Wednesday, February 28, 2024

On the Field and In the Game

Although gone forever, early twentieth-century baseball fans are with us still, preserved in black and white photos dating back over a hundred years - a cloud of witnesses to the Deadball Era (1901-1919). As captured in these images, they were mostly white, male and neatly dressed – seemingly ready to attend something more formal than a baseball game.  The photos, however, regardless of the quality, don’t tell us much about what it was like to attend a game so many years ago.  Fortunately, however, the Chicago Daily News reporters who put together the “My Biggest Baseball Day” series, didn’t leave out the fans. Those memories, complemented by some players’ comments, reveal a ballpark experience very different from today, especially the opportunity to be on the field and to take part in the game itself. 

Part of the crowd at the Polo Grounds at the Merkle Replay Game of 10/8/1908 - George Bain Collection - Library of Congress

First of all, however, fans had to get to a game, something we take for granted, but which wasn’t so easy then.  Today only a small percentage of games conflict with the average fan’s work schedule. But during the early twentieth century, most were played during regular working hours.  The dilemma was even worse in the sabbath observing East, where major league baseball was illegal on Sunday.  Thus, only those with some control of their work schedule could even consider attending, which effectively ruled out most working-class people.  Baseball fans, however, have never lacked creativity, witness the many grandmothers who conveniently "died" right before big games.  When the 1909 Giants-Dodgers season opener was rained out, the Standard Union of Brooklyn observed that “there must have been a great many grandmothers’ funerals postponed yesterday on account of wet grounds.”     

Thomas Courtney, a 14-year-old student at St. Rita’s High School in Chicago, faced just such a challenge before the first game of the 1911 Cub-White Sox postseason city series. Courtney, a future State Attorney for Cook County in Illinois, knew two stockyard workers who got off work in time to attend the game but couldn’t purchase tickets in advance.  Pooling forces, the two men offered to pay Courtney’s way in, if he bought the tickets.  The offer was too good to refuse, but Courtney was supposed to be in school.  Sparing his grandmother, at least metaphorically, the young man opted to tell the truth to Father Egan, the head of the school, encouraged by knowing the priest was also a big baseball fan.  Honesty, in this case, was rewarded as Father Eagan “smiled and told me he didn’t see how he could deprive me of that opportunity.” 

Chicago Daily News - February 26, 1943

The fortunate Courtney didn’t mention what he and his friends did before the game, but for some fans, supporting their team began even before they arrived at the ballpark.  Charles Dougherty, another future Illinois State Attorney, remembered that it was customary for Cub fans to “escort” the hated Giants to the grounds.  Since visiting teams typically dressed at their hotel, they were easily identified in their bus or automobiles.  According to Dougherty, the fans hooted “at them [the Giants] from the sidewalks,” while “yelling insults at Muggsy McGraw.”   Dougherty was only present because he had the good fortune to be a mail clerk at the American Express Company, one of the few Chicago businesses to give their employees Saturday afternoon off. 

As satisfying as it was to harass the opposition, hardened veterans like McGraw’s Giants were immune to verbal abuse so the “hooting” and “insults” had no impact on the game itself.  Once inside the grounds, however, Deadball Era fans directly participated in the game in ways unthinkable today.  Especially unique, and historic, was the part played by Pittsburgh Pirate rooters, during the second game of the 1909 World Series.  Hall of Fame umpire, Billy Evans chose this, his first World Series game as his most memorable day in baseball in the Chicago Daily News series.  

Hall of Fame Umpire - Billy Evans

In the bottom of the first inning, Pittsburgh’s "Dots" Miller hit a ball down the right field line. The ball was clearly fair, but Evans, umpiring at home plate, didn’t see whether it bounced into the stands in fair or foul territory.  At the time, it mattered – a bounce into the stands in foul territory, was a double, but if it landed in the fair stands it was a home run. To make matters worse, only two umpires worked World Series games, and Evans' partner, Bill Klem couldn’t help him.  Not sure what to do, the two umpires along with Detroit Manager Hughie Jennings and Pirates skipper, Fred Clarke walked towards the bleachers.   

Prompted by a comment from Klem, Evans decided to ask the fans where the ball landed.  The Pirate fans, including the man who caught it, said it landed in the foul bleachers and was, therefore, only a double.  Faced with eyewitness testimony, from his own fans, Clarke was hard-pressed to argue, and Jennings wasn’t about to complain.  Not willing to press their luck with fan integrity, the National Commission immediately decided to use four umpires in future World Series games. 

Crowd Control, Deadball Era Style - Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1912

This was admittedly a very unusual situation. Far more common, were incidents of fans literally interfering with play, thanks to the owners’ desire to maximize their profits.  Ticket sales were by far the club owners’ most significant source of revenue at a time when seating capacity was limited, especially in the early 1900s.  Westside Park in Chicago, for example, the home of the Chicago Cubs, could seat only about 16,000.   To sell more tickets, fans were allowed to stand in the outfield behind ropes which theoretically kept them from interfering with the game.  The owners believed the benefit of the additional ticket sales for standing room on the field outweighed the risk of fan interference that could be controlled with ground rules and a police presence. 

Chicago Daily Tribune - August 18, 1912

However what sounded good in theory, didn’t always work so well in practice, especially for the players. Describing an important 1907 game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, Ty Cobb remembered that “There were fans, several rows deep, around the outfield, restrained by ropes and mounted police, and they weren’t the least bit friendly.”   Davy Jones, Cobb’s teammate, could attest to the unfriendliness. In the bottom of the eleventh, “dozens of paper balls thrown by the fans,” caused Jones to lose the real ball and allowed the Athletics to tie the game.   The number of missiles “fired” simultaneously, suggests this was not spontaneous, but a coordinated effort.

