Press Box Red: A Review

March 22, 2018

Press Box Red cover

Time to leave the world of 1908 and move to something more modern. I haven’t done a book review in a while so it’s time to fix that. This time I want to look at a book titled Press Box Red by Irwin Silber.

Silber tells, in this work, the story of Lester Rodney, an American Communist who became influential in the sports world. Rodney became the sports editor, and generally the only member of the sports department, of The Daily Worker, the Communist Party of the United States newspaper. During the 1930s and 1940s he used the sports page of the paper to campaign for equal rights in the country. He was a stalwart supporter of Joe Lewis and one of the most ardent voices for the integration of baseball.

The book is very much a polemic as much as a history or biography. You know where Silber stands on the issues in which Rodney is embroiled. It is, having said that, still a worthwhile read because it reminds us that Branch Rickey wasn’t the only person desirous of integrating the Major Leagues. There were a number of voices raised arguing that it was time to make “The National Game” truly national. Silber also reminds the reader that several of those voices were white, rather than black. Beginning as early as 1936, Rodney wrote repeated articles arguing for the integration of baseball as “the right thing to do.”

The book is an interesting look at the role the Communist Party played in American society before the McCarthy Era, as well as a solid look at the sports world of the 1930s and 1940s. Interest in either the era or the integration of baseball makes this book a worthwhile addition to your sports reading. It is available from Amazon for $28.95. I got my copy for less at a used book store.



1908: The Second Division of the Senior Circuit

March 20, 2018

Bill Dahlen (with the Giants)

Now a brief look at the teams in the lower half of the National League (according to the 1907 standings) prior to Opening Day in 1908.

I’d like to say something good about the teams in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Boston, and St. Louis, but there’s not a lot positive to be said about any of them. Brooklyn finished in fifth place, 40 games out. St. Louis brought up the rear 55.5 games back (and with 101 losses). It was harder to lose 100 games in 1907 simply because they played less games than (154), but the Cards gutted it up and took on the challenge and succeeded.

A measure of the desperation of the bottom tier of the league was Boston trumpeting the addition of Bill Dahlen to their roster. The Doves (and there’s a baseball name for the ages, the Fightin’ Doves) were right, he had a terrific year, putting up 5.2 WAR. But Dahlen was 38 and pinning your hopes on a geezer wasn’t the smartest idea in sports. I looked over the 1907 Doves pitching rotation in 1907. Never heard of any of them. I looked over the 1908 Doves pitching rotation. A few different pitchers, but never heard of any of them either. In 1908 they added Hall of Famer Joe Kelly in the outfield. He came out of retirement to play, got into 73 games, hit .259, and went back into retirement.  They also had, in 1907, Al Bridwell and Fred Tenney. Both would feature prominently in the 1908 pennant race. Unfortunately for Boston, they would do it with the Giants.

Cincinnati’s big player was pitcher Bob Ewing (apparently not related to the Ewing’s of “Dallas”).  He gave them 6.2 WAR with a losing record. They did have Hall of Famer Miller Huggins at second, but Huggins is in the Hall of Fame for his managerial skills (although he was a decent ball player). Hans Lobert moved from third to short in 1908. At least I’d heard of him. He put up decent numbers in 1907 and would do so again in 1908.

Brooklyn had Nap Rucker and not much else. He’d pitched well in 1907 and would continue doing so through 1913. He ended up with 134 wins and 134 loses, the very definition of a mediocre pitcher.

Going into 1908, no one except a few die-hard fans expected much out of the bottom dwellers in the National League. They would be right. As a group they finished fewer games out in 1908 (St. Louis was still last but only 50 games back), but most of that had to do with the teams at the top not putting up quite as many wins as they had in 1907.




1908:The First Division of the Senior Circuit

March 15, 2018

John Titus from his Wikipedia page

Following up a look at the American League going into 1908, here’s a look at the National League. Please note that the standings here reflect the end of the 1907 season.

Chicago: The Cubs were defending World Series champions going into 1908 (a phrase repeated exactly once since 1908). This was the famous Tinker to Evers to Chance infield (although the poem that made them famous came later) with Harry Steinfeldt at third. As you might guess, the Cubs stood pat mostly for 1908. Heinie Zimmerman would make more of an impact in ’08 than in ’07, and Orval Overall would slip behind Mordecai Brown in pitching, but the Cubs in 1908 seemed to understand the old admonition “if it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.”

