Archive for August, 2016

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Johnny Lush

August 30, 2016
Johnny Lush in 1911

Johnny Lush in 1910

In keeping with a theme of my fantasy league team (see the Vin Campbell post below) here’s a look at another member of my team and a more traditional use of my “A Dozen Things You Should Know About…” format.
1. John Lush was born in October 1885 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to a lumberman (he didn’t cut the logs, he shipped them) and his wife.

2. In May 1895 he entered Girard College, a college preparatory school, not an actual college. By 1920, Girard produced 13 Major League players, at the time a record for American high schools.

3. In 1903 he graduated from Girard and signed on with the Williamsport in the minors. The next year he joined the Phillies.

4. He played first and pitched for Philadelphia in 1904 going 0-6 on the mound and hitting .276 at the plate. Although Philadelphia wanted him back, he chose to play closer to home in 1905 and signed with Williamsport.

5. Back with Williamsport in 1905, he became specialized in pitching, developing an overhand curve (we call it a 12-6 curve today). In 1906 he made it back to the Phillies, also primarily as a left-handed pitcher.

6. On 1 May 1906 he became the youngest man to ever pitch a no-hitter. He beat Brooklyn 6-0. In 1907 he moved to St. Louis (the Cards, not the Browns) and threw a second no-hitter in August 1908, also against Brooklyn. The game ended after six innings because of rain and is not currently recognized by MLB as a no-hitter.

7. He retired after the 1910 season with a record of 66-85 and an ERA of 2.68 (ERA+ of 97). He walked 413 batters, struck out 490, and ended up with 5.8 WAR.

8. He spent 1911 through 1914 in the minors leagues, primarily in the Pacific Coast League.

9. Lush moved to Hawaii after he was through with baseball and opened a high-end antique and jewelry business that made him quite a bit of money.

10. He was still there in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was in nearby Honolulu at the time.

11. Remaining in Hawaii for the duration of the war, he moved back to the mainland in 1946.

12. Johnny Lush died in Los Angeles in 1946.

Johnny Lush's grave

Johnny Lush’s grave



The Road to Professionalism

August 25, 2016
Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated

Today we think of baseball at the highest level as a game between professionals who get paid to play the game. It wasn’t always that way. Initially baseball was a game of children and of amateur clubs. It morphed into the professional game we know in a rather short period of time; the period between 1845 and 1860. The following is a musing, admittedly incomplete, on how we got from amateur to professional in 15 years. It is certainly not a quest to find the first professional nor is it a definitive look at early professionalism.

Let me set some parameters and definitions first. In 1845 the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were published by the club. Without reference to whether they were the first written rules or not, they give us a beginning date. There is no evidence that anyone in 1845 was a professional baseball player. Games were between clubs of amateurs or played on sand lots by kids but no one was receiving money to play (at least as far was anyone can tell).

By 1860 both Jim Creighton and George Flanly were receiving a stipend from their team (in 1860 that would be the Excelsior in Brooklyn). Both men moved from the Niagaras (Buffalo) to play in New York and money changed hands. Frequently they, especially Creighton, are known as “The First Professional.” OK, maybe, but at least it gives us an ending date for our quest. In 1845 we can reasonably say “there are no professionals.” By 1860 we can say “there are professionals.”

Now we need to determine what makes a “professional”? The answer is usually “they’re getting paid to play.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But a common practice in the era was the use of government entities to pay players to work for the city while making sure the player had ample time to practice and play baseball. Both Brooklyn and New York City (they were separate towns in 1860) were particularly known for doing this. There’s a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which a young “Moonlight” Graham (played by Frank Whaley) talks about towns in the Midwest finding you a job so you can play for the town team on the weekends. In 1860 they were doing the same thing. So is this the mark of a professional or are we talking about something that is at most quasi-professional? You can make up your own mind on the issue, but I feel it is indeed professionalism because there is no evidence that men like Flanly, John Galvin, or Sydney Churchill Smith would hold a city job if they weren’t baseball players.

So why do we go from amateur clubs to professionalism? There are a number of reasons, most of which you can probably guess. The game was growing, getting more popular. There were more teams and more competition. The drive to win, to be the best surely was part of what happened. If you were good enough to be sought by multiple teams, certainly one of them was going to offer you an incentive like a job or cash. So they took it, either the job or cash or both. The formation of leagues that competed for dominance made it more important to the clubs that they concentrate the greatest level of talent in order to win. Money is quite an incentive to join a particular team that wants to win. If you add to that the civic pride factor then handing jobs to ball players by local government agencies adds to the mix.

The above should be pretty obvious to most of you, but, and this is the part of this post I want to stress, let me note a couple of post 1860 events also contribute to the wide growth and acceptance of professionalism; a couple of things you may not have considered. First is the institution of the enclosed ballpark. The Union Grounds of 1862 is generally recognized as the first fully enclosed baseball park. It was home of the Eckfords and is now gone, lost under buildings, highways, and an assortment of other things. But by enclosing the park the team could control the attendance and that meant that they could begin charging admission (no more cheapskates standing just outside the field boundaries watching for free). And quite bluntly if the owners of the park were making money, the players had to ask “why aren’t we getting a cut?”

