Friday, July 29, 2011
No one thought much when the sturdy looking Chinaman in the yellow silk tunic and matching sash approached the men playing a pick-up game of baseball in a clearing just beside the docks. The two teams battling that afternoon were made up of New England sailors from the clipper ship Cyclopes and Navy men from the gunboat U.S.S. Monocacy. Although the crowd was originally filled with the few Americans that knew of and appreciated the game, by the 4th inning a sizable crowd had assembled. The bars of Shanghai's infamous Blood Alley had emptied of all U.S. Navy men who'd come to cheer on their own and hopefully scrap with the clipper men or who ever else looked eligible at the game's conclusion. The clipper's cheering section had grown to include a few missionaries and assorted bookkeepers and clerks from the American companies whose offices overlooked the bustling waterfront. A smattering of Europeans, mainly British and French, sauntered over to see what those curious Americans were up to now. A growing number of Chinese workers paused to look on, talking quietly amongst themselves, lest they be shooed away by the white devils.
The clipper men were leading by 2 runs but now the gunboat sailors had runners on first and second and their best hitter, Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding, was at the plate. Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding was from Chicago and in the not-to-distant past had played baseball around the windy city and held his own against the best semi-pros in town. When the Chinaman walked directly onto the field and made a bee-line for the pitchers mound, the Americans finally took notice of Teang Wong Foo.
According to Protestant missionary Reverend Herbert Chestnut who officiating at the game, the mysterious Chinaman gestured to the clipper's pitcher for the ball and out of sheer good-naturedness, he tossed the big fellow the ball. Slight laughter wafted from the players and spectators and a cacophony of Chinese voices welled up from the growing group of Chinese who had stopped to watch the curious game.
Foo took the ball without a word. He shifted his braided pony-tail over his shoulder and spat twice on the ground. Looking over his broad shoulders, three times he checked the runners on base. A few cat-calls (which the good Reverend Chestnut refused to record) emanated from the gunboat sailor's bench, bringing howls of laughter from the clipper men on the other side of the field. With a smile, Boatswain 2/c Spalding took up his batters stance.
Foo rocked quickly back on his right leg, curled his left around behind him and then swung his body almost completely around before snapping back and releasing the ball overhand.
There was a sound - some say it was like a train in the distance or the noise a canvas sail makes before hitting the deck - and Boatswain 2/c Spalding wound up in a heap before home plate. The crowd was silent until the sailor jumped up and dusted himself off. Then the jeers started. The clipper men cheered their "relief pitcher" and the gunboat sailors cried fowl, all the while was the incessant jingle-jangle of Mandarin being hollered from the growing Chinese section. Boatswain 2/c Spalding held up his arm to silence the crowd and regained his batting stance before home plate.
The clipper's catcher threw Foo the ball which he caught with his bare hand. Looking in, Foo duplicated his pretzel-like windup and threw another ball past Boatswain 2/c Spalding who didn't even take the bat off his shoulder. Again the crowd erupted in cheers, jeers and Mandarin. Boatswain 2/c Spalding rushed the mound dragging the Reverend/umpire Chestnut by the collar, demanding to see the ball. Standing next to Foo, who now everyone realised was quite large for a Chinaman, about 6 foot, Boatswain 2/c Spalding and Chestnut examined the ball. Besides normal grime and a few scuffs, there wasn't a thing altered on the sphere. Boatswain 2/c Spalding shook his head in amazement and walked slowly back to the plate. The Reverend returned the ball to an apathetic-looking Foo and called for play to resume.
With his former smile replaced by lips tightly closed, a determined Boatswain 2/c Spalding faced Foo. Again the curious wind-up and just like that, Boatswain 2/c Spalding swung and missed the ball. "Strike Three!" cried the Reverend/umpire Chestnut, thrusting three fingers skyward.
Roars engulfed the playing field and coins could be heard clanging as bets were settled in a dizzying array of languages. Boatswain 2/c Spalding shouldered his bat and started back to the bench. Half-way there he stopped, reversed course and headed towards the mound where Foo stood. The gunboat men rose as one and picked up bats, bracing for a fight. The clipper men discussed amongst themselves whether to stick up for "their Chinaman" or sit this one out. The British stood fast, observing, and the French evaporated into the crowd. In the ever larger Chinese section, all was quiet.
Boatswain 2/c Spalding held out his right hand. Foo, his chin slightly raised, handed the ball to him. Boatswain 2/c Spalding pushed it aside, instead shaking Foo's right hand and smiling broadly. Foo's face broke out into a wide grin as well.