Pittsburgh: The Pirates finished 1907 in second place, 17 games back. That made for a good team that needed to make a few changes. They shifted first basemen (and got older doing so) and brought Tommy Leach from the outfield to third base. That alone meant changes in the outfield. Chief Wilson replaced Goat Anderson (and I don’t know how he got the nickname “Goat”) and Roy Thomas took Leach’s place. What remained the same were player-manager Fred Clarke and simply the best shortstop in the game, Honus Wagner. In 1908, he would have a season for the ages. Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe were still around from the 1903 World Series pitching staff.

Philadelphia: The Phillies finished third in 1907. You probably ought to think about that for a second. It didn’t happen often. They were 4.5 games behind the Pirates with an outfield of Sherry McGee, Roy Thomas (who, as noted above was in Pittsburgh in 1908), and John Titus who should probably be better remembered. The rest of the starters remained the same. The major change on the mound saw George McQuillan go from five starts to 42.

New York: John McGraw’s Giants were a formidable team in 1907 and again in 1908. As usual for a McGraw team it was built on speed, pitching, and good fielding (for the era). Gone were Bill Dahlen and Dan McGann, replaced by McGraw favorite Al Bridwell and Fred Tenney. Tenney, the first baseman, had a 19-year-old back up named Fred Merkle who would manage to get into 38 games. In 1908 Mike Donlan decided to play instead of go on the vaudeville circuit and was the major outfield addition. On the mound there was Christy Mathewson. He’d been great in 1907 and no one expected a falling off in 1908. Behind him Joe McGinnity was 37 and fading.

A lot of the names above are utterly obscure today, but in 1908 they had meaning. The National League was still considered the stronger league in 1908 and a lot of those guys were the reason why. Next time, the bottom feeders in the NL.

1908: The Second Division of the Junior Circuit

March 13, 2018

Branch Rickey, catcher

With the first division of the American League out of the way, here’s a look at where the bottom four teams at the end of 1907 stacked up to begin 1908.

It should come as no surprise that the teams that finished low in 1907 were undergoing transformation in 1908. Some went through large overhauls, others a tweak here and there. The Highlanders (now the Yankees) had finished fifth under Clark Griffith with Hal Chase leading the team in hitting. Half the regulars were 30 or more with Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Keeler the oldest at 35. By opening day 1908 they’d switched out a couple of players but still had four regulars at 30 or more. One of the players they’d gotten rid of was a back up catcher named Branch Rickey (whatever happened to him?). Of course one of the primary problems in New York was the presence of Hal Chase.

The Browns settled in at sixth, a game behind New York. For a team with only 69 wins, St. Louis had three players with 5+ WAR (George Stone in the outfield, infielder Bobby Wallace, and pitcher Harry Howell). But if you thought the Highlanders were old, the Browns were absolutely ancient with six regulars at 30 or older along with four of their five primary pitchers. That made them veteran, but also meant they could be prone to injury, fatigue, and just plain being done. The ’08 Browns had cut out one geezer as a regular, but added one on the staff. The one was Rube Waddell, who would one day earn a place on a wall in Cooperstown.

Finishing next-to-last in 1907 was Boston. The Americans (the Red Sox would come in 1908–another reason to celebrate the season) were, frankly, not much of a team. The big star was Cy Young, who could still put up a Cy Young season. But he was 40 and no other starter was close to him. Only one every day player, Bunk Congalton (never heard of him either), hit over .260 and no one had more than 20 stolen bases.  By the beginning of the ’08 season Congalton was gone (got me) and changes were beginning. Most of them involved new guys. Tris Speaker had gotten into a few games in 1907. By the next season he was on the bench and Larry Gardner got into three games. Both were instrumental in the 1912 pennant winner.

If the Boston team wasn’t much, the Washington Senators were even worse. They managed 49 wins, a full ten games below Boston. They could hit a little and three men had 25 or more stolen bases, but the pitching was a problem. The ERA’s were high for the Deadball period and only two had WAR over 2. One was Charlie Smith whose career year ended up being 1907. The other was a 19-year-old kid named Walter Johnson. A lot of people thought he had potential.

The 1908 season would see, as most seasons do, a number of surprises . A couple of these teams will rise dramatically, another will fall off drastically. Next time we’ll start our journey through the National League.

March 12, 2018




1908: The First Division of the Junior Circuit

March 7, 2018

ChiSox manager Fielder Jones

The 1907 season ended with Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland holding down the first division (upper half, for all of you too young to remember the term) of the American League. Here’s a look at where each stood as the 1908 season was ready to unfold.