In talking about his “Biggest Baseball Day,” Charles Dougherty gave a detailed description of the ways fans in the roped-off sections interfered with a game.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it came in the middle of a Cubs – Giants game, a rivalry where passions always ran high, on August 17, 1912, at Chicago’s Westside Park.  New York was in first place, but the Cubs had closed to within six games and the contest was important to both teams.  While crowd estimates are notoriously inaccurate, Dougherty quoted reports by some observers that 8,000 fans were on the field behind the ropes.  

Charles S. Doherty - Chicago Daily News - March 20, 1943

Unwilling to stand there passively and hope their team would win, Dougherty and the other fans “would press back against the outfield walls” to give the Chicago outfielders more room when the Giants were at bat.  However, once the Cubs came to the plate, the crowd edged “halfway to second base” or that’s how Dougherty remembered it many years later.  Even if they didn’t get that close, the fans tried to help the Cubs by tripping the Giant outfielders or throwing their caps in the air to confuse them on fly balls. 

"Beals" Becker

John McGraw’s Giants weren’t going to tolerate interference from the Cubs fans. Dougherty claimed Giant center fielder, “Beals” Becker spit tobacco juice at them and threatened “The next ball that comes back in there I’m going to cut you to pieces with my spikes.”   Not the least intimidated, the fans dared him to try.  However, in the seventh, when Becker came in “feet kicking high,” the fans in his path wisely chose discretion, and backed away, enabling the Giant outfielder to make the catch.   Two innings later, in the bottom of the ninth, the fans not only got their revenge but helped the Cubs tie the game by preventing Becker from reaching a fly ball.  Over 30 years later, Dougherty claimed he could “hear yet the ragging we gave Becker and how he snarled and spit at us.”   

As the game headed to the 11th, the Chicago fans decided it was time to end the proceedings.  First, they “made a path for [center fielder Tommy] Leach” so he could catch Buck Herzog’s fly and keep the Giants off the scoreboard.   With a chance to win in the bottom of the inning, Johnny Evers hit the ball into the crowd standing in right field.  “Somehow,” Dougherty noted factiously, “the Red Sea didn’t open up for him [the Giants Red Murray] and he lost the ball.”   The next batter drove in the winning run, sending Dougherty and the rest of the crowd into a frenzy.  The fans had good reason to celebrate. Not only did their team win a dramatic victory, but they had helped them do it. It’s no wonder Dougherty recalled that “It was pretty late that evening before I remembered that there was such a thing as supper.”  Perhaps on this occasion, even the strictest parents understood.


Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Sunday at the Oval with Ray and Henry

Last fall, the Paterson Museum posted some digitized black and white baseball photos on their Facebook page, accompanied by a request for help with identification.  Identifying old baseball images can be a needle in the haystack type process, but this time, fortuitously, it was relatively simple.  Although it took more than one step, the key clue was the baseball socks worn by an unidentified New York City major league team.   A visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s always helpful "Dressed to the Nines" online exhibit revealed that only one New York team wore such socks – the 1917 National League champion Giants.  That discovery opened the door to the story of how two brothers, Ray and Henry Doherty, offered an incredibly rich baseball experience to fans in Paterson and surrounding communities.

 Except for the 1917 New York Giants team picture, all photos are the property of the Paterson Museum – some like the above have been cropped for enhanced viewing.  Click on the photos for an enlarged view.

While the individual pictures are interesting in their own right, collectively they tell, and preserve, a larger story about baseball over a century ago.  Ironically, at a time when major league baseball was the country's most popular sport, access to it was limited.  Not only were there just ten cities with major league teams, most games were played during fans' regular working hours.  This was especially true in the sabbath observing East, the only day most people had off from work.  It must have been frustrating for fans, especially younger ones, who loved baseball, but had little opportunity to see it in person.  Such, however, was not the situation in the greater Paterson area.  Thanks to the Dohertys, fans not only saw major league teams play, they experienced the full depth and breadth of early twentieth-century baseball. 

The Doherty brothers were the sons of Henry Doherty (1850-1915) an English immigrant who came to Paterson to work in the silk industry.  By the early twentieth century, his main business was the Henry Doherty Silk Company. In 1909 Doherty built a new mill in neighboring Clifton.  The building was reportedly the largest of its kind “under a single roof,” employing 700-800 workers. While no longer a silk mill, the building still stands today. Henry Sr. died in early 1915, leaving sons, Henry, or Harry as he was commonly known, and Ray, not only in charge of the silk business but also with the opportunity to pursue their passion for baseball.  While both men were involved, Harry was reportedly the leader.
Later that year, the two brothers built a baseball field with a wooden grandstand on an adjacent piece of property that became known as Doherty Oval.  Initially, the brothers fielded a typical company team, but a year later, they upgraded to a higher level of semi-pro baseball, calling the team, the Doherty Silk Sox.    Most of the games were played on Sundays when fans could attend.  Offering semi-pro baseball to the local community was important, but the Dohertys didn’t stop there.  They provided top-level baseball by spending the money necessary to attract high-level competition.  

To give a sense of the baseball experience at Doherty Oval, the museum has kindly agreed to share some of the images, beginning with pictures of the park itself.  

The above picture shows the covered wooden grandstand on the first base side.  Note the fire extinguisher on the far left, mandatory equipment for a wooden ballpark.  Also interesting is the wire netting, protecting the fans from thrown or batted balls.  The second tier of seating behind home plate was added early in the 1917 season.  Although located outside of Paterson, the field was readily accessible to city residents since “all Main Street cars and jitneys” passed the ballpark.   The band that played at most Sunday games was from the 5th Regiment, a unit preparing for service in World War I. 

