Posts Tagged ‘Woody English’

A Crushing: Final Blow

October 30, 2017

Down three games, the 1932 Chicago Cubs would need four consecutive wins to pull out the World Series victory. They started well in game four.

Game 4

Wilcy Moore

In game four Chicago sent Guy Bush to the mound. He didn’t make it out of the first inning. two singles, a hit by pitch and the bases were loaded for Lou Gehrig. A long fly plated the first New York run. Another walk sent Bush to the showers and brought in Lon Warneke who got the two outs to finish the inning.

The Yanks responded with Johnny Allen on the mound. He did even worse than Bush. With two outs he gave up a three run home run to Frank Demaree. A single and an error brought up Billy Jurges who singled to bring in a fourth Cubs run. That was all for Allen. His replacement was veteran pitcher Wilcy Moore. Moore was a member of the 1927 and 1928 World Series teams and had won a game in the ’27 Series. He got the final out to end the inning. At the end of one, the score stood Chicago-4 and New York-1.

The Yankees crept closer in the third with a Gehrig double and a Tony Lazzeri home run. In the sixth they took the lead. A walk and a double brought up Gehrig with two outs. He singled to put New York ahead 5-4. The lead lasted for one out. In the bottom of the sixth a Charlie Grimm single and two errors gave the Cubs a run and tied up the score.

The tie also lasted for one out. In the top of the seventh, New York scored four runs on a double, an intentional walk, and three back-to-back-to-back singles. Joe Sewell’s single, the middle of the three hits, drove in two runs with Earle Combs and Babe Ruth supplying the other key hits. They added four more in the ninth on home runs by Combs and Lazzeri plus an RBI double by Ben Chapman.

Down 13-5, the Cubs tried to rally in the ninth. A Billy Herman single and two defensive indifference calls put Herman on third for a Woody English grounder that got both the first out and a run. A strikeout and a fly to right ended the threat, the inning, the game, and the series. New York won by a final score of 13-6.

After the Cubs took a 4-1 lead, Wilcy Moore had done a great job holding the fort through the sixth, giving up only one earned run. Then Yankees bats took over, put the game away, and let reliever Herb Pennock finish the game by giving up only one inconsequential run.

The 1932 World Series certainly wasn’t a tight, great Series. New York swept Chicago in convincing fashion. The Yanks outhit the Cubs .313 to .253, getting 37 runs to Chicago’s 19. Babe Ruth had two homers, including the famous “called shot” of game 3, to go with six RBIs, four walks, and six runs scored. Lou Gehrig was even better. He hit a Series leading .529 with three home runs, eight RBIs, and nine runs scored. For Chicago, only Riggs Stephenson was close in average (.444) and tied Frank Demaree with four RBIs. Billy Herman scored five runs.

The Cubs staff had an ERA of 9.26 and walked 23 men (with 26 strikeouts). New York, in contrast, posted an ERA of 3.00 with only 11 walks to go with 24 strikeouts. Charlie Root, Bush, and Jakie May all posted ERA’s north of 10.

So on the surface the 1932 looks like a thorough thrashing by New York. And of course it is. But let me point out that, in defense of the Cubs, Chicago actually led in two of the games, and was tied in the fifth inning or later in the other two. It’s not like the Cubs simply rolled over in the Series. They were quite competitive in each game, but only for a while. The pitching simply couldn’t hold the Yankees in check over nine innings and the Yanks could hold them down long enough for the New York bats to respond.

Ultimately none of that mattered. It is still remembered as Babe Ruth’s last World Series. More than that, it is remembered for Ruth’s most famous and most controversial home run. Somehow, because it’s the Babe, that makes sense.

 

 

 

A Crushing: In the Bronx

October 24, 2017

The 1932 World Series began with two games in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium was hosting its first World Series since 1928 with the Yanks being heavy favorites.

