Friday, December 18, 2020

Year's End

 Last year's final post expressed more than a little uncertainty about the future of this blog.  After almost eight years of writing, first about early New Jersey baseball and then broader baseball history with a special focus on the Brooklyn Dodgers, I wondered if I had anything more to say.  The only thing I was certain about was that in 2020 the blog would report on every Flemington Neshanock game.  While some previous seasons had been plagued by rainouts, never did I think, a plague of a different kind would wipe out an entire season. If nothing else, it's a lesson, never to take things for granted.  Initially, when there was still some hope for a delayed season, I decided to fill in for the lack of Neshanock game accounts with the stories of late 19th or 20th century games that for various reasons seemed of interest.  As it gradually became clear the entire 2020 season was doomed, I continued that process with special emphasis on the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1920 National League championship season.  In retrospect, I wish I had thought about that anniversary much earlier to facilitate a more thorough job of covering an historic season which for whatever reason has never received appropriate attention.

Hall of Famer - Mike "King" Kelly

The pandemic also significantly reduced 2020 travel which meant there were fewer excuses to avoid yard work and other home related projects, but also considerably more time for research and writing.  In addition to the blog posts, I was able to complete four major projects, three of which won't see the light of day until some future date.  First up was the opportunity to write a "biography" of Ebbets Field for a Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) book about the 100 greatest games played at the beloved Brooklyn ballpark.  Since the Brooklyn Dodgers are of interest to a number of readers of this blog, I'll pass on information about the book when it is published.  The one project that was published in 2020 is another SABR related essay, but this time in digital format. Part of a new effort to tell the stories of defunct clubs, this essay describes the ownership of Ward's Wonders, Brooklyn's team in the short lived, but important 1890 Players' League.  One of four attempts between 1884 and 1914 to form a new major league, the Players League was an ill-fated attempt by players to compete against owners in club ownership.  Since the Brooklyn franchise went head to head with the Dodgers, it's part of the story of major league baseball in the City of Churches and I'm grateful to be able to make this further contribution to the literature.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 20, 1890

Once that was my complete, my attention briefly returned to New Jersey for a detailed look at the early baseball career of Mike "King" Kelly of Paterson who many regard as the greatest player of the nineteenth century.  Not a lot of attention has been paid to Kelly's early career so that an interesting and important story has been obscured by myths and legends which have little basis in fact.  The essay will appear in a future edition of Baseball: A Journal of the Early Game.  Not long after completing that project, I was asked to contribute some essays on the 1921 Brooklyn Dodgers to a SABR publication on the 100th anniversary of that season.  It wasn't an noteworthy season for Brooklyn since the team ended in 5th place, but writing about a consistently-inconsistent team was interesting.  I now find myself in an unusual situation where there is no backlog of baseball projects.  I am, however, working on a non-baseball project (are there such things?) that will carry over through the first half of next year.  After that, I'm not sure what's next both in general and in terms of this blog.  If there is a Neshanock season, and the 2021 schedule is pretty much set, the blog will cover the season.  Otherwise I'm not sure, but even after almost nine years, the blog platform is more, not less attractive and will likely continue in some way. In any event, thanks to all those who read the blog at some point this year, best wishes for the holidays, stay safe and let's hope for better things in 2021.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

"The Most Amazing Baseball Game Ever Played"

Daily News - October 11, 1920

"A million games and more have been played in baseball history; thousands have been thrillers.  But never, never since baseballing began have so many sensational incidents - so many bewildering plays - such colossal achievements been tossed into a combat as in the one of this afternoon."

Frank Menke - San Francisco Examiner- October 11, 1920

 "It was in many ways . . . the most remarkable [game] in the history of the sport since they played baseball in long pants and short whiskers."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1920

"The Indians established records that probably never will be exceeded even though the world's series go on to the end of time."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

"The most amazing baseball game ever played.  Two world's records and an important section of Brooklyn's spinal cord were broken."

Grantland Rice - New York Tribune - October 11, 1920

Not long after the Indians tied the 1920 World Series at two games apiece, Harry McHugh walked towards Cleveland's League Park.  McHugh was not there to celebrate the Indians' victory, but to be first on line for Sunday's fifth game, almost 24 hours and a chilly night ahead.  Over the course of the evening about 100 fellow fans joined McHugh and when the gates opened at 9:30 Sunday morning, the street reportedly resembled a city dump.  By 11:00, the bleachers were full, leaving anyone still outside with little alternative, but to go to the offices of Plain Dealer to follow the game on a large tally board while listening to "the big voice" describe the action.   An estimated 7,000 people took advantage of this option, filling the street with what was reportedly a good-natured crowd.  The city's love for their local heroes even spilled over into church services where sermons were reportedly interrupted by shouts of "Hurray for Tris [Speaker]."  Anticipation was at a fever pitch, but no one in their wildest dreams could have predicted what would happen on that beautiful fall afternoon. To commemorate the centennial of that remarkable game, this post, in the spirit of G. H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season, features the words of those who witnessed those historic events exactly one hundred years ago today.

