Sunday, October 13, 2013

161. Joe Styborski: The Mystery Man of The 1927 Yankees


If you look closely, he's there, standing on the top right, between the bear-like outfielder Ben Paschal and the diminutive trainer Doc Woods. It's the official team portrait of the legendary 1927 New York Yankees, commonly referred to as "The Greatest Team of All-Time". As the subject of countless books and thousands of articles, they're undoubtedly the most documented lineup in baseball history, so why has this one tall young man who stares straight at the camera remained anonymous and mislabeled until recently?

First of all, the young man's name is not "unknown" or "Walter Beall" or "John Stiborski". His name is Joseph Styborski.

He was born in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of Antoni and Helen Styborski, immigrants from Russian Poland. The family would have 4 more children before moving to the rural Cambridge Springs, tucked away in the upper western corner of Pennsylvania. Antoni rented a dairy farm on which he and his family worked. Joe developed into a husky teen, just shy of six feet tall. Somewhere, like almost every other American boy, he learned baseball. For Joe it wasn't so much a game; it was his ticket to a better life.

After high school Joe matriculated to Penn State. By his sophomore year the big righty was the mainstay of Penn's pitching staff. Like many young pitchers, Styborski got by on just his speed ball, which by all newspaper accounts, was something to behold. Along with his tremendous velocity came the inherent wildness and Penn's coach Hugo Bezdeck worked with him to achieve greater accuracy. The extra work paid off and he was the undisputed ace of the university's 1926 staff. In a May 20th game against Princeton, Styborski gave up a pair of walks in the first inning and then a run scored on two errors, but he held the Tigers to a just two hits, striking out 4 through nine innings, only to lose the game 1-0.  It was a rare loss for Styborski, who soon got the nickname "Cy", a comparison to the great Cy Young. (Plus, "Cy Styborski" is just fun to say - try it).

Coach Bezdeck must have known his ace had the stuff for a career in professional baseball and he began to help Styborski prepare for the 1927 season. In the off season, Bezdeck helped his ace develop a change up and it paid dividends when his senior year came around. In his first start, Styborski beat North Carolina 8-2, scattering 6 hits, striking out 11 and smashing a two-run homer. Against Syracuse he hit a double while giving up 4 hits and whiffing 6 Orangemen. A week later he went the distance against Princeton, striking out 5, scattering 8 hits and again getting a double, winning 8-2. And so it went for the 1927 season, Styborski finishing with a 6-1 record. His solitary loss was from a May 22nd game against NYU when he came in to relieve Russ Van Atta, a lefty from New Jersey who would also eventually wind up in the Yankees farm system. 

With the heavy press coverage Penn State ball games received and his great record over three collegiate seasons, Styborski was courted by major league scouts. While the offers were welcomed, Styborski wanted one thing more than a contract: his diploma. The young ace rebuffed all offers until the sheepskin was firmly in his grasp. On June 13th, 1927 he graduated from Penn State with a degree in Arts and Letters, and signed a contract with the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees. Two days later young Joe Styborski was on a train to New York to join the team. 

It was a great time to be a Yankee, the team blew into the '27 season as defending American League champs. Ruth was in the midst of his greatest season and Lou Gehrig had finally come into his own as one of the games best young stars. The team's starting rotation of Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, both future Hall of Famers, and ace reliever Wilcy Moore were the perfect counterpoint to the teams offensive punch.

Due to a rain delayed series with Boston during which the beat writers had nothing much to report, Styborski's signing made the major papers. Much was made out of his college education, which was indeed a rarity amongst major league players of the time. The sportswriters played up his hitting, quoting the Yankee scouts report to manager Miller Huggins "Joe is quite a ball player, hitting about as well as he pitches." The scribes also warned future scorekeepers of the tongue-twisting, pencil-breaking Styborski-Grabowski pitcher-catcher battery. (Johnny Grabowski was the Yankee's back-up catcher).

So by mid-July, Penn State's Cy Young was fitted out for a set of pinstripes and took his place in the Yankees dugout. If Styborski thought he'd soon get a chance on the mound backed by Murderer's Row, he was wrong. During the his tenure as skipper of the Yanks, Miller Huggins habitually brought up newly signed youngsters and had them practice with the team and ride the pines during league games. That was Huggin's way of deciding what minor league level the team should farm the ball player out to. It was tantalizingly close to the big show, riding the pines in a new set of pinstripes, and many young kids foolishly thought they were going to actually get into a game. He did, however get to work out with the team and throw batting practice, all under Huggin's watchful eye.