Secondly, in 1866 the Athletic in Philadelphia had one of the greatest players of the era, Lip Pike, playing for them. They were paying him ($20 a week) and he was quite open about it. When a newspaper published this information things blew up. The league (The National Association of Base Ball Players) demanded a meeting at one of the more prominent Philadelphia hotels to decide what to do about Pike and the Athletic. Of course there were two problems with this approach. First Pike was too good to be kept away from the game. Someone was going to pick him up, and probably pay him a little more circumspectly (like maybe a sham job in the City Works Department). Second, if they punished the Athletic, they faced the prospect of losing their primary team in Philadelphia. The upshot was that neither the league nor the Athletic nor Pike showed up at the appointed hotel at the appointed time and the matter was allowed to drop. That opened the door to professionalism en masse. Knowing it wasn’t going to cost neither the team nor the player if a professional entered the game, payments flew from one player to another. At this point, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were close to inevitable.

So that’s a short  musing on professionalism. It was, probably, impossible to stop its development and for those of us who are fans of the game at its highest level, that’s a good thing.

And now I’d like you to take a close look at the picture above. It shows Jim Creighton in the center of the top (he’s shrouded because he had died). But if you blow up the picture (which you can) you can take a look at some of the “Glory of Their Times” players of the 1860s. It gives you a chance to see what the Aarons, Mantles, Ruths, and Gibsons of their day looked like. Enjoy.



The Winning Team: A Review

August 22, 2016
Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby (Hollywood version)

Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby (Hollywood version)

Baseball movies tend to lump into one of about three categories. One of those is the hero flick in which our ballplayer overcomes great odds, rises to the top, falls back, then comes on in the end to become a hero. It’s sort of a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot that is so prominent in musicals and comedies but with a sports story. One of these is the 1952 flick “The Winning Team.”

The movie purports to be a biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander from about 1905 through the end of the 1926 World Series. It stars Ronald Reagan (whatever happened to him?) as Alexander and Doris Day gets a turn as his wife. Frank Lovejoy gets the second male role as Rogers Hornsby and Gordon Jones plays Alexander’s first manager.

The basic premise of the movie is that Alexander is happy in his small town in Nebraska, planning to marry his girl, and pitches on the side for the town team. During a slide show presentation for the town at the community church, Gordon Jones shows up and persuades him to join a professional team. He does and ultimately is beaned, causing him to have blurred vision which magically clears up one moonlit night. He goes on to fame and fortune in the big leagues, enters World War I, develops a form of epilepsy, drowns his troubles in booze, and becomes a bum. But faithful wife knows he still has it in him to be great and manages to convince Rogers Hornsby to pick Alexander up for the Cardinals where he leads them on to glory in the 1926 World Series.

That’s a pretty standard “sports hero” movie and it fits right into the late 1940s and early 1950s sports flick that lionizes the ball player. “The Pride of St. Louis” does it for Dizzy Dean and “The Babe Ruth Story” does it for the Bambino. And they are good movies for what they do. What they don’t do is look at all critically at the real player (or his family) or at the facts. In “The Winning Team” there are a lot of things skipped over (like Alexander’s drinking, which is only briefly touched on) and a number of facts are simply wrong. Just two examples at the end of the movie (I figure if you’re interested in this movie, you already know how the 1926 World Series went) make my point. In the flick, Tony Lazzeri strikes out on a 3-2 pitch and fouls off the wrong pitch, and rather than Babe Ruth being out on a caught stealing to end the Series, Alexander strikes out a nameless player wearing number 15 (the Yanks didn’t add numbers until after 1926).

Having said that, it’s not a bad movie, if you understand what you’re seeing. Reagan, Day, and Lovejoy do fine jobs as the main characters and Jones is great as the minor league manager. The supporting cast includes a handful of real ball players, including Bob Lemon who has a speaking role as Jesse Haines (I wonder if any other Hall of Famer has portrayed a Hall of Famer in a movie).

If you can find it somewhere it’s worth a watch at least once. As with most movies about historical events, it tells us more about the era when it was made (1952) than about the historically portrayed era (about 1905-1926). And after you check it out, see if you can find out what happened to that Reagan guy.

Win the MVP, Get a Car

August 18, 2016
Hugh Chalmers pictured on the cover of his biography

Hugh Chalmers pictured on the cover of his biography

The idea of a Most Valuable Player isn’t new. The current award goes back to the 1930s and before that there were two other versions of the award. In the 1920s the League Awards anointed an MVP in each league and prior to that there were the very first MVP style awards–the Chalmers Awards.

