May 4, 2013
I realize this game has been written about quite a few times over the past 81 years, so my goal here is to try to add something to the discussion. The game and performance in question is the Athletics at Cleveland, July 10, 1932, when Eddie Rommel pitched 17 innings in relief (!) and set records that will surely never be broken for most batters faced as a relief pitcher (87), most hits allowed in a game (29) and most runs allowed by a winning pitcher (14).
My thanks to Norman L. Macht, whose article in the Society for American Baseball Research‘s 2008 publication “Batting Four Thousand: Baseball in the Western Reserve” (not available online) is the most thorough contemporary piece I have found about the game. Norman told me the Cleveland newspaper had the play-by-play of the game (which is not yet available through Retrosheet), which led me to find that the digital archives of the Cleveland Plain Dealer are online (for a fee) and allowed me to add to this post.
The three factors that made Rommel’s unusual performance possible were weather, Pennsylvania’s blue laws and the Great Depression (which could share billing with Connie Mack’s frugality). Let’s tackle them one at a time before detailing Rommel’s performance.
WEATHER: The White Sox were scheduled to play a three-game series in Philadelphia on May 9, 10 and 11, but the games on the 9th and 11th were rained out. The next time the Sox were in Philly, for what was originally scheduled as a four-game series, the first game on July 6 was also rained out. That left the A’s with three home games to make up against Chicago — which they proceeded to do, over the final three days of that series, with successive doubleheaders on July 7, 8 and 9.
Meanwhile, the A’s already had a scheduled doubleheader at home against Cleveland on July 11, so they would be playing four doubleheaders in a five-day stretch.
And they would be doing so with what was in essence a seven-man pitching staff. Well, I guess it would be eight if you include Irv Stein, who made his one and only major league appearance in the first game of the July 7 doubleheader, pitching the final three innings and giving up four runs and seven hits. Stein went on to have a long minor league career; I don’t know how much longer he was with the A’s after his one appearance.
The shortage of pitchers led A’s manager Connie Mack to do some things we would consider unusual today. For instance, George Earnshaw was pulled after giving up five runs in the first two innings of the first game on July 7, then came back to start the first game the next day and went six innings. (Earlier in the season Earnshaw had pitched two innings in relief the day after pitching a complete game.) Lefty Grove pitched the final inning of the first game on July 8 (the game Earnshaw started) to close out an A’s victory (his first appearance in three-and-a-half weeks because of a sprained ankle), then started the first game the next day and went six innings. (Grove would pitch on no days rest six times in 1932, including three more occasions later in July. He started a game on July 20, and went the distance, after having pitched in relief on each of the previous two days.)
Fortunately for him, Mack got complete games from Rube Walberg, Roy Mahaffey and Tony Freitas during the three successive doubleheaders. But the demands on his meager pitching staff would lead to a key decision he made about the game on July 10. Of course what made the situation more unusual was…
PENNSYLVANIA’S BLUE LAWS: The A’s, Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates were prohibited from playing home games on Sundays under Pennsylvania’s blue laws that were repealed for the 1934 season. But with Sunday games typically drawing large crowds where they were played, the Pennsylvania teams could ill afford financially to be idle for the day, and of course none of the other major league teams wanted to miss out on a Sunday payday either. So the Pennsylvania teams would travel to play out of state on Sundays, even in the middle of a homestand.
On five occasions in 1932 the A’s played a road game on a Sunday when they had games scheduled both the day before and the day after in Philadelphia. Those games were:
|April 17 at Washington|
|May 8 at Cleveland|
|May 15 at Detroit|
|July 10 at Cleveland|
|July 17 at Detroit|
The A’s did play a long homestand from August 16 through September 3 that saw them idle on both Sundays, August 21 and August 28. I checked the American League’s preseason schedule and the A’s were not scheduled to play either of those days.
So after playing a doubleheader on July 9, the A’s took a train to Cleveland to play on July 10 and then took a train back to Philadelphia to play on July 11. That brings us to the third factor that led to the unusual events of July 10…
THE GREAT DEPRESSION: If the Sunday game on July 10 had been the start of a road trip, then of course the entire team would have traveled together. But money was tight. Why haul the whole group to play a single game? Why pay to transport and feed players who weren’t going to play in the game anyway? Why not let them just stay at home in Philadelphia, on their own dime?
So Connie Mack — who, of course, owned the A’s in addition to managing them — apparently took only 11 players with him to Cleveland for the July 10 game, the nine players who would start the game plus an extra catcher and an extra pitcher. I don’t know how many players Mack typically took on these one-game Sunday road trips, but no more than 11 players and no more than two pitchers appeared in any of the other such games played in 1932. Norman Macht wrote, in his article I referred to earlier, it was customary for players not expected to play in these single-game road trips to not travel.
I say Mack “apparently” took only 11 players. I’ve read a number of recent sources that make that claim, and certainly only 11 men played in the game. But there’s a line that strikes me as curious in Sam Otis’ game story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wrote about Rommel’s extended performance on the mound, “None of the surplus f[l]ingers on the bench seemed as likely to check the Indians as old man Rommel himself.” That implies there were additional players on hand who could have pitched. I would dearly love to know if that is true.
Mack wasn’t really in a position to use more than two pitchers in the July 10 game anyway. Walberg and Mahaffey were scheduled to start in the doubleheader on July 11. Freitas had pitched nine innings on July 9; Grove had pitched on July 8 and July 9, a total of seven innings. And Earnshaw had pitched on July 7 and July 8, a total of eight innings. Now I don’t know if Irv Stein could have been considered or not, but aside from him Mack had just two other pitchers: Lew Krausse and Eddie Rommel.
The 20-year-old Krausse (who was not yet Lew Krausse Sr.; his son Lew Jr. would be born in 1943 and would go on to pitch in the major leagues as well) would be Mack’s starting pitcher on July 10, three days after he had pitched four innings of relief. It would be just his second start of the season (and the third of his major league career); he had pitched more than one inning in a game just five times in 1932 up to that point. He was the closest thing to a rested pitcher the A’s had (again, excluding the mysterious Stein). Rommel had pitched two innings of relief on July 8 and three innings of relief on July 9, so one might not think Mack was expecting to use him much on July 10…but, as we will see later, Mack had a history of using Rommel in unusual ways. (Rommel would exaggerate the story in later years, claiming he had pitched four innings on the 8th and six innings on the 9th. He also said he pitched batting practice and hit fungoes before the game on the 10th, which is likely true.)
The 34-year-old Rommel had twice led American League pitchers in wins in his younger days, posting a 27-13 record for the A’s in 1922 and going 21-10 in 1925, and he entered the 1932 season with 170 career wins and a .592 lifetime winning percentage. But as the A’s kept acquiring talented pitchers later in the ’20s, Rommel was reduced to a role as a spot starter and occasional reliever. When the A’s played in three consecutive World Series from 1929-31 Rommel made just two appearances, both times coming in with the A’s behind and pitching just one inning (although he got the win in one of those games after being lifted for a pinch-hitter during the A’s 10-run rally that overcame an 8-0 deficit in Game 4 of the 1929 Series). By 1932 he was an afterthought; prior to the July 10 game he had pitched just 11 games on the season, all in relief, a total of 20-1/3 innings (five of them in the previous two days), with no wins and a 6.64 ERA.
The A’s still had hopes for a fourth consecutive pennant as they opened play in Cleveland on July 10, as they were in second place, seven-and-a-half games behind the Yankees. And they got off to a strong start, scoring twice in the top of the first as future Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx singled in one run and a second scored on an error by Cleveland pitcher Clint Brown. But the Indians moved in front before Krausse retired a batter in the bottom of the inning; Dick Porter and Johnny Burnett opened with singles, and another future Hall of Famer, Earl Averill, followed with a three-run homer. Krausse gave up another single and a walk before the inning was over but escaped further damage.
Krausse batted in the top of the second with one out and nobody on, striking out. But he stayed in the dugout in the bottom of the second, as Rommel took the mound in his place. Until I saw confirmation in the Plain Dealer play-by-play that Rommel started the inning, I figured Krausse must have gotten into trouble in the second inning before being relieved. Why in the world would Connie Mack bring in his only relief pitcher in the second inning, especially when his only relief pitcher had pitched each of the previous two days?
I also figured if Mack had decided to make the pitching change to start the bottom of the inning, he would have had Rommel bat for Krausse in the top of the second, because Eddie wasn’t a bad hitter. Just the year before Mack had started Rommel in the outfield in three games; over the previous four seasons (1928-31) Rommel had hit .247, while Krausse to that point in his major league career was 1-for-12. I’ve not seen any comment from Mack about why he made the pitching change when he did. I doubt Krausse was injured since, as we will see, he pitched in both games of the next day’s doubleheader.
Perhaps if he had known the game would go 18 innings Mack would have held off bringing in Rommel…
In any event the Indians loaded the bases against Rommel in the bottom of the second before Joe Vosmik hit into an inning-ending double play. Foxx tied the score with his 31st home run of the year (in the A’s 81st game) in the third inning, then the A’s scored twice in the fourth to take a 5-3 lead (Rommel scoring the go-ahead run after reaching base on a walk).
Cleveland came back with three in the bottom of the fourth, though, to recapture the lead, and the Indians built their advantage to 8-6 after six innings. Then the A’s exploded for seven runs in the top of the seventh (scoring all their runs after there were two out with nobody on) to take a 13-8 lead, as Foxx hit another home run…only to watch the Indians score six off Rommel in the bottom of the seventh to go back in front, 14-13. During that inning Rommel intentionally let a popped-up bunt fall to the ground in an attempt to get a double play but then made a wild throw for the A’s only error of the game, and one of the runs was unearned as a result.
Wes Ferrell — who had already won 16 games on the season for Cleveland, with the schedule barely half finished — had come on to pitch for the Indians in the seventh after Brown was replaced by Willis Hudlin, who in turn was pulled after walking the only two batters he faced. Ferrell had pitched a complete game just two days before and would go on to pitch 11-2/3 innings in relief in this one. Cleveland was almost as hard up for pitching as the A’s, having played doubleheaders on July 7 and 9 and a single game on July 8. I don’t know if the Indians had brought any more pitchers with them for this game; they had played a doubleheader in Washington the day before and were scheduled to play the A’s again in Philadelphia the next day, so perhaps they sent some of their players directly to Philadelphia rather than pay for trips to Cleveland and back.
Ferrell looked like he would record his 17th win after he retired the first two batters to face him in the top of the ninth. That’s when Cleveland first baseman Eddie Morgan let what was described as an easy roller off the bat of Philadelphia’s Jimmy Dykes go through his legs. (Harold Kaese wrote in the Boston Globe years later that Dykes said he was so convinced he would be put out to end the game that he ran to first carrying his bat.) Al Simmons then drew a walk and Foxx drove in both runners to put the A’s back on top, 15-14. Foxx’s hit is listed in the Plain Dealer play-by-play and in the Associated Press game stories I’ve seen as a single, yet Simmons scored from first. The box score shows Foxx hitting a double in the game, but the play-by-play doesn’t show any of his hits as a double. I suspect this hit was eventually ruled a double.
Cleveland’s Willie Kamm doubled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, then Rommel retired the next two batters to find himself — like Ferrell in the top of the inning — one out away from winning the game. But Johnny Burnett singled, his sixth hit of the day, to score Kamm and tie the game. A’s second baseman Dib Williams knocked down Burnett’s hit and, after fumbling the ball, threw home too late to catch Kamm. Averill followed with a single, sending Burnett to third, but A’s right fielder Mule Haas prevented the Indians from winning the game by catching Joe Vosmik’s line drive for the third out. Plain Dealer sports editor Sam Otis, in his game story, wrote, “Haas raced over to his left, lunged, pocketed the ball, somersaulted and came up with it to retire the side and send the game overtime.”
The teams would go on to play the equivalent of another game. But after combining for 30 runs in the first nine innings, the teams would total just five runs in the next nine.
Rommel and Ferrell each held their opponent scoreless from the 10th inning through the 15th. The Indians had two great chances to win the game during that time; they loaded the bases with one out in the 11th but Vosmik hit into a 4-2-3 double play, then Morgan was thrown out at home trying to score on Bill Cissell’s single in the 12th. The A’s got a man to third base with one out in both the 12th and 15th innings but failed to bring him home.
Then in the top of the 16th Foxx hit his third homer of the game (he would finish the season with 58), a two-run shot, to put the A’s in front 17-15…but Cleveland scored two of their own in the bottom of the inning to keep the game going. That makes five times in the game the Indians came back to tie or take the lead after falling behind. Mule Haas ended the bottom of the 16th with another notable catch, described as a leaping one-handed stab at the wall of a drive by Cissell that could have brought home the winning run from first base.
In the top of the 18th, after the first two A’s were retired, Foxx singled and came home to score when the next batter, shortstop Eric McNair, got credit for a double on a ball that (according to writer Harold Kaese, quoting Ferrell) bounced over the head of third baseman Kamm and then over the head of left fielder Vosmik. (Believe it or not, 16 of the A’s 18 runs in the game scored with two out.) Rommel retired the Indians in order in the bottom of the inning, striking out Morgan for the final out, and at last the game was over, at 7:06 p.m., after four hours and five minutes of what the Plain Dealer proclaimed in the next day’s front page to be “the greatest ball game in history.”
The Plain Dealer account doesn’t mention McNair’s hit bouncing over Kamm, but the hop past Vosmik was the focus of Sam Otis’ game story:
Out beyond the edges of a deepening shadow that had eked its way almost to the distant left field barrier of League Park — out in the lone patch of sunlight lingering to pester an unfortunate fielder — a crashing ground smash yesterday took a pesky hop into the setting rays of Old Sol to give the Philadelphia Athletics an eighteen-inning triumph over a never-say-die band of Indians in the most dramatic diamond struggle in Cleveland history. The score was 18 to 17….
That bad bouncing ball, hopping over the suddenly upturned arms of Joe Vosmik directly in the glare of the sun, virtually wrote finis to a game that had seen a series of most unusual thrills…
I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that Rommel got stronger as the game went along, but at least he got better results. At least one batter reached base in each of the first 12 innings Rommel pitched (at least two batters in 10 of them), but he retired the side in order in three of the last five innings and allowed just a walk in one other. Perhaps the Cleveland batters were even more tired than Rommel. Twenty of the hits off Rommel came in his first eight innings of work.
The A’s only other substitute on hand (we think), catcher Ed Madjeski, entered the game during the bottom of the seventh inning after the first four Cleveland batters got hits. He replaced Johnny Heving; the A’s regular catcher, Mickey Cochrane, had been left home to rest. After that Rommel had no choice but to stay in the game as there was no one to replace him (we think). Of course, Mack might have moved Rommel to the outfield, where, as was mentioned earlier, he had played the year before (more details about that soon). Perhaps Foxx, a strong-armed former catcher, could have been used to pitch; he did see time on the mound later in his career, pitching a perfect inning of relief for the Red Sox in 1939, then pitched in nine games, starting two (and winning one of them), in his final season in the majors with the Phillies in 1945. His major league career ERA was 1.52.
Rommel pitched 17 innings on July 10, faced 87 batters (meaning he pitched through the order nine times and went six batters into a tenth time through the order), allowed 29 hits, nine walks and 14 runs (13 earned). He struck out seven (two of them in the 18th inning) and threw two wild pitches. He also had three singles (one of four three-hit games in his career) and walked once in eight trips to the plate, scoring two runs and driving in one.
The Indians’ 33 hits (including four off Krausse) remains the major league single-game record; the 58 hits for the teams combined remains a single-game record; and Cleveland shortstop Johnny Burnett still holds the individual single-game record with nine hits (in 11 at-bats, seven singles and two doubles). Hall of Famer Foxx had six hits (two singles, a double and three homers) for 16 total bases to tie what was then the major league single-game record. It wasn’t broken until 1950, and it remained the American League mark until Josh Hamilton had four home runs and a double in a game in 2012.
Norman Macht wrote that Rommel’s nine walks allowed was a record for a relief pitcher, but it was not. That record is held by another pitcher of Connie Mack’s, Carl Ray, who walked 12 Tigers in a seven-inning relief stint in 1916, his fifth and final appearance in the major leagues. There were a total of 30 walks in that game, six issued by Ray’s predecessors for the A’s and 12 by the Detroit hurlers.
I’ve not found any comments Rommel made about his 17-inning outing at the time, but years later he told the Boston Globe’s Harold Kaese about the effect it had on him. “I didn’t throw a ball for the next three days,” Kaese quoted Rommel as saying in his January 29, 1957 story. “I couldn’t raise my arm over my head. I never was so stiff and sore.”
The win was Rommel’s first of the season and the last of his major league career. It would be nearly six weeks before he pitched again, and then it was another marathon relief appearance. On August 20, A’s starter George Earnshaw gave up two hits and two walks to the first four White Sox batters and got the hook. Rommel came on and pitched eight innings, facing “only” 33 batters. He pitched in just four games after that, including long relief appearances on consecutive days: 5-2/3 innings on September 4 followed by 7-2/3 innings on September 5.
It’s worth mentioning that Rommel was known as primarily a knuckleball pitcher, which may have reduced the wear and tear on his arm, but he was used in ways that are highly unusual even for a knuckleballer. Connie Mack seemingly had the idea that Rommel could pitch any time for any length of time.
Thanks to SABR member Tom Ruane for pointing this out, in his Retro-Review of the 1930s on Retrosheet.org (all of Tom’s Retro-Reviews are highly recommended reading): On September 6, 1931, Rommel pitched a complete game in beating the Red Sox, 5-3, in Boston. The next day, in the first game of a Labor Day doubleheader in New York, the first eleven Yankee batters reached base (eight via walk); Mack replaced starter Roy Mahaffey after five batters, yanked reliever Hank McDonald after four batters, then pulled Jim Peterson after he walked the only two men he faced. The fourth pitcher of the inning — still with nobody out — was Rommel, who had pitched a complete game the day before. And Rommel went the rest of the way in this one, pitching nine innings, facing 42 batters and allowing 14 hits in a 15-3 New York win. Then in the second game of the doubleheader, Rommel played a complete game in left field, as he did each of the next two days…probably the oddest four-day stretch of player usage in major league history.
Earlier in the 1931 season Mack had used Rommel in relief on four consecutive days (June 22-25), pitching a total of 9-2/3 innings. Later in September Rommel pitched two innings of relief in the first game of a September 14 doubleheader, then hurled a complete game victory the next day.
Going back to 1928, Rommel started and pitched seven shutout innings against the Red Sox on September 7, then pitched in relief the next day and came out of the bullpen in both games of a doubleheader the following day. Over three days he pitched 12 innings in four games (the A’s played a doubleheader each day). An earlier iron man performance came in 1925; Rommel pitched a complete game to defeat the Yankees on May 29, then picked up another win the next day when he pitched the last five innings of a 14-inning game in the second game of a doubleheader. On August 16, 1924 Rommel started both games of a doubleheader at home against Cleveland, pitching a 12-hitter to win the first game then going the first five innings of the second contest (although the box score looks wrong, if Rommel actually did pitch five innings he should have allowed five runs; the box score as published in The Sporting News says Rommel was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth and the line score indicates Cleveland had scored five runs).
But to see some really unusual usage, go back to Rommel’s big 27-win season in 1922. He started 33 games, completing 22, and frequently made relief appearances between starts. Twice, on June 27 and July 11, he started the first game of a doubleheader, pitched in relief in the second game, and was the winning pitcher in both games. On three other occasions he pitched in relief the day after pitching a complete game; on one of those occasions he had pitched in relief on each of the two days BEFORE pitching the complete game, then pitched in relief again the day after the complete game (June 8-11). To end the season, Rommel started the first game of a doubleheader on September 28 and was knocked out after an inning, came on the next day in the 12th inning of the first game of a doubleheader, gave up a run, then got the win when the A’s scored twice in the bottom of the inning, then the next day in the final game of the season (the second game of yet another doubleheader) pitched a complete game 17-hitter for his 27th win.
Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, I compiled a list of the most batters faced in a game by a relief pitcher dating back to 1916 when their database begins. You’ll notice Rommel’s name appears twice:
|1||Eddie Rommel||1932-07-10||PHA||CLE||W 18-17||17.0||29||14||13||9||7||87|
|2||Elmer Jacobs||1917-08-22||PIT||BRO||L 5-6||16.2||17||1||1||3||1||66|
|3||Tom Sheehan||1924-08-18||CIN||NYG||W 8-7||15.2||11||3||2||7||8||63|
|4||Leon Cadore||1921-05-30 (2)||BRO||BSN||L 5-6||14.1||9||3||3||3||6||55|
|5||Eddie Rommel||1923-04-27||PHA||WSH||T 10-10||11.2||14||6||4||4||2||54|
In that 1923 game, A’s starter Walk Kinney faced just five batters, retiring one, before Rommel came on to relieve him, and Eddie went the rest of the way in a game that was called by darkness after 12 innings. Rommel also pitched at least 13 innings as a starting pitcher four times, including a 15-inning game in 1925 in which he went the distance despite allowing eight runs. And he was on the losing end of the longest-ever Opening Day shutout, giving up a run in the bottom of the 15th to lose a 1-0 duel with Walter Johnson on April 13, 1926.
One name on that list above you may recognize is Leon Cadore, who the year before his 14-1/3-inning relief appearance set the all-time record by pitching to 96 batters in a 26-inning game. His mound opponent that day, Joe Oeschger, also went the distance, facing 90 batters, and he shows up on another list topped by Rommel: most hits allowed in a game (again, since 1916).
|1||Eddie Rommel||1932-07-10||PHA||CLE||W 18-17||17.0||29||14||13||9||7|
|2||Hod Lisenbee||1936-09-11||PHA||CHW||L 2-17||8.0||26||17||14||4||1|
|T3||Ted Lyons||1929-05-24||CHW||DET||L 5-6||21.0||24||6||6||2||4|
|T3||Joe Oeschger||1919-04-30||PHI||BRO||T 9-9||20.0||24||9||8||4||2|
|5||Jeff Pfeffer||1919-06-01||BRO||PHI||L 9-10||18.0||23||10||7||3||6|
Oeschger is the only major leaguer (at least since 1916) to pitch 20 or more innings in a game twice — and both games ended in ties. Hod Lisenbee’s 26-hitter (pitching for Connie Mack) was a complete game, as the A’s were on the road so the victorious White Sox did not bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Rommel is the only pitcher on that list of most hits allowed in a game who was the winning pitcher. Let’s take a look at his competition in this list, most hits allowed as a winning pitcher (also since 1916):
|1||Eddie Rommel||1932-07-10||PHA||CLE||W 18-17||17.0||29||14||13||9||7|
|T2||Syl Johnson||1930-06-03||STL||PHI||W 11-10||8.1||20||9||9||0||5|
|T2||Lefty Grove||1929-08-14||PHA||CLE||W 5-3||17.0||20||3||3||4||8|
|T4||Mort Cooper||1944-09-24 (1)||STL||PHI||W 4-3||16.0||19||3||3||5||7|
|T4||Dizzy Dean||1936-05-31||STL||CIN||W 8-7||12.0||19||7||6||2||7|
|T4||Ernie Wingard||1925-05-31||SLB||CHW||W 15-11||9.0||19||11||10||1||0|
And while we’re at it, how about most runs allowed as a winning pitcher (yes, since 1916):
|1||Eddie Rommel||1932-07-10||PHA||CLE||W 18-17||17.0||29||14||13||9||7|
|2||Gene Packard||1918-08-03 (1)||STL||PHI||W 16-12||8.1||15||12||12||3||3|
|T3||Bill Beckmann||1941-05-04||PHA||CHW||W 17-11||7.0||11||11||9||3||2|
|T3||Thornton Lee||1938-09-28||CHW||CLE||W 14-11||9.0||16||11||11||6||3|
|T3||Buck Ross||1938-08-16||PHA||BOS||W 14-11||8.2||13||11||10||3||5|
|T3||Jack Knott||1936-09-02||SLB||PHA||W 13-11||9.0||12||11||11||7||2|
|T3||Pete Donohue||1928-06-02||CIN||BSN||W 20-12||6.1||14||11||11||0||0|
|T3||Ernie Wingard||1925-05-31||SLB||CHW||W 15-11||9.0||19||11||10||1||0|
It’s worth noting three of the pitchers on that list (Rommel, Bill Beckmann and Buck Ross) got there pitching for Connie Mack, who is probably worth a full-fledged study of all the unusual pitching decisions he made. He let more than his share of guys just get hammered on the mound, especially in the A’s lean years. I’m willing to wager a disproportionate number of the ugliest/weirdest pitcher box score lines were in games Mack managed.
One record Rommel did not set on July 10 was most innings pitched in a game in relief. That honor still belongs to George Washington “Zip” Zabel, who entered a game on June 17, 1915 with two outs in the first inning for the Cubs against Brooklyn and pitched the last 18-1/3 innings in a 4-3 Cubs win. The late, great SABR member Bob Davids wrote Zabel entered the game without having had a chance to warm up after starting pitcher Bert Humphries lost a fingernail on his pitching hand when he was hit by a line drive. Zabel faced “only” 78 batters in his effort.
