As synopsized at Early Baseball Milestones (http://goo.gl/bH13iX): Captured by Native Americans, a youth sees them playing a game of ball. The “ball” was part of a sturgeon’s head covered with deerskin strips, the club was of hickory, some number of safe-haven bases were formed by small piles of stones, and there was plugging. “Their principal object seemed to be, to send the ball as far as possible, in order to enable the striker of it, to run around the great space of ground, which was comprised within the area formed by the piles of stones….” There is no mention of a pitcher, and if a batter-runner was put out, he would replace the fielder who made the putout. Some games would last for days.
Source: Anonymous (the credited author is “Lucy Ford,” the protagonist), Female Robinson Crusoe: A Tale of the American Wilderness (1837), pp. 176-78.
Some of the male adults were playing ball, which article was, as he afterwards ascertained it to be on examination, portion of a sturgeon’s head, which is elastic, covered with a piece of dressed deerskin. Another ball which he noticed was constituted of narrow strips of deerskin, wound around itself, like a ball of our twine, and then covered with a sufficiently broad piece of the same material.
In playing this game, they exhibited great dexterity, eagerness, and swiftness of speed. The party engaged, occupied an extensive surface of open ground, over whose whole space, a vigorous blow with the hickory club of the striker, would send the ball, and also to an amazing height. On its coming down, it was almost invariably caught by another player at a distance, and as instantly hurled from his hand to touch, if possible, the striker of the ball, who would then drop his club, and run, with a swiftness scarcely surpassed by the winds, to a small pile of stones, which it was part of the game for him to reach. If the runner succeeded in attaining to the desired spot, before the ball touched him, he was safe. Otherwise, he had to resign his club to the fortunate thrower of the ball against him, and take his place to catch. The runner, by watching the coming ball, was almost always enabled to avoid its contact with him, by dodging or leaping, which was effected with all the nimbleness of one of the feline race. If that was effected, another person, in his own division of the playing party (there being two rival divisions), assumed the dropped club, to become a striker in his turn.
Their principal object seemed to be, to send the ball as far as possible, in order to enable the striker of it, to run around the great space of ground, which was comprised within the area formed by piles of stones, placed at intervals along the line of the imaginary circle. Two rival parties would thus contrive in eager contest for hours, and their captive, has actually known them to keep up the game for several days, regardless of food or drink, which, however, their fellow savage spectators, who became interested, would bring, and persuade them to partake of, in order to sustain in vigour, their drooping strength and spirits. When the darkness of night had involved the scene, and they could no longer discern the ball, they would drop asleep in the very spot where they had stood, at the time that the obscurity in the air, obliged them to suspend playing; and at the earliest gray of dawn, some arose, and immediately making the welkin ring with their shouts, thus awakened the others, and at it again they all went, with scarce a moment’s cessation, until night again temporarily stopped the sport.
Baseball before the curse … but which one? The Curse of the Bambino or that of the Billy Goat? Merkle’s Revenge, or Rocky Colavito’s, or Steve Bartman’s? The Sports Illustrated Cover Curse? Or the one circulating in Toronto this year—Taylor Swift’s concert schedule? Or the most recent, Murphy’s Curse? A fresh look at the 1915 World Series provides yet another spectral candidate: Philadelphia Phillies President William F. Baker.
The Phillies had been a powerhouse before the turn of the century. In 1894 they hit .350 as a team—with all four of their regular outfielders topping the .400 mark—yet somehow finished fourth. They had never won a pennant until this miracle year of 1915—when they did it with pitching.
The Phillies played in a bandbox park known as Baker Bowl, named for their owner, so it is unsurprising that they, and their slugging outfielder Gavvy Cravath, led the National League in home runs. But pitching is what separated them from the pack and gave them their seven-game margin over last year’s champions, the Miracle Braves. The Phils’ ERA of 2.17 was half a run better than their nearest competitor. Grover Cleveland Alexander was 31-10—next year he would record an amazing 16 shutouts. Erskine Mayer, Al Demaree, and Eppa Rixey filled out the formidable rotation.
Their opponents, the Boston Red Sox, likewise knew nothing of a curse, yet. They had won each of their two previous World Series (1903 and 1912) and they would win this one, too, plus those in 1916 and 1918. Indeed, in baseball’s first two decades of the century no club won more championships than the Red Sox. Smoky Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 campaign with 34 wins and then three more in the Fall Classic, was nursing a tender arm in 1915, which permitted manager Bill Carrigan to add a fifth starter—20-year-old Babe Ruth, who went 18-8 yet would not pitch in the Series. The Red Sox had a “big three” of Rube Foster, Ernie Shore, and Dutch Leonard, and they would combine to pitch all the innings in the five games against Philadelphia.
The Quaker City had been baseball’s World Series home: this year marked was the fifth in six seasons to be played there. The Red Sox elected to play their home games at Braves Field, with its greater seating capacity. The Phils might have gone the same route, playing at the A’s Shibe Park. But the penny-wise and pound-foolish Phils management didn’t want to share the profits. Instead they added 2,000 temporary center-field seats to Baker Bowl’s 18,000 capacity, and it would cost them dearly, both financially and, in the fifth and final game, on the field.
The Series opened at home, with celebrities George M. Cohan and John L. Sullivan in attendance. Grover Alexander was smacked around liberally yet limited the damage as he won over Ernie Shore, 3-1. With Boston trailing in the ninth, manager Carrigan sent Ruth up to pinch hit. Overeager against Alexander the Great, the Babe bounced out weakly to first. New York Times reporter Hugh Fullerton wrote: “Alexander pitched a bad game of ball. He had little or nothing [and only] luck saved the Phillies.” This would be the last postseason game the Phils would win until 1977 (they were swept in the 1950 World Series).
The historic feature for Game 2 was the presence of Woodrow Wilson and his new bride. Throwing out the first pitch, Wilson became the first seated President to attend a World Series game.
Filmmakers were busy recording Wilson and the action on the field. “Close-ups of all the players were taken,” notes the American Film Institute Catalog, “and for the first time a camera was placed behind home plate in order to obtain good shots of the playing action, which included four home runs.” The subsequently released five-reeler titled 1915 World’s Championship Series is, alas, a lost film.
The Series was closely contested, as the deciding run was not scored until the ninth inning in three of the games, and only in Game One was the margin of victory as much as two runs. Boston won Games 2, 3, and 4 by identical scores of 2-1, with the Phils notching 13 hits combined.
In Game 5, returning to Baker Bowl, Rube Foster pitched the whole way against Mayer and Rixey, but he was not as effective as he had been in Game 2. Twice he gave the Phillies a two-run lead as first baseman Fred Luderus drove in three runs with a double and a home run. But from the fifth inning on, Foster held Philadelphia scoreless on two hits, while Duffy Lewis evened the score with a two-run homer in the eighth, and Harry Hooper (who had tied the score earlier with a home run in the third) won the game and the Series with a second homer in the top of the ninth. Both of Hooper’s homers bounced over the fence, shortened by the addition of the temporary seats. Although such hits would late be counted as doubles, in 1915 they were home runs.
“If we had beaten Boston in ’15,” said Rixey in later years, “who knows what would have happened? We might have been a team to reckon with for a long, long time.” Instead, he was traded to Cincinnati, Alexander was sent to the Cubs, and Baker’s Curse would not be overturned with a World Series victory until 1980.
50 years ago: The 1965 World Series pitted two venerable franchises still in their first decade in a new home. The Dodgers had won only one championship in Brooklyn, that in 1955, but had taken two in their early years in Los Angeles (1959 and 1963). The Minnesota Twins, who had been the downtrodden Washington Senators until 1961, had not earned a title since 1924. The Twins sluggers defeated Don Drysdale in a Game 1 that Sandy Koufax declined to pitch because it was scheduled for Yom Kippur, then topped Koufax in Game 2. Returning to L.A., the Dodgers took the next three games. If home-field form were to hold, the Twins, after capturing Game 6, should have run the table, but on two days’ rest, Koufax threw a magnificent three-hit shutout in Game 7.
25 years ago: The 1990 World Series saw a return of the AL champs of the prior two seasons, the Oakland A’s, led by the Bash Brothers combo of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, bolstered by the speed of Rickey Henderson. In 1989, in a Series interrupted by an earthquake, the A’s had swept their Bay Area rivals, the Giants. This time around it was the NL champs, the Cincinnati Reds, who brought the brooms. Billy Hatcher and Chris Sabo led the Reds at the bat, Jose Rijo allowed one earned run across two starts, and the bullpen was unscored upon.
This story will run in MLB’s World Series Media Guide, to be published this week.
Baseball players are less given to superstitious than they were a century ago, but fans (and journalists) have continued to give voice to them, even if accompanied by a wink and a nudge. The Curse of the Bambino or that of the Billy Goat (Murphy’s Hex)? Merkle’s Revenge, or Rocky Colavito’s, or Steve Bartman’s? The Sports Illustrated Cover Curse? Bo Jackson’s Revenge? Or the latest one, circulating in Toronto this year—Taylor Swift’s concert schedule? But all of these pale in absurdity to the hoodoo obsessions of old-time players. The section below is excerpted from Preston D. Orem’s invaluable 1967 booklet–self-published, and exceedingly scarce–Baseball from the Newspaper Accounts (1886). As he noted in the foreword, “The material in this book, as well as in the prior books which covered the years from 1845 to 1885 inclusive, was principally obtained from the contemporary newspaper accounts published the day after the game or other event.” Portions of the passage below may well offend modern readers, but they accurately reflect the attitudes of the period.
Baseball players have always been very superstitious but the year 1886 probably set a record for this sort of thing, as there were “Mascottes” and “Hoodoos” galore.
There were a number of general superstitions commonly believed in by most players. For instance meeting a funeral procession on the way to a game meant good luck; but to break through the line of the procession meant extremely bad luck.
Seeing a cross-eyed person was bad, being in the same room with one was worse, but to have a cross-eyed man sit down at the dining table with a club was absolutely disastrous. One antidote was known; to turn around immediately and spit over the left shoulder before speaking. When this was done on the main street of a large city it was a funny sight, amazed the pedestrians, and was a bit unsanitary. The antidote in a hotel dining room was frowned upon by the management as the other guests failed to understand the necessity of such a procedure.
Packing up the bats before the game was over was a “hoodoo.”
Drinking a glass of beer in a saloon before a game was an experimental practice. The glass was set aside and used again the next day if the game was won. If the game was lost another saloon and glass was tried. But against a “Jonah” club this idea would never work.
Sometimes a person would bring a team bad luck so that the club could never win when the person was present; this was very hard to combat although if the team played badly enough the crank might not come back. On the other hand the manager might mete out fines for poor play and the crank might show up again anyway.
Many players would turn shirts inside out; sleep on the same side every night, with head in a certain position; wear the same pair of sox without laundering. All continued while the team was winning.
In 1885 Willie Hahn, the famous Chicago mascot, was a little boy in short clothes, just able to talk when the White Stockings adopted him and won the championship. The players hired an open landau, bedecked it with flowers, put Willie in it and hauled him all over Chicago in triumph. As the White Stockings won again in 1886 Willie had a permanent home.
So the Detroit managers said that any sort of a mascot that the players would believe in would help win games. A colored boy born with all his teeth was found and, sure enough, the Detroit players would not exchange him for his weight in gold.
A number of teams had small Negroes as mascots and would rub their hands in their hair for help in making a base hit. It was however very bad luck if a visiting player were mean enough to touch the hair of their mascot. For this reason some teams went to the trouble of maintaining their boy in a closed hack at the ball park and he would have to duck out as the players wanted to rub his top piece.
Mascots were short lived as such. The Phillies had a big “buck” Negro for quite a long time however. One peculiarity of this Mascotte was that, as long as he remained sober the team won, either at home or away. But this was very hard on the mascot as he was extremely fond of his liquor in large quantities and would get drunk whenever he had a chance to do so, which brought the Phillies nothing but bad luck until he was sober again. So Philadelphia hired a man just to watch the Negro’s every step and keep him out of temptation and sin.
The Giants thought they would surely win the pennant if they opened the season by playing the Jaspers of Manhattan College. Even although they had opened with the Jaspers from 1883 on and never won the championship yet this superstition continued. In 1886 New York had a little dog which had wandered upon the diamond for a time. Although fed beefsteak every day the animal was unproductive of much good luck. But after the dog was given away the New York players thought the reason they could not do better was the lack of a mascot so Mutrie was on the lookout for most anything in that line.
The St. Louis Browns, when the bell rang for their practice, always formed a line abreast across the field and went across to first base that way before dispersing to their positions. Gleason was always careful to walk astride of the right foul line when coming upon the field. Bushong caught with a pair of gloves so dilapidated that even the patches were patched but he would not part with them. They were his “mascots.”
Brouthers of Detroit always laid his gloves in a certain spot as he went to the bench or to bat and allowed no one to interfere with them.
Porter, Brooklyn pitcher, had worn a red sleeveless jacket and shirt when pitching for over two years. The outfit did not match the club uniforms but he wore it anyway. When he was slated to pitch in St. Louis one day it was found that the jacket was in a laundry which was closed, it being Sunday. Porter was so affected he cried. Manager Byrne came to the rescue by getting the manager of the laundry to supply the garment in time. The overjoyed Porter won his game.
Pittsburgh had good luck when a Negro girl attended the home games but only provided she sat in a certain seat and wore a certain scarf. The nine was unbeatable if she was Seen before the game sitting in the seat reserved for her and properly attired but unfortunately considered they were “jonahed” if she was not there. Pitt had two pairs of uniform pantaloons for each man, one red and one blue. Each color would be worn as long as the club was successful, then changed if not.
New York refused to have a team picture taken when they were in a winning streak because they thought that bad luck.
Germany Smith of Brooklyn had a personal mascot, a boy that he brought to the field each day and had bat flies which Smith caught. Then Germany felt sure of his hits that day.
Chief Roseman of the Metropolitans always took a position on the forward side of the ferry boat going to Staten Island and looked for a green flag among the many small flags floating over the grounds. If the green one was there the club was sure to win. Apparently it had not been there much in 1885 and 1886. The Indians, as a whole, believed white stockings and blue caps were the only lucky dress that players could wear. If the club saw a load of empty barrels going in the same direction that they were this was also a good luck sign.
Naturally birds were an omen in Brooklyn. When a black pigeon circled around the ball park Brooklyn always won. But when it flew over in company with two white pigeons the score would be close.
Any goat which wandered across a diamond would be adopted at once, as would usually a dog or a cat. The directions in which a flag would be flying determined the results of games.
Pete Browning was the worst fanatic on his practice of any. When going on or off the field he would always walk over and touch third base. He actually believed that the nine would have to be a wonderful success as long as he continued his tagging, and could not win a game otherwise. On one occasion a rival player as a gag loosened the third sack, took it to the bench with him and hid it. Proceedings had to come to a complete stop until the bag had been unearthed, reattached, and properly tagged by Browning.
On the Gladiator’s return from the Springs, Louisville players, on a winning streak without Pete, gave him a somewhat cool reception. Browning was deeply hurt and said: “Yes, but I was touching third base every day for you or you could not have won the way you did.” Pete had actually marked off a diamond in back of the hotel at the Springs, installed a third base bag and, on the days that Louisville was scheduled to play, went out upon his diamond and went right through his regular ceremony.
When manager Hart of Louisville walked into the clubhouse so proudly wearing a beautiful new white plug hat, the players hollered: “A mascot!” As the nine did meet with luck the hat got the credit. Four or five weeks later’Hart exchanged the plug hat for a black mackinaw and the players kicked as they said this bonnet was a “Jonah” so they would lose the next game. And they did! Certain spectators in Louisville always tried to get the same seat to bring the club luck. One elderly man always attended when he could, standing in a certain spot almost directly behind the catcher for luck. Whenever the home team came to bat, as each player came to the plate, the man would close his eyes, clasp his hands, utter briefly a fervent prayer for the Louisville nine.
Foutz always carried a lemon in his pocket during the game wherever he played. Otherwise the Browns could never win.
[To these I add some add some superstitions recorded in an undated news clip, ca. 1890.–jt]
Art Whitney says it is bad luck to wear different sized stockings.
Ed Beecher, of the Buffalos, has a penny fastened to the inside of one of his shoes.
Roger Connor will walk any day to the grounds rather than be compelled to ride in a yellow vehicle.
Connie Mack, of the Buffalos, carries a copper penny in the palm of his big left hand glove.
Tim Keefe reverses his hat when he enters the grounds, and wears it reversed until obliged to put on his playing cap.
Hardy Richardson always puts his foot on second base before he touches a ball in a game, and failure to do so means irretrievable ruin to himself and his colleagues.
Mike Slattery loses confidence if he sees a cross-eyed man during the day of the game, and he immediately hunts up a cross-eyed colored woman to offset the spell.
Henry Gruber, of the Clevelands, thinks that luck will come to him as soon as the grass is long enough for him to chew. In a game he always has a blade of grass in his mouth.
Ed Beatin, of the Clevelands, always puts one foot on the home plate when he gets into the field. He thinks that by doing this he can charm the ball so that he will have the players at his mercy.