Billy Wambsganss

No matter how chilly it may have been the night before, by game time Damon Runyan reported it was "another gorgeous day." It was so warm men removed their suit jackets and watched in shirt sleeves as Ivy Olson led off the game for Brooklyn.  After apparently endangering a few sports writers with foul balls, the Dodgers shortstop singled, but Indian starter Jim Bagby escaped the inning without any damage.  On the mound for the Dodgers was their ace Burleigh Grimes who had shut out the Indians in the second game.  Leading off for Cleveland was Charlie Jamieson (of Paterson, New Jersey) who hit a ball that reportedly bounced off Grimes and then past Dodgers first baseman, Ed Konetchy.  Jamieson was one of five .300 or higher hitters in a powerful Cleveland lineup that hit over .300 as a team in 1920.  Not among the heavy hitters, however, was the second batter, Billy Wambsganss so it's probably no surprise he was ordered to bunt.  After however, in the words of William McGeehan of the New York Tribune, "tapping more fouls than he has consonants in his name," Wamby, as he was popularly known, singled between third and short.   

Elmer Smith

At this point, however, Cleveland strategy took an interesting twist.  The Indians' .303 team batting average was just one sign of how baseball was transitioning from a low scoring game dominated by pitching to one where the home run was king.  Babe Ruth's almost unimaginable 54 home runs was another example.  Next up for Cleveland was player-manager, Hall of Fame bound, Tris Speaker who hit .388 in the regular season, the highest figure of his long career.  Perhaps not yet free of the Dead Ball Era mindset and mindful of the Indians lack of prior success against Grimes, Speaker elected to bunt the runners over.  This apparently came as no surprise to Brooklyn since all four infielders, along with catcher Otto Miller huddled with Grimes beforehand to discuss how to handle the situation.  Even sound strategy decisions, however, require execution and although Grimes was in perfect position to field the bunt, he fell down leaving "the bases drunk" with no one out.   Never one to miss the opportunity for an irreverent, and in this case unkind, comment, Ring Lardner claimed the Dodgers strategy conference "decided that when Speaker bunted, Grimes was to sit down on the grass and get a good rest."


 Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

Batting cleanup for the Indians was right fielder Elmer Smith.  Although he was no Ruth, Smith led the team in home runs (12) while hitting .316 and the stage was set:

"He [Smith] appeared nervous and missed the first two balls by a foot.  Never did a pinch hitter look so helpless.  Grimes smiled and tried to fool him with a bad ball.  Smith refused to take the bait."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger - October 11, 1920

The next pitch "went to Smith high and perfectly straight, when Grimes designed it to be lower and dip downward.  Such perfectly straight pitches are the constant menace to a spitballer and  experienced batters greet them with exceeding vim."

Tom Rice, Brooklyn Daily Eagle

"He [Smith] obtained the perfect toehold and swung with every ounce of strength, up and up went the ball, over the infield, over the right fielder Griffith, over wall and screen, over Lexington Avenue, finally falling on the opposite side of that thoroughfare.  The huge throng leaped to its feet and cheered him every step of the way."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

"When [a player] hits a homer with the bases loaded [in the World Series] then is the time the dictionary seems to lack words with which to describe the thrills the feat has sent coursing through the veins of the spectators."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer - October 11, 1920

"The game was held up several minutes to clear the field of bleacherites who fell out of their seats.  They landed on their heads, ears, backs and everything else, but were supremely happy.  No could blame them for that."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger - October 11, 1920

The roar of the crowd "was louder and more earnest than the cries of all the Chambers of Commerce in the country assembled."

William McGeehan - New York Tribune

Fans "perched perilously" on roof tops outside the park on Lexington Avenue, "with complete recklessness," rose and danced on the roofs, hugging one another and beating one another over the shoulders."

By the tally board on 6th Street, there was "a shout of joy which brought hundreds of late comers on the run down side streets." The street itself "seemed to surge and sway in the great wave of color and sound and excitement." 

Richard Harding - Plain Dealer

With one swing of the bat Smith not only gave his club a 4-0 lead, he became the first player to hit a grand slam home run in the Fall Classic.  World Series home runs were rare, only 29 had been hit in the previous16 series combined and just one in the prior two series. Grimes got out of the  inning without any further damage, but the four run lead put immense pressure on the Dodgers.  Brooklyn responded poorly as base running blunders in both the second and fourth innings wiped out opportunities to score.  Cleveland's fourth opened with "Doc" Johnston singling off Grimes shins and then moving to third with one out.  Next up was Indian catcher, Steve O'Neil with his .321 batting average, followed by pitcher Bagby.  Understandably, the Dodgers decided to walk O'Neil intentionally and take their chances with Bagby.  Understandable as it may have been, however, sound strategy once again blew up in the Dodgers faces when Bagby hit a home run into the temporary bleachers in right field.  Some writers claimed that without the temporary stands, the ball would have been an out, at most a sacrifice fly, but that did Brooklyn, now down 7-0, little good.  It was also another record as Bagby became the first pitcher to hit a home run in the World Series.

