“Sweeney was Drunk, but I didn’t know it”

22 Aug

In 1884 Frank Bancroft’s Providence Grays won the National League pennant and defeated the American Association’s New York Metropolitans in the World Series—the first post-season exhibition to be called the World Series.  Late in 1896 he told a reporter for The Boston Post his version of the story of the turning point in that season:

Frank Bancroft

Frank Bancroft

 

“We were leading the championship race (the Grays were in 2nd place at the time of the game in question).  Both (Charles) Sweeney and (Charles “Old Hoss”) Radbourne were pitching in grand style.  In those days you couldn’t take a player out of the game and put another one in his place unless he was sick.  I wanted to save my pitchers all I could.  One day we were playing the Bostons (Bancroft was incorrect; the game was against the Philadelphia Quakers on July 22).  I had (Joseph) Cyclone Miller in right field and Sweeney in the box.  I told Joe Start, who was captain of the team that if we got far enough ahead in the game to take Sweeney out of the box and bring in Miller.  I did this to save Sweeney’s arm.  In the sixth inning we had a lead of 7 to 2 (the score was 6 to 2).  I told Start to make the change.  He asked Sweeney to go out in the field.  Sweeney was drunk, but I didn’t know it.  Start’s request made Sweeney mad.  He didn’t take it in the way it was meant.  He walked off the field.  I went after him, but couldn’t get him to come back.

“He called me a vile name.  The president of the club (J. Edward “Ned” Allen) went to him and asked him what he meant, and he called him everything vile on the calendar.  Sweeney was very drunk.  We had to finish the game with eight men, and the Bostons [sic] beat us out (Providence lost 10 to 6).  The directors of the club had a meeting that night, expelled Sweeney and came within an ace of breaking up.  In fact, they did vote to disband.”

Charlie Sweeney

Charlie Sweeney

With Sweeney gone, the team was left without their two top pitchers.  Bancroft had suspended Radbourn earlier in the month, and he was still sitting out at the time—Radbourne was unhappy sharing the pitching duties and was rumored to be heading to the St. Louis Maroons in the Union Association–The Providence Evening Press in describing Sweeney’s July 22 outburst said he had “caught Radbourn’s complaint.”

Picking up the story in The Post, Bancroft said:

“They said there was no use of going on with one pitcher.  I said to President Allen: ‘If you will give me authority to tell Radbourne that you will not reserve him at the end of the season, I can get him to pitch all the rest of the games this year.’  ‘All right,’ said Allen, ‘you have that authority.’  I found old Rad at his boarding house.  I told him about the proposition.  ‘It’s a go,’ said Rad.  ‘I’ll get rid of reservation if I lose my arm.  I’ll pitch all the other championship games this season.”

Radbourn did not pitch “all the other” games that season, but did pitch 75—with 73 complete games, 678 2/3 innings.  Bancroft said of his pitcher:

“It was the greatest feat of endurance I ever witnessed.  Rad was in awful shape before it was all over…Why, (his arm) hurt him so bad when he would get up in the morning that he couldn’t get it up high enough to fasten his collar button.  He had to comb his hair with his left hand.  It used to make me shudder to look at him, but he was gritty.  He would go out in the afternoon before the game, and instead of loosening up by easy pitching, as pitchers do nowadays, he would go in the field and throw the ball just as far as he could.  He would throw for ten or fifteen minutes, until he got wound up, and then he would go in to pitch a winning game.”

"Old Hoss" Radbourn

“Old Hoss” Radbourn

Bancroft said the pitcher “could split the plate any time he wanted to,” and that during “morning practice, to show what he could do, Radbourn would set a pop bottle on the home plate and knock it down three out of four times.”

The release of Sweeney had an immediate positive effect on the Grays.  On the day of the incident The Evening Press said “The pennant is no doubt out of the reach of Providence this year.”

The following day, after Radbourn pitched the team to an 11 to 5 over the New York Gothams, the paper’s outlook brightened:

“The summary expulsion of Sweeney for crookedness seemed to have a salutary effect, on Wednesday, for the purging of the club of such a bad egg resulted in a better class of patrons on the grand stand than for many weeks.  The attendance throughout was better than the management had looked for after the airing of Sweeney’s revolt, about 700 being present. “(There were just 450 in the stands the day before for “Sweeney’s revolt”)

Sweeney had not yet left for St. Louis, and the paper took the opportunity to take one final shot at the pitcher:

“Sweeney is still about town, and wherever he goes the women whom he escorted to the ball game on Tuesday are seen with him.  The conduct of this fellow is shameful, and he will regret it when he fully wakes up to its enormity.”

The twenty-one year-old Sweeney pitched the Maroons to the Union Association championship with a 24-7 record and 1.83 ERA.  Whether his arm couldn’t handle the strain, or as a result of his off-field habits, he would only win 16 more games (losing 30), and was out of the major leagues at age 24.

He returned to his home in California and played for teams in the California, Central California Leagues, after his retirement he worked for a short time as a police officer and later worked in saloons around San Francisco.

By the time Bancroft shared his reminiscences of 1884 with The Post, Sweeney was incarcerated in California, and Radbourne was dying in Illinois.

In July of 1894 Sweeney shot a man named Cornelius McManus during an altercation in a bar.  The San Francisco Chronicle said when he was informed the following day that the victim was dead “he broke down and wept bitterly.”  Sweeney was convicted of manslaughter four months later and sentenced to eight years.

The Chronicle said he was released after serving “a little over three years of his sentence,” after which “his health broke down.”  Sweeney died of Tuberculosis in 1902—most sources say he died on April 4—The Call and The Chronicle both said he died on April 3.

Radbourn pitched 1311 innings in 1883 and ’84, and started and won all three games in the 1884 World Series.  Bancroft said that after the Grays won the championship:

“President Allen kept his word, and gave him his release; but Rad didn’t take it.  The club offered him just twice as much salary for the next year.”

