Happy Labor Day—the Oberbeck Case

1 Sep

Henry Oberbeck is barely a footnote in baseball history—he appeared in 66 American Association and Union Association games in 1883 and 1884, hitting just .176—but he scored a rare, early victory for the rights of players.

Henry Oberbeck

Henry Oberbeck

 

In 1883, after appearing in just two games with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, Oberbeck was released and signed with the Peoria Reds in the Northwestern League.

No records survive for Oberbeck’s time in Peoria, but the outfielder caught the eye of St. Louis Browns owner Chris von der Ahe, and the St. Louis native jumped his contract with Peoria to sign with the Browns on May 24.

Chris von der Ahe

Chris von der Ahe

Oberbeck’s short tenure with St. Louis was unimpressive.  He played four games, and was hitless in 14 at bats.  The Browns released him on June 23.

He found himself out of a job in the American Association, and was unable to return to Peoria because he had been blackballed by the Northwestern League.

Oberbeck filed a law suit in St. Louis claiming the Browns owed him the entire amount of his contract –$785.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the “case is regarded as a test,” and is “being fought very earnestly.”

The March, 1884 trial included testimony from  Overbeck’s teammates, catcher/outfielder Tom Dolan and pitcher George “Jumbo” McGinnis.  Dolan, a .204 lifetime hitter whose .214 average lowest among the Browns 1883 regulars testified that Oberbeck was a poor hitter who “hit wind nearly every time.”  McGinnis also said Overbeck deserved to be released.

Despite the testimony of his teammates, the jury found in favor of Oberbeck and ordered the Browns to pay him $431.12—although most newspapers incorrectly reported the amount paid as $738.

The press assumed the decision would have a lasting impact.  The Post-Dispatch said:

“The case is one of interest to base ball players, inasmuch as it proves that the contracts are binding upon the part of the club as well as the player.”

Oberbeck was signed by the Baltimore Monuments of the Union Association for 1884, and played a total of 60 games for Baltimore and the Kansas City Cowboys that season—he hit .186 as an outfielder/first baseman and was 0-5 in six appearances as a pitcher.

The Browns appealed the case and lost, but by the time the appellate court upheld the original decision in Henry Oberbeck v. Sportsman’s Park and Club Association in April of 1885, Oberbeck’s victory for the rights of baseball players was already largely forgotten.

In 1885 The Post-Dispatch said Oberbeck had been reinstated by the Northwestern League, although there is no record of his ever having returned to the league.   The Youngstown Vindicator said he had signed with that city’s team in the Interstate league for 1885 season.

No statistics survive for Oberbeck after 1884, and his groundbreaking role in baseball’s labor movement is all but forgotten.

He returned to St. Louis after his career and worked for the post office until his death from cancer in 1921.

“Lord, if you ever Helped a Mortal Man, help me get that Ball”

29 Aug

Outfielder turned evangelist Billy Sunday spent a month during 1902 traveling through the small towns of East Central Indiana, preaching in the small towns that rose as a result of the natural gas boom.

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday, ballplayer

A reporter for The Philadelphia Press spent time with Sunday during the tour, and the paper ran a story that the evangelist told at every stop—about how “prayer saved a game of baseball.”

Sunday said it happened during 1886—Sunday at various times said he was “saved” in 1886 or 1887– when he was playing for the Chicago White Stockings.  The first place White Stockings were playing the second place Detroit Wolverines in a September series:

“The last half of the ninth inning was being played,” says the ex-ball player.  “Two men were out, and Detroit, with Charley Bennett at bat, had one man on second and another on third.  He had two strikes on him and three balls called, when he fell on a ball with terrific force.  It started for the clubhouse.  Benches had been placed in the field for spectators, and as I saw the ball sailing through my section of the air I realized I was going over the crowd, and I called: ‘Get out of the way!’  The crowd opened, and as I ran and leaped those benches I said one of the swiftest prayers that was ever offered.

“It was, ‘Lord, if you ever helped a mortal man, help me get that ball.’  I went over the benches as though wings were carrying me up.  I threw out my hand while in the air, and the ball struck and stuck.  The game was ours.  Though the deduction is hardly orthodox, I am sure the Lord helped me catch that ball, and it was my first great lesson in prayer.  Al Johnson, brother of the present mayor of Cleveland, ran up to me and handed me a ten-dollar bill.  ‘Buy a new hat Bill,’ said he.  ‘That catch won me $1,500.”

The White Stockings went on to win the National League championship over Detroit by two and half games.

Sunday’s stories earned him thousands of followers, and scores of critics—among the religious and non-religious.

Billy Sunday, evangelist

Billy Sunday, evangelist

A 1915 article—during the height of Sunday’s popularity– in “The Congregationalist and Christian World,” the magazine of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches said:

“He has grave faults.  He is intolerant; his language is often violent, impatient and unkind.  He is a fighter of the types that asks and gives no quarter.  I saw him do and say things that seemed to me ridiculous and I disapprove of many things I reason to believe he has said and done.  I could make out a pretty strong case against him on the facts I have at my command.  But after we have said all that, we have before us a preacher whom I believe to be honest and earnest…He says ‘If I talked the same and acted the same as the other fellows do I wouldn’t get more people to listen to me than they get.’  With the crowd before him he wins their confidence, makes them his friends and delivers the message that is in his heart.  He talks plain, blunt language, tinged with the vernacular of the sporting crowd and that all who follow our great national game are accustomed to use.”