Other than a few women in white in the first row of the second tier, the fans in this cropped version of the grandstand are almost entirely white males

This view of the left field stands is taken from the third baseline.  As was common at major league ballparks during this period, overflow crowds were permitted to stand or sit on the field in the deepest part of the outfield.  Unlike the major leagues, however, there weren’t any ropes to prevent them from interfering with the game.  Note the vendors, both in the stands and on the field.

This cropped version of the left field stands gives a sense of the crowd, again almost all male, white and well dressed, probably in their Sunday best.

Game action, against the Brooklyn Bushwicks on May 26, 1917.  In addition to the fans in the stands and on the field, a few boys were watching from trees behind the center field fence.  The Silk Sox players are Otto Rettig, pitcher, Shad Lewis, catcher, Fred Wherel, center field, Pete Grant, second base and Bobby Baxter, shortstop.  

This cropped version of the prior photo shows the quality of the infield grass at Doherty Oval.

A pre-game parade before the game with the Bushwicks.  The picture also offers a view of the right field stands, one level of covered seats with both a roof and a wire screen.  

During the 1917 season, the Dohertys gave their fans the chance to see the full range of professional baseball – major and minor league teams, Black clubs as well as top semi-professional teams.  Notable in the last category were the Brooklyn Bushwicks who visited the Oval on Sunday, May 26 and were soundly defeated by the home team, 7-0.  In addition to the Bushwicks, the Silk Sox also hosted top semi-pro teams from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

This picture, taken in the top of the eighth, shows an unidentified Bushwick player recording one of the team’s five hits.  Note the lack of uniform numbers which didn’t become the norm until the 1920s.  The picture also shows the scoreboard on the outfield fence.  The Silk Sox players are Bill Estes, first base, Otto Rettig, pitcher and Fred Wherel, center field.

A pickoff attempt at first base.  Eddie Girard is the Bushwick pitcher and Denny Mark is the first baseman.  While the runner is unidentified, the picture gives a good sense of the team’s uniform including the Doherty name.

Two weeks before the game with the Bushwicks, another Brooklyn team, visited Doherty Oval – the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a prominent Black club.  In promoting the game, the Paterson Morning Call acknowledged, some 30 years before Jackie Robinson, that “It is only their color that keeps them out of the big show.”   That was especially true of Louis Santop, the Royal Giants catcher, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  According to the Hall’s website, Santop was the “first Negro superstar.”   The star catcher hit .397 in 1917 for a team that according to the Seamheads database was the third best among the Eastern Independents. Unfortunately, as good as he was, Santop’s play that day, made little difference in an 8-1 Silk Sox win.

This wasn’t local fans' only opportunity to see Black clubs.  The Silk Sox also won two of three games from the Cuban Stars, the team ranked right above the Royal Giants.  Although it wasn’t on Sunday, fans able to attend Saturday games also got to see the best of the Eastern Independents, the Lincoln Giants on two occasions.  One game ended in a tie, but the second, unsurprisingly, was a defeat at the hands, or arm, of the Giants star pitcher Cyclone/Smokey Joe Williams, like Santop a future member of the Hall of Fame.  A 1952 poll taken by the Pittsburgh Courier, ranked Williams as the top Negro Leagues pitcher, slightly ahead of Satchel Paige.   By the end of 1917, Paterson baseball fans were well aware of what Black players could do on the baseball diamond.

The Brooklyn Royal Giants uniform was described as “checkerboard black and white plaid with red trimmings” with an American flag on the left arm.   The Royal Giants players pictured are Ernest Greenwood at first, Bill Handy at Second and Charles Earle, the team’s manager in center.

The Royal Giant batter is unidentified, the Silk Sox catcher is Artie Pickering.

The picture offers a front view of the Royal Giants uniform which appears to have Brooklyn across the chest.  The player is unidentified.  The Silk Sox in the picture are first baseman Bill Estes and second baseman Pete Grant.

While the semi-pro and Black opponents were talented, the most important attraction offered by the Dohertys was the opportunity to see major league teams in person.  During the 1917 season, local fans had the chance to see five of the sixteen major league teams with three National League and two American League teams making an appearance.  Four of the five, Boston and Pittsburgh from the senior circuit and the Athletics along with the Yankees from the American League were second-division teams.  But Paterson fans did get to see the National League pennant-winning Giants not once, but twice.

Needless to say, the second-division teams didn’t bring a lot of stars.  However, the fans did see Ping BodieStuffy McInnis and Home Run Baker at the end of their careers.  They also saw Wally Pipp before he, and almost anyone else, had heard of Lou Gehrig.  There was also the opportunity to honor Honus Wagner, one of the game’s greatest players and a local hero.  About to retire from baseball, Wagner and the Pirates visited Doherty Oval so the city could pay homage one more time to the Hall of Famer who once wore a Paterson uniform.  According to Wagner, he enjoyed his time in the city so much that “nobody can knock Paterson when I’m around.”   Over 5000 fans turned out for the occasion and Wagner was presented with a 72-piece silver set.  While the Silk Sox managed only one win against the major league clubs, they did so in dramatic fashion beating the Yankees 5-3 on Bill Estes' grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth.

It was understandable that the Silk Sox lost both meetings with the National League champion Giants, but the New York club had learned the hard way not to take the local team for granted.  Late in the 1916 season, the day after the end of the Giants' 26-game winning streak, a record that still stands, Silk Sox pitcher Otto Rettig shut out the New Yorkers 2-0. Of the two 1917 games, the more important was the July 8th contest.  Sportswriter, Sam Crane, a former major league player, used the occasion to raise money for Paterson's Jim McCormick, a great nineteenth-century pitcher who was in poor health.  With the Giants playing “gratis” and the Dohertys paying all the other expenses, the admission paid by 9000 fans generated a “tidy sum” for McCormick, reportedly just over $1600, no small amount at the time. 