Repeating my intro to Part 1: My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
Alcohol and Drugs
It is impossible to put a number on the baseball careers shortened or adversely affected by the excessive use of alcohol. In at least four cases (Delahanty, Koenecke, Morris, and Wilson), dealt with elsewhere in this chapter, fatalities resulted. Countless players of the game’s early years were lushes. Liquor was readily available to them, often on the house, and there was plenty of time for carousing, especially when on the road. Some of the worst offenders were quietly blacklisted and faded from the game. Others who were heavy drinkers continued in uniform, because they were star players and the owners winked at their alcoholic escapades. Future Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly, for example, drank as hard as he played; yet in 1887 Boston paid an unheard of $10,000 to Chicago for his contract. Toward the end of his career, he opened a saloon in New York, which was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. His performance level deteriorated rapidly, and by 1894 he was in the minors. That fall he developed pneumonia, and on November 8 he died at the age of thirty-six.
Terry Larkin, who won 29 games for Hartford in 1877, and 29 and 31, respectively, for Chicago in 1878 and 1879, was another nineteenth-century player whose career self-destructed from the ravages of strong drink. In 1883, while drunk, he shot his wife (she recovered) and then tried to commit suicide in jail. In 1886, while employed as a bartender in Brooklyn, he showed up for work with two pistols and challenged his employer to a duel. Police were called and he was thrown into jail until he sobered up. He died in Brooklyn in 1894.
Equally melancholy is the story of James (The Troy Terrier) Egan, who pitched, caught and played the outfield for Troy (NL) in 1882 and then was blacklisted for drunkenness. Supposedly rehabilitated, he was given a chance with Brooklyn (AA) in 1884, but before he played a game he was arrested for theft and jailed. He died of what was described as “brain fever” in a New Haven, Connecticut, jail, September 26, 1884.
Few players have come to the majors with more raw talent than Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Towne, Maine. He played college baseball at both Holy Cross and Notre Dame. While at the latter school in 1897, he and a companion broke up an establishment run by a certain “Popcorn Jennie” and threw the furniture out the windows. When the good fathers who ran Notre Dame read about this caper in the South Bend Tribune, they promptly threw him out. Future major league catcher Mike Powers, who had been instrumental in getting Sockalexis into both Holy Cross and Notre Dame, wired the Cleveland Club, with whom the Indian had signed a contract to take effect at the end of the school year, and suggested it send someone to South Bend to bail him out. Manager Patsy Tebeau caught the next train west, and in a few days Sockalexis was in a Cleveland uniform. He impressed with his strength, speed, and magnificent arm. In later years, both John McGraw and Hughie Jennings said he was the greatest natural talent they had ever seen. Even allowing for the hyperbole that often accompanies such reminiscence, it is apparent that he was a player of exceptional ability. But just as exceptional was his appetite for strong drink. Frequently interrupted by binges and injuries (once he jumped from a second-floor window and severely injured an ankle), his major league career was limited to 94 games in three seasons.
Sockalexis died in Burlington, Maine, on December 24, 1913, at the age of forty-two. His baseball monument is not his .313 batting average but the Cleveland Indians baseball club, which was nicknamed after him.
Hall of Famer Rube Waddell gained almost as much notoriety for his drinking as he did recognition for his pitching. Lowell Reidenbaugh, in his Cooperstown, tells how Waddell would come into a bar, penniless, and whisper to the bartender, “Give me a drink, and I will give you the ball I used to defeat Cy Young in twenty innings.” According to Reidenbaugh, hundreds of bartenders “displayed what they considered to be the historic souvenir.”
Despite the abuse he gave his body, the Rube lasted for thirteen major league seasons and won 191 games. But his indiscretions led to tuberculosis and he died in San Antonio, Texas, on April Fool’s Day, 1914, at the age of thirty-seven.
Waddell contemporary Arthur (Bugs) Raymond was not the pitcher the Rube was, but he was his equal in the drinking department. The efforts of Giant manager John McGraw to rein him in are a part of the lore and legend of baseball. Raymond finally became so uncontrollable that the Giants let him go in the spring of 1912. Later that year Raymond, while drunk, was watching a sandlot game in Chicago when a spectator picked up a broken piece of pottery and threw it, hitting Raymond in the face. A fight ensued in which Raymond was badly beaten up. He went back to his hotel room, where six days later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a skull fracture. He was only thirty years old. One former teammate said of him, “Bugs paid too much too soon for too many drinks.”
The problem of alcoholism continues in the modern game, but added to it is an affliction even more virulent–the use of illegal drugs. Careers are being shortened or interrupted by excessive drinking or the ingestion of drugs, or by a combination of both. In the old days, when a player drank too much, he was either shunted aside or his problem was swept under the rug. Now, the usual pattern is a confession of the problem, or exposure, followed by treatment, rehabilitation, sometimes suspension, but then a return to the game.
In 1983 the baseball world was rocked by the news that four players on the Kansas City Royals–Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Jerry Martin, and Vida Blue (no longer with the team)–had been involved with illegal drugs. All were suspended for one year by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, although later an arbitrator reduced the suspensions, except for Blue’s. Meanwhile, indictments were handed down and all were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, with the last nine months suspended. Eventually Wilson returned to the Royals. Aikens was traded to Toronto but then went to the minors. Martin and Blue are out of baseball.
Pitcher Steve Howe of the Los Angeles Dodgers was suspended for the 1984 season for alleged drug use and did not challenge it. After at least two relapses, he was signed by the Texas Rangers and appeared for them late in the 1987 season. He was out of baseball in ’88 and ’89, but made a comeback in 1991 and eventually worked himself up to a prominent place in the New York Yankee bullpen. After his conviction in 1992 in Kalispell, Montana, for drug possession, he was barred from baseball “for life” by Commissioner Fay Vincent, but was given yet another chance to play in 1993, by virtue of a ruling by an arbitrator. He pitched the entire season for the Yankees, with spotty results, and presumably passed all his required blood tests. In 1994 he became the ace of the Yankee bullpen.
Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez spent three months in a Dominican Republic jail on drug charges during the 1983·1984 off-season and was also suspended by Commissioner Kuhn. Arbitrator Richard I. Bloch, who had also ruled in the Willie Wilson et al. cases, subsequently threw out the Perez suspension because of lack of evidence.
Also in 1983, pitcher Dickie Noles of the Cubs spent time in jail after a drunken brawl in Cincinnati. Outfielder Ron LeFlore was arrested on drug and weapons charges in 1982 while with the Chicago White Sox. Although found not guilty, he was released by the Sox in April 1983.
Bob Welch, talented righthanded pitcher of the Dodgers, best remembered for his classic confrontation with Reggie Jackson of the Yankees in the 1978 World Series, revealed that he had been an alcoholic for many years. After rehabilitation and relegation to the minors, he returned to the Dodgers in 1986 and Oakland two years later. He has written a book about his experiences, Five O’Clock Comes Early.
A much-publicized drug trial that began in Pittsburgh on September 5, 1985, exposed the drug involvement of numerous players, including Keith Hernandez of the Mets (formerly with the Cardinals) and Dave Parker of the Reds (formerly with the Pirates). After the trial, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth meted out penalties to twenty-one players, ranging from heavy fines to be paid to drug prevention programs, orders to participate in random drug testing, and the performance of drug-related community service.
The shocking disclosures of widespread drug use that came out of the 1985 trial and the severe penalties that followed seemed to have a favorable impact on the drug problem, but did not eliminate it entirely. In 1986 San Diego pitcher LaMarr Hoyt, a Cy Young Award winner in 1983 when he was with the White Sox, was arrested three times on drug-related charges, and after the third was sentenced to forty-five days in federal prison. Hoyt’s suspension from baseball was later overturned, and he was ordered reinstated with back pay, much to the dismay of the baseball hierarchy.
Hoyt then signed with his old club, the Chicago White Sox, but his troubles were far from over. He tested positive for cocaine three times in October 1987, and then on December 4 he was arrested in his Columbia, S.C., apartment and charged with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana. He was convicted the following year and sentenced to one year in prison. How widespread has been the use of illegal drugs by major league players? In a recent book, Baseball Babylon, author Dan Gutman lists eighty-three players who have been so involved, including such superstars as Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, whose problems surfaced again in 1994.
The list of tragedies and shortened careers has been a long one and sad. It has included paragons and playboys, teetotalers and tosspots, the great, the near-great, and the never-were; some who self-destructed and many more who were simply the victims of the cruelest of bad luck. However classified, for each player the hypothetical question remains: Had his tragedy not occurred, what might have been?
Careers Shortened by Blacklisting or Expulsion
Listed below, but not discussed in this chapter, are players blacklisted or expelled from baseball for gambling, dishonest play (or knowledge of same), criminal activity, or, in one case–that of Ray Fisher–violation of a contract. The players involved in the 1877 Louisville and 1919 Chicago White Sox scandals, all of whom were barred for life, are grouped; the others are listed alphabetically:
1877 Louisville players: Bill Craver, Jim Devlin, George Hall, Al Nichols.
1919 Chicago White Sox players: Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Chick Gandil, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Claude Williams.
Others: George Bechtel, Rube Benton (who was later reinstated and returned to the majors), Hal Chase, Cozy Dolan, Phil Douglas, Jean Dubuc (who returned as a coach with Detroit in 1931), Ray Fisher, Joe Gedeon, Claude Hendrix, Richard Higham (umpire), Benny Kauff, Hubert Leonard, Lee Magee, Jimmy O’Connell, Eugene Paulette, Pete Rose, Heinie Zimmerman. (Former major leaguers banned from baseball for their activities in the minor leagues include Babe Borton, Gene Dale, Jess Levan, Harl Maggert, Tom Seaton and Joe Tipton.) [Note that man, many other players, especially before 1900, were placed on indefinite suspension–and thus banned or blacklisted–for a variety of offenses ranging from on-field inebriation to contract jumping. Most of these individuals were welcomed back to the big leagues, eventually.–jt]
Repeating my intro to Part 1: My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
Sore Arms, Illnesses, Injuries, and Accidents
Up to this point, the subject has been (with a few exceptions) deaths off or on the diamond. But fatalities are only part of the story. Many a baseball career has aborted for reasons not resulting in death, at least, not at once.
In the old days, sore arms were usually rested. If there was any treatment at all, it was by the likes of John D. “Bonesetter” Reese, a self-trained muscle manipulator of Youngstown, Ohio. Nobody ever heard of the rotator cuff or even dreamed of such sophisticated operations as those which prolonged the careers of Tommy John, Ken Dayley, and others.
Charles “Lady” Baldwin was one old-timer who could have used a Tommy John bionic arm. In 1886 he won 42 games for Detroit (NL) and pitched 487 innings. He then developed arm trouble and dropped to 13 wins in 1887 and to 3 each in 1888 and 1890, after which he retired for good to his Michigan farm. Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson’s arm went dead in 1916, but by then he was thirty-eight, had won 373 games, and had achieved immortality. Smoky Joe Wood was another sore arm victim, but he did beat the rap in a way. After winning 23 games for the Red Sox in 1911 and then 34 in 1912, including 16 in a row, he developed a sore arm the following spring. His days as an intimidating fireballer were over, although he did win 35 games for the Sox over the next three seasons. Realizing he could no longer pitch, he decided to become a sore-armed outfielder, and played that position with fair success for Cleveland through the 1922 season. Altogether he played in fourteen major league seasons and left a 116·57 pitching record and a career batting mark of .283.
Undocumented are the names of countless other pitchers of the game’s early years who dropped out prematurely because of so-called dead arms. More is known of modern pitchers, like Dave Ferris and Karl Spooner. Ferris joined the Boston Red Sox in 1945, having been mustered out of the Army because of asthma. He raised plenty of eyebrows with a 21-10 record in the last year of wartime baseball, but then made believers out of everyone by winning 25 and losing just 6 in 1946. But in a night game in Cleveland in June of 1947, he suffered a shoulder injury, from which he never fully recovered although he did hang on until 1950. His career log shows 65-30 for a phenomenal .684 percentage.
No pitcher ever made a more dazzling entrance or faded as fast as Karl Spooner. The twenty-three-year-old lefthander was called up by Brooklyn from Fort Worth (Texas), late in the 1954 season. He pitched shutouts against New York and Pittsburgh in his first two starts, allowing just 7 hits and striking out 27. Hampered by a sore arm, he struggled to an 8·6 record in 1955, made two appearances in the World Series (0·1), then never pitched again.
In 1966 another Dodger lefthander, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was 27-9, with 5 shutouts and an ERA of 1.73 in 323 innings of work. Talk about going out on top! No pitcher in major league history ever matched that in a final season. He pitched against Baltimore in the 1966 World Series (0·1), but at the age of thirty his career was over. Traumatic arthritis in the left elbow, triggered by a fall on his left arm when attempting a pickoff during the 1964 season, made it impossible for him to continue. Had Koufax been able to pitch as long as, say Warren Spahn, there is no telling what his record might have been. As it was, he left an imposing mark of 165-87 (.655) and an ERA of 2.76.
Mark Fidrych, the colorful Detroit pitcher known as “the Bird,” was 19·- in 1976 and was the starting pitcher in the All-Star game. But plagued by arm trouble, he faded to a combined 10·11 record over the next four seasons. He was only twenty-six when he pitched his final big league game in 1980. Twice he tried comebacks in the minors, but failed.
Lefty Don Gullett, the only man to pitch the opening game in successive World Series for two different teams (Cincinnati Reds, 1976; and New York Yankees, 1977), was just twenty-seven when his career ended with a bad arm after the 1978 season. He had been one of the first free agents signed by the Yankees, and was certainly one of their most expensive, costing them $2 million for his 18 wins in two seasons.
Righthander Wayne Garland of the Indians was operated on for a rotator cuff tear on May 5, 1978. He had won 33 games the two previous seasons. After the operation, he came back, hanging on until 1981, but he was never the same pitcher. And like Gullett, he was working on a lucrative long-term contract.
The previous pages have told of the surprising number of active major leaguers who succumbed to illness. Many others became ill and were forced to give up the game or see their baseball livelihoods interrupted. An early example was Jimmy Wood, who played for Chicago, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia in the National Association from 1871 to 1873. In 1873 he developed a leg abscess which he attempted to lance with a penknife. A severe infection developed, resulting in the loss of his leg. His playing days, of course, were over, but he did return as a manager in 1874 and 1875.
In 1890 first baseman Dave Orr of Brooklyn (in the Players’ League) batted .373, hit 32 doubles, 13 triples, and 6 home runs, while striking out only 11 times. For a nonpitcher, this was the ultimate in final seasons. In the off-season, the thirty-one-year-old Orr suffered a stroke and never played again. He died in Brooklyn on June 3, 1915.
Hall of Famer Amos Rusie won 243 games in nine seasons and part of a tenth, but saw his career shrouded by misfortune, some of his own making. The so-called “Hoosier Thunderbolt,” who almost killed Hughie Jennings with a bean ball, himself took a line drive to the head which permanently damaged his hearing. He threw out his arm in 1898 and was out of the game for two years. He compounded his other problems with heavy drinking. Although he tried to come back in 1901, he failed. At the age of thirty he was through.
The aforementioned Jennings, another Hall of Famer, had a baseball life replete with illness and adversity. In addition to the almost fatal beaning by Rusie, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1925, after taking over as manager of the New York Giants when John McGraw became ill. Jennings died of spinal meningitis in 1928 at the age of fifty-eight.
Often documented is the tragic accident that terminated the career of catcher Charley Bennett, who played in the majors from 1878 to 1893 (except for 1879). In January of 1894, while on a hunting trip, he tried to catch and board a moving train at Wellsville, Kansas, but lost his grip and fell under the wheels, losing both legs. Shortstop Charlie Hollocher, who played for the Cubs from 1918 to 1924, was constantly bedeviled by illness, real and imaginary, blunting what some observers feel could have been a Hall of Fame·level career. His tormented life came to an end on August 14, 1940, when he parked his car on a quiet Clayton, Missouri, street, then tore his throat apart with a blast from a sixteen-gauge shotgun.
One of the strangest cases in which illness terminated a career involved pitcher-turned-outfielder Erwin (Zeke) Harvey. After batting .333 for Chicago and Cleveland of the new American League in 1901 and starting the 1902 season at a .348 clip in 12 games, he quit baseball, claiming he had such serious stomach pains that he could no longer play ball. He never returned to the diamond. Instead he became an entomologist on the west coast. He died in Santa Monica, in 1954 at the age of seventy-five.
On September 25, 1905, Dave Fultz was playing center field for the New York Highlanders when he collided with shortstop Norman “Kid” Elberfeld. His nose and jaw were broken, injuries which would end his baseball career. He had been studying law and he opened his own office in 1906. In 1912 he formed the Players Fraternity and later secured many benefits for players. In 1919 and 1920 he served as president of the International League.
Jackie Hayes, outstanding second baseman and shortstop for the Senators and the White Sox (1927-1940), was 3 for 3 in a 1940 Sox spring game; then in the shower room he noticed a cloudiness in one eye. He played 18 games that year, but by August he had lost his sight in the clouded eye. In a matter of three years, he had lost his sight in the other. Similarly, George “Specs” Toporcer, a former major league infielder, had lost his sight while managing Buffalo (International League) in 1951. Both men learned to live with their blindness and went on to lead productive lives, Hayes as the tax collector of Chilton County, Alabama, and Toporcer as a writer and lecturer.