Detroit: The Tigers were reigning AL champs, having won the 1907 pennant with 92 victories. They’d lost the World Series in a sweep. Well, sort of a sweep. Game one was a 12 inning tie that a lot of fans thought was played to tie and increase the player’s take from the Series. In 1907 the teams got a cut from every game. That changed for 1908 when it was determined that the player cut would be for the first four games only (so already 1908 had created a change without a ball being thrown). It was supposed to stop teams trying to stretch the World Series for money purposes.

As you might expect for a World Series participant, the team wasn’t much changed. Germany Schaefer moved from second to short and 1907 shortstop Charley O’Leary would ride the pine for 1908. Red Downs would be the new second baseman. The strength of the team was the outfield. Matty McIntyre played one position. He’d been the fourth outfielder in 1907 and now switched positions with Davy Jones. But the stalwarts, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, were still in the pasture and with Crawford in his prime and Cobb still getting better, those two positions were settled for the long haul. The pitching was decent, but not spectacular. One worry for the staff was that both Bill Donovan and Ed Killian were over 30.

Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s Athletics finished 1907 with 88 wins. They were two years off a World Series appearance (they’d lost) and were in something of a transition. Third baseman Jimmie Collins was 38 in 1908. Mack was looking for a replacement and brought John Franklin Baker to the team as a player who might take over the job (“Home Run” Baker was still two years away from the nickname.). Danny Murphy, veteran second baseman, moved to the outfield and the new kid (although he’d played some in 1907) was Eddie Collins, who held some promise. Bench players Jack Barry, Amos Strunk, and Jack Lapp were all less than 24 and were beginning to get their feet wet. All would be starters by 1910. And there was a rookie who would come to the A’s in 1910 named Joe Jackson. He’d do little for the A’s, so they’d trade him later. There was nothing wrong with the pitching. Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Jack Coombs would be around for a while.

Chicago: The White Sox were third in 1907. To begin that campaign, they were defending World Champs, having ousted the Cubs in the 1906 World Series. The 1906 team was nicknamed the “Hitless Wonders,” which should tell you a lot about their pitching. Ed Walsh was beginning his prime and Doc White, Nick Altrock, and Frank Smith were expected to contribute. Hall of Famer George Davis was 37 and player-manager Fielder Jones was 36. Three other everyday players were also in their thirties, as was a rather significant part of their bench. If the pitching held, the team could contend.

Cleveland: The Naps finished 1907 in fourth place, two games behind Chicago. They had Hall of Famers Nap LaJoie in the infield and Elmer Flick in the outfield. They had another Hall of Famer in pitcher Addie Joss. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much else. In 1907 only one other major starter (the catcher) hit over .250. In 1908, they hadn’t changed much.

Next time, a look at the bottom half of the AL at the beginning of the 1908 season.

A Long Look at 1908

March 6, 2018

Honus Wagner

Back in 2010 I took a months long look at the 1910 season as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of a pivotal season. The 1910 season was important because it began the ascendency of the American League over the National League in postseason play. In the first decade of the 20th Century, the NL won most World Series. The next time that was true was the 1960s. The 1910 season also saw the coming of the first AL dynasty, the Philadelphia Athletics. OK, I know Detroit won three straight pennants 1907-1909, but they blew all three World Series. Somehow, you just can’t be a dynasty if you lose the championship game three years in a row. The year also saw the rise to prominence of several players, Eddie Collins, Frank Baker (not yet “Home Run” Baker), and Joe Jackson (and others). All in all it was an important year for the sport.

The 1908 season wasn’t quite as important, but it has, over the 110 years since, become far more famous. It was the year of the “Merkle Boner,” probably the most famous Deadball Era play ever and of the first game that was something like a “play in” game. Honus Wagner had a season for the ages, arguably the finest hitting season prior to the arrival of Babe Ruth in New York. It included two great pennant races; the NL one being the more famous, but the one in the AL being every bit as terrific. It saw two great pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Mordecai Brown step center stage in the NL race. It was still two years to “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” the poem that immortalized Tinker to Evers to Chance, but they were the mainstays of one of the teams in the middle of the NL race. And always standing forefront in the NL was the shadow of John McGraw. In the AL there was Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford and the Detroit team trying to repeat as AL champs, something that hadn’t been done since 1903-04.

What I intend to do is take a post or two every month through September and look at various aspects of the season. Sometimes it will be a team, other times a player, yet other times a game or set of games. There will be updates on the standings and the stats. The project won’t dominate any month (at least I don’t think so), but it will recur. I hope you will enjoy a long, frequent (but hopefully not overdone) trip back 110 years to see just what all the shouting was about. More importantly, I hope we each learn something.