Daily News - October 12, 1920

Clearly it wasn't Grimes' day and after allowing a hit to Jamieson, he was replaced by  Clarence Mitchell, the "only left handed spit ball pitcher in captivity," who retired the side without any additional scoring.  The Dodgers did not give up, however, continuing to hit Bagby hard.  Pete Kilduff led off with a single to left and moved to second on a base hit by Brooklyn catcher Otto Miller, bringing up good hitting pitcher Mitchell.  With first and second and no outs, the stage was again set for an historic moment.

"Mitchell, a wicked batter, had drawn two balls and a called strike when he landed on a shoot from Bagby's right-handed delivery for what he declared later was one of the hardest swings he has made this season.  Kilduff and Miller had started with the crack of the bat, and justly so, for the blow had all the earmarks of a double or triple.

The ball shot like a bullet to the right of Wambsganss and about four feet over his head.  Wambsganss took the three steps toward second on the run, leaped as high as he could, and caught the ball squarely in this gloved hand."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 11, 1920 

"Wamby seized up the situation in a glance.  He never worked faster, and with a keener knowledge of conditions in his life.  He was touching second with his foot in much less time than it takes to tell it and inside the next fraction of a second, he had targeted Miller who never had a chance to turn about and regain first base."

Henry Edwards - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

Daily News - October 12, 1920

"The triple play was forced upon him when, after catching the fly and touching second base, he found Otto Miller who had been on first, on the point of colliding with him.  Then he woke up.  He promptly planted the ball on Otto's belt and the great deed was done."

"Uncle Wilbert Robinson declared later that he had given no hit and run order, and Mitchell, Miller and Kilduff said that they had not staged one on their own account."

Tom Rice - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1920

"For a few seconds the crowd scarcely could realize what had happened.  Everybody got to his feet, drew a long breath and then figured the play out for himself before letting out a great yell.  As the Cleveland team walked off the field, the cheering rose steadily in volume until Wambsganss stepped down into the Cleveland dugout."

"There were many present who saw Neal Ball then playing shortstop for Cleveland make the first of such plays."

Richard Harding - Plain Dealer- October 11, 1920

"Men and women were hugging each other without waiting for an introduction."

Robert Maxwell - Evening Ledger

"It was the 1st time in world serious history a man named Wambsganss had ever made a triple play assisted by consonants only."

Ring Lardner - San Francisco Examiner - October 11, 1920

"The vital statistics show that triple plays unassisted are rarer in baseball than judgment in baseball magnates."

William McGeehan - New York Tribune- October 11, 1920

It is the Kohinoor of plays in the big leagues, rarest of the rare."

Damon Runyan - San Francisco Examiner - October 11, 1920

The Kohinoor is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world (105.6 carats) and is now part of the British crown so if Runyan was exaggerating for effect, he certainly picked a good metaphor.  It is more than a little ironic that at least some of the fans present had reportedly previously seen an unassisted triple play by Cleveland's Neil Ball's in 1909.  Nor did the irony end there, since four of those involved in the 1909 game were present - two on the field and two in the stands.  Watching, doubtless from good seats, were baseball legends Cy Young and Napoleon Lajoie, the pitcher and manager for Cleveland when Ball pulled off his historic play.  On the Boston side of that event were Larry Gardner and Tris Speaker, now experiencing being on the good side of the play and on a much larger stage.  All told there have been only 16 unassisted triple plays in major league history, all but one of which were made by infielders.  It is perhaps baseball's rarest play even more infrequent than perfect games (23).

At a time when most fans still got most of their game information from newspaper accounts, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recognized that in this case mere words were insufficient.  

Needless to say there was no hope of a Brooklyn comeback and Cleveland prevailed 8-1.   At first glance Grantland Rice's claim the game was "the most amazing ever played," may seem a little extreme considering it was about as one sided as it could have been.  However, Tom Rice of the Eagle put things in perspective, noting that no batter can achieve more in one at bat than a grand slam home run and no player in the field can accomplish more than an unassisted triple play.  Cleveland had achieved both "the extreme of attack" and the "extreme of defensive" play not only in the same game, but in a World Series game at that.  The odds of both happening in one game have to be so remote as to be beyond calculation.  Most likely as they thought about if over the years, the players on both teams as well as the fans,  must have been grateful just to have been there.  That certainly had to be the case for the Dodgers Jack Sheehan, who filled in at third base for the injured Jimmy Johnston.  It was Sheehan's first major league game in a career that lasted all of eight games, three of which were in the 1920 World Series.  He and everyone else who were there doubtless thought William McGeehan of the New York Tribune put it mildly when he said "It was a crowded hour and three quarters."

