Monday, January 19, 2015

185. Hack Wilson: When 1938 was 1930 for a Day


Mills Stadium on the west side of Chicago, August 21st, 1938.

Hack Wilson's uniform was ill-fitting, snug in all the wrong places. The wool was coarse and made the 38 year-old former Cubs star scratch and pull at the collar. Even though the ball game hadn't started yet, the grey flannel suit was completely soaked through with his sweat. If any of the sports writers who sat around him got close enough to take a whiff, they could probably discern what his choice of alcohol the previous night was. Still, the former National League Home Run and RBI Champ felt good to be back in Chicago. Although it was a mere 6 years since he last roamed the outfield for the Cubs, the ensuing seasons seemed like a lifetime.

Hack Wilson had been the National League's answer to Babe Ruth - all-swagger and raw talent packaged in as ungainly a body as ever seen on a ball field. His exuberance for the nightlife completely embodied Chicago of the Roarin' Twenties. He brawled and blustered, balked and boomed. Back then everyone was Hack's pal and Chicago was his town.

His fall was tremendous and tragic. In the season following his record 56 home runs and 191 RBI in 1930, Wilson went on a season-long slump that he never recovered from. The tyrannical Rogers Hornsby became Cubs manager that year and his relentless needling of Wilson was often whispered to be the reason behind the nosedive. Everyone knew Wilson was a juicer, a lover of the nightclub scene. For years he rode a fine line between controlling his alcohol consumption and falling prey to it, and in 1931 the later happened. He was sold to a miserable Brooklyn team in '32 then to the even lousier Phillies organization in '34. By 1935 he was released to Albany in the minor leagues, a side-show attraction roaming the outfield along side Alabama Pitts, the Sing Sing convict turned ballplayer. It was damned embarrassing. When they wanted to send him to Portland he got pissy, went home to Martinsburg, West Virginia and waited for a better offer to arrive. None did.

Hack shoveled his savings into a sporting goods store that failed. Then he and a partner opened up a tavern. Hack managed to drink away any profit the joint made, which was small due to his penchant for buying the whole house round after round. His drinking alienated his wife and son. As long as Hack had money he had a steady crew of bar room pals to keep him company. When his wife finally divorced him after 15 years, she took their house and what was left of his savings. Heck, she even took his hunting shotgun. The tap room pals evaporated and Hack's drunken former-jock act wore thin. Soon his adapted hometown of Martinsburg wasn't so friendly anymore. He met and married a woman named Hazel and waited for something to happen. In late July of 1938 it did.

A guy named Al Duffy showed up in Martinsburg and tracked Hack and Hazel to the back room of a bar the newly weds called home. The stranger had a proposition for the former star. Duffy owned a bar in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, close to where Hack Wilson was born. Duffy was a former ball player who managed a semi-pro team sponsored by the Tube City Brewery. The Tube City Brewers toured around the northern Midwest states playing industrial league and town teams promoting Tube City Pilsner. It wasn't the Cubs, or even the Phillies for that matter, but it was baseball and there was a paycheck attached to it. Hack and his wife ditched Martinsburg and moved to McKeesport. As part of his contract Hack acted as a greeter in Duffy's joint, not much of a stretch as he and Hazel set up house in the apartment attached to the bar and he would have spent his nights there anyway. 

His signing to play with Tube City put Hack back in the sports pages again, if only for a short "what ever happened to" paragraph. From the beginning it was obvious this wasn't going to be the start of a miraculous comeback. Hack was woefully out of shape. His hulking muscles had turned soft and his eyesight was shot. Where once his mighty swing produced tremendous home run blasts, now all it seemed to produce was an ocean of sweat and a round of wheezing. In the games he appeared in he rarely made it past the 4th or 5th inning. Still, throughout small town Pennsylvania fans turned out to see the former star. Then in August he found out that Tube City was headed to Chicago.

If Hack ever thought he was forgotten in Chi he was mistaken. In the years he left town the Cubs had a series of first-rate ball clubs that always seemed to fall short. 1932 ended in a 4 game sweep by the Yanks with the added humiliation of Babe Ruth's called shot. The Tigers mauled the 1935 squad beyond recognition. Now in the summer of '38 the Cubbies had another pennant winner. Even with new stars Gabby Hartnett, Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta and Billy Herman, Cubs fans remembered Hack Wilson. The slugger brought to mind the care-free days before the Great Depression brought a curtain of misery down on America's Second City. When the Tube City Brewers arrived at Mills Stadium for their doubleheader on August 21st, the press was there to meet Hack. 

The old slugger gave his longest press interview in more than half a decade. He dished on the animosity between he and Hornsby in the summer of 1931. The normally magnanimous Wilson laid the blame for his wipe out on Hornsby's strict rules and vindictive fines. Hack sent the pencils scribbling when he told the reporters Hornsby was insanely jealous of Wilson's $33,000 salary that year. Not one to pass along all the blame, Hack admitted he liked to drink and that he did over-do it at times. He told the sports writers that the biggest mistake of his career was turning down the Portland gig. He believed now that it was actually a chance for him to manage. Though the old slugger smiled his broad smile throughout the presser, the scribes could see a wistful look in his eyes. Today, Hack Wilson was as close to 1930 than he had ever been in the past six years.

What Hack Wilson saw when he emerged from the club house at Mills Stadium moved him beyond words. More than 8,000 screaming fans packed the wooden bleachers to see him. The adoring crowd overflowed onto the playing field and just his presence on the field provoked a roar of approval. The game was nothing special. It was a humid August afternoon and Hack was drowning in his sweat. Although he usually couldn't last longer than the sixth inning, he played the entire first game. Every time he came to the plate the stands erupted with applause. Each time his old legs carried him back to snag a pop up, the cheering increased. Riding this wave of admiration which he hadn't felt for years, Wilson managed to play up until the fifth inning of the second game before exhaustion got the better of him. He'd managed just one single the entire afternoon, yet when it was announced he was leaving the field the roar was so intense Hack stayed in to coach first base. For one day, Hack Wilson was able to make all the years between 1930 and 1938 disappear. 

It was all down hill after that day in August. He quit playing ball shortly afterwards and focused on drinking. He and Hazel moved to Brooklyn where he had a short career as a night club singer and greeter in a steakhouse across the street from Ebbets Field. He then moved back to Chicago and did the same at a roadhouse re-named "Hack Wilson's House of Seven Gables" after him. The months passed by in blurr of beer and whiskey. He and Hazel made their home in a room behind a bar on Milwaukee Avenue. At one point he was paid to umpire a semi-pro game. Like the Tube City game the year before, thousands showed up just to see Hack on a baseball field again. After the promoters dragged Wilson to the ball park in a drunken haze, he passed out on the field in the third inning. Now even the Chicago fans gave up on old Hack.

Somehow he wound up in Baltimore during the war. Like thousands of other drifters he and Hazel were lured to Charm City by the lucrative defense plant factory jobs. His first wife passed away and his own boy didn't want anything to do with him. Forgotten, Wilson somehow found the strength to kick the booze habit that had been a part of him since he was a kid. He even pulled himself together enough to appear as a guest on a radio program about the evils of alcohol. Unfortunately the years of abuse had done its damage to his body - his liver was shot and he was was suffering from influenza and a bunch of other internal plumbing problems. In November of 1948 Hazel called the ambulance after he fell and didn't get up. He died the next day of the typical alcoholic death - pulmonary edema - his lungs filled with water and he drowned from the inside out. 

Shortly afterwards Hazel was sent to a mental hospital. When no one claimed the body donations from bar patrons along Baltimore's North Avenue helped cover the costs. The National League was shamed into throwing in $350 so their former home run and RBI champ could avoid a pauper's grave. At Hazel's request, some of Hack's old pals from Martinsburg drove to Baltimore to take his body back to West Virginia.

