Tuesday, March 26, 2013

147. Ford Meadows: Better Than The Babe


I love those "what if?" questions in history. You know, those major events in history that hinged on one minor and insignificant event or individual: what if Hitler had gotten into art school or what would America be like now if Lee Oswald was a lousy shot? Baseball has plenty of those great "what if's" as well, and it was one of those minor turn of events that gave the game its greatest player.

In the spring of 1914, Baltimore Orioles owner and manager Jack Dunn looked over his roster for the coming season and knew he had a problem - left-handed pitching, or more precisely, the lack of it. Fortunately Baltimore and the surrounding countryside was an untapped gold mine of amateur talent. Though the city had a major port, world-class universities and a many top-notch semi-pro teams, Baltimore's pool of ballplayers was often overlooked due to the close proximity of Washington, Philadelphia and New York City. For years the savvy Jack Dunn had it all to himself and he was famous for his meticulous scouting of local talent. When the time came for him to fill that left-handed spot in his pitching rotation Jack Dunn knew exactly who he wanted.

For a year Dunn had been following a local 19 year-old student at an Xaverian school who was mowing down every team he pitched against. He was a big fella and like most left-handers had a bit of a reputation for being a bit eccentric. To Dunn, a veteran judge of baseball talent, this kid was one of the greatest lefties he'd ever seen. In early February of 1914 the Orioles owner took his former third baseman and now New York Yankee Fritz Maisel along to talk to the Brothers who ran the school the young phenom attended. Dunn figured that by bringing along Maisel, a local boy, would make it easier to get the Xaverians to give up their star player if they could see that being signed by the Orioles was a stepping stone to the big time.

Brother Gilbert, the schools baseball coach and athletics director, met with the two men apprehensively. While one one hand he wanted the young man to succeed, on the other he also wanted a winning ball club for the upcoming season and this kid was his ace. Brother Gilbert thought about how he could keep him for just one more season and settled on the old bait and switch tactic.

"Sure my boy is great" he told the two men, "but this other lefty we faced last season was even better". Dunn, intrigued, must have wondered who this other unknown star was. 

"Ruth from St. Mary's" was Brother Gilbert's reply.

See, the pitcher Jack Dunn had scouted and called one of the greatest left-handers he'd ever seen was not the young Babe Ruth, but a student at Mount St. Josephs College named Ford Bernard Meadows. 

At the time, Meadows was hands-down the best pitcher in Baltimore. In the 1913 season the kid had shut out Georgetown, Boston College and Holy Cross - all in one week. His games were given as much coverage in the Baltimore newspapers as the Washington Senators and Orioles. There was no doubt that Meadows was a budding superstar. As far as anyone was concerned, no one had heard of this Ruth kid over at St. Mary's that Brother Gilbert had spoke of.

And in truth, the Xaverian Brother and baseball coach was fibbing a bit: he'd never actually seen Ruth pitch before. In all the games Mount St. Josephs played against St. Mary's Ruth appeared as a left-handed catcher. The big kid impressed Brother Gilbert not with his pitching but with his bat, a skill he used to eat up any pitcher Mount St. Josephs threw at him. Because both St. Mary's and Mount St. Josephs College were run by Xaverian brothers, Gilbert was familiar with Ruth's coach, Brother Matthias, and through him had learned of Ruth's strong and accurate arm. 

It was a brilliant tactic and Jack Dunn fell for it. Within days he'd signed the young George Herman Ruth without ever seeing him play an inning of baseball, all based on the little white lie of an Xaverian Brother who was trying to keep his prized ball club intact for one more season.

But what became of Ford Meadows? 

Well, he continued to dominate the collegiate scene. He kicked off the 1914 season with a brilliantly pitched game against the Orioles. Though he lost, the newspapers reported that had he been backed by a capable catcher and right fielder, Meadows would have defeated the Birds. A few weeks later he pitched a no-hitter and at the end of the college season was in Frederick, Maryland playing semi-pro ball and making headlines with his pitching feats. So while Ruth played half a season with the Orioles and made it up to the Boston Red Sox, Meadows was still an amateur, though a well-known and highly touted one. 

After school ended in the spring of 1915, Jack Dunn swooped in and finally signed the southpaw he'd originally wanted. Dunn's Orioles has been forced to relocate to Richmond after they were beaten at the box office by the upstart Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. While with Richmond the former phenom was less than mediocre. He was consistently wild and in 13 games could only muster an 0-2 record. But the New York Yankees saw something in him and in late August Dunn sold Meadows to New York for a $5000 profit. 

Meadows rode the Yankees bench for the rest of the season, never getting into a game but was invited to join the team in Macon, Georgia the next year for spring training. Unfortunately for Meadows he pitched poorly and was quickly let go, rejoining the Orioles, who had again set up shop in Baltimore after the demise of the Federal League. 

Now Jack Dunn began to sour on the former college star. Throughout the spring he failed to impress. He couldn't find the plate and Dunn complained he was sorely out of shape. Exasperated with Meadow's performance and attitude, Dunn suspended him. In what was a pretty ballsy move for the time, the southpaw filed a grievance with the minor league baseball commission and Dunn was told to play him or let him go. This kind of insubordination from one of his players couldn't have sat well with the autocratic manager and owner. While Dunn was well known for treating his ballplayers with unheard of respect, the Orioles were his team, an extension of himself. That one of his boys would have the stones to file a grievance against him and challenge his authority to run the club as he saw fit must have angered him immensely.

Dunn reluctantly took him back into the fold. 

Ford Meadows, the guy who was more highly touted than Babe Ruth, would finally get his own place in the baseball history books, but not in a good way. On June 30, 1916 Dunn put him in as a relief pitcher against Richmond. Down 8-2, Meadows took the mound for the home half of the sixth and started walking everyone in sight. By the time it was over he issued free passes to 11 Richmond batters and set what was then a record. Dunn, his point made, gave Meadows his unconditional release later that day.

As far as I can tell, Meadows never appeared in another professional game. He did, however, find love and on August 4th married Miss Grace Miller. Meadows was still so well known that the Baltimore newspapers wrote about his wedding and one article reported that the couple honeymooned in Atlantic City and that since his release from the Orioles he had been playing amateur ball around Baltimore. 

With the World War raging in Europe it was just a matter of time before Meadows, 22 at the time, was caught up in it. He served with the 514th Pioneer Infantry in France where he dislocated his shoulder and had his ear shot off in the fighting. He returned home on a transport ship with thousands of other wounded doughboys almost six months after the war was over.

I couldn't find any other traces of Ford Meadows after that. Most likely he returned to his wife and made a life for himself around Baltimore. While his ball playing career might not have lived up to the promise many expected from him, he was instrumental in launching the career of the greatest baseball player of all time.

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