The Organist

March 1, 2018

Gladys at the organ

Gladys Gooding from Find  Grave

One of the glories of sports in general and of baseball in particular is the sounds that go with the game. Think about the “crack” of the bat, the “roar” of the crowd. Another sound that frequently goes with the game is music. Some of it is the special song done for a particular player as he comes to bat. Sometimes it’s the “Jeopardy” theme as the visiting manager takes the stroll to the mound. And in big league parks there’s the organ. Easily the most famous baseball organist was Gladys Gooding.

Gladys Gooding was born in 1893 in Missouri. She learned to play music, had a brief marriage, children, and a divorce. The latter was unusual in early 20th Century America so she had to find her own way. That way led her to New York and the silent movies. She wasn’t an actress, but even silent movies required sound. The in-house soundtracks for movies could be quite elaborate. You can pick up a silent like “The Battleship Potemkin” and watch it today. If you do, make sure you notice there’s a soundtrack that goes with it. It’s all music and someone had to play it in the theaters. Gladys Gooding found a profession as the organist at a movie house in New York.

It got her noticed. There was the Chautauqua circuit, there were concerts, there were various musical concerts. I’m unsure whether she ever made it to Carnegie Hall or not, but the crowds thought she was good and she became, in her circle, quite famous.

In the 1940s it got her a new gig; her most famous. She was hired to play the organ at Ebbets Field. She became something of a celebrity in her own right. Her rendition of the National Anthem became famous. She played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch (and at other times), had her own list of numbers she’d play for particular situations (Couldn’t find out if “Charge” was one of them). Her most infamous moment occurred in the 1950s when one of the umpires for the day’s game at Ebbets Field was sick. When only three umps showed up on the field to call the game, Gladys Gooding serenaded them with “Three Blind Mice.” It seems to be the only time an organist was thrown out of a ball game.

She was there when the Dodgers moved away from Brooklyn, playing the organ for the last time at an Ebbets Field game. She also took over the music responsibilities at Madison Square Garden where she played for both the Knickerbocker basketball team and the Rangers hockey squad. That led ultimately to a great trivia question: “Who played for the Dodgers, Knicks, and Rangers?” She also did the National Anthem for a number of major professional boxing matches, including championship bouts. She died in New York in 1963.

Much of this is taken from a short article at the “Find a Grave” website. The article is written by a Barbara Dines Hoffman. Ms. Hoffman also included a picture of Gladys Gooding away from her organ. It’s above. You can also find Gladys Gooding performances on You Tube.




Guys and Boys

February 27, 2018

The town barber shop looked something like this

As something of a follow up to the post on words meaning things, here’s an example of something along those lines that I remember.

Back where I grew up, the local barber shop was central to the cultural life of the town’s men. There were two in our town, one where a lot of the wealthier men in town went and another where the rest of the men hung out. My Grandfather was one of the “rest of the men.”

There was this big plate-glass window that said “Barber” and below it the alluring sign of ‘Flat Tops Our Specialty.” The door was to the right and the big red and white stripped barber pole was on the curb just in front of the door. You had enough room to open the door, but if the door was open, a passerby had to step into the street, so the door stayed mostly closed. There were two chairs to the left with those big handles that the barber pumped to raise or lower the chair, a strop on the right side (as the barber stood behind the chair), always a blue and white stripped apron slung over one of the arms. Behind were a couple of mirrors, a pair of sinks, a long cabinet top with all sorts of wonderful smelling lotions, razors, scissors, electrical clippers, a shaving mug, and various after shaves and hair creams. The smell was terrific. There was also this big machine that heated towels for those wanting a shave. The opposite wall had a long mirror so the man getting the hair cut could see what was happening, a line of three of four chairs, an old-fashioned end table like the one my Grandmother had at the end of the sofa. Hers held a lamp, this one held a bunch of hunting and fishing magazines, a couple of picture magazines like “Look,” and a ton of comic books that were at least a year old. Then there were more chairs and another end table with more magazines and comic books. Against the back wall was a tall chest that I never saw anyone open, but I supposed held the towels and other linens. On top was a radio and a noisy fan that oscillated back and forth in the summer (and interestingly enough I don’t remember where the heat source in winter was located). Beside it was a door that led to the back of the place. There was a bathroom and a storage place for mops, brooms, and a pail. It was, all in all, a wonderful place to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I got to visit it twice a month, depending on the weather. My grandfather would go down weekly on Saturday, again depending on the weather, and spend most of the afternoon. My grandmother was probably happy to get him out of the house so she could do some cleaning and cooking and complaining to the neighbors. One weekend a month he actually got a haircut. Another one I got a haircut. Those were the two weekends I got to tag along. At least that way he had excuses to head down to the barber shop a couple of weekends a month. I was happy to go along. Initially I got to read all the comic books, but after a while I’d read them all, and all there was to do was listen to the men talk, which was great because suddenly I was one of the men.