In what has to be one of the more tragic sidebars to an already tragic life, Hack's old team, the Chicago Cubs, claimed they were planning on finding a place for their former star in their organization. Whether the Cubs front office made it up to look like good guys or not, it didn't really matter. This was 1948, along way away from 1930, or even 1938 for that matter.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a Cubs fan. Although I lived just 5 blocks from Wrigley Field for years, I was a White Sox fan. I never bought into the whole "loveable losers" thing - growing up a Mets fan in the 1970's made me immune to that jive. Besides, the Mets, as stinky as they were, at least tried to win. Still, the story of the Cubs greatest slugger, Hack Wilson, always interested me. When I started writing this blog four years ago, I always wanted to do a story on Hack, even though he was a Cubbie. His rise and fall has got to be one of the most dramatic in all of baseball history, with the exception being maybe Slim Jones. When I started to look for details on Wilson I was shocked by the lack of modern research on him. Even the Society of American Baseball Researchers website which boasts the encyclopedic SABR Biography Project does not have an entry for Hack. Luckily I found Clifton Parker's book "Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson". Parker did a fantastic job of bringing Hack to life again and thoroughly recounts the years after he fell from grace. However, the idea for this story comes from a few 1938 newspaper accounts I found written when Hack returned to Chicago with the Tube City Brewers. One of them was accompanied by a photograph of a bloated Wilson wearing an ill-fitting uniform with the name of the beer he and his team were promoting. It took more than four years, but when I saw it, I knew that I had found the illustration and story I wanted for The Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

184. Mysterious Mitchell: His Name Says It All


The race for the 1910 Pacific Coast League pennant was tight. Going into the last week of August Portland, Oakland and San Francisco were virtually neck and neck. Clearly, each team could use a little something extra that would put them over the top and keep them in first place. On the last day of August, fate walked into Portland's Vaughn Street Park.

A big, athletic-looking fellow presented himself to Portland's manager Judge McCredie as a professional pitcher. When the man refused to elaborate on his previous experience McCredie blew him off. He then walked across the ballpark and entered the visiting San Francisco Seals clubhouse. Whatever he said to Seals captain Kid Mohler must have piqued his interest because he was soon ushered into a private office to talk with manager Danny Long. The man stated that he was a professional pitcher and wanted to play for the Seals. It was quickly evident that this was not going to be an ordinary contract negotiation. When pressed on his credentials, the man stated that his name and previous occupation wasn't anyone's business. As long as he made good on the mound he need not reveal anything about himself. This was all very irregular, but whatever he revealed to Long and Mohler it must have been impressive. A contract was quickly drawn up for an unheard of $100 a week plus an undisclosed bonus if he won 76% or more of his decisions. Along with the extravagant salary the pitcher was exempt from playing on Sundays and Long and Mohler agreed to keep the man's identity a secret. 

When the door finally opened, the press was told only that the Seals had signed a right handed pitcher named Fred Mitchell. No details about the pitcher's past record were given and sportswriters and fans alike figured this new guy was just some kid from the bush leagues - extra bullpen fodder to give the San Francisco starters some much needed rest. The Seals were on an extended road trip and headed to Southern California for a two week series against the Vernon Tigers and Los Angeles Angels. With the ink on his contract still wet, the club started Mitchell the very next afternoon against Vernon. The new-comer pitched 5 innings before leaving the game with a 6-2 lead and the victory. Six days later he faced the Tigers again and this time went the full nine, earning another win. It was after this second victory that people began to ask the question: 

Who the heck was this guy?

Mitchell, though only in his early 20's, pitched like a seasoned veteran. The right hander demonstrated a cool efficiency on the mound and employed his repertoire of fastball, curves and spitball with such expertise fans and sportswriters wondered why this guy was pitching in the minor leagues? Almost immediately he caused a stir when he refused to pose for pictures. This seemed odd. The camera was still a fairly new concept and photographers couldn't conceive of why a young pitcher trying to make a name for himself wouldn't jump at the chance to get his mug in the papers. Who knows, maybe the kid was superstitious.

A week after his complete game win over Vernon, Mitchell faced the Los Angeles Angels in the first game of a double header. The affair was a nail biter, tied going into the 10th inning before the Seals took the lead. Mitchell scattered seven hits and pitched all ten innings for the win. Then he took the mound for the nightcap, this time pitching a six-hit complete game win!

Who the heck was this guy?

The local beat reporters peppered the pitcher with questions but Mitchell ducked and weaved - he wouldn't even reveal where he hailed from. On the long train ride back to San Francisco, the scribes descended on Mitchell's teammates for clues. They were no help; not only wouldn't he share any tidbits about himself in the locker room, when the game ended he would disappear, refusing to associate with any of his teammates. The press, smelling a good - no - great story, circled like sharks. While the north-bound Bay Area sportswriters were trying to pry info out of Mitchell, Los Angeles reporters were firing off queries to newspapers and sportsmen all across the country. The air was rife with rumours - some said Mitchell was a former Cubs prospect named Bob Mitchell. This sounded promising, same last name. A little digging found that Bob Mitchell was a young fireballer from the University of Mississippi. The Cubs were hot to sign the kid but told him to get lost after he refused to pitch on Sundays - he was the son a minister. Bingo - that jives with Mitchell's no-Sundays clause. The White Sox took a chance and signed him to a minor league contract. A barrage of cross-country cables dug up more about this Bob Mitchell. He was last seen pitching for the Lincoln Railsplitters. Telegrams fired off to Nebraska finally torpedoed the Bob Mitchell ID - the U of M pitcher was described as "small of stature" about 155lbs - a good 25 or 30lbs lighter than the mysterious Seal hurler. Then someone remembered that Bob Mitchell was a southpaw. The press kept digging.

By the time the train made it to San Francisco the new phenom was christened "Mysterious Mitchell". With the atmosphere surrounding the Seals home stand already charged by the tight pennant race, the addition of a mysterious new pitcher made it explosive. Before the team even took the field at Recreation Park a whole legion of reporters and photographers lay in ambush. Mitchell, as if to live up to his new nickname, refused to leave the clubhouse for warm-ups if there were cameras present. Finally he was ushered out to a secluded place in the outfield to unlimber his arm. Finished, he made a bee-line to the dugout. The cameramen lugged their equipment close to the Seals bench and readied their cameras for Mitchell's emergence. Now it got weird. The pitcher flat-out refused to come out unless all the photographers were removed. Even the newspaper men who customarily sat on the bench with the players were told to vamoose. In a ground-breaking ruling, umpire Van Haltren ejected all the photomen from the stadium. He argued that their number and overanxious behavior disrupted the game. The indignant men of the press refused to leave until a policeman got involved. Mitchell took the mound and perhaps unnerved by all the attention, lost to Vernon 3-1.

But all the cameras had not been ejected that afternoon. A tech-savvy photographer had hidden himself far up in the stands, and using a new-fangled telephoto lens, snapped a number of clear shots of the pitchers face. That evening copies were dispatched by train to all the major cities on the coast. With any luck, Mysterious Mitchell wouldn't be mysterious any longer.

Who the heck was this guy?


On September 17 Mitchell faced Vernon again and was clinging to a 6-5 lead when he was removed from the game. Mitchell openly wept as he relinquished the mound to Cack Henley in the bottom of the 8th and the capacity crowd made their disapproval of the switch known. The ace made a beeline for the showers where he was heard slamming doors before emerging in his street clothes. Instead of leaving the park, Mitchell took the long way to the street, passing through the stands where the crowd was whipped into a frenzy, cheering and pawing at the mysterious phenom. Traffic was reportedly shut down by the crowd that followed Mitchell out of the ballpark and the mystery man was induced into making a short speech to his fans. After thanking them for their support, Mitchell reassured his admirers that he was totally behind the Seals management. The crowd burst into cheers as he disappeared behind the managers office door. 

Meanwhile, Mysterious Mitchell was using up any good grace his teammates had for him. He treated bellhops and clubhouse men like peons or servants. Some days he didn't even bother to show up at the park; the mystery man seemed to do as he pleased. According to a few Seals, Mitchell refused to associate with the boys, acting like they were mentally inferior to him and not in the same talent class as he. At one point during a game manager Danny Long questioned Mitchell's deliberately walking a batter to load the bases. Mitchell loftily responded "Now see here, I want you to keep still. I don't want any suggestions. I have worked under men who managed pennant winners and I know my own business". The outburst thoroughly humiliated Long and further alienated the pitcher from his teammates. Then Mitchell may have inadvertently gave away a vital clue to his past by blurting out "Matty told me that was the thing to do". By "Matty" everyone on the bench knew he was referring to the great Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. Did this guy play for John McGraw's famous New York Giants?