Game 1

Lou Gehrig

The first game was played 28 September with New York sending Hall of Famer Red Ruffing to the mound. He started slowly. Consecutive singles and an error by Babe Ruth scored Cubs lead off hitter Billy Herman. After an out, Riggs Stephenson singled to center scoring Woody English, whose single had scored Herman. Then Ruffing settled down getting seven men in a row before a single and stolen base put a runner on second. A fly ended the threat.

Meanwhile, Chicago starter Guy Bush was holding New York in check. In the fourth, the Cubs put two men on base, but failed to score. The Yanks’ Earle Combs led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk, then took second on a ground out. Ruth followed with a single to score Combs. That brought up Lou Gehrig who slugged a two run homer to put the Yankees ahead.

In the sixth, The Bombers tacked on five more runs. Three walks loaded the bases. They were followed, after an out, by a Bill Dickey single that scored two. After another out, a couple of hits, and a run, the bases were reloaded for Combs. He singled to drive in two more and make the score 8-2.

The Cubs got two back in the seventh. The Yanks promptly responded with three of their own to up the score to 11-4. Not to be outdone, Chicago got two more on a double by Gabby Hartnett, a Mark Koenig triple, and a run scoring ground out in the top of the eighth. Again, the Yankees responded with a Combs double and a Joe Sewell single to provide the final score of 12-6.

It was a blowout, but it’s important to note a couple of things. First, the Cubs actually led 2-0 in the third inning. Second, the Yankees were able to respond to the Cubs after the third with runs each time the Cubs scored. They did it with walks, singles, doubles primarily. Gehrig hit the only home run. By the end of game one, everyone knew they Yankees could score runs in bunches and without the benefit of the long ball.

Game 2

Bill Dickey

September 29th saw game two of the Series. New York sent Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez to the mound. He faced off against Lon Warneke. Again, the Cubs broke on top with leadoff hitter Billy Herman doubling, then coming home following an error and a long fly by Riggs Stephenson to make the score 1-0. And again the Yankees answered in the bottom of the first with successive walks to Earle Combs and Joe Sewell followed by Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey singles to make the score 2-1.

It remained that way until the third when Stephenson singled and Frank Demaree brought him home with a single. And as with the first inning, the Yankees broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the inning. A walk to Babe Ruth and a Gehrig single put two men on. An out and an intentional walk later Ben Chapman singled to plate both runners and put New York back ahead 4-2.

New York added another run on a Gehrig single a force at first that sent Gehrig to second and a Dickey single. That made the score 5-2 and Gomez coasted the rest of the game, giving up only two singles. In game one the Cubs broke on top, but couldn’t match the New York assault. The same thing happened again in game two. When Chicago scored a run, the Yankees scored two. If that continued it would be a short series.

The next three games were scheduled for Chicago. Any two New York wins would finish the World Series. Game three would produce one of the most famous and controversial moments in Series history.

 

 

 

A Crushing: the Cubs

October 20, 2017

The 1932 National League winner was the Chicago Cubs. They weren’t the “loveable losers” of later times. As recently as 1929 they’d been in the World Series. Their manager at that point was the current Yankees manager Joe McCarthy.

Charlie Grimm

The Cubs began the season with Rogers Hornsby as manager. By Series time he was gone. Frankly, he’d hadn’t done much as manager and bluntly no one liked him (well, I suppose Mrs. Hornsby did). So out he went and in came “Jolly Cholly” Charlie Grimm, the first baseman. He was able to get more out of the team and led them to the Series. In most hitting categories, the Cubs were middle of the National League. They were fourth in runs, triples, walks, batting average, slugging, and total bases; fifth in hits, homers, stolen bases; and third in doubles. Their three top home run hitters combined for one more home run than Lou Gehrig hit. The staff was much better. They led the NL in ERA, hits, and runs allowed; were second in strikeouts; and fifth in walks.

