Tag Archives: South Atlantic League

Submarine Gheen

10 May

Born August 13, 1899, Thomas Whistler Gheen made a name for himself pitching for the amateur team in his hometown of Lincolnton, North Carolina in 1919 and 1920. The Charlotte Observer said Gheen was:

“(B)elieved by many to be the best pitching prospect in the Carolinas.”

He was called “Submarine” Gheen, for what The Charlotte News called his “Far-famed underhand delivery.”

 

gheen1919

Tom Gheen, 1919

 

Late in the 1920 season, Gheen was signed by the Charleston Palmettos of the South Atlantic League.  Gheen appeared in six games and posted a 2-4 record with a 2.06 ERA for the last-place (54-71) Palmettos.

He began the 1921 season in Lincolnton but was signed by the Charlotte Hornets after he pitched a perfect game against the Loray Mills team in Gastonia, North Carolina.  He struck out 21 batters.  The Charlotte Observer said:

“Not a Loray man reached first.  Persons who saw the game say it was the most remarkable bit of hurling ever seen in Gaston County.”

In June, The Observer said he was:

“(F)ast developing into one of the best twirlers on the staff.”

Despite his promise, Gheen seemed to be troubled.  When he was playing amateur ball for Lincolnton, The Observer noted after he had been used as a pinch hitter:

“Most of Gheen’s hitting is done in the clubhouse.”

The High Point Enterprise said of Gheen:

“The blond-haired boxman never had a serious thought in his life and is dizzy as a southpaw off the field.”

With a 5-9 record and 3.22 ERA in late July, Gheen jumped the team.  According to The Durham Morning Herald:

“His excuse was that the fans razzed him to excess.  He declared that the razzing so affected his pitching it was impossible to win.”

The Charlotte Observer suggested he jumped for another reason:

“(He) quit the club following rumors circulated by gamblers that he had ‘thrown’ a ball game.”

The Morning Herald called him a “Wonderful pitcher,” and said he was “almost unbeatable when his underhanded ball in breaking properly.”

Charlotte catcher Pat Carroll came to Gheen’s defense, telling The Observer that the other catchers on the club did not encourage the pitcher to use his submarine delivery often enough:

“They can’t hit that ball to save their lives.  I ordered it every time Gheen got in the hole and it was pitiful to see the batter try to connect.  It didn’t help them a bit to know what was coming.  They couldn’t hit the ball; that’s all there was to it.”

The Hornets, according to The Charlotte News granted the “recalcitrant hurler” his wish and sold the “erratic heaver” to the Winston-Salem Twins of the Piedmont League.

 

gheen2

Gheen (5 top right) with the Winston-Salem Twins, 1921

 

Gheen was 11-3 in 15 games for the 62-58 Twins, and big things were expected of him in 1922.

He rose to the occasion on Opening Day, April 26.

The Observer buried the lede:

“Submarine Gheen made himself famous in the opening game of the Piedmont League season…his opponents being the Greensboro Patriots, who were defeated 5 to 0.

“Only 27 men faced the Twin moundsman who did not yield a hit nor issue a free pass.”

It was his only victory for Winston-Salem.  Less than a month after his perfect game Gheen was suspended indefinitely by manager Charles Clancy for “insubordination.”

Gheen was reinstated 10 days later but was sold to the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League less than a week later. He was 1-5 for the Twins.

Gheen was plagued by wildness in Texas, posting a 6-11 record with a 4.06 ERA.

He was traded to Galveston Sandcrabs at the end of the Texas League season but was sold the following spring to the Rocky Mount Tar Heels in the Virginia League.  The 1923 season appears to have been controversy free for Gheen; he was 13-11 with a 3.43 ERA.

Back in the Piedmont League in 1924, Gheen was on his way to a 14-10 season for the High Point Pointers, when, on September 12, he made headlines off the field after he killed a man.

Gheen was riding in a car with friends near New Bern, North Carolina when they came upon a man lying in the road.  The High Point Enterprise said, the car, driven by Gheen’s friend:

“(S)werved to avoid hitting a negro lying prone across the road.  The driver of the car…backed up to see what was the trouble.