In the years before corporations and unions took the fun out of the game, it was common for major league teams to spend an off day playing a minor league or semi-pro team for extra money. It was a quaint way for fans in pre-radio days to get to see a big league team play. It was also a time that managers like Miller Huggins used to see what his new or little-used players could do in game situations. So, on Friday June 24th, the Yankees swung into Springfield, Massachusetts on their way home from Boston. Not wanting to waste any of his starters, Huggins penciled in Roy Chesterfield to start the game against the Ponies.

Over 7,000 fans turned out to see the mighty Yankees and they weren't disappointed: Babe Ruth socked two trademark home runs plus a double and Lou Gehrig hit a 2-run blast. Chesterfield gave up 3 runs in three innings before Huggins handed Styborski the ball. Taking the mound in the bottom of the fourth, the pre-rookie blanked the Ponies for a few innings before giving up 4 big runs in the 6th which tied it up. A Ruth homer the following inning put the Yankees ahead by a run.

Joe Giard took the mound in the eighth, which happened to be the last completed frame since the game ended prematurely when 500 boys burst from the overcrowded stands and mobbed Babe Ruth. With a smile on his broad face, Ruth obligingly signed for his young fans. The kindness wasn't reciprocated because in the confusion someone walked out of the ballpark with nine of The Babe's bats, including his favorite. Ruth promptly offered a no-questions-asked $25 reward along with a duplicate bat if the thief would return his lumber.

After the game the Yankees took the train back to New York to get ready for the Philadelphia Athletics. It is probably during this July home stand that the famous photograph was taken. With the Yanks running away with another pennant and Ruth and Gehrig on path to shatter all previous home run records, someone recognized the need to photographically capture this great ball club.

The Yankees were all dressed and on the field taking batting practice. Unlike today, the 1927 Yankees wore what they would wear for that afternoon's game - no special BP jersey or cap. Someone, probably from the front office, gathered the men together in front of Section 10, just to the left of home plate. The dirt before them is churned by spike marks, meaning batting practice had just ended and the grounds crew were about to dismantle the batting cage visible in the far right edge of the photo. The seats behind the players are peppered with men in suits and hats, relaxing in the warm, early afternoon sun. Those were the expensive seats, reserved for the swells that could afford them. The Yankees are posed formally in the time-honored tradition of baseball team photos, front row sitting "Indian-style", second row seated and the back row standing. Front and center is the team's bat boy since 1921, Eddie Bennett. Directly behind him, seated, is manager Huggins, arms folded tightly and cap brim tilted forward to shield his eyes from the sun. The mighty Babe Ruth is standing in the back row, towards the left side, his belly starting to show the effects of too much road cuisine. Lou Gehrig stands off to the extreme left, hands behind his back, his powerful legs apart. There's a playful tilt to his head, like he is amused by something. It isn't a stretch to imagine that Herb Pennock, standing beside Lou, said something funny to mess up the photograph, another timeless component to baseball team pictures. And all the way to the opposite side of the back row, second man in, is the face that was mis-identified or left unknown for many years. Joe Styborski. He stares straight at the camera, hand resting jauntily on his left hip. Then the photographer snapped the shutter and Joe Styborski was forever immortalized beside the Gods of baseball history.

On that home stand the Yanks won 10 out of 14 and then packed up for a series against Detroit. Along the way the team stopped off in Toronto to play the Maple Leafs. This was another chance for Huggins to test the new guys and gauge their level of talent. The Leafs played in the International League, today's AAA level. While not stocked with Hall of Famers, almost every man on the Toronto roster had played in or were future major leaguers. For the Thursday day game, Huggins gave the ball to Styborski. 

The Yankees team that took the field that afternoon were a mixture of starters and subs. Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig bolstered little used Julie Wera at third, Cedric Durst in left, Ray Morehart at second and a catcher named Pickens. To shake things up, Ruth and Gehrig swapped positions for the game.

Perhaps unnerved by the large crowd and knowing his future was riding on his performance that afternoon, the young pitcher ran into trouble, yielding a single to the first batter. The next Leaf forced the runner out and two walks loaded up the bases. Former St. Louis Brown Bobby Lamotte hit a hot liner right at Ruth who made the play and doubled the runner off first to end the inning. The Babe, who always took his pre-game warm-up at first base, knew his way around the bag.

In the second, Styborski got the first man on a ground out then gave up a single and walk. He bore down and struck out the next batter then lost all composure by walking the next batter, loading the bases again. Styborski still couldn't locate the plate and he gave a free pass to veteran Bill Webb to force a run home. Former Yankee Merwin Jacobson dropped a single in short left scoring another run but Cedric Durst fired the ball to the catcher who tagged out another potential Toronto run to end the inning.