On September 21st second place Oakland came to town. Mitchell shut out the Oaks through seven inning before giving up a run. The score stayed knotted until the 10th when Pinky Swander smacked a not-so mysterious Mitchell offering over the right field fence for the win. Several newspapers made cracks about whether or not he cried after this heartbreaking loss like he did after being removed in the Vernon game. Mitchell's record now stood at 5-2 and although he was not unbeatable, he still ranked at the top of the Seals rotation and more importantly put fans in the stands. Outside the ballpark, Mitchell quickly fell in with a fast society crowd. He claimed he spent his free time penning poems and songs and several vaudeville management companies were vying for his post-season appearance.

After the disappointing Oakland loss, a wire came in from Philadelphia - Frank Mitchell was Phillies ace George McQuillan! A few weeks earlier Philadelphia management had had enough of the pitcher's chronic boozing and night crawling and suspended him for insubordination. McQuillan packed a bag and took off for points unknown. His written description seemed to match Mitchell - dark hair, athletic build, same height. However, this identification caused a problem. If he was a big leaguer on the suspended list, he would thus be ineligible to play professional ball anywhere. That would mean all the wins he'd racked up with San Francisco would have to be voided or worse - forfeited. The two clubs vying for the pennant with San Francisco hoped that Mitchell was indeed a "ringer". A series of forfeitures would KO the Seals chance at taking the pennant. Oakland manager Harry Wolverton chomped at the bit to play the Seals again. He'd played with McQuillan and would know him by sight if he had the chance to get a close look. Portland contacted their former shortstop Phil Cooney who used to be teammates with McQuillan. As soon as they had a good photograph of this Mysterious Mitchell they were going to get it into Cooney's hand so he could ID this guy.

While the press still found Mitchell a mystery, the opposing Pacific Coast League batters did not. The Seals pitcher began giving up hits like it was batting practice. He managed to beat Sacramento to make his record 6-2 but his effectiveness was wearing thin. And his aloof mystery act was wearing thin on the rest of the Seals. Even the police got into the act. Seems that the ace was caught speeding through the streets of San Francisco with a group of society swells singing songs at the top of his lungs. The cops threw him in the klink and slapped a $10 fine on him for disturbing the peace.

The second week in September the Los Angeles sports writers came up with a great lead. Informants from the Midwest believed Mysterious Mitchell was, in fact, Floyd "Rube" Kroh of the Cubs. Just weeks before "Mitchell" showed up on the coast, Kroh had a bust up with Chicago manager Frank Chance and was kicked off the team. Kroh was a notorious bad character and had racked up a slew of curfew violations that summer. When he left the team to illegally pitch a semi-pro game in Atlantic City, the Cubs had enough and suspended him. His current whereabouts were unknown.

The Kroh identification seemed credible. Mitchell pitched with the confidence of a big league veteran and his height and build matched the disgraced Chicago ace. Even the "bad character" description seemed to match up. The problem was Kroh was a blond. OK, the writers hypothesized, he could have dyed his hair to disguise himself. Then everything fell apart when someone took a Spalding Baseball Guide off the shelf and discovered Rube Kroh was a lefty.

Who the heck was this guy?

Meanwhile, management of The American Theatre in Portland announced that Mysterious Mitchell agreed to appear on their stage. The pitcher's act was described as a long monologue followed by a talk on whatever stoked the star's fancy at the moment. The five week engagement called for a staggering $400 a week contract. The original offer called for $500 but Mitchell refused to work on Sunday. The American Theatre management tried in vain to get Mitchell's real name. 

In the last week of September newspapers up and down the coast finally broke the PCL's greatest mystery - Mysterious Mitchell was no longer mysterious. This time, the reports were correct. Although preliminary reports called him Fred Collings, writers quickly corrected their stories and peeling back the mysterious hurlers past like an onion. 

His name was Fred Mitchell - Frederick Mitchell Walker that is. Born in Nebraska in 1884, he moved to Chicago's swanky Hyde Park neighborhood as a kid. Strong and athletic, Fred entered the University of Chicago and starred on their baseball, football and basketball team. It was a halfback that Walker made his name, so well regarded that newspapers habitually referred to him as one of the best all-around football players in the nation. Walker wasn't a slouch on the baseball diamond either - from 1904 to 1906 he was the Maroon's ace. Walker left the University of Chicago a few credits shy of graduating and went west to become the athletic director of Utah State University. He led the football team to a 6-1 season in 1907. Midway through the 1908 season one of Walker's players was killed on the field during a game and the school disbanded the football program. Walker finished the season as the assistant football coach at Denver University before returning to Chicago. Like many athletes, Walker made extra money as a baseball mercenary playing in Chicago's vaunted semi-pro city league. His pitching for the Rogers Park team brought a "name your price" offer from the White Sox but Walker turned it down. He returned to his Alma mater, University of Chicago, as the Maroons' assistant football coach, then headed south to coach at the University of Mississippi. It is interesting that an early lead on "Mitchell's" identity led to the University of Mississippi, just not to the right guy. 

In the spring of 1910, Walker coached the U of M to the Southern College Championship. He then entered professional baseball when he accepted a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Walker rode the pines with the big club throughout the early summer before he was finally inserted into a game. On June 28th he pitched three innings and gave up four hits and a run. Unimpressed, the Reds let him go but he was quickly snatched up by the New York Giants. Now it begins to get interesting.

For some insane reason, the Giants made the well-traveled college boy roommates with the troubled alcoholic never-do-well pitcher Bugs Raymond. Raymond was such a loose cannon that Giants manager John McGraw kept a team of private detectives on payroll to shadow the troubled ace. Maybe McGraw, who had a particularly high opinion of college educated players, thought Walker would be a good influence on Bugs. He wasn't.

Within weeks of joining the Giants, Walker was out carousing with his roommate and drinking to excess. On night of August 17th, Walker was at his room at the Hotel Braddock in Harlem. Details are sketchy but apparently the pitcher assaulted a chambermaid by the name of Miss Carrie Hunter. Her screams brought elevator operator Pilgrim Rako running to her rescue. While Walker beat the unfortunate elevator man to a pulp, Miss Hunter escaped to the hotel managers office. In the confusion that followed, Walker fled the Braddock before police arrived. Rako was rushed to a hospital and a warrant was issued for Fred Walker's arrest. The next afternoon NYPD officers staked out the Polo Grounds looking for the pitcher but he failed to show. Another squad of officers swarmed Grand Central Station looking for Walker, and when the Giants arrived at the station to take the overnight to Cincinnati, detectives screened every man getting on that train. It was no use, Walker had disappeared.

The news of Mitchell's real identity made the papers from coast to coast. For the weeks the mystery had lasted, it was a great yarn. It sold countless newspapers, filled the stands and made an already tight pennant race even more enjoyable. However, once Mitchell's background was known he became less successful both as a box office draw and as a pitcher. Fans couldn't cheer for a suspected masher and besides, the spitballer seemed to forget how to win ball games. By the first week of October Mitchell was 6-4 and the Seals pennant dreams were slipping away. That $100 a week paycheck became awfully hard to justify. The last straw has on October 11th. Manager Long watched with disgust as Mitchell/Collings/Walker, or who ever the heck he was, loftily commanded the clubhouse attendant to pack his equipment bag for a trip across the bay to play Oakland. When the haughty ace left the bag behind, casually remarking that he would send a boy from the hotel to carry it to the ferry, Long had enough. He threw the pitcher off the team.

