Tag Archives: Harry Swacina

“There is a Heap about Baseball that I do not Know”

4 May

After Ted Sullivan blamed Joe Nealon’s father for his failure to secure the first baseman for the Reds, James C. Nealon was not going to let his accusations stand, and sent a letter in response to Sullivan’s letter to The Cincinnati Enquirer:

“The public has always permitted, and will always permit a man who has lost the object he was seeking to compensate himself for the loss is excusing his failure by some worthy and absurd explanation, or by throwing the responsibility of the failure on someone else.”

Nealon said he was forced to respond because Sullivan “falsely placed myself and my son in an unenviable light.”

Nealon said he only cared about his son going to the club with “the best and most congenial associations,” and initially, many people he trusted told him Cincinnati was the best option.

He said Sullivan was the reason he and his son changed their minds.  Nealon said he checked train schedules and determined that Sullivan—who left Cincinnati on October 28—could have arrived in California no later than November 3, yet he did not hear from the Reds representative until after the contract was signed with Pittsburgh on November 6.

Nealon also said while he received a telegram from August Herrmann, Cincinnati Reds owner, with the offer of “a certain sum more than any other club,” he never shared that information with the Pirates Fred Clarke, and that the combination of being insulted by the Reds making their offer just about money and Sullivan not arriving in time made up his mind, and as a result:

 “I advised my son to sign a contract with any club he desired.”

After Sullivan arrived in San Francisco, Nealon said:

“He admitted to me that it was all his fault, yet he seeks in your paper to advise the public that it was the fault of my son and myself…I would rather (Joe) fail then to commit a dishonorable act, and I do not want the people of Cincinnati to believe his entry into the major league was associated in any manner with unfairness or unfair dealing.  Mr. Sullivan knows it was not.”

Joe Nealon wrote a letter to The Pittsburgh Post, and said he understood that when he joined the team in Hot Springs. Arkansas:

“There is a heap about baseball that I do not know.  I am eager to learn, however, and will gladly go under instructions.”

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Joe Nealon

Even after the beginning of the 1906 season, the stories about what influenced Nealon to sign with the Pirates would not go away.  In May is was reported that it was Jake Beckley, former first baseman for the Reds and Pirates who influenced Nealon to accept Clarke’s offer.  Nealon told The Pittsburgh Press that Beckley had nothing to do with his decision, and continued to blame Sullivan who he said did not “keep faith” with him and his father.

Nealon appeared in every game, hit the Pirates first home run of the 1906 season on May 5, tied Harry Steinfeldt for the league lead in RBI, and led all NL first basemen in total chances and putouts.

At the end of the season it was widely reported that Nealon would not return to the Pirates for the 1907 season.  After the team lost five straight games in September and slipped to third place, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss went on a tear to a wire service reporter—The Philadelphia Inquirer, under the headline “Barney Dreyfuss Lets Himself say Things” said:

“(Dreyfuss said) if his team doesn’t win second place for him he will keep their noses to the grindstone barnstorming for him until their contracts have run out (on October 16)”

Dreyfuss told the reporter:

“One of the things that ails our team is that there are too many capitalists on it.  The boys know that they do not have to play ball for a living, and sometimes that may affect their playing.  There is only one of the old players on the Pittsburgh team who is playing as a means of livelihood—that’s (Tommy) Leach.  The other could give up the game anytime.”

Nealon left the team immediately after the final game in Cincinnati and did not participate in the tour.  The San Francisco Call said he was done:

“Nealon, who became a great favorite in Pittsburgh and all over the league circuit, has had several grievances against Pittsburgh, and it was announced some time ago that the big San Francisco lad had declared himself in no unmeasured terms that he did not have to take the worst of it from anyone connected with the club, nor would he more than one season.”

The Call said Nealon became disenchanted in Pittsburgh when Dreyfuss attempted to trade him and “other Pittsburgh players” to the Brooklyn Superbas for Harry Lumley and Tim Jordan “although Captain Clarke had guaranteed him a full and free tryout for a year.”

Nealon returned to San Francisco to play winter ball, but he failed to make a trip to Stockton for the first game.  The San Jose Evening News said:

“Many San Joseans who took the trip to Stockton…were disappointed in not seeing Joe Nealon…the big first baseman, met with an accident Saturday evening.”

While racing to catch the train to Stockton, Nealon tripped and fell into a stone wall.  He broke two bones in his left hand.”

In December, the Pittsburgh papers reported that Nealon had declared himself “Completely healed,” in a letter to Barney Dreyfuss.

