1911, and the Giants were making their consecutive World Series appearance. They had lost in 1912 in a heartbreaking extra-inning finale. Both clubs continued to rely upon aging mound stars—Mathewson, Bender, Plank—but the A’s had subtly become a different club. They had transformed themselves into the most formidable batsmen of the deadball era, led by their “$100,000 infield” of first baseman Stuffy McInnis, second sacker Eddie Collins, shortstop Jack Barry, and third baseman Baker. The Giants were a well balanced club, ranking first in pitching and second batting in the National League. The A’s, on the other hand, were tops in batting (as measured by OPS+) and next to last in pitching (ERA+) in the American League. By sabermetric accounting, these A’s were, in their 76 games at their new Shibe Park, the top hitting home club of all time.

The Giants returned to home whites and road grays for the 1913 Series, but it turned out luck was not a matter of black and white. The A’s won Game 1 behind Bender as Home Run Baker yet again made good on his nickname. In Game Two, the most exciting of the Series, Plank and Mathewson pitched shutout ball through nine innings. In the bottom of the ninth, with none out, the A’s had Amos Strunk on third and Jack Barry on second. The next batter, Jack Lapp, grounded to first, where George “Hooks” Wiltse, a lefthanded pitcher, was filling in. Wiltse made a good stop and threw home to nab Strunk. With Barry on third now and Lapp on first, Plank grounded to Wiltse and Hooks fired home again, nailing a sliding Barry. Thus did Wiltse make up, at least in part, for his ninth-inning disappointment of July 4, 1908 when, having retired the first 26 men to face him and with two strikes on the last—opposing pitcher George McQuillan—he hit him to spoil a perfect game.

But I digress. After Wiltse’s fielding heroics, Mathewson retired the next hitter, and the game went into extra innings. Plank yielded three runs in the top of the tenth, and Matty set the A’s down in order for what proved to be New York’s only Series win. Bender won Game 4 and Plank avenged his first-game loss with a brilliant two-hitter in Game 5. In an oddity, four of the five games were won by the visiting team. The A’s outscored the Giants 15-1 in the games’ first four frames; although the men of McGraw “won” the last five innings, it was a case of too little, too late.

Christy Mathewson T206

Christy Mathewson T206

Baker was the hitting star, as he had been in 1911. He rang up nine hits in 20 at bats, for a batting average of .450, while driving in seven. With catcher Wally Schang driving in another six, the pair accounted for 13 of the club’s 23 runs. Collins starred, too, going 8-for-19. It was a shellacking. Matty would never again pitch in a World Series. Bender and Plank would never win another Series game.

Like the great Cubs’ dynasty of 1906-08, the Giants had become the next NL club to win three straight pennants. But they lost in the Series each time, equaling the unhappy record of the Detroit Tigers of 1907-09. In the 100 years since the Giants’ defeat in the 1913 World Series, no other club has matched them in such misery.

The 1913 World Series was not without an irony visible from a century’s distance. These clubs would not meet again in the World Series until 1989, when they had long since become Bay Area rivals. The A’s again walloped the Giants, this time in a sweep. The Philadelphia A’s had a stopover in Kansas City from 1955-67 before settling in Oakland, where, surpassing their predecessors, the Oakland A’s won three consecutive World Series (1972-74).

50 years ago: The World Series of 1963 matched two clubs that had met many times before as the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the latter had moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and the Subway Series was now a Jetlag Series. The Yankees had defeated that other East Cost transplant, the San Francisco Giants, in 1962 and were returning as two-time world champions, having also defeated the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, the peak year of Mantle and Maris. But New York’s big bats were sawed into toothpicks by Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres, and Ron Perranoski. In a four-game sweep, the light-hitting Dodgers allowed their powerful rivals only four runs in the four games. In Game 1, Koufax established a new World Series mark (soon surpassed by Bob Gibson) by fanning 15 Yankees.

25 years ago: In the World Series of 1988, the Oakland A’s squared off against the Los Angeles Dodgers, an underdog as they had been 25 years before. Like the 1913 Athletics of Philadelphia, the Oakland A’s were centered on an awesome offense, led by Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Closer Dennis Eckersley was the featured pitcher. But a hobbled Kirk Gibson hit a memorable pinch-hit walk-off home run in Game 1, and the Dodgers took the Series in five. Home run heroics had been the hallmark of the 1913 Series, too.