Radbourn pitched seven more seasons and finished his career with a 309-194 record.  After being accidentally shot in a hunting accident, and suffering from a variety of ailments, he died in February of 1897.

Bancroft remained in baseball until January of 1921 when he retired a business manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He died two months later at age 74.

Wagner’s Mysterious Bat

20 Aug

In 1911 Honus Wagner hit .334, it was his thirteenth straight season hitting better than .320, but he still wondered how much better he could have hit if he had the opportunity to regularly use a bat he once found in Ohio.  He told the story to William A. Phelon in The Cincinnati Times-Star:

Honus Wagner

Honus Wagner

“There was never yet a perfect bat, and I don’t suppose there ever can be.  Not while the shape has to remain perfectly round and fouls can slip off the curving surface, and not while the material breaks just as you are administering a sure home run with the bases full.  I have had bats break when I met the ball fair and square—break deliberately, after months of faithful service—and a feeble grounder would go trickling off the treacherous stick when the force I put into the wallop had spelled at least three bases.”

Wagner said “bats are strange and moody things,” and that he understood why Pete Browning “used to talk to his bats and credit them with human understanding.”

Pete Browning

Pete Browning

He said he had “handled one that was almost perfection” during 1898, his first full season with the Louisville Colonels.  The team was playing an exhibition game “against some small club in an Ohio river city,” and the Colonels’ bats had already been shipped to their next stop:

“We figured, of course that we would borrow bats from the locals, but we didn’t need to.

“On arriving at the local ball park we found some urchins knocking flies.  One of the kids was using a curious looking bat, long, finely shaped and of a peculiar red-brown color.  I took it from the youngster, examined it, and found that, while it was very heavy, that it balanced nicely in the hand.  I slipped the boy half a dollar for the loan of his bat, and we started the game with the red stick and three or four others of the ordinary pattern which had been scared up by admiring natives.

“We never used the ordinary bats.  That red stick proved to be the proper medicine.  Of course there wasn’t any big league team against us, but the pitcher was one who was destined to be a mighty star in the after years, and he had something that day, believe me.”

Wagner did not say who the pitcher was, but said it didn’t matter how good he was:

“The least tap with that red bat and the ball whirred out in the field like a bullet.  There was spring and a texture to the wood that gave incomparable hitting power.  Tap a fast ball with that bat and it would go for two bases.  Meet a curve and you could send it to the bleachers.  With that bat a man who ordinarily hit .200 would be a .300 hitter, easy, and I blush to estimate the record I could have made therewith.”

Wagner said he and his teammates had “about twenty-eight long hits” during the game, and he asked the boy about the bat’s origin:

“(H)e explained that he had laboriously turned the wood to proper shape himself, and that it was originally the leg of an old-fashioned, broken-down table that his grandfather possessed.  It was some strange oriental wood, something like mahogany, but much heavier and of firmer grain…When the game ended I turned to find the boy, intending to hand him good money for that bat, but the kid was gone.  Apparently afraid we intended to steal his bat…I never saw the boy again, and although I twice played games in that town years after, he never came near the park.  The mysterious bat, brimful of hits, vanished the same afternoon it first appeared and its equal has never been discovered.”

“It is Feared that the Cares of his Office are making an old man out of Tim”

18 Aug

Timothy Carroll “Tim” Hurst had an eventful season in 1906.

He had been an umpire since 1891—with the exception of one awful season managing the St. Louis Browns to a 39-111 last place finish in 1898.  In 1904 Hurst retired from the National League, but months later joined the umpire staff of the Central League, and took a job in the American League in 1905.

Tim Hurst

Tim Hurst

The Kansas City Journal described the 5’ 5” umpire who was also a boxing referee::

“Hurst is a pudgy little fellow, below medium height, with sandy hair, twinkling blue eyes and a ruddy complexion.”

He was often called “pugnacious” for his on field, and off, altercations, and once told a reporter for The New York Herald how he dealt with argumentative catchers:

“Never put a catcher out of the game.  If the man back of the bat is sassy and objects to your calling of balls and strikes, keep close behind him while doing your work and kick him every time he reaches out a catch a ball.  After about the third kick he’ll shut up.”

The incident that earned him the most attention in 1906 happened during a May 7 game in New York between the Highlanders and the Washington Nationals.   The New York Times said during the fifth inning:

(Frank) LaPorte was declared out at first base on a close decision.  Manager (Clark) Griffith rushed over to the base line, and, throwing his cap in the air, protested against the decision.  He wildly gesticulated, and Hurst ordered him away.  Griffith, instead of following Hurst’s instructions, stepped up to the latter, protesting all the time.  In his excitement he stepped upon Hurst’s foot.”

Hurst “drew back” to punch Griffith but was held back by players from both teams.

“Hurst then took hold of the lapel of Griffith’s coat and started to lead the player-manager to the bench.  The latter angrily resented this action and pushed Hurst’s hand away.  Lave Cross and the Washingtons tried to pacify Griffith, and succeeded in getting him to the players’ bench.”

Hurst followed Griffith to the New York bench and again attempted to punch the manager, while Griffith “rushed at the umpire.”

Clark Griffith

Clark Griffith

According to The Associated Press Griffith claimed “’Hurst didn’t hit me.’ Then pointing to his swollen mouth he added, ‘I had this swollen lip before the game.’”

Hurst and Griffith were both suspended for five games.

The following year Henry Pierrepoint Edwards of The Cleveland Plain Dealer said Hurst had given him an explanation to “clear up the mystery” of why he reacted so violently:

“Now, it isn’t customary for Tim to wear baseball shoes on the diamond.  Usually Tim appears for the fray clad in the same suit he would wear at a pink tea.  His real uniform is just a cap.

“On the afternoon in question Tim purchased a new pair of patent leather shoes.  The shoes glistened in the sun like a diamond and gave Tim great pleasure.  Griffith forgot all about the shoes and in his rage over losing a close decision spiked and spoiled the new kicks.  Great was Tim’s rage.  Even greater was the clash.  That’s all.”