1917 New York Giants 

The above floral wreath of an “American flag worked out in flowers” was presented to the Doherty brothers before the July 8th game with the Giants.  It was presented by Madison, New Jersey in thanks for allowing the Silk Sox to represent that community in the Tri-County League of semi-pro teams.

George Burns, Giants left fielder, hit .302 in 1917, the second-highest average on the pennant-winning team.  He led the National League in runs scored (103) and walks (75).

Germany Schaefer, a Giant coach in 1917, was renowned for entertaining the crowd with his comic antics.  After the Giants' May visit to Doherty Oval, the Morning Call observed that Schaefer “had the fans laughing from the time he arrived until he departed.”   

Although only a small part of the Sunday experience at Doherty Oval, these pictures capture the spirit of the baseball seen there at a time when attending a game in person wasn't that easy.  Those weekly adventures generated priceless memories for countless greater Paterson residents.  It’s a part of baseball history that deserves to be preserved and remembered.  Thanks to the Paterson Museum for doing that important work.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Ebbets Field Revisited

The last of my pandemic writing projects to be published is a "biography" of Ebbets Field which was the leadoff essay in the Society for American Baseball Research's (SABR) book Ebbets Field: Great Historic and Memorable Games From Brooklyn's Lost Ballpark.  It was a privilege and a pleasure to work on this project - by far the biggest challenge was to tell the story in 7000 words.  The essay itself is available at the SABR website.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Beating the Groundhog

Tomorrow, legend has it, a groundhog will determine the arrival of spring or at least the timing of more temperate weather. There are, however, less mythic harbingers of spring including signs the new baseball season is drawing near.  Best known are probably the dates later in February, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training.  Further down on the scale, but no less important to those involved, is the publishing of vintage baseball schedules for the upcoming season.  While it wasn't intentional, the Flemington Neshanock are getting a jump on both the groundhogs and the major leagues by releasing the details of our 2024 baseball odyssey today, February 1.

This is the fourth time I've worked on the Neshanock's schedule and the experience has been different each time.  What stands out about 2024 is how early the process began and how relatively easily everything fell into place.   A major reason the schedule comes together without too much difficulty is Brad Shaw's many years of cultivating relationships with venue hosts throughout New Jersey.  Thanks to Brad's labors, about half the locations are pre-determined and all that remains is to set the date. Once again, the Neshanock will visit Ringwood Manor State Park, Howell Living History Farm, Historic New Bridge Landing and the Dey Farm among others.  Also on tap, of course, is our annual trip to the National Nineteenth Century Baseball Festival in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  As a proud charter participant in this signature vintage baseball event, the Neshanock are grateful for everything the Elkton Eclipse does to make the festival happen.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Tuttle

The Eclipse are also on our  2024 schedule for two special occasions.  We are deeply honored to be Elkton's opponent for their 500th game on Sunday, April 28th.  Here again, the invitation is largely due to the help Brad Shaw provided to Elkton when they were getting started.  The weekend will also include matches with the Rising Sun Club on Saturday. Our second meeting with Elkton will take place at Babe Ruth Field in Delanco, New Jersey on September 7th.  The Neshanock have been part of each of the biennial observations of the day the Bambino played at the South Jersey field and, of course, hit a home run.  This year's game is the centennial of that event and we look forward to being part of the festivities.  There is another Ruth-related event in 2024 - a first-time visit to Greenwood Lake, New York as part of that community's centennial.   At one time, Ruth was a resident of Greenwood Lake.

Grandstand at Washington Borough Park - photo courtesy of Mark Granieri

The 2024 schedule includes matches with many old friends from the vintage baseball world.  Topping the list, of course, are the four other New Jersey clubs beginning with the Elizabeth Resolutes, the state's senior team as well as Monmouth Furnace, the Hoboken Nine and the New Brunswick Liberty.  Also from New Jersey is the Enterprise Club, our regular opponent at New Bridge Landing which will also provide the opposition at Greenwood Lake.  We also look forward to playing the Newtown Strakes, in our annual Memorial Day visit to Newtown, Pennsylvania.  For the second year, the Neshanock will teach nineteenth-century baseball to the younger generation by offering an on-the-field experience.  First up in early April will be a game with the USA Prime team, a youth club coached by our friend and sometime teammate, Nick Mendell.  We also look forward to returning to Washington Borough in Warren County to play the Warren Hills High School team.

As always 2024 will include a visit to Gettysburg - photo courtesy of Lauren Marchese Nunn

The match with the Warren Hills team will be played at Borough Park, a historic field with its own grandstand.  Playing at such sites is always enjoyable and the 2024 schedule also includes visits to Gebhardt Field in Clinton and Case Field in Holland Township.  For the May 18th event at historic Case Field, we are fortunate to be able to host two of the best vintage baseball clubs in the country - the Atlantics from Long Island and the Talbot Fairplays from Maryland.  It will be a full day of 1864 baseball with three matches beginning at 10:30 - a wonderful opportunity to see vintage baseball at its best.  There's much more that could be said about Flemington's 2024 schedule, our opponents and the venues.  But I hope this post gives a sense of what promises to be an exciting and enjoyable season.  Game times will be published each month on our website,  Please try to attend at least one match this year - I guarantee you won't regret it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Overlooking the Bambino

Exactly why "My Greatest Day in Baseball" was limited to 47 stories isn't clear, but it was obviously impossible to include the 175 or so that appeared in the Chicago Daily News.  Nor does any information survive on the selection criteria. Naturally, those choosing the stories wanted to, and did, highlight the memories of the greatest players of the first half of the twentieth century.  With so many to choose from, however, some very good players had to be left out. In addition, there were others, who had an interesting story to tell but didn't make the cut.  Such was the case with Tom Sheehan, 1894-1982, a journeyman pitcher if there ever was one.

