Friday, July 31, 2015

Presidential Praise for The League of Outsider Baseball

A couple of months ago I sent a copy of my book to President George H.W. Bush. If you have read through it you know President Bush has a two-page spread in the "People's Game" chapter. Back in 1947 and 1948 he was described as "Yale's Fancy Dan" for his defensive work at first base and played in the very first two College World Series'. A particularly neat piece of trivia I had to include was that throughout his term as President, George Bush kept a well-oiled first baseman's mitt in the drawer of his desk in the Oval Office - just in case. 

So anyway, I thought he might like a copy of the book and sent it off, not really expecting anything back or at the most a form letter from one of his secretaries or assistants. Imagine my surprise when the following items showed up in today's mail...

Saturday, July 4, 2015

199. Bill Faul: Rise and Fall of the Loony Tune

Last month I was honored to be a guest on the C-Dot Show here in Cincinnati (you can listen HERE). The all-baseball show is hosted by Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans and pro comedian Josh Sneed. The two have Reds players, front office guys and sports writers on there and it's recorded live on stage at a bar called MOTR in the Over the Rhine section of town. MOTR's owner, Chris Varias, not only runs a great joint to drink and eat in, but also brings in live bands from all over the country to play every night. Varias is also a big baseball fan and the place is decorated with many pieces of baseball history. When I met Chris he asked me if I had heard of Bill Faul. I said I hadn't and he proceeded to tell me about this local baseball hero. This one's for Trent, Josh and Chris - thanks for having me on your great show and introducing me to this week's addition to The Infinite Baseball Card Set...

Indianapolis, 1969.

Everybody was staring at him, including the green-headed parakeet he had clutched in his hand. He was the oldest guy in the room - The Old Man. He was 28. Seven years earlier he was the best collegiate pitcher in the country, even made the front cover of the official college baseball guide. He'd played in the big leagues, been a Tiger and a Cub, had feature stories written about him in Life Magazine and the Chicago Tribune, yet now he was in the low end of the farm system of a lousy expansion team. The parakeet suddenly bobbed its head and took a bite out of his hand.

"That's it!" he yelled and bit the head off the bird, the feathers exploding into a cloud of bright green, temporarily separating him from the rest of the world.

Bill Faul was the best pitcher to ever come out of the University of Cincinnati. Since the university is known more for their basketball program and architecture school that might not seem like much, but you need to consider that Sandy Koufax pitched there, too. And Bill Faul was better. So good that the Cincinnati native became UC's first All-American and in 1961, his junior year, he was named the best college pitcher in the nation by the American Association of College Baseball Coaches. His side arm motion set baseball records at UC that still stand, including 24 strike outs in a game and lowest season season ERA - a microscopic 0.82 in '62.

But Faul was a flake. He was on a whole different planet than everyone else. There was the one time when he told UC's trainer he had a sore arm. The trainer had him position the ailing arm under an ordinary reading lamp. Fifteen minutes later Faul's sore arm was magically gone. Or take that 24 strike out game. The night before Faul's teammates informed hm that he'd be dropped into the ball park via parachute. Terrified, Faul couldn't sleep all night. Maybe it was the sudden release of his anxiety that made him loose enough to strike out those 24 batters.

Flake or no flake, when the official guide to collegiate baseball hit the newsstands in 1962 it featured Bill Faul of the University of Cincinnati on its cover.

The Detroit Tigers won the bidding war for Faul's services and after graduation he was sent to the Knoxville Smokies of the South Atlantic League to finish out the 1962 season. The college kid went 6 and 2 with an ERA just over 2 and next thing he knew he was up to the Detroit Tigers. The team was in Metropolitan Stadium on September  19, 1962 playing the Minnesota Twins, a measly 6,000 in attendance for the Wednesday day game. When starter Hank Aguirre started hemorrhaging runs in the fourth inning, manager Bob Scheffing took him out for a pinch hitter and sent Bill Faul to the bullpen to warm up. 

As the bottom of the fifth started, Faul took the mound. The Twins were up 4 to 2. He was welcomed to the big leagues by Bernie Allen lining a single to right field, then walked Zoilo Versalles. Faul caught his breath and struck out Dick Stigman and Lenny Green in quick succession, then got Vic Power to ground out to second. Inning over, score still 4-2 Twins.

