Monday, September 21, 2015

205. Paul Derringer: More Peaks and Valleys Than Red River Gorge

This week I wanted to showcase a large illustration I recently completed of Paul Derringer. Besides wanting to bring the old Reds ace to life in full color, I also looked forward to re-creating the scoreboard and factories that formed the outfield walls of Crosley Field. Turned out to be one of my favorite drawings...

One would think a pitcher with a record of 7-27 would find himself back in the minor leagues, right? Not Paul Derringer - he got a $2,500 raise. In 1933, the year he put up those terrible stats, Derringer had an ERA of 3.30, better than league average, and his walks and home runs allowed per inning was among the lowest in both leagues. 

Paul Derringer’s career had more dramatic peaks and valleys than Kentucky's Red River Gorge. He came from Springfield, the son of a prosperous Kentucky tobacco farmer and former baseball player. Built like a line backer and over six feet tall, Derringer had a blazing fastball delivered with a dizzying leg kick and pin-point control. By 1931 he was pitching for the Cardinals where the rookie won 18 games as St. Louis went to the World Series. Then he had the misfortune of going from the best team in the National League to the worst when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. That’s the season he lost 27 games. 

Derringer was a surly fellow and he often ended arguments with his fists. His decade-long feud with former Cardinals teammate Dizzy Dean culminated in a full-blown on-field brawl in 1939. Perhaps due to all his pent-up rage (or maybe he was just tired of losing), Derringer began winning despite a lousy Reds ball club. In ‘36 he won 22 games and by 1938 the Reds had themselves a good ball club. Derringer’s 25-7 record in 1939 was the best winning percentage in the league as the Reds won their first pennant in twenty years. In 1940 the big right hander won 20 games and then 2 more in the World Series as Cincinnati won it all.

Derringer retired after his 16 wins helped the Cubs to their last pennant in 1945. He finished with 223 career wins and is the third most winningest pitcher in Cincinnati Reds history.

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.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Len Koenecke Re-Post: 80 Years Ago Today...

80 Years ago today Len Koenecke met his end in the skies above Canada. This re-post from a few years ago is for you Len...

On the advice of a few colleagues, I've been actively searching around for someone to represent my baseball illustrations. After many years in my line of work I've built up an impressive body of work, but through it all I know one thing - I'm a terrible business man - most artists are. Talking about my work has always been a tough thing for me to do, I've always been shy about tooting my own horn and as a result I've never been able to take advantage of opportunities a more savvy professional would have leaped at, and I'm finally come to the point where I'm seeking someone to handle that. That said, if anyone has any suggestions, I'd be most appreciative.

But back to baseball... I've been working on this week's story for quite some time. The illustration was completed 6 months ago and it's one of my favorites so far. What artist could turn away from that striking dark blue Indianapolis Indians flannel uniform with the white socks? The subject of the story has a chiseled granite mug that no illustrator would pass up the opportunity to render. But it's the story that makes this week's chapter worth while. Len Koenecke was always fascinating to me - he's a footnote, a trivial oddity you come across in quite a few baseball anthologies  and I've been looking forward to researching it from the perspective of contemporary accounts. My Grandfather, who was a die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fan at the time Koenecke was roaming center field at Ebbets Field, would talk about him every so often and I suppose it's through him that I heard of him first. Over the past months I've amassed a nice-sized binder of clippings and accounts and finally gotten 'round to putting the whole thing together this Thanksgiving weekend...

It seemed like some crazed pulp magazine story but it was really happening.

The lone passenger picked himself up off the floor and drew his broad 6' frame up as tall as the cramped airplane cabin would allow, which wasn't much. The cabin of the single-engine Stinson SM-1 Detroiter wasn't much bigger than a modern Chevy Suburban. Surprised that the man still had it in him to get up, the exasperated co-pilot tore a portable fire extinguisher from the cabin wall, determined to defend the cockpit from this maniac who was equally determined to crash the plane. Behind him, the pilot struggled to keep the Stinson SM-1 airplane steady in the early morning skies over Toronto. The fight had pitched the plane violently and the pilot had lost all navigational bearings just trying to keep the plane level. All three men were yelling incoherently but with the noise from the engine nothing could be heard, just the twisted faces of two men desperately fighting for their lives and a third trying his best to end it for them all. 

