Thursday, August 27, 2015

203. Sammy T. Hughes: A Second Look at Blackball's Greatest Second Baseman

Now that my book is wrapped up and on the book shelves, I returned to a series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Kentucky is my adapted home and I wanted to do a baseball tribute to the wonderful place that has welcomed this journeyman artist with open arms. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman. As anyone who's followed my blog over the years knows, I'm particularly drawn to the history of the Negro Leagues in Baltimore, especially the Elite Giants. One of the early stories and illustrations I posted was of the Elites' second baseman Sammy T. Hughes. All but forgotten today, Hughes was considered by most Negro League players and writers as the best second baseman blackball produced. When I lived in Charm City back in the late 80's and 90's, every old fan I interviewed spoke of the Elites' "Sammy T". Hughes was also a native of Kentucky so when I began planning my Bluegrass Baseball book I knew Sammy T. needed a full page illustration.

The only problem with the Baseball Hall of Fame is that Sammy T. Hughes ain’t in it. 

During the 1930’s and 40’s Hughes was the best second baseman in blackball. According to Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, Sammy T. was the best second sacker he'd ever seen. This from a guy whose involvement with Negro League baseball stretched back to the 1910's.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1910, Hughes started out as a first baseman with his hometown semi-pro Louisville White Sox in 1929 and two years later the team turned pro and joined the Negro National League. 1932 saw Hughes join the Washington Pilots where he switched to second base. When that franchise folded later that year he joined the Nashville Elite Giants.

Owned by black businessman Tom Wilson, the Elite Giants started out in Nashville but were destined to keep changing home base as they searched for a city with an appreciative fan base. Hughes was a true rarity for the time, a franchise player back when contracts meant nothing and jumping from one club to another was just another part of the game. Hughes was the Elites’ man at second through their moves from Nashville to Columbus to Washington, D.C. and finally in 1938, Baltimore, Maryland.

In Charm City the Elite Giants found a town with thousands of fans hungry for a black team. The great black newspaper, The Afro-American, was based in Baltimore and provided good coverage of the Elites during their tenure in the city. The team thrived in the environment and the fans were rewarded in 1939 when they won the Negro National League Championship in a 4-team playoff between the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Elite Giants.

Over 6'-3" and close to 200lbs, Sammy T. Hughes was described by his contemporaries as a superior base runner, line drive hitter and artful bunter. At second he possessed the dexterity of a ballerina equipped with a rifle for an arm. On top of all that, Sammy T. played the game smart and he was a leader on the field. Fans acknowledged his skill and Hughes was voted to the annual East-West All-Star game five times in his career, more than any other second baseman. Usually batting second in the lineup, he consistently batted over .300 and executed the hit-and-run play like he invented it. From 1935 to 1942 Sammy T. was like an automatic double machine, either leading the league or finishing in the top five for two base hits each year. In exhibition games against Major Leaguers Hughes hit the white pitching at a .350 clip.

An event that never actually happened provides the best proof that Sammy T. was one of the best ball players produced by the Negro Leagues: In 1942 the Communist newspaper “The Peoples Voice” arranged a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates for three Negro Leaguers. Of all the untapped blackball talent it was Hughes along with Roy Campanella and pitcher Dave Barnhill who were chosen for the historic tryout. All three men showed up in Pittsburgh but Pirates owner William Benswanger backed out at the last minute. The aborted tryout received much press coverage at the time and sports writers both black and white figured Hughes to be a can’t-miss candidate to break the color line. This high appraisal of Sammy T. wasn't just due to his statistics: like Jackie Robinson, Hughes was evaluated for the way he conducted himself off the field. Sammy T.'s decade of loyalty to the Elite Giants spoke to his dedication towards his team and his clean-living made him stand out from many ball players regardless of color. New York Black Yankees player Dick Seay had this to say of Hughes: “a nice fellow. He wasn’t one of those guys that was drinking and all. He’d stay in the hotel and go get his girl and visit her.”

Unfortunately we never got to see what Sammy T. could do in the major leagues. World War II interrupted Hughes' career and he served three years in the Pacific. After his discharge from the Army he returned to Baltimore, but only after holding out for a bigger pay check. Although he hit only .277, Sammy T. rendered an even greater service by acting as mentor the Elites’ young second baseman Junior Gilliam. The veteran's unselfish tutoring made Gilliam into an All-Star second baseman for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. With Gilliam firmly in place as his replacement, Hughes settled down in Los Angeles and worked for Hughes Aircraft and Pillsbury, passing away in 1981. 