Rommel also did not break the record for most runs allowed as a relief pitcher. Three players gave up 16 runs in a relief appearance, including a remarkable performance by Lefty O’Doul, who later won two National League batting championships after converting to the outfield. On July 7, 1923, O’Doul pitched three innings, retired just nine of the 28 Cleveland batters he faced and allowed 16 runs, although only three were earned.
And now for the coda: what happened to the A’s after the July 10 marathon. The win in Cleveland, combined with the Yankees’ doubleheader loss to the Browns, put the A’s just six games out of first. They would get no closer. The A’s actually had a better record from that point on than they had up to that point, but the Yanks played at a phenomenal .720 clip the rest of the way.
As mentioned earlier, there was a doubleheader (one that was on the original season schedule, not caused by a rainout) back in Philadelphia on Monday, July 11, against their opponent from the 10th, the Cleveland Indians. The A’s scored 15 runs and stroked 36 hits in the double dip — and lost both games. Rube Walberg went the first eight innings in the opener, giving up eight runs, then Sunday starter Lew Krausse pitched the ninth in a 9-8 loss. (Winning pitcher Jack Russell gave up all eight A’s runs on 18 hits.) In game two Roy Mahaffey, pitching on two days’ rest, struggled through seven innings, allowing 12 runs, before Krausse came on again to pitch the last two in a 12-7 defeat. (The A’s had an individual pitcher give up 14 runs and 12 runs on successive days…wow.) Mel Harder pitched a complete game 17-hitter for the victory. Think about that…Cleveland’s winning pitchers in the doubleheader gave up 18 and 17 hits.
The next day, July 12, was Lefty Grove’s turn to pitch — on two days’ rest. It didn’t help that Earnshaw, who had three days’ rest, was not available and wouldn’t pitch again for another week; I’ve not been able to find out what his situation was. Anyway, with the pitching staff depleted, Grove had to take one for the team, going all the way, facing 46 batters and allowing 18 hits, in a 7-6 loss. It was the most hits the Hall of Famer ever allowed in a nine-inning game in his career. Grove actually took a 6-5 lead into the ninth before Eddie Morgan homered to tie the game, Luke Sewell doubled and Bill Cissell drove in the winning run. And Grove still nearly won the game anyway, but Joe Vosmik made a running catch to end the game that robbed Doc Cramer of what had all the appearances of an extra-base hit that would have scored two runs. (An item in the next day’s Plain Dealer said Cleveland’s Dick Porter led off the game with a 14-pitch at-bat, fouling off eight pitches with a full count before drawing a walk.)
You’d think that would earn a man a little rest, but no, Grove came back again the next day in relief of Mahaffey — who was starting with one day’s rest — and pitched the final four innings, allowing two runs in the top of the tenth to take a 5-3 loss that finished a four-game series sweep by the Indians. Despite going more than three weeks without pitching in late June and early July, Grove worked a career-high 291-2/3 innings during the 1932 season, completing 27 of 30 starts and making 14 relief appearances.
My sincere thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference.com and SABR for providing the research tools that made almost all of this post possible. This game may have been mentioned in the June 1936 issue of Baseball Magazine; if you have that article, please leave a comment to let us know if there is any information there that would add to or contradict anything I’ve written.
April 9, 2013
When I was an adolescent baseball fan in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the primary way I learned about “old” baseball players was through the APBA baseball game. (“Old” in my world meant they played before 1966, when I started following baseball.) I started playing APBA in 1967, and within a few years I was buying (or, rather, my parents were buying for me) great teams of the past or full seasons from the early ’60s that APBA was closing out. I’d see guys with APBA cards I’d never heard of, I’d consult the ground-breaking Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia that came out in 1969 (another gift from my parents, bless them), and I’d learn something.
At some point in the early 1970s I acquired a photocopied set of APBA cards from the 1959 season…a lot of guys I’d never heard of. One I HAD heard of was the second baseman for the Phillies, George “Sparky” Anderson, who was then managing the Cincinnati Reds. First I was intrigued by the fact that he had played in the majors, I hadn’t known that. Then I was intrigued by what a crappy hitter he was, batting .218 with no homers.
But then, after I went to the Encyclopedia, I was really intrigued. Sparky played 152 of the Phillies’ 155 games…but he never played in the majors before that season, and he never played in the majors after that season. How was that possible? How could you be good enough that somebody let you play every day one year, and yet not be good enough to play ever again?
That thought spent almost 40 years rattling around in my brain until I read of the death of Art Mahan in December 2010. Mahan played 146 games for the Phillies in 1940, his only season in the big leagues.
That’s when I decided to put together the Sparky Anderson All-Stars…guys who played one and only one season in the major leagues. No cup of coffee the year before, no fleeting appearance the year after…just one and done. Why didn’t they get another chance?
Of course, it’s taken me more than two years to actually do this, but so be it.
One of the things that made Sparky Anderson seem so unusual to me as a teenager — and continues to make him unusual today — is that there’s been nobody remotely like him since. The only player since Anderson to play at least 100 games in his only major league season was Jesus Figueroa, but he was primarily a pinch-hitter for the 1980 Cubs, starting just 25 games. The only player since Anderson to get at least 300 plate appearances in his only major league season was Jamie Allen, but even he started just 77 games for the 1983 Mariners.
But prior to Anderson, there were a number of players who never got a second shot after playing regularly in their first season. Although none of them played as much as Sparky, who holds the record for most games played in his only season in the majors.
So here are the Sparky Anderson All-Stars: the single-season players since 1920 (my kind of arbitrary cutoff point) who have played the most games at each position, although I will exclude the World War II seasons (1942-45) because, well, things were unusual then. I’m also excluding players like Bryce Harper who debuted in 2012 as I assume all of them will be back in the majors. At the end of the article I’ll include a list of all players who have played at least 100 games in their only major league season since the start of the National League in 1876, in case you want to put together a different team. (I’d like to thank SABR member Pete Ridges for showing me how to use Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to generate the list. I’d also like to express my gratitude that SABR membership includes access to the digital archives of The Sporting News.)
FIRST BASE: Art Mahan (1940 Phillies)
Before Sparky came along, this team would have been the Art Mahan All-Stars, as it was Art’s record for most games played in a single season that Sparky broke (well, unless you count Al Boucher in the Federal League in 1914). And Mahan was quite an unlikely big leaguer, given that he wasn’t even starting for his minor league team when he went to the majors.
Mahan began his professional baseball career in 1936 after graduating from Villanova. To start the 1940 season he made the jump from Little Rock of the Southern Association, where he hit .307 in 1939, to Louisville of the American Association, but he was on the bench behind Paul Campbell, who had been the first baseman on the Colonels’ Junior World Series champion of ’39. (Campbell had also beaten out Mahan for the first base job at Little Rock in 1938.) Mahan had appeared in just four games with the Colonels, all as a pinch-hitter, when the Phillies purchased him to replace veteran Gus Suhr at first base.
What’s odd is the Phillies’ manager was Doc Prothro, who had chosen Campbell over Mahan when he managed Little Rock in 1938. And according to a story by Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Tommy Fitzgerald in the May 23, 1940, issue of The Sporting News, Prothro had tried to buy Campbell for the Phillies both during and after the 1939 season, only to be rebuffed by the Colonels.
According to Fitzgerald, the Phillies bought Mahan on a 30-day option, and the newcomer took advantage of his opportunity. He made his big league debut on April 30, stroking a single and a double, and he had three three-hit games in his first six major league appearances. And he played every game the rest of the season, starting at first base in all but one of them; in the one game he didn’t start he pitched a shutout inning of relief in a blowout loss.
But his hitting tailed off badly after his hot start, with his batting average sinking below .220 by mid-June; he was still below .230 in early September before hitting .323 in his last 25 games. He finished at .244, with two home runs and 39 RBI in 146 games, although he did lead the team in stolen bases with the grand total of four. He had the most plate appearances (591) of any player who appeared in just one season in the majors.
Later in life Mahan could laugh at his struggles at the plate. “The Augustinian priests kept telling me to have faith in the saints and to ask St. Jude for help when I would step up to bat,” he said in an interview with Philadelphia’s Catholic Standard & Times in 2010. “After trying this, it was quickly obvious that St. Jude couldn’t hit a curve ball either!” (There are a number of factual errors in the story, likely due to the fact that Mahan was 97 years old when he gave the interview, but I love the quote.)
The following February the Phils sold Mahan to Little Rock and replaced him with another Villanova alum, Nick Etten. Mahan spent the 1941 season at Little Rock, hitting just .243. After that season he enlisted in the Navy and “served as a Naval officer during World War II, training new recruits at the Quonset Point (R.I.) station while also coaching and instructing in physical education,” according to his obituary on the Villanova website.
Mahan was in professional baseball for one year after the war, as player-manager for Providence of the Class B New England League in 1946. He returned to Villanova in 1950 as baseball coach, a job he held for 23 seasons, with winning records in 20 of them. In 1961 he took on the additional job of athletic director and stayed in that post until he retired in 1978. He was married for 54 years, preceded in death by his wife, and had 11 children.
“He had a great Irish wit and found humor in everything and good in everybody,” said Larry Shane, Mahan’s successor as Villanova’s baseball coach. His son Edwin added, “I think he should go into the hall of fame for fathers.”
Honorable Mention: Dutch Schliebner hit .271 in 146 games for the Dodgers and Browns as a 32-year-old rookie in 1923…Johnny Sturm hit .239 in 124 games for the Yankees in 1941 and started all five games of the World Series. He might have played again if not for World War II; he was the first married major leaguer to be drafted, in January 1942, and reportedly lost the tip of his right index finger in a tractor accident. He was in spring training with the Yankees in 1946 but lost the first base job to Nick Etten, the same man who replaced Art Mahan with the Phillies (Etten had been the Yanks’ first baseman from 1943-45). Sturm was the last player to have more than 500 at-bats in his only major league season (again, excluding the 2012 crop)…Tony Bartirome was 19 when he debuted with the Pirates in 1952. He finished the season with no home runs and a .220 batting average in 124 games, then spent the next two seasons in military service. He played in the minors until 1963 followed by a long career as a trainer and coach.
SECOND BASE: Sparky Anderson (1959 Phillies)
In 1951 17-year-old George Anderson (not yet tagged with the nickname Sparky) had about the best year of baseball a high school kid could imagine. His team at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles had a perfect 42-0 record to win the city championship, and his Crenshaw Post American Legion team, made up of players from Dorsey and Loyola high schools, won the national championship. George was the shortstop and leadoff hitter on the Legion team, but while he was highly regarded, he was not considered the star. That recognition went to third baseman Billy Consolo, who went right to the major leagues when he signed a big bonus contract with the Red Sox after graduating from high school in 1953. (Consolo was a barber after his playing career until his old teammate Sparky hired him as a coach when he became manager of the Tigers.) Seven members of that Legion team went on to play professional baseball, including second baseman Joe Maguire, outfielder Don Kenway, catcher Bill Lachemann (whose brothers Rene and Marcel both played and managed in the majors), pitcher/center fielder/cleanup hitter Frank Layana (whose son Tim pitched in the major leagues) and pitcher Paul Schulte, who turned in a complete game victory in the national championship game.
In January 1953 Anderson and Consolo, still high school students, were among the featured speakers at a Pasadena Elks Club awards banquet and “told of their hopes,” according to an item in The Sporting News. Among the other speakers was Dick Williams, then a major league player, who would later manage against Anderson in two World Series.
After graduating from high school in 1953, Anderson turned down a partial baseball scholarship at the University of Southern California (he had been a batboy for the Trojans in his youth) to sign a minor league contract with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers for what The Sporting News later reported was a $3,000 bonus (Consolo had received a reported $60,000 from the Red Sox). He worked his way up the ladder, moving to second base in 1954 and picking up the nickname Sparky in 1955 in Fort Worth. After playing two years at the highest minor league level he was on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster in 1958, their first year in Los Angeles (a brief profile with a photo is in the Dodgers’ first-ever Los Angeles yearbook).
Sparky didn’t make the major league team that year, with Jim Gilliam and Charlie Neal ahead of him in the pecking order, and was sent back to the International League where he posted what at first glance were ordinary-looking batting statistics: a .269 average with two home runs and 78 runs scored. Yet he impressed observers enough to finish a close second in the league most valuable player voting, behind Toronto first baseman Rocky Nelson, who had merely won the league’s triple crown, batting .326 with 43 homers and 120 RBI. In a poll of league managers Anderson was named “best hustler” and “smartest player” in the league, and with only 10 errors in 155 games he tied the league record for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman. And his Royals won both the regular season pennant and league playoff. Sparky was still just 25 years old and seemed bound for the majors.
But Gilliam and Neal were still in Los Angeles, blocking Sparky’s path to the Dodgers. Two days before Christmas 1958 the Dodgers traded Anderson to the Phillies for veteran outfielder Rip Repulski and two minor league pitchers. “I’m convinced that Anderson is the best available second baseman in the minors who is ready for the majors,” Phillies general manager Roy Hamey said after the deal. “He’s definitely a [Eddie] Stanky-type guy. He takes charge on the field. I think he can help the club speed-wise, fielding-wise and he’s no automatic out at bat.”
“Day in and day out, Anderson gives you the good ball game and that is the mark of a real pro,” said his Montreal manager, Clay Bryant. “He’s developing as a hitter. he’s learned how to push the ball and how to bunt. He’s got a good eye and seldom bites at a bad one. Anderson is the pesty type and most major league second basemen are that way. George is an intelligent ball player.” Bryant compared Sparky to both Stanky and Billy Martin, also second basemen who went on to be successful managers.
But the Phillies don’t seem to have been deluded about the skills of their new second baseman. John Quinn, who succeeded Hamey as general manager a month after the trade, said Anderson was “a good defensive man and a holler guy, and the only question about him is his hitting.” Phillies’ beat writer Allan Lewis called Anderson “a none-too-robust hitter” who “apparently has everything else needed to play in the big leagues.”
It was clear hitting was going to be Sparky’s challenge. “Sure, I wish he was hitting more than he is, but I’m really not too worried about him,” Phillie manager Eddie Sawyer said late in spring training. “This may not sound reasonable but I know he’s going to hit enough to hold the job. He does everything else so well, I really believe he can hit .250 up here. In the field, there’s no question about it. He’s the best we’ve had in a long time.” The Sporting News went so far as to make Sparky the front-runner for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, if only because he was the one newcomer in the league who would have a regular job. (Midseason call-up Willie McCovey of the Giants would go on to win the honor.)
“The Phillies will be happy if he can hit .250,” Roy Terrell wrote of George in Sports Illustrated’s preview of 1959′s rookies. “For that matter, so will George.”
“I think I’m ready,” Sparky said in spring training. “I don’t know whether I’m a big leaguer or not, but I want to find out, and if I can’t do it, then I’ll be a minor leaguer for the rest of my life. It’s now or never for me.” Very prescient of Mr. Anderson, as it turned out.
Sparky delivered at the plate in his major league debut, batting leadoff. His two-out single in the eighth inning drove in the run that turned out to be the margin of victory in a 2-1 win over Cincinnati. And he followed up with a pair of two-hit games in his next three appearances. But the hits soon stopped coming and he slid to the seventh spot in the order; a 6-for-56 slump dropped his season average to .163 by mid-May, with just one extra-base hit in his first 93 at-bats. The high point for his average after that was just .222, and he finished at .218, with just 12 extra-base hits and no home runs. But manager Sawyer gave Sparky every chance, starting him in 145 of the Phillies’ 155 games.
That winter the Phillies drafted Bobby Malkmus from the Senators after he had a good year with the bat at Denver in 1959, in a clear sign the team wanted more offensive production at second base. They actually opened the season with Pancho Herrera, who won the International League triple crown in 1959 and had never played an inning at second base in his professional career, as their second baseman. He and Malkmus split the job until the Phils traded for Tony Taylor of the Cubs in May.
Late in spring training 1960 the Toronto Maple Leafs won a bidding war against International League rival Buffalo, paying $25,000 to acquire Anderson. An item in The Sporting News of April 20, 1960, said both the Toronto and Buffalo franchises were looking to strengthen their roster in anticipating of joining a proposed third major league, the Continental League, that was in the discussion process. According to Cindy Thomson’s biography of Sparky in the SABR book “Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!” (her source for this is not specified), Toronto owner Jack Kent Cooke gave Sparky a 25% raise over what he was making with the Phillies and told Sparky he planned to sell him to a major league club.
The Continental League never launched, but the American League did add two teams in 1961 and the National League added two in 1962, creating more opportunities for Sparky to return to the majors, including a new team in his hometown of Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him Sparky didn’t hit in Toronto either, batting just .227 in 1960. He was, however, named the IL’s all-star second baseman and was voted the league’s smartest player, best hustler and best defensive infielder. And the Maple Leafs won both the regular season pennant and league playoffs, just as Sparky’s Montreal team had in 1958. And in both cases the teams had finished in last place the previous season!
Sparky’s offensive struggles continued in 1961. New Leafs manager Johnny Lipon benched him on May 11 when his average had fallen to .188, and Sparky even tried wearing glasses after it was found his right eye was not as strong as his left. He bounced back and lifted his average to .240, but he dislocated his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch on August 13 and was out for the rest of the season. He played in just 97 games, the fewest of any season in his career, but he was once again named the league’s smartest player.
Sparky regained the regular second base job at Toronto in 1962 but, almost exactly a year after dislocating his shoulder, fractured an ankle on August 12 and was done for the season. It wasn’t enough to keep him from winning “smartest player” honors again.
In 1963 Sparky served as a player-coach for the Maple Leafs under manager Bill Adair and was still their regular second baseman. He managed the team in a July 7 doubleheader when Adair went home to Alabama to pick up his family. Anderson won a Silver Glove as the second baseman with the highest fielding percentage in the minor leagues (he had also won the award in 1958), and was named smartest player in the league once again. (The man selected as the league’s most dangerous hitter was Deacon Jones, who had played against Sparky in the 1951 American Legion national championship game and was chosen as most valuable player of that tournament.)
On January 7, 1964, six weeks before his 30th birthday, Sparky was hired to manage the Maple Leafs, the start of one of the most successful managerial careers of all time. Not that he was necessarily ready for it; he was fired after the season, despite an 80-72 record, in large part because of an inability to control his temper. “I was possessed with winning,” Sparky wrote in one of his autobiographies, “Sparky.” (Broadcaster Ernie Harwell famously said that Sparky wrote more books than he read.) “I was a raving maniac — I mean really wild. I went crazy over everything.” He was replaced by Dick Williams, his future World Series adversary. Sparky also managed in Venezuela that winter and was fired from that job a month into the season after his team got off to a 2-14 start.
In October 1969, when many of his fellow rookies of 1959 were still playing, the 35-year-old Anderson was named manager of the Reds and went on to win World Series titles in 1975, 1976 and 1984. His 2,194 career major league wins ranked third on the all-time list, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw, when he retired after the 1995 season (he has since been passed by Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre). He is a member of both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (as most of his playing career was actually in Canada).
Honorable mention: Herman “Ham” Schulte started 115 games at second base for the 1940 Phillies as a teammate of Art Mahan and led National League second basemen in fielding percentage (a third rookie, Bobby Bragan, was the team’s regular shortstop)….Jim Baxes started 48 games at second for Cleveland and played a total of 88 games for the Dodgers and Indians as a 31-year-old rookie in 1959. He made the Topps rookie all-star team with 17 home runs in just 280 at-bats, making him one of just two single-season players to reach double figures in home runs (the other will be discussed here eventually). Baxes also hit 228 minor league home runs even though he missed two years due to military service.
SHORTSTOP: Gair Allie (1954 Pirates)
Not to be confused with Gene Alley, who was an all-star shortstop for the Pirates a decade later, Gair Allie was a North Carolina native who attended Wake Forest where, according to Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito’s book “Baseball Players of the 1950s,” he was a next-dorm-room neighbor of golf great Arnold Palmer. Allie was one of the numerous bonus players signed during Branch Rickey’s tenure as general manager of the Pirates, getting a bonus reported at different times by The Sporting News as $30,000 or $35,000. At that time “bonus babies” weren’t required to go directly to the major leagues, so Allie started his professional career as a 20-year-old with New Orleans of the Southern Association in 1952.
Allie played all 155 games at shortstop for the Pelicans under first-year manager Danny Murtaugh but hit just .216 (although he did lead the league in walks with 125). Pirates manager Fred Haney planned to promote Allie to the majors as a backup infielder for 1953, but Allie suffered a complete fracture of the bone above his right ankle while sliding into home during a spring training intrasquad game. It was thought at the time Allie might miss the entire season, but he recovered enough to report to New Orleans in mid-June and played in 32 games for the Pelicans.
The Pirates had relied on other college bonus babies to play shortstop in previous years. Dick Groat, the all-America basketball player from Duke, took the job as soon as he signed a contract after graduating in 1952 but then went into the military and missed the next two seasons. In 1953 the Bucs went with Eddie O’Brien, who along with his twin brother Johnny had been a basketball star at Seattle University before both signed bonus deals with the Pirates. Johnny was the Bucs’ regular second baseman in 1953, but both brothers went into the service after the season, leaving both middle infield jobs wide open, although Dick Cole, who had started 65 games at short in 1953, was returning.
In spring training 1954 manager Haney auditioned Allie at short and fellow rookie Curt Roberts, the Pirates’ first black player, at second. Allie got off to a slow start at the plate in spring training while Cole was hitting the ball well, and a trip back to New Orleans was not out of the question for Gair. But on opening day Allie was Pittsburgh’s shortstop, with Roberts at second.
As might have been predicted, things did not go well at the plate for Gair. He started the first 20 games of the season at shortstop and batted just .161 with only two extra-base hits and 22 strikeouts; Cole then took over at short. But a couple of weeks later Allie was back in the lineup and stayed there most of the time until he was sidelined by an extreme allergic reaction to penicillin in late July and early August.
On August 22 Allie made his first appearance at third base. “Haney said he was looking to the future, as his thoughts on Allie as a big league shortstop weren’t too high,” Jack Hernon wrote in the September 1 Sporting News. Gair started only six games at shortstop after that while continuing to get a look at third.
Allie ended the season in a 2-for-29 slump, and when he flied out in his final at-bat in the final game of the season at Brooklyn his season batting average slipped to .199, the first time it had been under .200 since early June. He played in 121 games, starting 92 at shortstop and 18 at third, and with 23 errors at short he finished last in the National League in fielding percentage among shortstops who played at least 70 games. He did have the distinction of grounding into the fewest double plays of any N.L. regular, three.
With Groat back from the military in 1955, Allie went back to New Orleans, and for the first time in his professional career showed some promise with the bat, hitting .272 with 15 homers, 77 RBI and 105 walks. He was still just 23 years old. In 1956 he was sent to Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League as a third baseman and was hitting .292 when he was inducted into the Army on June 22. (The Sporting News reported he was “once classified 4-F because of a trick knee.”)
Allie spent 1957 stationed at Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio and played for the Sinton Plymouth Oilers team that won the national non-professional championship. Gair batted .370 in the national tournament, as the Oilers won all seven of their games, but the team’s star was one-time major league phenom Clint Hartung. Allie also played with the Brooke team in the All-Army tournament in September after winning the Fourth Army championship.
Gair returned to civilian life in 1958 and went to spring training with the Pirates but was farmed out to their International League farm club at Columbus. He hit only .248 there and would not appear on a major league 40-man roster again. He ended his playing career in 1961 and settled in San Antonio, where he was a beer salesman and later owned a bar and restaurant. He is still alive at this writing. Would he have returned to the majors had he not been inducted into the Army? Hard to know, but he might have had a chance.
Honorable mention: Bill Jennings started 64 games at shortstop for the 1951 Browns…Bobby Kline, a veteran of eight previous minor league seasons, started 44 games at shortstop for the Senators in 1955.
THIRD BASE: Hector Rodriguez (1952 White Sox)
James A. Riley’s “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” lists Hector Rodriguez as having played for the New York Cubans in 1939, but I’m inclined to doubt it. No other source shows Rodriguez as having played professionally in North America until 1943. Also, Riley says Rodriguez hit .286 for Miami of the Florida State League in 1948, apparently confusing him with Antonio Rodriguez, who hit .286 with Miami of the Florida International League that year (Miami did not have a team in the Florida State League).
Rodriguez was born in Cuba and began his North American professional career in the Mexican League in 1943, leading the league in stolen bases. In 1944 he apparently did play with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League before returning to Mexico in 1945 and playing there in the summers through 1950. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria’s book “The Pride Of Havana: A History Of Cuban Baseball” says Rodriguez married a Mexican woman and settled there.
According to an article in The Sporting News on August 8, 1951, Rodriguez had also played eight years of winter ball in Cuba for the Almendares team and led the league in RBI in 1949-50. He would continue to play in Cuba for many winters after that. I also saw a note in The Sporting News in 1953 that Rodriguez set the season record for stolen bases in the Venezuelan winter league, apparently in the winter of 1947-48.