Hugh Chalmers began his rise to entrepreneurial prominence with the National Cash Register Company, becoming vice president at age 30. He was also an early automobile enthusiast. He got into the business early, buying into the Thomas-Detroit car company (Thomas was E. R. Thomas another early automobile magnate) in 1907. He took control of the company in 1909. He changed the name to Chalmers-Detroit and in 1911 dropped the Detroit. The company was moderately successful doing well until the US entry into World War I (April 1917). The Maxwell Company, under lease from Chalmers, took over much of their manufacturing space under government contract and made vehicles for the war effort. After the war ended, Chalmers returned to manufacturing his automobiles, but the damage was done. The company faltered, Chalmers merged with Maxwell in 1922, and made his last car in 1923. Maxwell later became the basis of Chrysler. He died in 1932 still in his 50s.

Chalmers was also a baseball fan. In 1910 he hit on the idea of combining his business with the sport to sponsor an award for baseball’s best players. The award was one of his cars. It would be great publicity for his company and recognize baseball’s best all at the same time. He got the leagues to agree to the idea of an annual award. Originally the award was to be given to the batting champ (batting average), the man with the highest batting average in either league (s0 only one car was given away)

Of course it wouldn’t be baseball if controversy hadn’t ensued. On the last day of the American League season Ty Cobb, leading the batting race, sat out the game. Indians second baseman Napoleon LaJoie was only a few points behind him and managed eight hits in a season ending doubled header. That gave him the batting title except that the St. Louis Browns, in a rebuke to Cobb’s playing style, played their third baseman so deep that LaJoie easily beat out eight bunts. Detroit, and a lot of other places, called foul and AL President Ban Johnson gave the batting title to Cobb (and there is still controversy today over who actually won the title) and declared, with Chalmers’ consent, that both men would receive a car. The National League batting champ, Sherry Magee, was well behind both Cobb and LaJoie (as well as Tris Speaker) so he didn’t figure in the debate.

The next season there were some changes in the award. First, it became officially an MVP Award. It could go to the “most important and useful player” as determined by a committee of baseball writers, without reference to whether he won the batting title or not (meaning that now pitchers were eligible). Second, there would be one in each league. That seemed to solve the worst problems.

Except of course it didn’t. In 1911 Ty Cobb again had a great year and won the 1911 Chalmers Award in the AL (and another car). That created a problem. No one wanted to give Cobb a new car every year and there was good reason to believe he might be the “most important and useful player” for a lot of years. So they made another change. Having won a Chalmers Award, a player was ineligible to win a second (meaning no one got more than one car). That seemed to solve the problem, but it created another. When the League Awards began in the 1920s, the “win one, ineligible for another” rule was put in place. Apparently the powers that be forgot why the Chalmers Award had that rule (the League Awards didn’t give out a car). When they got to the modern MVP in the 1930s, they dumped the one award only rule.

The problem now arose that the Award wasn’t helping Chalmers sell cars. His sales didn’t go up as he expected and it was expensive giving away two cars every year. The Award last through the 1914 season when Chalmers dropped his offer (and MLB didn’t continue the award without the car).

Here’s a quick list of the winners of the Chalmers Award:

AL: 1911-Cobb, 1912-Tris Speaker, 1913-Walter Johnson (the only pitcher to win the award), 1914-Eddie Collins

NL: 1911-Wildfire Schulte, 1912-Larry Doyle, 1913-Jake Daubert, 1914-Johnny Evers

Although it only lasted four years (and the 1910 fiasco), the Chalmers Award is important in baseball history. It established the idea of a postseason award for playing excellence, leading to the current MVP, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Henry Aaron awards, among others. It’s interesting to note that all four of the AL Chalmers winners ended up in the Hall of Fame, while only Johnny Evers among NL winners made it to Cooperstown. That might help explain why the AL was dominant in the World Series’ of the nineteen-teens.

Nap LaJoie and Ty Cobb (left to right) in a 1910 Chalmers 30 Automobile

Nap LaJoie and Ty Cobb (left to right) in a 1910 Chalmers 30 Automobile





August 16, 2016
Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson

While researching something else, it dawned on me that I’d never actually sat down and wrote about one of my all time favorites, Bob Gibson. I did a little something a few years back (25 October 2010 titled “Bob Gibson Gets Me a Car”) on how a bet on the 1967 World Series netted me enough to buy a used car (and Gibson was instrumental in that win) but I’d never actually centered something on him. Time to change that.

Gibson came out of Omaha before Peyton Manning made the town a sports word. He did a little work with the Harlem Globetrotters, then joined the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his debut in 1959 against the Dodgers. He worked the last two innings in relief, gave up a couple of runs, including a home run to Jim Baxes, the first batter he faced in the National League. His opponent was Don Drysdale.

Gibson got better. After two seasons with a losing record, he finished over .500 for the first time in 1961 (13-12). Unfortunately, he also led the NL in walks. He made his first All Star Game in 1962 and led the NL in shutouts. In 1964 he won 19 games, was either the ace or the “two” pitcher, depending on your view of Ray Sadecki, and helped the Cards to their first World Series since 1946. He lost his first game, then won two more, including game seven, as St. Louis won the Series and he was named MVP. He got into two more World Series. The one in 1967 saw him win three games, set the single game strikeout record for a Series, and pick up his second World Series MVP award (and a car for me).