Two months after the incident with Griffith, Hurst made what might have been the worst call of his career.

On July 7 in Washington, he was working the game between the Nationals and the Detroit Tigers.  The score was tied 3 to 3 in the seventh inning, the Tigers had the bases loaded with two out and Sam “Wahoo” Crawford at the plate, facing Nationals pitcher Frank KitsonThe Washington Post said:

“’Wahoo’ lifted one a thousand miles directly over the pan.  Kitson came tearing in,  (Catcher Howard) Wakefield hesitated.  Manager (Jake) Stahl stood still at first base.  The pellet whirled in the air and finally dropped just inside the line and bounded back to the stands.  (Charley) O’Leary and (John) Eubank romped home.  Crawford went to second, carrying the funniest two-base hit on record.  Kitson and Wakefield stood admiring each other until Hurst again yelled ‘Fair ball!’ when the boy catcher went after the bulb.”

Sam Crawford

Sam Crawford

While the Nationals argued the call, and Hurst refused to reverse his decision, The Post said “The spectators were forced to listen to the dillydallying for fully fifteen minutes, then many of them got up and left the belligerents wrangling over the decision.”

Kitson threw a wild pitch to the next batter, Matty McIntyre scoring Herman “Germany” Schaefer and Crawford.  The Tigers went on to win 9 to 3.  Jake Stahl filed a protest with American league President Ban Johnson.

The Washington Evening Star said:

“The only excuse that Umpire Hurst can have is that the play was an unusual one.  Lave Cross admitting that he never saw its like in his experience on the diamond.  Hurst was palpably rattled, and the Tigers when taking their places on the field chaffed the locals with the remark that ‘Tim certainly handed us one that time.’”

The Washington Times said it was “one of the most remarkable plays ever seen on a diamond,“ and printed for their readers rule number’s 44 and 45 from the 1906 “Reach Guide” Reach describing “A Fair Hit,” and “A Foul Hit.”

The Washington Times used "The Reach Guide" to illustrate how Hurst blew the call.

The Washington Times used “The Reach Guide” to illustrate how Hurst blew the call.

The Times said:

“(T)here seemed no possible way of calling it fair, but Hurst was obdurate, and the only explanation he would give was that the ball ‘was hit too high.”  What the heighth of the hit had to do with the fact that it eventually bounded foul is still another mystery.”

Hurst’s story evolved over the next several days.  The Post said his original explanation regarding the ball’s height was “to the effect that the ball was it so high it ‘settled’ inside, constituting the hit a fair one. “  This was quickly replaced by Hurst’s claim that the ball had touched Wakefield, the Washington catcher, before bounding into foul territory.

The Times’ baseball reporter Thomas Stevens Rice said of Hurst’s new story:

“This explanation is all right if it presents the facts in the case.  In the press box there was not a single man who thought the ball was touched by Wakefield or anybody else.”

The Post conceded that the protest would be rejected, saying “It is almost certain that Ban Johnson will sustain his scrappy umpire, no matter what interpretation he puts on the rules,” but the paper did not let up on Hurst.

The following week when Sam Crawford brought his average up to .300, The Post said:

“Hurst last week decided that Crawford’s high rap which hit inside the base line and bounded back to the stands was fair…am would have faced the pitcher 271 times and got away with 81 hits which would have made his average .299, as it was Sam got and extra hit which brought the total to .303.  He owes Tim a hat.”

Hurst was still young, just forty-one in 1906, but The Sporting Life said something had changed during that year, and by the end of the season that the umpire lacked the “Aggressiveness and enthusiasm” he had previously exhibited:

“It is feared that the cares of his office are making an old man out of Tim, who once was noted for having the finest brand of keen-cutting, kill-at-a-thousand-yards sarcasm of any umpire in captivity.  Sit Timothy is very tame, and the players, even the bush leaguers who have just broken in, can tell him what they think of him and his calling.”

Hurst’s old “aggressiveness” came out in 1909.  He was suspended in May for a fight with Norman “Kid” Elberfeld of the Highlanders, then on August 3 during a game between the Athletics and White Sox.  The Brooklyn Eagle said:

“At Philadelphia Tim Hurst came in for considerable trouble.  Hurst called Eddie Collins out at second and the Columbia youngster put up a kick.

“Whether it was with malice aforethought or quite an accident, it is a fact that the umpire distributed a mouthful of moistened union-made tobacco in the direction of the youthful Eddie, who immediately called Tim’s attention to the board of health ordinance which prohibited expectorating in public places.”

After the game Hurst had to be escorted from the field by Philadelphia police.  Ban Johnson suspended Hurst, beginning two weeks of rumor and speculation about the umpire’s fate.  Finally, on August 18 it was announced that Hurst had been let go by the American League.

Hurst, in poor health since 1912, died in 1915.  Hugh Fullerton of The Chicago Examiner said of his passing at age 49:

“The saddest part of it is that ‘Timothy’ did not die in the blue uniform, and that during the last few years of his life he was practically blacklisted in baseball for refusing to answer or deny charges made against him for his actions during a clash with Eddie Collins…President Johnson declared that if Hurst even had replied to his telegrams of inquiry he would have kept him—but Tim, knowing he had done wrong, refused, and went out of the game.”

“First thing I know they had the Cushions Populous”

15 Aug

Nearly two decades after he claimed it happened, Clark Griffith told a reporter from The Sporting News a story about getting the final out, and humiliating a friend in the process:

Clark Griffith

Clark Griffith

“It has been my luck to see a large number of peeved and angry people in this old game of baseball, particularly gentlemen against whom I have been lucky enough to do some successful pitching.

“I still think, however, that the maddest man I ever did behold was that grand old Monolith of the Boston team—Mr. Thomas Tucker.  The Occasion on which I beheld the fury of this famous warrior is still green in my memory, and can never forsake me.

“Old Tommy Tucker was pretty nearly on his last legs so far as big league baseball was concerned, and hits to him were more precious than rubies and diamonds when we bumped together one summer afternoon.  It was a big game, a most important game, and I really had to win it.  I love Tom Tucker very much, but I loved my salary more.