The passenger pulled his head down into his broad shoulders and lunged forward. Drawing the metal fire extinguisher across his body the co-pilot hit the charging man as hard as he could. With a noiseless scream he easily deflected the heavy metal canister which spun through the air and hit the pilot in the shoulder. Defenseless, the co-pilot was no match for the crazed passenger who now hammered on his body with ham-sized fists until he slumped to the cabin floor.

Now nothing stood between him and the pilot. 

Seeing his friend and co-pilot rendered useless, the pilot, with one hand on the controls, reached down at his feet and grabbed hold of the fire extinguisher. While the co-pilot was a slightly-built man, the pilot was a former star athlete and tonight he would need all his strength to save his life. In the dim cockpit lighting he could see the shadow of the passenger quickly looming behind his seat. Blindly he swung the extinguisher behind him and hit something - it was the co-pilot's head. The pilot swung the extinguisher again and this time hit the looming passenger in the side of the face. With the big man momentarily stunned, the pilot drew back and swung, again hitting the passenger in the face. Blood splashed in all directions and the pilot swung again, another head shot, and then another. And another. The man took a step back and crumpled into the back seat in a pool of rapidly spreading blood. As the man slumped forward, he brought the heavy canister down once more onto the top of his head before the blood made the extinguisher slip from his grasp and roll away into the dark recesses of the cabin. 

This time he wasn't getting up. The lone passenger, Len Koenecke, outfielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was definitely dead.

Len Koenecke's career had been about as rocky and turbulent as his last airplane ride. He was from a Wisconsin railroad family, hard-working men who made the giant steam engines run. Following in his Pop Herman's footsteps, young Len took a job as a fireman, shoveling coal into the hungry fires that propelled the Chicago & North Western locomotives across the midwest. The work hardened the boy's 6' bony frame and he developed hulking shoulders and powerful arms. More importantly though, young Koenecke was assigned the Escanaba to Ispheming run where he met brakeman Murray Boyle. 

Before Murray Boyle was a brakeman he was a minor league ballplayer, but now managed the Escanaba town team. One week Boyle knew Escanaba needed a catcher for that weekend's game and he asked the athletically-built Koenecke if he'd care to play. Though he never caught before he did a good enough job that he kept playing and soon jumped to another semi-pro team where he was spotted by a fella who told a friend who knew the manager of the Class B Springfield Senators of the Three I League. Koenecke took a leave of absence from the railroad and headed south to Illinois. Unfortunately his skills behind the plate were poor for a class B team and he was dropped in May without ever playing a game. He slipped over to Moline which was a class D level and when the Plowboy's regular outfielder got injured, Koenecke took his place. In 117 games he his 20 homers and batted a nice .343. In the fall he returned to the Chicago & Northwestern where he shoveled coal throughout the off season. 

When spring came, Koenecke rejoined the Moline Plowboys. From the hard railroad work he was a physical specimen to behold, but found it took weeks to finally unlimber his massive back muscles and swing a bat comfortably. He increased his average to .389 for 1928 and was sold to the Class B Quincy Indians at the end of the season. Quincy was in turn owned by the  Indianapolis Indians and the big club had Koenecke join them for the remainder of the American Association season. Indianapolis was Class AA, the highest rung of the minor leagues. Getting into 17 games Koenecke  hit .394 and clocked 4 homers. In October he went back to Wisconsin and rejoined the railroad.

1929 was much the same as 1928 with the long spring training spent getting his body back to baseball form. He was sent down to Quincy in the first part of the season and when his swing came back he moved up to Indianapolis. The books show he hit .323 for the year. Again, winter was spent with the railroad where his leave of absences was starting to rub the other workers the wrong way. Koenecke's Pop Herman was an engineer on the line and no doubt his position and seniority had everything to do with his son's excessive leaves each summer. Fact of the matter was that each time Koenecke returned he pushed out another well-trained worker. Baseball just didn't pay enough for Koenecke to take the winter off nor was he sure his career would go anywhere. The constant back and forth between the mid and high minors left him uncertain of his future so he needed to keep his railroad job as long as he could. In February he married Gladys Stoltenberg which made his position even more precarious. He needed to keep both feet in, it was just the smart way to play it.

