Tag Archives: New York-Penn League

“A Star of the First Magnitude”

8 Nov

Huyler Westervelt was going to be the next big thing.

By January of 1894 the New York Giants had been trying to sign the 24-year-old Westervelt for more than two years.   Considered the best amateur pitcher on the East Coast, he pitched for a number of top teams including the Englewood Field Club, New Jersey Athletic Club, and Orange Athletic Club. Westervelt came from a prominent family in Tenafly, New Jersey and said repeatedly that he’d never play professionally.

Huyler Westervelt, standing second from right, with the Englewood Field Club team circa 1893

When Giants owner E.B. Talcott finally convinced Westervelt to play professionally he simply signed a piece of paper which said:

“I hereby agree to play with the New York Base Ball Club for the season of 1894 at a salary of $1800.”

Westervelt made his debut for the Giants on April 21, losing 4-3 to the Baltimore Orioles; but beat the Boston Beaneaters 5-2 on May 5, holding the defending champions to three hits and earning the fawning praise of New York Sporting Times columnist O.P. Caylor who said Westervelt was:

 “(A) newly discovered jewel who has flashed out in the baseball firmament as a star of the first magnitude.

“(On May 5) young Westervelt became famous, and his name flashed over thousands of miles of wires that night, while next day the whole country was reading about his triumph.”

Westervelt struggled for the remainder of the season; prone to wildness he finished with a 7-10 record and 5.04 ERA, but still figured into the Giants future plans.  He refused to sign a contract for 1895 which reduced his salary to $1500—Westervelt was added to Giants’ reserve list, where he would remain for several years.

Westervelt continued playing for amateur teams in New York and New Jersey, while working for the Overman Bicycle Company, and attempted to get the Giants to trade or release him.  He filed an appeal contending that he never signed a National League contract, only the piece of paper he signed with Talcott, and therefore the Giants had no right to put him on the reserve list.  He lost the appeal.

Huyler Westervelt

There were reports in early 1896 that Baltimore Orioles manager Ned Hanlon was trying to acquire the pitcher, they never panned out.  In April The Sporting Life said Westervelt was done with professional baseball, but later in the year he joined the Derby-Shelton Angels in the Naugatuck Valley League; no statistics survive other than a brief mention of a seemingly less than successful August game against the Torrington Tornadoes, “(Westervelt) received the warm reception of 16 hits.”

Westervelt returned to the amateur leagues, playing well into the first decade of the 20th Century, and went to work as a broker on Wall Street.  He remained on the reserve list of the New York Giants through the 1901 season, prompting The Sporting Life to say:

 “By the way, did you notice that New York still reserves Huyler Westervelt?  That is one of the standing jokes of each season.”

Westervelt made one more appearance in professional baseball; according to Baseball Reference he played 17 games for the Bradford Drillers in the Interstate League in 1905; while he is not listed on the roster of the Utica Pent-Ups in the New York-Penn League in 1905, he appeared in at least one game for that team, losing a 5-4 decision to the Troy Trojans on June 23.

While Westervelt never achieved the stardom Caylor predicted for him, he remained an important figure in amateur baseball circles until his death in 1949 at the age of 80.

Assumed Names II

9 Oct

Players using assumed names were common enough during professional baseball’s first four decades that some players still exist in the record books as separate individuals.

John Berkel is one such case.  He has four separate listing on Baseball Reference.

The “official” record for John H. Berkel begins in 1910 with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association and ends in 1914 with the Fort Forth Panthers of the Texas League.

That was the second half of his career.

Under the name John Bierkotte he started playing pro ball with the Mattoon-Charleston Canaries in the Kitty League when he was 20 years old.

A slick fielding, weak hitting shortstop and third baseman, Berkel, as John Bierkotte, played with the Jacksonville Jays and Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League from 1907-1910 (further complicating the trail of Berkel-Bierkotte is that Baseball reference lists him as “Bierkortte” on the Jays’ 1909 roster with a unique player listing).

John Bierkotte with the Augusta Tourists, 1909

On June 30, 1910 John Bierkotte was acquired by Atlanta from Augusta.

John Bierkotte made his debut with the Crackers on August 1.  On August 2 the Atlanta Constitution said:

“John Berkel.  You fans will have to learn to call our new shortstop by that name, for that is really his name…When he first broke into baseball he was trifle afraid he might not make good and rather than cause the laugh to be thrown on him, he decided to change his name.  This he did, and he chose Bierkotte, a weird name, as the one.”

John Berkel 1910

Berkel received high marks for his fielding but struggled at the plate and hit only .207 for Atlanta.  At the end of the 1910 season he was sold to Albany in the South Atlantic League.  From there he went to the Scranton Miners in the New York Penn League in 1912.  The “official” listing for Berkel only adds 10 games with Fort Worth in 1914.

The rest of his career is under the listing “Berkel.”

Berkel spent 1914 on the West Coast, playing for the Fresno Packers of the California State League.  After those 10 games in Fort Worth he played for the Decatur Commodores in the Three-I League, and then was sold to the Peoria Distillers in the same league.  Berkel was offered a contract by Peoria for 1915, but chose to retire and move to the west coast.