Bill Bruton opened up the Tigers' 6th with a tremendous home run but no one else could follow that up and Detroit still trailed by a run when Faul took the mound again. Richie Rollins hit an easy grounder to short and was tossed out, but that brought up Harmon Killebrew, the Twins slugger. Wielding one of the most powerful bats in the American League, The Killer knocked the next ball into the bleachers. 5-3 Twins. Faul began wavering. He beaned Bobby Allison who then wound up on third when Earl Battey singled to center. He retired Bobby Allen on a fly ball but Allison crossed the plate on a single by Versalles. A walk to Stigman loaded them up and another free pass scored Battey. Scheffing called Bob Humphreys in from the bullpen and sent Faul to the showers. Minutes later Vic Power knocked in all the runners with a grand slam.

It wasn't he greatest debut, but the Tigers were excited by Faul's potential. The pitcher spent the off-season teaching elementary school in Cincinnati and practicing karate, mastering the latter so well that he registered his hands and feet with the local cops as lethal weapons before reporting to spring training in 1963. He easily made the team.

The 1963 Tigers were a sluggish team going nowhere so Faul's 5-6 record doesn't look too bad when you put it in perspective. While he wasn't making waves with his fastball, he was causing ripples with his eccentricities. He showed up at spring training wearing a cowboy suit and riding a bicycle. When he was issued a Tigers uniform he insisted he wear number 13. New manager Charlie Dressen, a rough hewn, no-nonsense and all-business kind of guy, was perplexed by Faul. "You watch him for a while, watch how he acts, talk to him, spend some time with him, and you figure either he's the dumbest guy in the world or the smartest you've ever met." 

The Tigers coaches tried to work with Faul. He had the pure ability but needed polishing. His delivery was all screwy - he'd flail around in a wind up and by the time he released the ball he was spread out like an octopus on the mound - somebody likened him to an impatient marionette. The coaches warned him over and over again that he'd be unable to field his position and sure enough, one game Faul was beaned in the keister by a screaming line drive. He also had a tendency to lose concentration and get wild, his fast ball rising up to the sweet spot where hitters love to see it. When old-school coaching methods didn't help, the college-educated pitcher turned to a more modern solution - Faul visited a psychiatrist.

Now in 1963 going to a psychiatrist - still referred to as a shrink or even head-shrinker in newspapers of the day - was pretty wild. The psychiatrist's prescription was even more out there: self hypnosis. The pitcher immersed himself in the theory behind hypnosis and began using it on himself, believing through the power of suggestion he could make his right arm keep his pitches low. Faul studied hypnotism throughout the off season and when the 1964 season started he spooked his manager Charlie Dressen and his teammates by putting himself in a trance before his first start. This unorthodox training regimen coupled with six earned runs in 5 innings got him a ticket to the minors. Faul struggled to a 4-7 record with Salt Lake City and in the winter doubled-down on the hypnosis. He'd just received his diploma from the Scientific Suggestion Institute when he found out the Chicago Cubs bought his contract.

While his hypnosis met with static on the stodgy Tigers, the Cubs club house was a bit more open. That's not to say his teammates weren't a bit spooked when Faul set up a record player on which he played a 45 that repeated "You're going to keep the baaaalllll dowwwwwn. You're going to pitch loooowwwww and awwwwaaaayyyy" over and over as he slipped into a hypnotic state. When the record ended he declared himself ready to pitch.

At first it seemed to work. In July and August Faul tossed three complete game shutouts. The other Cubs players soon warmed to Faul's hypnosis routine and even played along, snapping their fingers in his face after an inning as if the release him from a trance. It scarred the heck out of the opposing players and even manager Leo Durocher put up with it as long as he won.  Opposing players tried teasing him, hollaring things and dangling swinging pocket watches at him from the dugout. Somewhere along the line he was given the nickname "Loony Tune", but still Faul had a respectable year, going 6 and 6 with a 3.54 ERA. The '65 Cubs were another in a long line of mediocre to bad teams, but they did make history by turning three triple plays in one season - and if that wasn't odd enough, they all happened when Faul was on the mound.

In the off season Faul practiced his karate, honed his hypnosis technique and earned a degree as a doctor of divinity in the Universal Church. When he joined the Cubs for 1966 he was a minor celebrity as the press fixated on him for lack of anything else interesting on the Cubs that spring. The Chicago Tribune wrote a long Sunday Magazine section on him and he figured prominently in a Life magazine feature where he shared his thoughts on the power of suggestion. But something was missing in 1966 and after a 1-4 record he was shipped to Tacoma. 