By February The Pittsburgh Press was assuring readers:

“Reports from the West have Joe Nealon in the best condition of his career.  Just keep your eyes on this big fellow this season; he is going to be a winner in every sense of the word.”

Despite the high expectations, Nealon was a disappointment to the pirates when he reported to  West Baden, Indiana in March.  The Press said:

“If the fans at home could see big Joe Nealon now they would not know him.  With his sweater on he looks like a three hundred pounder.”

Nealon actually weighed 216 pounds, roughly 20 pounds heavier than he was in 1906.

Additionally, The Pittsburgh Post said Nealon was experiencing stiffness in his left hand.

The Press announced that Nealon had gotten down to his playing weight and that his had had healed just in time for the opening of the season, but a knee injury sliding into second during the Pirates third game sidelined him for nearly two weeks, and according to The Post included a visit to John “Bonesetter” Reese, the Youngstown, Ohio doctor who treated many major leaguers.

Nealon was hitting just .217 in June when The Washington Post noted that two California Thoroughbreds—Nealon and Joe Nealon—both bred by friends of Nealon’s father, and both stakes race winners in 1907, were having decidedly better years than the first baseman.

Nealon steadily improved his batting average but had already fallen out of favor with fans and in the papers.  Rumors persisted that the Pirates were trying to trade for Fred Tenney of the Boston Doves.  By September, The Press said:

 “There is suspicion among the Pittsburgh players that Tenney may be secured as first baseman…to succeed Joe Nealon whose work this season is said to have been below standard.”

When Harry Swacina was purchased by the Pirates from the Peoria Distillers in the Three-I League that same month, the Pittsburgh correspondent for The Sporting News said:

 “He is an improvement over Joe Nealon in every department of the game.”

The New York Sun summed up the consensus view:

“Joe Nealon came out of California with the reputation of being a better first baseman than Hal Chase was, but in making a big league reputation Chase simply lost his fellow Californian.”

Swacina hit just .200, but got most of the playing time at first base in September, Nealon finished with a .257 average.

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Nealon

The Press speculated in November about who would play first base for the Pirates in 1908:

“Most of the fans have eliminated Joe Nealon from the competition all together, for it is an open secret that both President (Barney) Dreyfuss and Manager (Fred) Clarke were displeased with the way the young Californian acted this year, and it is presumed that no further time will be wasted with him, but that he will either be traded or released outright.”

In December, Nealon ended any remaining speculation by announcing his retirement—two weeks before his 23rd birthday. The Post said:

“The big Californian has quit the professional diamond for all time and will become a partner in business with his millionaire father…But for the intercession of Fred Clarke, it is said he would have been asked to retire about mid season, alleged infractions of the club’s rules and his general attitude of indifference being criticized by the local management.”

Nealon went to Hawaii in December with a team of West Coast stars—including Bill Lange and Orval Overall— formed by Mique Fisher and told reporters he would play weekends in San Francisco in 1908.

After returning from Hawaii, Nealon made his retirement official in a letter to Dreyfuss.  The Press said:

Joe writes that he is helping his father  who has a contract to erect a large public building in California…he asks, however, that his name be kept on Pittsburgh’s reserve list and wishes his teammates the best of luck.”

Nealon went to work with his father and appeared in 62 games for the Sacramento Senators in the California State League in 1908—hitting .372; as late as July he was hitting .436.  Nearly every Pacific Coast League time tried to sign him that summer, but The Oakland Tribune said:

“(Nealon) declared positively to the writer yesterday that he would not play ball, except as he is doing now, and Joe said there was not enough money in any of the Coast League treasuries to make him change his mind.”

Despite his protestations, nearly every team on the West Coast sought to sign Nealon.  Charlie Graham, Owner of the Sacramento Sacts made an offer that The San Francisco Call said led Nealon to tell a friend he wasn’t sure he could refuse.  He eventually did refuse, and instead signed to play for the Oakland Commuters in the California State League. The Call said he was the highest paid player on the West Coast.

Nealon captained the Oakland club, and hit .274 in 138 games.  How Nealon differed from his teammates and most players was probably best illustrated during a bench clearing brawl between Oakland and the Stockton Millers in June.  The Oakland Tribune said:

“(E)very man on both teams, with the exception of Joe Nealon, was mixed up…Nealon simply walked about the field and sat on the bench while the trouble was going on, and if anyone should ask right quick what player showed the only good judgment on the field the answer would be Joe Nealon.”