Walker took his new nickname with him back east. Somehow he got out of the New York City assault charges and re-joined professional baseball without any repercussions. After a stint with the Columbus Senators he made the majors again, this time with Cleveland, all be it for just a single inning. He spent 1913 with the Brooklyn Supurbas where he managed a 1-3 record. He resurfaced the next season with the Pittsburgh Rebels of the outlaw Federal League. He was a workhorse, pitching 35 games but ending the season with a 4-16 record. He moved over to the Brooklyn Tip Tops for 1915 but only managed a 2-4 record. He bounced around some low level minor league clubs before hanging up his spikes for good following an 8-9 record split between the Newark Bears and Binghamton Bingoes.

Outside of baseball season, Walker continued to coach football and basketball. 1911 found him with Oregon State, then as the coach of a semi-pro basketball team in San Francisco where he was suspended for decking a referee. He then was assistant coach at William & Jefferson College before winding up back with the University of Chicago in 1916. Each year Walker seemed to find himself at another institution. Williams College was next, followed by Dartmouth. Perhaps helping to explain Walker's ever-changing employment resume, according to the New York Times, the Ivy League college dismissed him after "dissatisfaction of the student body, together with methods of coaching that were described as not in keeping with the council's idea of how a Dartmouth team should be coached".

Walker served as a Naval officer commanding an athletic program during World War I and somehow found time to marry and began a family. As soon as the war ended he resumed his wandering coach career: University of Rhode Island, State University of New York at Farmingdale, University of Chicago again, DePauw University, Michigan State, Drury College, Loyola New Orleans and Texas State. All the while he was credited with running successful football and basketball programs, but something besides wanderlust must have attributed to Walker's transient lifestyle. Surely with the winning record he left in his wake he could have carved out a successful long-term career at a major university. Walker wasn't coaching community colleges in the sticks, his resume reads like a who's who of big time universities. However by 1932 he was coaching high school ball in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. At one point he was canned by the athletic director for being late to class, letting the boys take equipment out without leaving a deposit and failing to keep the shower room clean. Walker was quickly reinstated and the athletic director himself fired so these charges could be read as petty allegations from a petty bureaucrat against a popular coach. 

By 1940 Walker finally settled permanently in Chicago. Perhaps demonstrating how he could have succeeded had he stayed in one place longer than a year, he quickly became a successful investment banker, eventually becoming vice president of his firm.

Fred Walker, alias Fred "Mysterious" Mitchell, died of a heart attack in 1958.

I have to say, this was one of my favorite stories to write. Every so often I would come across a mention of Mysterious Mitchell in a book or article and long wanted to write up his story. I figured it would be a quick piece, but the more I uncovered and pieced together, the longer it became. My "file" on Mysterious Mitchell consisted of dozens and dozens of pages of newspaper clippings that I eventually bound together to make a chronological time-line of his saga. I took this now-bound file with me to Southern California over Christmas and read and re-read it until the story came together in my head just the way I wanted it to unfold. I'm glad I saved it to begin the new year with. 2015 promises to be the most important of my 20-something year career as an artist and I owe it all to my Pop and the readers who have faithfully followed this blog through the years. I wish you all a Happy New Year and good luck in 2015!

Monday, December 15, 2014

183. Clint Thomas: The Hawk


I wish everyone a great Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever you may celebrate this time of year. I for one am looking forward to Christmas with my wife and her family in Southern California. This month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a busy one. The biggest news is that I am down to the final edits on my book, The League of Outsider Baseball". It's slated to be in bookstores May 8th of next year, just in time for Father's Day. The whole process has been both unbelievably fun and nerve-racking for me. Fun because I have been able to finally present what I have been doing on the website for almost four years to a larger audience and in a format you can hold in your hands. Websites are fine for some, but I'm an old-school type of guy and love the feeling of something substantial in my fingers. That this will be a 240 page hard cover tome really gets me excited! The nerve-racking part comes when I realize that 240 pages isn't nearly enough to showcase all the great stories and drawings I want to! Each time Simon & Schuster sends me a new draft to edit I get pangs of regret about the players I had to leave out, but that's just my self-depreciating personality - when I look at the book objectively even I have to admit that this is going to be an unbelievably great book. I made the book I always hoped to find in a bookstore ever since I was a kid. With a bit of luck, the book will be a big enough success that I get the opportunity to do a volume 2. I thought you might be interested to see what one of these massive drafts looks like, so I took a quick picture:



Well, let's get on to the main reason this site exists - baseball stories and drawings! Today's story is one I have had on the back burner ever since I devoured Neal Lanctot's masterpiece "Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932". Among the great players that once graced the Hilldale Club's lineup was a guy they called "The Hawk". While he isn't normally mentioned in the same breathe as Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige, Clint Thomas was among the best all-around ballplayers of the 1920's and 30's. Recognized by his peers as one of those rare "complete ballplayers", The Hawk not only hit for average and power, but his skill in the outfield, accurate arm and base running ability made one of the most dangerous players to take the field.


Clint Thomas was born in Greenup, Kentucky, a town along the banks of the Ohio River in 1896. According to Thomas, he didn't play much baseball as a kid because there wasn't any ball fields for he and his friends to play on. It wasn't until his family moved to the more urban surroundings of Columbus, Ohio where the teenager began his baseball career. He played a little ball when he wasn't working in a grocery store, but then World War I began. Thomas served a year in the Army and was a Sergeant by the time his year hitch ended. He returned to Columbus and began playing ball more serious. Within a year he'd migrated to New York after he heard the Brooklyn Royal Giants were looking for a third baseman. That after only a single summer of semi-pro ball Thomas felt he was ready for the big time speaks highly of his confidence. The Royal Giants were on the down-side of being one of the premier blackball outfits and still boasted legend John Henry Lloyd at short and Jesse Hubbard on the mound. While Thomas' confidence was at a pro level his skills weren't and after batting under .200 returned to Columbus. 

Fortunately for Thomas the newly formed Negro National League put a franchise in Columbus called the Buckeyes. His teammate from the Royal Giants, John Henry Lloyd, was the new team's manager and Thomas played the 1921 season hitting just shy of .300. Still, all the pieces weren't right for Thomas. Because of his speed he was always shifted between second and third base but never felt comfortable at either position. Then the Buckeye's folded and Thomas was cut loose. 

His contract was acquired by the Detroit Stars 1922. He was still floundering at second base when fate stepped in. Regular center fielder Jessie Barber got injured and when the right fielder was switched to center, Thomas took his place in right. It was a stroke of genius. The fleet footed Kentuckian snatched up anything that can near him including balls meant for the center fielder. The next game he was switched to center and a Negro League legend was born. More comfortable in his new position, Thomas loosened up and finished 1922 as the Star's best hitter. The following year Hilldale, an eastern powerhouse club located just outside Philadelphia, poached Thomas away.

With Hilldale he became known as "The Hawk" for his fielding skills, gliding all over the outfield making plays with a skill so graceful that old-timers could clearly remember one Hawk play or another through the fog of decades gone by. Ted Page, a Negro League star from the mid 1920's to the mid-1930's recalled that Thomas "attacked the ball the way a dog attacked raw meat." Hall of Famer Monte Irvin grew up in Paterson, New Jersey watching the best black and white teams of the 1930's and, starting in 1937, played in both the Negro and Major Leagues. His opinion should be taken very seriously when out of all the black players he witnessed, it was Clint Thomas who Irvin called “the black Joe DiMaggio". To draw a more contemporary comparison the Hall of Famer said "Clint was a Pete Rose type of player, he always went all out".
 

That aggressive attitude didn't just apply to batting and fielding - Thomas quickly established himself as one of blackball's best base runners as well. Buck Leonard, Hall of Famer and contemporary of Thomas remembered "when he got on base we all knew what was on his mind. He had stealing on his mind." Judy Johnson, another Hall of Famer and contemporary called him one of the best he ever saw play and said "I called him "Racehorse" because he ran to first so fast that he almost had to turn around backwards to stop".

The Hawk was Hilldale's clean-up hitter throughout the 1920's. Thomas, along with Judy Johnson, Frank Warfield, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop, Thomas powered Hilldale to three consecutive Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-25. This may have been one of the greatest blackball teams of all-time and no less than four players: Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop and John Henry Lloyd have plaques hanging in Cooperstown. 