After the 1950-51 Cuban season, in which Rodriguez again led the league in runs batted in, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a contract for their Montreal farm team, reportedly at the recommendation of Dr. Julio Sanguily, the owner of the Almendares team. Rodriguez was dark-skinned and was considered “colored” or “Negro” for segregation purposes; of course, in 1951, Organized Baseball was purportedly integrated, even if not all teams or leagues were. Rodriguez was one of three “Negro” players who started the 1951 season with the Royals, along with African-Americans Jim Gilliam and Joe Black, both future Dodgers (Black would finish the season with St. Paul of the American Association).
Rodriguez was 31 years old when he joined the Royals in 1951, and the story at the time was the only English he knew was “I got it.” He had a sensational season playing for future Dodgers manager Walter Alston, finishing fifth in the International League in batting average (.302), third in RBI (95), second in triples (10) and first in stolen bases (26). He was the oldest player ever to win the IL’s rookie of the year award, was named the all-star third baseman and was third in the most valuable player award voting (some articles in The Sporting News later said he finished second, but the paper had details of the vote in its September 12, 1951 issue showing he finished third behind Archie Wilson and Don Richmond). Montreal won the regular season pennant by 11 games, then won eight out of nine postseason games to take the league playoff championship. Rodriguez hit .348, with three extra-base hits in six games, as the Royals lost the Junior World’s Series to the American Association champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Montreal reporter Lloyd McGowan described Rodriguez as “strikingly agile” in a story in the November 14, 1951 issue of The Sporting News. “He isn’t exactly orthodox in his movements, taking a hop, skip and jump before whipping the ball across the diamond, but he has a good, accurate arm,” McGowan wrote. In “The Pride of Havana,” Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria described Rodriguez as the best defensive third baseman Cuba ever produced, “a magician at third, with quick reflexes and a strong arm. He was as swift and graceful as a ballet dancer coming in on a bunt or a slow roller.”
On December 6, 1951 the White Sox acquired Rodriguez from the Dodgers in a trade for cash and Rocky Nelson, a slugging first baseman who had already spent three seasons in the big leagues; he would go on to win International League MVP honors three times as well as see further action in the majors. (Nelson and Rodriguez were apparently teammates for a time, although I don’t have exact years, in winter ball in Cuba.) By adding Rodriguez, the Sox were able to move another Cuban, Minnie Minoso, to the outfield after he had struggled at third base during his first season with the team in 1951. The Sox also had another Latin American starter in Venezuelan shortstop Chico Carrasquel and two other Cubans on the roster in pitcher Luis Aloma and infielder Willie Miranda, and there was speculation that the team’s interest in Latins was in part because they were exempt from the U.S. military draft that was conscripting young American players.
Carl Hubbell, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was then farm director of the New York Giants, offered this scouting report on Rodriguez to his new manager, Paul Richards of the White Sox (the quote appears in the book “Crossing The Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959″ by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, without a scource):
You won’t like him at first. He isn’t colorful. He can’t speak English at all. But he can throw strikes to first base, he’s an uncanny fielder and he can run faster than players ten years his junior. You’ll just get to depend upon him, like an old shoe or an old mule.
I wonder how many white players Hubbell compared to an old shoe or an old mule…
Rodriguez apparently was not impressive in spring training in 1952. He “started out so badly that Richards was ready to give up on him,” Edgar Munzel wrote in The Sporting News of April 9, 1952. Team officials blamed it on the fact that he had played winter ball. General Manager Frank Lane acknowledged money was a factor in the decision to play in the winter:
Rodriguez, for instance, made around $12,000 a year, playing in Peru and Argentina in the summer for $7,000 and Cuba in the winter for $5,000. He received around $7,500 from Montreal last summer, including his bonus. It’s hard selling him on quitting winter ball when it would mean virtually a 40 per cent cut in income.
I’m intrigued by the reference to “Peru and Argentina.” I’ve literally never seen any other reference to anyone playing professional baseball in those countries. Rodriguez’s career statistics in Baseball America’s 1994 “The Minor League Register” show him playing just 52 games in Mexico in 1949 and only 20 there in 1950. Could he also have been playing in South America?
During spring training the White Sox played the Pirates in an exhibition game at New Orleans. Rodriguez and Minoso were reported to be “the first men of their race to play baseball with white men in the history of the sport in New Orleans,” according to an item in The Sporting News.
Regardless of how manager Richards felt about Hector’s spring performance, the rookie was in the White Sox’ opening day lineup at third base, batting eighth, and stroked a double off Cleveland’s Early Wynn. In the first 16 games of the season he had six multi-hit games, was held hitless just three times, and had a batting average of .377, although he had just three extra-base hits. He scored 14 runs in those 16 games even though he was batting eighth, which is hard to do.
Rodriguez started all but six of the Sox’ first 60 games, but there are references in The Sporting News to his having leg injuries. His teammate Minoso mentioned it in his book “Just Call Me Minnie”:
Hector Rodriguez was the best third baseman Cuba ever produced. He had a terrific glove but was never really able to impress Frank Lane with his play. He opened the season at third base for us, and for a while he hit the hell out of the ball. Hector got hurt one day and sat out a few days. He was prone to getting a “charlie horse” now and then; he’d stiffen up and it would affect his play.
When he wasn’t feeling better, I went to the doctor with him. The doctor said he should get more rest, but Hector did not want to listen. I agreed with the doctor. “Hector!” I said. “Don’t play. You won’t be able to move the same way as if you were OK.” He still wouldn’t listen; he was a rookie and wanted to play. He felt he had to. “Minnie,” he answered. “I’m leading the league in hitting. I’ll be all right.”
He wasn’t. We were playing at Philadelphia and Gus Zernial hit one hard. Gus was big and strong, one of the strongest guys in baseball. He hit a ground ball to third. Hector moved over and the ball hit him on the shoe, and shot into the outfield. I began yelling at Hector. “These guys over here eat a lot of T Bone steaks! What’s the matter with you I told you you shouldn’t be out there today. These guys are strong. They don’t hit the ball here like they do in the minor leagues.”
When I came to the dugout at the end of the inning, I asked, “What happened?” “Damn!” Hector said pointing to his foot. “That hurts!” He could not move well again all year.
If Minoso’s memory of this incident is accurate, it would have happened on May 2, where the play-by-play shows Zernial hitting a single to left field in the seventh inning of a game at Philadelphia, the White Sox’ 16th game of the season. That was the only hit Zernial had against the Sox during the period when Rodriguez was hitting well.
At any rate, after that May 2 game Hector went almost six weeks without an extra-base hit and his average steadily declined although he did move up in the batting order; in mid-May manager Richards put him in the third spot for a spell. By early June his average had fallen all the way to .248 before he perked up again.
By early August the defensive-minded Richards had grown dissatisfied with Hector’s play at third base and called up Rocky Krsnich from Seattle, where he hadn’t hit much but had earned raves in the field. Frank Lane brought up the winter ball issue again in comments quoted in the August 13 Sporting News:
[Rodriguez] looks like the best we have [at third base] when you consider all departments. I have an idea that Rodriguez would be a lot better if he wouldn’t play in the Cuban Winter League. Do you know that he has played 120 consecutive months of baseball? He has played the year round for ten straight years.
We may try to do something about it next winter. Perhaps we can get him to quit around the first of the year and take two months off, at least, just as we did with Minoso this year.
Rodriguez remained the regular for a time after that, but he started only five games after August 27; Krsnich started at third in Chicago’s final 16 games. Hector finished the season with a .265 batting average in 124 games, 108 of them starts. He hit just 14 doubles and one home run in 407 at-bats, but he showed some selectivity at the plate with 47 walks against only 22 strikeouts.
Hector returned to Cuba after the U.S. season to play for Almendares. He signed a new contract with the White Sox over the Christmas holidays, but in January the Sox traded him to Syracuse of the International League as part of a transaction that delivered pitcher Bob Keegan to Chicago.
Rodriguez was 32 years old when he went to Syracuse, and he would never return to the majors. But his baseball career was far from over. He spent the next nine years playing at the Class AAA level, six of them (1954-59) with Toronto where he was primarily a shortstop. He hit .293 in 100 games at San Diego in 1961, the season he turned 41. After that he went to Mexico, played two seasons for the Mexico City Reds, then became a player-manager in the Mexican minor leagues. The last year he played, in 1966 with Tabasco of the Mexican Southeast League, he hit .316 in 95 at-bats when he was 46.
“The Minor League Register” shows Hector with a total of 2,390 hits in the U.S. minors and the Mexican leagues.
I must confess I have not pored through The Sporting News archives of 1953 and ’54 to see if there was any chatter about Rodriguez possibly returning to the major leagues; he hit better than .300 in the International League in both seasons. That’s a project I can tackle in the future.
Two notes I did glean from The Sporting News about Rodriguez during his time in Chicago: he and his friend Minnie Minoso were avid domino players and apparently spread the popularity of the game among teammates, and Hector was considered a very sharp dresser. He passed away in Mexico in 2003.
LEFT FIELD: Carlos Bernier (1953 Pirates)
Bernier actually played more in center and in right than in left during his time in the majors, but he played some left in the minors, and besides there’s nobody else who was primarily a left fielder who fits the bill. So this will be Carlos’ spot in the lineup. Bernier was a base-stealing sensation both before and after his career with the Pirates and had a long, excellent career in the Pacific Coast League.
Carlos is the subject of a major essay by Steve Treder on The Hardball Times website. I hope I can add to that here, thanks to access to The Sporting News archives.
A story in The Sporting News of May 13, 1953, quotes Bernier as saying he left school after sixth grade in his native Puerto Rico. He worked in the sugar fields and as a plumber’s helper before joining the Army when he was 13. “Stay 16 months but my mother, she no like,” Les Biederman quoted Bernier as saying in TSN. “I too young.”
According to Thomas E. Van Hyning’s book, “Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad,” Bernier began playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in the 1946-47 season, the first of 19 he would play in the league over a 20-year period (he sat out 1961-62 as a salary holdout). I’ve not found what brought him to the mainland after his second Puerto Rican season, but in 1948 he played for the Port Chester, New York, team, in the Class B Colonial League, a fairly high level for a first-year player in Organized Baseball who was thought to be 19. (He was actually 21, having engaged in the time-honored baseball tradition of shaving a couple of years off his age.) He hit only .248, but he was fifth in the league in stolen bases with 24. According to his 1989 obituary in The Sporting News, Bernier suffered a fractured skull when he was hit in the head by a pitch during the season.
Port Chester dropped out of the Colonial after the 1948 season, but Bernier stayed in the league with a new team in Bristol, Connecticut (yes, that Bristol), and ran wild. He stole 89 bases and scored 136 runs in just 120 games, leading the league in both categories, while finishing fourth in batting average at .336 and second in walks with 107. He even hit 15 home runs. It was enough to earn a late-season look with Indianapolis of the Class AAA American Association, but after two pinch-running appearances he was returned to Bristol. (Treder writes that Bernier started the season at Indianapolis, but that’s not true; an item in the August 31, 1949 issue of The Sporting News says Indianapolis returned Bernier to Bristol. I have not found the box scores of the games he played, but I haven’t looked that hard.)
That winter Bernier set a Puerto Rican league record for stolen bases that would last until Rickey Henderson broke it more than 30 years later, and in the summer of 1950 he stole even more bases than he did in ’49, although he did it in two leagues. He started the season back with Bristol and stole 53 bases in 52 games (he also scored 67 runs!) before the league folded on July 16. Bernier was one of three Bristol players sold to the team in St. Jean, Quebec, of the Class C Provincial League, and he tore that league apart, hitting .335 with 15 homers and 41 steals in 64 games. That brought his totals for the year to 94 steals, 24 homers and 136 runs in 116 games.
And yet in 1951 Bernier was back in Class B, with the Tampa Smokers of the Florida International League. (Perhaps you’ve seen their jersey, with the cigar on it.) Bernier led the league in steals (51, including six steals of home), triples (21) and runs (124 in 135 games) as Tampa won the pennant. “It is almost a cinch that every time Bernier gets on first, he’ll eventually wind up at second or third without too much help from the batter’” Smokers owner Tom Spicola said. “He’ll either steal the bases or force the pitchers and catchers to throw wildly trying to pick him off.”
That winter Bernier was drafted by the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and had another great season, this time a the highest level of the minor leagues, in 1952. He was successful in his first 27 stolen base attempts on his way to a league-leading total of 65 while also leading the league in runs (105) and batting .301. What’s more, the Stars won the PCL pennant, meaning Bernier had played on a pennant winner in all five of his seasons in Organized Baseball.
The Pittsburgh Pirates purchased Bernier from Hollywood after the season. Also going from Hollywood to Pittsburgh was manager Fred Haney, who was happy to have Bernier with him. “Bernier can run, throw and go get a ball;” Haney said during spring training in 1953. “The first time I saw him last spring I didn’t think he could hit, but he fooled me. Once he gets on base, he’s hard to stop. He’s a streak.”
Bernier didn’t become a regular the Bucs’ lineup until the end of April, but when he did he was a sensation. On April 30 he hit a double and a triple. The next day he had a single and a double. And the next day, May 2, in just his fifth major league start, he had a single and three triples in a game against the Reds at Forbes Field. The three triples remains tied for the major leagues’ all-time single-game record, and they came in consecutive at-bats.
“I no like heet home run, except when game she close, home run win,” Bernier was quoted as saying in The Sporting News of May 13, 1953 (in the typical manner in which Latin American players were quoted at the time). “I like single, double, treeple. I like run bases.” (Yes, TSN used “treeple.”)
Bernier also stole a base in that May 2 game, the first of his major league career, but he was thrown out in four of his first five attempts. For the season he would led the league by being caught stealing 14 times, against only 15 successful steals.
Carlos kept hitting for another week after his three-triple game but then went in a terrible tailspin. From May 14 through the end of June he had just one multi-hit game in 34 starts and batted just .167 during that stretch. He started just 10 games in August and only six in September as Frank Thomas took over in center field and Cal Abrams saw regular duty in right. Bernier finished the season with a .213 batting average and three home runs, starting 77 games and playing in 28 others. Immediately after the season he underwent what The Sporting News called minor surgery in Pittsburgh “for removal of small growths from both eyes.”
Pirates general manager Branch Rickey didn’t seem to be giving up. “Bernier can’t be judged on his record this year,” Rickey said in an interview in the July 29 Sporting News. “He’s a first year player, strange to the language [even though Bernier had spent most of the previous five summers playing in the U.S.], nervous in the big leagues. He simply needs orientation.”
But Bernier was not even mentioned in the Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook preview of the 1954 Pirates. Rookie Jerry Lynch, who had never played above the Class B level, and 23-year-old Dick Hall (the future pitcher), who in the minors and two brief earlier trials with the Pirates had not accomplished anything like what Bernier had, joined Thomas and newly-acquired veteran Sid Gordon as the Bucs’ primary outfielders.
An interesting survey of baseball writers published in The Sporting News of January 6, 1954 tabbed Bernier as the “most temperamental” player on the Pirates. It was a distinction he shared with future Hall of Famers Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Eddie Mathews of the Braves. (I’ve posted the fascinating full results here.)
Bernier played in the Puerto Rican winter league season of 1953-54 and finished second in the league in stolen bases and tied for sixth in batting average (with the same mark as future Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente). But Carlos would not get a second chance at major league pitching. On the eve of the 1954 season opener, he was purchased by the Hollywood Stars. I’ve not found anything in The Sporting News that sheds light on why the Pirates didn’t keep Bernier. Steve Treder, in his Hardball Times article, points out any number of Pirates youngsters got second (and third) chances in the ’50s after falling flat on their faces in their debuts, and several went on to excellent major league careers (Bob Friend, Vern Law, ElRoy Face and Bob Skinner among them); even Clemente as a rookie was hardly the Clemente we came to know. Yet Carlos Bernier, after such an outstanding minor league career, got only one chance to prove his worth in the majors.
Bernier made headlines for his temper at Hollywood in 1954. He was suspended for five days by league president Clarence “Pants” Rowland for starting a free-for-all in a game against the Los Angeles Angels on June 13. Then on August 11, in a game against San Diego at Hollywood’s Gilmore Field, Bernier took a called third strike in the bottom of the eighth inning. He turned around and bumped home plate umpire Chris Valenti, who ejected him from the game. Bernier then slapped Valenti across the face. Rowland was at the game, and the next day he suspended Bernier for the rest of the season, saying Bernier had also “used filthy language.” (Apparently “filthy” was in the mind of the beholder. According to Dennis Snelling’s book about the PCL, “The Greatest Minor League,” Bernier called Valenti “Sweetie.”) At the time Carlos was leading the league with 38 stolen bases and batting .313.
Dick Dobbins’ book about the PCL, “The Grand Minor League,” includes some quotes from the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bernier’s suspension.
Hollywood manager Bobby Bragan: “There is no justification for what he did. Carlos is highly emotional and quick-tempered. All of us have talked with him several times this year, Branch Rickey included, and each time he assured us he could keep himself in hand. Then he blew his top anyhow.”
Bernier: “I am not mad at anybody but myself. Mr. Rowland was good to me. I was afraid I might be banned for life. I am not well. I was beaned in 1948 and have been nervous and aching in the head ever since.”
In mid-September, while still under suspension from the PCL, Bernier joined a team in the Dominican Republic league during their playoffs. For that he was placed on Organized Baseball’s disqualified list. He applied to National Association president George Trautman for reinstatement so he could be eligible to play winter ball in Puerto Rico and said “he would behave himself and never again get into arguments with umpires,” according to an item in The Sporting News of October 13, 1954. “As if to emphasize his promise to change, Bernier remarried his former wife, Emma Betances, on October 2.”
Did Bernier’s suspensions keep him from getting another chance in the majors? Perhaps. In any event it appears some baseball men weren’t impressed by Bernier’s attitude. In “The Grand Minor League,” Dick Dobbins quotes Buddy Peterson, who played against Bernier for several years in the PCL:
Carlos Bernier was an intense guy. He was a guy that opposing players didn’t like. He had a lot of fights with opposing players. I think he bordered on being a major league player, but some things just held him back. He did some crazy things, and in those days they didn’t go for crazy things. He would make little bonehead mistakes. But he could run and he could play.
Bernier did wear a Pittsburgh uniform again in spring training in 1955. The Sporting News included a note that he was part of what was believed to be the first all-Puerto Rican outfield (along with Clemente and Roman Mejias, neither of whom had yet made his regular season major league debut) in an exhibition game against the Phillies on March 13 in Clearwater, Florida. But Bernier was not on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, and I’ve not been able to learn whether he was ever thought to have had a realistic chance of making the team.
The headline on a small item in The Sporting News of June 15, 1955: “Hollywood’s Fiery Bernier Has Cigar-Smoking Mamma.” The item by Jeane Hoffman noted Carlos had given a box of cheroots to his mother when she made her first-ever visit to the U.S. to see him in Hollywood. “My mamma, sure, she smokes cigars,” Bernier said. “Maybe two, three a day. I have to watch her or mamma will raid my supply. So I see to it she has her own. I buy her boxes for holidays, birthdays, any occasion.”
After his 1953 season in Pittsburgh Bernier played another 11 seasons at the highest minor league level, all but one in the Pacific Coast League, and was named to the PCL Hall of Fame. During those 11 seasons he led the league in steals twice (giving him a total of six minor league stolen base championships, plus five in the Puerto Rican winter league), triples twice, walks twice, runs once, hits once and batting average once with a .351 mark for Hawaii in 1961. In his last year in the U.S., as a 37-year-old, he hit a career-high 27 home runs for Hawaii in 1964, with 22 stolen bases and a .294 batting average. He finished his minor league career (including a year in Mexico in 1965) with a .297 average, 2,374 hits, 212 homers and 594 stolen bases.
Bernier was found hanged at his home in his birthplace of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, on April 6, 1989. He was 62. Given some of what we’ve learned about head injuries since then, I wonder if some of what led to Bernier’s displays of temper as a player and his suicide could be traced to the beaning he suffered in 1948.
Of all the players on The Sparky Anderson All-Stars, Bernier is the one I feel most deserved a second shot at the majors. It’s hard for me to believe he couldn’t have been a regular, and a good one, if everything went right for him.
Honorable mention: Ernest “Tex” Vache played 110 games, with 50 starts, for the 1925 Red Sox as a 35-year-old rookie and batted .313. Vache was a former cop and World War I veteran who didn’t play Organized Baseball until he was 31 years old. Bill Nowlin tells his interesting story in the SABR Bio Project.
CENTER FIELD: Ernie Sulik (1936 Phillies)
Ernie Sulik is the one player on this team I’d never heard of before researching this post. Unfortunately, my resources and web searches aren’t turning up anything remotely insightful or interesting about him (with one glaring exception I’ll note below), so I’m pretty much forced to stick with the numbers.
A San Francisco native, Sulik signed with the hometown Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1930, the summer he turned 20. In 1931, his first full season of professional baseball, he hit .329 and tied for the league lead in triples with 16, even though he played only 123 of the Seals’ 187 games. The next year he hit .313 (teammate and future major league Augie Galan hit .291) with what would be a career-high 14 homers.
That would turn out to be the high point of Sulik’s minor league career. In 1933, playing alongside teen sensation Joe DiMaggio in the Seals’ outfield (Corbis Images has a nice photo of the two of them together), Sulik slipped to .293, which was actually just below the league average. And in 1934 he hit just one home run and fell all the way to .246; only three PCL players who appeared in at least 100 games had lower averages.
The next year, 1935, Sulik was with Kansas City of the American Association. I haven’t checked Sulik’s contract card at the Hall of Fame to see if the Seals had sold him to the Blues, or perhaps to the Pittsburgh Pirates, as an item in The Sporting News after the 1935 season indicated Sulik had been recalled to the Pirates. At any rate Ernie had a better year with Kansas City, batting .291, just below the league average, with 11 triples.
Then in 1936 Sulik found himself in the big leagues, with the Phillies. According to The Sporting News of May 21, 1936 the Phillies dropped veteran outfielder George Watkins in favor of Sulik, “a youthful free agent who was signed after the team returned north from its training trip.” I have no idea where Sulik spent spring training.
Sulik was used as a pinch-hitter and substitute outfielder until making his first major league start on May 10. In the month of June he started 22 of the Phillies’ 23 games, typically batting in the second spot in the order, was held hitless only three times, and batted .337 with four home runs with 18 runs and 15 RBI — a pretty productive month. He hit over .300 in July as well, moving into the leadoff spot, and had a pair of four-hit games, although he didn’t hit any homers. He tailed off a bit in August, hitting .277 with just two extra-base hits in 94 at-bats, then started just one game after September 7, although he continued to be used as a pinch-hitter and substitute outfielder.
Sulik finished the season (and, as it turned out, his major league career) with a respectable .287 batting average in 122 games, starting 58 games in center field and 35 in left.
In February 1937 the New York Giants purchased Sulik for their Jersey City farm club; he got off to a poor start with Jersey City and was sent to Nashville of the Southern Association. After playing just 58 games for New Orleans in that same league in 1938, Sulik’s career in Organized Baseball came to an end after 12 games with Dallas in 1939; he was not yet 29 years old.
The end of Sulik’s career came in mysterious fashion…here’s an item from The Sporting News of May 25, 1939 (reproduced at left; I was tipped to this by Carlos Bauer’s Minor League Researcher blog):
Identified by means of a telegram from the Jersey City club, found in his pocket, Ernest Sulik, outfielder recently transferred by the Dallas Rebels to the International League club, was released from a hospital at Fresno, Cal., where he had been taken, suffering from amnesia. He was sent to the hospital when he was found in a Fresno bus station, unable to identify himself.
Sulik and his wife lived in Oakland, where she was from; he listed himself as a “baseball player” in the 1940 census. He died in Oakland in 1963, just 52 years old, and according to his obituary he had been a member of the Oakland fire department. His cause of death was not given; he was survived by his wife and three children.
Maybe there’s more to be found about Sulik in The Sporting News; the paper’s broadsheet format of the 1930s seems to make the digital archives a little tricky to search. As it stands I really don’t know why the Phillies were attracted to Sulik in the first place or why they didn’t think he was worthy of a second chance. I’d certainly like to know about his life both before and after he played professional baseball, and I can’t help but be curious about how he wound up in Fresno not knowing who he was. But for two months at least, he seemed to be a solid major league ballplayer.
Honorable mention: Dutch Hoffman started 81 games, including 60 in center, batting .258, for the 1929 White Sox. He actually started the most games in center of any one-year player.
RIGHT FIELD: Buzz Arlett (1931 Phillies)
Good lord, I’ve written 10,000 words so far and could probably write 10,000 more about Buzz Arlett, but I won’t. I’ll send you to Cort Vitty’s biography in the SABR Bio Project for further details. But that won’t keep me from writing something…
Bill James referred to Arlett as “the Babe Ruth of the minor leagues,” for obvious reasons. Like Ruth, Arlett started his professional career as a pitcher, and a good one, leading the Pacific Coast League in wins with 29 for Oakland in 1920. Like Ruth, Arlett switched to the outfield and became a slugging sensation, although in Arlett’s case the switch came when he developed a sore arm. Also, James wrote in his biography of Arlett in “The Baseball Book 1991,” “Like Ruth, [Arlett] was a friendly, outgoing man who liked to have a drink and was free with his money.”