Every time the Hall of Fame convenes one of their Negro League committees, Sammy T. Hughes' name makes the conversation but he's always pushed aside by players of lesser talent who played for more well-known teams or had more friends among the powers-that-be. Someday the Elites' second baseman may get the recognition he deserves, but until then Cooperstown will not complete until Sammy T. gets in there.

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

202. Red Solomon: The Luckiest Boy in the World!

Since my book came out in May I've been lucky enough to have been a guest on over 60 radio shows across the country (you can listen to a selection HERE). At first I was uncomfortable, but after I had a few under my belt I became very at ease with live radio. I even looked forward to each interview as a challenge, not knowing what questions a host would throw at me. I think I had a much easier time than the usual author because with the exception of but one interviewer, I could tell the hosts had actually read my book. Many times the host would tell me before the interview or during a commercial break that they do not always get the chance to or necessarily want to read the books they get in, but the League of Outsider Baseball was an exception. A few of the radio station engineers even told me that the guys in the office were fighting over who got to keep the book! I can't tell you how proud that made me feel inside.
Although the range of questions thrown at me were wildly different (heck, there are 240 pages of stories to choose from!) there were two that always seemed to pop up. The first, and most difficult, was "Who's your favorite player in the book?" That's a tough one as it changes all the time. One day I might like the Frankie Zak story because it was personal to me, while another day I would say the Farmer Dean story because no one ever wrote about him before me. It would have been easier for me to answer a trigonometry question instead of who's my favorite!

The other question that came up often is "How did you find the players in the book?" That one was easier to answer, though there is no single answer. If you've read this blog for some time, you already know that sometimes I find mentions of a player in a book about a better known player - like Ford Meadows. This was the guy who was deemed a better prospect than a young Babe Ruth in 1913 Baltimore. He was briefly mentioned in a Ruth biography and I wanted to know who that guy was - so I did. Or another way I find ideas is like what happened with the Lou Gehrig story in the book. I remember hearing that a young Gehrig played under an assumed name for a town team in New Jersey when he was a student at Columbia. This is briefly touched on in a few Gehrig books but with no details given. I dug and dug and found a guy in Morristown, New Jersey who was also researching this forgotten part of Gehrig's life. He was kind enough to share what he found and I built upon that to the point where I tracked down not only box scores from his time in Morristown but also a team photograph that had once hung in a tavern that had long since closed. The third way I find stories is simply by accident. Sometimes I just stumble upon an interesting newspaper article when researching something entirely separate. That's how I came upon Farmer Dean when I was researching the 1935 Tokyo Giants American Tour. When I do come across those hidden gems I print them out or make notes and put them in a bulging manila folder which I usually take with me on business trips or on airplanes to pass the time. It was on my recent trip to Los Angeles to accept the 2015 Salin Award that I re-discovered the star of today's post: Red Solomon.

In the summer of 1929 the woeful Chicago Cubs suddenly emerged as a National League contender. In the decade since their drubbing in the 1918 World Series by Babe Ruth and the Red Sox, the Cubs had foundered. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley purchased the team in 1926 and began making positive changes to the club. Backed by Wrigley's deep pockets, Cubs president William Veeck, Sr. began to assemble a team of proven veterans and promising cast-offs. By spring training 1929, the Cubs had a solid roster and was poised to wrestle the pennant from the defending Pittsburgh Pirates. That year's edition of Northsiders fielded a squad of sluggers that rivaled the Yankees Murderer's Row: Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, Kiki Kuyler... all future Hall of Famers. Their pitching staff was among the best in both leagues with Pat Malone leading the NL with 22 victories and Charlie Root and Guy Bush winning 19 and 18 games respectively. And like the Yankees' Murderer's Row, the Cubs also led the league in characters. Pat Malone and Hack Wilson were the life of a seemingly never-ending party of gin-joints, speakeasies and road houses. Their manager Joe McCarthy, a journeyman infielder who never made the big leagues, defied his many detractors and led the Cubbies to 98 wins. In that last summer before the Great Depression descended on the nation, the 1929 Cubs were the last gasp of the Roarin' 20's fun and excess.

Despite all the newspaper and press coverage lavished on the Cubbies that summer, very few moving images exist of the team. One of the rare reels that remain was shot by Movietone News at the Polo Grounds on August 18th. Among the shots of Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler and the fellas limbering up before the game is a segment featuring the team's wonder manager Joe McCarthy and a short freckle-faced kid. McCarthy smiles uneasily, obviously still not used to all the attention foisted upon him as leader of the best team in the National league. The freckle-faced kid on the other hand, pounds his glove and looks totally natural in his grey pinstriped uniform with "NY KAWANIS" written across the chest. Remarkably, it's a "talkie", the latest in moving picture technology at the time. After a few false starts McCarthy puts his hand on the boy's shoulder and says "Folks, I want you to meet Red Solomon, the Jewish boy with the Irish face". McCarthy goes on to say that the kid is the youngest ballplayer to sign a major league contract and he'll be 13 years-old next month.