In 1968 he was awesome. He was 22-9 (.710 percentage) and led the NL in ERA (1.12), shutouts (13), strikeouts (268), ERA+ (258), WHIP (0.853), WAR (11.2), and about anything else you can do on a mound including raking it. It got him an MVP Award and his first Cy Young Award. He won two games in the World Series, but lost game seven as Detroit stopped the Cards.

He led the NL in wins one more time and picked up a second Cy Young Award. He started slipping in 1973 and was done by 1975. For his career he was 251-174 (.591), had 56 shutouts, 3117 strikeouts, a 2.91 ERA (ERA+ of 127) a 1.188 WHIP, 81.9 WAR, an MVP Award, and two Cy Young Awards. In World Series play he was 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA 0.889 WHIP, 92 strikeouts, two rings, and two Series, MVP Awards. The Hall of Fame call came in 1981, his first year.

Gibson got to St. Louis at an important time in the team history. Integration had just occurred and there were still problems about it on the team. The stature of Stan Musial, who had no problem with it and went out of his way to make black players welcome on the team, helped some, but the tensions were still there. And to be a black pitcher was, in some circles, almost an affront to decency. Gibson overcame that and became probably the best pitcher in Cardinals history. He did it through determination, grit, and sheer ability. Over the years he’s become famous (or infamous depending on your view) as a fierce, almost violent pitcher who took hits as a personal challenge. If you watched him on the mound the determination showed through even a TV set. Heck, he scared me through the lens. The way he lunged forward when he threw made him even more scary. Of course that kind of determination and desire for domination led to one of his most famous moments. He was hit in the leg, breaking the bone. Unwilling to admit it, he took the ball, set up, and unleashed one last pitch as he fell to the ground and had to be taken off the field. That moment epitomized Bob Gibson unlike almost anything else he did.

He has one of the better World Series records. OK, he has the most strikeouts in a game and in a single Series, but there’s another most people overlook. In his career he lost his first Series game and lost his last. In between he won seven games in a row. No one else, not Whitey Ford, not Red Ruffing, not Allie Reynolds (the other men with seven or more World Series wins) won seven World Series games in a row.

Over the years he’s kind of gotten lost. He was truly the most dominant pitcher in baseball for a very short time. Before him there was Sandy Koufax. Then came Tom Seaver. In between he had to contend with Juan Marichal and Drysdale. It seems to have cost him something of his luster.

He did have the advantage of spending much of his career with Tim McCarver as his catcher. Whatever you think of him as a color guy, McCarver is one of the great storytellers in baseball. He ended up spinning one Gibson tale after another and it helped Gibson remain in the public eye a little more. My favorite story goes like this:

The manager ordered an intentional walk. McCarver held up four fingers, stepped over, held up his glove, and watched the first pitch drill the batter solidly in the ribs. He went out to the mound asking what happened? Gibson told him that he (Gibson) had just saved three pitches. See why I got a car betting on him?


A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About the 1857 Gothams

August 11, 2016
1857 New York Gothams

1857 New York Gothams

It seems to me that for the 1001st post here I ought to do something special, so I’d like to introduce you to an early photograph; one of the most important early photos in baseball history. The picture above is of the 1857 Gothams, a premier team in New York City (as opposed to Brooklyn). Usually with these kinds of pictures I do several posts laying out what is available on the players. That’s been a mess with this team. Instead, as there are 12 men in the picture, I’ll use this format to give a very brief comment on each man plus a comment on the picture itself. Players are listed from left to right on the back row, then the three seated men also left to right.
1. Thomas Gabriel Van Cott was the pitcher and he’s the man holding the ball (Interestingly enough, there is no bat in the picture). He was the brother and half-brother of two (or maybe one, see below) of the figures in the picture. He was born in 1817 and died in 1894. After he retired from ball he was a bookmaker at the race track in Saratoga, New York. He is one of several men credited with inventing the curve ball.

2. William Burns was the catcher. He died in September 1857, one year after this picture was taken. He moved to California and drowned in the sinking of the SS Central America. The ship’s location was discovered in 1988.

3. John McCosker was born in 1829 and died in 1881. He played third base for the Gothams. He was a firefighter and served as quartermaster for the 73rd New York Infantry in the Civil War from its creation in 1861 until his discharge in August 1862.

4. Oscar Teed was the shortstop. He was born in 1828 and died 4 November 1866. He worked in a boatyard.

5. Philip Sheridan was born in either 1826 or 1827 (sources differ), joined the team in 1854, played left field and apparently was not related to Civil War General Philip H. Sheridan.

6. Ruben Henry Cudlipp played second base for the Gothams and was born in 1821, dying on 5 December 1899. When not playing ball he was a lawyer.