A Northern California native, Arlett starred for Oakland through the 1920s, with his most eye-popping season coming in 1929: 70 doubles, 39 homers, 189 RBI, a .374 batting average, and even 22 steals in the Pacific Coast League’s 200-game season. After his season with the Phillies, he led his minor league in home runs three straight years, with a high of 54 for Baltimore in 1932; he had four home runs in a game twice that season.
For his minor league career Arlett had a .341 batting average with 432 home runs, the most of any player in U.S.-based minor leagues. (The only players who hit more homers in the minors, Hector Espino and Andres Mora, hit almost all of theirs in Mexico.) In 1984 the Society for American Baseball Research named Arlett the greatest minor league player of all time. He was no doubt a better player than the vast majority of his contemporaries in the major leagues. Here’s how James characterized him in “The Baseball Book 1991″:
Arlett would have hit, as a major league player, somewhere between .290 and .315 for his career, depending on which park and which part of his career. Obviously, he was not Babe Ruth, but he was probably as good a player as some of the marginal Hall of Fame outfielders, including Chuck Klein, Hack Wilson and Heinie Manush. He may have been as good as Goose Goslin, but probably was not.
The obvious question is why Arlett didn’t reach the major leagues before 1931. The short answer is, Oakland didn’t have to give him up, as at that time there was no mechanism from drafting players from the minor leagues. He had value to the Oaks as a star performer and popular gate attraction, and no major league team was willing to meet their asking price through the 1920s.
Arlett almost made the jump to the majors when he was still a pitcher. He averaged almost 24 wins a year for the Oaks from 1919 to 1922, and the Detroit Tigers took an interest. “Detroit took out an option on him after he won 29 games in 1921, but failed to exercise it the following year when he slumped to 19-18 with a 4.37 ERA,” John Spalding wrote in his book “Pacific Coast League Stars,” but Spalding has the years wrong; the numbers he quotes are actually for 1920 and 1921. An item in The Sporting News of February 5, 1931, after Arlett was purchased by the Phillies, said, “Detroit had Buzz in 1921, but returned him to Oakland without a trial,” which corresponds to Spalding’s statement if the option was taken after the 1920 season and renounced after the 1921 campaign. Cort Vitty wrote in Arlett’s SABR bio, “Detroit opted against pursuing the youngster, since his primary pitch was the recently outlawed spitball.” (Bill James wrote that Arlett’s exemption to continue throwing the spitter after the pitch was banned in 1920 applied only in the PCL, where he was pitching at the time, and did not extend to the majors.)
The Tigers’ interest may have been earlier. Harry Brundidge wrote a story about Arlett in The Sporting News of December 17, 1931, that has enough factual errors in it that I’m not sure how seriously to take it, but he quotes Arlett as saying this (I have no doubt Brundidge did some considerable doctoring of Arlett’s actual words, and I fear he may have modified some of the facts as well):
I returned to Oakland in 1919 and won 22 games, losing 17, and Detroit was going to buy me until they learned I was a spitball artist. The moist ball was being frowned on and I was passed up. I decided to abandon the spitter and spent the winter learning new tricks, new curves and a change of pace…
In this version, Arlett’s 29-win season in 1920, and his 25-win season in 1922, would have been spitball-free.
Vitty writes that the Reds were interested in 1922 “when his ‘gameness’ became an issue; it seemed Buzz didn’t concentrate when contests were badly out of reach.” At any rate the major leagues stopped showing interest in Arlett as a pitcher after his arm went bad.
But the interest resumed once Buzz’s bat started booming. Here’s how The Sporting News described it in that 1931 story:
Buzz, probably, has been watched more closely by scouts than any other player in recent years, but, although there never was any question as to his ability to hit, his fielding had always left much to be desired. The price asked for the Coast slugger had also been held to be too high and numerous deals for his services in the consequence fell through.
Brooklyn was all set to deal for Arlett in the summer of 1930 when he was injured in a post-game fight with an umpire. Although the tale is oft told, the date is never included, but I’ve confirmed through Sacramento Bee microfilm it was June 12. Dennis Snelling tells the story in some detail in his book “The Greatest Minor League”; I’ll let you read his account and Vitty’s for the complete story. The scrap was with umpire Chet Chadbourne, a longtime player who had been an umpire in the PCL in 1929 and had just returned for a stint as a fill-in arbiter. Arlett was hit over the left eye with Chadbourne’s mask and needed twelve stitches. Brooklyn then backed out of the deal; whether it was because of Arlett’s injury or because Oakland insisted on receiving players in addition to cash is a matter of debate. At any rate the Robins (as the Brooklyn team was then known) acquired another PCL slugging star, Ike Boone, who was hitting .448 (!) for the Mission Reds.
The Oaks were supposedly unwilling to sell Arlett in the 1920s unless they could get the $70,000 to $100,000 that other PCL teams were getting for their stars at the time, but in early 1931, with a depression on and with changes in the draft rules making it more likely that Oakland would lose him for a smaller amount, the team sold him to the Phillies for what The Sporting News reported was $15,000. Harry Brundidge quoted Arlett in that December 1931 article as saying he had threatened to quit baseball when the Oaks proposed to cut his pay for 1931 and told the team president to accept any offer from a major league team. Arlett also said he learned in spring training with the Phillies that he had been sold on option and was not guaranteed a spot on the roster.
Reports were the 32-year-old Arlett had a slow start in spring training, but he heated up near the end and was in the Phils’ opening day lineup, batting fifth and playing right field. And he got off to a good start, with a single and a double in his first game and a home run in his second. In his first 10 games he hit .366 with four doubles, a triple, three home runs and 10 RBI, looking every bit like the slugger who had feasted on Pacific Coast League pitching, and soon after he moved into cleanup spot.
The hits kept coming for Buzz, as he started all of the Phillies’ first 52 games. In that stretch he hit .348 with 11 home runs, 42 RBI and a .627 slugging percentage. But his consecutive games streak came to an end when he broke his thumb. Vitty’s bio says the injury happened “in Philadelphia, trying to steal second base,” which is almost certainly wrong; the Phillies’ last home game had been on May 30, Arlett had played in 14 road games since then, and there are no stolen base attempts in his record since May 15. The Sporting News of June 25 reported Arlett had broken his thumb in a series at St. Louis, which makes sense, as his last three games had been in that city June 14-16.
Arlett missed two weeks with the injury and when he returned wasn’t the same hitter, although he moved right back into the cleanup role. From July 1 to August 17 he started 47 of Philadelphia’s 50 games, appearing as a substitute in another one, and hit .276 with six home runs. After that he started just six games, with a little use off the bench.
Vitty writes, “He probably sealed his fate on a hot August day, when he misplayed a routine fly to right. Pitcher Jumbo Jim Elliot was livid with the miscue and recommended an on-field rocking chair for the aging player.” Perhaps that was a game on August 12, when Elliott was knocked out in the fifth inning of a 12-1 loss to the Cubs.
Still, when the season was over Arlett had by far the strongest record of any one-year major leaguer ever. His final batting average was .313, his 18 home runs ranked fourth in the National League (he hit only one after August 13) and his .538 slugging percentage ranked fifth; all four players who finished ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. He even ranked third in the league in outfield assists, with 14, although he also ranked third in outfield errors with 10.
But the Phillies had seen enough. In December they sent him to Baltimore of the International League; in exchange The Sporting News reported the Phils received former Red Sox outfielder Russ Scarritt, who played just 12 games for Philadelphia. “Buzz proved fully that he could clout big league pitching,” according to TSN of December 24, 1931 (just a week after Harry Brundidge’s big feature on Arlett). “But never better than passing fair in the field, his defensive performance finally relegated him to the bench.”
Arlett played another five seasons at the highest level of the minors, two in Baltimore and three in Minneapolis, where he married the team owner’s secretary and made his home for the rest of his life.
Honorable mention: Jack Daniels played 106 games, starting 53, for the 1952 Braves but his just .187…Elliot Bigelow played 100 games, starting 48, as a 31-year-old rookie for the 1929 Red Sox. Bigelow was a three-time minor league batting champion who had a .349 career average in the minors and died of meningitis when he was 35. Bill Nowlin tells his interesting story in the SABR Bio Project.
CATCHER: Paul Florence (1926 Giants)
Catcher is the thinnest position on the Sparky Anderson All-Stars. Apparently if you were good enough to catch very much as a rookie, you were good enough to come back. So our choice is Paul “Pep” Florence, even though he started just 62 games and played in 14 others in his lone major league season.
A Chicago native, Florence was a star athlete at Loyola Academy and played briefly for the Chicago Cardinals of the new National Football League in 1920 before heading east to attend Georgetown University. (It says something about the state of professional football at the time that a 20-year-old just out of high school could be considered as a player.) Perhaps word of his professional football experience had not preceded him, perhaps college eligibility rules weren’t as strictly defined or enforced in those days, but Florence was a three-sport star for the Hoyas despite having played in the NFL. He was one of the basketball team’s top two scorers all three seasons he played, was captain of the 1923 football team and was the catcher on the 1922 Georgetown baseball team that was unbeaten and claimed a mythical national championship. For his accomplishments he was in the first class of inductees to Georgetown’s Athletic Hall of Fame and was named as an end on Georgetown’s all-time football team in 1940.
The New York Times of December 15, 1923 reported Florence had signed with the Giants. The item said Florence “probably will report at the close of his final year next June,” but he left school before that. He did not play on Georgetown’s 1923-24 basketball squad, and the Times has several stories from spring training 1924 indicating Florence was on hand.
It’s not clear to me where Florence spent the 1924 season. The New York Times of March 29, 1924 said Florence was sent to Pittsfield of the Eastern League on option; SABR does not have a minor league record for Florence in 1924, but the 1925 Reach Guide lists him as a less-than-five games player for Pittsfield. I looked through the other leagues and did not see him listed anywhere else. Items in The Sporting News in December 1924 indicated Florence was going to Indianapolis from the Giants without mentioning where he had played in 1924 or that he had been injured.
At any rate Florence was the backup catcher at Indianapolis in 1925, hitting .314 in 55 games, then took over as the regular and got off to a torrid start in 1926, batting .368 in 30 games before the Giants acquired him in exchange for veteran catcher Grover Hartley. Florence reported to the Giants in Pittsburgh on May 20 and got his first start behind the plate the next day, stroking a two-run single in a loss at Pittsburgh.
The newcomer was the Giants’ primary catcher from that point on, except for a two-week stretch in early August, and then in the final week of the season manager John McGraw took a look at another rookie backstop, Jack Cummings. Florence’s batting average was at a respectable .318 in late June, but from June 30 through September 3 he was in a 10-for-72 funk and he finished the season with a .229 mark.
That wasn’t good enough for McGraw. “The catching was terrible,” McGraw was quoted as saying in the December 3, 1926 New York Times. “If I had had any idea that Florence and [Hugh] McMullen would be so weak, I might not have let [Hank] Gowdy and Hartley go, although Hartley’s hitting had died way to nothing. I violate no confidences when I say that the Giant catching next year will be a 100 per cent improvement.”
McGraw’s comments came on the occasion of acquiring catcher Al Devormer from Louisville of the American Association. He hoped that the combination of Devormer, Cummings and Jim Hamby, all of whom had strong years with the bat in the minors in 1926, would yield an upgrade over Florence. Those three were among five catchers McGraw used in 1927, with only Cummings (who started just 15 games) hitting much more than Florence had.
By then Florence was long gone, having been sold back to Indianapolis in January 1927. But while his major league career was finished, he spent the rest of his life in baseball. He played another ten years in the minors, at all the highest level. He was with Rochester of the American Association from 1929 to 1935 and was the catcher on the Junior World’s Series champions of 1930 and 1931; he is a member of the Red Wings Hall of Fame.
In 1937 Florence retired as a player to become president and general manager of the Reds’ farm club at Durham, North Carolina. The Reds transferred him to the same position at their higher level farm team in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1940, then in 1945 he became a Reds scout. From 1957 to 1961 he was an assistant to Reds general manager Gabe Paul, then he went to the new Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) as a scout and remained in that position until he retired in 1976. After that he was a scouting consultant for the Astros until his death at age 86 in 1986.
According to SABR member Rod Nelson, among the players Florence signed were Ed Bailey, Orlando Pena, Jim O’Toole, Joe Adcock, Dave Bristol (who managed in the major leagues), Leo Cardenas, Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez, Johnny Edwards and Tommy Helms.The last player he is credited with signing to reach the major leagues was Bruce Bochy, winner of two World Series as manager of the Giants.
Honorable mention: William “Chink” Outen, a .334 career hitter in the minors, played 93 games, with 30 starts behind the plate, for the 1933 Dodgers…Ben Huffman started 36 games behind the bat among his 76 games with the 1937 Browns…Don Wheeler had 54 starts for the 1949 White Sox. Stew Thornley tells his story in the SABR Bio Project…More recently, Kevin Higgins started 47 games at catcher for the 1993 Padres.
STARTING PITCHER: Randy Tate (1975 Mets)
Randy Tate, who almost opted for a career in welding after his professional career got off to a terrible start, started 23 games for the Mets in 1975, the most of any pitcher in his only season in the majors. (Well, Michael Pineda started 28 games for the Mariners in 2011, but I’m assuming he’ll return to the majors at some point.) And if it hadn’t been for one game at the right time in his minor league career, he likely never would have reached the majors at all.
Tate was a four-sport star in high school in Alabama who opted to attend junior college in Decatur to study welding, according to the Mets’ 1976 yearbook. In January 1972 he was drafted by the Mets and dropped out of school, signing a professional baseball contract in May and reporting to the Mets’ Appalachian League rookie-level team in Marion, Virginia. The 19-year-old right-hander had a disastrous debut season; in 60 innings he allowed 68 runs (!), walked 54 batters, threw 20 wild pitchers and posted an 0-9 record. The story in the Mets’ yearbook is he went home after the season and got a job as a welder; his mother talked him into giving baseball another try in 1973.
It went better that year, although not a lot better, as Randy went 4-10 with a 4.38 ERA for Pompano Beach of the Class A Florida State League. The next year, 1974, he shifted to another Class A league, the Western Carolinas playing for Anderson, South Carolina, and while he struck out 153 batters in 159 innings and lowered his ERA to 3.68, he also walked 150 men, threw 23 wild pitches and had another losing record at 7-11.
But on August 15, 1974 Tate got a huge break. The Mets had an exhibition game in Norfolk, Virginia, against their Class AAA Tidewater farm club. Rather than waste one of their regular pitchers in a meaningless game, Mets general manager Bob Scheffing called on Tate to pitch for the Mets. According to that 1976 yearbook, Tate drove all night to get to Norfolk and shut out the Tides over seven innings, allowing just two hits and striking out seven. That prompted Scheffing to give Tate a late-season call-up to Tidewater, where he pitched two complete game victories, giving up two runs in the first and hurling a shutout in the second. The Mets took Tate with them on their trip to Japan after the season.
In 1975 Tate — 22 years old, with 17 innings of experience above Class A, a minor league record of 13-30 and 300 walks allowed in 453 professional innings — went to major league spring training. “He throws hard,” Mets manager Yogi Berra said. (The 1976 Mets yearbook said Tate had “the fastest curve in the league.”) “Of course,” Yogi added, “he is also wild. If he gets control, he could be a big help.”
His season with the Mets was as dismal as his previous record might have indicated. He finished with a 5-13 record, a 4.45 ERA, and 86 walks allowed in 137-2/3 innings, and there was some discussion in early June of sending him to the minors. But while the overall record was poor, he had his share of good performances. In his debut he shut out the Phillies for seven innings before allowing three runs in the eighth. He had nine starts in which he pitched at least six innings and allowed no more than two earned runs, including a complete-game four-hitter in which he struck out nine to beat Steve Carlton and the Phillies, 5-2, on June 28.
But his most memorable performance came on August 4 at Shea Stadium against the Expos. For seven innings Tate held the (admittedly woeful) Expos hitless, giving Mets fans hope they would see the first no-hitter in team history (something that wouldn’t happen for another 37 years). Tate struck out pinch-hitter Jose Morales to start the eighth, then pinch-hitter Jim Lyttle knocked an opposite-field single. Pepe Mangual walked, Tate fanned Jim Dwyer for the second out, then Gary Carter singled to spoil the shutout and Mike Jorgensen ripped a three-run homer that would be the margin of victory in a 4-3 Expos win. Tate finished with 13 strikeouts; only John Montefusco, who struck out 14 Expos on August 27, registered more Ks in a National League game that season.
Tate made just one start after a complete-game win over the Padres on August 26. He explained to Bob Teitlebaum nearly two years later for a story in The Sporting News of May 28, 1977:
While pitching in relief late in the 1975 season, Tate apparently injured his shoulder.
“I must have awakened 15 times that night from the pain in my shoulder,” said Tate. “I never really complained because I wanted to pitch, but I could tell it wasn’t right.
“When I did say something, all anybody told me was to take two aspirin and get some rest.”
Despite the injury, Tate pitched winter ball in Puerto Rico and may have made things worse. In the spring he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. But there was no surgery for Tate. Instead he was sent to Tidewater to pitch in 1976 and got hammered, going 7-14 with a 6.20 ERA, walking 93 in 122 innings.
In 1977 Tate was sent back down to Class A, at his request, to try to get things straightened out, and he had the only winning record of his professional career, going 11-8 for Lynchburg of the Carolina League. But control was still a major issue, as he walked 100 in 141 innings and led the league in hit batsmen while striking out only 79. He was still just 24 when the season ended, and the Pirates saw enough to convince them to select him in the minor league draft that winter and invite him to spring training.
Things didn’t go any better for Tate in 1978, as he went 3-10 with 83 walks in 124 innings between Class AAA Columbus and Class AA Shreveport, and his baseball career came to an end, with a professional pitching record of 39-75.
But while Tate’s pitching career may have been forgettable, his hitting career is in the record books. As a Met in 1975 Tate went 0-for-41 at the plate, with one walk. He holds the all-time major league record for most at-bats and plate appearances (47) in a career without a hit. An explanation came in an item in The Sporting News of September 6, 1975:
Tate…thinks his problem stems from an overzealous manager when he was playing in a Babe Ruth League in Alabama. In an effort to break Tate’s habit of stepping into the bucket, the manager drove a stake into the batter’s box and tethered Tate’s front (left) foot to it. “Then he started throwing to me,” Tate recalled. “He wasn’t throwing hard or anything, but one of the pitches hit me in the face and since then it seems I haven’t been able to hit the ball at all.”
I have no idea what Randy Tate has done since leaving baseball. If you know, leave it in the comments.
Honorable mention: Three pitchers started 22 games in their only major league season: Ken Hunt (who gets extra credit for doing so for the 1961 National League champion Reds after making the jump from Class A ball), Mike Bruhert (1978 Mets) and Wade Taylor (who was 7-12 with a dismal 6.27 ERA for the 1991 Yankees). Hunt’s 9 wins is the most for any post-1920 one-season pitcher.
RELIEF PITCHER: Bill Wakefield (1964 Mets)
Bill Wakefield, like Randy Tate, would seem an unlikely candidate for promotion to the major leagues based on his previous record. He never had a winning season in professional baseball, either before, during or after his time in the majors. And he came close to not qualifying for the Sparky Anderson All-Stars; the Cardinals called him up at the end of the 1963 season, and the Mets brought him up at the end of the 1965 campaign, but he didn’t get into a game either year.
While Wakefield has not yet been the subject of a biography for the SABR Bio Project, there is a 2009 interview with him online that is the source for some of my material.
Wakefield grew up in Kansas City, the son of a doctor, and earned an academic scholarship to Stanford. He pitched two no-hitters in high school but it’s not clear he pitched for Stanford. During his freshman year (1959-60) he broke his right (pitching) wrist playing intramural basketball, and he seems to have signed a professional contract in the fall of his sophomore year. Stanford officials confirmed Wakefield did not earn a varsity letter in 1960. An item in the October 12, 1960 issue of The Sporting News says he received a $50,000 bonus from the Cardinals. (The bonus was later reported in TSN as $30,000; in the 2009 interview I referred to above Wakefield said he “signed a $60,000 contract,” which could have included salary and other considerations in addition to the bonus.) He had earned attention from pro scouts — and a writeup in The Sporting News — in the summer of 1960 when he pitched back-to-back no-hitters in an amateur league for college-age players in Kansas City. (The last pitcher to throw a no-hitter in that league had been Ray Sadecki, who went on to pitch in the majors.)
Wakefield continued to attend Stanford while playing pro ball. An item in The Sporting News of December 7, 1963, refers to him as a student at Stanford; later it was reported he arrived at spring training on March 14, 1964, “with a fresh diploma from Stanford University in hand,” and the 1965 Baseball Register lists him as having a B.A. in economics from Stanford, although in a 2006 interview Wakefield said he graduated in 1966.
He was knocked around as a first-year pro with Lancaster of the Class A Eastern League in 1961 (9-11, 5.25 ERA), but things went better when he made the jump to Class AA Tulsa in 1962. He struck out 135 batters in 167 innings for the Texas League pennant winners, and a note on the back of his later Topps baseball cards said he struck out 17 batters in a game, but I have not been able to find details of that performance. (UPDATE 4/9/13: SABR member Dennis VanLangen tells me Wakefield struck out 17 San Antonio batters in an 11-inning game on June 6, losing 1-0 on a home run. A sadly fitting outcome for a pitcher who never had a winning record.) He finished the year with a 10-12 record and a 4.42 ERA.
A return trip to Tulsa in 1963 saw Wakefield primarily used as a relief pitcher for the first time. An item in The Sporting News of June 8, 1963, said the move was the idea of former major league pitcher Clyde King, then the Cardinals’ minor league pitching coach. “Cardinal officials feel that Wakefield, gifted with extreme speed, is destined to be a reliever in the majors and want to prepare him for the role,” according to TSN.
Despite an unimpressive record at Tulsa in ’63 (3-7, 5.40), he was bumped up to Class AAA Atlanta at midseason, and even though his record was less than flattering there too (1-3, 5.36) and his strikeout numbers were mediocre at both stops, he finished the year in the big leagues. The numbers weren’t great, but clearly something about him impressed his evaluators.
After that season, Wakefield was traded to the land of opportunity for a young ballplayer of that era: the New York Mets, who had been in existence only two years, had been terrible both seasons, and were giving all kinds of youngsters a shot just in case any of them turned out to be good. The Cardinals packaged Wakefield with outfielder George Altman and sent them to New York for veteran pitcher Roger Craig.
“When we were negotiating the deal,” Mets president George Weiss was quoted as saying in The Sporting News, “[Cardinals general manager] Bing Devine gave us a choice of six pitchers. Our scouting report on Wakefield was so high, despite his losing record, that we didn’t hesitate to pick him.” Mets manager Casey Stengel, like Wakefield, was from Kansas City, and apparently had heard good reports on the young pitcher from friends there.
Wakefield made the team in spring training; he said in the 2009 interview a spot opened up after veteran Carl Willey suffered a broken jaw when he was hit by a line drive in an exhibition game. In the April 25, 1964 issue of The Sporting News Mets manager Casey Stengel said, “Some of our young men who we sent out throw harder, but this fellow gets the side out.” In the issue two weeks later Stengel described Wakefield as a “go get ‘em pitcher” and said, “He’s got a lot of heart.”
Perhaps that was the reason Stengel selected Wakefield to make his first major league start in a milestone game in Mets’ history: the first night game at then-brand-new Shea Stadium on May 6. Bill shut out the Reds for the first three innings, then gave up a two-run homer to Frank Robimson in the fourth and was charged with three runs in the fifth to take the loss in a 12-4 Reds win.
Wakefield pitched in three more memorable games that season. He was the starting pitcher, going only two innings, in the Mets’ 23-inning loss to the Giants in the second game of a Memorial Day doubleheader…he pitched to one batter in relief in Jim Bunning’s Father’s Day perfect game at Shea Stadium…and in the annual Mayor’s Trophy exhibition game against the Yankees on August 24, he got Hall of Famer Yogi Berra to hit into a double play. Berra was managing the Yankees at the time but put himself in as a pinch-hitter to please the crowd.
Wakefield appeared in 62 games that season, which would remain a team record until Skip Lockwood broke it in 1977. He started four games, going 0-3 with a 9.82 ERA, but in relief he was effective: a 3-2 record with two saves, a 2.74 ERA in 105 innings and a .221 opponents’ batting average. His overall 3.61 ERA was the lowest on the team for anyone who pitched more than 50 innings.
But when he had a rough spring training in 1965, allowing six runs in eight innings, the Mets sent him to their Class AAA Buffalo farm club. An item in The Sporting News on April 24, 1965 said Wakefield took the demotion “quite hard.”
It didn’t go well at Buffalo (0-4, 5.82) or Salt Lake City (2-9, 5.19) in ’65, even though, as mentioned, the Mets brought him back to the majors late in the season. Then in 1966 he was dropped down to Class AA and had a terrific season at Williamsport of the Eastern League, with a 1.91 ERA in 80 innings. But now Wakefield was 25 years old, the Mets system was loaded with promising young pitchers, and he decided that using his Stanford degree in the business world might be a better ticket to his future than his pitching arm.