After dominating the east coast baseball scene for almost a decade, Hilldale began to hemerage players to other teams with bigger pocket books. At this time finances for black baseball teams were precarious at best and Thomas spent the next couple years surfing the dollar sign around from team to team. As the best clean-up man in the game, The Hawk was a much sought after item and after periods with the Atlantic City Bacharachs and Homestead Grays, Thomas returned to New York City where his pro career began. He hooked up with the old Lincoln Giants, a once proud powerhouse now winding down as an independent team playing in the lucrative Metropolitan semi-pro scene. Even though New York had a huge black population with disposable income to burn, Negro League teams found it hard to build a strong team in the city. Shady gangster "Soldier Boy" Semler took over the remains of the Lincoln Giants and formed the New York Black Yankees in 1931. Semler hired Clint Thomas and John Henry Lloyd to add some credibility to a team of underpaid kids and washed up vets. Despite their grandiose name, the Black Yankees were the whipping boys of the Negro Leagues. Still the team was monetarily successful due to their monopoly on the New York City market. Unfortunately Semler used the team primarily to launder his underworld profits and did nothing to improve the Black Yankees talent pool. Still, Thomas continued to shine. It was during this period that he was able to demonstrate his considerable talent to the largest audience. Unlike Hilldale which primarily stayed close to Philadelphia, the Black Yankees not only played in Yankee Stadium but also toured extensively.

During one such road trip Clint Thomas made what has gone down to be the greatest catch in blackball history. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, built a grand stadium to house the virtual All-Star team he was assembling. For the very first game in Greenlee Field, the Crawfords hosted the Black Yankees. With Satchel Paige on the mound the Craws expected opening day at the only black-owned sports complex to be an easy win for the home team. Unfortunately Clint Thomas had other ideas. With the Black Yanks up 1-0 and a few Crawfords on base slugger Josh Gibson pounded a long fly ball to deep left center. The Hawk turned on his heels and peeled off for the fence, his back to the plate. The left fielder ran along side yelling "got it Hawk, got it?" Thomas just ran as fast as he could and when he reached the wall, stretched his arm out high and snagged the ball right at the top of the wall. The air went out of the Crawfords after that and the Black Yankees beat Paige. Ted Page, a member of the Crawfords that day remarked "Clint could chase that ball into another world".

The Hawk wrapped up his career in 1938. He drove a delivery truck for the Ballantine Scotch Company then segued into a small real estate business. Finally The Hawk settled in West Virginia where he became a staff supervisor for the state's Department of Mines and then a messenger for the State Senate, a post he held well into his 80's. Thomas was one of the most likable players of his time and when The Hawk turned the big eight-oh in 1976, his old home town of Greenup, Kentucky honored him with a birthday party that became the very first Negro League reunion. Long before the big collector-fueled heyday of Negro League collecting of the 1990's, the annual Greenup reunion was an intimate affair where the old superstars of segregated baseball congregated to relive their past glory. At the center of it all was The Hawk.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

182. Jackie Robinson: Veterans Day 2014



Since I began this website I always liked to feature a special story for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Indeed some of my favorite stories have been part of this little series: Eddie Grant, Bill Niemeyer and Sam Kau to name a few. This Veteran's Day I'm reminded that not all vet's served in combat. Some men served in peacetime like Sig Jakucki and Torpedo Mills, and then there were those who for whatever reasons were spared the horrors of battle.

Jackie Robinson was one of those men. 

In the summer of 1944 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself at Camp Breckinridge, an infantry replacement training depot in the hills of western Kentucky. The war had been rough for Robinson - not on the battlefields of France or a nameless island in the Pacific, but at home in a racial war whose injuries were not physical but mental.

Before the war Jackie Robinson was a well-known collegiate athlete. His exploits as a track star at UCLA set numerous records and his skills on the gridiron made the sports page from coast to coast. If he had been white, Jackie Robinson would have had to fight off offers from National Football League teams upon graduation. Instead Robinson took a position with a government-run athletic program which quickly folded. Looking for employment, Robinson took the most lucrative sports job he could find - semi-pro football in Hawaii. After a successful 1941 season, Robinson booked passage on a steamship back to Los Angeles. On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 he was contemplating his next move when the Japanese decided it for him. 

The 23 year-old Robinson received his draft notice in early 1942. After basic training with a cavalry regiment he and several other black soldiers requested a transfer to officer's candidate school. Robinson's natural leadership qualities and UCLA education made him ideal officer material but his skin color worked against him. His transfer was put on the back-burner until boxer Joe Lewis stepped in to help open the gate allowing black soldiers to attend officer's school. By January 1943 the former college star was 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson,U.S. Army.

Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood Texas. Known as the "Black Panthers", the 761st would go on to earn a distinguished combat record serving under General Patton in Europe. For two reasons Lt. Robinson wasn't one of them.

Years of strenuous athletic activity had left Robinson with an old ankle injury that required testing to guarantee he was combat-ready. On afternoon while awaiting the results of the test, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus and took a seat near the front. When the driver told Robinson to sit in the back he flatly refused. The driver reported the incident to the Military Police who took the insolent lieutenant in custody. The commander of the 761st flatly refused to prosecute his young officer but the matter was taken out of his hands when Robinson was transferred to another battalion. His new commanding officer happily signed off on court-martial proceedings before the ink was dry on his transfer papers.

After a humiliating trial in which he was acquitted of all charges, Robinson found himself a soldier without an army. His unit had deployed to Europe during his court martial and medical tests found his ankle was tender enough to keep him out of combat. The trial had made news and his superiors at Ft. Hood didn't want him around so he was transferred to another black unit, the 372nd Infantry Regiment.

The 372nd had a brilliant battle record from the first world war. The units shoulder patch was a red hand on a white disk trimmed in blue and red. This striking insignia was bestowed on the regiment by the French Army of Africa with which the unit had fought with in 1918. By the time Lt. Robinson caught up with the regiment at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky it was being used as a feeder unit that trained replacement infantry troops. As a distinguished college athlete, Robinson was named the regiment's athletic director.

It was only a temporary assignment. Robinson's fight against the bogus court marshal gained him a reputation as a hard case, and with a bum ankle he wasn't any good for combat. The army decided to discharge him. In the meantime, Robinson waited for the slow moving paperwork to wind its way through Army bureaucracy by keeping the recruits occupied with baseball.

One afternoon Robinson happened upon a soldier throwing big league curve balls on the baseball field. The soldier was Ted Alexander, a former pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Robinson had had a brush with Negro League baseball back before the war when a traveling blackball team had played a pickup team which Robinson was a part of. When the game ended the team took off without giving Robinson his agreed upon money for the exhibition. The whole experience left Robinson with a bad taste in his mouth and a lingering distrust of black baseball operations. When Robinson told Alexander of his concerns about post-army employment, the pitcher revealed the the Monarchs were always hiring good talent. The war had hit black baseball as hard as the white version with many of its good players in the service. However with many blacks now employed in high paying war industry jobs, blackball was the most popular diversion for their new-found disposable income. The Negro Leagues were experiencing their most profitable period in their history.

The former Monarchs pitcher surely related all this to Robinson and before the two men parted ways Alexander had given the Lieutenant Kansas City Monarchs' owner Tom Baird's contact information. When he received his honorable discharge in November of 1944, Robinson wrote to the Monarchs inquiring about a position. In the meantime he took a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. When spring rolled around the Monarchs sent Robinson a $400 a month contract and instructed him to report for spring training. 

Jackie Robinson's baseball career had begun.

This was a neat story I stumbled on when seeking players for my Kentucky Baseball book project. Much has been written about Jackie Robinson, yet I found it a much neglected side bar that the roots of his professional baseball career actually dated back to a late summer afternoon in western Kentucky. This was a fun illustration to work on especially since his army regiments insignia was so unique - I just knew that red hand would make the drawing. My old pal Will Arlt, owner of Ideal Cap Co. was in town last week and I showed him my illustration. We both agreed that the cap I depicted Jackie wearing would have to be an eventual offering from Ideal, so be on the look out for it next year.