7. William Vail was an original member of the Gothams when they formed in 1852. He played first base and was born in 1817. His off-season occupation was as a firefighter. He died 12 December 1881.

8. Robert F. Winslow, Jr. played center field. He was born in 1829 and died in 1909. His father, Robert, Sr., was an original member of the Gothams in 1852.

9. Charles C. Comerford played right field and was born 2 June 1833. He died 6 February 1920 and was the last of the Gothams. His father was prominent in the Abolition Movement. In the 1860s he moved to Waterbury, Connecticut where he was appointed postmaster in 1886. He ends the back row.

10. William Hathaway Van Cott was president of the club in 1856. He was a brother of Thomas Van Cott and half-brother of Gabriel Van Cott (different mothers obviously). He later became a judge and was first President of the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1858 (the year after he posed for this picture). He was born 26 September 1821 and died 30 June 1908.

11. Gabriel Van Cott was half-brother to the other Van Cotts. He was born in 1827 and died in 1866. He served as umpire for the Gothams. There was also a cousin named Gabriel. It is possible he, rather than the half-brother, is the man pictured (hence the caveat in the Thomas Gabriel Van Cott paragraph).

12. Henry Mortimer Platt was a well-known gold and silver smith in New York. He was born 2 July 1822, dying 8 December 1898. He served as “gamekeeper” which is an archaic title for the modern “scorekeeper.” I didn’t know that last little bit of information, so even after 1000 of these, I’m still learning things.

13. What’s so special about this shot? The picture is important because it is the earliest known picture of a complete baseball team (making it the first in a long line of team pictures).


Joltin’ Joe, Bob Wills and Piercing the Iron Curtain

August 8, 2016

This marks the 1000th time I’ve sat down at a computer, gone to my blog page, started typing, and hit “publish” rather than “delete.” Frankly, I never expected I’d go on this long, but I have. When I began, I knew some day I would tell you this story. It’s one of my favorite personal stories and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. Being a child of the Cold War, this little tale speaks to me in a way that some of you who are considerably younger than I may not understand; but I think it’s worth telling. The 1000th post seemed like a good time. For  those of you read me occasionally, thank you. For those of you who read me with some consistency, have you seen a shrink recently? Now the story, which is true.

City Museum, Dresden

City Museum, Dresden

Back in 2000 my wife and I got to take a trip to Europe. She wanted to see Berlin and both of us were curious about how the former East Germany was dealing with the end of the Cold War. As it was only two hours by train from Berlin, we decided we’d hop down for a quick look at Dresden.

The city was restored from the World War II bombing, but then was allowed to deteriorate under the East German regime. The buildings were nice, but dingy with an ugly coat of soot and grime on most of them. If you walked through the old part of town you noticed that they were cleaning the buildings slowly and doing it with systematic thoroughness. With exceptions, the further west you went in the town, the dirtier the buildings. The further east you went in the town, the cleaner the buildings. It was as if the city fathers (and mothers, I suppose) decided to clean the town starting on the east side and finish up on the west side. The Dresden City Museum was on the far eastern side of the old town area.

It was a lot fancier building than our local city museum, but essentially it was the same kind of thing. It featured local items ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and emphasized how much the locals had contributed to German culture and art, which is pretty much what our local museum does in my home town. Dresden is just bigger and has a lot more stuff in a much more impressive building.

My wife and I have a deal when we visit a museum. We find a spot and agree to meet there at a specific time. That allows us to go through at our own speed seeing what each of us wants and ignoring those things that don’t interest us at all. She doesn’t have to stand patiently waiting for me to finish looking over some exhibit and I don’t have to pound my head on the wall hoping she’ll eventually get through with what I consider a particularly boring room. It’s a marvelous system and we used it in Dresden. As fate would have it I finished first and arrived back at the appointed meeting place, the bottom of the staircase to the second floor right next to the kiosk where you paid your money and got your entry ticket.

As I’m likely to do on those occasions, I parked on the edge of one of the lower steps out of people’s way and did something I do a lot when I’m killing time, I started whistling softly. I never pay much attention to what I’m whistling, I just try to keep it low so I don’t disturb anyone. Well, I blew it this time. There were two older ladies in the kiosk, docents who took your money and would lead the occasional tour group through the museum. The younger one looked to be in her late 60s and it was she who heard me.

She came out of the kiosk, looked directly at me and in a heavy accent said, “Bob Wills.”

Now I have to admit that got my attention. Here I was in Eastern Germany (former East Germany) and I was hearing the name of an American musician that had been dead 25 years and hadn’t had a hit in 50. It took me a second to realize that I was whistling the old Wills staple “Faded Love.” Where I live in Oklahoma you have to be able to sing both the chorus and one verse to graduate from high school. The same is true of getting into college, unless you happen to play football. In that case they waive the requirement. My son knew both verses and the chorus so he was given a free ride scholarship for four years.