It was in the minors that Bill Faul's eccentricities really went into over drive. Whether it was to scare or impress his younger teammates is not known, but the veteran pitcher began telling stories how he'd killed guys and liked to bite the heads off of cats and dogs as a kid. He also began eating live frogs because he claimed they put more hop on his fastball. The other bullpen pitchers would catch and rinse off the little green things and Faul would eat 'em with a glass of water, spitting out the tiny bones. As he slid further and further into the depths of the minor leagues, Faul's increasingly younger teammates were both scared and fascinated by him. It was while playing in the new expansion Kansas City Royals farm team out in Omaha that he made the big leagues of baseball lore by biting the head off that parakeet.

Bill Faul made it back to the majors for seven relief appearances with the San Francisco Giants in 1970 before he was sent back down for good. He returned to Cincinnati where he led a comparatively quiet life, passing away in 2002. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

198. "Wing" Maddox: This One's for All You Knoxville People!

Since I was graciously asked to give a little talk and sign copies of my book at the Barnes and Noble in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 13th, I thought it the perfect time to feature one of the more unique players in Knoxville baseball history - and all of baseball history for that matter.

As anyone knows who've stood at the plate and faced down a fastball or had a screaming line drive come straight at their noggin, baseball can be a tough sport even for the most hardy of players. Yet the game's history is peppered with players who carved out a niche despite their various physical handicaps. Some, like Eddie Gaedel, were a marketing ploy and others like Eddie Bennett were beloved team mascots. But there were the rare few who defied all odds and actually joined the ranks of professional baseball. One-armed pitcher Jim Abbott comes to mind and Pete Gray's inspiring story was the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Bert Shepard lost a leg but came back to pitch briefly in the majors and Monty Stratton overcame the loss of a leg and pitched a no-no in the minors. And don't forget Humpty Badel - despite a humped back he came close to making it to the Cincinnati Reds. Now the one thing all those guys have in common, despite overcoming a handicap, is that they're all white. 

As you all know, prior to 1946 when Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright re-integrated organized baseball, there was a vibrant alternative universe of baseball catering to those who were omitted from playing in the white leagues. It's only natural that along with the hundreds of guys like Biz Mackey, Pete Hill and Bill Byrd who had the chops to make it to the majors that there would also be Blackball equivalents of Pete Gray and Jim Abbott. And that's what brings us to this week's ballplayer...

Forrest Maddox didn't let the loss of a limb get in the way of playing baseball. His left arm had been amputated all the way to his shoulder when Maddox was about 10 years old, but the young kid worked hard to carve out a reputation on the sandlots of Fulton County, Georgia. To compensate for his disability, Maddox developed a unique system of fielding a ball with his gloved hand, then tossing the ball in the air as he discarded his glove, then catching the ball again and throw it to complete the play. All that was accomplished at a well-practiced lightening speed. Years later Pete Gray would demonstrate a similar fielding style, though Gray had a bit more of an advantage than Maddox in that he still had a slight stump with which to hold his glove instead of jettisoning it on the ground. At the plate Maddox learned to hit with a one-handed bunt-style swing. His drive and determination made it almost irrelevant that he was missing an arm - only his nickname of "One-Wing", later shortened to just "Wing", remained a reminder of his disability.

While a white boy with a similar disability displaying the kind of talent Maddox did would have made great feel-good newspaper copy from coast-to-coast, this was 1910's Georgia and Forrest Maddox was black. Though he honed his playing skills off the radar of white baseball coverage, the local blackball fans took notice and by the time he was in his teens Maddox was playing for the Atlanta Cubs. The Cubs were among the better pre-World War I all-black teams below the Mason-Dixon line and about as pro as you could get in the days before the Negro Leagues were founded. This was quite an accomplishment for a one-armed pitcher and outfielder, but Forrest Maddox wasn't satisfied. He had much more he wanted to accomplish.

In the fall of 1914 Maddox matriculated to Atlanta's Morehouse College. Though he should have been precluded from collegiate athletics because he had played ball for money with the Atlanta Cubs, Maddox did indeed pitch for Morehouse. In the years before World War II many colleges turned a blind eye to such violations and Maddox continued to play for the Cubs between semesters. The following year the team was re-named the Atlanta Black Crackers and Maddox continued to impress with his stellar fielding and batting.