Tommy Tucker

Tommy Tucker

“The battle was a hot one, running along on pretty even terms till near the close, when we managed to get a couple on the bases when good old Uncle (Cap) Anson did the rest with one of those murderous  hits that they don’t make now, the old man not being there to soak them.  That Boston bunch was never whipped till the last man was counted out, and they went after me strong in the last death rally.  First thing I know they had the cushions populous, two down and old Tom Tucker standing grimly at the plate.  I worked him into biting at two wide ones, then fed him two more which he refused to reach after.  It was coming down to cases and no mistake.

“Just at this juncture I happened to remember a trick of indoor baseball—the enormous upshot which is put on an indoor ball by swinging it underhand, with the knuckles uppermost and the ball rolling off the palm.  It causes a huge upshot ball, but it is not practicable for outdoor ball because, at the greater pitching distance, the ball would lose all its speed before it reached the platter.

“I decided to throw the ball just once, as a desperate experiment, and I threw it.  The globule sauntered along, way low, below Tom’s knee line, and he stood scoffing at it.  Then, just as the ball came parallel with him it leaped up and whirled over the plate, while the umpire yelled ‘strike three.’

“Old Tom Tucker laid down his bat and started toward me, with evidence of much excitement on his face, but I was already on my way, and was going fast.  That night he came to the hotel looking for me, and publicly announced that he intended to slay me on sight, but I was not in, and he never got his hands upon me.”

The pitch used to strike out Tucker was not the only one Griffith said originated with him.  In addition to his claim to have invented the screw ball, in 1899 The Chicago Daily News said Griffith claimed to have perfected a new type of curve which “is said to be an amplification of his celebrated slow ball, with which he has in times past puzzled so many batsman.”

The “celebrated slow ball” was taught to Griffith by Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourne—as a result The Chicago Tribune’s Hugh Fullerton said Griffith held “practically a monopoly on the slow ball and (used) it with wonderful effect.”

Griffith said he developed this new curve when shooting pool:

“You simply English the ball with your hand instead of the cue that is the only difference.  In other words, before the ball leaves my hand it is set to spinning in a direction towards my body.  All the time it is going through the air towards the batter it has this rotary motion.”

The Daily News described the pitch:

“It is believed that the air in the case of a curve of this kind acts like the cushion of a billiard table and accentuates the tendency to return, which underlies the forward motion of the baseball.  Be that as it may, the result is astonishing.  A ball that starts out with great velocity from Griffith’s hand in this experiment, as it gets to the batter suddenly slows up to a speed not more than one-half as great as that at which it was launched.  The effect on the batter, who is expecting a swift ball, can readily be imagined.  He strikes at the leather globe before it reaches him, and the chance that he hits it is reduced to a minimum.”

Polchow and Starnagle

13 Aug

At the close of the 1902 Three-I League season two unlikely candidates for the big leagues were signed by Cleveland Bronchos Manager Bill Armour.

Pitcher Louis William “Polly” Polchow and catcher George Henry Starnagle (born Steurnagel) did not put up impressive numbers.   Neither the Reach or Spalding Guides included Polchow’s won-loss record, but both said the 22-year-old’s winning percentage was just .414 in 32 games for the Evansville River Rats.  Starnagle hit just .180 with 13 passed balls and eight errors in 93 games for the Terre Haute Hottentots.

Louis Polchow

Louis Polchow

The two joined the fifth place Bronchos in St. Louis on September 13.  The following day both made their major league debuts in the second game of a doubleheader against the second place Browns.

The St. Louis Republic said:

“Captain (Napoleon) Lajoie decided to try his new Three-Eye League battery, which reported to him yesterday.  Starnagle, the former Terre Haute catcher, was as steady as a veteran, but Polchow wobbled at the drop of the hat, and before he steadied himself the damage was done.

“Five runs in the first two innings gave the Browns a good lead, and it was well they made hay while the sun shone, for Polchow handed them six ciphers for dessert.”

Starnagle made an error in the seventh when he overthrew Lajoie on an attempted steal of second by Bobby Wallace—Wallace advanced to third on the error, but Polchow retired the side without a run.

George Starnagle

George Starnagle

In Cleveland’s half of the seventh Starnagle and Polchow had the opportunity to get them back in the game.  With two runs in, and a runner on first and one out Starnagle came to the plate.  The Republic said:

 “Starnagle tried to put on a Three-Eye League slugging scene.  He dislocated two ribs going after (Bill) Reidy’s slow ones and finally fanned.  Polchow forced (Jack) McCarthy.”

Starnagle was lifted in the ninth for a pinch hitter.  Cleveland lost 5-3.  Polchow gave up nine hits and walked four, striking out two, and was 0 for 4 at the plate.  Starnagle was 0 for 3, with one error behind the plate.  Neither would ever appear in another big league game.

The Box Score

The Box Score

Starnagle was 28-years-old, and had only played two seasons of pro ball before his game with Cleveland—he was semi-pro player with teams in Danville and Sterling, Illinois for nearly a decade before he joined Terre Haute in 1901.  He was considered a solid defensive catcher, but during 10 minor league seasons he only hit better than .230 three times.  When he played with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Royals in 1909 The Montreal Gazette said:

“Starnagle has been drafted every year by big league clubs, all of whom have been pretty well supplied with seasoned catchers; hence his failure to be kept.”

Polchow was just 22 when he pitched his only big league game.  Plagued by wildness, he spent three mediocre seasons with teams in the Southern Association and South Atlantic League (he was 36-45 for the Montgomery Senators, Macon Highlanders and Augusta Tourists), then pitched five seasons in the New York State League.

In 1906 he helped lead the Scranton Miners to the New York State League championship (the team’s leading hitter was Archibald “Moonlight” Graham), although The Scranton Republican said his first start with the team was nearly his last.  Polchow lost 12 to 2 to the Utica Pent-Ups, walking 10 and giving up 10 hits.  After the game Polchow accused catcher “Wilkie Clark of throwing the game.  A fight followed and Clark and Polchow never worked together after that.   Andy Roth was Polchow’s battery partner during the remainder of the season.”