I nodded. She came over, sat down on the stairs beside me and started singing, again in heavily accented English, very softly, “I miss you darling more and more every day, as heaven would miss the stars above.” That got my attention too. I had enough sense not to join her. Then she told me a story which I now pass on to you. Her English was pretty good, my German isn’t that bad, so between her English and my German I got most of the tale and I think I got it right.

Back about 1950 (the name of the song and the reference to one of the ball players mentioned gave me this approximate date) the Russians and East German Communist Party decided that the citizens of the new People’s Paradise should have nothing to do with Western ways (and here I mean the West in the sense of the US, Britain, Canada, France, etc., not the Cowboy Old West of Jesse James and John Wayne). No western style clothes, no western music, no western books, no western anything. She was about 15 or so and was part of a group of six or seven other kids about the same age. Turns out they loved western music. Someone had a record player of some type (I don’t remember her telling me what kind) and they had a few western records smuggled in, among which was Wills’ version of “Faded Love.” It was new in 1950, hence the earliest date this story could occur. They also had a radio. Dresden was still a bombed out mess, but there were some cellars that were useable and unoccupied so they’d set up a scout to tell them if anyone was coming and then get down in one of the cellars. Light was by lantern (I always think of the oil lanterns you see in Cowboy movies, but I don’t know if that’s what she meant.). They had to make sure that no light could get out of the cellar to alert anyone. The solution was to bring blankets to hang over big holes and tattered pieces of cloth to put into chinks that might show light. Then they could crank up the record player and very softly play a song and dance to it. One of their favorites was “Faded Love.” It wasn’t so great to dance to but the words, which those who spoke English translated into German, spoke to them of the sadness they felt in their own lives behind the “Iron Curtain.”

“I miss you darling more and more every day as heaven would miss the stars above.

“With every heartbeat I still think of you and remember our faded love.”

And then there was the radio. They could pick up the BBC and a few other channels. One was American. She thought it was the Army radio channel. I asked if it was AFN (Armed Forces Network) she but wasn’t sure. It gave them more music, uncensored news, and it gave them baseball. They didn’t know a thing about the game, but there was a crowd and they were loud and they were, unlike the singer in “Faded Love,” obviously happy. Loud and happy? Well, those were things the docent and her buddies weren’t and probably weren’t going to get much of a chance to be. So they listened to the games to hear the crowd cheer and to hear people being happy. And of course they picked up a little baseball knowledge, although she said she never understood much about the game. Most particularly they picked up the names of players like Joe DiMaggio (whose last season was 1951 and serves as the latest date for the story) and Duke Snider. They loved the nicknames so much that most of the boys in the group took a nickname for themselves (to only be used when they were with the group). One guy became “Duke” and another “Joltin’ Joe”. Of course they had no idea what “Joltin'” meant, but it sounded good. As time went along my little docent married “Joltin’ Joe.” She told me they were still married and she still called him “Joe” occasionally, but only in private (old habits die hard).

She thanked me for listening, went back to her kiosk. I sat there looking pretty stupid (something not uncommon for me) until my wife finally showed up. We left the museum, went on to tour the rest of the city, or at least as much as we could see in a day, and took the train back to Berlin. On the trip back I told the story to my wife and noticed a tear in her eye.

The Doctor’s Son

August 5, 2016
Vin Cambell

Vin Cambell

I’ve joined a fantasy league (don’t laugh too loud). It’s a new experience for me. I’ve never done anything like it before and I have no idea how good I’ll be or if the other “owners” will want to shoot me by the time we’re through. It’s a league that begins with the 1910 season and goes on for a while. Now I know a little about Deadball baseball, but I’m surprised at how much I’ve had to learn to be competitive in this kind of thing. I had to draft a team and that meant I had to study players I’d never heard of in all the years I’ve looked at baseball. One guy I drafted was particularly interesting and I thought I’d let you know a little about Vin Campbell.

Arthur Vincent “Vin” Campbell, Jr. was born in St. Louis in January 1888 to a prominent eye doctor and his wife. Education was important to the family so Vin went to an “academy” (we’d probably call them a “prep school” today) in St. Louis then took off for Vanderbilt in Nashville. He played both football and baseball, becoming the primary catcher for the baseball team. He was nicknamed “The Demon” for his ferocious style of play at football and the name slid over to baseball. After one season at Vanderbilt, he signed with the Cubs in 1908.

He made the big league team out of spring training, but didn’t play much (one at bat) and was sent down to Decatur for “seasoning.” Then he was sold to Atlanta. That got the attention of the National Commission (the ruling body of Major League Baseball). Under the rules of the day Chicago couldn’t be party to a sale between minor league clubs (remember the “farm” system of today didn’t exist in 1908) so it led to the Cubs paying a fine and losing Campbell as a free agent.

He signed with the Northwestern League in 1909, stole 72 bases, and ended up sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. After a winter selling shoes (he was a traveling salesman not assigned to one store) he made the Pirates teams as a the fourth outfielder in 1910. Injuries put him into the lineup and by September he was the regular right fielder. He ended the season hitting .326, good for second in the National League, and fourth in the league in OPS.