Wally Schang home run, Game 1 of 1913 World Series.

Wally Schang home run, Game 1 of 1913 World Series.

Of our three anniversary World Series, none was a competitive classic. Across a century’s span, the losing clubs in these Series won a total of two games. Yet like all postseason series, this year’s commemorated classics provided heroes and goats, thrills and pratfalls, exultation and lamentation. Wait till next year! Which in this space will mean the Miracle Braves of 1914, Yogi’s rollercoaster ride in 1964, and the Sidelight Series of 1989, when tragedy took center stage.

Palmer, Thorn, and SABR

SABRTo this year’s World Series program I contributed a sidebar on the perenially debated home-field advantage. Coming upon a doubtful point, I looked for someone who would know. “As has long been my custom,” I write in the sidebar, “when presented a puzzle beyond my understanding, I consulted with old friend and collaborator Pete Palmer.”

Pete and I have not worked together on a book or web idea in some time, so it was a pleasure to reconnect even in this minor way. This morning the thought occurred to me that we might not have collaborated on all those projects had it not been for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, which, if you are not already a member, I urge you to consider joining (

I take the liberty of publishing Pete’s contribution, and my own, to the question posed separately to each of us: “Why I Joined SABR.” 

Pete Palmer:

I joined pretty early; I think I was #27. If I had realized that Cooperstown was only a four-hour drive, I would have been at the kickoff meeting [on August 10, 1971].

Bob Davids was familiar with me since we both contributed to The Sporting News, and the fact that the editors decided to pretty much dispense with fan contributions encouraged Bob to start SABR in the first place. The three main reasons I have enjoyed SABR were meeting the guys, reading the publications and participating in research projects that would have been very difficult to do on my own.

Pete Palmer

Pete Palmer

This often involved particularly checking newspapers across the country. As a group, we collected research on 1927 AL caught stealing, 1912 NL sacrifice hits allowed, 1880s AA runs batted in and 1897-1908 batter hit by pitch. John Schwartz, Bob Bailey, Joe Ditmar, Ralph Horton, Bob Richardson, Walt Wilson, Herb Goldman, Joe Simenec, Lyle Spatz and others were very helpful. I worked with Bob McConnell straightening out [John] Tattersall’s home run log before it was computerized, and have corresponded with Frank Williams for over thirty years. Recently, I helped Jonathan Frankel collect batter strikeout data for 1897-1909.

I probably never would have met John Thorn. Our collaboration produced The Hidden Game of Baseball and seven editions of Total Baseball. Dave Smith and I have been helping each other out for three decades. Gary Gillette and I have carried on to do five editions of the B&N ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. I am still busy at something I started as a hobby maybe 60 years ago.

I appreciate SABR recognizing my work.

SABR member Pete Palmer, part of the inaugural class of Henry Chadwick Award winners in 2010, has been a leading innovator in statistical analysis. His contributions to the game have been as particular as correcting Ty Cobb’s hit total and as grand as restating and evaluating all the game’s historical records through the prism of modern statistical measures. He was the first to recognize the mathematical relationship between runs and wins, and the one most responsible for the introduction of On Base Percentage into common parlance.

John Thorn:

I joined SABR thirty years ago, in part to cover that year’s convention in Toronto, on assignment for The Sporting News. Cliff Kachline — at that time the historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, later SABR’s first executive director, and posthumously, not long ago, a recipient of the society’s Henry Chadwick Award — urged me to join. With my interests in baseball’s history and statistics, he assured me, I would feel instantly at home and would wonder why I had waited so long to join.

He was spectacularly right.

At the convention’s opening reception, the first two individuals I met were Pete Palmer and Bob Carroll. I went on to create many books with each, and in some cases both of them, and they became lifelong friends.

I had a fantastic time at the convention, despite being a little star-struck at meeting so many individuals whose work I had read. Immediately upon returning to Albany, New York, I filed my story with TSN. (I vividly remember transmitting it via 300-baud cupped-phone modem from the Western Union office on State Street.)