In 1920 the Negro Southern League was founded and Maddox was signed by the Knoxville Giants for the league's inaugural season. Knoxville had a major league-quality ace in left-hander Steel Arm Dickey and Maddox became the team's number three starter and spot-reliever. His fielding skills and bat were thought too valuable to go to waste on the bench, so when he wasn't on the mound he was in right field and batting in the bottom half of the order. 

Behind Steel Arm Dickey's golden left arm, Knoxville tore through the Southern League competition and won the loop's first pennant by 17 games. Steel Arm finished the 1920 season by winning 25 straight games. Though I've yet to uncover his actual stats from the season, it was reported in the newspapers that One Wing Maddox finished up as the Negro Southern League's first batting champion.

Though the Negro Southern League was of lesser quality in both organization and talent than the northern, urban-based Negro National League, the Knoxville Giants challenged the NNL's pennant winners to a championship series. Originally planned as a massive 13 game series to be played in four different cities, the 1920 "World Series" wound up being a more compact three game affair played at Birmingham's renowned Rickwood Field, still used today. On September 21st more than 10,000 fans showed up for Game One. Steel Arm Dickey held Chicago to three runs until the 7th when the American Giants pushed 6 across for a 9-0 win. The loss ended Dickey's remarkable 25 game winning streak. Another 10,000 packed Rickwood the following afternoon. Game Two was much closer but the Chicagoans again edged out Knoxville 5-3. 

Like his teammates, Maddox's bat fell silent before the American Giants formidable pitching staff, going hitless in seven trips to the plate. Chicago put the nail in Knoxville's coffin by winning Game Three by a 7 to 3 margin. However, the 1920 Negro Southern League batting champ came alive in the final game and went 2 for 4 including a tremendous triple to deep right field and scoring on an error. Newspaper accounts of the game singled out Maddox for both his bat and "two pretty catches in center.” As a silent nod to his talent, it was only mentioned as an after thought that Nashville's star had but one arm.

The next season Maddox moved to the Washington Braves and then the Birmingham Black Barons in 1923.  This final season is the only one that we have hard statistics so far. According to Seamhead's Negro League Database Maddox played in 7 league games and went 3 for 16 with 2 sacrifices for a .188 average. He pitched 1.3 innings and gave up two hits and no earned runs. He retired from pro ball after that season and accepted a professor position at Morehouse College. The former ballplayer taught at his alma mater up until his death at age 31 in 1929.

For many decades blackball historians were baffled by Maddox's nickname of "One Wing" until the new breed of researchers uncovered contemporary newspaper articles that verified the pitcher-outfielder's lack of a left arm. This revelation came as a surprise to many, more so when it was found that the one-armed ballplayer was the 1920 Negro Southern League batting champ!

This illustration and story has been a fun way to say thanks to all the people in Knoxville who have invited me to their great town. In doing the research for this story I met Mark, Eastern Tennessee baseball history expert who runs the excellent Old Knoxville Base Ball website. When I expressed an interest in Wing Maddox, Mark graciously went out of his way to provide me with some great Knoxville Giants material to work with. Then there's Mike, the manager of Barnes and Noble who invited me to town in the first place. He just sent me a nice photo of the event poster on display in the store and informed me that the minor league Tennessee Smokies team mascots, Slugger and Diamond, will also be on hand for the signing! I tell you, if the rest of the people in Knoxville are half as generous as Mike and Mark, Saturday June 13th is going to be a blast! I really hope anyone in the Knoxville area comes out, it will be great to talk some good old baseball in person!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Signed Copies of The League of Outsider Baseball

Since my book launched May 5th I've been fortunate to have participated in a few book signings and will do more throughout the summer. However, not everyone can make a signing and a few people have asked how to get a signed copy by mail. Luckily my studio is right down the street from one of the best independent book stores in the country, THE BLUE MARBLE. They're best known for being the best children's book store in the land but their store offers books for all ages, including a really choice baseball section. The owner Peter has graciously offered to handle all signed book requests, so if you'd like a signed or signed and personalized copy please order it from The Blue Marble's website. As you check out you will see a comments box where you can write in what you'd like me to inscribe. Since I'm right down the street I'll walk over and sign it, Peter will box it up and in a few days you'll have your own signed first edition of The League of Outsider Baseball!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

I originally posted the story of Captain Eddie Grant, former New York Giants 3rd baseman, 3 years ago in honor of Veterans Day. To show my respect and gratitude to all the men and women who interrupted their lives in order to serve and protect this country, I'd like to post it again, my small way to say thank you.