And finally there's a great shot of little Red standing with a group of six Chicago Cubs. Each man has on a dirty road uniform and a scowl on his face - including little Red. Afterwards Red plays catch with a few of his "future teammates", the older men yelling back and forth telling the kid to take it easy as he's too young to have a sore arm. Then the film reel runs out and the Cubs and Red are gone.

Turns out Samuel Solomon - called "Red" for his flaming red hair - was well known around New York City. Red's Kiwanis Club sponsored team played in a city-wide sandlot league run by the impressively-named Captain George H. Maines, former president of the Michigan-Ontario League. The organization Maines put together wasn't just some suburban Little League - the loop boasted over 1,000 teams with more than 15,000 boys - of which Red Solomon stood out as the very best. At the age of 12 Red not only was the team's star third baseman but he also managed the team. The newspaper articles I found seem to all have a line in them about how Red Solomon's timely hitting or robust defense saved or won the game. The 1928 Bronx Kiwanis club finished with a 20-1 record and capped off the season by winning the city-wide sandlot championship.

So Red Solomon was already fairly known to New Yorkers when the announcement came that he was signed by the Chicago Cubs. Back in 1915 the New York Giants had signed 15 year-old Waite Hoyt, but the 75 pound freckle-faced redhead made Hoyt look like he was a grizzled veteran. After Solomon put his signature on a contract, Cubs manager Joe McCarthy told the assembled writers "I consider young Solomon the best natural baseball player for his size I have ever seen". 

After news of the historic signing made the newspapers and newsreels, Red worked out with the Cubs whenever they played in New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Wearing a pint-sized Cubs uniform, Red took batting tips from the great Rogers Hornsby and roomed on the road with outfielder Kiki Cuyler. He was quoted time and again proclaiming himself "the luckiest boy in the whole world". The Cubs put their young prospect on a strict regimen designed to turn him into a future star. Before he signed his Cubs contract, Red told sportswriters that his typical breakfast consisted of a doughnut and cup of coffee. Now the Chicago trainers had the boy eating fresh fruit each morning. 

Realizing that being a big league ball player did not stop after a game, Red was paired with Miss Betty Van Alan who would teach him the proper etiquette expected of a major leaguer. A newspaper printed a list of commandments that Red was to live by under his most unique apprenticeship, of which some are quite obvious:

• Bathe after every baseball game
• Don't smoke or drink
• Brush your teeth

while some are quite quaint:

• Help another boy every day
• Don't ever be late for an appointment
• Study your baseball rules

and others are, well, sort of bizarre:

• Don't butter a whole slice of bread
• Don't drink milk with meat
• Don't cut a salad with a knife
• Don't wash your food down with water
• Don't cut more than one piece of meat at a time

While many news stories portrayed the Red Solomon signing as a feel-good human interest piece, others did not see it so positive. Cubs skipper Joe McCarthy said later that he received many angry letters from mothers berating him for allowing a 13 year-old to play on the same field as grown men. The concerned moms warned of the dangers a screaming liner would do to the 75 pound third baseman. Some sports writers warned of how difficult adult 20 year-old rookies found the pressures and expectations of trying to make good in the big leagues - how would a 13 year-old boy be able to cope with all that?

The Cubs took the National League pennant by 10 1/2 games and prepared to meet the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The '29 A's were perhaps the greatest team ever assembled in the history of the Major Leagues, but Red for one was not worried. In the build up to the Series he was often quoted in the papers as predicting a quick finish to the Philadelphians. Red's optimistic outlook and earnest appeal led to him being picked up as a featured correspondent for United Press International wire service. 

Unfortunately Red's optimism didn't last long. The Athletics completely dismantled the Cubs in 5 games. Red's articles are at first fun to read, written from the perspective of a 13 year-old fan and featuring peppy little "interviews" with the Cubs players. But after each heart-breaking loss Red struggles more and more to stay optimistic. Game 4 saw Chicago's 8-0 lead evaporate in an A's 10 run 7th inning and in the fifth and final game Philadelphia rallied for a 3 run ninth to bet the Cubs 3-2. The humiliating loss was a devastating surprise. Perhaps the first line of Red's final dispatch best sums up the Cubs fans' frustration and dismay: 

"What's the use of writing a story now? It's all over."