The crowd erupted once again. The gunboat sailors put down their bats. The clipper men walked cautiously toward "their Chinaman" with open arms. The British noted the Americans "good show of sportsmanship" and the French reappeared and led the charge towards Foo. The Chinese started throwing firecrackers onto the field.
With Foo surrounded by his new-found admirers, missionary Chestnut translated for Foo. "he is from the village of Uwachu in the province of Kiangton. He learned to throw from need to hunt small birds after he was orphaned as a boy. A local warlord happened to see his skill killing birds with stones and adapted the young boy, elevating him at the age of 10 to be the warlord's Chief Hunt Master."
The crowd pushed closer to hear Chestnut translate and the missionary milked the undivided attention for all it was worth.
"It was in his capacity of the Chief Hunt Master that brought him to Shanghai this day, purchasing provisions for his master in Kiangton."
"I've never seen a ball curve like that!" exclaimed Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding. "Ask him if he can do that every time." Chestnut relayed the question to Foo.
"He says he can. He says he developed it that way because after many dead birds the game in his province became wise to Foo's great accuracy with a a stone. He says he trained himself to throw a stone around a tree so he could remain hidden from a bird's sight."
"Amazing!" exclaimed Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding. "Let's try something here."
Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding ran towards the bench his team had been using and returned with 3 bats. The first bat he erected about 20 feet in front of the pitching mound. He paced off about 10 more feet and started embedding a bat there. Seeing what he had in mind an unnamed Englishman came forward and took the other bat and with a nod from Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding, erected it just in front of home plate. Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding took a stone about 4 inches round and placed it upon the end of the bat before home plate. He walked briskly back towards Foo.
"Tell him to hit the stone." Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding instructed Chestnut. Informed of the plan, Foo kicked the dirt at his feet and the crowd backed off slowly, making a clear shot towards home plate. With that curious motion, Foo twisted around and fired the ball to the left side of the first bat where it abruptly curved right, cleared the second bat and abruptly curved again striking the stone on the bat at home plate.
"Amazing!" exclaimed Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding again and again. The way the good Reverend Chestnut relates it, Foo repeated the same throw 3 more times before darkness descended upon the Shanghai waterfront and broke up the crowd. The gunboat sailors, with the exception of Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding, headed back to the bars of Blood Alley. The clipper men returned to the clipper ship Cyclopes which was scheduled to depart the next morning for the long trip back to New England. The British and the French headed to their private clubs for dinner, all the while sniffing about how the Americans were always mingling with the Chinese too much for their taste.
The dispersal of the crowd left only the Reverend Chestnut, Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding and Teang Wong Foo. Speaking through the Reverend, Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding asked for and received Foo's contact address (really only the names of the province his Master had his palace) and promised to be in touch with him. Duly translated by Chestnut, Foo shrugged his shoulders and headed off into Chinese section of Shanghai.
While his shipmates drank and brawled on Blood Alley, Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding headed towards Shanghai's main telegraph office. He had an important wire to send to his cousin in Chicago.
02 MARCH 1887
MR. ALBERT GOODWILL SPALDING
SPALDING SPORTING GOODS CO.
118 RANDOLPH STREET CHICAGO, ILLINOIS U.S.A. AL - DISCOVERED NATIVE RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER WITH UNRIVALED CURVE BALL FOR YOUR WHITE STOCKINGS. BALL BREAKS 3 FEET. AM NOT INTOXICATED NOR UNDER NARCOTIC INFLUENCE. LONG DETAILED LETTER TO FOLLOW. TEANG WONG FOO, KIANGTON PROVINCE, VILLAGE UWACHU. WIRE REV HERBERT CHESTNUT, GRACE CHURCH, SHANGHAI FOR MEDIATION. -COUSIN THOMAS (BM 2/C U.S.N.)
Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding's cousin happened to be THE Albert Goodwill Spalding, part owner of the Chicago White Stockings of the National League. Always one to cover all the angles when it came to baseball, Albert Spalding capitalized on a successful career as a pitching star when he established what would quickly become the world's largest sporting goods outlet.
Upon receipt of the telegram, Albert Spalding immediately set about contacting his foreign prospect. He knew his cousin well enough that despite his propensity towards drink, was quite an astute judge of baseball flesh. Not one to exaggerate, Albert Spalding trusted his cousin implicitly. His own White Stockings, despite the aging superstar Cap Anson at 1st base, were mired in 3rd place behind the Detroit Wolverines. A whirlwind of a pitcher could be the difference between 1st and 3rd place. Besides, imagine the spike in attendance from the addition of not only a Chinaman on the White Stockings, but a damn-talented Chinaman!