They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.

During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.

The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.

The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.

By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.

The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.

Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.

Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.

New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named
Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.

Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.

Monday, May 18, 2015

197. Rex Barney: Trying To Find His Way Home

WDNC Radio Broadcast of the June 4, 1943 game between the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tars: on the mound for the Bulls making his professional debut this afternoon is Rex Barney. Just weeks ago the 18 year-old was in his senior year in high school back in Omaha, Nebraska. As soon as he had that diploma in his paws he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization who sent him here to our Durham Bulls. Barney fires a few warm ups in to catcher Jack Phillips. The Dodgers scouts all praise his blazing fastball and the velocity at which this kid can throw. Before the game this afternoon Bulls manager Bruno Betzel was already comparing Rex Barney's speed to the great Bob Feller. Now folks, that's some good company to be in! Ok, Barney is finished with his warm ups and Grady Dunlap steps into the box to lead it off the 7th inning for Norfolk. Barney looks in for the sign from Phillips. Big sweeping windup and high leg kick - here's the pitch...

(Sound of a thump followed by paper shuffling and muffled yell)

Sorry about that folks - Barney's pitch sailed 5 feet over Jack Phillip's head and came right through the chicken wire of our radio and press booth. Right through it! The ball hit old Bill Parker of the Herald-Sun square in the noggin', but the rest of us are all ok, shaken but ok. Bill, are you - ok, he's ok. The umpire puts a new Spalding in play and Barney again looks in for the sign. Look out folks, this kid's pitching style is of the compass variety - he throws in the general direction of the plate...

That was Rex Barney's first pitch in organized baseball. 

Throughout the course of the summer of 1943, Barney went from the Durham Bulls to the Montreal Royals and finally on August 18th he made his big league debut at Ebbets Field. With the exception of precious few moments, Rex Barney' major league career echoed that first pitch in Durham. Try as he might, he never could get that heater of his over the plate. 

I had heard about Rex Barney many times as a kid from my Grandfather. As most of you already know, Grandpa Joe was a Brooklyn Dodgers man going back to the 1920's. When ever there was talk of a young pitcher with tremendous speed my grandfather would bring up Rex Barney. The old man loved to mention how Barney no-hit the hated New York Giants in '48. Grandpa never tired or retelling that one. But, like Karl Spooner and Pete Reiser, Rex Barney embodied the notion of unfulfilled expectation - the big "what if?"

As an 18 year-old in 1943 Barney went 2 and 2 before he was drafted into the service. He drove a tank across Belgium and into Germany and then returned to the Dodgers in 1946. Barney was wild as hell, but his speed captivated the Brooklyn management - besides he was only 21, there was plenty of time for him to learn control. Barney went 3-5 for 1946 then 5-3 in '47. Still the wildness remained. One minute he'd be burning them in over the plate and the next he'd throw a ball 20 feet over the catcher's head and into the box seats. The first thought was he simply wasn't concentrating or bearing down. It was true, Barney was a husky good-looking guy who loved the broads. He was a clothes horse and as the most heavily-touted pitcher in the Dodgers organization he held virtual movie star status throughout the borough of Brooklyn. 

Nineteen forty-eight looked like the year he figured it all out. The big Nebraskan won 15 games including a no-hitter against the Dodgers hated rivals, the New York Giants. The home plate umpire for that No-no said later that Bob Feller, at the time recognized as the fasted man to ever pitch, had nothing on Barney's fastball. The season's totals showed his ERA was the fifth best in the National League and he'd finally recorded more strike outs than walks. 

The Dodgers organization was pleased with his progress - there was only one problem. In the last week of the '48 season Barney slid hard into second base breaking his ankle. It wasn't thought to be especially worrisome - he had the entire winter to take his time and recover. 1949 was going to be Rex Barney's breakout year.

Only it wasn't.

No one, not even Rex himself could pinpoint why he lost his control again. Barney often said that his pitching motion was altered after the broken ankle. The Dodgers brought teams of specialists, both of the physical and psychological variety, in a search for answers. What ever it was, Barney began a quick and merciless decent out of the majors. 1949 ended in a 9-8 record followed by 2-3 in 1950. The minor leagues followed and then a rung lower into the semi-pros. All the while Barney sought help from any source trying to regain his control. There was a heartbreaking article in the April 1954 edition of Collier's Magazine entitled "Can't Anybody Help Me?"