In 2009, the Mets’ first season at the new Citi Field, Wakefield approached the Mets about possibly throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game that season to commemorate his starting the first night game at Shea. And on July 10, he got to do just that:
Bill Wakefield is still alive at this writing, living in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco.
Honorable mention: Jon Coutlangus holds the record for most relief appearances in an only season, with 64 for the 2007 Reds…Lloyd Merritt holds the record for most saves in a single season, figured retroactively in his case, with seven for the 1957 Cardinals.
And with that, I present the list of all players in major league history who played in 100 or more games in their only major league season:
March 23, 2013
A while back I was researching Don Mincher to write his obituary for SABR‘s 2013 Emerald Guide when I noticed he batted cleanup in his first major league game on the opening day of the American League’s 1960 season (the National League had started six days earlier). It occurred to me that getting to be the alpha-dog cleanup hitter in your big league debut would be rare. It didn’t occur to me until now to check just how rare it is. And it is really rare.
But I assumed that making the kind of impression it would take to bat cleanup at the very beginning of your career would be a sign of such overwhelming excellence that the player would be destined for stardom. Mincher, for instance, played in two All-Star Games and finished with 200 career home runs. I figured that would be near the low end of career performance for first-game cleanup hitters. Instead I was overwhelmed with the…well, I hate to say “mediocrity,” since anyone who makes it to the major leagues is pretty damn good at baseball…but the undistinguished careers of so many of the players who were in the fourth spot in the batting order in their very first game.
Once again I employed the services of Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to search the box scores compiled by Retrosheet volunteers for all the seasons from 1916 through 2012. The complete list of players who started and batted cleanup in their debuts appears at the end of the article. In those 97 seasons, only 76 players who were in the starting lineup in their first major league game batted cleanup, out of 2,912 non-pitchers total. That is by far the least of any spot in the batting order. As you might guess, the highest concentration of these rookies came at the bottom of the order:
|Position in Order|
|*all in the American League in the DH era|
Play Index shows 4,100 non-pitchers who made their major league debuts as substitutes. So that means 76 of 7,012 non-pitchers who started their careers during that period were in the starting lineup batting cleanup in their first game, or just barely 1%.
And yes, some of these players did turn out to be special, with two Hall of Famers (Kiki Cuyler, Jim Bottomley), a Most Valuable Player (Justin Morneau), a Rookie of the Year (Tim Salmon), a batting champion (Dale Alexander), a home run champion (Gus Zernial) and several All-Stars (Vic Wertz, Mincher, Max Alvis, Rusty Staub). But far more of them turned out to have forgettable major league careers. Two of them never started another game; a dozen others started fewer than seven other games. Nineteen of them — one out of four — NEVER hit a major league home run; eight others hit only one homer in their careers.
The typical player hitting cleanup in his debut did so either early in the season, when a recruit may have won the job in spring training (27 of the 76 were in April, and 23 of them in their team’s first game of the season), or in September/October, when new players are being auditioned (also 27 of the 76). And typically he played for a team that wasn’t very good and might see a newcomer as an upgrade; the overall winning percentage of these teams (double-counting the two teams that had two rookies bat cleanup in their debuts) was .476, although there were a number of pennant winners resting regulars in the season’s final days along with some wretched cellar dwellers.
The complete list of the 76 players is at the end of the article. Here are a few comments, mostly about the people you’ve never heard of.
Dizzy Nutter: Started just 12 major league games, all in September 1919, and hit cleanup in all of his starts. Finished his major league career with no homers and a .212 batting average. Nutter had batted .299 with New Haven of the Eastern League in 1919, but with just one home run.
Red Torphy: Played just three games in his major league career, all in the final weeks of the 1920 season, batted cleanup in them all and went 3-for-15 with no homers. He had batted .290 with one homer at New Haven that year.
Frank Brazill: Brazill was just 21 when he opened the 1921 season as the A’s first baseman. In his previous two-plus years of minor league experience he compiled a .359 batting average, although with just five home runs. He was the A’s cleanup hitter in the first eight games of the 1921 season but didn’t hit in that spot the rest of the season. Before the year was over he started in every spot in the order except first and ninth. He started just 45 games in his brief major league career, with no home runs. The A’s traded Brazill to Portland of the Pacific Coast League shortly after the 1922 season began, and he played professional baseball until 1938 without ever returning to the majors. But he had some huge years in the PCL in the ’20s, starred in the Southern Association in the ’30s, and finished his minor league career with 2893 hits and a .331 batting average. John Spalding, in his terrific book “Pacific Coast League Stars,” described Brazill as “a marginal fielder with a scatter arm and an argumentative hothead who fought with umpires.”
Kenny Hogan: Okay, this is the strangest looking collection of stats I’ve ever seen. Hogan was a week shy of his 19th birthday — the youngest player on this list — when he batted cleanup for the Reds in the final game of the 1921 season, the second game of a doubleheader that was called after five innings and lasted just 50 minutes. The first game had gone 12 innings, so I’m guessing the second game was called early so the visiting Cubs could make their train; maybe there was weather, maybe it was getting dark. The rest of Hogan’s major league career consists of one pinch-running appearance for Cleveland in 1923 and two pinch-running appearances for the Indians in 1924. (Also, the official stats appear to have erroneously credited Hogan with an at-bat in 1924.) But what’s really odd is SABR shows no minor league games for him at all until 1927, when they show him playing three games for Toronto, and no substantial minor league playing time until 1929. Has some other Hogan in the records been given credit for games Kenny played? Or did he really make his major league debut at 18 with no professional experience, and then find himself in a major league uniform again two and three years later, still with no other professional experience? What’s this all about? Somehow we have to find out.
Norm McMillan: McMillan was the opening day cleanup hitter and right fielder for the defending American League champion Yankees in 1922. He got the opportunity with both Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel under suspension for going on a barnstorming tour after the 1921 World Series in violation of what was then a major league rule. McMillan was the Yankees’ cleanup hitter for the first 13 games of the season, batting .314 but with just one extra-base hit and one walk, and while he stayed on the team for the rest of the season and even got into a World Series game he made just three more starts. He was a regular with the Red Sox in 1923 and with the Cubs in 1929.
Jewel Ens: The only second baseman to bat cleanup in his major league debut, at least from 1916 on (no shortstop or catcher has ever hit fourth in his debut during that time). Ens was 32 years old when he played his first game with the Pirates. The previous year he had hit .335 with 19 homers for Syracuse, what was to that point by far his best minor league season. Ens was the Bucs’ cleanup hitter for the better part of a month, but he wound up starting just 38 games in his major league career and hit only one home run. He took over as manager of the Pirates in 1929.
Mahlon Higbee: The 21-year-old Higbee made his debut in the second game of a doubleheader in a lineup that included third baseman Waddy MacPhee from Princeton University (also making his debut) and second baseman Freddie Maguire (playing his third game) along with a number of other Giants reserves. Eighteen-year-old shortstop Travis Jackson, a future Hall of Famer, also made his debut in the game off the bench. Higbee had been playing Class D ball before starting three games for the Giants in the final week of the 1922 season (all of them second games of doubleheaders) and went 4-for-10 with a homer and five RBI. That was the extent of his major league career. Another mystery, SABR doesn’t show much of a minor league career for him at all. Would love to know more about this one.
Jimmy Hudgens and Speed Walker: The Cardinals had rookies debut in the cleanup spot on consecutive days in September 1923. Hudgens would start just four other games in the majors, Walker just one other. Hudgens had not played above the Class C level before joining the Cards; he went on to have some fine minor league seasons. Walker came up from Class B and spent most of the rest of his career there.
Buddy Crump: Another end-of-season mystery for John McGraw’s Giants. He went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly in the final game of the 1924 season and committed two errors in center field in what would be his only major league appearance, making him the only man on the list who never played another game in the majors. Crump had spent the season in the Class B Virginia League; SABR’s records don’t show him playing anywhere in 1925 and not much after that.
Mandy Brooks: More questions here. SABR’s records show Brooks beginning his career in Organized Baseball at the age of 26 at the highest level of the minors, batting .342 with Columbus of the American Association in 1924. Where was he before that? (UPDATE: The 1924 Reach Guide shows an outfielder named Brooks who played for Columbus in 1923, hitting .273 in 145 games. There’s no first name so I can’t say for certain it’s the same guy, but I suspect it is.) Brooks must have gone north with the Cubs in ’25, at least there’s no minor league record showing for him that season, but he didn’t play until the Cubs’ 41st game — at which time he was installed in the cleanup spot, where he stayed for most of the next two months. (UPDATE: No, Brooks didn’t go north with the Cubs; I’ve now found reference in The Sporting News to the Cubs acquiring John Brooks — his given name was Jonathan — from Columbus in May 1925 for cash and two players. The 1926 Spalding’s Guide says Brooks played 28 games at Columbus in 1925, batting .331 with 14 extra-base hits in 28 games.) He moved down in the order after that but remained the Cubs’ regular center fielder for the rest of the season and finished with a .513 slugging percentage. SABR member Tom Ruane points out that Brooks hit nine home runs in just over three weeks soon after joining the Cubs. The following winter the Cubs acquired Hack Wilson and Riggs Stephenson, and Brooks was out of a starting job; he didn’t play much or well in 1926 and returned to the minors after that.
Red Holt: Holt was 31 years old and coming off his fourth straight season of hitting better than .300 for Jersey City of the International League when he came to the A’s in September 1925. He started 25 games over the rest of the season (although he never batted cleanup after his debut), hit .273 with one home run, and never played in the majors again.
Rusty Saunders: The 21-year-old hit .350 in Class D in his first year of pro ball in 1927 and joined the A’s at the end of the season. He started four games and went 2-for-15 with no homers. Saunders played four more years in Class B and hit well but never played in the majors again.
Del Bissonette: Del helped Buffalo win the International League pennant in 1927, hitting .365 and leading the league in home runs and RBI, and opened the 1928 season as Brooklyn’s cleanup hitter. He had four solid seasons with the Dodgers before severing his Achilles tendon in a spring training volleyball game. His interesting story is told by Will Anderson in the SABR Bio Project. (The photo at left is from Baseball Birthdays.)
Harley Boss: Just 19 years old, Boss came to the Senators from Little Rock of the Southern Association in July 1928 and made his debut in the same game that future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin played his first game as a Senator. Joe Judge was typically the first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Nats, and manager Bucky Harris just dropped Judge’s replacement into the same slot in the order, which often seemed to happen in those days. But Boss started only one more game for the Senators that year, their final game of the season. He was Cleveland’s regular first baseman in 1933, hitting .269 with his only major league homer, and was still playing in the minors during World War II.
George Blackerby: Hit .364 in 1927 and .368 in 1928 with Waco in the Texas League before joining the White Sox at the end of July 1928. He started 18 games over the rest of the season, batted .253 with no homers, and never played in the majors again, even though he had an even bigger year at Waco (.365, 33 homers) in 1929.
Dale Alexander: Opened the 1929 season as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter after winning the International League triple crown at Toronto in 1928. He led the American League in hits in both of his first two seasons and won the batting title in 1932, but was back in the minors by 1934. In addition to his .331 career major league average, he hit .338 in the minors with more than 2000 hits there for a professional total of 2883. Bill Nowlin tells his story in the SABR Bio Project.
Smead Jolley: The White Sox made Jolley their cleanup hitter in 1930 after he had wreaked havoc on the Pacific Coast League for four years with the San Francisco Seals, including winning the triple crown in 1928 by hitting .404 with 45 homers and 188 RBI. Defensive deficiencies limited Jolley’s major league career to four years, but he went back to the minors and continued to rake; in his final season, at age 39, he led the Western International League in batting average and RBI. He won six minor league batting titles and his minor league lifetime average was .366, with 3037 hits (plus another 521 in the majors). Bill Nowlin is also the author of his SABR Bio Project story.
Hank Leiber: Lieber was the Giants’ opening day cleanup hitter in 1933 after hitting .362 as a first-year pro in the Class B Piedmont League in 1932. But after going 2-for-5 in his debut, Lieber didn’t start another game for the Giants that season; he pinch-hit five times before being returned to the minors. He rejoined the Giants for good in June 1934 and stayed in the majors through 1942.
Joe Mowry: He hit .348 with 19 homers with Minneapolis in the American Association in 1932, and after he got off to a hot start with the Millers in 1933, he was traded to the Boston Bees on May 11 and was in the Bees’ cleanup spot two days later. In three seasons in the majors he started 103 games and hit .233 with two home runs.
Joe Hutcheson: The 28-year-old Hutcheson was in his fourth season of ripping it up for Memphis in the Southern Association when the Dodgers acquired him in July 1933. In his first 20 games he hit .333 with three home runs, then he went into a 4-for-59 slump. He did hit three more home runs after that, but he was traded to St. Paul after the season and never returned to the majors.
Skinny Graham: Just 5’7″, Graham hit .331 in Class A before joining the Red Sox in September 1934. He started 13 games that month (batting cleanup in only the first two) and started two more games in a late-season trial in 1935, finishing his brief major league career with no home runs and a .246 average.
Fred Sington: Had a big year for Albany in the International League in 1934, hitting .327 with 29 home runs, then joined the Senators in September and batted cleanup in each of the last nine games of the season. He spent all or part of each of the next five seasons in the majors.
Howie Gorman: Another mystery…SABR’s minor league records show Gorman playing just 25 minor league games in 1935 and none in 1936 or 1937. Yet there was Gorman in the lineup, batting fourth, for the Phillies on Aug. 7, 1937. His only other major league starts came when he hit leadoff in both ends of a doubleheader on Sept. 19 of that year, and he finished his major league career having gone 4-for-20 with no home runs. Where did he come from and why was he with the Phillies? Right now I have no clue.
LeGrant Scott: The unusually-named outfielder had a trial with the Erie minor league team in 1930 but then was “out of the game” (according to The Sporting News of Oct. 13, 1938) until June 1934, when he was almost 24. He joined the Birmingham team of the Southern Association at that time and stayed with them until he got a brief trial with Indianapolis of the American Association in 1938. The Phillies drafted him after that season, at the request of new manager Doc Prothro, who had managed against him in the Southern Association, and made him their right fielder to start 1939. Scott moved out of the cleanup spot after two games, but he remained a regular in the lineup until early August, when they returned him to Indianapolis. And that was the end of his major league career, in which he batted .280 with one home run. He remained active in the minors as a player and then as a manager through 1948. Scott’s son, also named LeGrant Edward Scott, played baseball at the University of Alabama and then spent eight years in the minor leagues; I found a story about him as a successful high school football coach in Alabama.
Buster Bray: In 1940 Bray was a 27-year old playing in the Class B Three-I League, where he hit .336 for Evansville. In 1941 he made the Boston Braves roster and was their center fielder and cleanup hitter in the fourth and fifth games of the season. He played just two more games before being sent to the minors in early May, finishing his major league career with one hit, a double, in 11 at-bats. He went into the military after the 1941 season and did not play professionally again.
Frankie Kelleher: Kelleher went to high school in Crockett, Calif. (home of C&H Sugar) and attended nearby Saint Mary’s College. I mention these facts only because we live near Crockett and my wife works at Saint Mary’s. Kelleher left Saint Mary’s before graduating to sign with the Yankees and scout Joe Devine, who according to John Spalding’s “Pacific Coast League Stars” was Kelleher’s third cousin. With the Yankee farm system loaded with talent, Kelleher struggled for playing time. He was the primary reserve on one of the most famous minor league teams of all time, the 1937 Newark Bears. Finally getting a chance to play regularly in Newark in 1941, he led the International League with 37 home runs and 125 RBI, then got off to another blazing start in 1942 with 23 home runs in 88 games before the Yankees traded him to Cincinnati in July. Kelleher moved right into the Reds’ lineup but got off to a horrible start and never really recovered, batting just .182 with three home runs in 38 games. After an 0-for-10 start in 1943 the Reds shipped him back to the minors, never to return. But the best part of his career was still to come: he spent 10 seasons with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars (1944-54, except when he was in the service during the 1945 season), led the league in home runs twice and helped the Stars win three PCL championships. He was the team’s most popular player ever, becoming the only player in Stars history to have his uniform number retired, and finished his minor league career with 358 home runs.
Jim Tyack: After hitting .309 for Little Rock in 1942 and leading the Southern Association in triples, Tyack was purchased by the A’s and opened the 1943 season as their left fielder, a 32-year-old rookie. He got off to a slow start but was flirting with the ,300 mark in mid-June, then after he went through a 5-for-38 slump he was traded to Toronto in early August. Tyack remained active in the minors through 1948 but never returned to the majors, ending his career with no home runs and a .258 average. He was an outstanding athlete in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., and is a member of the Kern County Sports Hall of Fame. The Jim Tyack Award is given annually Kern County’s outstanding male and female athlete; the first winner was future major league Johnny Callison, and another future major leaguer, Junior Kennedy, has also won the honor (he shared his with future NFL star Jeff Siemon).
Heinz Becker: Born in Germany, Becker and his family moved to Venezuela (!) when he was 7 and then to Dallas when he was 10. He finished second (to Eddie Stanky) in the 1942 American Association batting race when he hit .340 for Milwaukee, then the Cubs purchased him after the season. Becker opened the 1943 season as the Cubs’ first baseman, starting the first 15 games, but with a .155 batting average and no home runs he was sent first to the bench and then in early June back to Milwaukee. Becker did return to the majors and saw action as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs in the 1945 World Series, but he hit just two home runs in 152 major league games. He continued to rip the ball in the minors, though, winning the 1947 American Association batting crown and finishing with a lifetime minor league average of .325. Paul Tenpenny has more about Becker’s career here. Becker was charged with the murder of a friend in 1953 after a fight that started in a bar, but the charge was dropped. (After I wrote this, a full-fledged bio by Gregory H. Wolf was posted on the SABR Bio Project.)
Johnny Lazor: Lazor had the unenviable task of replacing Ted Williams in left field for the Boston Red Sox in 1943 after Williams entered military service. The Red Sox purchased Lazor’s contract after he hit .309 for Louisville of the American Association in 1942. Lazor hit just .226 in ’43 with no home runs, but he had more success with the Sox in 1945, batting .310 in 101 games. Bill Nowlin has much more about him in the SABR Bio Project.
Roland Gladu: Gladu has one of the most geographically diverse playing careers of his day, playing professionally in Canada, Mexico, Cuba and England (!). A native French speaker from Quebec, Gladu’s struggles with English hampered him in the early part of his baseball career, according to his bio by Rory Costello in the SABR Bio Project. For five years Gladu was out of Organized Baseball, playing in Quebec in the Provincial League in 1935, in England in 1936 and ’37 (he is a member of the British Baseball Hall of Fame), then returning to the Provincial League in 1938. In 1940 the Provincial League joined the National Association and Gladu played for the Quebec City team managed by another man on this list, Del Bissonette. Gladu served in the Canadian Army in 1943, but he was discharged after the baseball season and hooked up with the Boston Braves thanks to Bissonette, who was managing their Hartford farm club. Gladu was the Braves’ opening day third baseman in 1944 (the first third baseman since at least 1916 to bat cleanup in his debut), but by the end of May he was in Hartford, finishing his brief major league career with a .242 batting average and one home run in 21 games. Gladu later played winter ball in Cuba and joined Jorge Pascual’s ill-fated Mexican League before becoming a player-manager back in the Provincial League. After his playing career he spent more than a decade as a scout.
Joe Mack: Mack was reported to be 29 in October 1944 when the Boston Braves purchased him from the Columbus Redbirds, for whom he had driven in 102 runs that season. He was actually 32, and would turn 33 before opening the 1945 season as the Braves’ first baseman. Mack was moved out of the cleanup spot in late May but started 66 of the Braves’ first 67 games before being sent to the minors in early July. He never went back to the bigs, finishing his career with a .231 batting average and three home runs.
Ben Taylor: Bill Veeck brought Taylor to the majors from the Texas League shortly after taking over the St. Louis Browns in July 1951, and the newcomer hit a home run in his second trip to the plate. Taylor didn’t make a big impression after that, starting 25 games over the rest of the season, and while he did earn brief trials with the Tigers in 1952 and the Braves in 1955, he hit just three home runs in his major league career. His nephew, Bob “Hawk” Taylor, signed with the Braves for a then-record $119,000 bonus in 1957 and went on to play parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues.
Mel Hoderlein: Hoderlein had hit no more than five home runs in any of his seven minor league seasons, yet there he was in the cleanup spot, behind Ted Williams, when he made his debut with the Red Sox in August 1951. Bill Nowlin writes that a series of infield injuries led to Hoderlein’s call-up to the majors. He started just four other games that year for the Sox, including the final three games of the season. He never hit a home run in 118 major league games.
Earl Hersh: Hersh was called up to the league-leading Milwaukee Braves in September 1956 after a good season with Wichita of the American Association (.307, 27 homers). When Eddie Mathews sprained an ankle on Labor Day, Hersh moved into the lineup in left field (Bobby Thomson moving from left to Mathews’ third base spot) and hit cleanup, a lefthanded bat between righthanded sluggers Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock. Hersh ripped three doubles in his first two games but never started another major league game. He got a good look to win the left field job in spring training in 1957 but Braves manager Fred Haney found his defensive work wanting. A Maryland native, Hersh was a star athlete at what was then known as West Chester State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. He scored a touchdown in the 1952 Blue-Gray college all-star football game and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1953 before signing with the Braves. After his playing career Hersh went back to Maryland and was a successful high school coach and athletic director.
Jim Marshall: Marshall hit at least 20 home runs in seven straight seasons in the minors (1951-57), most of them in the Pacific Coast League, before he was acquired by the Orioles. He opened the 1958 season as the O’s first baseman and started 44 games, but he hit just .215 and was sent to the Cubs on waivers in August. His first day with the Cubs was his best day as a major leaguer, as he hit three home runs in a doubleheader against the Phillies on August 24. Marshall stayed in the big leagues through 1962, then played three years in Japan (he later coached there as well) before turning to managing, including stints with the Cubs (1974-76) and the A’s (1979). Among his claims to fame: he was the Mets’ starting first baseman in their first-ever home game in 1962.
Willie Kirkland: Kirkland averaged 35 homers a year in four minor league seasons, then spent a year in military service before earning the starting right field spot for the Giants in 1958. That was the team’s first year in California, so he was the San Francisco Giants’ first-ever cleanup hitter and was, along with the Dodgers’ Gil Hodges, one of the cleanup hitters in the first major league game on the West Coast. Two other Giants starters, Orlando Cepeda and Jim Davenport, also made their major league debut in that game. Kirkland stayed in the majors through 1966 and later played six seasons in Japan. He finished his professional career with 450 home runs between the majors, minors and Japan.
Rusty Staub: Staub had by far the longest career of any player on this list, making his major league debut eight days after his 19th birthday and playing his last game at the age of 41. A high school star in New Orleans who played on an American Legion national championship team in 1960, Staub signed a bonus contract with the new Houston Colt .45s before the team had even played a game. He spent his first year of pro ball in the Class B Carolina League, where he hit .293 with 23 home runs and earned most valuable player honors, and was ticketed to start 1963 in the Class AA Texas League, but he made such a strong impression in spring training (batting .420) that not only did he make the opening day roster, he was the Colts’ starting right fielder and cleanup hitter. “Why not?” Colts manager Harry Craft said when asked about having a teenage cleanup hitter. “Right now, Rusty’s our best hitter and he belongs in there.” Staub was moved out of the cleanup spot in mid-May but he stayed in the lineup all season. He batted fourth 35 times that year and may hold the all-time record for most games batting cleanup as a teenager (I haven’t found a way to verify that using Play Index).
Ossie Blanco: I was 12 years old in 1970 and obsessed with baseball, and I would have sworn I had heard of everyone who wore a major league uniform then, but I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of Blanco until I created this list. He got off to a blazing start in 1970, his eighth year in the minors, leading the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in batting average (.375) and ranking second in home runs when he was called up to the White Sox on May 24. He moved right into the Sox’ lineup at first base but batted cleanup only in his first two games. After going 2-for-22 in June he was returned to the minors, this time to Class AA for some reason; he rejoined the Sox in August but started just 13 games for the season. He also made a brief appearance with Cleveland in 1974, finishing his major league career with no home runs and a .196 batting average.
Roger Freed: After batting .334 at Rochester in 1970, leading the International League with 130 RBI and sharing most valuable player honors, Freed finished the season with the pennant-winning Orioles and batted cleanup in his debut. His three later starts that season found him batting in the sixth spot. Freed was traded to the Phillies after the season but never really blossomed as a major leaguer, although he did see action in parts of eight seasons. He had one more huge year in the minors, batting .309 with 42 homers at Denver in 1976 and being honored as the Pacific Coast League’s MVP.