After a series of telegrams sent to the Reverend Chestnut, translated and relayed by runner to Foo in Kiangton, Spalding was able to negotiate the terms that would bring Teang Wong Foo to America as a member of the 1888 Chicago White Stockings. Besides the salary Foo would earn as a White Stocking, a modest sum was settled upon to appease Foo's master in Kiangton to compensate for the loss of his adapted son and Chief Hunt Master and Albert Spalding also made a not-insignificant donation to the Reverend Chestnut's Grace Church Mission in Shanghai.
In Albert Spalding's eyes, one major obstacle remained before the was truly comfortable with adding Teang Wong Foo to his roster: White Stocking team captain and superstar, Cap Anson. Known as a hot-head and notoriously racially intolerant, Anson famously made headlines by repeatedly refusing to play against teams that fielded Negro ballplayers. Why, just as recently as this season Anson refused to have his team play against the Newark Little Giants when they sent Negro League star George Stovey out to the mound to pitch against Chicago. Spalding tried to gauge his star player's level of intolerance and whether or not he'd be adverse to playing along side a Chinaman. "I don't care what hue the fellow is" Anson reputedly said "...as long as he is on my team. If he is playing against us, by God I'll holler until he is taken out of the damned game!"
A single article, though slightly embellished and containing a few of the politically-incorrect jabs of the time, appeared in the Chicago Mail newspaper. Calling Foo "a terror in the pitcher's box as has never been known in baseball circles" it goes on to warn the Detroit team of Foo's imminent arrival in Chicago. Things were going smoother than annual contract negotiation with his own Cap Anson. All that remained was the formality of permission to immigrate to the United States.
22 NOVEMBER 1887
MR. ALBERT GOODWILL SPALDING
SPALDING SPORTING GOODS CO.
118 RANDOLPH STREET CHICAGO, ILLINOIS U.S.A.
CITING CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT OF 1882 UNITED STATES CONSUL SHANGHAI DENIES PERMISSION OF IMMIGRATION FOR TEANG WONG FOO, CHINESE NATL. -RESPECTFULLY, E.B. HODGES ASST. U.S. CONSUL SHANGHAI
The Chinese Exclusion Act was ratified into law five years previous to all but end the immigration of Chinese to the west coast of the United States. The multitudes of native Chinese, once tolerated because of their hard work ethic and cheap labor, were now seen as a threat to American jobs and no longer deemed useful. Teang Wong Foo was just one of thousands caught up in this unfortunate racist policy of the United States.
Despite a flurry of telegrams sent to his influential friends in Washington, Albert Spalding realized that he would have to do without Teang Wong Foo and his amazing curve ball at least for the 1888 season. Through the Reverend Chestnut, Spalding kept tabs on Foo who did not wander far from his Master's palace in Kiangton. Via clipper ship, Spalding sent a crate of state-of-the-art baseball equipment from his Chicago store, including a complete White Stocking uniform. What Teang Wong Foo or any of his country men in the palace thought of these gifts was not recorded.
Despite leading the National League in batting, the Chicago White Stockings still finished 9 games behind the New York Giants in 1888. It's hard to say how many times Albert Spalding's mind wondered about how many games Teang Wong Foo's curve ball could have won for Chicago that season, but to think it wasn't on his mind would be far from the truth. Albert Spalding, as always, covering all the angles when it came to baseball, had an idea.
It would be the greatest world tour ever attempted to promote the American game of baseball world-wide. Starting in Chicago, Spalding would lead a 2 teams of major league stars west to California, then across the Pacific to Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. The tour would then head north-west stopping in Shanghai, China. Before the expedition boarded the steamship to continue on to Europe, Albert Spalding intended to increase his wards by one more - a Chinaman by the name of Teang Wong Foo.
Spalding was playing the odds that amongst all the fanfare surrounding the tour, the addition of one more of those exotic ballplayers wouldn't be noticed. Perhaps he was planning to hide him as a valet or porter, we just don't know for sure. What is known is that the appropriate telegrams were sent and arrangements were made for Foo to meet the group when they arrived in Shanghai January 9th, 1889 on the steamship S.S. Salier.
But alas, it was not to be. After successful baseball exhibitions in Australia and New Zealand, Albert Spalding ran up against something he had absolutely no control over - the weather. A late-season typhoon followed by a succession of inclement rain storms postponed the S.S. Salier's departure for 2 weeks. In the meantime the tour's European facilitators warned against delaying or missing the Italian and French dates - too many Royal spectators were scheduled to attend and it would look bad for a bunch of sportsmen from the United States to cancel on them.