That spring he again wound up in the lower Class B level and stayed there except for 67 games with Indy where he his a disappointing .250. The long time it took each spring to work back into baseball shape was taking its toll on him and when he returned to the railroad in the fall, he was confronted with a decision: work or play. No more leaves of absence. Koenecke chose baseball.

In the spring he came barreling into training camp and made the Indianapolis roster to stay. Throughout the season he prowled the outfield like a hungry leopard and hit everything in sight. He punished the American Association pitchers at a .353 clip, second best on the team. He led Indianapolis in hits (224), triples (19) and home runs (24). In one great leap Koenecke went from human pinball machine to top-rung minor league star. And important people were watching.

John McGraw, long-time manager of the mighty New York Giants, was looking around for a new outfielder. The Cardinals and Cubs had usurped the Giants as the best teams in the National League and the hated Yankees were now THE New York team to root for. McGraw was determined to find a ballplayer of immense quality to plug the gaps of his sinking ship, win pennants and fill the stands. Although he was in ill-health, McGraw boarded a train west and personally scouted the Indianapolis Indians' phenom from the stands. Liking what he saw, the Giants manager bought Koenecke for an unbelievable $70,000.

When he boarded the train to Los Angeles for spring training, Koenecke left behind a trail of Indianapolis baseball records that still stand: 5th highest season batting average (.353); 3rd in hits (224); 1st in runs scored (141); 4th in triples (19) and 3rd in RBI (131).

In sunny L.A., Koenecke was the talk of the camp. His high price tag made him a sure topic for the newspaper boys and McGraw fed them lines proclaiming that his new outfielder was sure to "be a bright star in the National League". On the field he performed well, seeming to live up to the hype that swirled around him.When the Giants suited up for Opening Day, Len Koenecke was right along with them wearing number 31.

1932 was a dismal year for New York. No matter what McGraw tried his boys slipped further and further down the standings. The Old Man was not well and perhaps this rubbed off on the team. The Giants were beginning a transition from the old-time baseball of their manager and the modern-day tactics of the heir-apparent, outfielder Bill Terry. The new $70,000 wonder-boy had a hard time breaking into the veteran lineup. The outfield consisted of future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Freddie Lindstrom and 2 time National League MVP and 5 time All-Star Jo-Jo Moore. None-the-less McGraw played Koenecke off and on but after 40 games he was barely batting .250. Most insulting to McGraw was his 5 errors in the outfield including an unforgivable misplay on a ball that gave Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean an inside-the-ballpark home run.

The New York Giants at this time was a close-knit fraternity and difficult for any outside ballplayer to break in. McGraw was a hard man to play for and many players failed to make good solely because of his criticism and acidic personality. Besides being an over-aged rookie, Koenecke reportedly was quiet and had a fragile ego, a trait that didn't bode well for a new ballplayer, especially one who had the press clippings and expectations that he came with. To make an already bad situation worse, somehow he'd gotten under the skin of Bill Terry, McGraw's right-hand man. When the Old Man retired after the first 40 games of the season, any protection he was getting from McGraw evaporated. New skipper Bill Terry had enough on his plate than worry about bringing along a 28 year-old rookie he had personal problems with. Despite what his mentor might have thought of Koenecke's talent, Terry sent the $70,000 Man across the Hudson River to the minor league Jersey City Skeeters.

While it must have been frustrating for Koenecke to again be swung back and forth between teams, he performed well with the Skeeters. The Giants might not have a place or time for him but his .355 with 18 homers got the Brooklyn Dodgers interested and they swapped Lefty O'Doul and Watty Clark for him and infielder Sam Leslie. Brooklyn let Koenecke spend another season in the minors and he batted .334 with the Buffalo Bisons for the 1934 season.