Righthanded pitcher Monty Stratton (15-5 and 15-9 for the Chicago White Sox in 1937 and 1938) was hunting rabbits near his mother’s home in Greenville, Texas, after the 1938 season, when he accidentally discharged a .22-caliber pistol. The slug lodged in his right knee, severing the main artery and necessitating amputation of the leg. Stratton did not pitch again in the majors, but he was a White Sox coach for three seasons. In 1946 he pitched for Sherman in the Class C East Texas League, where, remarkably, he won 18 games. Hollywood thought it saw a story in the courageous way he had faced his tragedy and made a much-acclaimed movie of his life, The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart.
A third victim of a leg injury was Joe Cronin, Hall of Fame shortstop who played twenty years for Washington and Boston, and probably would have played a few more had he not fractured his leg three games into the 1945 season. He never played again, but continued in the game for many years as a manager, front office executive, and as American League president.
He looked so indestructible that they called him “The Iron Horse.” Henry Louis Gehrig, in seventeen years at first base for the New York Yankees, averaged .340, hit 535 doubles, 162 triples, and 493 home runs. He scored 1,888 runs, had 1,990 RBIs, and posted a slugging percentage of .632. His incredible record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games at one time seemed unassailable, but is now being challenged by Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles, who played in 2,009 consecutive games through the end of the 1994 season. On May 2, 1939, Gehrig approached manager Joe McCarthy, told him he was not feeling well. Gehrig thought he was hurting the team, and he asked to be taken from the lineup. McCarthy, of course, complied, and so for the first time since pinch-hitting for Pee-Wee Wanninger on May 31, 1925, Gehrig missed a Yankee game.
A few months later the bad news came from the Mayo Clinic. The indestructible one, “The Iron Horse,” had been stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system for which no cure was known. On July 4, 1939, 61,000 gathered at Yankee Stadium for a gigantic Gehrig tribute. There he spoke his memorable words: “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
In the short time left to him, Gehrig devoted himself to public service. On June 2, 1941, exactly sixteen years from the day he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, he died. He was thirty-seven years old. The malady that killed him is now generally referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Unfortunately it is almost as much a medical mystery today as it was fifty years ago when it struck him.
Catcher Bill DeLancey was a product of the St. Louis Cardinal farm system. After playing eight games for the parent club in 1932 and then spending a year at Columbus (American Association), he became a regular member of the “Gas House Gang” in 1934. In 1935 he found that he had tuberculosis and faced a long recovery period. It was not until 1940 that he made it back, and then it was just for 15 games. By then, he knew it was no use. His career was over. He died November 28, 1946, on his thirty-fifth birthday.
When Don Black went to the mound for the Cleveland Indians against the St. Louis Browns on September 13, 1948, he could have looked back on an undistinguished six-year record with the Athletics and Indians (34·55). But there were two victories–one off the diamond–that he could recall with pride. The first was against the bottle; the second was a no-hit, no-run game against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 10, 1947.
In the late-season game against the Browns, upon retiring the Browns in the first two innings, Black came to bat against Bill Kennedy. After swinging mightily at the first pitch and fouling it back, he began to stagger and finally sank to his knees. Umpire Bill Summers bent over to assist Black and heard him whisper, “That last pitch to [Ed] Pellagrini did it.” (He had struck out the Browns’ shortstop with a curve ball to end the top of the second.) Apparently, that pitch plus the force of his swing had caused an aneurysm to rupture, sending blood to his brain and spinal cord. (Shades of James Creighton, who had injured himself fatally while batting on August 14, 1862.) An eminent neurosurgeon was summoned. He ruled out surgery as too risky, but said Black had just a 50-50 chance of surviving. But Black did survive and on September 22 he was recipient of a large purse from a benefit game against the Red Sox that attracted a crowd of 76,772.
The Indians went on to win the pennant and then defeated the Boston Braves in the World Series, but without Black, who never pitched again. He died April 21, 1959 at the age of 42.
Baseball’s Domesday Books credit lefthanded pitcher Bert Shepard with one major league appearance. What the books do not say is that this game was pitched by a one-legged man. When Shepard’s call to World War Two service came, he was a promising young pitcher. The fortunes of war took him to the European front, where he was downed over Germany on his thirty-fifth mission and taken prisoner. Doctors removed his shattered right leg, after which a fellow prisoner of war fashioned him a wooden leg. After his recapture and return to the States, he was signed by the Washington Senators as a batting practice pitcher. In his one appearance in a regular game, he allowed one run in 5-1/3 innings for an ERA of 1.69.
Lou Brissie, like Bert Shepard, was a victim of World War Two combat. Brissie, who joined the Army in 1942 as a teenager, was badly wounded on the Italian front and forced to undergo twenty-three operations. Despite the handicap of a steel leg brace and a leather guard, he never gave up his dream of becoming a major league pitcher. In 1947, for Savannah of the Sally League, he won 23 games and earned a late-season call-up from the Philadelphia Athletics. From 1947 to 1953, he won 44 games for the A’s and the Indians, to whom he was traded in 1951. His best year was 1949, when he won 16 games and pitched in the All-Star Game. He was only twenty-nine when his career came to a close. He then became national director of the American Legion baseball program.
Herb Score was a third American League lefty to see his career abbreviated by injury. In 1955, Score won 16 games for Cleveland and struck out 245; then in 1956 he improved to 20 wins and 263 strikeouts. Along the banks of Lake Erie, he was hailed as a lefthanded Bob Feller. But it was not to be. On May 7, 1957, at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, he was hit in the eye by a torrid line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees and seriously injured.
His recovery was slow, and he did not return to the Indians until 1958 and then only for 12 games. On April 18, 1960, he was traded to the White Sox for Barry Latman. After three seasons of limited duty for the Sox, he called it a day. He remains in baseball as the play-by-play announcer for the Indians.
Brooklyn catcher Roy Campanella was thirty-six and in the twilight of a remarkable career that had seen him win three Most Valuable Player awards, when disaster struck on a January night in 1958. He was driving to his Long Island home in the early hours of the morning when his borrowed car skidded on a slippery spot in the road and slammed into a utility pole. The two broken vertebrae he suffered doomed him to a long and excruciatingly painful period of recovery and rehabilitation, not to mention lifelong confinement to a wheelchair.
On May 7, 1959, before a crowd of 93,103 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Dodgers and the Yankees met in a mammoth benefit for the paralyzed Campanella. It was an emotional affair, rivaling similar tributes to Yankee greats Gehrig and Ruth at Yankee Stadium.
The courage Campanella displayed in his rehabilitation was an inspiration to many others who suffered severe spinal injuries. He received baseball’s highest honor in 1969–election to the Hall of Fame.
Mike Pazik, a lefthander from Lynn, Mass., who appeared briefly for Minnesota in 1975, 1976, and 1977, saw his pitching career terminated when he suffered multiple fractures of both legs in a 1977 automobile accident. He returned to the game in 1980 as a coach for the White Sox. Later, he served four years as a roving pitching instructor for the Milwaukee Brewers, and then in late 1987 he was named pitching coach for Charlotte of the Double-A Southern League.
Houston righthander J. R. Richard, at 6’8″ and 222 pounds, was an intimidating figure on the mound. From 1976 through 1979, his strikeout log showed 214, 214, 303, and 313, respectively, while his victories totaled 74. In 1980, even though slowed by arm and shoulder injuries, he was chosen to start for the National League in the All-Star Game at Los Angeles. But, as fate would have it, he was to pitch just two more innings for the Astros before being laid low by a stroke. The rehabilitation was painfully slow, but there always seemed to be hope that his career could be salvaged, but such hopes proved to be futile. Twice (in 1982 and 1983) he tried to pitch in the lower minors, but the illness had taken too great a toll.
In 1988, while with the San Francisco Giants, lefty Dave Dravecky developed a cancerous growth on his pitching arm. An operation and a long recuperation followed. He tried to come back in 1989, but in a late-season game against Montreal his pitching arm broke as he was delivering a pitch. Subsequently his arm was amputated, bringing to an end a once promising career. His major league record was 64·57 with an ERA of 3.13.
First baseman Nick Esasky enjoyed a career year with the Boston Red Sox in 1989, with 30 home runs and 108 RBIs. He then signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves. During spring training he began to suffer from vertigo. He played only nine regular season games in 1990 before being disabled. His failure to recover baffled a horde of medical experts. He did not play at all in 1991, tried to come back in ’92, but was eventually released by the Braves.
Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals was one of the most exciting players to hit the majors in years. He could run, throw, field, and hit with power. He was also a superstar in football and that proved to be his downfall. An innocent-looking sideline tackle while he was playing for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 resulted in a serious hip injury. Released by the Royals, he was given another chance by the White Sox in 1991. He played in only 23 late-season games, batting .225 with three home runs. His hip continued to deteriorate and eventually had to be surgically replaced. He did not play at all in 1992, but, miraculously, returned to action in 1993, playing the entire season for the White Sox, mainly as a designated hitter, then in 1994 signed and played with the California Angels.
Careers cut short for psychological reasons are not common, but there have been a few. Steve Blass, hero of the 1971 Pittsburgh World Series victory over Baltimore and winner of 19 games in 1972, suddenly could not throw strikes. So severe was the mental block that his baseball life ended in 1974 when he was only thirty-two. Kevin Saucier, a lefthanded relief pitcher for Detroit, had 13 saves and 4 wins in 1981; then, inexplicably, he developed the Steve Blass syndrome and could not throw strikes. In his case it was a fear of hitting and injuring a batter. He could not overcome the problem, and at twenty-six he was out of baseball. Joe Cowley, who pitched for the Braves, Yankees, White Sox, and Phillies, and who has a no-hit game to his credit, simply could not throw strikes and was sent to the minors by the Phillies in 1987. He could not throw strikes there either and finally was sent home.
At least one career came to a premature end because of a fear of flying. Jackie Jensen, who hit 199 home runs in eleven seasons with the Yankees, Senators, and Red Sox, retired first in 1959, tried again in 1961, but then quit for good at the age of thirty-four.
It was on July 30, 1991, eleven years to the day on which J. R. Richard of the Houston Astros was hit by a massive stroke, that twenty-eight-year-old Jeff Gray, Boston Red Sox pitcher, met the same fate. Stricken while sitting in front of his locker at Fenway Park, suddenly he was unable to walk, talk, or grip a baseball. After two years of excruciating rehabilitation, in which he had to relearn almost every normal activity, he even reached the point of being able to pitch with some authority, although not at his former level. In 1994 he was named a minor league pitching coach by the Red Sox.
Part 5 tomorrow.
Repeating my intro to Part 1: My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
Planes, Cars, Trucks, and a Dune Buggy
When superstars Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson lost their lives in air crashes, it was front-page news all over the country. In Clemente’s case, the coverage was international in scope because of the mercy mission in which he was involved.
Clemente and Munson were not the first active major leaguers to perish in airplane accidents. There were at least six prior air fatalities–seven if Koenecke is included. Marvin Goodwin, a righthanded spitball pitcher who saw action with the Senators, Cardinals, and Reds from 1916 through 1925, was the first. In 1925, nearing the end of his career, he was pitcher-manager of Houston of the Texas League, on assignment from the Cardinals. He did so well at Houston (21-9) that Cincinnati purchased him conditionally late in the season, with the understanding that final payment on the deal would be made only if he lasted thirty days into the 1926 season. He made four September appearances for the Reds with no wins and no losses.
Goodwin had been a flying instructor in World War One and was still a lieutenant in the reserve. On October 18, 1925, he took off on a practice flight from Ellington Field, near Houston, with a mechanic on board. The engine failed at 200 feet, and the plane crashed. The mechanic miraculously survived, but Goodwin, who suffered two broken legs and internal injuries, died four days later. The fatality had a ghoulish aftermath. The following year, the Cardinals demanded full payment for Goodwin’s contract. The Reds refused on the grounds that he was not on their roster thirty days into the 1926 season. The case was referred to the commissioner’s office. Judge Landis, citing the terms of the contract, ruled in favor of the Reds.
Elmer Joseph Gedeon played in the outfield for the Washington Senators in 1939. He had been a track star at the University of Michigan and had given up a chance to run in the Olympic Games to go into baseball. But then World War Two came along, and Gedeon gave up baseball to become an early volunteer in the Air Corps. He died April 15, 1944, when his plane was shot down over France. (Two others who played in the majors in 1939 also died in battle. Bob Neighbors, a shortstop for seven games with the St. Louis Browns, died in North Korea in 1952, and Harry O’Neill, who caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, perished in the assault on Iwo Jima in 1945.)
After his graduation from Boston University in 1955, catcher Tom Gastall pocketed a $40,000 bonus from the Baltimore Orioles. He was used sparingly, playing 20 games in 1955 and 32 in 1956. On September 20, 1956, he took off in a light plane from Harbor Field, near Baltimore. He landed at Easton, from where he later took off for the return flight over the Chesapeake Bay. Five days later, his body and the wreckage of the plane were found in the water off Riviera Beach. Gastall was just twenty-four.
A little over two months later, on November 27, 1956, outfielder Charley Peete, who had played 23 games for the St. Louis Cardinals that summer, died in a plane crash in the mountains of Venezuela, near Caracas, while en route to play winter ball. His wife and three children also perished in the crash.
Another victim of a Venezuelan air disaster was twenty-one-year-old Nestor Chavez, a San Francisco Giant farmhand who played in two games for the Giants in 1967. On March 16, 1969, the young pitcher was on his way to join the Giants’ Phoenix farm club when his plane crashed, killing 155 passengers. It was one of the worst accidents in aviation history.
Ken Hubbs, playing 160 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1962, handled 148 consecutive chances without an error and was Rookie of the Year. He tailed off in 1963 but was still rated one of the game’s rising young stars. At the end of the 1963 season, he began to take flying lessons. In early February 1964, shortly after he had received his license, Hubbs, who lived in Colton, California, flew to Provo, Utah, with a friend, Dennis Doyle, to visit Doyle’s in-laws. On February 15, Hubbs and Doyle took off in a snowstorm for their return trip to California. Only five miles from Provo, the plane crashed into Utah Lake, killing Hubbs and Doyle.
After investigation, the Civil Aeronautics Board reported the probable cause as “Hubbs’s attempt to continue visual flight into an area of adverse weather.” The twenty-two-year-old Hubbs, who was not licensed for instrument flying, left a log book which showed he had flown just 71 hours, 16 minutes.
On September 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente, who had batted .317 in eighteen seasons with Pittsburgh, touched Jon Matlack of the Mets for a base hit. It was Clemente’s 3,000th and last hit. On December 31, 1972, Clemente and four others were killed when a plane carrying food, clothing, and medical supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua crashed moments after takeoff from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Clemente’s career had all the elements of a Horatio Alger tale. Born August 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the son of a sugar plantation foreman, he was signed by Al Campanis of the Dodgers as a teenager. The Dodgers tried to cover him up on the Montreal (International League) roster, but Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, who knew all about him from his days with the Dodgers, drafted him for a piddling $4,000. It was one of the greatest bargains in baseball history. Clemente immediately became a regular and won all manner of plaudits for his hitting, fielding, and magnificent throwing arm. He was Most Valuable Player in 1966, batted .310 and .414 in two World Series (1960, 1971), and was The Sporting News‘s Gold Glove outfielder twelve times. Twice he hit three home runs in one game, and five times he led National League outfielders in assists.
Clemente was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 in a special election, with the usual five-year waiting period waived by a change of the voting rules.
Thurman Munson was the only New York Yankee to win both Rookie of the Year (1970) and Most Valuable Player (1976) awards. He was the regular Yankee catcher from 1970, averaging more than 140 games a year, despite aching knees, a beaning, and a foul ball in the throat. He was one of the league’s top clutch hitters, with 701 RBIs and a .292 average over eleven seasons. His clashes with Reggie Jackson over which of them was the straw that stirred the Yankee drink drew national attention.
On August 2, 1979, an off-day, Munson flew his new Cessna Citation jet from New York to Canton, Ohio, to visit his family. Late in the afternoon, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Airport when the plane crashed a thousand feet short of the runway. Munson’s flying companions, David Hall and Jerry Anderson, survived and at great danger to themselves, attempted to pull Munson from the flaming wreckage. But there was no chance. Munson, who was thirty-two, left his wife, Diane, and three children, not to mention millions of mourning baseball fans. On August 6 of that year, 51,000 fans at Yankee Stadium participated in an impressive nine-minute salute to the Yankee captain, who, with a few more years under his belt, could well have been a good bet for the Hall of Fame.
As far as is known, the first active major leaguer to die in a vehicular accident was Norman Boeckel, a .298 hitter for the 1923 Boston Braves. The thirty-one-year-old third baseman died February 16, 1924, in a San Diego hospital, from pelvic injuries sustained the day before, when he was standing alongside his car after it had been involved in a collision with a truck and he was struck by a passing motorist. Earlier, Boeckel had played a fringe role in another piece of baseball history. He had submitted an affidavit to National League President John Heydler, attesting that he had heard pitcher Rube Benton boast of winning $3,200 on the 1919 World Series on a tip from Hal Chase. Benton was thrown out of baseball, but was later reinstated by Judge Landis.