Starnagle retired after the 1910 season.  He returned to Danville, Illinois where he died in 1946; he was 72.

Polchow played through the 1911 season, and then became ill.  He died of Bright’s Disease at 32-years-old in August of 1912

In addition to Polchow and Starnagle, the Bronchos signed two other Three-I League players in September of 1902—both had somewhat more success.

Rock Island Islanders catcher George “Peaches” Graham made his debut the same day as Polchow and Starnagle, during the first game of the doubleheader; he struck out as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a 3 to 1 loss. He spent parts of seven seasons in the major leagues, and hit .265.  Decatur Commodores pitcher Augustus “Gus” Dorner made his debut three days later beating the Chicago White Sox 7 to 6.  He pitched for parts of six big league seasons, compiling a 35-69 record.

 

Stewart Strader

11 Aug

Stewart W. Strader was the son of a prominent business leader in two of Kentucky’s signature businesses.  His father, Colonel Robert Stuart Strader operated a distillery and was a prominent breeder of Standardbred Trotters.  In 1875 the elder Strader moved the family from Boone County, Kentucky to Lexington where he was involved in the founding and management of The Red Mile—the world’s second oldest harness racing track.

Advertisement for R.S. Strader and Son Distillery.  The "Son" was Stewart's older brother Wilson.

Advertisement for R.S. Strader and Son Distillery. The “Son” was Stewart’s older brother Wilson.

Stewart Strader was born in Lexington in 1882, one of seven sons.  By the age of 20 he had become an important figure in baseball circles in and around Lexington, as owner, manager and one of the best players on Lexington’s local semi-pro team.

Before the 1903 season The Lexington Leader said Strader was attempting to get his team accepted into the Central League and “Lexington’s application for a franchise is looked upon quite favorably,” but days later The Lexington Herald said Strader “decided most of the cities composing the Central League were too far to enable his club to play them with profit.”  He instead entered his team in Cincinnati’s Sunday League and played against other independent teams during the week.

Stewart Strader 1903

Stewart Strader 1903

His reputation quickly spread, and while there were rumors in the press that he would be signed by the Cincinnati Reds, they did not materialize, but he did receive a letter from William Henry “Bill” Watkins, president and manager of the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association.  Watkins wrote:

“I thought I would write you and see if you had any idea of going into the professional end of the game next season.  If you will consider a trial with us, I would like to hear from you.”

Strader accepted the offer, but by the time he reported to Indianapolis in late March, Watkins had left Indianapolis to manage the Minneapolis Millers.  In his first game with the Hoosiers, an exhibition against Purdue University, Strader played right field and was 3 for 3 with a triple.  The Indianapolis News said “Strader is a hitter of merit and with a little more work should develop into a strong fielder.”

Two days before the beginning of the regular season Indianapolis purchased left fielder Ed “Pinky” Swander from the St. Louis Browns, and right fielder George Hogriever, who had refused to sign after hitting .330 the previous season, agreed to terms with the Hoosiers.   Strader was released to the Greenville Cotton Pickers in the Cotton States League.  His hometown paper, The Herald, said he “had been holding down right field with due credit,” but Indianapolis Manager Bill Phillips felt “he was too young for the fast company.”

Strader 1904

Strader 1904

After hitting .309 for Greenville in 81 at bats he was sold to the Macon Highlanders in the South Atlantic League where he hit just .200 in 130 at bats.

Strader spent the next five years making brief stops with seven different minor league teams, buying and selling the independent Lexington club at least twice, and tending a saloon he opened in 1905.

 

Stewart Srader

Stewart Srader

In 1908 Lexington became part of the newly formed Blue Grass League.  It was the city’s first team in organized ball in more than a decade, and Strader may, or may not, have been involved in an attempt to wrest control of the team from owner and manager Thomas Sheets.

Strader opened the season in the Virginia State League, where he appeared in 10 games for the Richmond Colts and Danville Red Sox.  In late May he returned to Kentucky and signed a contract with Sheets’ Lexington Colts.  On May 31 he played center field for the Colts and was 0 for 3.  The following day he was released.

The Herald speculated that another player, Warren Fieber (who had purchased the independent Lexington team from Strader two years earlier and later sold it back to him) would also be released:

“Sheets admitted that an effort had been made to undermine him in the last two days, but would make no further statement.”

Fieber, who was hitting .320 on June 1, remained with the team, but his batting average plummeted to .222 by the season’s end.  Strader stayed in the Bluegrass League and signed with the Shelbyville Grays; he had the best season of his pro career, hitting .324.

Strader played his final season of pro ball the next year with the Frankfort Statesmen.  In June The Herald said:

 “Lexington fans have noted with considerable satisfaction that Stewart Strader a Lexington boy now with Frankfort is leading the Blue Grass League in batting.”

Strader was hitting .410 as late as June 23, but slumped badly in the second half of the season and finished with a .264 average.  At the end of the 1909 season Strader and Patrick Downing, a former minor league player, were appointed deputies by the Fayette County Sheriff.  The Leader said the two deputies they replaced “apparently would not play ball.”

Strader signed with the Davenport Prodigals in the Three-I League in the spring of 1910, but was released before the season began.

During the last several years of career, and the first decade after he left the diamond, the Strader family was regularly mentioned in the local press for things other than baseball.

Two brothers died tragically, one, according to The Leader, by his own hand after shooting a woman in Lexington’s “Tenderloin District.” The other was murdered during a dispute while hunting.

Strader began operating taverns and restaurants in Lexington in 1905, and the family spent the better part of a decade bringing various lawsuits against each other involving the failure of the distillery after their father’s death and other business disputes.  During one dispute Strader’s older brother W.P. had him arrested claiming Stewart Strader “would do bodily harm or injury to him.”