“It’s Strange how these Stars of Balldom have such Beliefs”

27 Aug

Throughout his career as an American League umpire, Billy Evans, who had covered baseball for The Youngstown Vindicator continued to write syndicated newspaper articles.  He was fascinated by the superstitions that controlled the actions of so many players.

Billy Evans

Billy Evans

He followed a 1907 article about the subject, with more stories the following year:

“Of all professions, that of baseball player is the most superstitious…Of course, there are many superstitions in common, yet most of the players have pet ideas of their own on which they place much reliance.  The data of origin of many of the superstitions is a deep, dark mystery.”

Evans said:

“There is certainly nothing out of the ordinary to be seen in a load of hay, yet most players welcome the sight of one during the playing season.  In the dictionary of baseball a load of hay signifies two hits that afternoon for the discoverer, and history tells us there is nothing dearer to a player’s heart than base hits…While its supposed strange magic often fails, still the players retain faith in it.  On the other hand, the sight of a load of empty barrels is always dreaded, for some it means a shutout, to others merely defeat.”

Of one popular superstition of the time, Evans said there was “no greater believer in shaking up the bats when a rally is on” than Cleveland Naps pitcher Charles “Heinie” Berger:

“Ordinarily a team keeps its bats lined up in front of the bench in a fairly tidy manner.  According to Heinie’s code that is all well and good when everything is moving along smoothly, but when a rally appears to be in the air, the proper way to encourage it, according to Berger, is to scatter the bats in every direction.”

Heinie Berger

Heinie Berger

Evans told the story of the Naps’ August 21, 1908 game, although some of the details regarding the scoring wrong, he got most of the facts correct:

“One day last summer during an important game at Philadelphia, the Athletics got away with a seven-run lead in the first two innings.  When they added another in the third, it certainly looked as if things were all off so far as Cleveland was concerned.  Until the seventh inning the Naps bench was not unlike a funeral.  Two runs in the seventh stirred up a little hope, and caused Heinie to heave a few big sticks in different directions.  His actions caused Umpire Jack Sheridan (Sheridan and Evans both worked the game, Sheridan was behind the plate) was to offer a mild rebuke and incidentally warn Heinie that he wanted nothing but silence during the rest of the afternoon.”

Cleveland scored two runs the following inning, and had the tying run on base:

“Heinie proceeded to scatter the two dozen or more bats in all directions.  That was too much for the veteran Sheridan, and after he had made Berger replace all the bats back in a straight line, he tied a can on the Teuton and chased him from the lot.

“Berger viewed the remainder of the game from the bleachers, failing to carry out completely the edict of the umpire.  When the Naps scored the two men on the sacks and tied up the game he was happy.  Heinie was confident that the bat superstition had aided in the victory that he was sure would result, now that the score was tied.  When the Athletics scored a run in the eighth that proved to be the winner his confidence in the theory was not shaken in the least. He blamed the defeat on Sheridan, claiming that as soon as the umpire ejected him from the game the spell was broken.”

Evans also wrote about his favorite superstitious player, “Wild Bill” Donovan, pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.  Evans had previously mentioned Donovan’s fear of throwing a shutout during his first start of each season, and his actions in one game in particular, but now gave a more detailed account:

“It all seems rather foolish, yet I have worked back of Donovan on two such occasions and have every reason to believe that Bill makes it possible for his opponents to score.  In one of the games Detroit had the affair clinched 8 to 0 in the eighth.  With one down and a man on second Charley Hickman stepped to the plate.  A straight fast one is the most delicious kind of dessert for Charley, although he likes almost any old thing in the shape of curves and slants.

“There is no more strategic pitcher in the league than Donovan, yet he started off the reel to hand them up to Hick’s liking.  After fouling off three, Hick met a fast one on the nose and was blowing hard at third by the time the ball was relayed back to the infield.  He scored a moment later, but Detroit too the game easily, 8 to 2.  Bill had escaped the much despised shutout.  By the way that year was the most successful of Donovan’s career, and, of course, merely served to strengthen his belief.”

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan

Again, Evans got nearly all the details correct—except the final score was 9 to 2.  The May 24, 1907 game was Donovan’s first start of his best season in baseball (25-4, 2.19 ERA for the American League Pennant winners), and he did lose a shutout to Washington in the eighth inning on a Hickman triple.

Evans said a superstition often attributed to Cy Young, was not a superstition at all:

“The veteran Cy Young, the grand old man of them all, is one of the few players who doesn’t take much stock in omens of good or bad luck.  Cy, however, has one big hobby.  He always prefers to pitch on dark days…The dark day idea is no superstition with Cy.  No one except the batters perhaps realizes how hard it is to hit his fast ball when the light is dim.  It is really a pleasure for him to work out of turn on such days, for he knows what a big handicap he has over his opponents.”