Next week I will revert to the customary baseball card format for my drawings - it just so happens that I recently completed two full-page illustrations for the Kentucky project and I thought it would be a shame to shoe-horn them into a smaller format.

Anyway, this post is dedicated to all the men and women who have served in the United States military. It was your sacrifices and sense of duty that allowed me the life I am fortunate to enjoy. I think of that every day, not just on Memorial and Veteran's Day. Thank you from this very grateful artist.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

181. Jim Bunning: A Perfect Father's Day



Now that my book is wrapped up and at the publisher (on track for a May 8, 2015 release), 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 this wonderful place. 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

Like I said, some aren't too well known, but today I'd like to show you a full-page illustration I just finished of a Kentuckian who is quite well-known and does indeed have a plaque in Cooperstown - Jim Bunning.

In the spring of 1964 veteran right hander Jim Bunning was easing into his first season in the National League. Bunning had been the Detroit Tigers' ace since the late 1950's and one of the only brights spots in a dismal ball club. Besides his fastball Bunning had a tough slider and nice curve, all delivered in a 3/4 sidearm motion that often left him flying off the mound like an out of control starfish. It was unorthodox, but it worked. In his first full season, 1957, he led the American League pitchers with 20 wins and subsequently posted seasons of 19, 17 and 17 victories. His trade to Philadelphia in 1964 was expected to be final piece needed to push the Phillies to a pennant. In his first two starts he struck out a combined total of 20 Mets and Cubs, then on May 23rd he was 6 2/3 innings through a perfect game before a pop fly got the best of aging outfielder Wes Covington. By Father's Day the 32 year-old pitcher was 6-2 and looked like he was on his way to his finest season.

That Father's Day weekend the Phillies were in New York playing the Mets for the first time at their new ballpark, Shea Stadium. The World's Fair was also in full swing and Bunning had his wife Mary and his daughter Barbara join him for a mini Manhattan getaway. The other eight Bunning children stayed at their Cherry Hill, N.J. home that weekend. Friday June 19th was a doubleheader, both ends won by Philadelphia and the Mets managed to take the Saturday game. Sunday was Father's Day and another doubleheader was scheduled. Bunning was to pitch the first game.

That morning Bunning family, devout Catholics, attended mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral then feasted on a breakfast of sausage and eggs. The morning was already showing signs of the 90 plus degree weather forcast for that afternoon. While many players bemoaned playing in flannel uniforms in such high temperatures, Bunning loved pitching in the heat. Sometimes he'd sweat through three jerseys during the course of a game. 

By noon the Phillies Ace was in Queens warming up for the 1:15 afternoon game. Though Bunning didn't feel any different warming up, manager Gene Mauch said later that he could tell something was special about the way his starter was throwing. 

The Phillies started off the first inning with a walk, sacrifice and run scored on a single. Bunning set down the Mets with a strike out, grounder and pop fly. Philadelphia scored again in the second giving Bunning a 2 run cushion. Again he set down the Mets one two three. In the fifth Bunning got Joe Christopher to pop up to shortstop Cookie Rojas, bringing up Mets catcher Jesse Gonder. The big catcher hit a screaming liner between first and second that looked like a hit - but suddenly second baseman came flying out of nowhere and knocked down the ball. Crawling on his knees he retrieved the ball and threw to first nailing Gonder.

Philadelphia broke the game wide open in the top of the sixth. First Jimmy Callison hit a solo home run, followed by a walk to Wes Covington. Mauch sent Bobby Wine in to pinch run and a single by Tony Taylor put runners on first and second. Gus Triandos hit a Tracy Stallard fastball into center field scoring Wine and then Bunning hit a bases clearing double to make it 6 nothing.

Now there is that old baseball superstition that teammates never talk about a no-hitter or perfect game in progress - to do so is supposed to be a jinx. Bunning apparently had no such qualms, telling his teammates "C'mon, dive, do something out there. Let's get this perfect game!"

The Mets continued to be set down in order in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Now the Mets fans began cheering for Bunning. No National League pitcher had thrown a perfect game since 1880 - this was real history unfolding before them. 

Charley Smith led off the bottom of the ninth and promptly popped a ball foul. Bobby Wine raced in from shortstop to haul it in for out number one. Now in today's game, it's considered bad form to put in a pinch hitter to try to break up a no-hitter or perfect game - not so in 1964. With the exception of his decade of piloting the Yankees in the 1950's, Mets manager Casey Stengel had been humiliated most of his managerial career. As leader of more inept ball clubs than anyone else in modern memory Stengel had also been on the short end of the first of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. If he could help it, there was no way he was going to be a victim a second time to baseball history. Looking down his bench he sent George Altman in to pinch hit for Amado Samuel.

As pinch hitter Altman strode to the plate, Bunning signaled for his catcher Gus Triandos to join him on the mound. Thinking he was there to discuss how to pitch to Altman, he was taken aback when Bunning asked him to tell him a joke. Triando, thinking his pitcher was nuts, laughed nervously and jogged back to home plate. For a second it looked like Stengel had found the right man to derail Bunning's masterpiece - Altman smashed a fly ball to right that finally hooked foul and dropped into the stands. He then fouled the next pitch behind home plate for strike two. Bunning bore down and threw a third strike past the swinging Altman for the second out. 

Now the crowd was wild. From their box seat Mary and Barbara Bunning stood breathless along with 32,000 others. All across the tri-state people were glued to their TV and radios. In Cherry Hill, N.J. Bunning's other 8 kids watched their father's perfect game unfold on their television.

Again Stengel tried to bust up Bunning's masterpiece. He took his line up card and crossed out his pitcher and sent John Stephenson in to pinch hit. Fortunately Bunning had faced Stephenson in the first week of the season and knew he had a hard time with the curve. He wielded back and threw a breaking ball which Stephenson swung on an missed.  Strike one.

The second pitch was another curve. Stephenson watched it break over the corner of the plate for strike two.

Two curves. Surely the next pitch was going to be a fastball, right? Wrong. The 32 year-old veteran broke off another curve which Stephenson missed by a mile. Strike three. It was Bunning's 90th pitch of the afternoon and his 10th strike out.

Today in 2014 it's hard to imagine just how special Bunning's perfect game was. It had been more than 80 years since the last National League perfecto had been tossed and it came during a season that had Philadelphia chasing their first pennant in over a decade. As we all know that pennant proved elusive as the Phil's ended the season in a nosedive that remained legendary until the 2007 Mets season-ending crash. Jim Bunning's great day was the icing on a Hall of Fame career. After he retired from the game the pitcher went into politics and represented Kentucky in the United States Congress, first as a Representative from 1987 to 1999 and then as a Senator for two terms.

While Kentucky may not be able to boast as many Hall of Famers as other states, we can say that the Bluegrass State has been home to two men who are not only Baseball Hall of Famers but also served as United States Senators - Jim Bunning and Happy Chandler.



Friday, October 17, 2014

180. Bob Bowman: Integrating Dixie


This post has been over 20 years in the making, and much like the path my life has taken, there's a bit of wandering on the way the to the point, so bear with me 'cause it's worth it.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and up until I left for art school in Baltimore, I'd never experienced life outside a 50 mile radius of Manhattan. When I graduated college I swore to myself that I would use my career as a designer and illustrator to live in as many different parts of the United States as I possibly could. I wanted to experience and see first hand everything this great country had to offer, but not as a visitor - I wanted to know what it was like to live in all these vastly different places. 