When Spring rolled around again the 30 year-old Koenecke was now an old man in baseball years. He had a reoccurring foot injury that made him sit out games but he was still strong and eager to make good. The Brooklyn team that was training in Orlando was a miserable bunch. Besides youngster Van Mungo and the elderly Ray Benge the pitching staff was a collection of never-were's and the majority of the bench were has-beens. It was Casey Stengel's first season as a Major League manager and he worked hard to make something of the rubble calling themselves Dodgers. 

In what is one of the only cases of that I've heard of Casey Stengel going out of his way to tutor a ballplayer, Brooklyn's new manager drilled Koenecke all spring. Newspapers gave Stengel credit for giving the former bonus baby back the confidence he left on the Giants locker room floor back in 1932. Where Koenecke was a good outfielder before, Stengel put Koenecke through the paces until he caught anything that came near him. When the Dodgers headed north to start the 1934 season, Koenecke was raring to go.

Go he did. Batting clean-up, the re-born Koenecke batted .320 against National League pitching, second best on the team. While not a speed-demon, he was smart and sure-footed on the base paths but it was in the field where he excelled. In 123 games Koenecke made but 2 errors - a .994 fielding percentage and still a National League record. While the Dodgers finished in 6th place, 23 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, Brooklyn finally had something to look forward to in the coming season. With Len Koenecke, the Dodgers had a bonafide star.

The off-season was spent making the usual rounds a newly minted star did back then - steak and potatoes testimonial dinners and drinks on the house from coast-to-coast. While newspapers back east speculated on the glories Koenecke was going to lead the Dodgers to in 1935, Koenecke bulked up back home in Wisconsin. The formerly reserved and emotionally tender ballplayer rolled into Brooklyn's training camp in Orlando with a swelled head and body to match. 

If you look at the record book for 1935 and isolated all other years, on the surface Leonard George Koenecke didn't have too bad of a season: .283 average in 100 games ain't nothing to sneeze at. Under the hood however, the numbers tell a different story: where he only struck out 38 times in 536 at bats the previous year he now swished 45 times in only 374 chances. His power seemed to disappear over the winter and his already bad feet now all but hobbled him through out the summer. His record-making fielding dissipated as well and he was charged with 8 errors. Stengel watched with horror as his protege of the previous year crumbled before his eyes. The team as a whole was falling apart, too. Where the year before the rookie skipper was the darling of the sports page, he soon discovered his corny jokes and witticisms only make you look stupid when your team is stinking up the National League.

As the summer churned into the humid days of September, Stengel was at the end of his rope. Losing his cool he lashed out at his team for making him look bad. Koenecke in particular drew his ire due to his disappointing record. As September began the Brooklyn skipper let the press know that there was changes a-comin' - and he was cleaning house. Word leaked that Stengel was trying pawn Koenecke off on any team that would take him - minor league teams. All these Stengel-fueled rumors swirled around the team as they brought their losing show on the road. In Boston last year's hero went 5 for 8 then 2 for 18 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. When the Dodgers turned up in Chicago, Koenecke sat out the first game then went 1 for 4 before being benched for the last game at Wrigley Field. In the 9th inning Stengel tapped Koenecke to pinch hit. He grounded out. Didn't matter anyway. He could have hit a grand slam and it wouldn't have mattered. When the team arrived in St. Louis the following day, Stengel had arranged for Koenecke and two other slackers, Bob Barr and Les Munns, to go to Buffalo. Len Koenecke was sent back to the minor leagues again.

You have to try get in the head of Len Koenecke to fully understand what led up to the event described in the beginning of this story. Baseball lore has twisted the story of Len Koenecke's demise so many ways it is hard to tell what really happened in his final hours, but let's try. Here he was, 31 years-old, been sent up and down the rungs of organized baseball so many times he had to look in a mirror and read his jersey to see what ball club he was with on any given day. He was a married man with a 5 year-old girl waiting for him in their apartment in Brooklyn. The Great Depression was in full swing and the once lucrative security of his railroad job was long gone. His feet were bad and he'd been thrown off two major league teams in disgrace, both times after garnering high praise and expectations. With a fragile ego that was probably coming apart at the seams, Koenecke packed his bags once again. Before he picked up his plane ticket back to New York he paused and wrote a postcard to his daughter Anne: "Hurrah, I'll be with you tomorrow."