Thursday, October 1, 2020

At the Ball Field (Finally)

 Over my seventy plus years, I've been to a fair number of ball fields beginning with the Alps Road School in Wayne, New Jersey to 25 major league parks (multiple parks in some cities), including some unusual places like Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam on Christmas Day, 1971.  A dozen years of helping to recreate nineteenth century base ball has not only increased the total number, but taken me to some places even the game's pioneers would have had a hard time envisioning as playing surfaces.  As a result, 2020 has been a difficult year for me and so many others who count on spending at least some time on a ball field.  Just, however, when I thought the year would be a total washout, in a grace filled moment, Carol and I had a chance to watch our granddaughter, Sophie Zinn play softball in Acton, Massachusetts in just her second game against real pitching.  That by itself would have been more than sufficient, but we got to see her first two hits as well as make her pitching debut.  Let's hope it's an omen that all of us will be able to get back to/on the ball field in 2021.

Poised at third, ready to run home at a moment's notice.  Needs a  little work on touching the plate before heading to the bench.

Ready for anything (more or less) at the hot corner

Pitching debut

About to get her second hit of the night, note the size of the opposing pitcher

Ready to celebrate a big night on the ball field

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Just About"

Anyone who thought pennant fever in Brooklyn would subside when fans returned to work on Monday was in for a rude awakening, especially those who assumed there was no rush to get to the ball park for the doubleheader against Chicago.  William Granger of the Brooklyn Citizen admitted that the Jewish New Year accounted for some of the crowd, but even so, for the fire department to close the gates on a Monday was "something brand new in baseball."  When the gates were shut around 2:00, a large crowd was still milling around Ebbets Field, growing by the hundreds with the arrival of each trolley car.  Nor was mass transit the sole means of access.  There were so many cars parked for blocks around the ballpark, Granger thought it looked like "all the automobiles in Greater New York were at Ebbets Field."  Among those still outside the ballpark were both Charles Ebbets, Sr and Jr., accompanied by the local district attorney.  Reportedly it took "some wild telephoning from a nearby candy store" before the three gained admittance.  Once they finally got inside some fans grabbed the senior Ebbets' straw hat and threw it on the field in anticipation of a another day of boisterous celebration.  Total attendance was estimated at 26,000, the third consecutive crowd over 25,000 doubtless bringing a lump to Ebbets throat not to mention his wallet.

Charles Ebbets in the obligatory summer straw hat 

As optimistic as the fans may have been, their team faced a major challenge in the first game against Grover Cleveland Alexander who had already beaten Brooklyn four times in 1920.  After the Cubs scored once in the top of the first, Jimmy Johnston blasted a triple only to be thrown out trying to stretch it into an inside the park home run.  Although it was a missed opportunity, Johnston's hit was a sign that Alexander might be vulnerable and the Dodgers took advantage in their half of the second.  Zack Wheat walked and then raced home with the tying run on Hi Myers triple.  Myers scored on Pete Kilduff single and the Brooklyn second baseman soon scored himself, giving Brooklyn a 3-1 lead.  After retiring Chicago without run in the third, Jeff Pfeffer helped his own cause with an RBI single and kept the Cubs at bay until the ninth.  Brooklyn added two more in the bottom of the fifth, keyed by a triple by Wheat that knocked Alexander out of the game.  The Dodgers added another run in the eighth and Brooklyn prevailed 7-3.  

Not every play worked out for Brooklyn, here the Dodgers' first game, second inning rally ends when Ernie Krueger is tagged out by Grover Cleveland Alexander, trying to score on Ivy Olson's foul out.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 14, 1920

Rube Marquard started the second contest for Brooklyn and got in trouble almost immediately when Max Flack doubled with one out.  Next up was Dave Robertson who hit a grounder that looked like a hit until Pete Kilduff made a "circus stop."  Ray Schmandt took Kilduff's throw at first to retire Robertson and then threw Flack out at home to complete a sensational double play.  Having dodged that bullet, the Dodgers quickly got on the scoreboard when Ivy Olson tripled in the bottom of the first and scored on Jimmy Johnston's single.  Brooklyn added two more runs, but Marquard, who Tom Rice of the Eagle felt had a "feeble look," gave up two runs in the fourth. Wilbert Robinson removed Marquard for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning and the Dodgers got the two tallies back.  Al Mamaux took over on the mound and pitched five shutout innings, but incredibly did not get the win.  According to the rules of the day, the official scorer decided who deserved the win which in this case went to Marquard.  Although Rice disagreed with the decision, he took a philosophical approach, doubtless because the official scorer was his boss, Abe Yager.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 4, 1920

The Dodgers coasted to a 7-2 win behind timely hitting and what Rice called their "snappy defense."  Not about to give up their new found way of celebrating, fans responded to a Zack Wheat catch with another shower of straw hats.  To make the day even more rewarding, the Reds lost again, this time to Philadelphia and trailed Brooklyn by five full games with less than three weeks to play.  Although the Giants defeated the Cards, they too were five back and it's no wonder, Rice claimed Brooklyn had "just about" clinched the 1920 National League pennant.  The other two teams hopes hinged on the Dodgers losing some games and the Brooklyn club refused to cooperate. The Dodgers went 10-4 the rest of the way and clinched the pennant on September 27th.  All told, Brooklyn went 23-6 over the last month of the season, an almost .800 winning percentage.   Not only had the Dodgers won the pennant, they made Eagle sports editor, Abe Yager, a prophet, coming only one game short of his prediction the club would win 94 games.  Now, however, Brooklyn fans were concerned about another set of predictions - forecasts of how their Dodgers  would fare against the Cleveland Indians in the 1920 World Series.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Going Up"