Despite the family drama Strader remained a successful businessman, and prominent member of Lexington society.  He owned the Berlin Café—which he originally purchased with one of his brothers in 1905–until 1940 and for seven years in the 1920s operated Third Avenue Motor Company in Louisville, which sold the Anderson Six—produced by the Anderson Motor Car Company in South Carolina.

Strader died in Lexington on August 9, 1948.

“It was one of those Lucky Days when a Player can hit a pea”

8 Aug

Norman Arthur “The Tabasco Kid” Elberfeld earned his nickname for his aggressive play and violent temper.  In 1904 he described his greatest game in an  article that appeared in several newspapers:

Kid Elberfeld

Kid Elberfeld

“It is not a cinch by any means to dig up the good and bad plays one has made.  If my team can win the game, that is about sufficient for me, and I forget many times just how prominently I may have figured in the victory.

“The best batting I remember having done was right up on Washington Heights last season, when we were playing the Philadelphia Athletics.  Connie Mack had saved Rube Waddell for us, and the famous southpaw never had more speed or better benders.  When Rube is right he is a wonder, and when it is remembered that he fanned thirteen batters that afternoon it can be appreciated that he was pretty near being tight.  It was Rube’s first appearance of the season in New York, and he was more than anxious to pitch a winning game.  It was the closest kind of contest, and we just managed to win out 4 to 3.  I was the lucky boy that day.  I made four clean plunks off Rube, drove in three runs and scored one myself.  That wasn’t so bad, when you say it quick.  There were only four hits made off Rube that day.  So I copped.

“It was one of those lucky days when a player can hit a pea.  Rube didn’t fool me a little bit.  I refused to let him drive me away from the plate, but stood up close and just met the ball.  Every hit was a hard one, too, and on a line.  If I had attempted to swing hard I might not have made a hit.  There is everything in a batter timing the ball well and then just meeting it.  One will be surprised at the swiftness with which the ball shoots off the bat.”

Elberfeld got a couple of key facts incorrect; the score was actually 3 to 2 and while Elberfeld drove in all three runs he did not score a run that day.  For the rest of his life, Elberfeld referred to the game as the greatest of his career.

In 1929, in an article about the athletic prowess of Elberfeld’s five daughters—they had their own basketball team, and each excelled in additional sports as well—the proud father still referred to the 1903 game as “The best batting I remember having done,” although he still incorrectly maintained that the Highlanders scored four runs that day.

Elberfeld's greatest game, August 1, 1903

Elberfeld’s greatest game, August 1, 1903

As for his aggressiveness towards umpires, Elberfeld had no regrets fifteen years after his playing career ended:

“I’ve been asked whether it did any good to threaten umpires, and occasionally take a wallop at one.  I always thought that if I didn’t stand up for my rights, they would give me the worst of it.  If an umpire made a mistake in the really rowdy days the whole team would threaten his life.  Would that scare him?  I should say so, and the next time a close decision came up, he would even up for the bad one previously handed down.”

Big Six versus The Hoosier Thunderbolt

6 Aug

Christy Mathewson had only pitched five full seasons when Sam Crane of The New York Journal said in January of 1906 “there is a great diversity of opinion” regarding whether Mathewson or Amos Rusie was the better pitcher.

Crane said “Old-time lovers of the game” said Rusie, “The Hoosier Thunderbolt”, whose career ended in 1901 after being traded to Cincinnati for “Big Six” Mathewson,  was the best ever, “and refuse to acknowledge that the young college man who won the world’s championship so easily last fall…is his superior.”   While, “the younger generation of enthusiasts say there was never but one Mathewson and point to his wonderful record to prove their point.”

Amos Rusie

Amos Rusie

Crane said two famous New York baseball figures—and future Hall of Famers– disagreed on the point:

George Davis, the crack shortstop of the Chicago White Sox, and one of the best players who ever wore ‘New York’ across his shirt front, met Clark Griffith, manager of the Yankees (Crane was one of the earliest to call the then “Highlanders” the “Yankees”), yesterday at the headquarters of the New York American club, and argued over the much mooted questions of pitching superiority between the two crack box artists.  Both Davis and Griffith agreed that Mathewson and Rusie were two of the best, but differed as to which was entitles to the premier position.”

Davis thought Mathewson was better.

“Both have excelled all other Boxmen.  I have never batted against Matty in a game, but I have met his curves in practice and I want to say that he has just as good control of the ball as Rusie.  Matty’s most effective ball is a straight drop, but his speed is a great factor as well as a wonderfully controlled slow ball.  He uses his forearm and elbow and winds up in such a manner that a batsman is sure to be puzzled.  Rusie, on the other hand, depended on an out drop, which he controlled with remarkable skill, in addition to his fast ball; but he had very little preliminary motion and used his shoulder almost exclusively.  Rusie probably had the better physique, but in head work and vitality Mathewson outclasses the big Hoosier.”

Christy Mathewson with John McGraw

Christy Mathewson with John McGraw

Griffith disagreed:

“Rusie in his prime was the best twirler that ever stepped into the box.  His curves, speed and control were the best assortment I ever looked at, and no pitcher has ever approached him in class since he made his departure from baseball.”

Crane cast the deciding vote, declaring:

“Rusie never had a peep in with Mathewson as a box artist.  Rusie relied mostly on brute strength until his arm began to show symptoms of crystallizing, then he accumulated a good slow ball; but for head work, pure good judgment, with a delivery or series of deliveries to back up his well-balanced brain, Mathewson is superior to any pitcher who ever wore shoe plates.”

Crane’s analysis was prescient.

Rusie’s greatness is undisputed—his speed was primary reason for moving the pitching distance from 50‘ to 60’ 6”—but his best days were behind him before he turned 24-years-old.  His season-long holdout in 1896 and the arm injury that effectively ended his career at 27 after the 1898 season (except for three games he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1901) make him one of baseball’s great “what ifs?”  He still finished his career 246-174, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Mathewson won twenty games for nine straight seasons after Crane declared him “superior to any pitcher.   He finished 373-188 and was part of the Hall of Fame’s first induction class.