The year 1929 saw the deaths of two major leaguers in vehicular accidents. Denny Williams, a twenty-nine-year-old outfielder, who had played with the Reds in 1921 and the Red Sox in 1924, 1925 and 1928, was killed in Los Angeles, March 21. Seven months later, on October 22, Walter “Peck” Lerian, regular catcher for the Phillies in 1928 and 1929, died in a Baltimore hospital, after being hit by a truck that vaulted over a curb and pinned him against the wall of a building.
Catcher Al Montgomery was only twenty years old when he appeared in 42 games for the Boston Braves in 1941. While returning from spring training on April 26, 1942, having been assigned to Hartford of the Eastern League, he was involved in a car accident near Waverly, Virginia, and killed.
While Paul Edmondson, a twenty-seven-year-old pitcher who had been 1-6 with the 1969 White Sox, was en route to spring training, he was involved in a fatal auto accident February 13, 1970, near Santa Barbara, California. Another victim of a California crash was Chico Ruiz, who had been in the majors for eight years, first with Cincinnati and most recently with California. He was killed in San Diego February 9, 1972.
The pitching career of Bob Moose was a series of highs and lows. In ten years with the Pirates, he won 76 games and lost 71. One of his wins was a no-hitter against the New York Mets on September 20, 1969. On the other side of the coin is the wild pitch he uncorked in the final game of the 1972 league championship series that permitted Cincinnati to defeat Pittsburgh. He also made three appearances in the 1971 World Series, but had no decisions. On October 9, 1976, at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, he suffered fatal injuries in an automobile accident. It was his twenty-ninth birthday.
Righthanded pitcher Danny Frisella, who in ten years in the majors saw action with the Mets, Braves, Padres, Cardinals, and Brewers (34-40), took a dune buggy out in the desert near Phoenix on New Year’s Day, 1977. When the buggy overturned, he was killed instantly.
Just six days later, on January 6, Mike Miley, a twenty-three-year-old shortstop with California in 1975 and 1976, was killed in a car crash at Baton Rouge.
On Friday night, December 19, 1986, Honolulu native Joe DeSa hit four doubles to help his Ponce Lions defeat the Mayaguez Indians, 11-8, in a Puerto Rico winter league game. At four A.M. on December 20, DeSa was killed in a head-on crash on the Las Americas Expressway. DeSa, who had played for Buffalo (American Association) in 1985 and 1986 and was the team’s most valuable player in the latter year, had signed with Kansas City and was due to report in the spring for his third hitch in the majors.
The two known deaths of active players by drowning are separated by almost one hundred years. The first was England-born Al Thake, second baseman for the Brooklyn Atlantics. He drowned off Fort Hamilton, New York, while fishing, September 1, 1872. Almost a century later, on December 14, 1970, Herman Hill, twenty-five-year-old outfielder with Minnesota in 1969 and 1970, was in Venezuela to play winter ball when he drowned off Valencia.
On March 22, 1993, after a day of fishing on Little Lake Nellie, 27 miles north of Winter Haven, Florida, Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews, Steve Olin, and Bob Ojeda were returning to shore in an open, eighteen-foot-base boat. In the darkness, Crews, who was returning the boat, did not see a dock that extended some 250 feet into the lake. He rammed it while traveling at an estimated 39 miles per hour. Olin was killed instantly and Crews died a few hours later. Ojeda came within an inch of having the top of his head sheared off, but though grievously injured did recover and returned to the mound late in the 1993 season. Evidence in the boat and through blood tests indicated that alcohol was involved. Crews and Olin each left a wife and three small children. It was the only instance in major league history in which two players were killed in one accident.
Cleveland’s cup of sorrow overflowed in the 1993 offseason as another member of its pitching staff lost his life in an accident. Reliever Cliff Young, a twenty-nine year-old veteran of three major league campaigns, was fatally injured in a November car crash.
Every time a batter steps to the plate, it is an act of courage. With pitches hurtling toward him at 90 miles per hour, he has but a fraction of a second to decide if he should swing, take, or bail out. Modern helmets with ear flaps have removed much of the peril, but not all. Prior to the 1950s, batters had no head protection at all; and before 1893 the risk was even greater, since the pitching distance was only 50 feet.
Considering the danger involved, it is somewhat of a miracle that only one batter has been killed by a pitched ball in the long history of major league baseball. No definitive statistics are available, but it is known that many have been killed at the amateur level and at least seven in minor league play.
Major league baseball’s only bean ball fatality, and its only diamond fatality for any reason, occurred on August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds, New York, in a game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. It was the first half of the fifth inning, and shortstop Ray Chapman of the Indians was at bat, faced by Yankee submarine-baller Carl Mays. Chapman liked to crowd the plate and crouch over it. Mays, who had a mean streak, was not averse to throwing at any batter who encroached on his territory. Mays’s first pitch was a strike, his second a ball, as Chapman seemed to edge even closer to the plate. Predictably the third pitch was high and inside. There was an ominous crack that was heard all over the Polo Grounds. Mays, thinking his pitch had hit Chapman’s bat, fielded the ball and started to throw to Wally Pipp at first base, but then he saw Chapman slumped in the arms of catcher Muddy Ruel and he knew the batter had been hit. A doctor was summoned from the stands and Chapman was temporarily revived. Assisted by two of his teammates, he began the long walk to the clubhouse in center field, but he soon collapsed and was carried the rest of the way.
When a preliminary examination in the clubhouse showed the injury was extremely serious, he was taken to nearby St. Lawrence Hospital, where an operation was performed. He was still under ether when he died at five A.M. the following day, August 17.
The repercussions were immediate and furious. Mays, a surly sort and never popular among his peers, was strongly criticized. Detroit and Boston players demanded that he be barred for life, while those on the Washington and St. Louis clubs threatened to strike if Mays was allowed to pitch again. But Mays did have his defenders. Cleveland pitcher Ray Caldwell, a former Yankee, said it seemed to him that Chapman had turned his head right into the ball. Connie Mack, venerable skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics, while deploring the fatal accident, pleaded for sympathy for Mays. Catcher Muddy Ruel, who caught Chapman when he fell, said in later years that the pitch could have been a strike.
Mays appeared before the district attorney and, after a deposition, was cleared of any criminal charges. He said he was not trying to hit Chapman, only to pitch him tight. That spring, Mays pointed out, he had seen Yankee infielder Chick Fewster nearly killed by a pitch delivered by Jeff Pfeffer of the Dodgers, and from that time on he had been reluctant even to throw inside pitches, let alone throw at batters. He then suggested the fatality might have been averted had plate umpire Tom Connolly not refused to remove from play the scuffed ball that hit Chapman. This drew a sharp rejoinder from American League umpires Billy Evans and Bill Dinneen, who charged that Mays was one of the league’s most notorious scuffers. They said further that club owners had complained to Ban Johnson, league president, that too many balls were being thrown out, and that Johnson had responded by sending out a directive, instructing umpires to keep balls in play, “except those which are dangerous.”
In the New York Times of August 19, there was an impassioned plea for the development and use of batting helmets, but it was to be more than thirty years before this advice would be heeded.
At least seven minor leaguers have been killed by pitched balls. On August 9, 1906, Joe Yeager of Fall River of the New England League hit Tom Burke of Lynn in the head with a pitch. Two days later, Burke was dead. Two days after attending Burke’s funeral, Yeager took his turn on the mound, only to be arrested by Lynn police on a manslaughter charge. Shortly thereafter, the charges were dropped. Yeager, who had pitched for six years in the majors with Brooklyn and Detroit, completed the season with a 15-19 record. [Subsequent research has revealed that Yeager, the name of a major league pitcher, was used in most press reports but the Fall River pitcher was in fact a career minor leaguer named Joe Jerger: http://goo.gl/m2GxpK–jt]
In the second game of a Central League doubleheader, played in gathering darkness at Dayton, September 14, 1909, Charles “Cupid” Pinkney, twenty-year-old Dayton second baseman, was beaned by Casey Hageman of Grand Rapids. At first, it was thought he would recover, but his condition deteriorated, and he died following an operation. Pinkney’s father, who had traveled from Cleveland to watch his son play, was at his side when he died.
On June 18, 1916, Johnny Dodge, infielder for Mobile of the Southern Association, was hit on the head by Tom “Shotgun” Rogers of Nashville and died the next day of a fractured skull. It is believed that Dodge was thrown at in retaliation for the beaning of a Nashville player the previous day. By the strangest of coincidences, Rogers and Carl Mays were to be teammates briefly on the 1921 Yankees.
On July 4, 1933, at Omaha, Jesse Batterton, nineteen-year-old third baseman for Springfield of the Western League, suffered a fractured skull when hit by a pitch thrown by Omaha’s Floyd “Swede” Carlson. He was able to get to his feet and walk to the clubhouse, but then collapsed and was taken to a hospital. He died there following an operation, with pitcher Carlson at his bedside.
On July 21, 1938, Linus “Skeeter” Ebnet, twenty-three-year-old shortstop for Winnipeg of the Northern League, died in a Winnipeg hospital, five days after being hit by a pitched ball in a game against Grand Forks.
Twenty-year-old James (Stormy) Davis was off to a great start for Ballinger (Texas) of the Longhorn League. In 48 games he had hit 19 home runs and had 59 RBIs. On July 3, 1947 he was beaned by Stan (Midnight) Wilson of Sweetwater. The young outfielder died a week later.
A seventh fatality occurred in the Alabama-Florida League on June 2, 1951. Lefty Jack Clifton of Headland hit Ottis Johnson of the Dothan Browns on the head and killed him. In his next start, Clifton, who had already hit twelve batters that season, pitched a no-hit, no-run game against Panama City. According to Ken Brooks in his book The Last Rebel Yell, every Panama City batter had one foot in the dugout.
In major league history there have been countless beanings. In most cases, the batters came back, but often were not the same hitters as before. Lowell Reidenbaugh, in his book Cooperstown, writes that Hughie Jennings survived three skull fractures. His most serious injury was from a pitch delivered by Amos Rusie of New York, said to have been the swiftest pitcher of his day. The blow left Jennings near death and unconscious for four days. Some historians say it was Rusie’s speed and the fear that he might kill someone that brought about the lengthening of the pitching distance in 1893 to the present 60 feet, 6 inches.
At Ebbets Field on September 3, 1932, Giants shortstop Ed Marshall was beaned by a Van Lingle Mungo fastball. He survived despite lapsing into “unsafe condition.” The incident ended his major league career although Marshall did play thereafter in the minors.
On May 25, 1937, future Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, player-manager of the Detroit Tigers, lost sight of a pitch by Bump Hadley of the Yankees. It hit him in the right temple and fractured his skull. He lay unconscious for ten days but eventually recovered, although he never played again. He did, however, resume his managerial duties and also served with distinction in the Navy in World War Two.
Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox, who hit 166 home runs in six full seasons and parts of two others (all with the Red Sox, except for 74 games and 4 home runs for California in 1971), surely would have racked up more impressive numbers had he not been hit in the face and nearly killed by a Jack Hamilton (of California) pitch on August 18, 1967. He was out of the game for a year and a half, but then came back to hit 20 home runs in 1969 and 36 in 1970. On October 11, 1970, in a most controversial deal, he was traded to California, where he was to see only limited duty. He returned to Boston for 21 games in 1975 and then was out of baseball. He died February 24, 1990.
Dickie Thon was the All-Star National League shortstop for Houston in 1983 and also led the league in game-winning hits. In the fifth game of the 1984 season, he was hit in the eye by a Mike Torrez (Mets) fastball. Despite permament damage to his eye, he was able to return to action and played more or less regularly for the Texas Rangers in 1992 and then briefly for Milwaukee in 1993.
Don Zimmer, 1988 manager of the Chicago Cubs, suffered two serious beanings and still carries a metal plate in his head from the injuries. Paul Blair, center field magician of the Baltimore Orioles, Minnie Minoso of the White Sox, and Wayne Terwilliger, utility player for several clubs, were others whose careers were interrupted or affected by bean balls.
Part 4 tomorrow.
Suicides and Other Violent Deaths
According to present information, five active major leaguers and one league president ended their lives by their own hands. Four others killed themselves in the year after they had been sent to the minors. Another, Johnny Mostil, attempted suicide but recovered. There is also some intimation that the violent deaths of Len Koenecke and Ed Delahanty might have been “death wish” situations.
On February 28, 1894, Edgar McNabb, a pitcher who had won eight games for the Baltimore Orioles in 1893, checked in at the Eiffel Hotel on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh. He told the clerk that his wife had gone to Braddock to visit her ailing parents and that he should give her the room key when she returned. Earlier that day, the McNabbs had run into a friend, one Louis Gillen, and the three had agreed to attend the theater that evening.
When the agreed time for the meeting passed, Gillen became concerned and went to the McNabbs’ room. As he stood outside the door, he heard a woman’s screams. He called for help, and when the room clerk opened the door, the two were shocked and sickened by the bloody and grisly scene before them. Mrs. McNabb lay on the floor, bleeding horribly from bullet holes in her neck and head, but still breathing. Lying beside her, dead, with bullet holes in the head, was Edgar McNabb. A pistol was still in his hand.
As the story unfolded, it became more than a tragic domestic confrontation. The dying woman was not Mrs. McNabb at all. She was Mrs. R. E. Rockwell, whose husband was a well-known West Coast baseball figure and had once been president of the Pacific Northwest Baseball League. She was an actress by profession and used the stage name of Louise Kellogg.
It appeared that Miss Kellogg, who had just finished a theatrical engagement in New York, had asked McNabb to meet her in Pittsburgh. According to a newspaper account, she was planning to break off her relationship with the ballplayer. Letters found in the room indicated that she had been sending him money to tide him over the winter, and further that there had been recent disagreements between them. In the judgment of the police who investigated, an argument had developed, culminating in McNabb’s shooting of Miss Kellogg and then turning the gun on himself.
Among McNabb’s possessions on the scene was a copy of a message which read: IN GREAT TROUBLE, TELEGRAPH $100 IMMEDIATELY. SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS. It was probably this message that led Edgar McNabb and Louise Kellogg to their fateful rendezvous at the Eiffel Hotel. Miss Kellogg miraculously survived her wounds but was paralyzed.
Even more shocking than the McNabb affair was the sad denouement of Marty Bergen, first-string catcher for Frank Selee’s Boston (NL) club from 1896 to 1899.
On the morning of January 19, 1900, Marty’s father, Michael Bergen, who was staying at the house of a neighbor, walked to his son’s property, which was called “Snowball Farm,” to get some milk. Seeing no activity around the house, he left. He returned at noon and still saw no signs of life. He walked through the unlocked kitchen door, only to be confronted by a scene of unspeakable horror. On the kitchen floor, lay the body of his six-year-old granddaughter Florence. In the adjoining room, he found the body of his daughter-in-law Harriet Bergen and next to her that of her three-year-old son Joseph. Mrs. Bergen’s hands were raised as though in supplication or as though trying to ward off a blow. A bloody ax, the apparent murder weapon, was found on the scene. Bergen himself had committed suicide with a straight razor, almost severing his head from his body.
Dr. W. E. Norwood, the medical examiner, made an almost on-the-spot judgment, ruling that the crime had been committed “in a fit of insanity,” and that no autopsies would be necessary. According to the account in The Sporting Life, the funeral service at St. Joseph’s Church in North Brookfield was somber and brief, and “only a few words suitable to the occasion were spoken.” The only prominent baseball people present were Connie Mack of the Milwaukee club and Billy Hamilton, a Bergen teammate.
What triggered the carnage at Snowball Farm will never be known. Bergen’s manager, Frank Selee, said that he seemed, at times, to act irrationally and to be pursued by hallucinations. It was also revealed that he had sought help from his pastor and his doctor, and that on one occasion he had accused the latter of trying to kill him. Bergen was not a drinker and apparently had no pressing money problems. He was buying the farm on the installment plan and had $2,000 in cash.
On January 12, 1903, not quite three years after the Bergen murder-suicide, the baseball world was stunned by the self-inflicted death of another prominent player. George Barclay “Win” Mercer was a versatile performer who had played every position but catcher in nine years in the majors, winning 131 games as a pitcher and batting .285. He was manager-designate for Detroit, where he had played in 1902.
Mercer was on the West Coast for a series of exhibition games between teams from the American and National leagues. A small man with striking good looks, he had a weakness for fast women and slow horses, a deadly combination that apparently was to do him in. On the fatal day, he did not appear when expected in the dining room of the San Francisco hotel where the players were staying. When the door of his room was opened, Mercer’s body was found. A rubber hose was connected to a gas jet. He had died of self-inflicted asphyxiation.
Mercer left a suicide note in which he warned of the evils of women and gambling. He also left a note for his mother and one for his fiancée in East Liverpool, Ohio. Another letter was addressed to Tip O’Neill, manager of the ballplayer troupe, for which Mercer was in charge of finances. Even though Mercer had recently incurred heavy gambling losses, it was reported that his baseball accounts were in order.