Unfortunately no one could. 

Years later Barney told author Peter Golenbock that after he found himself without a job or career he contemplated suicide. Rex Barney had never thought of a life without baseball. After bouncing around for a decade Barney broke into radio. By 1965 he was in Baltimore hosting his own sports talk show. It was there in Charm City that Rex Barney made the majors again, this time at the Orioles PA announcer. For over three decades Rex called out the pitching changes and public announcements. The Baltimore fans fell in love with his rich voice intoning "Thankyoooooooou!" after every announcement. His his catch phrase of "give that fan a contract!" after a spectator made a great catch of a foul or home run ball made him a local legend as big as Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. 

It was in this later capacity that I got to meet Rex Barney. I was 21 and had been one of the designers of the graphics at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I was having a lunch meeting with the Orioles VP who drove the whole Camden Yards project, Janet Marie Smith, when in walks Rex Barney. Now I have been fortunate in my life to have met many big name ball players and entertainment personalities. Names that would make your head spin and a paparazzi cameraman get the shakes with expectation. But very few could compare to the glee I had in meeting old Rex Barney. When Janet Marie Smith realized that I knew who the old man limping into the restaurant was, she happily introduced me to the ballplayer. Rex gave me a warm handshake and listened politely as I mumbled something about my grandfather telling me about his no-hitter against the Giants. In a game full of so many lousy characters, Rex was a class-act and I couldn't wait to call my grandfather and tell him that.

Dogged by declining health, Rex Barney passed about four years later. The city of Baltimore, which gave Rex Barney a second chance at the big leagues, mourned the passing of its adapted son. As a tribute to his tremendous speed, to this day coaches in the Dodgers organization describe a pitcher with blinding speed but no control as possessing a "Rex Barney Fastball".

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The League of Outsider Baseball on the Radio and in the Papers!

With The League of Outsider Baseball hitting the shelves on Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition this morning. Here's a link to the segment.

On other media fronts, the book has been getiing really great reviews from all parts of the country from Charlotte and Chicago to Dallas and Los Angeles!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

196. Vada Corbus: Almost a Big Catch

Here's a card and story I've had on the back-burner for a while. While some women ballplayers, like Jackie Mitchell, were nothing more than publicity stunts, others like Alta Weiss or the “Bloomer Girls” teams that toured the country could really hold their own against low level semi-pro competition. But while most women played on all-girl teams or barnstormed on the fringes of outsider baseball, 19 year-old Vada Corbus is a bit different: she tried out for a minor league ball club. 

Vada came from a ball playing family - her older brother Luke was the catcher for their hometown Joplin Miners, a Class C Western League club. When Luke was moved to the outfield in the spring of 1931, that left a catchers slot open and Vada believed she had the chops for it.

Details are a bit sketchy, but apparently she made the cut, for in late April newspapers began reporting that she had been signed by the Miners. Vada suited up and took the field as a bullpen catcher during a pre-season exhibition game and was fully expected to be with the team when they played their season opener on April 30th, 1931. When the New York Times finally picked up the story, Western League officials quickly put an end to Vada’s career before it began, throwing out the stock excuse that baseball was no place for a woman. The arguement holds water, of course -  Vada Corbus was quite petite and there would be many logistical issues to deal with like travel and locker rooms, things that really impacted low-level minor league teams during the Depression. However, it would have been interesting to see if Vada really had the talent to hold her own had she been given the chance.

As you already know, The League of Outsider Baseball hits the stores next week. So far my work has received really good reviews from a wide variety of venues - from The Junior Library Guild (who named it their Sports Book of the Month) to the big-daddy of them all, Major League Baseball. I'm really proud of my book and to see that others appreciate it, well, it's the best compliment an artist like me can receive. You can read what people are saying HERE.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?

Remember the 5-card series I did on the Brooklyn Bushwicks? Well, my pal Will Arlt of the Ideal Cap Co. took a shine one of the caps I had illustrated. The Bushwicks were the class-act of all semi-pro ball clubs back before World War II and as such they wore the sharpest duds around. For most of their heyday the Bushwicks' team colors were navy blue and orange - a loud combo for the time and a color scheme that earned them the nickname "The Kandy Kids". The cap Will liked was the one worn by catcher Walt VanGrofski - the 1940 Brooklyn Bushwicks cap. As far as caps go, it's a pretty smart looking one, navy blue crown with an orange bill and orange felt "B".