“It will be a Local Patriotic Game for Blood”

4 Aug

In 1902 John Montgomery Ward was asked to predict the future.  He wrote about what baseball would look like in 1922 in an article that appeared in a number of East Coast and Midwest newspapers:

“What will the game of baseball be two decades hence?  Frankly I don’t know.  But believe me if it has withstood what it has during the last few years it will still be here.  I believe it is going through the fire now, but it will come out whole in the end…No other game has the same hold on the public from a spectator point of view, and that is why I am confident that it will last.”

John Montgomery Ward

John Montgomery Ward

Ward envisioned a system in which all the players on each team would be natives of the area the teams represented:

“Two decades from now it may be no longer a mere exhibition—for that is all it is now—an exhibition of the ability of a clever manager, with more money and more tact in managerial council to get together the best players in the market—it will be a locally patriotic game for blood.

“The time is coming when the players instead of being bought to play in any team that calls them, irrespective of where they live and whence the team is located, will belong to the locality from which the team hails.

“There is a tendency in that direction already.

“The Brooklyn management is an instance of one that appreciates the value of a player who has a local following.  They have retained (Wee Willie) Keeler, though the offers of other clubs have forced them to pay him a very large salary.  But they have their reward in his great popularity with the Brooklyn patrons of the game.  He was born there.  The people know him, know his history and they feel that he is always doing his best for his town and their town.

"Wee Willie" Keeler

“Wee Willie” Keeler

“Not only is this state of affairs characteristic of this team, but it is to be seen in one or two other teams in both leagues.  The managers appreciate the money value of a ‘local attraction,’ as they call it, and they want more men of the same kind.  They can’t find them but that is due to the mistaken system of buying and selling players for their worth as players, which has killed the local end of the game and stunted the development of the town boy on the town lot.  As soon as the new system of localizing the players comes into vogue there will be a revival of general interest in the game among the ‘town boys’ and players will be made to meet the demand.

“This revitalization of the game must come, and come it will in the next twenty years because baseball as an exhibition has reached it height.  It can be developed no further, and something must be done to advance or there will be a deterioration.

“Of course, if this is done, there will be some work for the Rules Committee to do.  It will be necessary to have some sort of legislation to apportion the territory fairly among the teams.  New York being the largest city in the United States will have the advantage of a smaller city, like Boston or Baltimore, and to even up matters it would be necessary for the committee to give the smaller town enough territory to make all available population the same.  The details must be decided by the events of the future.  But I believe that something like that is about to come and will be a feature of the game of baseball in 1922.”

Ward, who engaged in, and encouraged contract jumping in order to establish the Players League just more than decade earlier, now, because of the changes in the economics of baseball, saw the practice as the greatest threat to the game:

“There will be no ‘contract jumping’ which has given the national pastime such a setback in the last two years.  And much depends upon the decision of the courts.  This contract jumping is a two-edged sword.  It will someday cut back at the American League when their players start to jump.

“Every successful game nowadays and in the future must have money invested in it. Look at the progress the game of baseball has made in the last twenty years and that will give you an idea of what we might expect.

“Twenty years ago each team had about $1,000 invested in it to put it on a working basis.  Some did not have even that much.  To-day, in Philadelphia, there is a plant which is values at about $350,000.  They own a lot in the residence section of the town and the ground is daily growing more valuable for building purposes.  In twenty years it will have tripled in value.  There is also a substantial brick wall around it and a valuable iron grand stand.

“Twenty years from now we may expect to find the conditions in Philadelphia existing all over the country, and there will be a hundred million dollars invested in the sport.  All this if the contract-jumping business is made impossible for the future.

“Take it as a fair business proposition.  Would any sane man invest his money in an enterprise which could be ruined at any moment by the failure of any outside party to fulfill his end of the contract?

“In baseball the ruin may come at any time, for if a man can ‘jump’ in March he can jump in May or June, just when his help is needed most, and there is no redress for the man who invests.  The courts, for the most part, claim that, if there is any damage done, the laws are open for redress and the manager can sue the player for damages.  But whom can he sue and from whom get redress?  Yhe contract-jumper has nothing and is generally irresponsible.  If a coal company contracts to deliver so many tons of coal to you in so many months, and you, in turn contract to deliver so many tons to other parties in so many months, and you are made to lose money because the coal company breaks the contract and fails to deliver the goods, you can get legal redress in an action for damages.  But not so with the baseball manager.

“If contract-jumping is allowed, the future of baseball is a future full of small things and a lack of progress.  But contract-jumping will not be heard of twenty years hence.  Already one state in the Union has declared against it legally—the state of Pennsylvania.  They have good lawyers down there, and they know what they are talking about.  And the crucial test and the future of baseball—a future full of big things as yet undreamed of, is now in the hands of the Circuit Court of the United States.

“If the Circuit Court of the United States falls in line with the Pennsylvania decision (Philadelphia Ball Club v. (Napoleon) Lajoie) there will be no more contract-jumping, and the manager, after signing his contracts with his players, can invest his whole fortune, safe in the belief that he will not risk it subject to loss at the whim of his players or through the wiles of a rival organization.

“Then the game will take on a luxury which has not heretofore been possible, and the game of twenty years from now will see as much improvement as it saw in the last twenty years.”

Ward predicted no major rule changes, saying they “seem to have reached perfection” but conceded “Still, there is a Rules Committee, created to make rules, and it naturally feels it must do something to earn its salary.”  Ward said he endorsed two major rule changes during the past decade; the rule to “move the catcher up under the bat,” (adopted in 1901 in the National League and ’02 in the American), and the 1893 change that increased the pitching distance to 60’ 6”.

“It gives the batter a better chance to fix his attention on hitting the ball, because he does not need to be afraid of an inshoot or know when he takes the bat in his hand that he is also taking his life in his hand.  I tell you it was a serious matter in those days to get hit by a ball from the strong arm of one of those fast pitchers, as my own experience can testify.”