The Cubs slinked back to Chicago and Red returned to school in the Bronx. Although he says in his final dispatch that he would be back with Cubs for the 1930 campaign he never did. Like most people already knew, the Cubs signing of little Red was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Capt. Maines, the guy who ran the league Red played in, had drummed up the whole scheme to publicize his organization. Most likely the Captain approached and had been turned down by the local Yankees, Giants and Dodgers before the Cubs took the bait. Bill Veeck, Sr. obviously possessed some of the huckster mentality his more well-known son turned into an art form when he ran the Browns, Indians and White Sox.

Red continued to play superb sandlot ball, first with his Kiwanis club and then with the Bronx Incas. Solomon's name could be found in the New York sports pages throughout the summer of 1932 and 33 when he starred for a team assembled by the New York Yankees. When Red tried to join another amateur league he was temporarily banned because he failed to secure a waiver from his former club - sandlot ball in 1930's New York sure wasn't like today's Little League - these guys were serious! 

Finally in the summer of 1933 Red was old enough to be invited to try out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. On the very morning of the tryout Red was practicing with the Incas at Cretona Park when a runner crashed into him as he covered third base. When the dust settled Red lay in a heap, his left leg suffering a double compound break. Solomon was rushed to Morrisania Hospital where doctors told the newspapers his baseball career was through. Fortunately though, Red had friends in places a normal teen didn't. Joe McCarthy, Cubs skipper back in '29, was now managing the New York Yankees right there in the Bronx. When the Yanks heard of Red's dire prognosis the team sent their own doctors to work on the boy and by the end of September Red was expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, to help Red's family pay for all the hospital bills a benefit baseball game was held at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were out of town. While he was laid up in the hospital Joe McCarthy came calling with a ball signed to him by Rogers Hornsby, his old teammate from 1929 and now manager of the Browns. Red's old bunk mate Kiki Cuyler dropped by when the Cubbies were playing the Giants and fellow Bronx native Hank Greenberg made an appearance. Red may not have been on a big league roster but he sure had friends of major league quality!

Despite all the rosy predictions, the injury did hamper Red's game. He went south with the Chicago White Sox for spring training in 1934 but failed to make the team. A wire story from the Jewish Telegraphy Service the following spring had Red going to spring training with the New York Giants, but again he didn't make the cut. For the rest of the decade Red Solomon played the game he loved. You can find him playing with semi-pro teams like the Murray Hills and the Paterson Silk Stockings, both of which featured former major leaguers and college stars.

I tried as best as I could to find out what became of Red. I re-read Roberts Ehrgott's great book on the 1920's and 30's Cubs "Mr. Wrigley's Ballclub" looking for Solomon but he's not mentioned. Nor was he included in SABR's comprehensive study of the '29 Cubs "Winning on the Northside". Even the handful of books about Bill Veeck, Jr. fail to bring up his dad's signing of the 13 year-old third baseman. This is perhaps the biggest oversight as I can't help but hypothesize that Veeck Sr's 1929 stunt influenced Veeck Jr's 1951 Eddie Gaedel signing and all his subsequent big league hijinx.

Regardless, after 1940 Red disappears from newspapers and into the unpublicized normal lived most of us lead. My best guess is Red's the Samuel Solomon who passed away in 1991 aged 75, but I'm not positive. If it is, I wonder how Red looked back across all those decades to the summer of 1929 when he was the luckiest boy in the world...

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

201. Jake Atz: His Whole Story from A to Z

I know I haven't been posting stories as often as I used to - it's been a busy summer. I've been fortunate to have been invited to several book signings around the country and on top of all that I was awarded the 2015 Tony Salin Award from the Baseball Reliquary in July. The Salin Award is presented to individuals in recognition of their part in the preservation of baseball history. As far as I know there's no higher recognition a baseball historian, writer or artist can receive than the Salin Award, and I am extremely humbled and proud of this achievement. I'll post a picture of the award and a bit more about the 2015 ceremony in the near future, so stay tuned.

One more thing before I introduce this week's story. Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

When I first started this blog a little over five years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of tales I like to write - guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Jake Atz was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 3 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." (although it's a different illustration).

Since the Cincinnati Red Stockings first stepped foot on a ball field back in 1869, professional baseball has produced more great legends than any other sport in history. From Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes to Babe Ruth's called shot to Steve Bartman being the sole cause of the Cubs playoff collapse, baseball's great legends, whether true or false, are what made the game so enduring over the decades. And as many tales and legends are attributed to Major League Baseball, the minor leagues have produced an infinitely greater number.