Dave Schneck: Schneck spent more than a year serving in Vietnam after his first minor league season, missing two full seasons as a result of his military service, but returned in 1971 to hit 35 homers. After an incredible start at Memphis of the Class AA Texas League in 1972 (24 homers and 76 RBI in 81 games) he was summoned to the Mets. His manager at Memphis, John Antonelli (the former infielder, not the former pitcher), wanted to surprise Schneck with the news, so he packed his bag for him before telling him he was going to the majors. Alas, he forgot to pack any of Schneck’s bats, so when Schneck arrived in San Diego to make his major league debut, he had to borrow a bat from teammate Teddy Martinez, who to that point in his career had hit one major league home run. Schneck matched that in the sixth inning of his debut with a two-run homer that changed a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 Mets lead that would hold up as the final score. Two days later Schneck homered again and added a single and a double, but the rest of the season did not go well and he finished with a .187 batting average and a total of three home runs. Schneck spent the 1973 season in the Class AAA International League and then joined the Mets in September, starting 12 of their last 17 games in center field, but he was not eligible for the playoffs as the Mets went to the World Series. He opened the 1974 season as the Mets’ regular center fielder and got off to a torrid start, going 10-for-18 in his first four games and then hitting two home runs in a game at Montreal on April 17. But he cooled off after that and saw limited playing time after late June, and he did not return to the majors after that season. He finished his major league career with eight homers and a .199 average.
Frank “Moose” Ortenzio: Ortenzio hit 32 home runs in the Class A California League in 1971 and 26 homers at two minor league levels in 1972 to mark himself as the primary slugger in the Royals’ farm system (Lou Gorman, then the team’s scouting director, described him as having “Killebrew-style power”). A broken wrist suffered in a fall at home in early 1973 delayed his start to the season and led to his demotion to the Class AA Southern League, but after he recovered he hit .307 with 19 homers in 95 games there and earned a September promotion to Kansas City. Ortenzio was lifted for a pinch-hitter in his September 9 debut and didn’t get back into the lineup until the final week of the season, but in his five final-week starts he went 7-for-20 with two doubles and a home run. Yet Ortenzio never returned to the major leagues; in part due to a broken ankle suffered with Omaha in 1974, his hitting fell off. But, like Roger Freed, he did go on to have one monster year for Denver, hitting .311 with 40 homers and 126 RBI in 1977 and earning MVP honors.
Tom Robson: Robson started his pro career as a 50th-round draft choice and had been sold once and released twice before signing a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers as a 26-year-old in 1972. In 1973 he earned most valuable player honors in the Class AA Eastern League, leading the loop in home runs (38) and RBI (126) and finishing one point behind future Hall of Famer Jim Rice for the batting title. (Although, at 27, Robson was quite old for the league; by comparison, Rice was 21.) The next year he earned MVP honors again, this time in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, where he hit .322 with 41 homers and 131 RBI. That led to a September call-up to the Rangers and four starts down the stretch, all as a designated hitter, making him the first player to bat cleanup as a DH in his debut. Robson also saw some action with the Rangers at a few points in the 1975 season but started just eight games. That would end his major league career, in which he hit .208 with no home runs. He went to play in Japan in 1976 and has since had a long career as a hitting coach and written a book about hitting. His nephew is current Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.
Andres Mora: A native of Mexico, Mora started his professional baseball career in that country at age 16 in 1971. The Expos bought his contract in 1973 but he got off to an 0-for-21 start in the Class A Florida State League, then went on the disabled list May 8 for the rest of the season, and the Expos returned his contract. After Mora led the Mexican League in home runs and RBI as a 20-year-old in 1975, the Orioles bought his contract, and he made the 1976 opening day roster. He had three disappointing seasons with the O’s, then returned to Mexico and went on to win three more home run titles there. He played through 1997, when he was 42, and at the time of his retirement his 419 Mexican League home runs was second to Hector Espino in league history. He was elected to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. Much more of his story is told on the SABR Bio Project.
Pat Putnam: Putnam was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year in 1976 when he hit .361 with 24 homers and 142 RBI in the Class A Western Carolinas League. He was the first player from that low a classification to win the honor since the very first award in 1936, won by Johnny Vander Meer in the Class B Piedmont League. Bumped up to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in 1977, Putnam hit .301 and knocked in 102 runs to earn a September promotion to the Rangers. He was never a star but finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1979 (he spent most of 1978 in the minors) and twice led his team in home runs. His story is also on the SABR Bio Project.
Al Chambers: Chambers, the first player taken overall in the 1979 amateur draft, got the call to the majors in July 1983, when he was leading the Class AAA Salt Lake City team in batting average (.331), home runs and doubles. He began his major league career with two-run singles in each of the first two innings of his first game (Pat Putnam was one of the runners who scored on the first hit), and that was the highlight of his time in the big leagues. He drove in more runs in his first game than he did for the rest of the season (3, in 30 games). Chambers played his last major league game in 1985, having started 32 games in his career and finishing with a .208 batting average and two home runs.
Jim Wilson: A second-round draft choice in 1982, Wilson earned a September call-up in 1985 after leading the Class AAA International League with 26 homers and 101 RBI. He started both games of doubleheaders on back-to-back days against the Twins, got at least one hit in each game and drove in a total of four runs. But he did not play again that season, and his only future major league experience was five games for Seattle (one start) in 1989, during which he went 0-for-8. He had some good years in AAA and remained active through 1994.
Pete Incaviglia: Incaviglia’s major league debut was also his first regular season game in professional baseball. The NCAA’s all-time home run leader at Oklahoma State, he was the eighth player take in the June 1985 amateur draft but refused to sign with the Expos and forced a trade to the Rangers. That led to a change in baseball rules forbidding a team from trading a player until he has been under contract for one year. Incaviglia went north with the Rangers in 1986 without having played a game in the minors. He hit 30 home runs as a rookie, but that turned out to be his career high, although he hit 206 career homers in 12 seasons.
Jay Gainer: Gainer had not played above the Class AA level when he was traded to the first-year Colorado Rockies during spring training in 1993. He started the season at Class AAA Colorado Springs and got the call to the Rockies in mid-May, hitting a home run in his first at-bat. He started seven straight games, with just three singles in 24 at-bats after the home run, then was demoted to pinch-hitting before being returned to the minors later in the month. Gainer returned to the Rockies in September and was used only as a pinch-hitter, knocking two home runs. He did not play in the majors after that season.
Barbaro Canizares: The most recent player on this list is Canizares, a defector from Cuba who was signed by the Braves after playing in Nicaragua in 2006. Canizares shaved five years off his age and was actually 34 when he was playing at Class AAA Gwinnett in 2009. He was hitting .344 with 26 extra-base hits in 58 games when he was called up to the Braves to fill in for the injured Greg Norton. Canizares started four straight games, batting cleanup only in the first one, and went 4-for-17 before going back to the minors. He returned to the Braves to start one more game in July. He went to play in Mexico after the 2010 season and crushed the ball there. Maybe somebody can tell me what he’s up to now but I am under the impression that he still harbors hopes of returning to the majors at age 38 (even though, according to Baseball-Reference.com, he’s only 33).
Here now is the complete list of players who were in the starting lineup batting cleanup in their first major league game, along with how they did in their debut. Click on the player’s name to see his career major league stats, and click on the date to see the box score of his first major league game.
March 9, 2013
In putting together a batting order, major league managers have traditionally had one iron-clad rule: the pitcher bats ninth. Even pitchers who are excellent hitters are stuck in the last spot in the order. Don Newcombe hit .359 when he won 20 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, with seven home runs in 117 at-bats, and was used as a pinch-hitter 23 times, but he batted ninth in all 31 of his starts. Wes Ferrell hit .347 as a 25-game winner for the 1935 Boston Red Sox, with seven homers in 150 at-bats (he had a .446 career slugging percentage), and was used as a pinch-hitter 36 times, but batted ninth in all 38 of his starts.
The urge to bat the pitcher ninth is so strong that Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and George Sisler both batted ninth as pitchers in seasons during which they hit in the heart of the order when they played in the field.
But in recent years, some managers have moved the pitcher out of the ninth spot in the order on a frequent basis (one manager, as you may know, far more than others). This post will not include what those managers said about their decisions to modify the traditional batting order, nor will it make any attempt at analysis to determine if using the pitcher elsewhere in the order is more effective. What I will do is quantify the use of this tactic and show the teams and managers that have used it most often.
To get the information, I’ve used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index that makes use of the box scores compiled by Retrosheet from 1916 through 2012. The Retrosheet site also has box scores from 1915 that are not yet part of Play Index, so they’re not part of my search, but I can check the 1915 boxes for players discussed here.
I will exclude some players from the discussion because they saw extensive action playing other positions; they’re not what we think of as “pitchers.”
Babe Ruth: When Ruth was a full-time pitcher, through 1917, he batted ninth. But starting in 1918 he saw more action as an outfielder than as a pitcher. In 1918 he batted cleanup while pitching 11 times and seventh once. (He batted ninth in seven of his starts.) In 1919 he batted cleanup in 13 of his mound starts and ninth in the other two. (Ruth led the American League in homers in both 1918 and 1919; I wonder if he’s the only player who ever led his league in homers during a season in which he started a game batting ninth?) Ruth started four games as a pitcher for the Yankees, during the years when he was a full-time outfielder, and batted third or fourth in all of them. The Babe is the only player in the 1916-2012 database who batted cleanup in a game he started as a pitcher and may be the only man in major league history to pitch a shutout while batting cleanup, his last major league shutout in 1918. Babe is also the only starting pitcher in postseason history, going back to the first World Series in 1903, to bat anywhere other than ninth; he hit sixth for the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 1918 World Series (he drove in Boston’s first two runs and was the winning pitcher).
George Sisler: Sisler was primarily a first baseman and an outfielder as a rookie in 1915, but he also pitched 70 innings. He batted ninth in all of his pitching starts that season, even though he typically batted third (and never ninth) in other games. Sisler also batted ninth in the first game he started on the mound in 1916, despite having batted third or fourth in all his previous starts in the field that year. But in his two pitching starts later that season and one in 1918 he batted third. (That includes the game in which he pitched a 1-0 shutout against Walter Johnson and the Senators, which may make Sisler the only player in major league history to pitch a shutout while batting third.)
Ed Konetchy: Konetchy played more than 2000 career games at first base. He batted in what was then his regular spot in the order, sixth, when he made his one major league pitching start in 1918 for the Boston Braves (pitching a complete game but getting clobbered). The player who batted ninth for the Braves, Hugh Canavan, was making his only career major league start in the field; he was normally a pitcher. I’d love to know more about the circumstances of that game. Konetchy made two relief appearances in the majors and got credit for a victory with 4-2/3 innings of shutout relief in a game for the Cardinals in 1913. (If anyone can help with the date of that game, I’d be grateful.)
Jack Bentley: Bentley was both a batting and pitching star in the minor leagues (leading the International League in both RBI and ERA in 1920) and also pitched a little in the majors in his younger days. The New York Giants acquired him in 1923 as a pitcher, but in 1926, the Phillies picked him up and switched him to first base. He normally batted fifth when he played first, and Bentley also hit fifth in his first start as a pitcher that season, although he hit ninth in two later starts.
Bucky Walters: Walters was primarily a third baseman in the majors until he made his first pitching start in the final game of the 1934 season (he batted ninth in that game; in the first game of the doubleheader, starting at third base, he batted seventh, and I wonder if that makes him the only man in major league history to start one game of a doubleheader in the field and the other on the mound). From 1935 on he was primarily a pitcher, normally batting ninth except for a game when he batted seventh in 1935 and a game when he batted eighth (and pitched a shutout) in 1937. (Walters started games in the field in 1935 and 1937 and always batted higher in the order when he did.)
Johnny Lindell: Lindell reached the major leagues as a pitcher, having never played any other position in the minors, but was a full-time outfielder with the Yankees from 1943-50. He then went back to the minors, started pitching again, and returned to the majors as a pitcher in 1953. He typically batted ninth when he pitched that year, but he batted fifth in two of his starts (he also batted fifth in two starts at first base).
Cesar Tovar: Tovar was the starting pitcher and leadoff hitter in the game in which he played all nine positions in 1968. (Obscure fact: no starting pitcher batted in the number two spot in the order in the 1916-2012 period.)
There’s one other pitcher I’m going to exclude: Andy Sonnanstine, because he batted third by accident, not by managerial design. That happened in a game in 2009; Sonnanstine was not listed in the original batting order, but he wound up hitting third after Rays manager Joe Maddon submitted a lineup card with two third basemen and no designated hitter. Sonnanstine took advantage of the rare opportunity to bat in an American League game by hitting an RBI double.
Okay, with those exclusions out of the way, here’s the rundown of times in which a team had the starting pitcher batting somewhere other than the ninth spot, by year, since 1916:
The only true pitcher who batted anywhere but ninth during these years was Walter Johnson. We don’t have box scores available for Johnson’s first eight seasons in the majors (1907-14). In 1915 he batted sixth three times. Then in 1916 he batted seventh eight times, sixth once and batted fifth on June 1, the highest position in the lineup ever (from 1916 on, anyway) for a pitcher who did not also have extensive experience as a position player. That made a total of 10 pitching starts in which Johnson did not bat ninth that year. In 1917 he batted eighth once; in 1918 he batted eighth once and seventh once; in 1919 he batted eighth once and sixth once. Clark Griffith was the Senators’ manager in all those seasons, giving him a known total of 18 games in which he batted the pitcher somewhere other than ninth. From 1920 on Johnson hit only in the ninth spot as a starting pitcher. He actually started at least five games in the outfield in his career (one in 1915, two in 1918 and two in 1919) and was a .235 career hitter.
A starting pitcher batted above the ninth spot just 10 times in this 30-year period, and only one season saw it happen more than once: 1933, when Cincinnati’s Red Lucas batted seventh on August 25 and September 7. Lucas was a .281 lifetime hitter who held the major league record for career pinch-hits for more than 30 years. He also started some games in the field; in 1925, he was the Boston Braves’ second baseman for the first six games of the season, and in 1927 with the Reds he started three games at second base, two games at shortstop and one game in left field, getting at least one hit in each game.
The other pitchers who didn’t bat ninth in this period were George “Hooks” Dauss of the Tigers in 1920 and 1921, Eddie Rommel of the A’s in 1924, Waite Hoyt of the A’s in 1931 (a game in which Rommel started in left field and batted ninth, the first of three consecutive days Rommel started in the outfield), Herman Fink of the A’s in 1937, Curt Davis of the Cardinals in 1938, Jim Tobin of the Braves in 1941 and Early Wynn of the Senators in 1947. All hit eighth except for Wynn, who became the first pitcher to be in the starting lineup batting sixth since Walter Johnson in 1919. Tobin’s manager was Casey Stengel; we’ll see his name again later.
This was the first time a pitcher made more than two starts in a season batting outside the ninth spot since Johnson in 1919. The man who did it was Ned Garver, who hit .286 on the season and was used as a pinch-hitter six times for the St. Louis Browns. Garver batted eighth once, seventh once and sixth once. The next year, 1951, Garver was even better, winning 20 games for the last-place Browns (the rest of the team won 32) and batting .305, but he batted ninth in every game he started.
Also in 1950, Gene Bearden batted eighth in a game for the Senators. His manager was Bucky Harris, who will return in a moment.
All starting pitchers batted ninth.
For the first time (at least in our 1916-2012 database) a manager used more than one pitcher in a season outside the ninth spot. That manager was Lou Boudreau, in his first year as skipper of the Boston Red Sox. Boudreau had not used the tactic in his nine years in charge of the Indians, but in 1952 he batted his pitcher eighth twice, seventh once and sixth six times, with six different pitchers involved. Allan Wood wrote extensively about Boudreau’s experiment last month at The Hardball Times, a story I hadn’t seen until I started researching this post…nicely done, Allan. All other starting pitchers in 1952 batted ninth.
Boudreau also batted his pitcher higher in the order nine times in 1953, eight of them in the sixth spot; those events are also covered in Allan Wood’s post. Casey Stengel, now managing the New York Yankees, used Johnny Sain and Eddie Lopat in the eighth spot once each.
Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris batted Mickey McDermott (a .252 career hitter) in the seventh spot 10 times, the most times any pitcher had hit above the ninth spot in a single season since Walter Johnson (him again) in 1916 (and thus tying Harris with Johnson’s manager, Clark Griffith, as the manager who used the tactic the most times in a season). McDermott was the only pitcher who didn’t bat ninth in ’54.
Stengel broke the single season record held by Harris and Griffith when he batted his pitcher somewhere other than ninth 15 times. Tommy Byrne (a .238 career hitter) batted eighth eight times and seventh three times, and Don Larsen (a .242 career hitter) batted eighth four times and homered in the first of them (the only one of his 14 career homers he hit outside of the ninth spot in the order). Stengel was the only manager who batted a pitcher anywhere but ninth in 1955.
First-year major league manager Bobby Bragan of the Pirates set single-season and career records for batting his pitcher outside the ninth spot when he his pitcher seventh 21 times, all from July 26 through September 3, with seven different pitchers involved. That’s by far the most games a team has had a pitcher bat seventh (the 1954 Senators with McDermott being next on the list). Stengel batted Larsen and McDermott (now a Yankee) in the eighth spot once apiece in 1956 (giving Stengel a career total of 20). Dick Donovan of the White Sox batted eighth once and never actually got to the plate; he was knocked out of the box in the first inning.
Bragan’s records didn’t last long, thanks to Lou Boudreau, now managing the Kansas City A’s. After his 1952-53 experiment in which he moved the pitcher up in the order a total of 18 times, Boudreau had batted his pitcher ninth in every game with the Red Sox in 1954 and again in every game during his first two seasons in the A’s dugout in ’55 and ’56. But in 1957 Boudreau batted his pitcher eighth for the first 56 games of the season, ending on June 15, bringing his career total to 74. (Boudreau would be fired in early August.)
Bragan batted his pitcher eighth in the first two games of the season and then abandoned the tactic; like Boudreau, he would be fired before the end of the season. Two other managers used a pitcher outside the ninth spot in 1957, to set a record for most managers doing so in one season. Stengel batted Don Larsen eighth twice and seventh three times (bringing Casey’s career total to 25), and Bob Lemon hit seventh once and eighth twice for Cleveland manager Kerby Farrell. Lemon reached the major leagues as a third baseman and opened the 1946 season as the Indians’ center fielder, but he had only 66 major league plate appearances before becoming a full-time pitcher. Although Lemon batted second as a center fielder, he hit ninth as a pitcher in 1946 and in every other game he started except these three.
But after all the records set in 1957, the practice of batting the pitcher anywhere but ninth came to an almost complete halt for 40 years. It didn’t help that the most prominent advocates of the tactic, Boudreau and Bragan, had both been fired; of course, Stengel was the era’s most successful manager, but he used the tactic with some of the best-hitting pitchers of the day (Larsen, Byrne, McDermott).
In this 40-year span a starting pitcher batted anywhere but ninth just five times.
In 1968 Gary Peters, arguably one of the best hitters on an awful-hitting White Sox squad (he was used as a pinch-hitter 17 times), batted sixth on May 26. No pitcher has appeared that high in the lineup since.
In 1973 Steve Renko, who started his minor league career as a first baseman, batted seventh on August 26 and stroked a single and a double to raise his batting average for the season to that point to .292. This was also the first season of the designated hitter in the American League, meaning the number of teams that could even try to bat the pitcher anywhere but ninth was diminished.
But the next pitcher to move up in the order was an American Leaguer. In 1976 Ken Brett, who finished his career with a .406 slugging percentage, batted eighth in a game on September 23. Brett remains the only pitcher ever to start the game batting anywhere other than the ninth spot (on purpose) in a game in which the designated hitter was available.
More than 19 years after any starting pitcher had batted anywhere than ninth, Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals shook things up. Starting July 9, LaRussa batted his pitcher in the eighth spot in each of the last 77 games of the season, breaking Lou Boudreau’s season and career records. Kent Mercker even hit a grand slam home run as the number eight hitter on September 2, the only homer of his major league career.
LaRussa’s tactic didn’t catch on, even with LaRussa (yet). All starting pitchers batted ninth during this five-year period.
Tomo Ohka, who went just 2-for-25 on the season and hit just .138 in his major league career, batted eighth for Montreal manager Frank Robinson on May 30.
Dontrelle Willis, one of the better-hitting pitchers of the modern era, was moved up in the lineup four times by manager Jack McKeon, batting eighth twice and seventh twice. When he batted seventh in the final game of the season on October 2, it marked the last time as of this writing that a starting pitcher batted above the eighth spot.
As of this writing, this is the last year that all starting pitchers batted ninth.
LaRussa goes all the way, batting his pitcher eighth in all 153 games in which the Cardinals could not use a designated hitter. And for the first time since 1957, multiple managers used the tactic. Milwaukee’s Ned Yost batted his pitcher eighth 42 times in the Brewers’ first 49 games. Pittsburgh’s John Russell batted his pitcher eighth 26 times in a 27-game stretch from June 30 through July 30. And Arizona manager Bob Melvin batted Micah Owings (who through the 2012 season has a career major league average of .283 with a .502 slugging percentage) eighth on June 4. The total of 222 times that a starting pitcher did not bat ninth in 2008 remains the most of any season.
LaRussa batted his pitcher eighth 55 times through July 21, then abandoned the tactic for the rest of the season, including the three-game playoff series against the Dodgers. A record total of five teams had their pitcher bat outside the ninth spot at least once. Milwaukee manager Ken Macha did it nine times in August; the Dodgers’ Joe Torre did it eight times; San Diego’s Bud Black did it three straight games in June; and Kansas City’s Zack Grienke became the first American League pitcher to bat eighth since 1976 when he does so on June 23.
LaRussa batted his pitcher eighth in 77 games, while in Pittsburgh John Russell, who did not bat his pitcher eighth in 2009, did so in the Pirates’ first 24 games. Milwaukee’s Macha did it three times and San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy hit Tim Lincecum in the eighth spot on May 20.
The pitcher-hits-eighth tactic died down, as LaRussa did so only 14 times, never after July 19, including the postseason in which the Cards won the World Series. Washington’s Jim Riggelman batted the pitcher eighth in 11 straight games in June, and Atlanta’s Fredi Gonzalez did it three times in August.
With LaRussa retired and his successor Mike Matheny always batting his pitcher ninth, pitchers batted eighth fewer times than in any season since the tactic was revived in 2007. Atlanta’s Gonzalez had the pitcher bat eighth five times in an eight-game stretch in late May and early June, making him the only manager to do so more than once. Madison Bumgarner batted eighth for the Giants’ Bochy on May 16, and Cubs skipper Dale Sveum had Jeff Samardzija bat eighth on September 8.
Here is the list of managers who have batted their pitcher outside the ninth spot more than once since 1916. (Instances with the players I excluded at the start of this article are not included.) An asterisk means that man also managed before 1916, but any instances of batting the pitcher higher in the order during that time are not included.
And these managers each batted a pitcher out of the ninth spot once each: Walter Alston, Ossie Bluege, Ty Cobb, Frank Frisch, Trey Hillman, Hughie Jennings*, Marty Marion, Gene Mauch, Bob Melvin, Danny Ozark, Paul Richards, Frank Robinson, Eddie Stanky and Dale Sveum.
I’ve worked to make this completely accurate, but if you find any errors or omissions here, please let me know. I’ll be happy to give you credit when I fix it.
March 4, 2013
Look, I don’t mean to pick on Leigh Montville, but his “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” just happens to be the book I’ve been reading lately. And I found another sentence that made me stop and say, really? From page 312 of the hardback:
In 1930 he hit three home runs against the Philadelphia A’s, then came to the plate the fourth time, batted right-handed for two strikes, then stepped across the plate and swung with a fury to strike out on the next pitch.
And it’s not.
The part about hitting three home runs against the A’s is true. It happened in the first game of a doubleheader on May 21, 1930, the first time the Babe had ever hit three home runs in a regular-season game (he had done it twice in World Series contests, in 1926 and 1928). But according to the box score, Ruth did not strike out.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed.
Note in the box score Ruth’s home runs came in the first, third and eighth innings. We don’t know how many outs there were when he hit the homers, but a minimum of 14 Yankees would have had to bat between his home runs (13 outs if the homers came with two outs in the third and leading off the eighth, plus one run scored in the fourth), so Ruth had to bat between his second and third home runs. He couldn’t have come to the plate for the fourth time after hitting three home runs.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed after hitting three home runs.
Except we can see from the box he batted only four times in the game. (You can also prove that by looking at the Yankee totals: 27 outs plus 7 runs plus 4 runners left on base equals 38 batters in the game, meaning the last batter was number two hitter Lyn Lary.) So Ruth did not come up to bat again after his third home run.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed before hitting his third home run. Of course, this story has already pretty much fallen apart.
Montville does not credit the source for this story, but it appears to come from one of the Ruth biographies published in the mid-1970s that he references in his introduction, Marshall Smelser’s “The Life That Ruth Built: A Biography.” Here’s the passage (from page 422 of the 1993 printing from the University of Nebraska Press):
Ruth made the only truly stupid play of his life on May 31  in Shibe Park, Philadelphia. For the first time in a regular season game he hit three home runs in one game. The third cleared the fence, crossed the street, a house, and two back yards, and landed on the roof of the next house. And he still had one more time at bat on a day when he was as hot as hydrogen fusion. Nobody had hit four in one game since Ed Delahanty did it in 1896. When Ruth came up in the ninth he faced the right-handed spitball pitcher Jack Quinn. Outraging reason, Ruth decided to bat right-handed against a right-hander. He took two called strikes in this unfamiliar batter’s box, then crossed over to bat left-handed — and struck out. A case can be made for the attempt to steal which made the last out of the 1926 World Series, but not for throwing away a chance to hit four home runs in one game. It was his dumbest hour.