As with every era of baseball, Ward said some of his contemporaries thought the game had already changed so much as to no longer resemble the game they played twenty years earlier:

“I was talking to one the other day in Philadelphia (Arthur Irwin).  He is of the old school you know (and said) ‘Oh, it’s not like the old days, when I played on the Philadelphia team for four years without men being changed.  All we had were (Jack) Clements and (Deacon) McGuire as catchers, (Charlie) Ferguson, (Charlie) Buffington and (Dan) Casey as pitchers, (Joe) Mulvey, (Charlie) Bastian, (Sid) Farrar and myself in the infield and (George) Wood and (Jim) Fogarty in the outfield.

Arthur Irwin

Arthur Irwin

“’We didn’t need to be nervous every time we made an error, and look to have one or more of a half dozen substitutes take our place.  And we played ball, we did, and no mistake, for we knew our jobs were safe.’”

Irwin’s recollection was fuzzy—the lineup as he described was only in place in 1887  (but even that season Barney McLaughlin played more games at second than Bastian) –but he insisted the lack of competition for a roster spot made players better:

“’We could give these boys who are playing now cards and spades on lots of things, inside work and out, and best them.  We had the hit and run, and we didn’t bunt as much as they do now.  I can’t see how runs can be made by so much bunting.  Oh, for the good old time back again when the swatting game was the thing.  I believe the public would rather see the boys slug the ball and run.  Shades of Roger Connor, ‘Buck’ Ewing and Jim O’Rourke!  What would they think of this bunting business?  It makes me sick to think of it.’”

Buck Ewing

Buck Ewing

Ward said Irwin was one of many “old-style players who feel the same way,” but he was more optimistic, but still managed to take a shot at current, and future,  players:

“I have great hopes for the future of the game, and I believe that all that has been done in the past to make it take the place it occupies to-day will not be a circumstance to what will be done in the next twenty years to make it take the place in the heart of the nation which has not been dreamed of heretofore.

“The players may not be as good as the players of the past, and this especially true of the local player idea becoming a fact, but the interest will be great, and after all, the interest in the game is the fountain source of its life.”

“There are many Degrees of ‘Fan'”

1 Aug

It seemed that James Aristotle “Jim” Hart, president of the Chicago Orphans had a full plate in 1901.  His team got off to a 1-6 start and never recovered, finishing a disappointing 58-81, while the cross-town White Sox took over first place on July 10 and never looked back, winning the American League’s inaugural pennant.

Jim Hart

Jim Hart

Additionally, Hart was meeting frequently with American League President Bancroft “Ban” Johnson in an attempt to avert all-out war between the two leagues.  Rumors about the trouble ahead were so numerous that The Chicago Inter Ocean said one day during August:

“Ban Johnson went fishing yesterday, and Jim Hart busied himself making out checks for his players.  As a plain matter of fact, there wasn’t enough baseball excitement in town to scare a rabbit, but the fakebirds sang just the same.  By night, the National League had flopped over to the American and the American had joined the National; all the players on each side had been stolen, and there were forty-six more baseball wars in view.”

Despite his fading team, the looming battle, and the fact that the White Sox would out draw his club by nearly 150,000 over the course of the season, he still found time to make it clear what constituted “a genuine fan.”  Hart wrote an article for The Chicago Record-Herald:

“The genuine fan is a proper adjunct of the game of baseball and should be encouraged, for from him must come the enthusiasm which provides capital necessary  to operate the game, the encouragement which causes youths to become proficient players and the constant dropping of con for admission tickets to witness games which permits the sport to continue.

“There are many degrees of ‘fans,’ some agreeable and some disagreeable to an extent which is intolerable.  The ‘fan’ proper is perfectly harmless; he annoys nobody and loves the game for the amusement and benefit he derives from it.  He keeps the records of players of his favorite team and players of other teams.  He feels as if he had encountered personal loss when his team losses and is correspondingly jubilant when the team wins.  He does not roar or rant at the players, but feels grieved that any player on his pet team should ever make an error.

“The next degree of ‘fan’ is the one who becomes wildly demonstrative; he can ‘see things’ only one way, and that is the way he wants them to be; the umpire’s decisions are invariably wrong when they do not happen to be the way he wants them; the errors made by the players of his favorite team are made purposely and could just as well been avoided.  Consequently he at once joins the chorus of ‘take him out’ etc…

“The disagreeable ‘fan’ is strictly speaking not a ‘fan’ at all, but is a person who wishes notoriety and the ‘laugh’ which his sallies cause, for be it known that almost any remark made by a person among the spectators  causes more or less of a laugh.  This class of ‘fan’ does not always employ profane of vulgar language, but his remarks are usually coarse and are personal, directed usually to some spectator, or to a player or to the umpire, and, as stated above while the language is not always of a character that is vile, it encourages the next lower degree of ‘fan’ to use expressions which cannot be tolerated on any properly conducted baseball park.

“An honest management is under great strain during a game of baseball whenever the attendance runs up into the thousands, for it feels that every person there, especially the women, are under the protection of the management, and, when one reflects upon the enormous force for good or evil that is contained in an enclosure of less than a half dozen acres when from 15,000 to 20,000 persons are congregated to witness what may prove a wildly exciting contest upon which the championship of the world may depend, he will not by any act or word jeopardize the welfare and happiness of the people assembled.

“The mobs that attack umpires are not ‘fans.’  They are cowards and rowdies and the person who from the crowd insults a player is bound by the rules of his league and club to resent no insult of any description while in uniform;  consequently to hurl an insulting remark at a player or umpire while he is on the playing field is at par with striking a man who is bound hand and foot and tied to a post.”

Hart’s Orphans improved to 68-69 and finished fifth in 1902, but were again outplayed (74-60, fourth place) and out drawn by the Sox–Hart made no comment about the relative quality of either team’s fans.

Fans at White Sox game circa 1910

Fans at White Sox game circa 1910

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