In 1911 he notified the Pirates he was not planning to play baseball that season, having gotten a job with a brokerage firm in St. Louis (it paid better). That lasted until late in the season, when he applied for reinstatement, which was granted. There are a couple of versions of what was going on, but my favorite is that he’d found a girl in St. Louis and she didn’t want to move to Pittsburgh. Apparently he got the girl, but Max Carey got the outfield job and Campbell spent most of the season as a pinch hitter and fourth outfielder.

In 1912 he held out for more money. Pittsburgh cut him and Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) picked him up. He hit .296, led the NL in at bats, had 185 hits, scored 102 runs, and had what turned out to be his career year.

In 1913 he decided to retire. He took a job as President of the Keystone Motor Supply Company in Pittsburgh and announced he wasn’t going to play baseball unless he could join the Giants (pennant winners in 1912). That came to nothing, so he stayed away from the game until the arrival of the new Federal League in 1914.

The Feds were considered by the established leagues as an “Outlaw League.” They signed a lot of over-the-hill types, a bunch of “wannabes” and guys like Campbell who’d had a cup of coffee and a few good years. He ended up in Indianapolis where he helped lead the Hoosiers to the first Federal League title. He played again in 1915. Indianapolis had done poorly in attendance in 1914 and the franchise, along with Campbell, was transferred to Newark. He had one last good year. He was 27.

The Feds folded after the 1915 season and Campbell was offered contracts, all of which contained major pay cuts. He refused and retired, this time for good. He did, however, have one last dealing with baseball. He sued Newark for $8200, the size of his contract which he’d signed in September before the Feds folded. A jury gave him just under $6000.

He went into the tire business, was successful, and moved to New York. There he began managing a chain of tire stores, continuing to sell tires for the rest of his working life. He retired and died in 1969, a successful businessman, but a neglected ball player.

For his career Vin Campbell played in 546 games (both NL and Federal League) hitting .310 with 642 hits, 326 runs, 11 RBIs, 92 stolen bases, 85 doubles, 15 homes runs, a slugging percentage of .408, an OBP of .357, and an OPS of .765 (OPS+ of 114). All that got him 4.5 WAR. In 1912 he led the NL in at bats, outs made, and errors committed by an outfielder.

Campbell is part of my fantasy team. I’d never heard of him, but was fascinated by the shortness of a career that seemed to always verge on the very good. It seems he had outside interests, the skill to pursue them, and the finances (both his family and his in-laws had decent money for the era) to live a life without baseball. That set of factors alone makes him unusual for Deadball players and makes him interesting.

The Champ

August 3, 2016
Abe Atell

Abe Atell

Baseball is full of people who made major impact on the game without ever playing at the big league level. Some were people who made positive impacts. Some of them made impact in quite the opposite direction. One of the latter was Abe Atell.

Abraham Washington Atell was born in 1883 (his grave says 1884, his passport 1883) in San Francisco. Although Jewish, he grew up in a primarily Irish neighborhood. He was small, from the wrong ethnic group for his neighborhood, and bullied. He retaliated by becoming a fighter. He was good enough that he got a chance to learn the ropes of professional boxing. Being small, he became a featherweight. By 1900 he was good enough to have his first professional fight. He won by a knockout.

He spent much of his early career boxing on or near the West Coast, establishing himself as an excellent tactical fighter, especially on defense. He seldom took a solid punch and was famous for waiting on the other fighter to make a mistake that could be exploited for effect. At the beginning of his career he scored at least 11 consecutive knockouts (the exact total is in some dispute).

He was 18 when he became the Featherweight Champion of the World. He held the crown for a year before losing to Tom Sullivan in a decision. Atell regained his title in 1906 with a decision over Jimmy Walsh. He would hold the title through 18 defenses (a record that stood until 1985) before losing the championship to John Kilbane. Between 1909 and 1910 his brother Monte was Bantamweight champion, marking the first time two brothers held world boxing titles at the same time.

As with many former athletes, he was restless in retirement. He opened a shoe store that was generally successful, but he wanted back in the ring. He did a little vaudeville, but he seemed to need to continue his boxing career. He fought a handful of times (generally successfully) before facing his final bout in November 1917 (he won by decision).

Atell now turned to managing fighters. He managed one to 33 wins against 11 losses, but gave up the fight business to go back to the shoe store. Along the way he’d met Arnold Rothstein. It is here that Atell begins to intersect with baseball.

Hollywood's version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Hollywood’s version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Throughout his career Atell was famous for his betting, as was his entire family (including his mom who made a lot of money betting on her sons to win). There is no evidence he ever bet on himself to lose, although there is ample evidence he bet on himself to win. There is some question as to how often he extended a fight in order to make money on bets concerning how long the fight would go. He also made a lot of money for other gamblers, including Rothstein.