With a heart-felt dread, Albert Spalding cancelled the China leg of the trip and the S.S. Salier set a course for Ceylon, en route to Egypt and Europe.
What happened to Teang Wong Foo after January of 1889 was never documented. A check of immigration records reveal no Chinese national by that name ever coming to these shores and it would have been unlikely he found a way to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act before its 1943 repeal. It goes without saying the name "Foo" does not appear in any records of the old National League. In fact the only real public record of the whole Teang Wong Foo incident is the single article in the Chicago Mail. Albert Spalding of course went on to great financial success with his sporting goods and publishing empire. His White Stockings were renamed the "Colts" in 1890, then briefly became the "Orphans" before finally taking on their current moniker of the "Cubs" in 1903. The fate of Boatswain's Mate 2/c Spalding, besides his earning a Spanish American War campaign medal, honorable discharge from the Navy in 1910 and his death at the age of 82, is unknown. Through church records we find that the Reverend Herbert Chestnut left Shanghai in 1892 for a remote mission near Hangkow in the Yangtze Valley and was one of the many missionaries that went missing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900. His name appeared on the Rebellion Memorial Wall of Grace Church in Shanghai until it was removed by the communist government in the 1950's and the church destroyed to make room for a cultural center and soccer training complex.
Thanks for indulging me with this fun little story. The seeds of it began with a small article David MacDonald wrote in issue 20 of The National Pastime. In it MacDonald quotes from the actual Chicago Mail newspaper article from 1887 describing the imminent arrival of one Chinaman named Teang Wong Foo on the Chicago White Stockings. The article, riddled with the tasteless racial stereotypes of the time, was obviously a hoax. However the tie in with Albert Goodwill Spalding's real 1888-1889 World Tour and notorious racist Cap Anson was too good to pass up! I contacted David McDonald about the story and he told me it was found while researching something else entirely. Seems like we find a lot of other really great forgotten stories that way. Hope you enjoyed it and a special thanks to David MacDonald for taking the time to talk with me and for writing that neat little story in the first place.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
While the 1919 Black Sox Scandal is well known by every baseball fan, the numerous other scandals that rocked professional baseball at the time are not. Perhaps the next biggest involved the Pacific Coast League and the 1919 pennant race. What happened was in July of 1920 Tigers first baseman "Babe" Borton showed up at the Los Angeles hotel the Salt Lake City Bees were staying at. Borton approached Sailor Stroud, the Bees' starting pitcher, and tried handing him $300 to throw that afternoon's game against Vernon. Stroud declined and quickly left the hotel. Borton, undaunted, turned around and set his sights on outfielder Harl Maggert. The 37 year-old Maggert was at the time knocking the cover off the ball, leading the PCL with a .370 average. Unlike Stroud, Maggert pocketed the $300.
Stroud took the mound later that afternoon and was promptly knocked out of the box in the first inning as the Tigers crushed the Bees. That evening Borton again showed up in the lobby of the hotel and cornered Stroud, trying to force another $300 on him, saying "you earned it." Again Sailor Stroud refused to take the money, insisting he just had a lousy day.
Borton wasn't very careful in his role as the world's most inept bagman. Flashing wads of cash in a busy hotel lobby really wasn't a smart idea. With all the rumors floating around about the previous years World Series, this flagrant appearance of impropriety was just begging for investigation. Add onto the pile of circumstantial evidence that pretty much all the implicated White Sox players with the exception of Shoeless Joe Jackson had played in the Pacific Coast League. The dirtiest man ever to put on a uniform, Hal Chase, had also come from the Coast League and for years rumors had been circulating that gamblers enjoyed an uncomfortably close relationship with many of the players. Officials that had so often looked the other way were now forced to open an investigation. What they found made them wish Borton had left his wallet at home that fateful July afternoon...
Borton tried the usual denials, testifying the $300 bucks he was handing out wasn't a bribe but was losses owed in craps games, not to lose a game. Nice try, but no one was buying it. Although the owners at first tried to sweep it all under the rug by quickly banning Borton and suspending Maggert, the newspapers, smelling blood, wanted more. And boy oh boy, was there more.