Evans said another Hall of Fame pitcher had a bizarre habit, that while perhaps not a superstition, bears mentioning:

Jack Chesbro, the famous spitter, is always of the opinion that someone is slipping a doctored ball over on him, and quite often asks for a new one when the cover doesn’t taste just right.”

The umpire concluded:

“It’s strange how these stars of balldom have such beliefs and stick to them, but they do.  The ball player lives in a world of his own, more than any other profession with the possible exception of the actors.”

Hugh Nicol

25 Aug

In 1884 Hugh “Little Nic” Nicol was one of the most popular members of the St. Louis Browns—so popular, a local boy’s team named themselves after the rightfielder, and the Nicol was invited to address the team.

Hugh Nicol

Hugh Nicol

A reporter for The St. Louis Critic was on hand when Nicol imparted his baseball wisdom to the kids:

“I’m no speech maker, but if you like I’ll give you a pointer or two, and you can take ‘em or leave ‘em, just as you like.  First, when you go to the bat don’t sneak up there, but pick up your club determined like, and look at the pitcher as you’d look at a mosquito which you had the dead wood on.  Then when he curls the ball away, up around your left year duck your head, look mad and whisper, ‘Oh, you sucker you know better than to give me a good ball.’  That’s what you call workin’ the pitcher—makin’ him mad as a bull—so mad that he’ll put the ball just where you say he can’t put it, but where you know he’s going to put it, and when he puts it there smash her right in the eye.

“Then when you’ve smashed her, don’t stop and admire the smash, but make for first as though the devil was trying catch hold of your coat tails.  When you reach first don’t stop unless you hear the captain yell: ‘Hole yer first; hole it!’  If he yells ‘hole it,’ obey orders.  Don’t think you know more than him, because if you get to thinkin’ that way your head will begin to swell, and all the ice in St. Louis won’t take down the swellin’ If you only reach first, place your arms akimbo and look at the pitcher as though you had got there by a fluke and was going to hold to her if it was the last act.  If you are a runner, and not one of those tired cusses that crawl when they think they’re flyin’.

“Make for second the moment he pitches the ball; and when you get near the bag, grab hold of it and come up smilin’ at the umpire , as though you meant to say “Oh, I beat the ball about a foot, and he never touched me anyhow.’  If you work it right the umpire will sing out, ‘Hole yer second!’

“But, fellers if you can’t run when you reach first stay there and thank God you got that far.  Don’t try to make second for if you do the catcher will make a bloomin’ gillie out of you.  But make out that you are a dandy on the run, and bob up and down like a bear dancing on a red hot stove.  That kind of business works up the pitcher and he’ll try to catch you nappin’, but instead he’ll fire the ball away over the first baseman’s head.  Then if you can run a little bit you can get all the way ‘round.  But take care that he don’t catch you nappin’.  If he does that the captain will call you a bum base runner and you’ll feel like clubbin’ the life out of yourself.”

Thirty-five years later, Nicol attended an old-timers banquet at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago and spoke with Al Spink, then occasionally writing for The Chicago Evening Post.  Spink called Nicol “the smallest and most wonderful right fielder in America.”

Nicol, like most of his 19th Century brethren, thought his old teammates were better than current players:

“I can’t see where the game has improved a bit since we played it…and I can’t see where the players of today are any better than our old gang…I don’t see any players cavorting around on the diamond today that are any better than the Browns’ old infield when it was composed of (Charles) Comiskey, (William “Yank”) Robinson, (Arlie) Latham and (Bill) Gleason…Where are there any better players than our old Chicago infield—(Cap) Anson, (Fred) Pfeffer, (Ned) Williamson and (Tom)Burns?”

1885 St. Louis Browns--Nicol is on the far right of the bottom row.

1885 St. Louis Browns–Nicol is on the far right of the bottom row.

Nicol also objected to the way the game was played:

“(W)here is there the  enthusiasm and the effort to win that was in evidence in the days when we played?

“Nowadays a player often goes to the bat acting like a man who has lost an immediate member of his family.

“We used to go up smiling and acting as though we were certain of clouting out a homer, although we often fell down on the proposition.

“And then, too, many of your players of today make little attempt to advance themselves in the various departments of play.

“They do not half try to learn all the fine points of the game as we did in the days of old, but simply try to get by.  They are content if they get a couple of hits every afternoon and play an errorless game.  The first thing they do each morning is to get the newspaper and look at the hit and error columns.  If they don’t see themselves credited with a hit perhaps they did make, some sports writer gets a terrible panning.”

Nicol managed in the Three-I League and later  coached baseball and served as athletic director at Purdue University from 1906 until 1914—he resigned both positions in November of 1914 after a dispute with his football coach Andy Smith and Smith’s assistant Pete Vaughn (who was also Purdue’s basketball coach).

Nicol 1904

Nicol 1904

Nicol was often credited by contemporary sports writers with inventing the head-first slide.

He died in Lafayette, Indiana in 1921.

“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.

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