The staff consisted of five pitchers who started 15 or more games. The ace was Lon Warneke who went 22-6 with a 2.37 ERA (160 ERA+), a 1.123 WHIP, and a team leading 6.9 WAR. Pat Malone and Guy Bush had ERA’s in the low to mid-threes, had WHIP numbers that were good and put up 2.7 WAR (Bush) and 2.5 (Malone). At 38, Hall of Fame hurler Burleigh Grimes was still good enough to start 18 games. His ERA was over four, his WHIP was 1.585, and he had a -0.9 WAR. The fifth starter was Charlie Root. He ha 15 wins, a 3.58 ERA, a 1,230 WHIP, and 1.8 WAR. He would also throw the most famous pitch of the Series.

Their primary receiver was Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett. He was 31, hit .271, was second on the team with 12 home runs, had a 111 OPS+ and 2,5 WAR. As his backup, Rollie Hemsley hit .238 and had four home runs, the most of any bench player.

Riggs Stephenson, Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler, and Johnny Moore were the primary Chicago outfield. Stephenson, who ended his career with a huge batting average, but few at bats, hit .324 with a team leading 121 OPS+. He led the team with 49 doubles and 189 hits, and had 3.3 WAR. Cuyler, who’d been known for his speed, hit 291 with nine steals, 10 homers (good for third on the team), and managed all of 1.6 WAR. Moore led the team in home runs with 13 and hit .305, while producing 2.3 WAR. Backups included Marv Gudat, who played first and actually pitched an inning, Lance Richbourg, and Vince Barton. Barton had the most home runs and Gudat’s 0.0 WAR led the crew.

The Cubs infield saw six men do most of the work. Manager Grimm was at first. He hit .307 with seven home runs, good for fourth on the team. His 80 RBIs were second and he pulled 107 OPS+. All that produced 2.5 WAR. Hall of Fame second sacker Billy Herman hit .314 with a team leading 14 stolen bases. His 3.5 WAR led all position players. Woody English and Billy Jurges were the normal left side of the infield. English hit .272 with 1.8 WAR while shortstop Jurges hit .253, lowest among the starters, and had 2.4 WAR. Both men were spelled by players that would have a profound impact on the team. Stan Hack was still 22 and beginning a long run as the Cubs third baseman. He hit .236 and had 0.2 WAR. If Hack had the longer term impact on Chicago, Mark Koenig had the more important short-term value. He’d come over in mid-season and sparked the team. He hit .353 with three home runs, had 11 RBIs in 33 games, put up an OPS+ of 136 with 1.4 WAR. He was generally credited with being the cog that put the Cubs over the top. But because he’d come over at mid-season, the team didn’t vote him a full share of the World Series purse. As a former teammate of the Yankees (he was the Murderer’s Row shortstop in the late 1920s) this action hacked off a lot of the New Yorkers, especially Babe Ruth. It would cause more bad blood between the teams than did a normal World Series campaign.

If you look at the team numbers closely, you can see why New York was favored. Chicago was, despite the number differential, still a good team and there were hopes it could compete evenly with the Yankees.

 

 

Building a Winner: Worse

November 20, 2015
Dolph Camilli

Dolph Camilli

As bad as the 1937 Brooklyn Dodgers were, the 1938 version was even worse. They dropped all the way to seventh in 1938 going 69-80 to finish 18.5 games back (which is actually closer than in 1937–the ’37 Giants  won 95 games, the ’38 Cubs only 89). Their Pythagorean said they should have finished 74-75, so they underperformed. In hitting they finished sixth in most categories but first in stolen bases and walks. In fact they had 611 walks and only 615 strikeouts for the season (and if you exclude pitchers they actually walked more than they struck out), which helped them to second in OBP. The pitching was also bad. The staff consistently finished about sixth in most categories coming in high in shutouts (3rd) and having the third lowest walk total. Even Hilda Chester might have had trouble rooting for this team.