We’ve already seen that Ruth couldn’t have batted in the ninth inning; the game ended with him on deck, and his last at-bat came in the eighth. And Jack Quinn didn’t pitch in the ninth inning; the box score shows he pitched the fifth, sixth and seventh.
Of course, that means Quinn was the one pitcher who retired Ruth in the game, in his at-bat that came between his second and third home runs. But we know that out wasn’t a strikeout. And we know that Ruth hadn’t already hit three home runs when he faced Quinn.
But did Ruth attempt to bat right-handed against Quinn? The game account in The New York Times makes no reference to it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but you might think such a stunt would merit mention. I have access to no other daily newspaper accounts of the game, but on the front page of the next issue of The Sporting News, dated May 29, 1930, the reports on the A’s and the Yankees both discuss Babe’s three-homer game without mentioning any right-handed-swinging shenanigans. Again, the most famous player in the world tries to pull a stunt like that, don’t you think it would be noted in The Bible of Baseball?
(By the way, the one thing in Smelser’s telling that is more-or-less correct was that Babe hit an unusually long home run in the game, although in the New York Times story it was the third-inning home run, not the third home run. “The ball soared across the first row of houses across the street from the right-field wall, diving into the back yard of a house facing on the next street.” That version doesn’t have the ball traveling quite as far as Smelser’s does.)
So where did Smelser get the story? Like Montville’s book, Smelser’s is not footnoted. But Smelser was an academic historian, and it’s clear from the preface his book was extensively researched, both through interviews and published materials. I read both the passage I quoted and the preface via Google Books online, which doesn’t allow viewing of the entire book; I have a printed copy on order from inter-library loan, so maybe I’ll see something there that gives some indication as to where this story came from. (ADDED 3/9/13: Nope, the book has no indication whatsoever. Perhaps it was a tale told by one of the numerous Ruth teammates Smelser interviewed.)
A version of this tale also appears on the BaseballLibrary.com website, including the inaccurate assertion that Ruth’s three home runs came in consecutive at-bats. You’ll also find it told on Baseball-Reference.com.
March 3, 2013
This is a longer version of a story I wrote for Saint Mary’s College magazine in 2011.
“Johnson is a swivel-hipped, broken-field runner that could develop into quite a football player.”
Those words from Saint Mary’s College assistant football coach Joe Angelo on the first day of practice in 1950, before John Henry Johnson had ever played a varsity game for the Gaels, were unusually prophetic. Johnson turned out to be quite a football player indeed and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, the only Saint Mary’s alumnus so honored.
John Henry Johnson, the first African-American to play varsity football at Saint Mary’s, died June 3, 2011 in Tracy, California. He was 81 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than 20 years.
Johnson was born on Nov. 24, 1929, in the tiny Mississippi River delta cotton-farming community of Waterproof, Louisiana. There was no high school available to black students in Waterproof, so when he was 16 his parents sent him west to live with an older brother who was stationed at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, California. “My parents wanted to give me a chance for an education, so they sent me to live with my brother,” Johnson told a Pittsburg Post-Dispatch reporter in 1986. “Anything was better than Waterproof.”
He enrolled in Pittsburg Junior High School as a 9th-grader in the spring of 1946, having never played organized sports. By the time he graduated from Pittsburg High in 1949, he was considered to be the best athlete in East Bay history.
Johnson earned all-Contra Costa County Athletic League football honors all three seasons he played, scoring 90 points in eight games as a senior in 1948 and leading the Pirates to the league championship. As a basketball player, he twice led the league in scoring and set the league single-game scoring record. In track and field, he won the state discus championship in 1949 (an article in the San Francisco Chronicle claimed Johnson broke the national record, I haven’t been able to find other verification of that), and at the North Coast championships he also set meet records in the shot put and 180-yard low hurdles. He even batted over .500 the one season he played baseball.
An athlete with those credentials today would have athletic scholarship offers from dozens of major college powers. But black athletes in the 1940s didn’t have the same options. Johnson said he looked up to Jackie Robinson, who had played football at UCLA before concentrating on baseball and becoming the first black to play in the major leagues. So Johnson wanted to attend UCLA himself, but when the Bruins’ coaching staff was let go after the 1948 season, Johnson said he decided not to go there.
Saint Mary’s was appealing. Not only is the campus close to Pittsburg, but the Gaels had played in a bowl game as recently as 1946 with an all-America running back, Herman Wedemeyer. “In the Wedemeyer era, they really cut it up,” Johnson said, years later. “He was a great football player. That was the place for me.”
Pete Costanza, a Pittsburg man who became a father figure and adviser to Johnson, told the Post-Dispatch in 1986 he wanted Johnson to attend junior college for a year and wait for offers from bigger schools. But, according to Costanza, “some of the politicians in Pittsburg” recruited Johnson in behalf of Saint Mary’s. In any event Johnson was on campus in Moraga in the fall of 1949.
At that time freshmen were ineligible to play college football, so Johnson spent the season playing on the freshman team and practicing against the varsity. By the time the 1950 season rolled around, the Gaels’ coaches were convinced they had a special player on their hands. The team’s preseason press brochure said, “His hip and knee action in open field is as graceful as a ballet dancer’s efforts…And makes him almost as hard to catch as a porpoise in the open sea.”
The 1950 Gaels would face a challenging season under first-year head coach Joe Ruetz. Not only did the schedule include such major conference schools as Cal, Georgia and Oregon, but Ruetz started the season with only 34 players after several quit during the first days of practice. And not a single player in the starting lineup weighed as much as 200 pounds.
Johnson was one of two Gaels whose photos appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the day of the season opener, Sept. 22, when Saint Mary’s hosted College of the Pacific at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco…quite a tribute to a player who not only had never played in a varsity game but would not even be in the starting lineup that night. By the time the game was over it was clear what all the excitement was about, though, as Johnson thrilled the crowd with a 84-yard kickoff return in the third quarter (although the run was nullified by a penalty). It was about the only bright spot in a 40-0 loss.
The performance impressed 25-year-old Chronicle sports writer Pierre Salinger (who went on to national fame as press secretary to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and later, briefly, as U.S. Senator from California). Several days after the game Salinger wrote, “the Negro phenom ran hard, tackled hard, and blocked hard. [Johnson played both offense and defense.] He showed signs of greatness.”
Coming off that lopsided defeat, the Gaels were 31-point underdogs in their next game Sept. 29 against Georgia at Kezar, when they pulled off what would be the biggest surprise anywhere in the nation that season, holding the visitors to a 7-7 tie. The Gaels’ touchdown came on a 90-yard kickoff return by Johnson to open the second half.
“The hero of the piece was John Henry Johnson, the 191-point St. Mary’s sophomore,” Salinger wrote in the next morning’s Chronicle. “He was carried from the field on the shoulders of delirious Gael rooters at the end of the game, and no man deserved the honor more….He tackled viciously, blocked like a man possessed, and ran, head down, legs churning.”
Johnson was the first black athlete ever to compete against a University of Georgia team. The two schools had signed a two-year contract for games in California in 1950 and in Georgia in 1951, but Georgia officials would back out of the second year of the deal, as they weren’t ready for a black to take the field in Dixie.
But, as it turned out, Saint Mary’s had no football team in 1951. On Jan. 5 of that year school officials announced it would not play intercollegiate football or baseball “for the duration of the national emergency” that had been declared by President Harry Truman in December as part of what became known as the Korean War. Not only had the college lost what it thought to be a significant amount of money on the football program in 1950, but military service was threatening to further reduce the school’s all-male enrollment, which was then only about 900.
Saint Mary’s final game had been played in a constant downpour at Kezar Stadium on Dec. 3, when only 200 fans were on hand to watch a 14-7 defeat at the hands of Villanova. Johnson scored on a four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and then ran for the extra point, the final points scored by a Gael gridder until the program was resumed in 1967.
Johnson decided to transfer to continue his college football career. After reportedly being turned down for admission by the University of San Francisco (whose team would go unbeaten and untied in 1951 before administrators there decided to drop the sport as well), Johnson joined several Saint Mary’s teammates who enrolled at Arizona State. He was ineligible to play in 1951 because of restrictions on transfer students but was back on the field for his senior season in 1952. And he made quite an impression there as well; even though his season ended early when he tore a ligament in his right knee, he earned all-Border Conference honors and was a second-round draft choice of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson did not want to play in Pittsburgh, so he accepted an offer to play for a Canadian professional team in Calgary (at a higher salary) and was named the league’s most valuable player in 1953. But after the Steelers traded his rights to the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson agreed to return to the States for the 1954 season.
With the 49ers Johnson was part of what immediately became known as “The Million Dollar Backfield.” He was the fullback with Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny at halfback and Y.A. Tittle at quarterback; all four are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Johnson finished second in the National Football League in yards rushing as a rookie (behind only Perry, who benefited from Johnson’s devastating blocking), scored nine touchdowns in 12 games and was named to play in the league’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl.
Playing for the 49ers also brought Johnson back to Moraga, as the team held its training camp at Saint Mary’s starting in 1955.
A shoulder injury in 1955 and a change in offensive formation in 1956 reduced Johnson’s playing time with the Niners, so before the 1957 season he was traded to the Detroit Lions and promptly helped the team win the NFL championship, something the Lions haven’t accomplished since. He led the team and finished fourth in the league in yards rushing. En route to the title the Lions rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit in the Western Conference championship game to beat the 49ers on the same Kezar Stadium field Johnson was carried off as a Saint Mary’s sophomore.
In 1960 Johnson was traded to Pittsburgh and this time decided to play for the Steelers. He was rewarded with the best seasons of his career; as the focal point of a team’s offense for the first time, he finished second in the league in rushing yards in 1962, fourth in 1963 and third in 1964, making the Pro Bowl all three years. He passed the 1,000-yard milestone in ’62 and ’64, the first Steeler to reach that mark. And he set a team single-game record in 1964 when he rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns against a Cleveland team that would go on to win the NFL championship. That came when Johnson was approaching his 35th birthday, a ripe age for someone with the punishing job of NFL running back. He was the oldest man ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season to that point and held that distinction for another 20 years.
Another injury kept Johnson out of action almost all of the 1965 season, then after spending 1966 with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, Johnson retired as a player. At that time, and for several years thereafter, he ranked fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
Johnson settled in Pittsburgh after his playing career, and while he expressed unhappiness he was never considered for a coaching job with the Steelers, he did not return to the game. He had left Arizona State without a degree but went back to school during the offseasons while playing pro football and earned a B.A. in education in 1955. He worked as coordinator of urban affairs for the Columbia Gas Company of Pittsburgh, later worked in collections for Warner Cable there, and then in the community relations department of Allegheny County, Pa., before retiring in 1989 and moving to his second wife Leona’s hometown of Cleveland.
“By then he was seriously ill,” Leona Johnson told longtime Oakland Tribune sports columnist Dave Newhouse in his book, “The Million Dollar Backfield.” “He couldn’t remember where his offices were. He’d get lost on the freeway. He couldn’t find the grocery store. He got so he was afraid to leave the house.”
After Leona died in 2002, Johnson returned to California to live with his daughter Kathy, the oldest of his six children, one of whom preceded him in death. (Kathy’s mother, who married Johnson while he was a student at Saint Mary’s, was Barbara Flood. Her younger brother, Curt Flood, grew up in Oakland and became an all-star baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals. Before dating Barbara, Johnson reportedly dated the sister of San Francisco’s Johnny Mathis, a star athlete who became a very popular singer.) Dementia confined him to a wheelchair for the last several years of his life, and in his final year he was unable to talk or swallow.
Kathy authorized the donation of his brain to be examined at Boston University for a study of head trauma, including the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which may be related to impacts to the head while playing football. The widow of his old Million Dollar Backfield mate, Joe Perry, also allowed the study of his brain; Perry died just six weeks before Johnson, at age 84.
What made John Henry Johnson a star was a combination of size, speed, strength and bone-crunching blocking ability that was unknown before his time and remains rare today. He was genuinely feared by his peers for his blocking, and several stories of blocks that injured opponents made the rounds for years.
“If you didn’t keep an eye on him, next thing you know you’d have your jaw wired,” said Wayne Walker, a teammate and later opponent as an NFL linebacker before he was the longtime sports director of San Francisco’s KPIX-TV.
Johnson wasn’t the most popular player in the NFL as a result. Pat Summerall, who played against Johnson before starting his long career as an NFL play-by-play announcer, said he once heard the Chicago Mafia might get involved in avenging injuries suffered by an Italian-American player who Johnson stiff-armed in the face. Johnson said he’d heard that rumor too.
Dave Newhouse, describing Johnson in “The Million Dollar Backfield,” wrote: “Away from football, he was as nice and cozy as a warm soft bed. But dress him in football gear, and he was a bed of nails.”
“I was an aggressive player,” Johnson told Newhouse. “I know I wasn’t dirty. I just enjoyed hitting.”
In 1970, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray quoted Johnson as saying: “You got to put a little fear in that other man. Upsets his concentration, y’know? I could run away from lots of people, once I got them to hunching up for the collision.” (Murray could be a little creative with his quotes, so I won’t swear Johnson said it just that way.)
Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, who was Johnson’s teammate with the 1957 Lions and again from 1960-62 with the Steelers, wrote an article for the November 1964 issue of SPORT magazine titled “Pro Football’s 11 Meanest Men.” Johnson was one of them. But 20 years later, Layne told the Beaver County (Pa.) Times, “John Henry was maybe the meanest player around on the football field, but he is one of the best friends a guy could have. We were, and still are, real close. Friends in real life, not just on the football field. He’s the greatest.”
In honor of Johnson, in 2011 all 49ers players wore a decal on the back of their helmets with 35, the uniform number Johnson wore at Saint Mary’s and throughout his pro football career. (There was also a 34 decal in honor of Joe Perry.) “He [Johnson] was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization,” team owner John York said after Johnson’s death. “His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated.”
March 2, 2013
“Mickey” Stubblefield died Feb. 19, 2013, a week before his 87th birthday. His brief playing career in Organized Baseball would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that he was the first African-American to play in the Kitty League, a Class D minor league formally known as the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League (the initials KIT led to the more commonly-used name Kitty). I don’t know if Mickey was the last man alive who broke a minor league color barrier, but he may have been, and in any case curiosity has led me to put together some of the information I can find about his life.
This isn’t, for now, a thorough biography, but maybe it can serve as a jumping-off point for others. There is a Mickey Stubblefield website where someone, likely family members, has assembled some photos, a few clippings and other biographical information. Some of the information about Mickey available online is contradictory, so I’ve tried to figure out what’s right.
Wilker Harrison Thelbert Stubblefield was born Feb. 26, 1926. Wilker was his mother’s maiden name, Harrison was his father’s first name. Checking Ancestry.com, it shows the name on his birth certificate as Thelbert W. Stubblefield, citing state of Kentucky records. In the 1930 federal census he is listed as Thelbert, the fifth-oldest of six children. His father Harrison was listed as a highway laborer and was a veteran of World War I.
Mickey was born in Mayfield, Kentucky, a county seat in the extreme western part of the state, the area bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, the Ohio River on the north and the Tennessee River on the east. Mayfield is about 25 miles northwest of the college town of Murray and about 30 miles south of the area’s largest town, Paducah.
According to a story (apparently from Nov. 7, 1983) in the Mayfield Messenger by Jim Abernathy that is partially reproduced on the Stubblefield website, Mary Stubblefield died when Mickey was six, and Harrison Stubblefield died five years later. Harrison’s death certificate found on Ancestry.com shows Harrison had remarried and was living in Paducah, with his occupation listed as farmer. Mickey said he remembered little about either of his parents.
It’s not clear whether Mickey ever lived in Paducah with his father, or with whom Mickey lived after his parents’ deaths, but it appears he stayed in Mayfield, and he told Abernathy he had “a lot of homes.” The article mentions he sometimes had to wait to eat until an older sister could bring home leftovers from the kitchen of a white family she worked for, or he would get leftovers from a downtown cafe just before closing time.
Mickey told Abernathy he started serving as a batboy for Mayfield’s Kitty League team when he was 11, which would have been 1937. It was apparently sometime in his early teen years that he picked up the nickname “Mickey” that he went by for the rest of his life. According to the Stubblefield website, the name refers to Mickey Mouse: “[Stubblefield's shoes] were always hand-me-downs and usually too big. Mickey Mouse’s shoes closely resembled Stubblefield’s hand-me-downs — thus the name.”
I don’t know what level of schooling Mickey completed, but he was in the Navy from 1944 until 1946 (he did not go overseas). After he was honorably discharged he hooked up with an all-black barnstorming team a friend was playing for, the Omaha Rockets, in 1947. The next year he joined one of the legendary Negro Leagues teams, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
This was the year after Jackie Robinson had integrated the white major leagues, and some of the better black players had made the jump to Organized Baseball, but some excellent players remained in the Negro Leagues. Stubblefield’s teammates with the Monarchs included Negro Leagues legends Buck O’Neill and Willard Brown and a number of future major leaguers, including Elston Howard, Hank Thompson, Gene Baker and Connie Johnson. (Brown and Thompson had played briefly for the St. Louis Browns in 1947.) Other future big leaguers in the NAL included Al Smith, Sam Jethroe, Bob Boyd and a 17-year-old with the league champion Birmingham Black Barons, Willie Mays.
(A number of articles over the years have referred to Mickey playing with Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, but it’s not clear to me how much he did. Paige may have spent a little time with the Monarchs early in 1948 before signing with the Cleveland Indians in early July. Bell appears to have coached with the Monarchs and managed a barnstorming “B” team of theirs, and it could be Stubblefield spent time with that squad.)
It’s hard to know how big a role Stubblefield played for the 1948 Monarchs. In an interview with Brent Kelley for Kelley’s 2000 book “The Negro Leagues Revisited,” Stubblefield said his pitching record was “maybe 15-10″; an obituary stated he won 20 games that year. But what stats from league games that have been found indicate Stubblefield played a very much secondary role on the pitching staff behind players including Jim LaMarque, John Ford Smith, Gene Collins and Johnson. Negro Leagues historian John Holway’s 2001 book “The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues” has linescores for all four games of the Monarchs’ playoff series against Birmingham and doesn’t show Stubblefield as pitching in any of them. The Monarchs played an extensive barnstorming schedule against non-league teams in addition to their league schedule; it’s possible Stubblefield saw more frequent action in those games.
Stubblefield said he returned to the Monarchs in 1949. (The 2007 book “Satchel Paige and Company,” edited by Leslie Heaphy, lists Stubblefield on the Monarchs in both 1948 and ’49. Janet Bruce’s 1985 book “The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball” does not list him on the team’s roster for either season; James A. Riley’s “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” has him on the team in 1948 only.) But in late 1949 he went to McCook, Nebraska, to play for an integrated team in the Nebraska Independent League, a fast semi-pro league. (McCook is best known, at least to me, as the place where Pat Jordan broke into the minor leagues, as he wrote about in his classic book “A False Spring.”) Stubblefield spent the 1950 season with the McCook Cats, and stories published in later years say he posted a record of 13-6.
It’s not clear exactly when, but sometime after that 1950 season Stubblefield returned home to Mayfield where he got a job at the Dr. Pepper bottling plant and pitched for a black semi-pro team. That put him in a position to integrate the Kitty League.
Mayfield first had a team in the Kitty League from 1922-24, known as the Pantsmakers, in honor of the town’s most prominent business, the Mayfield Woolen Mills, a leading manufacturer of–you guessed it–pants. (The third edition of the “Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball” lists the nickname as Pantmakers, but every other source I’ve found says Pantsmakers.) The team folded late in the 1924 season, but Mayfield returned to the league in 1936, this time with a team named the Clothiers, and would stay in the loop until the entire league closed up shop after the 1955 season.
The Clothiers were off to a slow start in 1952, on their way to a last-place finish, when two scouts from the parent Pittsburgh Pirates signed Stubblefield. (An unidentified clipping on Stubblefield’s website said one of the scouts was Branch Rickey, Jr., but the bio on the site said the scout was Frank Rickey, a brother of Branch Sr. The senior Branch Rickey was the Pirates’ general manager at the time.) The Sporting News made note of Stubblefield’s arrival in the issue of July 9: “Mickey Stubblefield, the first Negro to play in the Kitty League, pitched Mayfield to a 5 to 4 victory over Paducah in his debut, June 26.”
I have not found a contemporaneous account of Stubblefield’s first game. It seems the best source available online is from Kevin McCann’s Kitty League website page about Stubblefield, listing Stubblefield’s daughter Mary as his source:
About 1,500 fans — black and white — packed War Memorial Park and overflowed into the adjacent football grandstand in right field for Stubblefield’s historic Kitty League debut. They gave him a standing ovation to start the game and he struck out the first batter he faced, Paducah third baseman Russ Davis [who finished third in the league with a .353 batting average]. He struck out six batters, walked five, and scattered six hits in the complete game victory, winning 5-4.
But while Stubblefield was popular in his hometown (and the team finished third in the league in attendance despite its last-place finish), he wasn’t welcome in most of the rest of the league, which in those days consisted of Paducah; Fulton, Ky.; Madisonville, Ky.; Owensboro, Ky.; Hopkinsville, Ky.; Union City, Tenn.; and Jackson, Tenn. (There were no Illinois cities in the Kitty League at that time.) McCann writes that Stubblefield pitched only in home games except for an Aug. 2 game at Paducah; he was scheduled to pitch an Aug. 6 game at Jackson that was rained out. (A recent article in the Kansas City Star says the crowd for his game in Paducah was the largest in league history; I have no reason to doubt it, but I have not found any other reference to that.) McCann also shares a quote from Kitty League president Shelby Peace that is credited to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the major black newspapers: “None of the club owners are in favor of Negroes in the league, but there is no law that would prevent it, except in parks that are municipally owned.” (Today you think it would be government that could require integration; in those days it was government that could prohibit it.)
With Mickey gone, the Kitty League went back to whites-only until 1955, which would be the league’s final season. This passage comes from a website devoted to the Kitty League’s Union City team:
The reason generally given for not including black players in the league was because “there were no proper facilities available.” These were days when there were still separate drinking fountains, rest rooms, and eating facilities. Blacks could not stay in the same hotels as the other players, nor could white players be expected to necessarily use the same dressing rooms and showers. As a consequence Stubblefield only accompanied the Clothiers on road trips when the home team agreed. He beat Union City 3-0 in Mayfield and the UC club management wanted him to travel to Union City to pitch the next week because they thought he would be a draw. Eight hundred fans turned out to see the Greyhounds beat him 8-5. For most of the 800 it was the first time they had seen a “Negro” play against white boys. Probably more than 800 stayed away because they did not approve of the mixing of the races on the diamond. There was an understanding the next year that there would be no black players assigned to any Kitty League franchise by the major league teams, because “facilities were not available to accommodate them.”
Well, note that passage says Stubblefield pitched in Union City (without giving a date), while no other source I’ve found says he pitched anywhere but Mayfield or Paducah. Hmmm…
Stubblefield started 13 games for the Clothiers, completing seven, and relieved twice. He had a 7-6 record for a team that was 40-64 in other games. His 3.71 ERA was not among the league leaders, but it was a good ERA in a league where the weakest-hitting team averaged more than five runs a game and the best-hitting club averaged nearly eight. That performance as a 26-year-old in Class D did not mark him as a major league prospect, but it was more than acceptable.
I don’t know exactly how Stubblefield’s association with the Mayfield team ended, but according to a United Press story that was published March 28, 1953 it appears to be because he wasn’t being allowed to pitch in most of the league’s cities. “The club said it couldn’t afford players who could not play without restriction,” according to the unidentified author of the piece.
I also don’t know how Stubblefield wound up pitching the next season for Duluth in the Class C Northern League, a team that was not affiliated with a major league club. Mickey pitched in six games (less than 15 innings, the exact number is not known) and had a 2-0 record. He told Kelley, “I left when my arm got bad. I run [sic] out of gas.” (Stubblefield also told Kelley his record at Duluth was “’bout 10-8, something like that”; for that matter he said at Mayfield “I won most all of my games.” Old ballplayers don’t always get this stuff right.)
At any rate, while Stubblefield was done with Organized Baseball when he left Duluth, he continued to play ball, moving back to McCook and rejoining the Cats. He got a job working in the garage at Hormel Chevrolet and told Brent Kelley his was the only black family in town. In 1970 he divorced (having gotten married in 1948 while with the Monarchs) and moved back to Mayfield, where he went to work at General Tire and stayed there until he retired in 1992. He stayed in Mayfield until May 2011 when he moved to Smyrna, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, to live with his daughter Mary. That’s where he died.