After Baltimore, the first stop in what would become a long odyssey was Cincinnati, Ohio. It was as far removed from where I was from as the moon. As I would repeat in every other place I called home, I threw myself into exploring every nook and cranny I could. I was particularly intrigued by mysterious and inviting land just across the Ohio River: Kentucky. I was 25, 26 years-old at the time and after work on Fridays I'd pack the saddlebags of my old motorcycle with a tent, sleeping bag and cans of food and cross the river into Kentucky. I'd ride the back roads south as long as it was light, then stop in a small town hotel or camp in an open field. In that manner I explored much of the beautiful Bluegrass State and met hundreds of people that a kid from the streets of New Jersey could have only imagined existed. On one of those weekend journeys I wound up in a roadside tavern somewhere in the state's coal region. Of course a Reds game was on the television behind the bar and I struck up a conversation with an old fella on the next stool. We traded baseball trivia and after a few Negro League teasers he lobbed one at me that made me swing and miss:

Who was the first black ballplayer signed to play for a team below the Mason-Dixon Line?

I figured it was someone from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and I racked my brain trying to come up with a good candidate. I forget now who I threw out there, but it didn't matter, I was wrong. "The answer", said the old fella, "was a pitcher named Bob Bowman in 1951".

I confessed I never heard of him before and dutifully noted his name in my pocket sketchbook, filing Bob Bowman away for future research. Months later I was in the Cincinnati Public Library and I stumbled on the little note. I got a stack of old Spalding Guides from the reference desk and micro film of The Sporting News and looked up Bob Bowman. I found he'd played for the Middlesboro Athletics of the Class D Mountain States League in 1951. It was at the tail end of a long career in organized baseball stretching back to the 1930's including a 4 year stretch in the majors with the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. Clearly Bob Bowman was not black, but white. In fact he carved out his own niche in baseball infamy as the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who beaned Joe Medwick in 1940. Medwick was the National League's best slugger at the time and was never the same after Bowman brained him. The injury, besides being horrific even by the rough standards of the day, was significant in that it brought about he adaptation of modern batting helmets.

So, Bob Bowman was indeed an interesting guy, but not a pioneer of baseball integration. A dead end - or so I thought.

Fast forward to last week. In my spare time I'm working on a little personal book project featuring ballplayers who either hailed from or spent a significant portion of their career in Kentucky. I had already written about Mickey Stubblefield who integrated the KITTY League back in 1952 and Happy Chandler, a semi-pro ballplayer in Lexington back in the 1920's who went on to become the baseball commissioner who green-lighted the signing of Jackie Robinson. I was at the library hoping to find some interesting Bluegrass ballplayers to feature when I picked up "Bat, Ball and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South" by L.M. Sutter. The book features West Virgina, Virginia and Kentucky coal town baseball so I put it on my stack of books and checked out. Later that night I was thumbing through it and lo and behold there was a photograph of Bob Bowman, pitcher of the Middlesboro Athletics. Not former Cardinals pitcher and white guy Bob Bowman, but black guy Bob Bowman. Turns out L.M. Sutter was a much more diligent researcher than I was and, fortunately for baseball history, was able to uncover the forgotten story of the first black ballplayer to be signed to a team below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bob Bowman hailed from the Appalachian coalfields of Virginia. As a boy his family moved over the border to Middlesboro, Kentucky, the place he would call home for the rest of his life. The young Bowman grew up big and strong, eventually topping out at 6 foot 2 inches. By incessantly skipping stones across water as a boy, Bowman developed a devastating sidearm throwing motion that translated nicely to baseball when he took up the game.

He developed a unique fastball which he gripped by overlapping his index finger over his middle one and delivered with a submarine delivery from the right side. By 1930 he was a local baseball star around Kentucky's coal region playing with the semi-pro Middlesboro Blue Sox. The Blue Sox was an all-black team that played local amateur white teams from the mines and visiting Negro League clubs. Bowman pitched for the Blue Sox throughout the 1930's and eventually took over as the team's manager. Then as the 1937 season began Bowman disappears from Middlesboro. Author L.M. Sutter speculates that Bowman was picked up by the Ethiopian Clowns, a novelty traveling blackball team. The Clowns made annual trips to Middlesboro and a few of Bowman's teammates on the Blue Sox were recruited by the Clowns during this time. It isn't much of a stretch to see why the Clowns would snatch up Middlesboro's star hurler as well.

Since the Clowns played ball mixed with slap-stick sketch comedy that the serious-minded Bowman would have found distasteful, he never really discussed his time with the barnstormers. The addition of Bowman did much to raise the Clowns' level of play and by 1940 the club had become as respected for their baseball as they were for drawing a cheap laugh from a crowd. For whatever reasons, life with on the road wasn't to the pitcher's liking. He was a family man and three or four summers of playing baseball in a different town everyday with a bunch of ballplayer/comedians had probably wore thin. By 1941 he was back home in Middlesboro with the Blue Sox. 

The popularity of black baseball during World War II led to Bowman again leaving home, this time with the Ashville Blues of the Negro Southern League. The NSL was sort of a minor league for the Negro National and American Leagues. Besides playing teams from their league, Ashville played a heavy schedule against town and factory teams throughout the eastern part of the United States. The hard toll such traveling took on Negro League players is well known but for around $275 a month Bowman stuck it out through 1950 when he returned to Middlesboro. He was back with the Blue Sox when history came calling.

Middlesboro had an entry in the Class D Mountain States League. Though Jackie Robinson and a handful of other black ballplayers had broke the minor league color barrier in 1946, the Mountain States League was still lily-white. In 1950 one of the leagues teams tried to field a black ballplayer but tapped out when faced with opposition from the rest of the circuit. The following season the Middlesboro Athletics tried.

Bob Bowman was an obvious choice to be the man to become the first black player to join a team based south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though he was 45, the submariner was well-known to local white fans from his decades with the Blue Sox and his ability to pitch on a professional level was proven. On May 8, 1951 he signed a contract with the Athletics and that very night took the mound in relief against the Big Stone Rebels. By all accounts the Athletic's 45 year-old rookie received a warm standing ovation when he entered the game during the 8th inning. Middlesboro was up 9-7 but runners were on second and third with one out. Bowman, perhaps nervous, walked the first batter he faced, then unleashed a wild pitch that let a run to score. Now Bowman's veteran instints took over and he whiffed the next two batters. Middlesboro scored an insurance run in their half of the eighth to make it 10-8. Bowman got the first batter on a fly out then proceeded to walk the bases loaded. As he had done the previous frame, the big veteran bore down and got the next two Rebels in order to preserve the win. It wasn't exactly a barn-burner of a debut, but the important thing was no one refused to play against a black ballplayer and there wasn't a race riot. Bob Bowman had quietly integrated Dixie.

Bowman solidified his position as as the ace of the Athletics staff after he one-hit the Norton Braves at the end of May. The other Bob Bowman was the pitcher/manager for the Braves and that is where the confusion over the two men stems from. What the former major leaguer thoughts were when his struggling Braves team was one-hit by Bowman and subjected to a 27 run onslaught is not recorded. The submariner also baffled Braves batters as he sent 17 back to the bench on strike outs.

Behind the veteran right hander Middlesboro climbed to the top rungs of the standings for the first time in their 3 year existence. Author L.M. Sutter found that the club's home attendance spiked during the teams 1951 revitalization as they battled the Hazard Bombers for the pennant. As good as the Athletics were, the Bombers featured a teenage Johnny Podres. The 18 year-old went 21-8 and in 2 years would be a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The aged Bowman finished up with an admirable 17-6 record, making him the second best in the Mountain States League behind the Brooklyn-bound Podres.

Middlesboro faced the Morristown Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. "Big Bob" as he was now called was on the mound for the final deciding game. Bowman pitched the game of his life, striking out 11 Red Sox in 12 innings of shutout ball. He finally gave out in the 13th when he walked in the winning run. It was called the greatest game ever seen in that part of the Appalachins and was Bowman's last game in organized baseball.

The old right hander retired as an active player but kept his hand in the game by coaching the local kids who tried to emulate their heroes' sidearm delivery. In 1975 Bob Bowman suffered a stroke that eventually led to his death on June 25th. He was 69 years old and except for grateful fans in Middlesboro, Kentucky, all but forgotten for his role in integrating the game he loved.