Charles “Chick” Stahl had batted .307 in ten major league seasons and was considered one of the game’s premier defensive outfielders. Stahl, a Marty Bergen teammate at Boston (NL) from 1897 to 1899, had been named manager of the Boston Puritans (AL) late in the 1906 season, succeeding his friend and roommate Jimmy Collins. Stahl was handsome, popular, well paid for his era, and recently married. Despite his oft-expressed distaste for managing and a recent attempt to resign, it seemed he had almost every reason to be on top of the world; but on March 28, 1907, in his room at the West Baden Hotel in West Baden, Indiana, he ingested a lethal dose of carbolic acid. As he staggered toward his bed, roommate Collins went to his assistance, just in time to hear him gasp: “Boys, I couldn’t help it; it drove me to it.”
For years, baseball historians pondered Stahl’s cryptic words, then usually concluded it was the pressure of managing that forced him to swallow the poison. Dissenting was Harold Seymour, who, in his Baseball: The Early Years, strongly hints at the real reason: cherchez la femme. In the May 1986 issue of Boston Magazine, author Glenn Stout dug out the rest of the Stahl story and wrote it.
Stahl, according to Stout, although in love with a young lady named Julia Harmon of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was also attracted to other young ladies, the groupies of his day. Furthermore, according to Stout, one of his admirers, a Lulu Ortman, demanded that Stahl marry her. When he spurned her, she twice tried to shoot him but missed. Meanwhile, on November 14, 1906, Stahl had married Miss Harmon at St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury. It seems that he had also been involved, late in the 1906 season, with another woman, who now claimed to be pregnant by him. She pressured Stahl to marry her on pain of exposure. He told her that marriage was impossible, since he was already married. She persisted that spring, and it was this pressure, concludes Stout, not the pressure of managing, that led to his suicide.
A sad postscript to the Stahl suicide was the fate of his wife, Julia. Shortly after his death, she attempted suicide herself, but survived. On November 15, 1908, she was found dead in the doorway of a house in South Boston, after a night on the town. An autopsy showed that she had died of edema of the brain.
Little more than two years after the Stahl tragedy, another suicide rocked the game, but it had none of the nasty characteristics of the McNabb, Bergen, or Stahl cases.
Richard Cory, in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem of the same name, was young, elegant, and well thought of, but one summer night he “went home and put a bullet through his head.” Harry Clay Pulliam, president of the National League, was baseball’s Richard Cory. On June 28, 1909, Pulliam went to his room in the New York Athletic Club and fired a shot through his head. He died the next morning. The forty-year-old bachelor left no suicide note. Presumably it was a combination of poor health (he had been on leave of absence for health reasons) and the burdens of his job that caused him to do it.
On December 13, 1910, Dennis “Dan” McGann, former captain of the New York Giants and a premier first baseman for thirteen seasons, but most recently a member of the Milwaukee club of the American Association, was found dead in a Louisville hotel room, a bullet hole in his heart and a revolver in his hand. He had been seen around the hotel during the day and had appeared to be in good spirits. One explanation was that he was depressed over the suicide of a brother the past summer.
On March 28, 1927, at the Youree Hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, spring training headquarters of the Chicago White Sox, Johnny Mostil, the team’s star center fielder, slashed both wrists and wounded himself in the chest, throat, and legs with a razor blade and a knife. Early reports, giving him little chance to survive, were wrong. He did recover, played later that same season, and two more seasons thereafter, followed by a long career in the game as a scout. The only explanation for his act seems to have been his hypochondriacal nature. He constantly worried and brooded over his health, although a physical examination that spring had revealed no serious problems.
In eight major league seasons, Cincinnati righthander Benny Frey had struggled to a 57·82 record. At the end of the 1936 season, the best of his career (he was 10·8), he was sent to Nashville to work an ailing arm back into shape. Apparently despondent over the failure of his arm to recover, Frey, on November 1, 1937, at Jackson, Michigan, sat in his car with the motor running and a rubber hose attached to the exhaust pipe. When police found the thirty-one-year-old pitcher, he was dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.
It was August 3, 1940, and the Cincinnati Reds were in Boston. Pleading illness, catcher Willard Hershberger told his roommate, Bill Baker (some accounts say it was Lew Riggs), that he would not be able to come to the ballpark until later. When he did not appear and his telephone was not answered, manager Bill McKechnie sent Dan Cohen, Hershberger’s close friend, to the hotel to get him. When the room was entered, Hershberger’s body was found in the bathroom, his jugular vein severed by a razor.
Hershberger was young (just thirty), successful, and single, and there seemed no apparent reason for his act. As in the McGann case, there had been a previous suicide in the family. Hershberger’s father had shot himself to death in 1928. It has been theorized that the catcher was depressed over his recent failures on the diamond. He had gone hitless in a crucial game, and on another occasion had supposedly called a wrong pitch to Harry Danning of the Giants, who then had hit a home run to beat the Reds in the ninth inning. On the other hand, it was no secret that he had been contemplating suicide. He had told manager McKechnie as much in recent weeks. Also, he had recently purchased a $500 bond, placed it in the hotel safe, and asked that it be given to his mother “if anything happens to me.”
With all the obvious planning, it is curious that no suicide note was found. Suicidal tendencies notwithstanding, a hitless game and the call of a wrong pitch hardly seem sufficient to have provoked the deed. It took almost eighty years for the truth to be revealed about the Stahl suicide. Someday, perhaps, more light will be shed on the Hershberger story.
In seven seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Mexican-born righthander Francisco Barrios compiled a 38-38 record. After the 1981 season, during which he had entered a Chicago hospital for drug and alcohol treatment, he was released. On April 4, 1982, he died at his parents’ home in Hermosillo, Mexico, of heart failure brought on by an overdose of heroin.
Donnie Ray Moore had a combined 52 saves in 1985 and 1986 for the California Angels, only to become the goat of the 1986 championship series loss to Boston when he gave up a two-out, two-run home run to Dave Henderson that helped cost the Angels the title. He spent most of the next season on the disabled list, was released by the Angels in 1988 and then signed with Omaha of the American Association. He was released by the Royals on June 12 after seven appearances and a 1-2 record. On July 18 he shot his estranged wife (she recovered) and then killed himself with a bullet to the brain as his ten-year-old son watched in horror. Moore’s agent attributed all of Moore’s troubles to his brooding over the Henderson home run.
Over the years, ballplayers have died violently, other than by suicide. The bizarre death of Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty is a case in point. In 1903 he was with Washington of the American League, but wanted to be with the Giants in New York, where he felt he could earn more money. He dealt with his unhappiness by consuming generous doses of alcohol, starting with a drinking spree in Cleveland. Later, in Detroit, where he took out an accident policy in favor of his daughter, he was heard to threaten to take his own life.
On July 2, 1903, Delahanty boarded a Michigan Central train at Detroit with a ticket to Buffalo, from where, it is believed, he planned to catch another train to Washington to meet his wife. The conductor said Delahanty was “under the weather” when he got on at Detroit and that he had downed at least five shots of whiskey along the way. Not only was he boisterous, but he also threatened some passengers with a razor. At Bridgeburg, Ontario, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, the conductor ejected him from the train. Delahanty, in the darkness, began to walk across the International Bridge, a railroad bridge connecting Bridgeburg and Buffalo. Bridge watchman Sam Kingston had just escorted a freight across the bridge and, lantern in hand, was walking back to the Canadian side when he confronted Delahanty. Words were exchanged and a scuffle ensued. It is not clear (Kingston told conflicting stories) if Delahanty fell, jumped, or was pushed into the river. Eight days later, his body was found at Niagara Falls, below the Horseshoe Falls.
Subsequently, Delahanty’s widow filed suit in the Ontario courts against the Michigan Central Railroad, seeking $20,000 damages for the wrongful death of her husband. She was awarded $3,000, and her daughter received $2,000.
When Walter “Big Ed” Morris won 19 games for the last-place Boston Red Sox in 1928 and then came back with 14 wins for another cellar Boston club in 1929, he became one of the most sought-after pitchers in the league. One story had the Red Sox turning down a $100,000 offer. A sore arm slowed Morris in 1930 and 1931, and his record retrogressed to 4-9 and 5-7. Confident that his arm had regained its strength, he prepared to go to spring training in 1932. As a going-away present, some of his buddies arranged a party for him at a tavern in Century, Florida, just across the state line from Morris’s hometown of Flomaton, Alabama. Unfortunately, the party began to get out of hand, and soon the guest of honor was involved in a fight with Joe White, a gas station attendant from Brewton, Alabama. When Morris slipped to the floor, White pulled a knife and stabbed him twice, fatally. Morris was thirty-one and left a widow and two children.
Len Koenecke was an impressive-looking athlete–broad of shoulder, slim of waist, and ruggedly handsome. He was said to have been the last player personally scouted by John McGraw, who arranged for his purchase from Indianapolis (American Association) in 1931 for players valued at $75,000. The young outfielder failed to live up to his minor league billings and was farmed to Jersey City in 1932 and to Buffalo in 1933. An outstanding season for the Bisons in 1933 led to his sale to Brooklyn, where in 1934 he batted .320 and fielded a league-leading .994. But he slumped in 1935, and late that year manager Casey Stengel sent Koenecke and two other players home from St. Louis so that he could try out some young prospects.
On the flight from St. Louis to Detroit, Koenecke, who had been drinking, created a disturbance, and when the airport was reached he was ordered off the plane. Although it was late in the evening, he decided to charter a private plane and fly to Buffalo, where he had friends. The plane he chartered had an interesting past. It had once been owned by Smith Reynolds of the tobacco family and his wife, torch singer Libby Holman, who were principals in one of the most sensational murder cases of the 1930s. When Reynolds was shot to death at the family estate in Winston-Salem, N.C., his wife was charged with the crime but was later cleared.
While the plane was still over Canada, Koenecke tried to take over the controls from pilot William Mulqueeny. Irwin Davis, the copilot, attempted to restrain the husky ballplayer but was pushed to the floor. Mulqueeny, while trying to guide the plane with one hand, picked up a fire extinguisher with the other and bludgeoned Koenecke until he was dead. Mulqueeny had no idea where he was until he spotted the lights of Toronto. Seeing a racetrack on the outskirts of the city, he decided to use the backstretch as an airport and brought the plane safely down. Then, to cap their night of terror, the two men were attacked by watch dogs as they left the plane. The dogs eventually backed off, and they were able to summon help.
After two hearings in Canadian courts, Mulqueeny and Davis were absolved of all blame in Koenecke’s death. Blood tests had shown that the dead ballplayer was drunk. At one of the hearings, Edward J. Murphy, attorney for the pilots, alleged that Koenecke was trying to commit suicide and to do it “in a grand and glorious manner.”
In the early hours of January 5, 1975, Don Wilson, star righthanded pitcher of the Houston Astros, who had won 104 games in nine major league seasons and pitched two no-hitters, drove his luxury car into the garage of his suburban Houston home and left the motor running. At one P.M. his lifeless body was found slumped in the passenger seat. The ignition was on, the battery was dead, the gas tank was empty, and there were exhaust-fume stains on the garage floor. In the room above the garage, his five-year-old son Alexander was dead from the fumes. His wife, Bernice, and his daughter, Denise, were taken to the hospital in serious condition. Bernice Wilson also had a badly bruised jaw, which was never explained, but which could have been caused by a fall.
Mrs. Wilson and her daughter both recovered. Tests on the twenty-nine-year-old Don Wilson revealed a blood-alcohol content of .167. On February 5, 1975, the medical examiner ruled the deaths of father and son were accidental.
Mickey Fuentes, a righthanded pitcher who was 1-3 for Seattle in 1969, never made it to spring training in 1970. He was shot to death in a tavern brawl in his native Loiza Aldea, Puerto Rico, January 29, 1970, He was only twenty years old.
With Lyman Bostock, who had starred for Minnesota (in 1975-1977) and then had signed a lucrative free-agent contract with California, it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On September 23, 1978, in Gary, Indiana, he was in a car being driven by his uncle when he was shot by a man named Leonard Smith, whose apparent target was Smith’s estranged wife, seated next to Bostock in the back seat. Three hours after the assault, the twenty-seven-year-old Bostock was dead. There was whispering that something was going on between Bostock and Mrs. Smith. Actually they had met only twenty minutes before and were heading for different destinations.
Leonard Smith was twice tried for murder. The first trial, in which insanity was pleaded, ended in a hung jury. In the second trial, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, spent six months in a mental hospital, and then was a free man. Outrage over the outcome of the two trials resulted in a change in the Indiana law, whereby an accused can now be judged both insane and guilty of a crime.
Part 3 tomorrow.
My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”
More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”
In the eleventh century in the reign of William the Conqueror, detailed information about the landowners of England and their assets was gathered and then recorded in what were called Domesday Books. Much of what is known of the demographics of early England is derived from these books.
Baseball also has its Domesday Books, but they are called Encyclopedias. They list the name, vital statistics, and records of every player who ever appeared in a major league game, beginning with the formation of the National Association in 1871. So assiduously have baseball’s Domesday Books been corrected, refined, and updated, it is safe to say that detailed information is more readily available about ballplayers, even the most obscure, than it is for statesmen, authors, artists, poets, or captains of industry.
Informative as they are, the Encyclopedias still leave much unsaid. For example, why did Bert Shepard play but a single game, while Jim McGuire played for twenty-six seasons? Short careers, like Shepard’s, usually mean a lack of ability or, perhaps, the failure to receive a fair opportunity; but often they are short for other reasons–death, illness, injury, accident, suicide, or even murder. It is with such tragically shortened careers that this chapter will deal. Although the subject was carefully researched, no assertion of 100 percent completeness is proffered.
Since baseball’s Domesday Books are limited to major league players and managers, no listing will be found there for minor leaguers like Bill Thomas of the 1906 Buffalo Bisons or Ralph Worrell of the 1918 Baltimore Orioles or Jeff Hoffman of the 1992 Albany-Colonie Yankees.
James Creighton was the star pitcher of the Excelsior Club, a famous Brooklyn amateur nine of the 1850s and 1860s. Before Creighton’s day, it was customary for pitchers to toss the ball gently to the plate. Creighton changed all this by developing a snap throw that gave speed and spin to the ball. In addition, he was one of the most powerful hitters of his day. It is said that he completed one entire season without being put out. On October 14, 1862, the Excelsiors were playing the Union Club of Morrisania in their final match of the season. Creighton, at bat for the Excelsiors, swung mightily and sent the ball beyond the reach of the outfielders. As he crossed first base, he collapsed, obviously in great pain. Legend has it that he staggered around the bases for a home run. He was immediately taken home by his teammates. Four days later, the twenty-one-year-old pitcher was dead. According to an account in the Brooklyn Eagle, headlined “Obsequies of a Celebrated Ballplayer,” Creighton had ruptured his bladder with the force of his final swing and died from internal bleeding. [Later reassessments of Creighton’s cause of death point to an inguinal hernia.–jt]
A. G. Spalding, in his book Baseball, America’s National Game, devoted two pages to Creighton, with his picture and a view of the towering granite monument his teammates erected in his memory on Tulip Hill in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. The monument is embossed with crossed bats, a cap, a base, and a scorebook.
The circumstances of the death of Bill Thomas, a twenty-five-year-old Buffalo pitcher, in April 1906, are still a mystery. Thomas had been a big winner in the Pacific Coast League, and manager George Stallings of Buffalo had brought him east to test his mettle in the stronger Eastern League. He was successful in his first start at Baltimore. The Bisons then finished a series at Providence and took a train to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which point they boarded the night boat Richard Peck, en route to New York City. Thomas had left word with the porter and with his roommate, pitcher Joe Galaski, that he wanted an early call so he could see the New York skyline at sunrise. In the morning, when the porter came into the stateroom, the Thomas bunk, which had been slept in, was empty. Thomas was never seen again.
In 1918 Ralph Worrell, only nineteen, won 25 games for Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles, but he never pitched again. Instead of becoming another Lefty Grove (also a Jack Dunn discovery), Worrell failed to survive the winter, dying in the terrible World War One flu epidemic.
Just as tragic was the death of twenty-nine-year-old Yankee farmhand Jeff Hoffman of the Albany-Colonie Yankees, August 29, 1992. The young righthanded pitcher collapsed in his Binghamton (N.Y.) hotel room and died later that day in a local hospital. There was no evidence of foul play or drug or alcohol use. After several days it was determined he had died from a heart deficiency, previously undetected. He left his wife Teresa, who was expecting their first child.
The deaths of young, vigorous, and supposedly healthy athletes like Creighton, Thomas, Worrell, and Hoffman are sad and decidedly against the odds, but in the muster rolls of major league players in baseball’s Domesday Books, such cases are far from rare.
Fatal Illnesses of Players and Managers
Elmer White was long thought to be a brother of James “Deacon” White and Will White. The early encyclopedias listed him as playing 15 games for the Forest Cities of Cleveland in 1872, but nothing more. A trip by the writer to the village of Caton in New York’s southern tier and to the cemetery behind the Methodist Church there resulted in the finding of Elmer White’s grave. The inscription on the tombstone, which showed he was Jim’s and Will’s cousin, not a brother, told with great economy of words the story of a short life and a short baseball career: “Born December 7, 1850. Died March 17, 1873.”