Turns out Borton spent much of the previous season handing cash out to anyone who would take it to ensure his team won the pennant. Vernon, the town which the Tigers represented is in fact a small oasis just south of Los Angeles. I say "oasis" because it was pretty much a no-holds barred law-free zone. Gambling was gleefully overlooked and on Sundays when respectable communities banned all sporting events and liquor sales, Vernon had no such inconvenient legislature on their books. The whole town was a festering sore of all the seamy elements Southern California had to offer. The cash Borton was spreading around came from what the Babe called the "Fan's Fund" because it was supposedly filled with donations from die-hard Vernon fans. That many of the "die-hard Vernon fans" were probably gamblers was a fact lost on no one with half a brain, but amongst the "subscribers" to the fund were quite a few Hollywood luminaries like actor Fatty Arbuckle, movie studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn and Sid Grauman, owner of the famed Chinese Theater. By the time the investigation finally ended dozens of PCL players testified to having been offered amounts ranging from $100 to $1700 to throw games to the Tigers during the 1919 and 1920 season. The most damaging testimony was from Seattle's first baseman Rod Murphy. In his deposition Murphy related how he was approached by Seattle gambler Nate Raymond in August, 1920 and offered $3000 to throw games to Vernon. In order to make Murphy feel more at ease with his crooked proposition, Raymond related how he'd done this kind of thing before and described how he was behind the fixing of the Vernon-Salt Lake City series in 1919. The most damning evidence was what Raymond said next: "Rod, to prove my truthfulness to you I will mention two players. Ask Maggert and Borton how I treated them in our agreement."
It was a terrible blow to the Pacific Coast League whose reputation was currently taking hits from the Black Sox scandal. Besides the obviously guilty Maggert and Borton, the owners decided to ban pitchers Tom Seaton and Casey Smith of the San Francisco Seals and Salt Lake's star outfielder, Bill Rumler.
Borton testified he gave Rumler $200 (some say $250) to lay down against Vernon when the 2 teams met in at the end of the 1919 season. Investigators were able to track down bank drafts in the amount of $250 to Rumler and $500 to his teammate Gene Dale. Dale retired after the season and was out of the scope of the investigation but Rumler was still active. When questioned, Rumler never denied taking the cash, but insisted it was merely a friendly bet with Borton over whose team would win the 1919 pennant. Since Borton and his Vernon team won the pennant, it was never clear why he would be the one paying off Rumler. The owners thought the same thing you're probably thinking: that's pretty weak. Bill Rumler was suspended indefinitely.
At the time of his suspension, the 29 year-old Bill Rumler was batting close to .350 and seemed to be on his way back to the major leagues. The son of German and Russian immigrant Mennonite farmers from Nebraska, he'd gotten a late start in his career and to underline that fact, his nickname was "Ole Bill." He played with the St. Louis Browns sporadically from 1914-17 until he was sent to France to fight in the war. He joined Salt Lake in '19 and was one of the team's star players. Now Ole Bill was indefinitely suspended.
Unlike the other players implicated, Rumler fought back. At a meeting of the owners, PCL president William McCarthy was so convinced Rumler was dirty that he emotionally vowed to resign as president if the other owners voted to reinstate him. They did not and voted unanimously to a 5-year ban. It amounted to a lifetime banishment because Rumler, now pushing 30, would most definitely not be able to play again after spending 5 years on the sidelines. No one expected to hear from Ole Bill again.
Everyone that is, except Ole Bill himself.
Rumler never changed his story about the $200 and always insisted on his innocence. While the other banished players gave up the game, Rumler went underground, changed his name to Red Moore and played on any team that would pay him. Roaming the outfield on rough and tumble teams representing mining towns in the Dakotas and smoke-belching industrial cities in the Midwest, Rumler battered the small-time competition he faced, all the while biding his time and crossing off the days until the 5 years ended.
In the spring of 1929 Ole Bill resurfaced and showed up at the Hollywood Sheiks training camp. Much had changed since Rumler's exile - for one his old team, the Salt Lake City Bees, had up and moved to Hollywood and were dubbed "The Sheiks" after the 1921 Rudolph Valentino movie. The team's owner Bill Lane welcomed him back and Ole Bill shocked everyone by easily beating out his younger competition in the outfield. By the time the season began, Rumler was the Sheiks starting centerfielder.
8 years after his last appearance in organized ball, Bill Rumler had a season that players half his age would die for. In 140 games the 38 year-old batted a career high .386 and smacked 26 home runs leading his Sheiks to the PCL playoffs against the Mission Reds. The Sheiks had been the joke of the league for a few seasons, never finishing above 4th place their entire tenure in Hollywood, but in 1929 spurred on by their aging outfielder, they came alive. After dropping the first 2 games to the Reds, the Sheiks roared back and won the next 3 games. In the 4th game Rumler was hit in the head by a pitch and knocked unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital where it was feared he would pass away during the night but Rumler surprised the doctors by regaining consciousness. Although he appeared to be out of the woods, the physicians all insisted he not play anymore that year. Rumler's triumphant come-back season was over.