I have been a member ever since. I continue to be amazed at how many accomplished men and women I have met in the ranks of this merry band of baseball sleuths. I have continued to describe SABR as baseball’s best-kept secret — puzzlingly so, because its benefits are many for the advanced fan, the aspiring professional, or simply those who cannot get enough good baseball talk and text.

The perception among baseball fans has been, I suspect, that SABR membership is for those who are conducting ground-breaking historical research or game-changing statistical analysis, but that is not so. At your first convention or regional meeting, you will be seized with newbie jitters, as I was, but you will instantly be made to feel at home. Look me up; I will be one of many longtime members who will be glad you joined us.

Free Advice to Big Papi: Stay as You Are, A Reader Response

Joe Sewell

Joe Sewell

Ordinarily I would be content to let a reader’s response to an Our Game post be available via hyperlink at the bottom of the selection. But this response, by David Lawrence Reed, is so interesting that I thought it merited this heightened position. Mr. Reed is a SABR member from San Francisco who has written for the Baseball Research Journal (“Lawrence S. Ritter, the Last New York Giant,” 2004). Class, read and respond.

I recall reading an anecdote many years ago that addressed the issue of what a player should do as opposed to what he can do. Some of the members of New York’s famed Murderers’ Row were watching Joe Sewell take batting practice. The little infielder was spraying line drives to every field, the ball coming off his bat like “popcorn flying off a hot griddle,” according to the writer. One of the Yankees remarked that Sewell’s constant contact was a marvel, a remark to which Babe Ruth responded by saying, “Aw [insert colorful ballplayer language here], I could do that if I wanted to.”

Several of his teammates–who probably should have known better–scoffed and, in similarly colorful language, challenged him to put his money where his mouth was. Ruth is said to have shrugged, and when Sewell was done taking his hacks, the big outfielder grabbed his bat and headed for the cage. Stepping into the batter’s box, the Babe then choked up on his truncheon and yelled out to the pitcher to throw whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted.

Ruth proceeded to smash line drives all over Yankee Stadium, to left, right, and center, with the same consistency as Sewell had, but with more power–balls that had died on the outfield grass several feet beyond the infield for Joe now skittered and rolled deep into both gaps and down both lines for the Bambino.

He continued this exhibition for about five minutes, then returned to the dugout. He said, “I could hit .400 every year if that’s what I wanted to do.” One of his teammates then asked why he didn’t and the Babe replied, “Because that’s not what Colonel Ruppert pays me to do. He pays me to hit home runs.”

Babe Ruth 1921 Pathe Freres Premium

Babe Ruth 1921 Pathe Freres Premium

Ted Williams was in the same situation: he was not being paid by Tom Yawkey either to flare the ball to left or to confound the defense by bunting. He was paid to hit the ball deep as well as consistently. And while some, like Ty Cobb, saw Williams as merely stubborn, those who have read The Science of Hitting and My Turn at Bat know that this most cerebral of hitters, far from sticking to the status quo, worked hard to find a way to drive the ball to the opposite field while maintaining his power.

It wasn’t an easy technique to master and it took some time, but eventually Williams learned how to employ the inside-out swing, one which would enable him to drive the ball to the opposite field with the same oomph he imparted to the balls he hit to right. This would pay great dividends at the plate, especially during the 1957 season when Ted fell five hits shy of batting .400, and in 1958 when he won his sixth and final batting title.

As for current Red Sox players foiling the shift, I think the occasional bunt would be a splendid idea for someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia–no one is going to complain much if a .273 hitter plumps up his average and gets on base by dropping one down. It might even spread the defense a little bit (especially given Miguel Cabrera’s current defensive constraints due to injury).

But with regard to Big Papi, one of the smartest hitters I’ve ever seen in half a century watching the Red Sox, this Boston fan is content to let him work things out for himself. With all due respect to Mr. Holway, one of baseball’s finest historians, and with due consideration for the rare game situation wherein a bunt might be as good as a blast, singles and doubles the opposite way are not what Mr. Henry pays David Ortiz to do.


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