Nealon announced his retirement again, a week after his 25th birthday.

Nealon’s father had just helped elect San Francisco’s new mayor, Patrick Henry McCarthy, The Tribune said Nealon was “slated for a fat political job.”

Nealon was appointed deputy in the San Francisco County Clerk’s office in January.

On March 28, The Tribune said:

“(Nealon) is lying on death’s door in his home in San Francisco, suffering from typhoid fever.  Several physicians have been at the bedside of the ill athlete almost constantly for the past few days, and although they hold out but slight hope for his recovery, they state that his splendid physique may enable him to pull through.”

Nealon died five days later.

 

Nick Maddox

9 Feb

Nicholas “Nick” Maddox burst on the National League scene in 1907. Born in Maryland on November 9, 1886, Maddox’ was born Nicholas Duffy, but adopted his stepfather’s name Maddox.

In 1906 the 19-year-old was given a trial in the spring with the providence Grays in the Eastern league.  He was released before the season began and signed with the Cumberland Rooters in the Pennsylvania-Ohio-Maryland League (POM).  Maddox had played in 1905 for the Piedmont team in the semi-pro Cumberland and Georges Creek League.

He was the best pitcher in the POM; The Sporting Life said Maddox was 22-3 for the Rooters who finished the season in fourth place with a 50-45 record, and was “the fastest pitcher in the league.”

Nick Maddox

Nick Maddox

Maddox spent most of 1907 with the Wheeling Stogies of the Central League.  He posted a 13-10 record and no-hit the Terre Haute Hottentots on August 22.  Maddox was purchased by the Pirates the following month and made his big league debut on against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cumberland Times noted that he faced a “double-jointed hoodoo of commencing his National League career on Friday, September the 13th.”

The Pittsburgh Press said:

“Nick was ‘on the job’ yesterday from start to finish, and acted more like a man with many years’ major league experience than like a minor leaguer who has been in the business but a few seasons.”

Maddox shut the Cardinals out on just five hits, struck out 11 and got his first hit, a single in his first at bat.

Eight days later Maddox threw the first no-hitter in Pirates’ history, beating the Brooklyn Superbas 2 to 1—Brooklyn scored on two fourth-inning errors.   Years later, Maddox said of his own throwing error that put Emil Batch on base:

 “They scored me with an error, but hell man, I threw it straight to the first baseman (Harry) Swacina.  Sure it went over his head but he should have jumped for it.”

Batch scored on an error by shortstop Honus Wagner.  Maddox said:

“I don’t hold that against Honus, he saved my no-hitter in the ninth.  A ball was hit right over my head and ‘pfft’ Wagner was over there to get it.  I don’t think he ever held the ball, he just swooped it over to first.”

The rookie started six games Pittsburgh, won his first four, and finished with a 5-1 record with a 0.83 ERA.

The Pittsburgh Leader said Pirates’ President Barney Dreyfuss claimed Maddox would be “the sensation” of 1908.  He wasn’t far off.

The 21-year-old was an impressive 23-8 with a 2.28 ERA with five shutouts.  Despite his success there was concern about control—he walked 90 batters while striking out just 70 in 260 innings, and hit 11 batters.

After three second and one third-place finish the four previous seasons, Pittsburgh, and Maddox, came into 1909 with high expectations.  The Pittsburgh Press said:

“Nick Maddox is facing a very successful summer, and with an even break and barring accidents he ought to push any other twirler in the National League for first honors.  He has everything a pitcher needs, and youth with it.”

The Press also said he would “start out with good control” based on his performance in March games in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The Pirates lived up to expectations, taking over first place on May 5 and cruising to the pennant; Maddox did not.

The 22-year-old struggled for the first half of the season.  The Leader said he was having “a hard time getting into condition,” and was wild as a March Hare.”  Maddox got on track in July pitching a 2-hit shout against the Cincinnati Reds on the 6th, and four-hit shutouts against the Brooklyn Superbas and Boston Doves on the 14th and 23rd.

He ended the season 13-8 with a 2.21 ERA—overshadowed by teammates Howie Camnitz (25-6), Vic Willis (22-11), Albert “Lefty” Leifield (19-8) and rookie Charles “Babe” Adams (13-3 as a reliever and spot starter).

Babe Adams

Babe Adams

Despite going into the World Series against the Detroit Tigers with such a strong pitching staff, Manager Fred Clarke opted for the rookie Adams in game one and he responded with a 4 to 1 victory.