My synopsis of Bowman's short but important career in organized baseball pales when compared to the chapter on him in "Bat, Ball and Bitumen". Hopefully it will introduce a new round of baseball history buffs to a forgotten ballplayer who played a small but important part in breaking down baseball's color line. After I read the chapter about Bowman I emailed the author, L.M. Sutter with a few lingering questions I had about him. Sutter enthusiastically answered all my inquiries and told me that finding Bob Bowman remains one of her proudest moments. I can see why - without Sutter's dogged research one of baseball's integration pioneers would have remained anonymous and eternally confused with the career of a white ballplayer who happened to share the same name.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

179. Fred Toney: The Real Iron Man


I'm not a big "records" type of baseball fan. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire took all the fun out of records for me as did the manufactured hype over Cal Ripken's meaningless consecutive game thing. On the other hand, DiMaggio's hitting safely in 56 consecutive games and Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters are still impressive and awe-inspiring. It's probably safe to say neither will be broken or even equaled anytime soon. Which brings me to Fred Toney. This relatively forgotten pitcher from the first 2 decades of the last century has no less than three unbelievable pitching performances that I'd bet will never be equaled, if only for the reason there is no way a pitcher would ever be allowed to even be in a position to try to match any of Toney's feats...

According to baseball lore, sometime in 1908 a minor league scout found himself lost on a mountain road in the back woods of Tennessee. In need of direction, he came upon a brawny teenager with with three dead squirrels in tow. The scout had engaged the barefoot hunter in conversation when he suddenly realized the boy had no rifle, pistol or even a bow and arrow. "How did you kill the squirrels?" he asked, to which the boy matter-of-factly replied "I killed them by throwing rocks at 'em". The story ends with the scout returning to civilization with young Fred Toney's signature on a pro contract. 

But that's all there is to it, just a story.

Fred Toney was born and raised just outside Nashville, Tennessee. He was big and strong for his time, just over six foot and 200 pounds of farm boy muscle. A right hander, Toney got his start as a teenager with the local Nashville Free Silver Sluggers where he won 26 out of 32 games. In 1908 the nineteen year old ventured north to Kentucky to play for a semi-pro team in Bowling Green. How he came to play for Bowling Green is not known, but he was probably lured North by the prospect of a steady factory job with extra pay for playing on the ball club. When the team folded midway through the summer Toney headed back home to Tennessee, but a professional scout was hot on his heals. When the representative from the Winchester Hustlers finally caught up with Toney he was taken aback when the pitcher rebuffed all offers of a professional contract. Money wasn't the object: it seems that young Fred Toney didn't want all the pressure that being a pro ballplayer brought on. Toney's friend, "Greasy" Hanly eventually convinced Toney to sign on with Winchester and as a contract stipulation the Hustlers agreed to take along Hanly as well.

Toney finished out the '08 season in the Blue Grass League, his fastball garnering comparisons to a young Walter Johnson. The following season, 1909, is where Fred Toney enters the history books.

On Monday May 10, 1909, three hundred fans sat in the stands at Garner's Park to watch the Hustlers take on the visiting Lexington Colts. The game started in the late afternoon and the light crowd was what could be expected on a rainy, miserable spring afternoon. As the innings ticked by, neither team was able to score. Toney was magnificent, striking out batters with ease and refusing to give up a single hit. After nine frames neither team had scored and Toney had a no-hitter, but the game wasn't over. As more innings passed without a hit, word spread around Winchester of what was transpiring in their little ballpark. A boy on a bicycle raced back and forth from the ballpark to the business district with updates as the historic game went on. Crowds began to gather outside the park as Toney steadfastly remained on the mound holding the Colts hitless. By the time the game entered the 12th inning, darkness was beginning to fall over the Kentucky town. Now not only was there a race to score the first run but to do it soon as the game and no-hitter would be struck from the record if it were to be called because of darkness. The Colts' pitcher, Baker, was still on the mound as well, allowing just 6 hits through 17 innings. Finally in the bottom of the 17th Winchester's right fielder Ellis singled to right center. Left fielder Schmidt sacrificed Ellis over to second but Baker made a throwing error to first as the runner was safe and Ellis took third. Eddie Goosetree fouled off one of Baker's pitches which was caught for the first out. With runners on the corners Hustler's manager Newt Horn called for a squeeze play. Shortstop Ellis layed down a bunt and Ellis raced across the plate with the winning run.

As word of the victory spread from the ballpark, the town's factories let loose their steam whistles, church bells pealed and cars honked their horns. Toney, who just one year earlier had refused to play pro ball because of the pressure, had pitched a beautiful 17 inning no-hitter complete with 19 strike outs and giving up but two stingy bases on balls. The 17 inning game was completed in just over 2 hours, 45 minutes.
For those who haven't done the math, Toney's gem was an inning shy of two complete no-htters and remains today as the longest professional no-hitter on record. I can't find any "unprofessional" no-hitter 17 innings or more so I'm going to assume Toney's feat is unmatched. Like-wise, it's probably safe to say it would never be matched as there is no way a pitcher would be allowed to throw 17 innings in one outing today.

The feat made all the sports pages from coast to coast and Toney was soon courted by the big leagues. In July the Phillies were reported to have acquired the right hander but apparently the deal fell through. A few months after his record making game Toney again went the extra mile when he pitched all 16 innings of a game against Shelbyville, this time relinquishing six hits. In 191o the Chicago Cubs sent a man south to take the measure of Winchester's rubber armed ace. Knowing the Chicago scout was in the stands, Toney did everything he could to make himself look inept. Despite maintaining his cool and poise through two years of pro ball and tossing some of the most nerve racking games in modern memory, Fred Toney was afraid to move up to the big leagues.

He made his debut in 1911 and in 18 games he was a marginal 1-1. The Cubs sent him back and forth between the minors and Chicago before releasing him. After some fine work with Louisville Brooklyn signed him in 1914 but Toney played hardball in contract negotiations and the Reds managed to pick him up. 

Now in his mid-20's and a bit more sure of himself, Toney became one of the National Leagues best right handers. He ticked off seasons of 17, 14 and 24 wins for a young Cincinnati team. On May 2, 1917 the Reds were in Chicago to play the Cubs. Toney took the mound for Cincinnati and faced the Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn. The two men had faced off before back in the minor leagues where Toney found he could get the edge on Vaughn by letting him hit a long single, the base running tiring him out.

While their bouts in the minors may have been memorable, nothing could compete with what would happen that afternoon in May. Not only did Toney not allow Vaughn a base hit, but he silenced all the other bats in the Cubs lineup as well. Vaughn did the same to the Reds and after nine complete innings both men were throwing no-hitters. Finally in the top of the 10th Vaughn gave up a single to Larry Kopf who went to third on an error and came home on a Jim Thorpe single. Toney finished off the Cubs in the bottom of the inning and won the the only double no-hit game in baseball history.

As if Fred Toney needed to prove his iron man standing, later that season he did another feat that would be impossible n today's game - pitched and won both games of a double header. Facing Pittsburgh on July 1st, Toney gave up just three hits and a single run in each game - 18 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs. Incredible. Unfortunately for Toney it was a quick decent from being the most revered pitcher on the Reds to their most reviled. 

In April of 1917 America declared war and all able bodied men were expected to serve the war effort in some capacity. Toney was married with a child and as such was given a deferment in the draft. Somehow it was leaked that not only was Toney three years separated from his wife and kid, but was currently involved with a young lady other than Mrs. Toney. Federal Marshall's arrested the Reds ace and he went to trial for draft dodging. When the trial ended in an unsatisfying hung jury he was slapped with violating the Mann Act - bringing a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The Cincinnati fans ripped him apart and the Reds unloaded him and his legal problems on the New York Giants. Between pitching for New York Toney pleaded guilty to violating the Mann Act and served out a short prison term. Through it all he pitched good ball posting 13, 21 and 18 win seasons for the Giants.

In the spring of 1924 Toney busted a finger while executing a bunt. The injury ruined his grip on the ball and he slipped back into the minor leagues. The 36 year-old hung up his spikes for good in 1925 and headed back home to Tennessee. In the town he was born and raised in he opened up a soda fountain, the walls adorned with mementos from a 17 year career highlighted by some of the most heroic pitching performances in the history of the game.