Like me, Will loves baseball obscura and the Bushwicks are right in his strike zone. Thus, it was only natural that he would be compelled to take one of the caps I illustrated and make it a reality. Now the '40 Bushwicks cap is the "Cap of the Month" for April and you can see it (and own one!) HERE

Now, over the past 4 years I've gotten quite a few lucrative offers to advertise on my site, all of which I turned down; I wanted the Infinite Baseball Card Set to be pure and good, clean fun. So I want to make it clear that this isn't some shill ad disguised as a blog post - I get nothing from Ideal Cap and simply wanted to share what I believe is the most unique and beautiful baseball caps in the world. I highly recommend picking one out (and that's a hard thing to do!) and wearing it proudly - you'll never wear one of those modern hard-hats again!

Click the logo to see Will's caps (and tell him what a great logo design it is - I designed it!)

This past summer I wrote about my friendship with Will which started as a business relationship 25 years ago. For those who haven't read it, I'll post it below...

In what seems like a thousand years ago, during the summer of 1989 I was working in a garment factory in Passaic, N.J. On a lunch break I was reading Sports Illustrated and happened on an article about a company in upstate New York called Cooperstown Ballcap Company who was recreating classic baseball caps, just like the ones made from the 1860's through World War II. I was smitten with the beautiful wool caps with felt logos, with the soft crown and leather sweatbands. I WANTED one of those caps, but they were about twice the amount one of those adjustable mesh caps cost, and being in art school, I couldn't justify spending that much bread on a cap. But I WANTED one of those caps!

In a rare moment of business acumen, I wrote a letter to the owner, Will Arlt up in Cooperstown and offered to do illustrations for his catalogue in exchange for ballcaps. Much to my surprise Will accepted and I've been proud to call him a friend ever since. I'll never forget opening the box that held my first Cooperstown Ballcap - it was a 1944 St. Louis Browns cap and I loved it. The crown molded to the shape of my head and after a few months the brim became soft and pliable. It looked just like the caps depicted in my baseball history books. It was perfect. Today I have dozens of Will's ballcaps and I never wore a modern cap again. Over the years Cooperstown Ballcap developed a following of ballcap purists and aficionados - one guy even came up with a website devoted to fans showing off their favorite Cooperstown Ballcap! 

Will closed Cooperstown Ballcap Company about 7 years ago and knew the world had lost the greatest cap manufacturer of all-time. I was distraught at the horror of resigning myself to having to wear those cheap and boxy modern jobs or substandard "retro" caps that jersey companies put out. Then one night over drinks at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood, Will disclosed he was starting a new company: IDEAL CAP COMPANY. Not only would he produce those beautiful ballcaps again, but other interesting styles as well. I immediately signed on to design the logo and illustrate the caps on the website, and after a few years of preparation and inventory building, Will launched Ideal.

I highly recommend picking one out (and that's a hard thing to do!) and wearing it proudly - you'll never wear one of those modern hard-hats again!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

195. Bill Leinhauser: Ty Cobb for a Day

When it came down to delivering the manuscript for my book, The League of Outsider Baseball, I found I had run way past my intended target of 240 pages and had about 100 extra pages. Then began the excruciating process of having to edit out dozens and dozens of great stories and illustrations. In the end I admit the final product is much leaner and taut - it's Major League quality. Still, the cuts left a slew of ballplayers who wont get their due in this book. Today's story and illustration is from a two-page spread I had done depicting the 1912 Replacement Tigers. I decided to go with one character today to represent the group of nine guys who went from the street corner to the majors in the span of one day in 1912. If my book does well then perhaps the other eight will make it into a second volume next year!

Earlier that morning Bill Leinhauser was hanging out on his street corner in Philly with a handful of his pals. Now it was two in the afternoon and he was waiting to take the field in Shibe Park as a member of the Detroit Tigers. 

How did Bill Leinhauser go from a Philadelphia street corner to replacing Ty Cobb in the Tigers outfield?