Tom Sheehan

Over six seasons, Sheehan compiled an extremely unimpressive career record of 17-39 with a 4.00 ERA.  However, his poor record was at least partially due to having the misfortune of pitching for the 1915-1916 Philadelphia Athletics, two of the worst teams in major league history.  Over those two seasons, the Athletics won only 79 games for a winning percentage of just .259.  Sheehan wasn't even that good, however, going 5-25 including 1-16 in 1916.  He spent most of his post-playing career as a scout and minor league manager in the San Franciso Giants system. How then did Sheehan merit a place in the Chicago Daily News series of "Biggest Baseball Day" memories?  Sometimes, even very bad teams play important games with a story of their own and such was the case when the Athletics played the Boston Red Sox in the home stretch of the 1915 pennant race.

Tom Sheehan's "Biggest Baseball Day" as told to Hal Totten

It was a long time ago that I made my bow in the major leagues.  I’ve been a lot of places in baseball since then, and saw service with several big league clubs.  Some years were bad; and then some others were good, like 1925 when I was with Pittsburgh and we won the pennant [and the World Series.]

But somehow or other, when big days are mentioned, my mind just naturally drifts back to the first season I pitched in the American League.  Looking at it from one point of view, I don’t know why it should.   I joined the Philadelphia Athletics on July 9, 1915, and that was one of the sorriest ball clubs I ever saw.

But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the next year.  We still had such fellows as Jimmy Walsh and Amos Strunk and Stuffy McInnis in 1915.  But we had Nap Lajoie playing shortstop – he was an old man by then, and a second baseman by trade.  We had Rube Oldring, an outfielder playing third most of the time and Chick Davies, a former pitcher was trying to become an outfielder.

But, as I said, I guess that team wasn’t so bad.  The next year - - 1916 – we set a record that still stands by losing 117 games [the 1899 Cleveland Spiders lost 134 games].  I won one game that year and lost 16.  Think that’s bad?  Hell, Jack Nabors won one and lost 21 – 19 of ‘em in a row – and nobody’s touched that record since, either. [Retrosheet credits Nabors with 20 losses, but he did lose 19 in a row, winning his second start on April 22, 1916, before losing all his remaining starts.  It's not clear if Sheehan is claiming the 20 losses overall or the 19  in a row was a record, but neither was a record then or now].

Connie Mack

But in spite of all that, my first season with the A’s gave me plenty of thrills, and some of them still last.  My very first appearance on the mound for Philadelphia was on Ed Walsh Day here [in Chicago] at the White Sox park.  A chap named [Weldon] Wyckoff started that game and the Sox scored four on him in the first inning.  I pitched the next six innings and I shut ‘em out while I was in there. [Sheehan's first appearance was actually two days earlier when he pitched three shut-out innings in relief].

Then there was the first full game I ever pitched in the big leagues – that was a pretty good day, too [July 21, 1915]. I beat Detroit, 4 to 3, but they filled the bases on me in the eighth inning, with nobody out and no one but Cobb, [Sam] Crawford and [Bobby] Veach coming up next.  But I retired ‘em without a run scoring.  Cobb hit back to me and I threw the man out at the plate.  Crawford hit to Lajoie and he threw a man out at the plate; and I struck out Veach.  That wouldn’t be a bad day to pick as the big one.

But I’ll take Sept. 8, 1915, as my day, even though a faulty memory almost made it a bad one.   The game was played in Boston.  The Red Sox were in first place by a half a game over Detroit.  I’d pitched two days before against Washington so I naturally didn’t figure on pitching that day, and I was fielding bunts in front of the grandstand when Jack Lapp one of our catchers, came out and told me that Mr. Mack said I was going to pitch.

As I look back now, there’s one particular thing that makes this game my best performance – I had trouble with only one fellow all afternoon, and that was Larry Gardner. He made four hits off me that day.  And the first three didn’t hurt me at all.   But the last one – well, I’ll tell about that as we go along.

We got off to a one run lead in the second inning when Lew Malone singled and Jim McAvoy scored him with a double down the right field line.  But I went along in pretty good style, having an easy time of it, until the ninth inning.

In that round, Dick Hoblitzell singled with one out.  I retired Duffy Lewis to make it two out and then Gardner came up again. He got his fourth hit – a single to right that sent Hoblitzell to third.  Right then Oldring, McAvoy  and I held a consultation and we decided if they tried a double steal, we wouldn’t throw the ball through – either we were going to win or we were going to get beat by somebody getting a base hit. [While seldom used in the major leagues today, the first and third double steal was a staple of offenses during the Deadball Era].

Jim McAvoy - Sheehan's battery mate

Well, Gardner stole second all right, and McAvoy threw the ball back to me.  At bat was [Jack] Barry, a very pesky little hitter in those kind of places.  So I decided I wasn’t going to let Barry get a good ball off me to hit if I had to walk him.  I remember McAvoy telling me to keep ‘em outside to Barry – “give ‘im one inside and he hits to left and we’re beat,” he cautioned me.

So I kept ‘em away from him and got two balls and no strikes.  Suddenly Mr. Mack – and I can hear him yet – raises up on the bench and hollers for me to make him hit.  I couldn’t figure that out and neither could Oldring or McAvoy.  We figured they’d used both their pinch-hitters, [Olaf] Henriksen and  [Del] Gainer], and all they had left to bat for [Bill] Carrigan, who was next, were a couple of catchers, Forest Cady and Chet Thomas, and they didn’t figure to worry us.