But a couple of significant changes occurred. First, Dolph Camilli came over from Philadelphia. He posted 24 home runs and 100 RBIs, both of which easily led the team. His 118 walks also led the team (as did his 101 strikeouts). His OPS and OPS+ also led the Dodgers, while his WAR was second on the team (but first among position players). He replaced Bud Hassett at first, but Hassett moved to the outfield replacing Heinie Manush (who got into 17 games), so effectively Camilli replaced Manush. Manush hit for a much higher average in 1937 than did Camilli in 1938, but had only about half the WAR and drove in 73 with four home runs. The other big infield change saw Leo Durocher take over at short. Durocher’s numbers weren’t better than Woody English who’d held down shortstop in 1937, but Durocher became team captain and brought a new competitive attitude to the team. Also in the infield Cookie Lavagetto moved from second to third and John Hudson replaced him at second. Lavagetto replaed Joe Stripp making Hudson essentially Stripp’s replacement. Hudson’s OPS+ and WAR weren’t very good, but they were better than Stripp.

The outfield was entirely different. The aforementioned Hassett was now on one corner. Goody Rosen took another and former college football standout Ernie Koy had the final position. Koy almost hit .300 and his 11 home runs were second on the team, as were the 76 RBIs.

The bench was long in 1938. Merv Shea and Gilly Campbell were the backup catchers while former backup Roy Spencer got into only 16 games. The 1937 starting shortstop Woody English now rode the pine and Pete Coscaret was pushing Hudson for more time at second. Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler was, along with Tuck Stainback, the primary backup outfielder. He was 39 but could still hit in the .270s. Other than Cuyler they didn’t do much.

The battery consisted of Babe Phelps behind the plate and nine primary pitchers. Phelps hit .300 with no power and 1.7 WAR (that was eighth on the team). The primary starters were three holdovers from 1937: Luke Hamlin, Fred Fitzsimmons, and Van Mungo (of Van Lingle Mungo song fame). Fitzsimmons’ 4.4 WAR led the team and Hamlin’s 3.4 was third. The new guy was Bill Posedel who poured kerosene on an already combustible staff by going 8-9 with an ERA north of five. The bullpen (those with 20 or more games pitched) saw Fred Frankhouse as a leftover from 1937 and Tot Presnell, Vito Tamulis, and Max Butcher as the new guys. Both Tamulis and Presnell posted ERA+ number above 100.

Part of the problem lay with manager Burleigh Grimes. Essentially everyone knew he was a lame duck and his authority in the clubhouse waned. He’d been a good pitcher for a long time (eventually making the Hall of Fame) but wasn’t much of a manager. He came immediately into conflict with Durocher who, it was assumed, was manager-in-waiting. It didn’t help team chemistry.

There was one significant off field addition also. In 1939 Larry McPhail became President and General Manager of the Dodgers. He would change the culture of the team greatly.

So where were we when 1938 came to a close? Much of the infield was in place. Camilli was at first and Lavagetto at third. Both were playing well. Durocher was at short, but would leave the position after the end of the season to become manager. Neither the 1941 outfielders nor the catcher were yet in place. The pitching staff was beginning to add the first parts of the pennant winning group in holdovers Fitzsimmons and Hamlin, but the mainstays of the 1941 staff were still missing. Much of this would change in 1939, making it a key year in the rebuilding process.

 

Building a Winner: Bad

November 18, 2015
Leo Durocher while with Brooklyn

Leo Durocher while with Brooklyn

There are a lot of ways to construct a winning team. You can create it internally through a farm system. You can trade for the right players. You can out right buy players from another team. In the last 50 or so years you can go through the free agent market. And of course you can use any combination of these to build your team. I want to take something of an extended look at how one team did it.

As a Dodgers fan I’m much more familiar with their doings than with other teams, so it’s reasonable for me to look at how the Dodgers built a winning team. In this case I’m going to single out the 1941 Brooklyn team that got to a World Series, then faltered, but laid the foundation for the team that was generally in contention through the remainder of the team’s time in Brooklyn (1957).