The Brooklyn Dodgers' use of airplane travel was rare for 1935, especially since the three men the reservations were made for were being demoted. Whatever the front office's motives behind the swanky travel plans, Munns, Barr and Koenecke took a cab to St. Louis' airport and boarded an American Airlines flight to Chicago. From there they would change planes in Detroit before arriving in Newark, New Jersey the next day. It was a long journey but much shorter than taking the train. Somewhere on the way to the airport the ballplayers picked up a bottle or two of whiskey. What better way to drown your sorrows and cover up any anxieties of flying than with booze?

The first leg of the trip went off fine. They were late to Chicago but made the flight to Detroit. Witnesses reported seeing Koenecke with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. Once on board the three men were rapidly becoming intoxicated. Koenecke, who I've read wasn't known as a big drinker, was by far the worse of the former Dodgers that day. Juiced-up and combative, the large-framed Koenecke started a fight with a fellow passenger. When a stewardess tried to calm things down Koenecke knocked her down as well. The former railroad fireman's hulking size and strength made him extremely dangerous in the confined space of the primitive aircraft and it took a handful of men to wrestle Koenecke to the ground and tie him up. The plane's co-pilot came out of the cockpit in order to personally sit on the ballplayer until they landed in Detroit.

He was carried off the plane passed out and snoring by Munns and Barr who unceremoniously deposited their former teammate into a waiting room chair. A representative from American Airlines tore up his connecting ticket and refunded the Dodgers' money - there was no way they were going to let him on another flight. Munns and Barr left Koenecke snoozing on a bench and boarded their own flight back to the minor leagues.

Sometime after midnight Koenecke snapped awake. Realizing he was marooned in Detroit he frantically looked around the deserted airport for a way home to his wife and daughter. Suddenly the door opened and a leather jacketed man walked in off the runway. Quickly assuming correctly he was a pilot, Koenecke offered to charter a plane to New York and home. The pilot, William Mulqueeney, owned a single engine Stinson Detroiter. The small passenger plane could seat six including the pilot and despite the late hour and the disheveled state of the man before him, he decided to accept. The catch was he would go only as far as Buffalo. Koenecke thought it over and decided he could catch the morning train to New York City and be home in Brooklyn for lunch.

Mulqueeney, either thinking he may have some trouble with the intoxicated passenger or just wanted some company on the flight back, asked his friend Irwin Davis to join him. Though Davis was later referred to as a co-pilot, he was in fact just Mulqueeney's pal. He was also known as "The Human Bat" for his dare-devil parachute stunt where he would jump out of a plane in a black bat-wing parachute. In 1935 people ate that stuff up and he was fairly well-known in the Midwest.

Davis later described Koenecke as being under "a great stress" as the three men boarded the Stinson. Mulqueeney squeezed in behind the controls on the left side of the cockpit and Koenecke sat next to him in the co-pilot's chair. The Human Bat stretched out by himself on the plush bench seat behind them. They were cleared to taxi and took off into the night sky.

Both men said later that Koenecke was quiet for the first few minutes of flight. Then he started nudging the pilot. No one knows what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he was just being funny. Lord knows liquor makes many a man a bad comedian. But this just wasn't funny. In 1935 there was no auto-pilot, flying a plane back then was a full time operation. In the confines of a primitive airliner like the Stinson, any false move could be a pilot's last. Mulqueeney told him to quit it. He did. Then he started up again. He poked Mulqueeney. Then he nudged him with his shoulders - those huge rock-solid shoulders. The plane swayed. Mulqueeney told him to knock it off. Koenecke made a grab for the controls and at that point the pilot had enough of the sole passenger. Reluctantly Mulqueeney and Davis coaxed Koenecke into the back seat. But it was far from over.

Koenecke lost his mind. He tried again to shove the pilot. Davis did his best to restrain the hulking ballplayer but he was just too small. He knocked him back a few times, every time thinking he would just pass out in his drunken stupor, but then it would start over. It was getting serious now - both Davis and Mulqueeney said later they were convinced Koenecke was trying to crash the plane. Davis tried to fight Koenecke back but the big man pounded on him, even bit his shoulder, then pounded him some more.