Stubblefield was only 5’9″ and wasn’t a hard thrower. He told Kelley he relied on “a lot of junk stuff” including a curveball that he could also throw sidearm or underhand (“I could curve it either way”). “I take pretty good care of myself,” he told Kelley. “I didn’t drink a lot or nothing like that. I never smoked. I’m a good guy. I think by being good, you live a long time.”
Stubblefield told Kelley he had eight daughters and three sons; his obituary says he was survived by seven daughters, three sons and an adopted daughter. All his children but Mary lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. His six oldest children graduated from high school in McCook and Mickey remained very popular there. In 2011 he was invited back to be grand marshal of McCook’s annual Heritage Days celebration, after event organizers saw an article about him in the Omaha World-Herald.
I’d love to be able to see some of the newspaper coverage of Mickey’s time with the Mayfield Clothiers. If I get time I’ll call libraries in Mayfield and Paducah and see if some librarian is intrigued enough to look at some microfilm for me.
Finally, here’s a video with Mickey that was produced in 2009 (this shows Mickey in a vehicle with a Kentucky license plate that says MICKEY):
February 18, 2013
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story (oh yes I’m talking to you, Sammy Vick and Leigh Montville)
“My greatest moment during the season came one day with the bases loaded, the score tied, and Babe’s turn to bat,” Sam Vick said. “The height of ambition of the fans was to see such a setup. They were almost taking the top off the stand. There was a lull in the game, and Babe did not climb out of the dugout. He had hurt his wrist and couldn’t go up to bat.”
Vick and the rest of the players in the dugout looked at Huggins [Yankee manager Miller Huggins--JGP]. The manager looked back, considering each possibility, staring at someone, then moving his eyes to the next player. Vick held his breath, Huggins looked at him, then looked away. Huggins looked again, looked away. This happened several times. The manager finally said, “Sam, get your bat.”
“I began to breathe again, picked out my bat, and started to the plate,” Vick said. “The announcer said, ‘Vick, batting for Ruth.’ When it dawned on the crowd what was happening, you could hear a pin drop. It seemed like five miles to the plate. The stillness was frightening, but on the way, down inside me, there was the reaction, ‘That’s what you think!’
“I then blacked out and don’t remember anything until I slid into third base with a triple.”
Or did you, Sammy Vick?
It’s easy to see why Montville would include such a richly-told anecdote (although it’s really a story about Vick and not about the Babe). But for all its detail, several key facts were missing, such as when the game took place, or where, or who the opponent was.
Turns out it was pretty hard to include those details when the incident in question never happened. Not even close.
Montville’s book is aggravatingly unsourced beyond a bibliography, the author’s acknowledgments and an interesting introduction in which he describes tracking down some of Ruth’s previous biographers and gaining access to some of their research materials. But with no footnotes, there is no indication where this anecdote came from. Vick died in 1986, so it’s pretty clear Montville didn’t interview him for the book.
The tale is included in the chapter about the 1920 season, and that was the only season Vick and Ruth were teammates. Vick had been the New York Yankees’ primary right fielder in 1919 and was relegated to a reserve role when the Yanks acquired Ruth after that season. Vick was traded to Ruth’s old team, the Boston Red Sox, after the 1920 season in a deal that brought Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt to the Yankees.
When Montville wrote the book, the amazing volunteer researchers at Retrosheet had not yet included box scores for all the games of the 1920 season on their site. So it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as easy for Leigh to check the details of Vick’s story as it was for me. On the other hand, wouldn’t you be curious to read a firsthand account of this dramatic event? Montville quotes from many other game stories in the course of his narrative.
Anyway, let’s get to the bottom of this. Turns out Vick hit just one triple all season, and that on the last day of the season, in the first game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia. Alas, he didn’t hit it as a pinch-hitter, as Vick was in the starting lineup, as was Ruth.
Okay, maybe the triple part wasn’t quite right. But there must have been some sort of dramatic situation in which Vick hit for Ruth, right?
Uh…..no. I went through the game-by-game account of Ruth’s 1920 season and looked at all the box scores of games Ruth started but didn’t finish. There were only four. In none of those games was Ruth’s substitute listed as a pinch-hitter. And in only one of those games was Vick the substitute for Ruth, that game being June 19 at Chicago. Vick had a single in two at-bats and did not drive in a run, although he did score one.
I figured I’d better check an account of the game for details, maybe the box score inadvertently omitted the fact that he actually did pinch-hit for the Babe before replacing him in the field, and maybe he delivered a dramatic single that didn’t drive in any runs.
Uh…no. According to a story in the New York Times on June 20, Ruth was hit in the head by a throw from second base by White Sox shortstop Buck Weaver trying to complete a double play in the second inning. Babe stayed in the game, but in the sixth inning he lost a fly ball hit by Happy Felsch that fell for a double. “Ruth was so badly shaken up by his accident in the second and his right eye troubled him so badly that it was responsible for his missing Felsch’s drive,” wrote the unidentified reporter. “Ruth was taken out of the game. Sammy Vick went out to right field in the big fellow’s place.”
That sounds like Vick replaced Ruth during the inning, immediately after Felsch’s hit, although the author doesn’t say that in so many words. But with the narrative then going on to give a play-by-play of the rest of the inning, the reader is left with the clear impression that Vick entered the game immediately after Felsch’s hit. Vick did come to bat in the bottom of the sixth, with one out and nobody on, and singled, later scoring. The Yanks would go on to lose in 10 innings.
So when did Vick start telling the story that he pinch-hit for Babe Ruth? According to his obituary in the Sept. 1, 1986 issue of The Sporting News, Vick was “the only player ever to pinch hit for Ruth.” The account in the obituary is similar to the story told by Montville; Ruth had “suffered a minor arm injury” and Vick “delivered a bases-loaded triple that tied the score in a game the Yankees eventually won.” Again, no date or opponent is given. (Note that in Montville’s book Vick’s triple came with the score tied, in the obituary the triple tied the game.)
On Vick’s page on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame website, at least at the time I write this (Feb. 18, 2013), it is noted that “Vick pinch-hit for the immortal Babe Ruth and ended up with a triple.”
According to “The Yankee Encyclopedia” by Mark Gallagher, the only player ever to pinch-hit for Ruth with the Yankees was Bobby Veach in 1925. “Veach flied out,” Gallagher writes, but he does not give a date. Going through Ruth’s day-by-day record for 1925, I don’t find a game in which his substitute is listed as a pinch-hitter, but this account indicates Veach hit for the Babe on August 9 at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox, quoting a report in the Chicago Tribune and another unattributed story. The New York Times game story, the only one I can access at the moment, does not mention Veach entering the game as a pinch-hitter.
Other sources also list Veach as the last man to bat for the Babe. But the biography of Ben Paschal as part of the Society for American Baseball Research‘s Baseball Biography Project says Paschal was the last player to pinch-hit for Ruth, in the opening game of the 1927 season on April 12. It quotes as its source a report by Fred Lieb in the New York Post that was excerpted in G.H. Fleming‘s fine book, “Murderer’s Row”:
It was Ruth’s turn to bat during the sixth inning fusillade. Koenig was on third. What’s that? Ben Paschal batting for Ruth. For whom? Yes, for Ruth. Ben slung a single to right, scoring Koenig.
Yes, there is an explanation. Miller Huggins says that Babe had a bilious attack. Something he had eaten, and he couldn’t see the ball.
The New York Times game story also indicates Paschal batted for Ruth while not listing him as a pinch-hitter in the box score. It appears, although I can not state this with any authority, that the newspaper custom of the day was to indicate pinch-hitters as such in the box score only if they did not stay in the game after batting; in a modern box score Paschal would have been listed as “ph-rf,” not just “rf” as he was in the Times.
But back to Sammy Vick and Leigh Montville…after telling the (false) story of Vick batting for Ruth, Montville launches right into another yarn:
On another day, a doubleheader in Washington, Vick struck out seven times. The background was bad for hitters in Washington, and Walter Johnson pitched one of the games and was impossible to hit, and…seven strikeouts in seven appearances. The Yankees were shut out in both games. Vick was mournful as he walked back to the clubhouse.
He suddenly felt an arm around his shoulder.
“Don’t mind that, boy,” second baseman Del Pratt said. “When the Babe strikes out five times [and he had], they don’t even see you.”
This story is also false — Vick never struck out anywhere near seven times in a doubleheader in 1920 — but it does contain a kernel of truth. Ruth did strike out five times in a 1920 twin-bill…but not in Washington, or even against the Senators. And the Yankees were not shut out in either game, let alone both; they scored a total of 11 runs in splitting a pair against the St. Louis Browns on July 13 at the Polo Grounds, the Yankees’ home at the time. (The Yanks weren’t shut out in both games of a doubleheader all season.) Ruth struck out three times in the first game and twice in the second. Vick played in both games, and while he did not strike out in the opener, he did fan three times (in four trips to the plate) in the finale. Pratt’s post-game words of condolence are conceivable; the home fans were certainly more interested in Ruth, who was two home runs away from tying the single-season record he had set the previous year, than they were in a backup outfielder.
It’s true resources weren’t as easily available for Leigh Montville to debunk the two false stories about Sammy Vick that are in his book. But it’s troubling the anecdotes were included. Montville has been criticized — and quite unfairly, in my opinion — for the lack of detail he includes about Ruth’s personal life, in particular his childhood and first marriage. But Montville makes it clear much of that detail is unknown and unknowable, because records and accurate first-hand accounts simply don’t exist. Rather than speculate, fill in the blanks and draw conclusions, Montville presents what little is known (and points out contradictions in available information) and leaves it at that. The troubling part is the same level of skepticism isn’t applied to the baseball side of Babe’s life, that the undated but clearly later-in-life assertions of a former teammate are taken at face value. Old baseball players aren’t reliable sources of accurate information about their lives (really, my observation is very few of us are, and I don’t include myself among them). For another example, take a look at a post I did a few years ago about French Bordagaray.
ADDED 3/9/13: Marshall Smelser interviewed Sammy Vick for his 1975 biography of Ruth, “The Life That Ruth Built.” Neither of the stories above was included in that book, but Montville wrote in the introduction to his book that Smelser left all of his materials to the Baseball Hall of Fame and implied that he (Montville) accessed them. It’s possible Vick’s yarns were in those materials.
ADDED 2/20/13: Okay, I shouldn’t paint old ballplayers with such a broad brush. While most of them (like most of the rest of us) mangle the facts of their memories, especially when they are many years after the fact, not all of them (or us) do. Starting on page 135 of “The Big Bam,” Waite Hoyt remembers when he was a teammate of the Babe’s with the Red Sox:
I remember one time we were playing the White Sox in Boston in 1919, and he hit a home run off Lefty Williams over the left-field fence in the ninth inning and won the game. It was majestic. It soared. We watched it and wondered, ‘How can a guy hit a ball like that?’ It was to the opposite field and off a left-handed pitcher, and it was an incredible feat. That was the dead ball days, remember; the ball normally didn’t carry. We were playing a doubleheader, and that was the first game, and the White Sox did not go into the clubhouse between games. They stood out there and sat on our bench and talked about the magnificence of that home run.
Naturally I expected this tale to be riddled with errors…only, to the extent that I can check it, it isn’t. A check of Ruth’s home run log turns it up quickly: a home run on September 20, 1919, in Boston, off Chicago’s Lefty Williams, in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, the first game-ending home run of Ruth’s career, to give the Red Sox a 4-3 victory. Sure, there are a couple of things I can’t verify without reading a newspaper account of the game, such as whether the home run was hit to left field and whether the White Sox really did stay on the field between games, but since Hoyt got everything else right I’m inclined to believe him on those points as well. Very impressive, Mr. Hoyt.
November 3, 2012
Sure the 1970s are an easy target…but I mock them with love because I lived them. That’s me on the right on prom night in 1975, the night I graduated from high school. (I’ve cropped out my lovely date as a courtesy to her because she does not deserve to be lumped in with the likes of me.) I wore some atrocious stuff in those days that I would be happy to show you now, with the benefit of almost 40 years hindsight, only I was never photographed wearing it or any photographs that were taken were mysteriously “lost.” Although I’m not sure anyone ever took a picture of me in the brown leisure suit I wore on my first date in college…or the rayon shirt my father loaned me when I took my prom date to see “Jaws,” the shirt that was covered with a print of film strips showing a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. (Hey, not only did I wear it, Dad must have too, and he was a grown-up!)
Anyway, these memories have come flooding back now that I’ve begun acquiring baseball team yearbooks of the 1970s. In many the only photos of players included are ones of them in uniform…and they certainly have their appeal for posts along the lines of “Hair of the ’70s,” “Sideburns of the ’70s” or “Mustaches of the ’70s.” But a few yearbooks have real treasures: portraits of players in street clothes with their families, so we get a full dose of what people were proud to wear back then. At the time I valued those photos as a chance to see some cute wives. But now it’s a time capsule of fashion, and it’s time to crack it open.
My scanner may not quite do these photos justice, but we’ll give it a try. Let’s start with this from the 1975 Pirates yearbook:
Pitcher Jim Rooker is the tall fellow, with 14-year-old son David, wife Betty and 10-year-old daughter Stephanie, who has without a doubt the widest bell bottoms I’ve ever seen. I think there are some buffalo roaming on Jim’s shirt, along with God knows what else…a little too close in style to my kitten-film-strip shirt for my comfort. Speaking of bell bottoms…
That’s Garry Maddox in a photo from the 1979 Phillies yearbook, along with wife Sondra and sons Derrick and Garry Jr. Now for Garry’s teammate Mike Schmidt:
Mike’s combination of perm, ‘stache and vest bring to mind the model who was used in the Camel cigarette ads that were ubiquitous in the sports magazines of the time, usually doing something like lighting his Camel from a lantern.
Let’s spend some time visiting with the Minnesota Twins, who offered the most family photos in the (admittedly few) yearbooks I have from the era…
Near as I can tell Glenn Borgmann is not wearing a sweater over a shirt, he’s wearing a sweater-ish shirt that has a collar. I don’t remember ever seeing anything like what Linda Borgmann is wearing. That’s from the 1977 yearbook. Also from 1977:
Dave Goltz is wearing something a little too much like my college-first-date ensemble. Bobby Randall seems to be wearing something similar below:
I wish we could get a better look at the print on Bob Gorinski’s shirt below…
We haven’t seen any animals yet…
What an adorable bunch Tom Burgmeier and family are…and yes, I remember people wore shirts like that with a straight face. We also wore plaid with pride:
Craig Kusick’s pants were actually kind of tame by the standards of plaid pants in the ’70s. Now let’s move the clock up to 1979:
Of the yearbooks I have, Roy Smalley wins the prize so far for most chest exposed in a portrait. Guys far worse looking than he would expose far more.
I share the photo below not so much for the fashion (except maybe for the chair) but because I can’t quite figure out the look on the face of Linda Adams, wife of Twins’ outfielder Glenn…
One more color family shot, this from the 1975 Pirates yearbook:
That’s Dave Giusti with wife Virginia and daughters Laura (10) and Cynthia (6). One more from the ’75 Pirates…this isn’t a street-clothes photo of Manny Sanguillen, but oh that beret…
Yes, he’s wearing it over his batting helmet. This is actually a full-page photo in the yearbook, I had to crop a little of it out.
While my preference is color photos with the player in street clothes, there were a couple of black-and-white shots with the player in uniform I found intriguing in the 1975 Dodgers yearbook…like this one of future Hall of Famer Don Sutton and family:
I’m not trying to be mean, I just have no frame of reference for what Staci Sutton is wearing. And yes, that is future broadcaster Daron Sutton with bat in hand.
That’s Dodger shortstop (and future manager) Bill Russell…his wife Mary Anne has what I believe to be the widest collar I’ve ever seen on a woman’s blouse.
Here’s an ad from the 1979 Mets yearbook:
That’s Joe Torre on the left, Lee Mazzilli in the right, trying to move some threads for Bonds.
Finally, a couple of non-player photos to share…
That’s the Mets’ broadcast team of Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner in their 1978 yearbook…if memory serves that’s actually a pretty restrained look for Lindsey, who was the Craig Sager of his day. And finally, what I wouldn’t give to see this photo in color:
That’s Twins owner Calvin Griffith in their 1977 yearbook. Never thought I’d ever see “Calvin Griffith” and “paisley sportcoat” in the same sentence.
Believe me, I’m not ripping any of the players or their families here for their choice of clothes…they were young, active, attractive people in the prime of their lives. It wasn’t their fault that the prime of their lives fell in the late ’70s.
All right, let the snarky comments begin. If I get more good photos I’ll share them in future posts.
September 1, 2010
When Dave Eskenazi sent me the photo below, all he could tell me was that the players were from the Klamath Falls Gems of the Far West League and the man in the middle was pitcher/manager Hub Kittle.
Thanks to a stroke of luck, I can now tell you the man with the accordion is Don Napoli, and the man with the birthday cake is Chet Ashman, and the photo is from 1950.
Here’s how I found out. The Chico Outlaws of the independent professional Golden Baseball League are now California’s only professional baseball team north of Interstate 80. When Jason Matlock came on as the Outlaws’ sales director earlier this year, he decided to reach out to the Redding market, 75 miles away, by staging a tribute to Redding’s former professional team, the Browns, who were in the Far West League all four seasons of its existence. Jason learned a former Browns player lives in Chico–Don Napoli–and invited him to attend the game and throw out the first pitch. Jason called me to get some more information about Don to share with the fans.
One of the things I did was look through Brad Peek’s history of the Browns that he wrote for his master’s thesis at Chico State to see if he had interviewed Napoli for that. Sure enough he had, and one of the things Don was quoted as saying was: “I played the accordion and would take it on the bus trips and entertain the boys. Had a lot of fun!”
Whoa…had I found the man in the photo? It turned out Don had started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls, so how could it not be him?
As soon as I meet Don before the Browns tribute game August 27 at Chico’s Nettleton Stadium, I showed him the photo, which he said he’d never seen before…and he said yes, that was him holding the accordion. Don told me he started out at Salinas Junior College (now Hartnell College) after World War II as a music major and played accordion in a symphonic band. Later in life he had his own accordion studio and taught lessons and also played different jobs at dances and parties with various bands.
Before we get more of Don’s story…the other player he recognized in the photo was Chet Ashman, his teammate holding the birthday cake. Unfortunately I don’t know what Chet’s birthday is so I can’t pin down the date, although it had to be before July 16 when Napoli went to Redding. (Chet must still be alive, as I don’t find him listed on the Social Security Death Index, which would have told me his birthdate.)
(ADDED 1/30/12: Alas I now know the date must have been June 11, as I found Chet’s birthday in his obituary…he passed away at age 84 on January 24, 2012.)
Here’s what little I’ve learned about Ashman…he was a member of the undefeated and untied 1947 football team at Everett Junior College (now Everett Community College) outside Seattle. That team was declared Washington state junior college champions and has been enshrined in both the college’s athletic hall of fame (inducted the same year as current Minnesota Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson) and the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges hall of fame.
Ashman made his pro baseball debut in 1948 in the Class D Ohio-Indiana League, playing for both Zanesville and Lima; he hit .229 with just two homers in 56 games. It doesn’t appear he played in Organized Baseball in 1949 but I have seen an account of him playing for the traveling House of David baseball team that year.
In 1950 he came to Klamath Falls and ripped up the Far West League, finishing third in the league in batting average (.365) and tied for second in runs batted in (142) despite playing in only 102 of the Gems’ 140 games. Had he played the full season at the same per-game pace he would have led the league in home runs, doubles and RBI. And he hit 20 home runs while striking out only 24 times. According to a 1953 story I’ve found, he missed games after he “accidentally cut his arm in midseason.” So that’s an excuse to do some research in Klamath Falls to find out what that’s all about.
Chet missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons because he was in the service–something that seems to have been the case for a lot of FWL alums–and returned to pro ball in 1953. He wasn’t able to recapture his success at Klamath Falls and did not play in Organized Baseball after the 1954 season.
But back to Don Napoli…he graduated from Balboa High School in San Francisco in 1945, when a war was on, so he volunteered for the Navy. After basic training at the San Diego training center he was assigned to the naval repair base in Chula Vista, then honorably discharged after the war with Japan ended. From there he enrolled at Salinas Junior College, where he eventually switched majors to business. In 1948 he was playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula near Salinas, when he was signed by the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks.
The 1948 Oaks were managed by Casey Stengel and went on to win the PCL pennant; known as the “Nine Old Men,” their roster included former major leaguers on the other side of 30 such as Ernie Lombardi, Nick Etten and Cookie Lavagetto, as well as 20-year-old second baseman Billy Martin. Stengel was enthusiastic about Napoli, quoted in the Oakland Post-Inquirer as saying, “He’s a very great prospect and is ready to play a lot of baseball with us RIGHT NOW!”
But Napoli’s stay with the Oaks would be brief. On July 1, two days after Napoli signed, Oakland bought 37-year-old pitcher Lou Tost from Sacramento. Tost had a fine 3.35 ERA with the Solons, but his record was just 4-10; 27% of the runs scored against him were unearned, pitching for a team that would finish deep in the PCL cellar. Perhaps the thinking was Tost would be a useful pitcher with better teammates, and while his ERA was higher as an Oak (4.03), his runs allowed were nine innings was actually lower because of a reduction in unearned runs allowed, and his record in Oakland was 8-5.
At any rate, according to the July 2 Oakland Tribune, “The purchase of Tost will automatically send Don Napoli, 20-year-old flychaser, to Stockton,” where the Oaks had a relationship with a team in the Class C California League. And sure enough, the July 3 Tribune reported, “To keep within the 25-man player limit, the Oaks today sent Don Napoli, classy looking rookie outfielder, to Stockton.”
At the time the Oaks were involved in a torrid pennant race; they were tied with Los Angeles for second place, just one game behind San Francisco. The Angels would eventually fall back, but the race stayed tight and the Oaks’ final margin of victory over the Seals was just two games. Thus Stengel must have come to the conclusion it wasn’t a great time to be breaking a young man, no matter how promising, into professional baseball.
(Tost wasn’t the only aging pitcher Stengel acquired at this time. The Oaks also signed 41-year-old lefty Thornton Lee, just been let go by the New York Giants. Lee had won 117 major league games and pitched in an All-Star Game, but he would pitch in just seven games for Oakland with an 0-3 record.)
Vince DiMaggio was at Stockton, in his first year as manager (and still playing). (Napoli and DiMaggio would later play against each other in the Far West League.) Napoli told me DiMaggio worked with him on his fielding and was a very good instructor.
In August Napoli was optioned again, this time to Las Vegas of the Class C Sunset League, and he finished the season strong, batting .327 in 35 games, with 13 extra-base hits in 110 at-bats.
In 1949 the Oaks optioned Napoli to Stockton again, and he struggled, batting .220 in 25 games before being released at the end of May. A week later he signed with Salt Lake City of the Class C Pioneer League and finished the season with the Bees, batting .276 in 95 games, then in December he was released again.
Napoli started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls and played well; according to the Redding Record-Searchlight, he hit better than .290 with the Gems and had 82 hits and 71 RBI in 70 games. But the Gems released him on July 16–between games of a doubleheader against Redding in Klamath Falls. The Browns signed him and put him in their lineup in center field, batting third, in the second game!
And what a Redding debut that would be for Napoli. After he hit two singles earlier in the game, he came to the plate in the top of the ninth with the Browns trailing 7-6–and hit a home run to tie the game! Napoli had hit only two home runs with the Gems and had just six home runs in his pro career to this point.
To make the story even better, the pitcher who gave up the home run was the Gems’ manager, Hub Kittle! But the Gems scored in the bottom of the ninth to make Hubble the winning pitcher. (Pitching exclusively in relief that year, Kittle had a 10-0 record.)
The Record-Searchlight did not have a reporter covering the games in Klamath Falls, and looking through the papers through the following week I saw not a word about why the Gems would have released a productive player such as Napoli. All I know is he had not played in the first game of the doubleheader and had not been in the Klamath Falls lineup the night before either.
Napoli’s first appearance before his new home fans was also memorable, as he stroked three hits and scored five runs in a rout of Medford on July 21. He finished the season with a .270 batting average and 92 runs. He also ranked second among FWL outfielders in putouts and second among those who played at least 50 games in the outfield in fielding percentage.
And at the end of the season, Napoli had the last laugh against his old team. Klamath Falls won the regular season pennant, finishing a game and a half ahead of Redding, but the Browns beat the Gems in the championship series of a four-team playoff, three games to one.
It turned out 1950 would be the end of Don Napoli’s career in professional baseball, but just the beginning of his life in Redding. He spent more than four years at a Redding lumber company, working the chain at a sawmill; that job left him with permanent disfigurement of a finger. He says he spent some time selling Studebakers and Packards as well as selling advertising for a radio station, then caught on selling business machines for National Cash Register (now NCR). In the early 1960s NCR transferred him to Chico, and soon after that he went to work selling office equipment for Pitney Bowes and remained with them for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1991.
Don and his wife Barbara have been married for 61 years and have known each other since childhood; they met when he was 8 and she was 3! Today Don is a fit and vigorous-looking 83 years old. I’m glad I got to meet the man behind the accordion.