The Berkel trail runs cold until 1926 when he turns up as a 40-year-old infielder for the Spokane Eagles in the semi-pro Idaho-Washington League.

Berkel continued to live in Spokane until his death in 1975.  There is no record of why he chose the name Bierkotte.

Filling in the Blanks—”Wee Willie” Wilson

21 Sep

Baseball Reference includes listings for “H. Wilson,” “Herbert Wilson,” “W. Wilson” and another  “W. Wilson”, all playing at various times during the 1920s.  All four listings are actually for the same player:  Herbert Emanuel “Wee Willie” Wilson.

Born in Florida in 1896, Wilson began his professional career in 1920 after serving in World War I and playing semi-pro ball.  He was a member of the inaugural St. Petersburg Saints in the Florida State League along with Dexter “Legs” Rambo who I previously profiled.

Herbert “Wee Willie” Wilson

Wilson was 5’ 10” and said to weigh no more than 150 pounds and as little as 125 in various newspaper accounts.

Wilson was a pitcher and middle infielder during the Saints mediocre seasons in 1920 and 1921 (he was 12-20 for the ’21 Saints).  In 1922 the Saints hired veteran minor leaguer George Block to manage the team (Baseball Reference does not cite Block’s time with the Saints, but does have an unrelated listing for a “Block” with the ’22 Saints).

Block kept very few players from the previous Saints teams, and built a formidable ball club.  Wilson was one of the few players who remained from the earlier team.

Led by future Major Leaguers Bunny Roser (the 20 year old earned his short 1922 shot at the major with the Saint Louis Browns after the Saints season), Elliot Bigelow (who hit .343), and manager Block who hit .411, the 1922 won their first Florida State League championship.

Wilson contributed a 13-10 record to the championship team.  Wilson followed with a 12-11 record in 1923.  In 1924 he broke out as star for the Saints, going 26-7.  The financially troubled league didn’t finish the season, however; and Wilson ended up with the Scranton Miners in the New York Penn League for the remainder of 1924 (the Herbert Walker listing on Baseball Reference also shows 7 games for Little Rock Travelers in the Southern Association that season, I can find nothing to indicate it’s the same player).

Where Wilson spent 1925 is uncertain.  Contemporaneous newspaper accounts seem to indicate he was back with the Saints, but no records are available for that team.   Some later accounts put him with Scranton but there are no records for him that season with the team.  He was in Scranton from 1926 to ’28 posting 14-7, 12-10 and 7-7 records.  Wilson finished his career with the High Point Pointers of the Piedmont League, where spent the last two months of the 1928 season.

Wilson returned to St. Petersburg after his playing days.   In 1942 The St. Petersburg Evening Independent reported that Wilson, despite being 46 years old, had volunteered to serve in the US Navy and was due to report to Norfolk, Virginia for training.

Wilson passed away in St. Petersburg in 1956.

The Quarter Million Dollar Wrist Injury

10 Aug

Ken Strong was a Hall of Fame running back and kicker for 12 seasons in the NFL, and the hero of the 1934 Championship game when he scored 17 points in the New York Giants 30-13 win over the Chicago Bears.  The aftermath of a wrist injury prevented him from starring in the major leagues as well.

Elmer Kenneth Strong Jr. was born March 21, 1906 (Baseball Reference incorrectly lists his birth as August 6, and his name as Kenneth Elmer).  A football and baseball star at New York University, Strong played the 1929 season at New Haven in the Eastern League before joining the NFL’s Staten Island Stapleton’s in September.

Ken Strong

In 104 games at New Haven Strong hit .283 with 21 home runs. After hitting .272 in 27 games at New Haven in 1930, he was sent to Hazleton in the New York Penn League.  Strong hit .373 with 41 home runs in 117 games at Hazelton.  Headlines that referred to Strong as the “New Babe” were greatly exaggerated given that 39 of his 41 home runs were hit at Hazleton’s Buhler Stadium, the smallest ballpark in organized ball in 1930.  Regardless, he was considered a top prospect and his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers who sent him to Toronto in the International League in 1931.

At Toronto he was batting .340 through 118 games when he broke his wrist.  Strong underwent a surgical procedure in Detroit which included the removal of part of his wrist bone and was limited to kicking during the 1931 NFL season.

Strong was given a good shot at making the Tigers opening day roster, but was slow to recover from the surgery.  When the Tigers sent Strong to New York for a second surgery it was discovered that the wrong bone had been removed during the first procedure, permanently damaging Strong’s wrist.

In 1933 Strong sued the doctor for $250,000, the equivalent of more than $4.4 million today.  Strong claimed the surgery robbed him of the opportunity to play major league ball and limited his ability in the NFL.

The trial featured former Tigers star Bobby Veach demonstrating to Federal Judge Ernest O’Brien “that good wrist action was essential in baseball.

Bobby Veach

Strong was awarded $75,000 and the verdict was upheld on a later appeal.

While Strong continued to play in the NFL through 1935, and again in 1939 and 1944-47, his baseball career was over. He attempted to come back in 1935, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but was released before the season began.

Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, Strong died in New York City on October 5, 1979.