 By midday on Saturday, September 11, 1920 pennant fever was running rampant in Brooklyn.  Perhaps the tipping point was the dramatic win over the Cardinals the day before or the attraction of two games for the price of one against St. Louis on Saturday.  Regardless of the reason, Dodger fans flocked to Ebbets Field by the thousands.  Crowd estimates ranged from 25,000 to the New York Tribune's unlikely 33,000 with another 10,000  reportedly turned away.  Those fortunate enough to get inside took full advantage of the temporary bleachers in left field while those unable to get tickets risked life and limb for a view of the action from nearby roofs and walls.  Sadly, the combination of the large crowd and Brooklyn's trolley strike led to a tragic accident outside the park.  Not long after the first pitch, disaster struck at the intersection of Flatbush and Malbone which was "thick with fans." A trolley car "jammed to the running boards," operated by a strike breaking motor man, crashed into another car stopped on the tracks.  The area quickly "resembled a battlefield" with one fatality and 87 injuries, at least four of which were reportedly serious.   

Evening World  - September 14, 1920

Although certainly not as serious as the injuries outside the park, the Dodgers suffered an injury of their own when first baseman, Ed Konetchy hurt his finger during pre-game practice.   Taking his place was Friday's surprise hero, Ray Schmandt who wasted no time showing the prior day's clutch hit was no accident, contributing two hits to the Dodgers' first game attack.  Brooklyn fans might not have noticed Schmandt's contribution amid all the offensive fireworks as the Robins pounded out 20 hits in route to a 15-4 victory. The Dodgers reportedly took added motivation from Cardinal manager Branch Rickey's claim that some Brooklyn players had offered the Cardinals "a big sum" if they beat the Giants in the next series.  Coming amidst the shock waves of the Black Sox scandal, the charge understandably"rankled in the minds of Robbie's men." Whatever the reason, the Dodgers took full advantage of rookie pitcher George Lyons, scoring five times in the first inning.  The early offensive outburst also got the crowd into the game and reportedly "not once during the first game did the cheering let up" while the "field was [once again] turned into a dumping ground for straw hats."    

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 12, 1920

Meanwhile up in Boston, the second place Reds were playing two games with the seventh place Braves.  The day didn't get off to a good start for Cincinnati when starting pitcher Dolph Luque suffered from "almost inhuman wildness," loading the bases with two walks and a hit batter in the first inning.  The Braves quickly took full advantage, scoring three times.  Fortunately for the Reds, Luque recovered his control and shut Boston out for the next six innings.  The Reds rallied for four runs in the fifth and led 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth.  Boston loaded the bases with two out, but when Hod Ford hit a routine ground ball to third baseman Heine Groh, it looked like the Reds were out of the inning.  To everyone's surprise, usually sure-handed Reds first baseman, Jake Daubert dropped the throw and by the time he picked it up, Ford was over the bag.  Since Boston had sent the runners on the pitch, both the tying and go ahead runs scored.  Cincinnati went out 1-2-3 in the ninth and the Reds had dropped a full game further behind Brooklyn.

Boston Globe - September 12, 1920

Things didn't get any better for Cincinnati in the second game as Joe Oeschger, the Braves pitcher in the Dodgers - Braves 26 inning game, shut the Reds out 2-0 on seven hits.  In 18 innings of baseball the Reds had managed to score in just one inning.  200 or so miles south, a similar pitching duel was shaping up at Ebbets Field between Lou North of the Cards and Sherry Smith of Brooklyn.  Smith helped his own cause in the third, doubling and scoring the only run he would need on Jimmy Johnston's triple.  A Zack Wheat home run added an insurance run, but the most important support the Dodgers gave Smith was on defense. Especially noteworthy were the unsung Schmandt and oft criticized shortstop Ivy Olson.  Twice Schmandt made throws from "almost impossible angles" to Smith covering first and then followed those fielding gems with a "sensational one hand stop" to finish off a double play.  Also excelling was Olson who made 13 assists and one put out, participating in more than half of the Cards outs.  It was the best defensive performance of the season, helping Smith to a five hit, 2-0 shutout, putting Brooklyn three full games ahead of the Reds.    

Temporary left field bleachers installed by Charles Ebbets

Just two years earlier the Dodger players and fans would have been forced to take a mandatory Sabbath break from the pennant race, but by 1920, in no short measure thanks to Charles Ebbets, Sunday baseball was legal in New York.  Shortly after noon, hours before game time, large crowds once again headed "Flatbushward." Also in the stands were Greasy Neale and Larry Kopf of the Reds, idle that day because of Sabbath prohibitions in Pennsylvania.  The two players thought or hoped Cubs pitcher Hippo Vaughn offered a legitimate hope of stopping the Dodgers onslaught, but their journey and hopes proved to be in vain.  Having contributed in offense in one game on Saturday and defense in the other, Schmandt put it all together on Sunday afternoon.  The game was scoreless going to the bottom of the fifth when he drove in the game's first run with a single. The tally was all spitballer Burleigh Grimes needed, but Brooklyn added four more just to be sure.  