But we’d forgotten that there was another guy on that bench, and apparently Mr. Mack remembered all about him, even though they were keeping him out of sight.  He was a fellow named Babe Ruth, remember?

Ruth had just come up for his first full season after he and Eddie Shore had pitched Providence to a championship the year before, and boy, he was one helluva pitcher.  And hit!  I remember him in batting practice in Philadelphia smashing ball after ball over the right-field wall and nobody else did that in those days.  He was hitting over .300 at the time, and I guess Boston wanted me to forget about him – they wanted me to walk Barry so they could get Babe up there.

Jack Barry - "A very pesky little hitter"

But as I say, I didn’t remember about Ruth – just then, anyway – and I didn’t give Barry a good ball, so I walked him to fill the bases.  Then to my amazement, out of the dugout popped Mr. Ruth and he walked up to the plate swinging about 10 bats to hit for Carrington.  I remembered him then, all right.

McAvoy had forgotten about him too.  So he came out to me and asked how I was going to pitch to this fellow.  “We gotta throw him a curve,” I said.  “He can murder a fast one.”  So I broke off a pretty good strike, but Silk O'Loughlin thought otherwise and called it a ball.  In those days I didn’t have very good control and was liable to walk a man at any time.

So McAvoy walked out to me again and asked me what I wanted to pitch.  I said, another curve.  It was a bad ball – low – but Ruth swung and missed.  McAvoy came out again – he came out there after every pitch – and asked me again what I wanted to throw.  I said: “Now’s the time to throw him one fast one.”  I did.  If he’d of hit it, we wouldn’t have won.  But he ticked it foul.

Boston's overlooked weapon (at least by Sheehan and McAvoy)

Along about this time, out on the scoreboard, they posted the score of the first couple of innings of the Detroit game at Chicago, and Detroit had scored eight runs in the first inning.  It looked like they were in, and if Boston lost this game, they’d drop out of first place.

Well, McAvoy comes out once more.  “What now?” he asked.  “Listen,” I told him, “I’ve only been fooling around with those other curves.  I’m gonna REALLY break one off now.”  I broke off a beautiful overhand curve ball.  And it hit the dirt in front of the plate.  But Ruth swung, missed and we had won the ball game.  Jimmy McAvoy up in Rochester, still has that baseball.

Philadelphia Inquirer - September 9, 1915

Oh, yes – one other thing.  That game didn’t knock Boston out of first place.  In spite of those eight Tiger runs in the first two innings, Chicago beat Detroit that afternoon 9 to 8

This is the final 2023 post in A Manly Pastime.  We'll be back in the first quarter of 2024.  Thanks to everyone who has read the blog this past season - it's what keeps me going.  Best wishes for the holidays and all of next year!

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Bobby Lowe - First to Four

The series of short oral histories originally called "My Biggest Baseball Day," first appeared in the Chicago Daily News on January 23, 1943, and became a periodic off-season feature through at least 1950.  The initial plan was for the paper's sportswriters to describe their most memorable baseball experiences, but the articles proved so popular the News decided to reach out to players for their stories.  Almost all of the roughly 175 or so articles cover games played in the first half of the twentieth century, divided relatively equally between the Deadball Era (1901-1919), the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  However, in a stroke of good planning or good fortune, the paper was also able to interview three nineteenth-century players, recording some of the earliest known baseball oral histories.  

Bobby Lowe

One of the three was Bobby Lowe (1865-1951) who spent the first twelve of his eighteen-year major league career with the Boston Beaneaters, the predecessor of today's Atlanta Braves.  Primarily a second baseman, Lowe was a key contributor to the Boston teams that won four pennants during the 1890s.  Perhaps not surprisingly Lowe chose his greatest baseball day from the 1894 season when he hit .346, well above his lifetime .273 average.  Like Al Simmons almost 40 years later, Lowe's most memorable day came as part of a Decoration Day morning-afternoon doubleheader.  As frequently happens in these oral histories, the account of a great, in this case, record-setting achievement is enriched by insights into what baseball was like so many years ago. In this case, note how close the sportswriters sat to the bench or dugout.  

Bobby Lowe's Biggest Baseball Day as told to John Carmichael

I hit four home runs in one game; two in one inning!  It happened in Boston, on May 30, 1894.  Ed Delahanty of the Phils did the same thing two years later and Lou Gehrig came along with four almost forty years afterwards, but I did it first. [Through 2023, 18 major leaguers have hit four home runs in a single game].

I’m 75 years old now [Lowe's story was published in the Chicago Daily News on February 23, 1945], so that pleases me more now than then . . . particularly because two homers came in one inning.  None of the others did that!

My first professional ball game was played at Newcastle, Pa., in 1887.  I wasn’t a heavy hitter and I wasn’t a big man, but in 1890 Frank Selee, who ran the Boston club, took me over there and I stayed 12 years at second base.

Those were the days when we had only one league of 12 teams . . . with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington in it. [Cleveland, Baltimore, Louisville, and Washington dropped out after the 1899 season reducing the National League to eight teams].

Congress Street Grounds

We won two pennants under Selee, in ’97 and ’98 and the last year we won 102 games and lost only 47.  Everybody said we had a pretty good infield those days, with fellows like Jim Collins, Herman "Dutch" Long, Fred Tenney, [Tommy] Tucker and [Billy]Nash at the other positions.

Sportswriters used to say there’d never be another infield combination like Tenney, Collins, Long and Lowe . . . they called me Sir Robert . . . but I always thought that Connie Mack had a pretty good one too with [Home Run] Baker, [Stuffy] McInnis[Jack] Barry and Eddie Collins.

