Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mustaches, Firemen and Hard Luck in the World's Series

On Saturday, the Neshanock made their third annual visit to South Bound Brook to take part in an event organized by Flemington's own Harry "Cappy" Roberts in support of the local fire company of which "Cappy" is a proud member.  This year Flemington took on a team made up of members of the fire company who worked hard at picking up the differences between today's game and the 1864 version.  The locals played well in the field, but not surprisingly Flemington was in charge throughout on the way to a 15-3 victory.  One of the highlights for the Neshanock (or at least for one member) came before the game even started, during the inaugural "Mr. Mustache" competition which was won by our own Dave "Illinois" Harris.  The accomplishment, which "Illinois" assured me came amidst very heavy competition, led to a number of suggestions for a new nickname for the veteran Neshanock first baseman, but it sounds like there will be no change in that department.  The match was also graced with the presence of Marjorie Adams, great granddaughter of the legendary, "Doc" Adams of the Knickerbockers who played such an important part in the early development of organized competition.

Sherry Smith in the 1916 Brooklyn Superba uniform

In the match itself, Flemington was led offensively by Danny "Batman" Shaw, Dan "Sledge" Hammer and newcomer Brian "Spoons" LoPinto.  Going into his last time at the striker's line, "Batman" was flirting with his second consecutive clear score only to be turned away on a fly ball to left field, one of his longest hits of the day.  "Sledge" had another multi-hit game and was never retired by the opposition successfully earning his second clear score of the season, after just missing last weekend in the second Elkton match.  "Spoons" playing for the second time with Flemington had three hits and scored all three times.  Flemington again played solid defense behind the combined pitching of "Batman" and Bobby "Melky" Ritter.  Next weekend the Neshanock will head far north for the New England Vintage Base Ball Festival in Cornish, Maine.  A good turnout is expected and everyone is looking forward to the trip with matches on both Saturday and Sunday.  Pictures and details of the matches will be available right here no later than the following Tuesday.

Dave "Illinois" Harris 

In addition to working on the Ebbets biography, I have been finalizing my contributions to some other projects.  For one of them, I've been looking at contemporary newspaper accounts of the 1919 World's Series, (that's how it was spelled in those days) looking specifically at how sportswriters who didn't know the fix was in, accounted for the questionable play of the White Sox.  One interesting pattern was how some writers claimed that two of Chicago's pitchers and co-conspirators, Ed Cicotte and Claude Williams were hard luck losers.  In Cicotte's case it was due to losing a game where all the Red's runs were scored in one inning while for Williams it was because he allowed only four hits in each of his first two starts and still lost both times.  Of course, after almost a century of 20-20 hindsight, we know hard luck had nothing to do with it, but it was interesting that some writers actually considered the two to be among the hardest luck pitchers in the first two decades of the World's Series.  Thinking about that while working on the 1920 fall classic for the Ebbets biography made me think of a far better candidate for the pitcher with that dubious distinction, both before and since, one Sherrod "Sherry" Smith of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a player probably unknown to most.  This opinion is based not on a scientific study, in fact it's not based on any study at all, but just knowing about Smith's misfortunes in the 1916 and 1920 fall classic makes it hard to believe anyone got less support from his teammates.

After pitching briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1911 and 1912, the left handed Smith joined Brooklyn for the 1915 season winning 14 games both in his initial season and in the pennant winning 1916 campaign.  Winning the pennant in 1916 brought Brooklyn into the World's Series against the defending champion and heavy favorite Boston Red Sox.  After losing a tough 6-5 decision to Boston in the first game, the two teams took a mandatory Sabbath break before the second game on October 9th.  On the mound for Boston was a young left handed pitcher named Babe Ruth, making his first World's Series start.  Most writers thought Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson would counter with Larry Cheney or Jack Coombs, but supposedly because of the cloudy, overcast weather, the Brooklyn manager opted for Smith believing or hoping his fast ball would be more effective in the almost twilight like conditions.