To start, here’s the main part of the roster of the pennant winning 1941 team. Infield (first around to third): Dolf Camilli, Billy Herman, PeeWee Reese, Cookie Lavagetto. Outfield: Pete Reiser, Joe Medwick, Dixie Walker. The catcher was Mickey Owen. Starting pitchers (guys with double figure starts): Kirby Higbe, Whit Wyatt, Curt Davis, Fred Fitzsimmons, Luke Hamlin. The bullpen (guys with 20 or more appearances from the pen): Hugh Casey and Mace Brown (and Casey also had double figure starts). And the bench (guys with 50 or more games played): Lew Riggs (primarily a 3rd baseman), Pete Coscarart (primarily a 2nd baseman), Herman Franks (a catcher), and Jim Wasdell (and outfielder). The manager is Leo Durocher. Keep all those names in mind as we go through the process of putting this team together. These are the guys we’re ultimately looking for in order to create a winning team.

Now here’s a look at the same team in 1937. The order is the same (infield, outfield, catcher, starters, bullpen, bench, manager): Bud Haslett, Lavagetto, Woody English, Joe Stripp, Heinie Manush, Tom Winsett, John Cooney, Babe Phelps, Max Butcher, Hamlin, Fred Frankhouse, Waite Hoyt, Van Mungo, Fitzsimmons, Roy Henshaw, George Jeffcoat, Jim Lindsey, Gibby Black (outfield), Jim Butcher (2nd, 3rd, and outfield), Roy Spencer (catcher), Lindsay Brown (Short). Burleigh Grimes is the manager.

The ’37 Dodgers finished sixth of eight teams in the National League. They were 62-91, 33.5 games out of first and 17.5 out of fifth place. They finished sixth in batting average, OBP, OPS, runs, and hits; seventh in slugging; dead last in home runs. At least they were third in stolen bases (all of 69) and second in doubles. The pitching was worse. They were seventh in ERA, runs, earned runs, complete games (which meant a lot more in 1937 than it does today, and last in shutouts. At fourth in strikeouts, they managed to get into the top half of the National League. And to top it off they were dead last in fielding percentage. In short, the Daffiness Boys stunk up the place.

Five years later they won the NL pennant. A lot of things changed. But a few things remained. Off the 1937 squad, Cookie Lavagetto remained. He’d moved from second to third. Although many of his traditional stats had regressed, he maintained an OPS+ of 110 (down one point from 1937) and his WAR (BBREF version) moved from 2.5 to 2.7. Luke Hamlin was still around also. His ERA was up, his wins down, his ERA+ was down 25 points, and his WAR had gone from 3.4 to a negative. Fitzsimmons was also there. By 1941 his ERA and ERA+ were much better although his WAR was unchanged. So even the holdovers from 1937, especially Hamlin, weren’t doing much to help the team make its five-year rise. To do well, an entire overhaul needed to occur. In the next few posts I want to look at that overhaul.

A Bad Century: The Nadir (Older than the Rockies)

May 7, 2012

Riggs Stephenson, Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, and KiKi Cuyler in 1929

Most people might tell you that the failure to win a pennant since 1945 is the nadir of the Chicago Cubs’ “Bad Century”. Others might pick the long list of last place finishes as their nadir. And In one sense they’d both be right. But for my money I pick 1929 because of the way in which the Cubs lost an available championship. Somehow that’s more awful than simply finishing last. Anybody can finish last, but to blow an entire World Series in two innings takes Cubs-like effort.

After losing the 1918 World Series, the Cubs became also rans in the National League, falling back into the pack for a decade. By 1929, they’d righted the ship, found a way back to a pennant and under manager Joe McCarthy (yes, the same McCarthy who would lead the Yankees through the 1930s) had a chance to pickup a championship. It was a solid team consisting of an infield of Charlie Grimm at first, Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby, Woody English at short, and third sacker Norm McMillan. The outfield had Riggs Stephenson in left and Hall of Famers Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler in center and right. Gabby Hartnett was the normal catcher, but arm injuries limited him to pinch hit duties in the Series, so Zack Taylor took his place behind the plate. Hornsby and Wilson tied for the team lead with 39 home runs, and Wilson led the NL in RBIs with 159 while Cuyler had 43 stolen bases to cop the league crown. The staff consisted of  ace Pat Malone, Sheriff Blake, Guy Bush, and Charlie Root (not yet infamous for throwing Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in 1932). They were all right-handed, gave up  more hits than they had innings pitched, and both Blake and Bush walked more men than they struck out. So the pitching was a bit of a problem, but Bush did lead the NL in saves with eight.