After retirement he went to work for Rothstein doing various jobs including placing bets and collecting Rothstein’s winnings. In that role he became involved in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He served as a go-between who worked with Rothstein and funneled money to the eight players involved in fixing the 1919 World Series. He evidently skimmed some undetermined amount off the top to place his own bets on the Series. When things blew up in 1920, Atell headed for Canada where he remained for a year before returning to the US to stand trial. As with the other gamblers, he was acquitted.

After the acquittal, he moved through both the underside of sports and the “good” side of American life. He was arrested in 1929 for scalping tickets (he was again acquitted), then in 1931 was involved in a bootlegging ring. By the late 1930s he settled down to own and run a restaurant, “Abe Atell’s Steak and Chop House.”  Apparently nobody asked him how he got the money.

He retired, was interviewed for Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, and died in February 1970. For his boxing career he had 125 wins, 18 losses, 21 draws, and eight no decisions. In a number of “Greatest Featherweights Ever” lists he still makes the top five after 100 years. He has been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is buried in Rockland, New York.

Atell's grave from Find a Grave

Atell’s grave from Find a Grave

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1930

August 2, 2016

Well, it’s the first of the month, so that means it’s time to delve again into my mythical pre-1936 Hall of Fame. This time two new members brought in for contributions both on the field and in the dugout, with one of them going on to make a major impact off the field.

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

Pitcher, manager, owner, and league founder, Andrew “Rube” Foster was a significant pioneer in Negro baseball. He was a fine pitcher for the Chicago American Giants in the early part of the century, becoming manager, and later owner of the same team. In 1920 he led the formation of the Negro National League, serving as its President through 1926.

Miller Huggins

Miller Huggins

Miller Huggins began his career in Major League Baseball as a second baseman. In 1913 he became manager of the St. Louis National League team. He moved, in 1918, to New York to manage the Yankees. Under his leadership the Yankees won six pennants in eight years, capping their season with three World Championships.

And of course the commentary:

1. I am entirely comfortable putting Huggins into a 1930s Hall of Fame. He had just died (1929) and was almost as famous as his best player, Babe Ruth. In fact, some of the support for Huggins would be based on his ability to get the most out of Ruth when the Babe was still doing his “wild child” impression. In 12 years with New York he finished out of the first division only once (1925), and finished first exactly half his seasons with the Yanks.

2. Rube Foster is, in 1930, absolutely the most important person in black baseball history. His Negro National League was a success, although the Great Depression would destroy it in 1931 (and in 1930 the Hall voters wouldn’t know that yet). He was a superior pitcher, probably as good a manager. For my money he’s not a particularly good executive, noted for showing favorites among both players and teams. But the totality of his work would, if you are going to accept a black man getting into a 1930 Hall of Fame, make it a cinch he’d be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the year he died, if not previously.

3. I thought it possible that the onset of the Great Depression might lead to a trip down nostalgia lane in baseball. Sort of the old “Geez, things were so much better back 25 or so years ago when the country was prospering and so was I” attitude. So far I haven’t seen it, at least not much. That does not bode well for 19th Century players.

4. Here’s the eligible everyday players for 1931: George Burns (the catcher, not the comic), Cupid Childs, Jake Daubert, Jack Doyle, Johnny Evers, Art Fletcher, Larry Gardner, Harry Hooper, Tommy Leach, Herman Long, Bobby Lowe, Tommy McCarthy, Clyde Milan, Del Pratt, Hardy Richardson, Wildfire Schulte, Cy Seymour, Casey Stengel (as a player only), Roy Thomas, Mike Tiernan, Joe Tinker, George Van Haltren, Bobby Veach, Tillie Walker. A total of 24 (with 20 being the maximum).

5. The list of eligible pitchers: Chief Bender, Bob Carruthers, Jack Chesbro, Brickyard Kennedy, Sam Leever, Rube Marquard, Tony Mullane, Jeff Pfeffer, Deacon Phillippe, Jesse Tannehill, Doc White, Joe Wood. A total of 12 (with 10 being the maximum).

6. And the contributors: umpires-Bob Emslie, Tim Hurst; manager-George Stallings; owners-Charles Ebbets, August Herrmann, Ben Shibe; Negro Leagues-Dobie Moore, Spottswood Poles, Candy Jim Taylor; pioneer-William R. Wheaton. A total of 10 (with 10 being the maximum).

7. In the next couple of years there are a handful of players who are going to show up that represent part of the problem of a Hall of Fame. These are players that either are enshrined in Cooperstown who have multiple questions arise concerning their true value or are players that haven’t gotten into the Hall of Fame but have had, over the years, serious discussion about their case for enshrinement. Guys like Ross Youngs and Chief Bender are the types of players I mean. I thought I ought to mention this issue now, because it will be important in the coming months.

8. By this point the statistical information is beginning to firm up. Essentially the same stats are available and they tend to be the same. There’s not a lot of issues like “Gehrig gets 125 RBIs” in one place and “Gehrig gets 133 RBIs” in another or one publication listing a stat and another ignoring it entirely. That makes life a lot simpler for me (although it doesn’t help much with the Negro Leagues).