That's when the fire extinguisher came into play.

With the passenger crumpled in a bloody mess on the floor of the cabin, Mulqueeney brought the Stinson in for a forced landing on the first flat clear spot he could find. Both he and Davis were dripping with blood and on top of the dead man lying in the cabin, when the two men opened the door and spilled out onto the grassy earth, what they thought were wild animals charged out of the darkness at them. Fortunately they were just the guard dogs of the caretaker of the country club they had landed on. They were in Toronto, Canada. In their airborne do-or-die fight they had over shot their destination of Buffalo by miles.

The next morning all the newspapers carried the story of Koenecke's wild flight. Mulqueeney and Davis were swiftly arrested and charged with murder. Photographers snapped pictures of the two men with torn, bloody clothes and shocked expressions. A reporter caught Stengel in St. Louis before that day's game against the Cardinals and he was uncharacteristically shaken: "I can't believe it - I won't believe it" he said. It was the manager's demotion of Konecke that put him on that plane. His teammates were devastated. The Dodgers organization circled their wagons and said nothing to the press except condolences. Team secretary John Gorman later released a statement to eager newspapermen that Koenecke "apparently was not depressed when he left the team."

Lawyers were hired and the rumors began. Some carried the line the big outfielder was trying to kill himself in one last blaze of glory. Others said it was some kind of murder, motive unknown. Another claimed Koenecke made unwanted sexual advances towards the two men - put into play by the two survivor's lawyer who was probably throwing anything out there to get his clients off the hook fast. 

Researching the story I can't honestly say what his motivations were. Some modern accounts I've read play up that Koenecke was a brawler who got violent when he drank, yet I can't find any contemporary accounts supporting this and I have no clue where those writers got it from. Maybe it's just an obvious guess - many ballplayers back then were tough boozers, God knows I've written about quite a few on this site myself. But the things I've read seem to indicate Koenecke wasn't a bad-tempered tough guy and he didn't appear to drink more than anyone else. However, it is known he was tanked up on that final day of his life. Hell, who wouldn't hit the bottle after being canned from their job and faced with an uncertain future? But intentionally try to kill himself and two innocent people, too? It just doesn't seem right and I can't believe it was anything more sinister than a man mentally at the end of his rope filled with so much whiskey he didn't fully comprehend what he was doing. Koenecke's widow Gladys refused to believe he would try to commit suicide and the upbeat postcard to his daughter seemed to back it up. The Toronto authorities fully investigated the whole incident and held Mulqueeney and Davis in custody until a jury sifted through the evidence. When the Canadian court ruled it self-defense the story quickly went away.

All that remained was a grieving widow, a fatherless daughter and one heck of a story that became a classic of baseball lore.

  • The Sporting  News (December 20, 1934)
  • The Pittsburgh Press (May 7, 1935)
  • The Telepraph Herald (August 10, 1934)
  • The Milwaukee Journal (March 21, 1934)
  • Ludington Daily News (August 8, 1938)
  • New York Daily News (April 7, 2003)
  • Toronto Sun (June 1, 2009)
  • The New York Times (September 17, 1935)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

204. Mahlon Higbee: To the Major Leagues in a Single Bound

In today's game it's quite common for a ball player to go from Double A ball to the majors. Most players today have at least a few seasons of college ball under their belt before they even appear in the minors. With today's structured and very regimented scouting and farm systems, major league teams know fairly quickly whether a player has what it takes to make The Show. Thirty major league teams means there are almost twice the number of positions available than there were fifty tears ago and that extra room enables clubs to take more risks than they did decades ago - like bringing up rookies after only a single season in the low minors.

That's what makes Mahlon Higbee's story quite interesting. Back in the summer of 1922 Higbee was a  20 year-old outfielder for the Hopkinsville Hoppers of the Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee League (thankfully called the "KITTY League" for short). The KITTY was classified a Class D loop, equivalent to today's Rookie League level and pretty much the bottom rung of Organized Baseball. By late July the Louisville native was hitting .385 with 16 homers, 101 RBI and 31 stolen bases. Despite playing in a low-level league far from the big cities of the major leagues, the New York Giants got wind of Higbee's numbers.