In 1929 they faced Connie Mack’s resurgent Philadelphia Athletics, whose losing streak went back even farther than Chicago’s. The A’s hadn’t won a pennant since 1914, but had won a World series in 1913, five years after the last Cubs victory. The 1929 Series could be seen as redemption for one team or the other.

With Lefty Grove as the staff ace, everyone expected Mack to start him in game one. The A’s skipper opted instead for Howard Ehmke. Ehmke was 35 and in the words of one wit “older than the Rockies.” He’d started eight games all season (11 total games pitched), was 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA and 20 total strikeouts. Not bad, but not Lefty Grove. What Ehmke had going for him was great command of the strike zone and a fastball that topped out at about Jaime Moyer level. Ehmke had never been a blazing fastball pitcher, but now he was, to put it as nicely as I can, slow. But for Mack that was exactly the point. The Cubs were notorious fastball hitters and free swingers (for the era). Mack reasoned that the Chicago batters would be too impatient to wait on Ehmke’s “fast” ball.
The game was played in Chicago on 8 October and for six innings Ehmke and Cubs starter Root matched shutouts. Both men were pitching well, Ehmke was simply mowing down (can you “mow down” a batter with a slow fastball?) Chicago hitter after Chicago hitter and Root had given up only two hits. In the top of the seventh, with one out, Jimmie Foxx crushed a ball that put the A’s up 1-0.  That held up until the ninth. In the top of the ninth with the bases loaded on a single and consecutive errors, Bing Miller singled to drive home two runs. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally got to Ehmke, picking up one unearned run on an error and a single. Then Ehmke closed the door by striking out the final man to preserve the A’s 3-1 win.

Root had pitched well, so had reliever Bush, but Ehmke was the story of the game. He gave up the one unearned run, scattered eight hits, walked one, and in what had to be utter vindication for Mack, struck out 13 Cubs. It was a record for a World Series game that lasted to 1953 (Carl Erskine got 14 k’s). And remember that Ehmke had only 20 strikeouts for the entire regular season.

So the Cubs were down 0-1 with another game at home. The World Series had started badly, but it was still possible to save it and bring home a championship to Chicago. But, of course, this is the Cubs we’re talking about.

Twice

April 17, 2012

Johnny Vander Meer about 1940

Baseball is full of obscure records and feats. Some of those records and feats are accomplished by the greats of the game, others by players who had one moment in the sun. Johnny Vander Meer is one of the latter.

Vander Meer was a left-handed starter for Cincinnati in the 1930s and 1940s. He was known as one of those scatter-armed lefties who could throw the ball through a brick wall, but you needed to make it a pretty big brick wall because it was anybody’s guess where the ball would impact the wall. His rookie year was 1937. He went 3-5 with an ERA of 3.84 in 19 games (10 starts). He struck out 52 in 84 innings, but walked 69. By June 1938 he was trudging along on the way to a 15-10 record with 103 walks and 125 strikeouts. On Sunday, 11 June, with a record of 5-2, he got the start in an afternoon home game. By the end of the game, he’d thrown an absolute jewel.

He faced the Boston Bees (now the Braves) and he shut them out. In fact, he no-hit them. He faced 28 total batters, walked three (including Woody English), stuck out four (including Vince DiMaggio) and used a couple of double plays to get out of two of the walk situations. All in all it was a great performance. It was the first no-no of the season and only the sixth of the decade of the 1930s. There were to be only two more for the remainder of the decade.