The Tigers beat Camnitz 7 to 2 in game 2.

Three years later, Fred Clarke spoke to James Jerpe of The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times about his decision on a pitcher for game three:

“I was in an awful predicament.  Adams had been used up.  It was had been raining, and it was very cold.  The chilly drizzle was something frightful.  The ball would get wet and water-logged and the problem was to get a pitcher who could handle the wet ball.  I looked the gang over.  Adams was out of the question.  He had been used up.

“I was figuring on the others, and I asked ‘Who can go out there today and handle a wet ball and win?’  Poor Maddox, sitting in a corner of the bench all bundled up with sweaters and other stuff, shed his extra clothes and jumped up.  Grabbing a ball, he said: ‘Gimme a catcher till I warm up.  I’ll handle this wet ball and beat them or break a leg.’  His confidence gave me a hunch, and I acted on it.”

Ring Lardner said of the game:

“Detroit’s record crowd, 18,277, saw the Tigers beaten by the Pirates 8 to 6, today in one of the most exciting and most poorly played world’s series games in baseball history.”

The Pirates scored five runs in the first inning off Detroit’s Ed Summers, and Maddox shut the Tigers down for the first six innings.  Detroit scored four runs in the seventh, aided by two Pirate errors.  Clarke said:

“Maddox wouldn’t have been in so much trouble if we had played ball behind him.”

The Pirates took a 8 to 4 lead into the ninth–Detroit scored two more runs, helped by another error—but Maddox held on and picked up the win.

He did not appear in another game during the series.  The Pirates won in seven; with Adams picking up complete game wins in games five and seven.

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1909 World Series Champion Pirates, Maddox is ninth from left.

 

The defending champions got off to a quick start again, but Maddox again started slow.  By July, The Leader said:

“Nick Maddox should have rounded into form..He is big and strong this year, but does not seem able to pitch good ball for nine rounds.”

He never “rounded into form.”  Maddox struggled all season.  He started just seven games, pitched in relief in 13 others, and was 2-3 with 3.40 ERA.

By August, with the Pirates in second place, six games behind the Chicago Cubs, The Pittsburgh Gazette asked “what was the matter?” with Maddox and why the Pirates had not cut him loose.

He made his last appearance on September 12, giving up a run, a hit and walking two batters in two innings of relief during a 4-0 loss to the Reds.  He was sold to the Kansas City Blues in the American Association 10 days later.

Maddox won 22 games for the Blues the following season, but continued to be plagued by wildness and arm trouble.  His major league career was over, and he was finished professionally in July of 1914 at 27-years-old when he was released as manager and pitcher for the Wichita club in the Western League after posting a 3-13 record.

Fred Clarke was convinced Maddox’ career really came to an end on that rainy day in Detroit.  James Jerpe of The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times said that in 1910 Dreyfuss asked Clarke to release Maddox long before he sold the pitcher to Kansas City:

“’Why don’t you let Maddox go? You aren’t pitching him.’

“’No,’ replied the Pirate Chief sadly.  “I’m not pitching him.  He ruined his arm helping Adams win the world’s series.’

“And Fred narrated (to Dreyfuss) more of Nick’s gameness on that bleak and drizzly October day in Detroit when he gave his arm for a championship.  Nick was carried for a whole year and the club has been interested in his welfare ever since.”

Fred Clarke

Fred Clarke

Maddox, who lived in Pittsburgh, and worked for the Fort Pitt Brewing Company, after his retirement, lived long enough to listen on the radio to the last two innings of the next no-hitter thrown by a Pirate pitcher—Cliff Chambers defeated the Boston Braves 3-0 on May 6, 1951.

Nick Maddox died in 1954 at age 68.

“Bill Abstein Denies he is a Bonehead”

20 Feb

Pittsburgh Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss and manager Fred Clarke felt all they needed to win a World Series was a first baseman.  Since winning the National League Pennant with Kitty Bransfield in 1903, only one Pirate first baseman hit better than .260 (Del Howard .292 in 1905).

In 1908 the Pirates finished second with four different first basemen, Harry Swacina, Alan Storke, Jim Kane and Warren Gill; none played more than 50 games, none hit better than .258 and they combined for 29 errors.

The man who took over in 1909, and was with the Pirates for their World Series victory, might have preferred to have never been given the job.

Bill Abstein had played eight games at second base and in the outfield for the Pirates in 1906, before returning to minors.