Styborski led off the third and got a hold of an Augie Prudhomme pitch but Merwin Jacobson shagged it for an out. By the time Styborski picked up his glove and took the mound, he'd calmed down a bit and got the side out fast with two ground balls to Lazzeri and an outfield fly out.

The Yankees came alive in the forth, kick started by Gehrig's lead-off single. With one out Lazzeri smashed a double to left, moving Lou over to third. Third baseman Julie Wera knocked in both runners with a long single and suddenly it's 2-0 New York. The catcher Pickens hit into a double play to end the frame. 

On the mound again, Styborski gave up a quick single to the right fielder. With one on and no outs and the game on the line again, Styborski reached deep down and fired a pitch to Fred Bratschi. The left fielder swung and hit it deep to left field but Durst made the play, halting the runners. The pitcher Prudhomme hit the ball back to Styborski who fielded it and threw his counterpart out at first. Now with the runner on second and two away, former Detroit Tiger and lead-off batter Les Burke stepped to the plate. Styborski fired the ball in and Burke hit it back to Wera at third. End of inning. 

The pitcher paused in the dugout just long enough to grab his bat before stepping up to the plate. Prudhomme was a bit wild and he walked Styborski. Earle Combs flied out to center field, freezing Styborski at first. Ray Morehart smashed a ball to Burke at second and beat the throw, moving the runner over to second as well. And that brought up Babe Ruth. While the crowd must have been thinking home run, Ruth hit a cheap fly behind first base and by the time the right fielder caught up with it, everyone was safe and the bases were filled for Gehrig. Lou banged a liner to center and Styborski ran home followed by Morehart. Ruth advanced to third. Pruhomme was rattled by this time and walked Durst to load the bases again, and it was only a well executed double play off a Lazzeri hit that ended the inning. 

Since it was an exhibition game and Huggins wanted to see what his other youngsters could do, the fifth inning was to be Styborski's last of the day. He got Webb to hit an infield out to short, then got Jacobson to hit a foul ball down the third base side that Wera raced over to snag. He put Tony Rensa on with a walk, who promptly stole second off the youngster. Lamotte then hit the ball right at Morehart at second who threw to Ruth at first to end the inning. Styborski walked off the mound, took his glove off and left his final game as a New York Yankee.

A few days later, Miller Huggins finished the evaluation of his collegiate pitcher and sent him back to New York to gather his things: he was headed to the Easton Farmers of the Class D Eastern Shore League. Facing somewhat easier opposition, Styborski got into 12 games and finished with a 4-3 record. After the season ended he entered dental school in St. Louis. While professional baseball was a dream come true for most American boys, Joe Styborski desired to become the first doctor in his family. He returned to baseball every summer after school ended, steadily climbing his way up the minor league ladder. Moved up to Hartford in 1928, the year started off terribly when manager Paddy O'Connor took a dislike to the budding dentist and did a number on his confidence by yanking him every time he walked a batter. Styborski said he became scared to cut loose, lest he miss with a fastball and be pulled from the mound. Mercifully he was traded to Albany. Senators skipper Bill McCorry took the pitcher aside before his first game and told him he was the starting pitcher and was sticking with him for nine innings, no matter what. The show of confidence worked and Styborski began to win. He salvaged his season with a 13-9 record including 4 shutouts. In 1929 he turned in a stellar 19-5 season to become the ace of the Albany staff. Then, as before, he returned to dental school.

Styborski played one more season of pro ball, going 11-10 with three different teams. There his baseball record ends and his dental career began.

After he graduated dental school, the former pitcher relocated to Woonsocket, Rhode Island and opened his own practice. He and his wife Helen had 2 daughters. It was his grandson who was watching CNN in 1993 and heard that Mark Koenig, the last member of the 1927 Yankees had passed away. That was incorrect he knew, because his grandfather Joe Styborski was alive and well. Thus, a former ball player emerged from the shadows of baseball history, correcting over half a decade's worth of mis-identified photograph captions. Not unknown, not Walter Beall or even John Stiborski

It was Joe Styborski.

There's a companion piece to this story, which traces my creative process when researching, writing and drawing. It can be seen here.



2 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this wonderful bit of research. I've heard bits and pieces about Mr. Styborski over the years since he was first briefly mentioned in the GH Fleming book on the team. It's always fascinated me that so many "official" photos still list him as "unknown." (Or as you said, Walter Beall.) So glad you finally gave him his due.

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  2. Brilliant! Joseph's father (Antoni) was the brother of my paternal great grandfather (Ignacy). I knew he played ball but never imagined any of this! If only he had gotten the team to sign a few balls for the family!

    Thank you!
    M Styborski

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