Of all the deaths of active major leaguers to be recounted here, significantly, only one–that of Ray Chapman, who was killed by a Carl Mays pitch–resulted directly from activity on the diamond. Many of the deaths, especially those in the first fifty years, were from illnesses routinely controlled today. Typhoid fever, for example, killed first baseman Alex McKinnon of Pittsburgh (NL) on July 24, 1887. He played in the July 4 game, complained of not feeling well, and was taken home. He died twenty days later at the age of thirty. Less than a year later, on April 29, 1888, Charlie Ferguson, an outstanding young pitcher who had won 21, 26, 30, and 22 games for Philadelphia (NL) from 1884 through 1887 and was a strong hitter as well (.288 in four seasons), died from the same disease, twelve days after his twenty-fifth birthday.
On May 14, 1892 in a game at Boston, twenty-eight-old Brooklyn outfielder Hub Collins, who had played in the major leagues since 1886 and had led the American Association in doubles in 1888 and the National League in 1890, was pinch hit for because he was not feeling well. Five days later he died in Brooklyn, a victim of typhoid fever.
Edward “Sy” Sutcliffe, a catcher for most of his career, had shifted to first base for Baltimore (NL) in 1892 and had done quite well, batting .279 in 66 games. In the off-season, the twenty-nine-year-old native of Wheaton, Illinois, developed Bright’s disease. He died February 13, 1893.
Joe Cassidy, an infielder for the Washington Senators in 1904 and 1905, was a fourth victim of the deadly typhoid. He was only twenty-three when he died at his home in Chester, Pennsylvania, March 25, 1906. Just a year and four days later, March 29, 1907, Patrick Henry “Cozy” Dolan, a nine-year outfielder in the majors, most recently with Boston (NL), also died of typhoid. He took ill during Boston’s spring training trip, and died in a Louisville hospital, at age thirty-four. News of his death was overshadowed in the Boston papers by the extensive coverage given to the sensational suicide of manager Chick Stahl of the other Boston club, the day before in West Baden, Indiana.
Mike Powers, who caught in the majors from 1898 to 1909, mainly with the Philadelphia Athletics, was an anomaly in those hard-bitten days of the game’s history, in that he held a degree from Holy Cross College and had also attended Notre Dame Medical School. Powers, incidentally, recruited the legendary Louis “Chief” Sockalexis for both of his alma maters, as shall be seen later. Powers was not a strong hitter (.216 lifetime), but he was considered a fine defensive catcher. He was behind the plate in an early season game in 1909, when he complained of nausea and asked to be taken to a hospital. He underwent three stomach operations, and then gangrene set in. “Doc” Powers died April 26, 1909, at the age of thirty-eight.
Alan Storke was an infielder for Pittsburgh and St. Louis (NL) from 1906 through 1909. He never made it to spring training in 1910. He was a mere twenty-five when he died in Newton, Massachusetts, March 18, 1910, following a lung operation. Less than two years later, February 1, 1912, another National League infielder, thirty-year-old Jimmy Doyle, who had batted .282 for the Cubs in 1911, died in Syracuse, New York, after an appendicitis operation.
Addie Joss pitched in the majors only eight seasons and part of a ninth, but his record was so extraordinary that he was elected to the Hall of Fame (in 1978), despite his short tenure. With Cleveland from 1902 to 1910, he won 160 games, lost 97, and compiled an ERA of 1.88 (second on the all-time list). He pitched a perfect game on October 2, 1908, defeating Big Ed Walsh, 1·0, with first place on the line. Joss had another no-hitter on April 20, 1910, also against the White Sox, just before his health began to fail.
Joss made only 13 appearances in 1910, and still felt weak when he went south in 1911. He collapsed on the bench during an exhibition game at Chattanooga, Tennessee, then became ill again when the team reached Cincinnati. Doctors said it was pleurisy and sent him home to Toledo. On April 14, 1911, two days after his team had opened the season in St. Louis, he died at the age of thirty-one. The cause of his death was given as tubercular meningitis. Famed ballplayer-preacher Billy Sunday presided at his funeral, said to have been the biggest ever seen in Toledo.
Leonard “King” Cole, a righthanded pitcher who had won 20 games for the Cubs in 1910 and 18 the following season, was, like Charlie Ferguson, to have a brilliant career nipped in the bud by a fatal illness. During the 1915 season, when Cole was with the Yankees, it was discovered that he had been suffering from tuberculosis. He returned to his home in Bay City, Michigan, where he died on January 6, 1916, at twenty-nine. He left a splendid 56-27 (.675) won-lost record.
Joe Leonard, a twenty-five-year-old infielder who began with Pittsburgh in 1914 and played for Washington in 1916, 1917, and 1919, appeared in only one game for the Senators in 1920, became ill, and was taken to George Washington Hospital. He died there on May 1, following an appendicitis operation.
In 1922, the St. Louis Cardinals lost two young ballplayers within nine months. First to go was William “Pickles” Dillhoefer, who had caught in the majors since 1917, usually in a backup role. He was twenty-seven when he died in a St. Louis hospital, February 22, 1922, of that old bugaboo, typhoid fever. Outfielder Austin McHenry had started with the Cardinals in 1918, but had not really blossomed until 1921, when he batted .350 and hit 37 doubles, 8 triples, and 17 home runs. The following year he began to have difficulties in judging fly balls. Manager Branch Rickey sent him to a doctor, who diagnosed his problem as a brain tumor. An operation proved unsuccessful, and he died at Jefferson Township, Ohio, November 27, 1922. He was twenty-seven, the same age as Dillhoefer.
The 1924 season saw the deaths of two veterans of the Cincinnati Reds within eight months. Pat Moran was a catcher in the majors from 1901 to 1914 and then a highly successful manager, first with the Phillies and then with the Reds. In nine managerial seasons, he compiled a record of 748-586 and won a pennant with each team. His 1915 Phillies lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, in five games, while his 1919 Reds won the tainted 1919 Series from the White Sox, 5-3. Moran was forty-eight when he died of Bright’s disease at Orlando, Florida, March 7, 1924, while at spring training with the Reds. The second Red to die that year was Jake Daubert, a fancy-fielding first baseman who could hit (.303 in fifteen years with the Dodgers and the Reds). Although forty years old, he played 102 games for the Reds in 1924, batted .281 and fielded .990. He became ill in October and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, where he died on October 9 following an appendicitis operation, just as Jimmy Doyle and Joe Leonard had before him.
Legendary New York Giants outfielder and future Hall of Famer Ross Youngs was at the height of his career when he was struck down by Bright’s disease, diagnosed during spring training in 1926. Despite his illness, he played 95 games and batted .306. All through the season, he was accompanied by a male nurse hired by manager John McGraw. Youngs was bedridden for the entire 1927 season and died on October 22 at the age of thirty. Despite his relatively short career, nine seasons and part of another, his record was impressive enough to earn him election to the Hall of Fame in 1972. McGraw said he was the greatest outfielder he had ever seen.
Urban Shocker was an outstanding pitcher for the great Yankee teams of the 1925·1927 period. His record was 18-6 for the 1927 Yankees, but illness kept him out of the World Series. His thirteen-year record with the St. Louis Browns and the Yankees is in Hall of Fame country–187-117 (.615)–and he never had a losing season. His health continued to fail in 1928, and he appeared in only one game before being released. On September 9, 1928, in Denver, he died of heart disease and pneumonia. He was thirty-eight.
Shocker’s manager, Miller Huggins, was to survive him little more than a year. On September 20, 1929, Huggins, who had managed the Yankees since 1918 and had won six pennants and three world’s championships, asked coach Art Fletcher to take over for him, so that he could check into a hospital. Five days later, he was dead of erysipelas, a streptococcal skin infection. Huggins, who was of Munchkin size at 5’6″ and 140 pounds, had been in the majors since 1904, batting a career .265, and winning 1,413 games and losing 1,134 as a manager. His showdowns with his rambunctious slugger, Babe Ruth, are part of baseball lore. Huggins was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.
On May 28, 1930, Hal Carlson, thirty-eight-year-old righthanded pitcher of the Chicago Cubs, and a fourteen-year veteran of the National League, called several of his teammates to his apartment in a Chicago hotel, saying that he was in severe pain. Shortly after the team physician arrived, Carlson was dead from what was described as “an internal hemorrhage.” He left a three-year-old son and his wife, who was expecting another child.
Twenty-nine-year-old infielder Mickey Finn, who had played for the Dodgers from 1930 to 1932 and then for the Phillies, became ill midway through the 1933 season. Owner Gerry Nugent of the Phillies summoned his brother-in-law, Dr. H. P. Boyle, who diagnosed Finn’s trouble as a duodenal ulcer. Surgery was performed in an Allentown, Pennsylvania, hospital. He seemed on the road to recovery, but unforeseen medical problems arose, leading to his death on July 7, 1933.
On August 28, 1949, Ernie Bonham, who had pitched seven seasons for the Yankees and appeared in three World Series, but who was now with the Pirates, pitched his team to an 8-2 win over the Phillies. He had complained of some discomfort during the game, and as a precaution was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital, where appendicitis was diagnosed. The normally routine operation extended for three hours when complications developed. He was very weak when manager Billy Meyer visited him a few days later. “Billy, they are hitting me all over the field, and I can’t get anybody out,” he mumbled. On September 15, minutes before Meyer and coach Goldie Holt arrived for another visit, he passed away. Bonham, who was thirty-six, left an impressive 103-72 record.
Perhaps the closest parallel to the death of James Creighton in the preprofessional era was the shocking and tragic passing of first baseman Harry Agganis of the Boston Red Sox, on June 27, 1955 at the age of twenty-five. Like Creighton, Agganis was young and talented, with a glorious career seemingly assured.
At 6’2″, 200 pounds, and lefthanded, Agganis was a drawing-board first baseman. “The Golden Greek,” as he was called, was the most publicized athlete to come out of Boston University since Mickey Cochrane in 1923. Such were Agganis’s skills as a quarterback that he was a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, who offered him $25,000 to sign. When the Boston Red Sox upped this figure by $10,000, he chose baseball. After the 1953 season at Louisville (American Association), where he batted .281, had 23 home runs, 108 RBIs, and played in 155 games, he took over at first base for the parent club in 1954. He batted only .251 his first season. In the early going in 1955, he was over .300 when he developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for ten days. He returned to the lineup, but became ill again in Kansas City. He flew back to Boston and checked into Santa Maria Hospital in nearby Cambridge. He was thought to be recovering nicely, when suddenly on June 27, he died. The cause of his death was given as a massive pulmonary embolism.
Agganis’s body lay in state at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in his home town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On the day before the funeral, ten thousand mourners passed the bier.
Righthanded pitcher Jim Umbricht of Houston underwent a cancer operation on March 8, 1963. By May 9 he was back in uniform, and he finished the year with a 4-3 record and an ERA of 2.61 in 35 appearances. He did not make it into the next season. The malignancy spread, and he died on April 8, 1964, at age thirty-three.
On April 13, 1965, twenty-five-year-old righthander Dick Wantz made his major league debut with the California Angels, giving up three hits and two runs in one inning of relief. Exactly one month later, he was dead, following an operation for a brain tumor.
According to present information, two active major leaguers succumbed to leukemia. Both were twenty-nine when they died and both at one time played with Minnesota. The first was giant 6’7″ Walter Bond, who started with Cleveland in 1960, moved to Houston in 1964 and then to Minnesota in 1967, when illness forced him to quit. He died in Houston, September 14, 1967.
The second, infielder Danny Thompson, who broke in with Minnesota in 1970, had played for three years in the majors when he learned he had leukemia. He continued to play, however, and on June 1, 1976, he was involved in one of the big trades of the year, when he was bundled with pitcher Bert Blyleven and shipped to Texas for Roy Smalley, Bill Singer, Mike Cubbage, Jim Gideon, and $250,000. Thompson finished the season with Texas, but it was to be his last. Baseball’s Most Courageous Performer (he was so voted in 1974) was only twenty-nine when he died December 10, 1976, at Rochester, Minnesota.
In a single year, 1966, the Detroit Tigers lost two managers to illness and subsequent death, a tragic sequence not duplicated in major league history. On May 16 Charley Dressen, who had managed in the majors for sixteen seasons, suffered a heart attack and was succeeded by coach Bob Swift. Dressen died three months later at the age of sixty-seven. Swift himself became ill in July and was hospitalized, with another coach, Frank Skaff, taking over. It was found that Swift had an advanced case of lung cancer. He died October 16 at the age of fifty-one.
Quiet, efficient, and soft-spoken Dick Howser was an American League infielder from 1961 to 1968 with Kansas City, Cleveland, and New York. He became manager of the Yankees in 1980 and led them to 103 wins and a division title. After the Yankees lost the league championship series to Kansas City, 0-3, owner George Steinbrenner made things so uncomfortable for Howser that he resigned. He moved to Kansas City in 1981, winning a division title in 1984, then a pennant and a world’s championship in 1985.
Early in the 1986 season, Howser began to suffer from headaches and to experience visual and memory problems. On July 18, he learned he had a malignant brain tumor. Operations followed, and he recovered sufficiently to return to uniform in 1987. But his health continued to deteriorate and he was forced to give up his managerial duties. He was fifty years old when he died, June 17, 1987.
Part 2 tomorrow.
First, it’s not me thinking anything today except Wow … another great, memorable season of baseball. The ten things in today’s post are thought by Elliott Kalb, Senior Editorial Director of MLB Network, and the MLB Network Research Department. I received this research packet just moments ago, as I and a limited number of privileged recipients have done each morning throughout the season. These routinely brilliant packets are designed to be particularly useful to those of us thinking about the day ahead, making us appear especially brilliant. Today’s inbox delight is different–the 2015 regular season has passed into history, my turf. It is my privilege to share with a wider readership the sort of pleasure I get every day. Here’s Elliott:
10 Things I Think I Think for Monday, October 5
1) Here’s what I like about this past weekend.
- Mark Buehrle won a big game Friday night, going 6.2 innings to beat the Rays 8-4, giving the Blue Jays their 93rd victory of the season.
- The Angels putting pressure on the Rangers and Astros; by beating Texas 2-1 on Friday, and then 11-10 on Saturday in a most improbable comeback. I like Shawn Tolleson taking the ball. I liked Aybar and Calhoun kick-starting the comeback and keeping the Halos season alive another 24 hours.
- I loved the Saturday night game at Citi Field. First, I love a game that goes 2:14. I love Matt Harvey again, as he proved he wanted the ball. And I love that Max Scherzer pitched his second no-hitter of the season.
- I loved Zack Greinke giving the Dodgers his usual (8 IP, 1 run) a few hours after the Mets were no-hit; which gave Los Angeles home-field in the NLDS beginning next week.
- I liked all the Sunday games starting at 3 pm. I liked the Marlins allowing Ichiro to pitch. I liked the Orioles fans giving an ovation for a job well done to Wei-Yin Chen and Matt Wieters, both of whom may not return in 2016. I liked Shelby Miller breaking his losing streak in the season finale. I liked Jimmy Rollins getting to manage the Dodgers on Sunday in the meaningless game. I liked Cole Hamels making a statement with his complete game. I liked the Brewers thanking their fans before Saturday’s game by riding around the parking lots in golf carts. I liked A.J. hitting some mascots engaging in a race between the fifth and sixth innings. There’s nothing like “Phil the Bucket” running away from A.J. Pierzynski (unless it’s our own Keith Costas running away from Pierzynski when A.J. does television. Come to think of it, that’s all we do in Research is “Phil the Bucket.”)
2) Here’s what I didn’t like about the past weekend: the Mets and Yankees and Blue Jays said the hell with trying to gain home-field advantage. No offense to Max Scherzer (see, the Mets offered no offense to oppose Scherzer), but the Mets didn’t put their best lineup on the field that night. And the cold weather and swirling winds made it a night for the hitters on both sides to take their swings and return to the warm clubhouse.
And what was this about Mark Buehrle starting Sunday’s season finale, all in the attempt of getting 200 innings for the 15th season in a row? It’s utterly foolhardy, for many reasons, but mainly this one: the Jays still had a chance of winning home-field advantage.
But allowing Buehrle to chase an historic milestone instead of sending someone that could throw, I don’t know—let’s say 82 mph— out for the start proved to be asinine. Tampa Bay jumped all over Buehrle in the first inning, scoring eight unearned runs, including four that came on a grand slam to center field by designated hitter Joey Butler.
Counting Sunday, opponents were batting .331 off Buerhle in his last nine starts. He gave up 10 unearned runs (eight of them Sunday) so his ERA is “only” 5.56 in his last nine starts.
He was done. And the only way he should have been given a sentimental start is if his team had nothing left to play for. The ultimate teammate let his teammates down. John Gibbons let his team down.
(Now, in all fairness, my opinion differs from many. Richard Griffin, of the Toronto Star, and someone I greatly respect, wrote “Anybody who questions the decision to let Buehrle try for 200 should give their head a shake. No doubt the right call especially if he’s not on the playoff roster. A true professional was owed this sign of respect.”)