But Ole Bill had come too damn far to end it like that.
Defying everyone, he checked himself out of the hospital the following day and suited up for the sixth game against the Reds. Sitting on the bench he watched as the Sheiks fought the Reds to a 3-3 tie. In the bottom of the 8th second baseman Howie Burkett singled and outfielder Liz Funk bunted safely. The catcher Les Cook singled but Burkett was forced out at third. With 2 on and 1 away, manager Ossie Vitt sent Rumler in to pinch hit for outfielder Cleo Carlyle. It's lost to history what exactly Ole Bill was thinking as he stepped up to plate to face Misson's ace pitcher, the 24 game winner Bert Cole.
With the screams of the hometown crowd of 15,000 reverberating inside his battered skull, Ole Bill lined a single to left that scored Cole. It was the go ahead run as the Sheiks jumped all over the Reds on their way to a 5 run inning that won the game and championship.
Now Ole Bill Rumler's season was over.
It has to be one of the best comeback stories of all time, so good in fact that whatever came after could only be underwhelming. Rumler's 1930 season started off just as good as the previous year, but eventually bad luck and age caught up with him. On an overnight train ride to Oakland Rumler had a nightmare and kicked his foot through his Pullman car's window. The deep cuts cost him a week on the pines but he roared back and was batting a killer .353 when he busted his ankle in August, putting him out for the remainder of the season.
Come spring he tried regaining his old form but after years of injuries, Ole Bill's body had finally caught up to his nickname. He signed on with the Denver Bears but only managed .236 with them before he switched to a barnstorming team called the Canadian-American Clowns for what was left of the season. 1932 found Ole Bill as player-manager of the class D Lincoln Links. Come June he was hitting .350 and had managed the Links to a 12-26 record when he punched an umpire in the nose. Rumler was fined $25 for inciting a riot and the league suspended him indefinitely. Ole Bill Rumler's professional baseball career was over.
Rumler returned to the Mennonite community he started from, Milford, Nebraska. There he remained a popular town character and became Milford's police chief until retiring in 1964 at the age of 73. When he died two years later in 1966, Ole Bill had never wavered from his story about the $200, always insisting he never threw a baseball game for money.
Here's a card and story I featured in the premier issue of 21. Just about everyone knows about Hank Greenberg, his being the first Jewish baseball superstar and how he was an idol to so many kids during the depression. His selflessness is well documented in his serving the country during the entire war as an Air Corps officer in India and China and his dramatic return to the Tigers in time to spark their late-season pennant drive and World Series victory in 1945. Instead of all that well-covered ground, I wanted to look at his start in pro ball with the semi-pro Brooklyn Bay Parkways. The Parkways were part of the vibrant semi-pro circuit around the New York metropolitan area from the 1910's to the 1940's. These teams, The Bushwicks being the most famous, were at times the equal of a high-minor league team of the era and occasionally out-drew major league teams in attendance. The New York City semi-pro circuit was the launching pad for many major league stars such as Waite Hoyt, Whitey Ford and Marius Russo as well as the swan song for former players like George Earnshaw, Dazzy Vance and Jeff Tesreau. I could draw and write about these great semi-pro teams constantly and not run out of stories and players to feature, but then that would be boring, wouldn't it? So I'll simply mix them in with Negro Leaguer's, minor league stars, pre-war Japanese players and unknown no-body's who need to be known. As a note to those who purchased the first issue of 21 (thanks!), the drawing you see here is a sightly different version of the one in the journal, I sometimes design a few variations and just pick one in the end, trashing the other versions. For some reason I didn't do that with Greenberg and I stumbled on it the other day looking for something else, so I figured I'd use it in this weeks story...
As a boy growing up in the Bronx, Hank Greenberg played ball every chance he could. Big and uncoordinated at first, he made up for his shortcomings with his passion and relentless practice. In high school he was scouted by the New York Giants but they rejected him so much that they refused to allow him to volunteer to shag fly balls at the Polo Grounds during batting practice. Turning to basketball, he was named the best high school center in the New York City, was granted an athletic scholarship to New York University and had aspirations of becoming a professional basketball player. Still, baseball was his first love and Hank practiced every chance he could, refining his hitting skills by paying neighborhood kids to pitch to him.
One day he was spotted playing sandlot ball and was asked to play for the semi-pro Brooklyn Bay Parkways. The Bay Parkways were an independent team who played local, Negro league and touring teams of barnstorming major leaguers. Like the Brooklyn Bushwicks, these independent teams featured future and former big league players and at times played the same level of ball as a middle-tier minor league team. But the big thing that attracted young Hank was that they were paid to play baseball.