When I started big-league ball there were pitchers like John Clarkson and Tim Keefe and Kid Nichols and Elton Chamberlain and before I was almost washed up, around 1905, I’d batted against Amos Rusie and Cy Young and Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

Rusie pitched from 50 feet instead of the 60 as nowadays and it was like hitting at lightning.  Keefe threw slow balls that hung over the plate until you broke your back hitting at ‘em.

I always thought Nichols belonged right in the same Hall of Fame  [he was selected in 1949] with Young and the others, so maybe that’s why I’m proud of winding up 18 years with Boston, Detroit and the Cubs with a batting average of .299. [Lowe's actual lifetime average was .273].

Maybe baseball has changed in some ways after all these years . . . the crowds are bigger and the salaries are higher, but the game is still the same.  If you don’t outguess the pitcher, he’ll fool you.

Lowe with Lou Gehrig, the second player to tie his record of four home runs in a game

But there . . . I’m kinda getting away from what you want to hear . . . my biggest day.  Well, Cincinnati came to town that May 30 for morning and afternoon games.  We were in third place, only about three games out of the lead.

The morning crowd wasn’t too big, but we won 13-10 with a fellow named [Tom] Lovett pitching against [Tom] Parrott.  I was leading off, as usual, and didn’t get a hit.

Before the afternoon game, Mrs. Lowe and myself had dinner at the old North Railroad Station . . . a fish dinner.  I always liked fish.  Then it was time for me to get back to the park.  There were about 8,000 fans jamming the stands and Nichols, then pitching for us, was facing Chamberlain who I mentioned before.

We played those days at the old Congress Street grounds where the Boston team of the old Players League played in 1890. [Boston's home field South End Grounds was destroyed by fire on May 15, 1894, forcing the Beaneaters to play 27 games at the Congress Street grounds].  Some of our parks today aren’t any larger than that old spot. [Both parks had short left field lines at 250 feet.]

I didn’t get on base in the first inning, but we got two runs.  So did Cincinnati. Nothing happened in the second, but in the third, I was up first again and hit over the left-field fence.

A fellow named ["Bug"] Holliday [Holliday hit two home runs of his own] was playing left for Cincy and he went back a few steps and then stopped because he saw it was no use.  The fans whooped it up and you’d oughta heard’em before the inning was over.  We got nine runs off Chamberlain . . . he wasn’t taken out like they do now when a pitcher gets hit hard . . . and by golly I came up again with [Jack] Ryan , our catcher, on base and hit another homer over Holliday’s head.

I felt pretty good about that and when Selee was grinning all over.  Nichols got up off the bench when I came in and shook hands and hollered to the sportswriters over to one side of the stands: “Ain’t that a record . . . in one inning?”  I don’t suppose they knew. I didn’t although I thought it was pretty good.  

James "Bug" Holliday - after Lowe's fourth home run, Holliday "leaned against the left field fence in mock despair" - Boston Herald - May 31, 1894

But you should have heard that crowd when I came up in the fifth and hit another homer.  Three times up, three homers!  The third went by over the fence about 20 feet and was almost on the exact line of the other two.

Holliday was hollering at me as I went around the bases, but I couldn’t hear a word.  The fans were jumping up and down and Selee was telling everybody I’d tied Ed Williamson, Cap Anson and Dan Brouthers who also hit three in one game.

As I walked to the plate in the seventh the crowd was yelling: “Four . . . four, Bobby . . . hit another one . . . “and danged my soul if I didn’t.  I almost fell down when I saw the ball going for that fence the fourth time."

It wasn’t six inches either side of where the other three went and Holliday threw up both hands and ran back to see by how much it would clear.  He said afterwards the ball was about 10 feet above the fence.

Boston Globe - May 31, 1894

By the time I’d circled the bases there were silver dollars and other coins lying on the ground.  They were all for me and we held up the game to gather ‘em up. 

I got about $100 altogether and a Boston newspaper talked of giving me a purse of $1,000 but I never got it.  We won the game, 20-11 and a funny thing was when I came up in the ninth, for the fifth time, I hit a single.  

Everybody laughed.  I suppose it did look silly . . . after four homers.

Next up - in the heat of the 1915 pennant race, Philadelphia Athletics pitcher, Tom Sheehan has a strategy to retire the Red Sox in the ninth inning but forgets a certain left-handed hitting rookie.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Al Simmons' Greatest Day

Periodically (perhaps too periodically), I've mentioned how the book "My Greatest Day in Baseball" introduced me to baseball history.  While there have been multiple books with that title, I'm referring specifically to those with stories that originally appeared in the Chicago Daily News.  The first edition, published in 1945, had 47 short oral histories where some of the game's greatest players described what they believed was their greatest day in baseball.  In recent years, I've wondered if the Chicago paper published more articles than those that appeared in the book.  Earlier this year, I decided to find out for myself and began going through the back issues of the paper. I was more than a little surprised to find about 175 stories only about one-third of which have been published in book form.   

Al Simmons' Greatest Day headline as it appeared in the Chicago Daily News on March 31, 1943 - the original series was called "My Biggest Baseball Day"

To close out the 2023 blog year, I've decided to share three of these stories, beginning with one that was published in the first edition of the book. I'm hoping the choices illustrate both what appealed to a baseball novice so many years ago and the fascinating stories that are relatively unread and unknown.  Leading off is Hall of Famer Al Simmons who had his greatest seasons with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics.  I think anyone who reads the story will agree that it was truly a great day for a great player.  It also appealed to me because of the description of baseball in 1930 - a morning-afternoon doubleheader, something I'd never heard of, on an unfamiliar holiday called Decoration Day.  Clicking on highlighted names will connect the reader to a brief Society for American Baseball Research biography of the player.