Richard, I’m puzzled. What does John Gibbons and the Blue Jays care more about—a stupid, personal 200 IP milestone or having home-field advantage in the deciding Game of a playoff series?
Well, the 200 IP list is pretty cool! (he says sarcastically)
Most Consecutive Seasons, 200+ Innings Pitched
Cy Young 19 1891-1909
Warren Spahn 17 1947-1963
Gaylord Perry 15 1966-1980
Don Sutton 15 1966-1980
*Mark Buehrle: 14 consecutive seasons with 200+ IP (2001-14)
So, you probably say to yourself, take heart, Mr. Buehrle. You must be the only player besides these four to pitch 15 consecutive seasons of 198 innings! Right? WRONG
Look at the back of Greg Maddux’ baseball card.
Maddux had 14 consecutive years of 200 IP beginning in 1988-2001. Then, in 2002, he threw “just” 199.1 IP. He threw four more consecutive seasons of 200 innings, giving him 19 consecutive years of 199 innings.
And then, just for good measure, Maddux threw 198 innings in 2007 and 194 innings in 2008, giving him 21 consecutive years of 194+ innings.
Now, I know I’m going down the watering hole, but friends, hear me out. I looked up Greg Maddux’s final start of the 2002 season, which ended with him at 199.1 innings.
It was Friday night, September 27, 2002 at Shea Stadium, the second game of a doubleheader. The Braves won to up their record to 99-58. The Mets lost to go to 74-84. It was a tuneup game for the Braves. Maddux went five innings, allowing just one run. He threw just 53 pitches (40 strikes) in getting the fifteen outs. Could he have gone one more inning and made his season total over 200? Sure, he could have. But it didn’t mean anything. By the way, the final four outs of that game were historically significant: it was the 54th save of the season for Braves reliever (and now Hall of Famer) John Smoltz. That broke the N.L. record for saves in a season. Smoltz would finish the season with 55, which was matched a year later by the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne. But I digress. Maddux and Bobby Cox didn’t give a hoot about Maddux getting 200 IP each year, or he would have done it.
And give Bruce Schein credit for pointing out that Maddux’s 200 inning seasons included 1994—when the strike ended everyone’s season August 12. How could Maddux pitch 200 innings in just 25 starts (8 IP per start). But look it up—he did!
3) What I liked about the 2015 season: the return of the Home Run. And I mean, boy, did it return.
2014: 1 player had 40+ HR
2015: 9 players had 40+ HR
2014: 11 players had 30+ HR
2015: 20 players had 30+ HR
2014: 20 players had 26+ HR
2015: 38 players had 26+ HR
2014: 4,186 HR
2015: 4,909 HR
4) What I liked about the 2015 season:
- a) I loved—for the first time—the HR Derby. The Franchise Four was brilliant, displayed at the All-Star Game. And the start times on the final Sunday of the year makes absolute sense (you’re insane, Joe Girardi, for complaining about it.)
- b) Dee Gordon won the batting title. Dee’s father, Tom Gordon, led the A.L. in saves one year (1998). The son had a higher average for this one year than the great Bryce Harper. The dad had more saves in that one year than the great Mariano Rivera.
- c) I liked what I’ve liked every season in recent years—the late-season announcement that Vin Scully is returning to work Dodgers games.
- d) I liked the fact that Torey Lovullo paid so much respect to Boston manager John Farrell, that he refused to use Farrell’s office, when he took over for the final two months of the season after Farrell was forced to take a leave-of-absence due to cancer. And I liked that the Red Sox played hard down the stretch, and that Farrell (and his faithful companion coach Lovullo) will be back in ’16.
- e) I liked the fact that Clint Hurdle made the postseason again; and that the Blue Jays made the postseason for the first time in 22 years.
- f) I loved all those Madison Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw matchups we were treated to this year!
- g) I liked watching Andrelton Simmons play shortstop; and Kevin Kiermaier play outfield.
- h) I liked that Mike Trout (.299/.402/.590) with 41 HR, 90 RBI was Mike Trout. And Miguel Cabrera was Miguel Cabrera.
- i) I liked the fact that the Royals drew 33,439—which represented a 38.4% increase in attendance from 2014.
- j) I liked the fact that the Washington Nationals did not make the postseason.
5) What I didn’t like about the 2015 season:
- a) The fact that the Atlanta Braves sold tickets for the 2015 season all offseason; and then traded away their best players right before the start of the season. On April 5, the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton, Jr.
- b) Jonathan Papelbon
- c) I didn’t like the fact that Giancarlo Stanton’s season—which might have been historic—was cut short due to injury.
- d) I didn’t like The Players’ Tribune. Not one bit.
- e) I didn’t like the attention paid to the dispute between the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez over a $6 million dollar bonus.
- f) I didn’t like how the Mets (two runs in their last 43 innings) ended the season.
- g) I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a real rush to seek out minority managerial candidates when Ron Roenicke, Mike Redmond, Bud Black and Ryne Sandberg were fired (or resigned). And that’s putting it mildly.
6) Quotes that make no sense: When asked whether their youth will shield the Cubs from feeling the pressure of their World Series drought, Joe Maddon replied with, “Cubs history is wonderful. The tradition of being a Chicago Cub is outstanding, and I’m talking about the players and the ballpark and the city and all of the lure that’s attached to that. Superstition, for me, there’s no place for it in Cubs history or tradition. If you choose to vibrate there, that’s your concern.”
Okay, Joe, let’s break this apart. I choose to “vibrate” there. MLB Network researcher Lee Sinins can take it from here. Lee, your thoughts?
“I have spent the past 37 years of my life studying baseball history and “wonderful” and “outstanding” would not make the list of words I’d use to describe Cubs history. No World Championships since Teddy Roosevelt was President is not what I would call a “wonderful” history. I see nothing “outstanding” about having FDR start the year in the White House the last time the franchise won a pennant and advanced to the World Series.”
7) Stats that may be of interest only to me. John Smoltz once told me that the most important stat to look at for pitchers is Innings Pitched. He said you can’t possibly have a bad year if you lead the league in innings. Well, just look at the top five leaders in innings pitched.
Most Innings Pitched
- 232.2 Clayton Kershaw
- 232.0 Dallas Keuchel
- 229.0 Jake Arrieta
- 228.2 Max Scherzer
- 222.2 Zack Greinke
Here’s an oddball one: With a loss to the Pirates at PNC Park on Sunday, the Reds dropped to 0-13 in Sunday road games in 2015. Here’s a radical idea: tell the Reds players they CAN’T go out on Saturday nights on the road anymore!
Here’s a stat you don’t see too many places. C’mon … let Grace win!
D-BACKS LEGENDS RACE
LEGEND ALL-TIME WINS
Luis Gonzalez 156
Randy Johnson 143
Matt Williams 138
Mark Grace 13
The Legends Race takes place following the fifth inning of every home game.
8) It was the Year of the Rookie. No, no, make that the Year of the Sophomore. No, no, it was the Year of the Senior.
We had a strong sophomore year.
2nd Year Players
Jose Abreu: .290, 30 HR, 101 RBI
Jacob deGrom: 14-8, 2.54
Dellin Betances: 6-4, 1.50
Xander Bogaerts: .320, second in A.L.
Mookie Betts: .291, 18 HR, 21 SB
We had a strong senior year.
Most HR hit by a player 35 and older this season: (well, like everything with these guys, we just take them at their word about their age!)
40 Albert Pujols (35 years old)
37 David Ortiz (39 years old)
33 Alex Rodriguez (40 years old)
Most innings by a player 35 and older this season:
218.0 John Lackey
214.1 R.A. Dickey
204.2 Colby Lewis
198.2 Mark Buehrle
194.2 Bartolo Colon
But this really was the Year of the Rookie. Ross Insana and Mike McCurry did some research on the great Rookie class—which we’ll get to in-depth tomorrow.
Here’s a sample of Insana’s research:
This year’s rookie class has turned out to be one of the best in recent memory, with the AL Rookie of the Year award conversation still up in the air between Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and to some extent Miguel Sano. The National League also had itself a close race early on with Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson up until the All-Star break, then more candidates begun to join the conversation with strong second halves like Jung Ho Kang, Matt Duffy and Randal Grichuk. That was all until Bryant turned it up another notch in August and never looked back.
To be quite honest, the 2015 season to me was in fact the year of the rookies despite the revival of baseball in Toronto and in Flushing and big offensive years from the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, etc. One elite prospect after another was being called up by their respective Major League club and making an instant impact. It felt like no matter what day of the week or a random stretch of games, at least one rookie was grabbing headlines. In fact, 48 of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects on their preseason list played at least one game in the Major Leagues this season.
This even includes eight players in the top ten:
Byron Buxton #1
Kris Bryant #2
Carlos Correa #3
Francisco Lindor #4
Addison Russell #5
Corey Seager #7
Joey Gallo #9
Noah Syndergaard #10
9) On this date in 2001– Barry Bonds hits his 71st home run of the year off Dodgers’ pitcher Chan Ho Park, breaking Mark McGwire’s single-season record set three years earlier. He would hit his 72nd that game as well, but the Dodgers won 11-10. (And if you don’t remember why the regular season extended a week later that season, then think real hard).
10) Okay, the Mets have lost 11 of their last 18 games. The Yankees backed into the postseason (they’ve lost six of seven). Can teams turn these streaks around entering postseason?
Okay, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, get ready to hear the story of two teams that turned it around on a dime at the exact right moment.
2000 Yankees: How would you like to enter the postseason, having lost 15 of the last 18 games? That’s what the 2000 Yankees did. They finished the season with a seven-game losing streak. They went from 9-games up to 2.5 games up. Starters were playing nearly every day.
And then, the Yankees lost Game One of the ALDS to the Oakland A’s (a team that had a fraction of the payroll the Yankees had). But…Andy Pettitte (7.2 IP) and Mariano (1.1 IP) combined to shutout the A’s 4-0 in Game Two. The Yankees righted the ship, won the series in five games. Then, the Yankees defeated a great Mariners team in the ALCS, and then defeated the Mets in the World Series.
As Mel Allen would have said, “How about that?”
1986 NY Jets: The Jets defeated the Colts 31-16 in Week 11 to give them a 10-1 record with five games remaining. The Jets (as only the Jets can) lost the next game 45-3. And the next game 17-3. And the next game 24-10. And the next game 45-24. And the final game, losing 52-21 at Cincinnati (Boomer threw a ton of touchdowns). The Jets finished 10-6.
But they made the playoffs.
And then the Jets defeated the Chiefs 35-15 at the Meadowlands in the Wild Card Game. Of course, in the Divisional Round, the Jets let a 20-10 fourth quarter lead evaporate when Mark Gastineau assaulted Cleveland QB Bernie Kosar after he threw a pass. Roughing the passer was called, and the Browns rallied to force overtime and eventually Cleveland won in double OT.
Non-baseball items that interest me: Ridley Scott’s movie “The Martian” with Matt Damon is much, much better than I anticipated. I’m not a big fan of 3-D movies, but this time, it’s necessary. The movie—a survivial story in outer space—is suspenseful throughout. There’s one scene in particular—using the music of David Bowie (“Starman”)—that is beyond great.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
Hey, look up the Bowie song from Ziggy Stardust days and play it. Now. Go to the movies—maybe tonight with no baseball game. Must warn you—the length of the movie resembles more of a Yank/Red Sox game than a Mark Buehrle game. But Damon is fabulous.
Hey, the NHL season starts Wednesday with four games, including the Rangers playing the Blackhawks. For some reason, I’m real interested this year!
As someone who correctly predicted the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night in Marc Weiner’s Eliminator Pool (never in doubt!), let me give you an early pick for Week Five. The New York Giants host the San Francisco 49ers. It’s never easy to travel west-to-east, and the Niners are a mess. They’ve lost three straight, and the Giants will make it four.
Hilary Clinton did pretty, pretty good on Saturday Night Live. I guess you can’t get elected these days without going on late-night television shows.
Hey, everyone still with me?
These 10 Things I Think I Think will be posted each day [but not at Our Game, alas–jt] until the last out of the last game of the World Series. Or exhaustion strikes, whichever comes first. It’s a team effort, and tomorrow’s 10 Things will feature an interesting look at the use of closers and the sheer number of Saves in 2015 by Andy Cooper-Leary, as well as more on the great rookie crop (Ross Insana and Mike McCurry’s work). And while this column owes so much in format and style and tone to my friend Peter King, it also relies on the influence of many great journalists. When I asked Peter yesterday where he came up with the phrase “10 Things I Think I Think,” he remembered that Mike Lupica used to write, saying “Here’s what I think.” And sometimes, “here’s what I think I think.”
I wrote this story 35 years ago, for a book called Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games. It has never been published on the net. My editor discouraged me from including any nineteenth century contests, or the game of June 14, 1870 would have been in there, along with other games from 1907 to 1978. Maybe it’s time to update my list to include, say, Game Six of the 2011 World Series, but in any recounting this game would make the cut, and might well retain its honor as The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Ralph Branca, who on October 3, 1951, before 34,320 lucky fans, threw the single most famous pitch in baseball history, has said: “Whenever somebody tells me he was there I tell him he’s the four-hundred-and-thirty-first thousandth guy to tell me he was at the game.”
Of course, in the age of television the audience for a baseball game is no longer limited to the seating capacity of the park. For Game Six of the ’75 Series, 62 million people could say, “I was there.” You may have been one of them. But technology cannot enable us to step back in time and witness games whose glories passed uncaptured on film, yet which have endured and taken their place in baseball lore. Nor will snippets of more recent games, stitched together into a “highlights” program, call up the excitement of seeing the game unfold play by play, as it was happening.
For Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” and and all the events that led up to it, I hope you’ll now feel that you can say, “I was there.” So come with me now to the Polo Grounds on this damp third day of October.
Here we are, sitting in the lower left-field stands of New York’s Polo Grounds, about to witness a game no schedule-maker had planned last winter, and no fan had dared to dream of even six weeks ago. The contest to be played on this dim, overcast afternoon will determine the National League champion.
The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who through the years have produced baseball’s greatest rivalry, have this year produced baseball’s greatest pennant race. While Brooklyn, which was nipped for the flag on the final day in 1950, broke fast from the starting gate, the Giants stumbled, dropping eleven straight games in April. Eventually the New Yorkers picked up the pace and moved into second place; but by August 11 they were still hopelessly behind by thirteen-and-a-half games. On the next day, however, a whirlwind began to take shape: the Giants went on to win sixteen games in a row and an unbelievable thirty-seven of their final forty-four. They pulled into a tie with two games left to play, and only a fourteenth-inning homer by Jackie Robinson against the Phils on the final day of the regular season prevented the Giants from taking the flag. In the best-of-three playoff the Giants took the first game, 3-1, and the Dodgers, with their backs to the wall, captured the second game. 10-0. Now the teams have arrived at a crossroads: After today’s game, one club will meet the Yankees in a “Subway Series”; the other will lick its wounds and wait till next year.
The morning threat of rain appears to have held down the size of the crowd. Game time, 1:30, is only a few moments off, yet fewer than 35,000 people occupy this grand old cavern of a stadium, which has accommodated more than 60,000. The Polo Grounds, named after polo fields which existed on an earlier Giants site in the nineteenth century, may be great for football, or soccer, or even polo . . . but baseball? Look around the outfield and you’ll see why this park built below Coogan’s Bluff has been such a nightmare to pitchers and batters alike. Down the lines, a ball must drift a mere 258 feet to right field or 280 feet to left to become a four-bagger, dimensions which have yielded countless pop-fly homers. (Actually, a fly hit to left may travel even less than 280 feet and still be a homer, for the upper deck juts out over the stands below.) To the power alleys, where most well-hit shots go, a ball can rocket 425 feet to left center or 450 feet to right center and still be caught. Dead center is beyond home-run consideration, an outlandish 475 feet from home plate.
In mid-1948 Leo Durocher, manager of the Dodgers since 1939, was let go and, miracle of miracles, was hired by the Giants. He inherited a team which had been designed to take advantage of the short porches in left and right—lumbering strongboys who could powder the ball but do little else. Gradually, he stripped the Giants of their aging sluggers and constructed his team around a stingy pitching crew and aggressive players who could “execute”—who could manufacture runs from such odds and ends as a grounder hit behind the runner, a bunt, a steal, or a hit-and-run, as well as the occasional circuit blast. It is these new-breed Giants who are running out to their positions now.
The big change Durocher has wrought in this team has been up the middle, where tradition has it that pennants are won or lost; so let’s check out those five vital stations first. Behind the plate is Wes Westrum, an excellent receiver whose anemic batting average of .219 masks his real contributions to the team offense: 20 homers, 70 RBIs, and 102 bases on balls, all excellent totals for an eighth-place batter. Warming up on the hill is thirty-four-year-old Sal “The Barber” Maglie—his intimidating combination of fastballs up and in and curves low and away have produced 23 wins coming into today’s game. Durocher reclaimed this veteran from the Mexican League last year and put him in the starting rotation with Larry Jansen, Dave Koslo, and Jim Hearn to give the New Yorkers the best moundwork in either league.