Although taken four years earlier, this picture from the Eagle shows the popularity of straw hats at Ebbets Field - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - August 13, 1916

Schmandt was even better on defense, handling 17 chances flawlessly at first base.  According to Rice,  the new Dodger star "went a mile over his head, to his right, to his left and between his toes," to save a half dozen errors or scratch hits.  Again fielding admirably was Ivy Olson who recorded seven assists and three put outs without a single error.  Ably aided by such stout defense, Grimes allowed only four hits, earning his 21st win in the process.  To make the day complete, fans provided the now obligatory shower of straw hats in the sixth when "several dozen" "flew on the field."  Apparently tired of returning the hats to the stands, Charles Ebbets decreed that henceforth, any hats thrown on the field would go to the local old men's home.  All told, it was an enjoyable 90 minutes for the Dodgers and their fans, magnified even further by the Giants 6-2 loss to the Cardinals which put New York 4 1/2 games back of Brooklyn.  No information survives as to how Kopf and Neale enjoyed their experience as fans as Ebbets Field, but falling 3 1/2 games back made the hill they had to climb even steeper.  As Tim Rice aptly put it, Brooklyn's pennant chances were clearly "going up."

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"The Most Thrilling Ball Game Ever Staged in Brooklyn"

Exactly 100 years ago today, the Brooklyn Dodgers were in first place, although only by a single percentage point.  By this point in the season there was no question the Dodgers were a legitimate pennant contender, but it was less clear whether pennant fever had taken hold in Brooklyn.  Only about 6,000 fans passed through the turnstiles at Ebbets Field for that day's game with sixth place St. Louis, attendance painfully reminiscent of the small crowds during the dramatic 1916 pennant race.  Perhaps it was because it was a weekday or possibly the attraction of two upcoming doubleheaders kept the crowd down.  No matter how low the actual attendance, however, this was a game where the number of people claiming to have attended would dwarf those who were actually there.  Tom Rice of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, who had seen plenty of exciting games in his time, called it "a game that will live for years in baseball history."  Even more exuberant was William Granger of the Brooklyn Citizen who gushed it was the "most thrilling ball game ever staged in Brooklyn."  Hyperbole, not doubt, but, as we shall see, it was not just an important contest in the pennant race, but an unforgettable game in its own right.

Brooklyn Citizen - September 11, 1920

After the Cardinals failed to score in the top of the first, the Dodgers faced St.Louis's Ferdinand Schupp.  Although Schupp was pitching for a second division club, he was 3-1 against Brooklyn thus far in 1920.  The Robins immediately threatened, however, putting two on with two out and Hi Myers at the plate.  The Brooklyn center fielder tripled, driving in two runs and scored himself a few minutes later on a passed ball.  St. Louis got one back in the top of the second on Rogers Hornsby's home run, but Rube Marquard was in control after that and led 3-1 going to the top of the seventh.  With one out, Cliff Heathcote tripled and scored on a ground out to shortstop Ivy Olson.  Still ahead by one run with two out and none on, Marquard made the fatal mistake of walking Schupp, the opposing pitcher. Joe Schultz followed with a single bringing up Cardinal first baseman, Jack Fournier.  After Marquard fell behind 2-0, Fournier correctly guessed fastball and the ball went "soaring over the right field wall" for a three run homer that Rice bitterly called "his first and last home run of the season" (Fournier hit three in 1920).

Brooklyn's "Biggest Individual Asset" - Henry "Hi" Myers

Fluke or not, the home run put Brooklyn behind 5-3 just when the Dodgers and their fans were counting on gaining a one-half game on the idle Reds and Giants.  Sherry Smith kept the visitors off the scoreboard the next two innings, but Brooklyn still trailed by two going to the bottom of the ninth.  The Dodgers got two men on, but with two outs they were down to their last chance and pitcher Smith due up.  Even though he had batted only 23 times all season, Ray Schmandt was Wilbert Robinson's unlikely selection to pinch hit.  So unexpected was the choice some fans supposedly called out "Who is that feller Robbie? (no numbers on the uniforms)." Schmandt fouled off at least seven pitches before making the most of his opportunity by hitting a sharp single to center, driving in a run and, more importantly, keeping the inning alive.  Brooklyn was still down a run, but Ivy Olson singled through shortstop, tying the game.  Overjoyed fans celebrated the dramatic comeback by throwing "perfectly good straw hats into the diamond by the dozen" and according to Rice, "the ex-wearers went home bare headed and proud of it."