Of course during ball season the radio was on. Most of the games were St. Louis Cardinals games, which was fine by the men in the shop, because most were Cards fans. Every so often the Dodgers played the Cards and it’s one of those games I most remember.

Jackie Robinson was playing, got a hit (don’t remember single, double, or what) and the announcer worried he might steal a base.

“That colored boy can sure run, can’t he?” one of the men allowed (all conversations approximated after all these years).

The rest of the crew agreed.

Ultimately Roy Campanella came to the plate which got the following comment, “He sure can swing it hard. Didn’t think a colored boy could swing a bat that hard.”

“Colored boy? I thought he was Italian.”

“Nope, he’s a colored boy too. I guess one of his folks, his dad maybe, was Italian, but he’s colored.”

“Huh. Didn’t know that. Well, is that Furillo colored too? He’s got an Italian name.”

“Nope, he’s a white guy.”

“Oh, so he’s an Italian guy.”

For the better part of twenty or thirty years that conversation stayed with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Just at odd times I’d remember it. Of course if Furillo or Campanella came to the plate it would jump into my mind, but even after both were gone I’d recall it from time to time. It took years, but I finally understood why.

My wife and I were watching some show on television, the Olympics maybe, and she mentioned how the announcers made a big show of pointing out the differences among the participants. One was a natural, another a grinder. And suddenly the above conversation came bubbling up to the front of my mind and back in the back of my brain a light went on. She’d not only triggered the occasionally persistent memory, but had given me the clue why it resonated after 30 or so years.

Listen carefully to the words used to describe Campanella and Furillo. One was a “colored boy” and the other a “white guy.” The difference is striking. Around where I grew up if you were white you were one of the “guys,” but the black men in town were “boys,” unless they were quite old, in which case they were “uncle.” As a kid it was simply normal to hear and think nothing of it. But as I aged I realized the very quiet, very simple, very subtle racism involved in those two simple words: boy and guy. No matter how accomplished the black man he was still a “boy” and the same accomplished white man was a “guy,” as in “one of the guys.” It also worked if the white “guy” wasn’t so accomplished.

A lot of the men in my town would have told you they had no problem with race, but would have used those words as distinguishing between a black and a white man. Others would have had no problem with it because they were pretty open about their opinions of race. I’ve never been quite sure which was the worst.



Words Mean Things

February 22, 2018

Rube Foster’s Hall of Fame Plaque

Back when I was growing up there were, even in my small town, a handful of public accommodations. These included the waiting rooms at the local Greyhound Bus Station, the train station, a couple of town water fountains; things like that. There were, of course two of each. One said “Whites Only” the other said either “Colored” or “Colored Only.” It was normal where I lived.

“Colored” was an interesting word. It never specified which color, but we all knew. In the society my grandparents lived it was the polite word to use when discussing Black Americans. The impolite word began with an “N” and ended with an “R” and I’ll let each of you figure it out on your own. Even my Grandmother, who knew how to use it, let me know that “you don’t say that in town and you never say it to them.” The “them” was understood.

As I grew older the word changed. First there was Negro, then black, then African-American. I don’t use the latter much because I know a Joseph Mohammed whose parents are from Tunisia. He was born in the US and likes to remind a lot of us that Tunisia is in Africa and that he is, therefore, also African-American. Whatever is currently in vogue is probably better than the “colored” of my youth.

In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) was formed. It used the word “Colored” proudly. It was a way to announce that “Colored” was not a word of shame.

All of which brings me to that noted revolutionary, Rube Foster. Did you ever think just how revolutionary Foster’s naming his league the NEGRO National League really was? No “Colored” for him. That was the word the white world used to describe Foster and his people. He would have none of it. He would choose the word to describe both himself and his league. The word Negro was around and in some circles coming into fashion. Foster stepped up to the plate (hey, this is a baseball blog after all) and slammed “colored” away in favor of a word that didn’t have the same stigma as “colored.”

He was somewhat alone in this. The other league that was formed to challenge the NNL was called the Eastern COLORED League. Foster hated the ECL because it challenged his control over black baseball, but he also didn’t like the name. None of this colored nonsense for Foster.

Today, baseball fans who think about the Negro Leagues (and there’s that word again, and it’s thanks to Foster) consider Rube Foster a great player, a fine manager, a league pioneer. He is all of those, but he should also be remembered as something of a revolutionary.