The keystone pair of Alvin Dark at short and Eddie Stanky at second was acquired as a unit in a trade with the Boston Braves, and these two scrappers have led by example in the field and molded the team spirit off the field. At thirty-five years of age Stanky, nicknamed “The Brat” for his combative nature, does not run, field, throw, or hit particularly well: but like Bucky Harris back in 1924, he finds a way to beat you. Dark, who bats second behind Stanky, is more naturally gifted in the field and at the bat. He can be counted on to advance Stanky if he has reached base, or to take matters into his own hands: He is a .300 hitter who this year leads the league in doubles.
Out there in center field is a twenty-year-old kid who started the season in Minneapolis, the Giants’ Triple-A club. After thirty-five games there, in which he batted .477, the Giants couldn’t keep him down on the farm any longer and summoned him to the Polo Grounds, where he promptly went 0-for-21. But Leo was convinced the kid would hit; and even if he didn’t, his glove alone merited him a spot in the lineup. As the season progressed the young center fielder did get over his jitters at the plate and hit 20 homers. When he hangs up his spikes in 1973, he will have hit 640 more. His name? Willie Mays.
The arrival of Mays in the month of May led in turn to the Giants’ most important move of the season: uprooting Bobby Thomson from his center-field turf and transplanting him to third base. Thomson is a good but not great player who had been enjoying a good but not great year until the Giants’ closing charge, when he became the league’s hottest hitter. At the other corner is Whitey Lockman, a reliable hitter and like Thomson a transplanted outfielder. Unlike Thomson, however, Lockman has become a first-rate infielder.
In the remaining two outfield posts we have Monte Irvin in left and Don Mueller in right. Irvin was a long-time star in the Negro Leagues who arrived at the Polo Grounds in 1949 as a thirty-year-old rookie. Though his best years may be behind him, he still had enough left to give the Giants an exceptional 1951 season, batting over .300, belting 24 homers, and driving home a league-high 121 runs. Mueller, only twenty-four years old and in his second year as a regular, is still developing as a hitter but already is nearly impossible to strike out, having whiffed only thirteen times all year long.
So there you have it, the team which has made the greatest stretch run in baseball history. But that accomplishment will be forgotten soon enough if victory eludes the Giants today. Brooklyn is a formidable foe, having finished first in two of the last five seasons and second by a whisker in two others. On paper they seem a stronger team than the Giants, with pitching nearly as good, and hitting and defense which are vastly superior. We’ll examine the Dodgers individually when they take the field; right now it’s time to focus our attention on home plate, for a Dodger batter is in the box and Maglie is peering in at Westrum for the sign.
Sal gets off on the right foot, slipping a called strike three past Carl Furillo, but then he loses sight of the plate and walks Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider on only nine pitches. Jackie Robinson lines a single past third, and Reese scores. The fans have hardly settled into their seats and already the home team is one run down and in trouble. But now The Barber regains his edge, inducing Andy Pafko to dribble one down to Thomson, who steps on third for the force. His throw to Lockman is too late for a twin killing, but no matter, for Gil Hodges pops to Thomson in foul ground and a big inning has been averted.
The Giants will send Eddie Stanky to the plate as their lead-off man; but before he steps in let me tell you a few things about the Dodgers, and you’ll see why perhaps they ought to have run away with the pennant. At first base is Gil Hodges, a superlative fielder whose 40 circuit blows this year are second only to Ralph Kiner’s 42; in a game last year he hit a record-tying four home runs. At second base is the incomparable Jackie Robinson, the trailblazer for all the black stars to follow and a remarkable player despite having to wait, like Monte Irvin, until he was well along in years to reach the majors. This year he hit .338 and established a record for second basemen by making only seven errors. The shortstop is Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger captain who started playing in Brooklyn in 1940 and shows no signs of slowing yet. And at third there is Billy Cox, a light hitter whose magic glove has no equal in his day.
Standing below us in left we see Andy Pafko, a proven slugger whose acquisition from the Cubs in midseason seemed to assure smooth sailing to the pennant. Thus far he has hit 30 homers. Patrolling center is the twenty-five-year-old Duke Snider, whose “off year” in 1951 still produced 29 homers and 101 RBIs. And in right is Carl Furillo, “The Reading Rifle,” whose powerful throwing arm cut down twenty-four foolhardy runners, a league high.
The backstop is Rube Walker, substituting for the injured Roy Campanella, who struggled through the playoff opener but could go no further. Dodger manager Charley Dressen hopes his team will not feel the loss of Campy today, but how do you replace a man who hits .325, with 33 homers and 108 RBIs? And now we come to the mound where, ball in hand, his hulking frame bowed toward the plate, waits Don Newcombe. He has won 20 games thus far, and was Brooklyn’s salvation in the final weekend against the Phils, throwing a shutout Saturday and five and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief on Sunday. He pitches today with only two days’ rest, but Newk is strong—last year he pitched both ends of a doubleheader.
The big right-hander gets Stanky on a fly to Pafko in short left, Dark on a pop to Cox, and Mueller on a liner to Pafko. He will not be easy to solve today.
In the top of the second. Maglie breezes through the Brooks in order, fanning Walker along the way. Irvin opens the Giant second by grounding to Reese, but Lockman breaks the ice by singling past Hodges into right. Now the batter is Glasgow-born Bobby Thomson, “The Flying Scot,” whose two-run homer in Game One of the playoff was the winning blow. He leans on a Newcombe fastball and drills it into left for a single, extending his hitting streak to fifteen straight games. But this is no time to accept congratulations: while Lockman stops at second as Pafko fetches the ball, here comes Thomson motoring head down onto Whitey’s heels. Bobby imagined his hit would certainly reach the wall and that Lockman would scurry to third. He neglected, however, to confirm his theory by actually looking to left field or at the first-base coach, who was waving frantically to stop him. Bobby does spot Lockman at the last moment and tries to retrace his steps, but the “rock” cannot be covered up—Thomson is tagged out, and the budding rally goes for naught as Pafko races back to the wall to grab Mays’s drive.
The skies have become, if possible, even more overcast than they were at game-time. As Furillo steps to the plate to start the third inning, the lights are turned on; it is only 2:04 in the afternoon. Again, Maglie puts the Dodgers down in order, this time whiffing Snider. In the bottom of the frame, with Westrum on first after a walk, Stanky smashes one down the third-base line only to have Cox intercept it and send it round the horn for a brilliant double play. In the years to follow, only Brooks Robinson and Clete Boyer will bear comparison to Cox for artistry at the hot corner.
The fourth frame is “nothing across” for both sides, but in the fifth Maglie’s streak of fourteen consecutive outs is broken by Cox’s leadoff bunt single. The next three Dodgers, however, flail helplessly at Sal’s curves. We are only at the halfway point in the contest, yet that run Brooklyn pushed across in the first before The Barber found his form is looking bigger all the time.
After Reese throws out Lockman in the Giants’ half of the fifth, Thomson hits another screamer to left, this one a surefire double since no teammate occupies second base. Newk bears down and strikes out the overanxious Mays. Now Dressen employs a mildly unorthodox strategy—with Maglie on deck, he orders an intentional walk to Westrum, the potential lead run. Dressen is fully aware that in the Polo Grounds everyone is a home-run threat, but chalks up the move as a good one when Maglie rolls out to short.
In the top of the sixth with one down, Snider, a dead-pull hitter with a picturesque swing, is fooled by a change of pace, takes a halfhearted poke at it, and dumps the ball into left off the end of his bat. With Robinson at the plate, Snider takes off for second, surprising everyone in the ballpark except the Giants. Westrum calls for a pitchout, and The Duke is out by a mile. Though Robinson draws a walk, another zero goes up on the scoreboard for Brooklyn. New York fares no better in its at bats, as Cox robs Dark of a hit, and the score holds at a nerve-wracking 1-0.
Despite a two-out single by Rube Walker, the Dodgers once again shoot a blank in the seventh. Now the home-team rooters stand for the seventh-inning stretch, and this display of allegiance seems to do some good as Monte Irvin smashes a double off the left-field wall. The situation demands a sacrifice, and Lockman dumps a bunt out toward the mound—he had meant for it to roll toward third. Walker pounces on it and throws to Cox, but too late to tag the sliding Irvin. Now Giants stand on first and third with nary an out. While Newcombe paws the mound, Cox sneaks up behind Irvin trying to pull the old hidden-ball trick; Monte doesn’t fall for it—he sticks to the bag. Dressen orders his infielders to play back for the double play, conceding the tying run but hoping to get out of the inning no worse than even. After fouling off two two-strike pitches, Thomson renders the maneuvering pointless as he skies to deep center, easily scoring Irvin. Newk again must face Mays in the clutch, and again he proves the master, getting Willie to smack a hard grounder to Reese for a rally-killing double play.
One to one. Now the entire season, 156 games plus, is compressed into six outs per side. There have been league play-offs in the past—in 1908 and 1946 in the National League, in 1948 in the American—but in none of these was the issue deadlocked so near to the end. Through seven innings, each hurler has permitted only four hits; if we had to guess which one might tire first, the choice would be Newcombe. A fastball pitcher who ordinarily strikes out five or six men a game, Big Newk has fanned only one to this point. Maybe the strain of last weekend’s exploits is showing up after all. The Barber, on the other hand, has fanned six with his razor-sharp curveball, and has been in complete command since the first.
Furillo begins the eighth by lining one back to the box which Maglie is fortunate to stab for the out. Now, all of a sudden, both his luck and his skill run out. Reese laces a single to right and dashes to third as Snider drives a hit past Stanky’s outstretched glove. With everyone on the edge of his seat, wondering if Maglie will retire Robinson or Robinson will retire Maglie, this marvelous game takes an unexpected and disappointing turn: The Barber heaves a wild pitch. Reese scoots across the plate with the lead run and Snider makes it all the way to third.
Pitching carefully to Robinson, Maglie runs the count to 3-1, then puts him on intentionally to set up a possible double play, as Dressen had done an inning earlier. Durocher looks awfully smart when Pafko smacks a hot shot to third; but the ball kicks off Thomson’s glove for a tainted hit, scoring Snider and moving Robby to second. Now Hodges pops to Thomson, and there are two outs. The light-hitting Billy Cox, however, hits a wicked smash off Thomson’s chest; the ball bounds away for a hit, and Robinson tallies the third run of the frame. With two men still on base, Maglie at last gets out of the inning as Walker grounds to second.
You can sense the dejection of the Giants and their fans as the players come in from the field—to have come from so far back, and to have forced the Dodgers beyond the season’s end, only to lose on a wild pitch and some ground balls that should have been outs … it just doesn’t seem right. But right or not, defeat seems a certainty as the Giants bat against Newcombe in the eighth. Newk, who relaxed his grip on the Giants’ throats in the seventh, tightens it once more. Bill Rigney, batting for Westrum, strikes out on three pitches. Hank Thompson, hitting for Maglie, raps one to Hodges’s right, which Gil gracefully backhands and flips to Newcombe, covering first. Stanky fouls out to Reese near the field boxes behind third. So much for our “educated” guess about which pitcher figured to tire first.
Coming in from the bullpen to hurl the ninth for New York is Larry Jansen, who with 22 wins this season trails Maglie by only one for league honors. The thirty-one-year-old righthander will be working with Ray Noble, who replaces Westrum as the backstop. The Dodgers, perhaps already looking ahead to tomorrow’s World Series opener against the Yankees, go down meekly on two grounders and a lazy fly to center.
In the dugout, Newcombe tells Dressen he’s running out of gas; Dressen sends him out to the mound but alerts the bullpen to get some arms ready. Three outs are all that stand between the Dodgers and an incredibly hard-earned flag. First up for the Giants is Alvin Dark, hitless in his first three trips. Newcombe rears back and throws the best smoke he’s got left, jamming him up and in, but Alvin steps off the plate and, with a protective, awkward swing, loops a single to right. Next up is left-handed Don Mueller, like Dark, hitless today.
What’s this? Hodges has moved in a step or two behind Dark, obviously to hold down the size of his lead. But why? With the Giants down three, Dark is no threat to steal, and his run means nothing; by moving Hodges in behind the bag, Dressen has opened up the entire right side of the infield for Mueller. And Don, nicknamed ”Mandrake the Magician” because he uses his bat like a magic wand to “hit it where they ain’t,” does just that. He drives a grounder to precisely the spot where Hodges would have stood had he been permitted to ignore Dark. Gil dives, but the ball bounces by, perhaps two feet beyond his reach. If Dressen had not pulled a boner, the Dodgers would have had a cinch double play, for Mueller runs poorly.
In the third-base coach’s box, manager Durocher is praying that Irvin can get another single so he can have Lockman bunt the tying runs into scoring position. But Irvin lifts a pop to Hodges, and now Whitey must swing away. As he prepares for Newk’s first delivery, Lockman thinks to himself that he must at all costs get the ball into the air and stay out of a possible game-ending double play. And more than get it in the air, he will try to park it in the seats. Though he connected for only 12 homers during the season, the dimensions of this park make everyone a potential Babe Ruth. Newcombe recognizes the danger and offers up a high, outside ball. For Whitey, who ordinarily is the type of hitter who goes with the pitch, thoughts of home-run glory vanish and instinct takes over. He strokes the pitch down the left-field line for a double, scoring Dark and moving Mueller to third.
Don, however, didn’t begin his slide until he was almost at the bag, and now is writhing on the ground with a severely sprained ankle. While Don lies at third, surrounded by teammates and waiting for a stretcher to be brought out, Dressen is on the phone to his bullpen coach, Clyde Sukeforth. Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca have been warming up; now Sukeforth tells him that while Erskine’s got nothing, Branca’s fastball looks good. So as Newcombe walks off the mound to scattered cheers and Mueller is carried out to the clubhouse in deepest center field, in comes Clint Hartung to run for Mueller and Ralph Branca to pitch for Brooklyn.
Branca, a twenty-five-year-old right-hander, was the loser in the opening game of the play-off. He had also been the loser in the opening game of the 1946 play-off. In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, he won 21 games for Brooklyn. This year he has been effective both as a starter and as a reliever: he has won 13, the same number he wears on his uniform.
The batter is Bobby Thomson, who last inning made the Giant faithful wish that Billy Cox had been playing third for their side. On the other hand, he has gone 4-for-9 thus far in the playoff and did drive in the tying run in the seventh. While Branca tosses in his warm-ups, Durocher confers with Thomson. What he says, we will learn later, is, “Bobby, if you ever hit one, hit one now!”
The thought crosses Dressen’s mind whether, with men on second and third, to walk the dangerous Thomson intentionally and pitch to Mays, the overanxious rookie who has been a flop at the plate this afternoon. Charley had employed this strategy successfully, though with far less risk, in the fifth. But this time he decides to go with the book and does not put the potential winning run on base.
Assuming his stance in the batter’s box, Thomson remembers that the pitch he hit off Branca for the game-winning homer two days ago was a waist-high fastball, so that’s the one pitch he knows he won’t see now. But surprise, surprise, that is precisely what Branca fires in, and Thomson takes it for a strike. Lockman, perched on second, thinks, “Oh, no, he’ll never get another pitch like that again.”
And he’s right. The next pitch is a fastball high and inside, the kind pitchers had been getting him out on all season long. It is not a strike but a “purpose pitch” designed to set Thomson up for a curveball away on the next pitch. But Bobby takes a cut at it, meets it squarely, and the ball sails out in a low arc toward us in left. Here comes Andy Pafko, racing to the wall at the 315-foot mark and hoping the liner will start to drop. On the mound, Branca whirls to follow the flight of the ball, muttering, “Sink, sink, sink!” Thomson runs head down to first at full speed, for though he knows he has hit the ball hard, he doesn’t think it will reach the stands. As he nears first he looks up, in time to see his drive sink, sink, sink—not into Pafko’s waiting glove, but barely over the wall of the lower left-field stands! The Giants win!
A tremendous roar fills the old stadium, which has never seen a finish like this one. The Giants and their fans are jumping up and down, hugging each other in disbelief, shouting, laughing, crying from joy. Had there ever been a season such as this, a game the equal of this one? It is the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. The Dodgers and their faithful stand silent and hollow, trying to absorb the enormity of what has just happened. With one swing of the bat, the game that was won is lost. The pennant that was theirs now belongs to the hated Giants. The campaign that was to reach its climax in the World Series is now over. A thirteen-and-a-half game lead in mid-August, and now . . . nothing.
As Thomson realizes that the ball is in the seats, he begins to hop, then skip, then trot around the bases, the picture of joy unbounded. At home plate he is swallowed up in the throng of teammates and fans waiting to share this moment with him. It’s a great moment for Thomson, for the Giants, for baseball—but cast your eyes toward the outfield, where a scattered procession of somber Dodgers paces off the interminably long trip to the center-field clubhouse. Walking by himself, feeling the complete weight of the Dodger collapse on his shoulders, is Ralph Branca—Number 13—who forever after will be remembered as the “goat” of this incredible game, just as Bobby Thomson, very nearly the goat himself, will be remembered as its hero. One pitch, one swing—a goat, a hero—and the 156 games that have gone before, and the countless opportunities for victory along the way, are all forgotten. It’s unreasonable, and it’s cruel, but there’s no changing it now.