Al Simmons's Greatest Day in Baseball as told to John Carmichael

When the 1930 season was over and we had won our second straight pennant I understand Clark Griffith told Connie Mack: "I went back and checked up on Al Simmons this year.   He hit 14 home runs in the eighth and ninth innings and everyone figured in the ball game.  We were never the same after he licked us in that double-header."  So Connie gave me a three-year contract for $100,000, which he didn't intend to do at all.  But that's more like the end, not the beginning of this particular day . . . . Memorial Day, 1930!

The Senators were in town for morning and afternoon games.  They were leading the league by four games and we were second.  What's more, they wanted to make so sure of knocking us off twice and really getting a stranglehold on first place that they'd sent Pitchers Ad Liska and "Bump" Hadley into town 48 hours ahead of the team to get fully rested for the big day.  Liska worked the opener against "Lefty" Grove, but we weren't worried, because Mose never lost a morning game in his career . . . that's a fact . . . and he always asked to pitch them.

Al Simmons

Well, we were brand-new world champions, of course, and we had a good crowd on hand, but we weren't doing so well near the end of the affair.  Liska was one of those semi-underhand pitchers with a little of this and a little of that and not much of anything, but he had us off stride and was ahead 6-3 into the ninth with two out, nobody on base and Grove up.  Naturally, Grove didn't hit.  Connie spent Spencer Harris up to swing for him and he got a single. Then Dib Williams hit safely and old man Simmons was on the spot.  I'd already gone four for the collar and those Philly fans could be tough every so often.  Some of 'em were yelling "Three out" and "How about another pinch hitter?" and I was thinking, "Boy, we better win that second game," when Liska cut loose.

The ball was right in there and didn't break and I really swung.  It landed in the left-field seats, the score was tied and the customers were all for me now.  We couldn't do anything more and went into extra innings.  I got a double in the 11th, but we didn't score.  I singled in the 13th and didn't get home.  In the 15th I hit another two-bagger . . . four straight hits, mind you, after going out easily four times in a row.  [The game lasted 13 innings, not 15 and Simmons had three hits in a row, not four.] Jimmie Foxx came up [in the thirteenth] and hit a twisting roller down the third-base line . . . topped the ball.  He beat it out by a half step and on the play, I went to third and rounded the bag as if I might try to score.  I got caught in a run-down.  Well, there I was, scrambling around and cursing myself for blowing a chance to get the game over, but finally, I dove for third and was safe.  Just as I lit I felt something go haywire in my right knee.

Standing on the bag I could feel it swelling up under my uniform and by the time "Boob" McNair singled and I scored the winning run it was becoming stiff.  We went inside and got the clothes off and the damn thing was twice its normal size.  Connie Mack couldn't believe his eyes.  "How did you do it?" he kept asking.  I didn't know myself . . . didn't hit anything but the ground.  He put in a call for Dr. Carnett, our club physician.  I can't remember his first name . . . and he's dead now . . . but he was one of the outstanding doctors in the East and a great ball fan.  He came in and ordered cold compresses on it.  "You've broken a blood vessel," he said, but it'll be all right."

Philadephia Inquirer picture of Simmons reception at home plate after his second game home run

We didn't have so much time between games, because that opener had taken too long, so there was nothing to do but sit around and order a little lunch.  The outgoing crowd was all mixed up with the incoming customers and, of course, a lot of those who figured to see only the morning game were so het up that they turned right around outside the gates and bought their way back in again.  Meanwhile, the swelling in my knee was going down, but it hurt and finally, Mr. Mack said to Carnett: "He can't play anymore today, I suppose," and Doc said no.  "You'll probably want to take him to a hospital," said Connie, and Carnett agreed.

"But not today," he said, "I came out here to see a double-header and I'm going to see it.  You . . ." and he addressed Mr. Mack . . . "can put him back in a uniform and let him sit on the bench.  He can't run, but he might come in handy as a pinch hitter.  What's more . . . if a spot comes up, I want him in there too.  I'll take care of the knee later, but at the moment I'm a rabid fan and assistant manager.

Philadelphia Inquirer - May 31, 1930

Out we went for the second game and the fans were in a great state when they saw Harris going to left field instead of me.  Only a few knew anything had happened and they couldn't understand why I was benched after driving in three runs and scoring the last one.  I think George Earnshaw was going for us and Hadley for them and he got off just as good as Laska had in the first game.  Came the seventh inning [it was the fourth] and we were behind 7-3.  We sent up a pinch-hitter for Joe Boley and he got on and then there was a base on balls and a hit and the bags were loaded.  Suddenly I saw Connie look down the line and crook that finger at me.

"Looks like this is the time and place," he said.  "This is what Dr. Carnett meant and you know what he said.  Walk around the bases if you can."

I picked up a bat and there I was for the second time in the same day in the clutch.  Hadley told me afterwards: "I never wanted a place to put somebody so much in all my life, but we were full up."  He seemed to take a long time and finally pitched and it was outside for a ball.  He tried another in the same spot and I let it go.  Then he changed up on me and tried for a strike.

Philadelphia Inquirer - May 31, 1930

My bat caught it just right . . . where you know that even if the ball is caught, you've hit it solid.  This one came down in the left-field stands, too, and the score was 7-7.  I hobbled around the bases and got back to the bench and Connie was sitting up straight, his eyes bright like a bird's, and he said: "My, that was fine, Al!"  We won in the ninth and down came Carnett and lugged me off to the hospital."

Next up - On another Decoration day almost 40 years earlier, Bobby Lowe uses the long ball in a less dramatic, but more historically significant fashion.