Ray Schmandt - Brooklyn's Unlikely Hero

No one was going home just yet however.  Neither team scored in the tenth, but after Jeff Pfeffer retired the first batter in the eleventh, the visitors loaded the bases on three hits that never got out of the infield.  Perhaps unsettled by his misfortune, the Brooklyn pitcher walked Mike Knode, forcing in a run that Rice said "looked like $1,000,000 by the town clock."   Any Dodger fan who thought things couldn't get any worse was proven wrong when Joe Schultz singled in two more runs giving the Cards a three run lead.  Nor was the inning over as there were runners on second and third with only one out.  Brooklyn's big weakness was supposedly its defense, but the Dodger fielders stepped up in a big way.  Fournier grounded to first base and Brooklyn's Ed Konetchy threw out Knode trying to score from third.  Schultz had moved up third on the play, but Dodger catcher Otto Miller took care of him a few minutes later, picking the unsuspecting runner off third.

Long before he built Brooklyn's beloved "Boys of Summer," Branch Rickey was an unsuccessful field manager of St. Louis teams in both leagues

As gratifying (and necessary) as those plays were, the Dodgers again had their backs against the wall, this time needing three runs just to tie.  In the press section, Rice claimed St. Louis and New York sportswriters were already writing introductions to stories about a dramatic St. Louis victory. Brooklyn was far from done, however. Otto Miller opened the Dodgers ninth with a double, Pfeffer hit for himself and singled Miller to third.  Pfeffer was replaced by pinch runner Bill McCabe setting up the controversial play that seems to be almost obligatory in memorable games.  Olson grounded out to short and Miller scored, but as Olson passed Cardinal first baseman Fournier, the ball came loose allowing McCabe to go to third.  Both Robinson and Cardinal manager, Branch Rickey protested the play. The Dodger skipper claimed Olson was safe at first while Rickey argued that McCabe should be sent back to second because of interference by Olson.  Umpires Klem and Emslie conferred and reached a decision probably designed to equally please/displease both managers - Olson was out, but McCabe could stay at third.  He wasn't there long, however, as Jimmy Johnston drove him home with a sacrifice fly, but the Dodgers were still down a run with two out and no one on.

Brooklyn Eagle - September 11, 1920

The situation wasn't promising, but the Dodgers had already proven they wouldn't give up.  Bert Neis put the tying run on base by beating out an infield hit and Zach Wheat followed with "a wicked single" to right field.  Wheat's hit was so "wicked," it got past Joe Schultz and went all the way to the right field wall.  Neis scored easily and Wheat was on third with the winning run prompting another shower of straw hats from the fans.  Determined to prove he was indeed, the Dodgers "greatest individual asset," Hi Myers hit a grounder to deep short and charged down the first base line, "taking great risks of breaking his neck."  Hustling all the way, Myers "half sliding and half jumping," beat the throw to first, driving in Wheat with a run Tom Rice speculated/hoped "may bring a pennant to Brooklyn."  Fournier was so frustrated he threw the ball over the right field wall which probably went unnoticed by the fans pouring on to the field to congratulate their "Flatbush favorites." Whether it was the "most thrilling game ever staged in Brooklyn" was debatable, but no one in attendance would ever forget it.  More importantly, a tidal wave of pennant fever was about to engulf Brooklyn.    



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

1920 Pennant Race - The Story Thus Far

Historians have a natural tendency to attempt to categorize the past into specific time frames or eras.  While understandable, the practice sometimes has unintended consequences. A case in point is the 1920 baseball season which has become something of an historical stepchild.  It is just after the end of the Deadball Era (1901-1919), but not quite within the Yankee/Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig dominated Roaring 1920s.  The season is also overshadowed by two tragedies, the fatal August beaning of Cleveland's Ray Chapman by Carl Mays and the first revelations of the fixing of the 1919 World Series by Chicago's infamous Black Sox.  In the National League, the 1920 race was a three team affair where Brooklyn took on both the past (Cincinnati) and future champions (the Giants).  Perhaps one final reason, the 1920 season gets less attention, is the National League race didn't come down to the last day, weekend or even the last week.  In fact, the 1920 National League pennant race was effectively decided over four days in mid-September.  Beginning on September 10th (the 100th anniversary of the first game), a series of posts will explore how the Dodgers brought Brooklyn their second championship in four years.  But first a look at the season thus far.

Abe Yager Sports Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle predicted the team known interchangeably as the Superbas, Robins or Dodgers would win 95 games and the National League pennant.

Although it took three second division finishes, not to mention a World War, by 1920, Charles Ebbets had built a contenting club by making some sound additions to an already solid core.  Among the holdovers were two-thirds of the outfield, future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat and the underrated Hi Myers, who, Al Munro Elias, founder of the Elias Sports Bureau, considered "the biggest asset of the Brooklyn club."  In the infield, the shortstop was 35 year old Ivy Olson whose performance in the field was consistently inconsistent with, according to Elias, an "unhappy faculty of bungling when it hurt the most."  First base was occupied by Ed Konetchy, also in his mid 30s, acquired from Boston in 1919 after Ebbets traded his disgruntled star Jake Daubert to Cincinnati.  Although Konetchy hit only .236 for Boston in 1918, he resurrected his career in Brooklyn hitting .298 in 1919 and would top .300 in 1920.  As Elias noted, Ebbets "saved the player from the minors and he has more than repaid" the Brooklyn owner.  The other outfield position had been occupied by Tommy Griffith, but before the 1920 season, Griffith decided to give up baseball for the "stockbrokers game" which meant Jimmy Johnston had to play the outfield rather than third base making an already weak infield even weaker.  