So that Sunday, Greenberg took the long subway ride from his home in the Bronx to Erasmus Field in Brooklyn and played in his first semi-pro game. After the game in which he played poorly, he did not receive any money. Because of his performance he didn’t say anything. The next Sunday he belted 3 home runs in a doubleheader and still did not receive any money at the end of the day. Disappointed, he told the manager he wasn’t coming back the following week. George Lippe, the Bay Parkways skipper, asked why. When told it was because he didn’t get paid, the startled manager said that he thought Greenberg was an amateur and did not want to get paid in order to preserve his eligibility to play collegiate sports. Hank said he didn’t care about that, it took a long time to travel all the way to Brooklyn and he expected to be paid for his contribution to the team. Lippe paid him then and there, promising him $10 for every Sunday doubleheader he played. In 1929 that was a considerable amount of money. Hank Greenberg was now a professional ballplayer.
Practicing his hitting everyday he steadily improved his skills and it began to show. Playing against the talented House Of David traveling team Greenberg had 6 RBI's on 2 home runs and earned his first mention in a newspaper. After 21 games he was batting a heady .454. Scouts started to show interest and Greenberg was brought to the mill town of East Douglas, Massachusetts by Detroit Tigers scout Jean Dubuc. Like the Bay Parkways, East Douglas was part of a highly competitive semi-pro league and after playing there for a few weeks the Washington Senators asked him to come to Boston to work out with the team. Hitting batting practice against the great Walter Johnson, a nervous Greenberg managed to only hit one foul ball after another and was sent back to East Douglas without being offered a contract.
The hometown New York Yankees came knocking next. Scout Paul Kritchell had been keeping an eye on Greenberg since he was in high school and he finally asked Hank to come to Yankee Stadium to talk. While watching a game as guest of the Yankees, Kritchell pointed to first base and declared that Lou Gehrig was all washed up and that if he signed, Hank would soon have his job. The Yankees were the class of the league. To wear the pinstripes was something all ballplayers dream of, but deep down Greenberg knew the 26 year-old Gehrig was far from washed up. If he signed with New York, there was a big likelihood that he would be trapped in the minor leagues for a long time, waiting for the Iron Horse to get injured or retire. As tempting as it was for the kid from the Bronx, he turned the Yankees down. Surprisingly, the Senators made an offer to Hank and the Tigers also came through with a generous contract. Thankful for the way scout Jean Dubuc had treated him, Greenberg signed with Detroit. By 1933 Greenberg would be the starting first baseman of the Detroit Tigers and Lou Gehrig, on his way to set a record for playing in the most consecutive games, wouldn’t give up his job at first until 1939.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Like most baseball fans, I ran out to watch Barry Levinson's 1984 movie "The Natural." As a budding baseball history geek, I was enthralled with the attention to detail the set decorators, costume designers and graphic artists had spent bringing to life the sights and sounds of 1939 baseball. As a testament to the talent of those men and women, the New York Knights jersey is still sold by many companies and I spy at least one at every major league ballgame I go to. I've talked about all this before in the story and card I did of his teammate on the Knights, Bump Baily.
The movie begins with the teenage Roy and girlfriend Iris (very distractingly and unconvincingly played by Glenn Close and Robert Redford who were, what, 50 something at the time?) making love on the eve of Roy's call-up to the Chicago Cubs. As most everyone knows, Hobbs gets shot by a deranged woman and his career and life gets sidetracked and 16 years later he reemerges as a 35 year-old rookie for the moribund New York Knights. An all-around good guy with the virtues of a slightly-jaded Christy Mathewson, Redford's Roy Hobbs smiles his way through a doomed love affair with his manager's fem-fatale niece Memo Paris, mid-season batting slump and temptations from shady gamblers. The spectacular final scene during the playoff game against the Pirates caps off an inspiring movie as the hero finds out he is indeed the father of Iris's kid and sends a Spalding baseball into the Knights Field lighting system, winning not only ownership of the team for Pop Fisher, but baseball immortality, Hobbs' life-long dream. The closing sequence shows Roy playing catch with his son, safe and sound back on the farm where he started from. I assume Iris, who's not featured in the shot, is in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a pie or something. The newly reunited Hobbs' family lives happily ever after.
Nice. So years later I snatched up a used paperback copy of the book by Bernard Malamud that the movie was based on. I sat on it for a while, not really all that gassed up to just read what the movie ably portrayed on screen. But when my buddy Charlie Vascellaro, the famed sportswriter and raconteur, saw it laying around and told me it wasn't anywhere near what I thought it was, I finally did crack it open. Boy was I surprised! The Roy Hobbs in the novel was the exact opposite of Redford's sugary version.