In the early 1920's the New York Giants were the best and most feared organization in the game. Firmly managed by John McGraw, the Giants boasted no less than six future Hall of Famers in their regular line up and could boast of having beaten the upstart Yankees in the 1921 World Series. In short, back in 1922 the New York Giants were what the Yankees would become in just a few short years - the embodiment of baseball excellence.

So Mahlon Higbee must have made one heck of an impression on the Giants scouts that summer. John McGraw bought Higbee's contract from Hopkinsville for a nice $2,500. Back in the days before minor league teams had working agreements with major league teams, selling young players at the end of a season often meant the difference between finishing the year with their books in red or black ink.

By the time Mahlon Higbee packed his bag and took the train north, the Giants had clinched the National League pennant by seven games. On September 27th Higbee took his position in left field as the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds. The rookie struck out twice as Jimmy Ring pitched shut out ball. Higbee did record a sacrifice hit which must have pleased John McGraw, letting him know the young slugger could also play "small ball" which the Giants skipper much preferred to the new home run game being made popular by Babe Ruth and the Yankees. After seven innings the Phils led 2-zip but the Giants came alive in the eighth. Higbee got his only hit of the game, a two run single which tied the game and later scored the go ahead and ultimately winning run. 

The next game was a double header on Saturday September 30 against the Boston Braves. Higbee sat out the first game, a 5-1 loss. Playing left field in the night cap, Higbee went 2 for 4 with an RBI as the Giants beat Garland Braxton and the Braves 5 to 3. The late editions of the New York papers showed that the Giants rookie was batting a lofty .429.

Sunday, October 1st was the last day of the season and another double header against Boston. Higbee sat on the bench as the Braves shut out New York 3 nothing. In the second and last game Higbee played right field. In his first two at bats the rookie failed to get a hit but in the sixth he came to bat again. With a man on first Higbee took an Al Yeargin pitch deep for a two run homer making it 3-0 Giants. The last two innings went fast and uneventful as New York closed out 1922 with a final win. 

With the end of the regular season came the final statistics and Mahlon Higbee's 1922 line was fantastic: 10 at bats; 4 hits; 5 RBI; 1 home run and a sterling .400 average. Since he was brought up too late to qualify to play in the World Series, Higbee had to ride the bench as the Giants creamed the Yankees 4 games to 1. It was a given that the rookie would be invited to the Giants' spring training the next year and he was.

Although the Giants were overflowing with outfield talent, beat writers following the team in San Antonio that April tabbed Higbee as the forth outfielder, backing up Irish Meusel and Hall of Famers Casey Stengel and Ross Youngs. Then, right before the Giants broke camp, Higbee wrenched his left ankle. Now instead of holding a train ticket with "New York City" on it he found himself headed to Denver, Colorado. 

The Denver Bears played in the Western League and had a loose working agreement with the Giants. The Western League had a classification of A, about same or a little lower than what Single A is today. Higbee played well for the Bears, hitting 2 points shy of .300 with 10 homers and 31 doubles, but it was far from the numbers he put up in 1922. At the end of the season the Giants sent Higbee to the Portsmouth Truckers in exchange for some low-level minor leaguers. The once promising Giants phenom now found himself in Class B ball, one rung backwards. He hit .279 with 12 homers but a collision with the outfield wall in Richmond effectively ended his career.

Higbee was back with Portsmouth in 1925 but he only managed to play 26 games. After batting a disappointing .188 with Evansville in 1927 he called it quits. 

Today Mahlon Higbee is just a single line in the baseball record books - but oh what a line it is. Since 1900 roughly 10,000 ball players played less than 10 games in the big leagues. It's called having a "Cup of Coffee", meaning their time spent in The Big Show was barely long enough to consume a cup of joe. Most of those guys have completely uneventful numbers, not leaving much to the imagination as to why they didn't stick. Mahlon Higbee is different. He actually left a line of stats a guy could be proud of and one that makes the casual reader wonder what the heck happened... and now you do.

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.