Hi Myers of Brooklyn homering off of Babe Ruth in Game 2 of the 1916 World's Series

After Ruth retired the first two batters in the first, Brooklyn center fielder Hi Myers hit one that got in between Harry Hooper and Tilly Walker rolling all the way to the wall in spacious Braves Field, allowing Myers to circle the basis and give Smith a 1-0 lead.  The Red Sox's home games during the series were played at Braves Field because of the greater seating capacity.  Interestingly, the supposedly money obsessed Charles Ebbets was urged to make a similar arrangement for the Polo Grounds, but declined.  The 1-0 lead lasted until the third when Boston matched the Brooklyn tally aided and abetted by some sloppy fielding by the Superbas second baseman George Cutshaw.   That was all the scoring in regulation although Boston threatened in the ninth, putting 1st and 3rd with none out, only to be denied when Myers again played the hero, throwing out Hugh Janvrin at the plate attempting to score on a sacrifice fly.

Hi Myers throws out Hugh Janvrin at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning to save the game, for the moment.

As a result the game headed to extra innings with neither team able to score as the game went into the bottom of the 14th.  By this point even though the game had taken less than three hours, it was getting dark and this would clearly be the last inning.  Since a tie game would be replayed the next day, all those who had checked out of their hotels preparatory to an overnight train trip to New York were getting more than a little nervous.  Fortunately for them, but not for Smith and Brooklyn, Boston pushed across the winning run in what is still tied for the longest series games in terms of innings played, but took only 2 hours and 32 minutes.  All Smith had to show for his day's work was a loss even though he pitched 14 innings against the best team in baseball, allowing only seven hits and two runs while striking out Babe Ruth twice.  It has to be one of the hard luck losses of all time, but Smith was just getting warmed up in that regard.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 10, 1916

Fast forward to 1920 when Brooklyn again won the National League pennant with Smith winning 11 games with an ERA of 1.85.  1920 was the second of three consecutive World's Series which were best of nine affairs.  After the teams split the first two games in Brooklyn, Smith took the mound for the third contest at Ebbets Field.  After his 1916 experience, Smith probably felt he had to pitch a shut out to win, a feeling strengthened earlier that season when he pitched 19 innings against Boston and lost 2-1.  Smith didn't quite get a shut out against the opposing Indians, but he did limit the American League champion to three hits and one unearned run, just good enough to win when his teammates produced two runs, both in the very first inning.  At that point, Cleveland manager Tris Speaker pulled his starting pitcher, Ray Caldwell, replacing him with Duster Mails who held Brooklyn scoreless for the next 6 2/3 innings which should have been a warning to Smith and his teammates.  At least, however, the Brooklyn left hander had one series win to his credit.

A crucial double play in Smith's only World's Series victory - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 8, 1920 

The scene then shifted to Cleveland where the Indians won the next two games to take a 3-2 series lead.  The second of those two Brooklyn losses, the fifth game, is the one game of the 1920 series that most people know about since it saw two World's Series firsts, the first grand slam home run and the first, and thus far only, unassisted triple play by Cleveland second baseman, Bill Wambsganess.  However, Cleveland still needed two more wins and a Brooklyn win in game six would have tied the series and insured a return to Brooklyn.  So in this crucial spot, Sherry Smith more than rose to the occasion, allowing only one run even though according to Tom Rice of the Eagle, Smith's "fadaway was not dropping properly."  Smith was opposed by Duster Mails who in spite of a good year in 1920 had a remarkably mediocre major league career, but on this day shut Brooklyn out only three hits, thereby allowing Brooklyn no runs in 15 2/3's World's Series innings.   To make things even more frustrating for Charles Ebbets and Wilbert Robinson, they had released Mails after two ineffective seasons with Brooklyn.  But that was nothing compared to the frustration that Smith must have felt when he looked back on his three World's Series appearances.  The Brooklyn left pitcher had pitched 31 innings in the fall classic, allowing three earned runs for a .87 ERA, but had only one win to show for it because his teammates only scored three times..  Bad enough that once was against baseball's greatest player in Babe Ruth, but Duster Mails?  Talk about hard luck!

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