Take the story of Jake Zimmerman. It's the turn of the century and Zimmerman was a young Jewish kid from Washington, D.C. trying to get his foot firmly placed on the bottom rung of the professional baseball ladder. The story goes that Jake's teammates lined up alphabetically to receive their pay each week. Finances in the low minors at the turn of the century was precarious to say the least, and from time to time by the time Jake got to the front of the line, the team treasurer had run out of funds. Refusing to let a mere surname get in the way of his financial stability, Jake Zimmerman became Jake Atz. Problem solved and an enduring baseball legend is born.

There's only one problem - well, two actually: Jake never changed his name because he never had to - nor was he a Jew.

Jacob Henry Atz was born in Washington, D.C. in 1879. His father's people were German Lutherans and his mother's side of the family was Irish. Sometime, somewhere very early in his baseball career Jake was taken for being a Jew. He didn't think it necessary to do anything to correct the notion so today he's always on the list of Jewish Major Leaguers. I also fell victim to the great story surrounding Jake Atz and included him in my little book on Jewish ballplayers back in 2011, further perpetuating the myth. It wasn't until recently that modern researchers dug up Jake's ancestral records and found not only his religious background incorrect but the birth name often listed for him - John Jacob Zimmerman - was wrong. So after one hundred years the two things that made Jake Atz such a great baseball character were proven to be myths. Still, even when you brush away the legend, Jake Atz was still a pretty remarkable ball player.

Atz got his professional start with the Raleigh Senators in 1901. After making his mark his contract was soon sold to the New Orleans Pelicans. Although the Pelicans played in the Southern Association, a higher minor league than Raleigh, a trip to the deep south meant terrible humidity, rowdy fans and rampant disease epidemics - it was not uncommon for a player to contract malaria while playing in the Southern Association. Like many players of his era, Jake refused to go. New Orleans’ manager trekked up north to meet with Atz in person. When told he would be making $125 a month, Jake responded that for that sum he’d play in Alaska! 

Managing to avoid malaria, dehydration and riotous spectators, Atz finished up the year in New Orleans and batted .275 for the Pelicans. The next year the Washington Senators called him up for a look-see. In front of his hometown fans, Atz got into three games but managed only 1 hit in 10 at bats. The Senators sent Jake back down south where he played for New Orleans and then Memphis. Jake then went out to the West Coast where he played for Los Angeles and Portland, all the while hitting around .250.

In 1908 he was back in New Orleans hitting .312 when the big leagues came calling again. The Chicago White Sox brought Atz up as a reserve infielder and the next year he was their starting 2nd baseman. He was an average-skilled infielder but his major league career ended prematurely in part because of an injury to his hip suffered when he deliberately leaned into a Walter Johnson pitch in order to get on base. Released to the Providence Grays in 1910 he took over as manager during the second half of the next season. Although the team finished last in the Eastern League, Jake had found his calling. He was a natural manager.

Atz bumped around the low minors again making the most out of his waning playing days until he landed a berth as player/manager of the Fort Worth Panthers. His early years as manager didn’t go so smoothly and the hard-headed Atz quit the team in a huff after the owner second-guessed his decision to leave a struggling pitcher in the game instead of going to his bullpen. Atz’s popularity was such that the next year the owner was forced out by the minority stock holders and their first move was to bring Jake back as manager. Extremely popular with both fans and players, the colorful Atz drove the Panthers to the Texas League pennant every year from 1919 to 1925. The Panthers became a dynasty due to the owners, W.K. Stripling and Paul LaGrave who paid top dollar for the best players they could find. So well paid were their men that some even turned down promotions to higher leagues because they would make much less than what the Panthers paid them. Besides, “Jake Atz’s Cats” as they were dubbed, were winners. His 109 wins in 1922 and again in 1924 set a Texas League record that still stands. The Panthers also played in the inaugural Dixie Series that pitted the champs of the Texas League against the winners of the Southern Association. Even though the Southern League had a higher minor league classification than the Texas League, Atz’s Cats won the series every year between 1920 and 1925 except 1922. He left Ft. Worth after the 1929 season and managed various other teams, mostly in the Texas League until finally retiring after the 1941 season.

All told, Jake Atz managed in the minors for 22 years. His lifetime record of 1,972 wins places him 12th among the most wins by a minor league manager. The last team he helmed was the 1941 Winston-Salem Twins whose shortstop that year was a young Jewish kid from New York named Mickey Rutner who would go on to become the inspiration for the fictional character “Mike Kutner” in Eliot Asinof’s literary baseball classic, “Man On Spikes”.

Jake Atz died of cancer in his adopted hometown of New Orleans in 1945. The next year the Texas League introduced the “Jake Atz Trophy”, still awarded at the end of each season to the league champions. So, even with the myths dusted off Ol' Jake Atz's story, he still managed to make quite a mark on the game he loved...

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!