One of those came four nights later in Brooklyn. Vander Meer. now 6-2, again took the mound for the Reds. This time he shutdown the Dodgers in the first night game in Ebbets Field history. He wasn’t quite as good that night. This time he walked eight and struck out seven. Hall of Fame outfielder Kiki Cuyler got two of the walks and first baseman Dolf Camilli was issued three. But the Reds lit up four Dodgers pitchers for six runs (including a three run home run by first baseman Frank McCormick).

Vander Meer became an instant celebrity. No one had even thrown consecutive no-hitters. No one has done it since. It remains a unique moment in baseball lore. He won his next game (also against Boston) 14-1, giving up four hits, walking seven and striking out two. He managed to reach 10-2 before taking his next loss against Chicago on 10 July (he lost 3-1). As mentioned above, he finished 10-5, and made the All Star Game for the first time. He started, got the win, gave up one hit and struck out one. At the end of the season, Cincinnati finished fourth. They would make the World Series in 1939, win it in 1940, then slip back into the pack.

Vander Meer didn’t do much in either 1939 or 1940. He had good years in 1941, ’42, and ’43, winning three straight strikeout titles (and leading the National League in walks in ’43). He went off to war in 1944 and 1945, came back to Cincy, had one more decent year in 1948, then was out of the Major Leagues after a one game stint with Cleveland in 1951. He played minor league ball for a while, including throwing a no-hitter in 1952, then retired.

His record was 119-121 with an ERA of 3.44 (ERA+ of 107), 1132 walks, and 1294 strikeouts. So he was never a great pitcher. Well, except for those two nights in June 1938, when he was arguably the greatest ever.

Hit Sign, Win Suit

May 29, 2010

Abe Stark (center)

If baseball has a cathedral, it’s Yankee Stadium. But for most of the first half of the Twentieth Century there was a second one that was almost as famous. It was in Brooklyn and called Ebbets Field. It was home of the Dodgers and home of some of the quirkiest people who ever graced a ballpark. Hilda Chester may be the most famous, but Abe Stark was the more significant. 

Stark was born in 1893, became a tailor, and in 1915 opened a clothing store at 1514 Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. The store did well and Stark made money. There is dispute about how much of a baseball fan he really was. Some claim he was an entrepreneur who saw a way to make a buck, others say he was a fan and saw an opening on the stadium wall. 

Whatever the reason, in 1931 Stark bought space on the outfield wall of Ebbets Field. There was an open space just below the right-center scoreboard. Stark stuck his sign there. It read, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”  The deal was that if a player hit the sign on the fly he would win a suit. There’s a lot of disagreement about how often the sign was hit. Some sources indicate almost never, others say a few times a year. There’s universal agreement that Mel Ott of the Giants did it first. There was, of course, a running joke that the Dodgers had two right fielders, the current holder of the job and Stark who stood in front of his sign to ward off hits. (Didn’t happen.) 

Apparently the official scorer would inform Stark anytime the sign was hit and at the end of the season, or the last time the opposing player was in town during the season, the lucky guy could pick up his suit. If he hit the sign more than once, he got more than one suit. The player didn’t get a top-of-the-line suit, but got a fairly inexpensive one (I’m trying not to call it a “cheap suit”). In Bob McGee’s The Greatest Ballpark Ever (certainly worth a read) there’s a story by the infielder Woody English to the effect that he won three suits, didn’t like the looks of the ones he was offered and agreed to take one suit of much better quality.  One story states that Stark was so grateful for Carl Furillo’s work in saving him money that he gave him a pair of pants as a gift for being a great right fielder. I couldn’t find any comment from Furillo acknowledging it ever really happened. 

The sign made Stark famous. In 1954 he was elected President of the New York City Council and served in the job until 1961, ironically the period when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He closed the store in 1959, two years after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. In 1962 he was elected President of the Borough of Brooklyn, holding the job until 1970. He died two years later. 

Stark’s name is still around in Brooklyn. A school is named for him, as is a senior center and a skating facility. Not bad for a guy most famous for a sign in a ballpark. 

BTW–the woman in the picture above is Dorothy Hamill, later Olympic figure skating champion.