-Abstein had put up respectable, but by no means spectacular, numbers with the Shreveport Pirates in the Southern Association and Providence Grays in the Eastern League from 1906 to 1908—but as early as August of 1908 The Pittsburgh Press said he was the answer to the Pirates problem at first base:

“Fred Clarke is very eager to secure Bill Abstein from Providence.  Bill is rated the best first baseman in the Eastern League, and he would no doubt strengthen the Pirates where they are weak.”

When Abstein joined the Pirates before the 1909 season The Press said:

“The acquisition of bill Abstein has rounded our infield nicely.  He’s the best first baseman we have had in years and he certainly fits in nicely.”

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Abstein, Providence 1908

In a letter sent to Dreyfuss with his contract, Abstein told the Pirate owner:

“Fred Clarke will not have to worry about a first baseman after he sees this big German hustling around the bag.”

In keeping with his career performance, Abstein had a respectable season for the pirates.  He hit .260 and drove in 70 runs.  His 27 errors were only a slight improvement over 1908’s first baseman by committee.

The Pirates won 110 games and won the National League Pennant by six and half games over the Chicago Cubs and met the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  The series would be the beginning of the end of Abstein’s Major League career.

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1909 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Abstein 11th from left.

Abstein struggled at the plate (6 for 29 with nine strikeouts) and in the field (5 errors total, 2 each in games 3 and 4).  The Pirates won the series in seven games, but despite the victory, Abstein quickly became the subject of ridicule in Pittsburgh.

An Associated Press article after the series said:

“During the games with Detroit Abstein appeared to forget all that he knew about base ball.  He ran the bases foolishly, made a number of costly errors, failed to hit and disobeyed orders.  In fact, his playing was worse than that of any other man on either team.  The other Pirates, seeing that Abstein was the ‘goat’ for the combination, kept up the cry against him…Before the series was ended many of the Pirates shunned Abstein and it was reported he would be traded.”

The Pittsburgh Press was less generous:

“Bill Abstein denies he is a bonehead and says baseball is largely a case of ‘if-you-can-get-away-with-it,’ well it’s a cinch that Bill couldn’t in the National League.”

The Pirates were unable to trade Abstein and finally put him on waivers.  He was claimed by his hometown St. Louis Browns.

Even though the Pirates had actually won the Worlds Series and even though Abstein was gone, that didn’t mean the Pirates, and The Pittsburgh Press, wouldn’t continue to pile on.

Barney Dreyfuss told The Associated Press shortly after Abstein was claimed by St. Louis:

“We have discarded the weakest offensive player we had—Abstein—and hope to improve the team by doing so.”

Dreyfuss also claimed:

“Fred (Clarke) told me as early as last June that we should get someone else for Abstein’s place in 1910, as Bill mixed up the team’s plays too frequently.”

The Pittsburgh Leader said:

“(Abstein) had deplorable batting weaknesses which the opposing pitchers were certain to fathom in time.”

The Pittsburgh Press was even less generous:

“Bill Abstein is reported to be making a hit with the Browns by his work in the spring practice.  Just wait about three months friends, before declaring Bonehead Bill a wonder.”

When the Pirates sold pitcher Vic Willis the St. Louis Cardinals in February of 1910, newspapers reported that Willis and Abstein had “engaged in a bitter fight,” during the series.

Abstein quickly wore out his welcome in his own hometown of St. Louis.  Abstein made 11 errors in 23 games at first base and hit .149; he was released on June 2, 1910.  It appears Abstein was no more popular with Browns Manager Jack O’Connor than he was in Pittsburgh.  O’Connor was quoted in The St. Louis Times in May:

“How did Abstein get away with it last year?  How could he make plays like he has been making for me and get away with it all year for Pittsburgh?  I never dreamed that some of the plays made by him were even possible.”

His Major League career over, Abstein returned to the minor leagues for seven seasons.  He had one above average year with the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League in 1914; in 202 games he hit .308, with 234 hits and 40 doubles.

Abstein moved on, Pittsburgh apparently did not.  For years, Pittsburgh newspapers took every opportunity to take a shot at the first baseman.  In 1915 The Pittsburgh Press, in an article about the revolving door the Pirates still had at first base–in the five post-Abstein seasons, the Pirates had four different starting first baseman–(emphasis theirs):

“No one will ever forget the way Bill did NOT play the bag in the Worlds Series.  In fact, Bill did NOT play the bag all the time he was stationed there.”

Pittsburgh finally seemed to move on by the time they won their next world Championship in 1925.  Abstein died in St. Louis in 1940.