The book had a dark tone to it. Hobbs wasn't a fresh-faced teen in the beginning but a normal jock who just cares about himself. There was no teenage love affair with a corn-fed Iris from back home. In the book Iris was a frumpy middle-aged single mom and groupie he alternately bangs and ignores whenever the Knights are in Chicago to play the Cubs. He finally drops her like a bad habit when she tells him that she is a grandmother. He's mean to kids, doesn't get along with his teammates and is driven by that one thing: "When I walk down the street I want people to say: There goes Roy Hobbs. The best there ever was..." He doesn't really care about Pop Fisher and his sob story about losing the Knights to his partner, the evil Judge Banner. Hobbs is constantly preoccupied with turning a buck, continually complaining to The Judge to give him a raise because of how good he is. He even takes the Judge's money to throw the final game so he has a nest egg to run off with the manager's niece. When he finally gets pangs of regret after Iris lets him know she's knocked up with his kid he decides to become the hero and win the game. But unlike in the movie, he strikes out to end the game. The last scene in the book reveals a broken Roy Hobbs, passing a newspaper seller hawking papers reporting his expulsion from baseball and the compete erasure of his name and statistics from the record book.
Now imagine if that was the movie. Would you have liked it better? Would "The Natural" have stayed such a popular baseball movie with an anti-hero and an ending like that? Would I see New York Knights jerseys with the number 9 on the back at major league ballgames? I don't know, probably not. Leaving the theater after seeing Hobbs blow up the scoreboard at Knights Field fills you with such a sense of euphoria and child-like glee that I think if the movie ended as sudden and demoralizing as the book it would not have had the same lasting impact. I do, however, feel like THAT would have been a movie I would have liked much better. Watching Redford as Roy Hobbs now 25 years later I see how schmaltzy his acting is. And his ever-present 70's man foppy hair-do bothers my historically accurate nerves (I read that he has a clause in his contracts that makes him exempt from changing his dopey hair style!). The silly love story with Iris is just a patch-work ploy to find a place for Glenn Close in the script. Here's a little something to show you how deep the scriptwriter was: did you realize that the young pitcher who gives up Hobbs' homer at the end of the movie is supposed to be the kid in the beginning of the movie who receives the baseball from young Roy after he strikes out "The Whammer"?
Anyway, flaws aside, I'd still watch this movie over any other baseball movie, even, yes, I'm going to say it: even over the darling of the baseball crowd: "Bull Durham." I'm sorry, I really didn't buy Tim Robbins as a ballplayer back then and I sure as hell don't now. And you know, I thought Annie Savoy was friggin' annoying. Yeah, I said that too. I went to art school and knew whole roomfuls of Annie Savoy's, chicks from medium-sized towns that talked like a thesaurus and believed that a few Edith Piaf LPs and becoming a self-appointed aficionado of something as pedestrian as baseball would make them the big, cool fish in the stagnant pond of whatever mediocre burg they were from. Yeah, see, I dated a few of them, trust me. But I will say this: Kevin Costner was good as catcher Crash Davis. And speaking of him, how about that movie where he relives his life story while pitching a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium? My Mom rented me that movie one Christmas when I was visiting. I really didn't want to watch it, but was glad I did because I thought it was pretty good. Quite a few baseball guys I know quietly admit to liking it as well. Just don't tell anybody...
But anyway, Back to Roy Hobbs. When I decided to do a Hobbs card, I was torn between the good Hobbs of the movie and the bad Hobbs of the novel. Liking the novel much more, I decided on the bad one when writing the back of the card. To save everyone's eye sight I'll reproduce the text below:
Roy Edward Hobbs
Bats: Left Throws: Left
Born: Aug. 10, 1905 Sabotac Valley, Iowa
Died: March 18, 1966 Grainger, Texas
Signed as a pitching phenom by the Cubs in 1923, Hobbs’ promising career was cut short when a deranged woman shot him. Hobbs slowly regained his skills playing semi-pro ball and at age 35 made a come-back with the New York Knights. He made a splash from the start by knocking the cover off the ball in his first major league at bat. He broke the record for doubles by a rookie and his 46 home runs spearheaded the Knights drive to the pennant. After he went 0 for 4 in the one-game playoff against Pittsburgh it was shown that Hobbs and pitcher Al Fowler were bribed by Knights owner Judge Albert Banner to lose the game. The commissioner of baseball banned Hobbs from baseball and removed all traces of him from the record books. A broken man, he died an oil field accident in 1966.