Most casual baseball fans know about Ty Cobb's horrifying temper. The one story usually told to illustrate the point is how he once leaped into the stands and beat an armless man who dared heckle him to a bloody pulp. When someone cried "That man has no hands!" Cobb defiantly yelled between kicks of his cleats "I don't care if he has no legs!" and continued pummelling the man until cops and teammates dragged him away. The story, though told over and over so many times, is essentially true.

The incident took place at New York's Hilltop Park on May 15, 1912. Cobb, the best ballplayer in the American League, was a natural target for hecklers. One guy sitting in the third base stands was especially vocal. Claude Lucker was a former printer who lost eight of his ten fingers in a press accident. Now he pushed Ty Cobb into the red zone when he called the Georgia Peach one too many racial slurs. Cobb did indeed vault into the stands and kick and beat the defenceless Lucker, uttering the infamous line "I don't care if he has no legs!"

As would be expected, the American League suspended the slugger, but what was unexpected was that his teammates - who cared for Cobb about as much as he cared for them - fully supported him and voted to go on strike unless he was reinstated. When the Tigers rolled into Philadelphia to begin their series against the World Champion Athletics, neither the League nor the striking players were willing to budge. Tigers manager Hughie Jennings had a big problem: if Detroit didn't field a team that afternoon at Shibe Park, the American League would forfeit the game to the A's and bring forth all kinds of costly fines.

Jennings met with A's manager and owner Connie Mack. It became obvious Jennings had only one choice - find a team. Since time was tight he couldn't bring up any Tigers prospects or players under contract with Detroit. He had to find local amateurs. Both Jennings and Mack knew any pick-up team would get murdered going up against the A's juggernaut. Mack's men were the defending World Champs, some say the greatest team ever assembled. The kindly Connie Mack told the Tigers manager that he would hold back his regulars and field his scrubs that day. Reassured, Jennings only had one more thing to do - find a team!

Since he was unfamiliar with the local baseball scene, the Tigers skipper turned to a local sportswriter named Joe Nolan. He in turn tapped Allan Travers, the assistant coach of the St. Joseph's College baseball team to find the players. The 20 year-old went to his neighborhood and scooped up eight "ballplayers" and herded them to Shibe Park. Each man was instructed to sign an official American League Player's Contract for a salary of $25 and told to suit up in the unused Tigers road uniforms. Travers received a $50 contract because he claimed he could pitch.

The real Tigers wore their street clothes and sat in the stands. If Jennings felt relieved that he had a team, it was short-lived. When the line up cards were exchanged he discovered that Connie Mack had duped him - every position was manned by one of his regulars including three future Hall of Famers. 

The game was a slaughter. The A's pounded Allan Travers for 24 runs. At one point many of the 16,000 fans demanded their money back but were refused. A riot was close to breaking out but was somehow avoided. After the game Cobb begged his teammates to end the strike, which they did. Each of the striking Tigers were fined $100 - $50 more than Cobb's original fine for beating Claude Lucker back in New York! In their next game Detroit fielded their normal lineup sans Cobb who would return from his suspension on May 25th.

The guy who took Ty Cobb's place in center field and even wore his uniform was William Charles Leinhauser. He was a local sandlot player and accomplished welterweight boxer, but he wasn't Ty Cobb. Leinhauser went 0 for 4 with 3 strike outs against the World Champs. Besides his failure at the plate Leinhauser also managed to get hit on the head by a fly ball. Perhaps he could be forgiven since Travers was serving up gopher balls all afternoon and the replacement Tigers were run ragged chasing flies. Cobb's replacement never appeared in another professional ballgame, but he did go on to to become a highly decorated Philadelphia Police Captain and retired as head of the city’s narcotics squad.  

The Replacement Tigers became a footnote to baseball history, significant in that it added eight players to the Baseball Encyclopedia whose entire career lasted only a single game. Only one of those nine would ever effect baseball history a second time, and not for his play on the field but off it. The starting third baseman that day was Billy Maharg, a scrappy neighborhood corner boy. He went hitless in his only plate appearance and left the game early when a line drive slammed into his mouth, knocking out a handful of teeth. He continued to hang around the fringes of professional baseball and by 1916 was a trainer and chauffeur with the Phillies. In 1916 Maharg got one more chance to appear in a big league game. He did as well in his second major league game as he did in his first: 0 for 1. He did however play a few innings in the outfield, this time without any damage to his choppers. The next time he appeared in conjunction with the national pastime was when he and pal Sleepy Bill Burns helped cobble together the fix of the 1919 World Series.