The day Casey Stengel’s pinch-runner fell down trying to score because he was wearing the wrong shoes

My antennae are always raised when I read a baseball story that seems too good to be true — most of them are — so I went into research mode when I read this in Leonard Koppett‘s classic 1967 book “A Thinking Man’s Guide To Baseball”:

In 1939 Casey [Stengel] was managing the Braves (who were called the Bees then). They got involved in an extra-inning game with the Dodgers, in Boston. In the 14th inning, the Braves [sic] got a man to second base and Casey looked around for a pinch runner. He found a rookie named Otto Huber. Sure enough, Al Lopez singled, and here came Huber around third with the winning run — only to fall flat on his face halfway home. He was tagged out, the game went on through he 20th inning and ended in a tie.

“The next day,” Stengel recounts, “I looked at this man’s shoes, and the spikes were worn all the way down, almost flat. They buy their own shoes, you know. But in his locker was a brand-new pair.

” ‘That the best equipment you got?’ I asked him, meanin’ the old shoes, of course.

” ‘No,’ he sez to me, ‘but these old ones are more comfortable for my feet, and I had them on because I didn’t think you were gonna use me.’

“Can you imagine? For the next three years, whenever I wanted to use a hitter or a runner, I’d call him over first and make him show me his spikes.”

Great story…but could it possibly be true? It’s not like I haven’t found tall tales involving Stengel before.

Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Bees. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Bees. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Well, I’m taking Casey at his word about the spikes, because the rest of the story checks out with a few minor differences. In fact, one of the minor differences makes it an even better story.

The Braves purchased Huber from their Class B farm club at Evansville, Ind., at the end of the 1938 season. Evansville had won the pennant in the Three-I League, with second baseman Huber batting .311 and finishing second in the league in doubles with 35. He went to spring training with the Bees in 1939 but was sent to Hartford of the Class A Eastern League, where he was shifted to third base as the Senators had a promising 18-year-old, Sebastian “Sibby” (or “Sebbi”) Sisti, at second.

Huber got off to a terrible start at the plate for Hartford and was batting under .200 in early June when he was called up to the Bees. I’ve not been able to find details and reasoning for the transaction in either The Sporting News or Boston Globe archives, but Boston’s regular second baseman Tony Cuccinello was injured at the time and Huber was known as a good glove man.

Otto Huber

Otto Huber

Huber had played in all of five major league games (four off the bench and one as a starter, with five hits in nine at-bats) going into the fateful events of June 27 in Boston. It’s easy to see why he assumed he wouldn’t play that day {although assumptions are always dangerous, aren’t they?), and he did not play in the first 12 innings.

The Bees and Dodgers were tied 2-2 in the 13th inning (not the 14th as Koppett said) when, with one out in the bottom of the inning, third baseman Henry Majeski reached base when Brooklyn second baseman Pete Coscarart let his ground ball go through his legs for an error. Huber then went in to run (at first base, not at second as Koppett’s telling would indicate) for Majeski, who was described in the next day’s Boston Globe as “still limping” from a previous injury.

Huber advanced to second on Eddie Miller’s single, then Al Lopez came to the plate and hit a ground ball past third baseman Cookie Lavagetto that, according to the New York Times game story, was scored an error (not a single as in Koppett’s account).

Let’s let those who were there describe what happened next. First, the Times’ Roscoe McGowen:

Master Huber will have to go down in sports history alongside Roy Riegels, Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle. [Note from me — that’s a little dramatic for a late June game between two teams with losing records; it should be noted many devotees of sports history today know of Riegels, Snodgrass and Merkle, and I think it’s safe to say Huber has been forgotten.] For Huber…was transporting the winning run around third base with time to spare when he stumbled and sprawled flat on his face.

Professor Casey Stengel threw his cap high in the air, sprang at least four feet in the same direction and came down screaming in anguish.

From the New York Times of June 28, 1939

From the New York Times of June 28, 1939

The Globe’s Gerry Moore went into even more detail:

Huber was under full sail with the crack of the bat and when the ball went through Lavagetto it was a million-to-one shot Otto would score. The millionth happened. A few feet before he reached third the youngster looked out at the ball in left field and it was then he tripped over his own feet and fell flat on his face on top of third base.

He picked himself up and started for home, but by this time left fielder Ernie Koy was returning the pellet to the infield and Huber had all he could to to scramble back to third safely.

Note Huber was not tagged out, as Koppett’s tale had said. The Bees still had the bases loaded with just one out, but pinch-hitter Stan Andrews struck out and Debs Garms grounded out to end the inning, with the score still tied 2-2.

From the Boston Globe, June 28, 1939

From the Boston Globe of June 28, 1939

And that was still the score, 10 innings later…yes, the game lasted 23 innings (not 20, as Koppett wrote) and ended in a 2-2 tie. The Tuesday afternoon game had started at 3 p.m. and was called on account of darkness at 8:15, 10 minutes before official sundown, by home plate umpire Babe Pinelli. (The Bees’ home field did not yet have lights.) It was to that point the third-longest game by number of innings in major league history. “Most amusing interlude of the affair,” Moore wrote, “were the frequent phone calls at National League Field offices from anxious housewives who wanted to check up and see if the game was really still going.” (National League Field is what the ballpark was being called that year; it had previously been known, and would again, as Braves Field. At any rate not many husbands were missing supper because of the game, as the attendance was given as only 2,457.)

The Dodgers’ starting pitcher in the game was Whitlow Wyatt, who was the hottest pitcher in baseball at the time. Wyatt had put up a record of 26-43 with a 5.22 ERA in the American League from 1929-37, but after returning to the minors in 1938 turned his career around when he went 23-7 for Milwaukee of the American Association and led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Wyatt entered the June 27 game with a 7-0 record and pitched the first 16 innings against the Bees, lowering his ERA for the season to 1.45. That performance came even though his left knee was apparently still showing the effects of an injury in a collision at first base that had caused him to miss three weeks in late May and early June. (Wyatt’s left leg was “completely strapped up,” according to he Globe’s Moore.) The effort may have taken a toll; Wyatt was shelled in his next start five days later, won just one of his next five starts and didn’t pitch after July 19 because of knee problems. But he bounced back to remain the Dodgers’ ace over the next four seasons, and his league-leading 22 wins in 1941 helped Brooklyn win the pennant.

Otto Huber signatureAs for Otto Huber…he finished the game at third base after his baserunning blunder, going 0-for-4. He played just five more games for the Bees, getting just one hit, before Boston returned him to Hartford on option on July 21, calling up the 18-year-old Sibby Sisti to take his place. Sisti was never a star but was with the Braves until they left Boston after the 1952 season and was one of the franchise’s most popular players.

Huber never returned to the majors, staying with Hartford through the 1941 season and then going back down to Evansville before missing three seasons to serve in the Army during World War II. He went back to the minors after the war and was a player-manager for Mt. Vernon of the Class D Illinois State League in 1947. The last reference I can find of him involved with baseball was as the manager of the Minot (N.D.) Mallards of the semi-pro ManDak League in 1951. According to his 1989 obituary in the Hacksensack (N.J.) Record, he spent 25 years as a master plumber for the city of Garfield, N.J., his birthplace.

I’ve not found any stories about Huber’s worn-down spikes in The Sporting News, New York Times or Boston Globe in 1939. I’d be curious to know when that story first appeared in print, and if anyone can provide any possibilities please do so in the comments below.

(The information that Huber was batting under .200 when he was called up to Boston is in a story in the Hartford Courant of July 21, 1939, “Sebbi Sisti Recalled By Boston Bees.”)

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