According to Al Elias, Jimmy Johnston's play at third became "one of the outstanding features of the [1920] season."

As with their 1916 pennant winning club, pitching was Brooklyn's strength with holdovers Rube Marquard, Jeff Pfeffer and Sherry Smith well complemented by Burleigh Grimes, Al Mamaux and Leon Cadore of 26-inning fame.  Grimes and Mamaux were acquired from Pittsburgh after the 1917 season in exchange for another disgruntled Dodger, Casey Stengel (and George Cutshaw).  Since Grimes and Mamaux were coming off 3-16 and 2-11 seasons respectively, Ebbets took more than a little risk in making the trade.  The Brooklyn owner was doubtless relying on manager Wilbert Robinson's judgement which once again proved to be sound especially in the case of Grimes. With six capable starters, equally divided between left and right side, Brooklyn had pitching depth other teams could only dream about.  Although far from perfect, going into the season, the Dodgers were a contender with Abe Yager of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle not only picking Brooklyn to win the flag, but also predicting the club would finish with a 95-59 record.  Such optimism about the Dodgers chances was not limited to Brooklyn with Robert "Tiny" Maxwell of the Evening Ledger of Philadelphia claiming the team had a real chance if they could overcome their "wobbly" infield.   

Ed "Jeff" Pfeffer was a key member of the Dodgers pitching staff which was the team's greatest strength

The Brooklyn club got off to a good 8-4 start before the record setting frustration of playing 58 innings over three days in early May with only a 1-1, 26 inning tie to show for it.  Fortunately, since he used only three pitchers, Robinson didn't burn out his entire pitching staff and Brooklyn was in second place at the end of May.  The outlook improved even more when Griffith decided the stock market could wait and rejoined the team.  With Griffith in right field, Johnston went back to third where along with Konetchy at first, Pete Kilduff at second and Olson at short, Brooklyn had an infield which, although far from perfect, was by far the best combination available. Kilduff quickly became a fan favorite prompting roars of "Hit Her on the Nose Petey!" from the crowd.  The Dodgers climbed into first place in early June, but lost 8 of 11 games in a home stand against the western clubs, dropping to third place in the process.  In spite of the team's poor play in June, Brooklyn fans could take some solace from the National League standings which on July 1, 1920 reflected a wide open race with only eight games separating seventh place New York and the league leading Reds. 

Brooklyn shortstop Ivan (Ivy) Olson - when he was good he was very good.

Dodger first baseman, Ed Konetchy - note the spacious outfield before the 1931 construction  of Ebbets Field's left and center field bleachers

Brooklyn got back on track by winning seven of eight in early July and left on their second western trip only one-half game out of first.  At the time western trips meant playing 15 to 20 consecutive road games while spending days and nights on the railroad and in hotels, all without air conditioning.  The challenges posed by the travel alone made a .500 record more than satisfactory, but the Dodgers stayed hot, going 13-7 and moved into first place.  The Dodgers continued to struggle at home however and dropped back into second as they began the season’s final long road trip in late August.  Brooklyn continued to be competitive on the road and finished August in the lead, but just a scant half game over the Reds.  By that point the Giants had turned things around and it was now a three team race. John McGraw’s team was in a rebuilding mode and were hurt by the loss of their young star, Frankie Frisch to an emergency appendectomy. By September, however, Frisch was back in the lineup and it was a wide open three team race.

Even before the Dodgers had Hilda Chester and the Sym-Phony band, they had vocal (and eccentric) followers like Henry Greenblatt - Standard Union - September 27, 1920

Throughout the 1920 season, Brooklyn had played better on the road. Without hesitation, Tom Rice of the Eagle blamed the poor play at home on “a certain sort of Brooklyn fans” who “denounce them [the players - especially Olson] without mercy for the slightest misplay, and never hand them a word of encouragement, if things are breaking badly.”  In his many years of covering baseball, the writer claimed he had never seen a contending team treated as badly as the 1920 Brooklyn club.  Something had to change Rice insisted or “such fans will come pretty near, if not entirely, to costing Brooklyn a pennant,” which would be “unique in the annals of baseball.” Although only 6,000 fans showed up for the next home game, many had obviously gotten the message.  Rice praised the “change of attitude” to something akin to “the loyal rooting of a college football crowd.” The idea that fans could make that much difference is hard to accept, but regardless of the reason, the Dodgers turned things around at home, going 7-2 headed into a September 10th game with St. Louis.  Even with the improved play however Brooklyn was only 1/2 game ahead of Cincinnati with the Giants lurking a mere 2 1/2 games back