“There was probably none so Unique as Shreve”

24 Jul

Leven Lawrence “Lev” Shreve II came from a prominent family in Louisville, Kentucky.  His great-uncle, and namesake, had been president of the Louisville Gas and Water Company, and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.

The 19-year-old made his professional debut in 1886, playing with Savannah, then Chattanooga; he was a combined 12-9 with 1.52 ERA.  Shreve was signed by Billy Barnie to join his young pitching staff with the Baltimore Orioles in the American Association.  He came to Baltimore with great expectations.

Lev Shreve

Lev Shreve

The Baltimore Daily News called him “Barnie’s phenom.”  In wasn’t the first time a relatively unknown pitcher was given that name by the Baltimore press.

Shreve had trouble getting as Barnie primarily relied on 21-year-old Matt Kilroy and 22-year-old Phenomenal Smith; Shreve, and fellow 20-year-old Ed Knouff saw limited action in the first two months of the season.

The Sporting Life said he wasn’t happy:

 “Shreve, the Louisville boy…complains that he does not get a fair deal.  He affirms that his arm is in fine trim, but that he is not allowed to pitch. Shreve is an ambitious ball player, and desires to show what is in him.  He says he will quit if Barnie does not play him.”

The Baltimore Sun said

“People are asking why Shreve isn’t given a chance.”

The Sporting Life, perhaps, provided an explanation for the lack of work later that month:

“Cigarette smoking is said to be impairing the efficiency of two Baltimore pitchers, Shreve and Knouff”

It would not be the last mention of cigarettes and Shreve in The Sporting Life;  the pitcher was also said to be “a cigarette fiend,” and “as noted for his cigarette habit” as his pitching.

Neither Shreve, who was sold to the Indianapolis Hoosiers in the National League, nor Knouff, who was sold to the St. Louis Browns, would finish the season with Baltimore; it’s unknown whether smoking was the cause.

Shreve was 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA in five games in Baltimore.

The sale to Indianapolis didn’t seem to hurt Shreve’s confidence according to George Myers, his catcher with the Hoosiers.  Meyers, two decades after playing with Shreve, said the pitcher was talented, cocky and erratic, and described Shreve’s first National League game; a 4-1 10-inning victory over the first place Detroit Wolverines on August 19:

“There was probably none so unique as Shreve…My, but he was a fresh youth…He had awful speed and good curves and perfect control of the ball.  His confidence and egotism were astounding.  I remember one day we were to play against Detroit (Wolverines).  It was when the big four, (Jack) Rowe, (Deacon) White, (Hardy) Richardson and (Dan) Brouthers were on the team.

“Mr. Shreve, who had been assigned to pitch, strutted to the box with the swagger that would have made John L. Sullivan look cheap when John L. was monarch of all in the fistic business.  ‘Just watch me fellows, and see what I do to those swell-headed guys from Michigan,’ said the smiling Shreve.  ‘I am going to make ‘em look like a lot of suckers.’

“Richardson was the first batter up…’So you are the great invincible Hardy Richardson, eh?’ drawled Mr. Shreve.  ‘Well Hardy, old chap, I’m going to show you that you are easy for a good pitcher…Shreve let go the first ball and it went around Hardy’s neck like a shot.  He struck at it after I had it in my hands.  Bang goes the second, also a strike, and the third a wide, slow, outshoot, fooled the great batter completely and Shreve said mockingly: ‘Back to the bench Hardy, I told you that you were easy.

“Big Dan Brouthers, who was always a terror to pitchers, came next and he had blood in his eye…’so this is the terrible Mr. Dan Brouthers,’ grinned the fresh pitcher.  ‘Hate to tell you Dan, how soft a mark you are’…Dan missed the first two, which went close to his chin, and the next he hit like a shot at the pitcher.  Shreve caught it in easy style and gave Brouthers the ‘ha ha’ in most tantalizing fashion as Dan ambled to the bench.

“Deacon White came next and Shreve kidded him unmercifully.  ‘Deacon who told you that you could hit anything?’ was the greeting white was given.  The Deacon scowled and muttered ominous.  ’Duck soup is what you are for me.’ Sand Shreve, as White missed the first ball by several inches.  ‘Oh, how easy,’ was the next rejoinder, and Deacon smashed blindly at an outshoot, a moment later striking out on one of those speedy ones such as had sent Richardson to the bench.

“The Big Four could do absolutely nothing with Shreve’s delivery, and the other members of their team were just as helpless…This fellow Shreve was one of the best pitchers I ever met, but he was an erratic chap, and dreadfully hard to handle.”

George Myers

George Myers

After beating the eventual National League champions in his first start, Shreve ended up a disappointing 5-9 with a 4.72 ERA for Indianapolis.

Myers said on another occasion Shreve approached him before pitching against the Chicago White Stockings, who had won the National League championship in 1886:

“’Say, George, what team is this we are up against today?’

“I immediately began to read him a lecture, telling him that a young man just starting in on his career as a professional ballplayer shouldn’t deport himself in such a manner. ‘The idea of you coming on to the grounds when the champion Chicagos are here, and not knowing it, why—‘  ‘The champion Chicagos,’ interrupted Shreve, ‘Never mind, George, just watch me.  Oh just wait and see what I will do to that bunch.”

Myer s said Shreve shutout the White Stockings.  (This story appears to be either apocryphal or conflated with another incident as Shreve did not shutout Chicago that season).

Shreve was 11-24 in 1888 and 0-3 in 1889 when he was released by the Hoosiers.  He played three minor league seasons and was out of professional baseball by the age of 24.

Myers said his former teammate was “erratic as Rube Waddell,” and:

“I could tell story after story about this man Shreve.  If he had taken care of himself he would have been the greatest pitcher in baseball history.”

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