“As the car was being backed up one of the party yelled, ‘look out, he’s got a gun.’  Gheen, riding in the front seat, reached in the side pocket of the car and secured a revolver.  As the Negro came running alongside the car, revolver in hand, Gheen yelled, ‘Throw up your hands.’ This the Negro refused to do and Gheen fired three shots penetrating the upper part of the Negro’s body.  He died almost instantly.”

Gheen and his friends were cleared of any wrongdoing the following day.

The paper did not identify the dead man and said:

“He was said to have been a desperate character and to have had a police record.”

Gheen played two more seasons of professional baseball; he was 9-8 for the Columbia Comers in the South Atlantic League in 1925.

He joined the Jacksonville Tars of the Southeastern League in 1926—he won eight of his first 10 decisions with the club but was also arrested for the alleged assault of a woman when playing the Albany (GA) Nuts.  He appears to have avoided prosecution gheen1919but went 3-6 the rest of the season and his career as a professional ballplayer was over at age 28.

The following year, while back in his hometown of Lincolnton, “Submarine” Gheen, was killed when the Ford Touring car he was driving turned over on July 3.  The man who was considered the “best pitching prospect in the Carolinas” six years earlier died at the age of 29 on July 4, 1927.

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“Here was the King of all the Tramps I’d ever seen”

7 Oct

In 1947, Grantland Rice of The New York Herald-Tribune told a story about how he came to know one of the most colorful pitchers of the first decade of the 20th Century:

“Baseball, above all other games, has known more than its share in the way of masterpieces of eccentricity.  Many of these I happen to know.”

Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice

Rice went on to list some of his favorites—Rube Waddell, Crazy Schmit, Dizzy Dean—“Also, Flint Rhem, Babe Herman, Bobo Newsom, Germany Schaefer, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Arlie Latham—nits, wits, and half-wits—but all great ballplayers.”  But, said Rice, “one of the leaders in this colorful field” had been all but forgotten:

“His name was (Arthur) Bugs Raymond, the pitcher John McGraw always insisted had the finest pitching motion he ever saw, including Walter Johnson.”

[…]

“I remember Bugs because I happened to have a small part in his pitching career.  I was working in Atlanta (for The Journal) when I happened to read a story that came out of Shreveport (Louisiana), about a young pitcher named Raymond who had made and won the following bet:

“That he could eat a whole turkey, drink two bottles of scotch—and win a doubleheader.  He did it.  I didn’t believe it at the time, but I believed it later.  I recommended to either (Atlanta Crackers owner) Abner Powell or (manager) Billy Smith (44 years is a long time) that Raymond looked like a good buy.  Good copy is always scarce.  Raymond sounded like good copy.”

Bugs Raymond

Bugs Raymond

Rice’s story about the bet is likely apocryphal, there is no mention of it in contemporary newspapers in Shreveport, or in Jackson, Mississippi where Raymond played in the Cotton States League before coming to Atlanta–he also names the wrong manager–Smith came to Atlanta the following season.  While Raymond probably didn’t make the bet Rice claimed, he did, on at least one occasion win both ends of a doubleheader, and he was wildly popular in Mississippi.  After he was sold to Atlanta in July of 1905, The Jackson News said:

“The regret over Raymond’s departure was not one-sided.  The big fellow was all broken up over the transaction.”

The paper said that although Raymond would make $200 a month in Atlanta and have a chance to return to the major leagues, leaving Jackson was difficult for him:

“During his engagement with the Jackson team he has made a host of friends and was undoubtedly the most popular player who ever donned a home uniform.  The plain fact is Raymond almost owned the town.  Nothing was too good for him and he always made a hatful of money on the big games, a shower of silver and greenbacks being the inevitable result of a victory in a doubleheader.”

Rice’s story about Raymond also took another real event and embellished it–either by design or through the fog of forty years.

After finishing the 1905 season with a 10-6 record for the Crackers, Raymond was picked by new Manager Billy Smith to start for Atlanta in an exhibition against the Boston Americans on March 26, 1906.

In Rice’s colorful version, he gave the incorrect date for the exhibition and wrongly claimed that he met Raymond face-to-face for the first time on the morning of the game:

“By some odd chance, before starting a mile-and-a-half walk to the ballpark, I happened to be taking a drink at some wayside bar in preparation for the trip.  A heavy hand fell on my shoulder and, as I looked around, there was an unkempt-looking fellow, around 200 pounds who wore no necktie and hadn’t shaved in at least two days.  Here was the king of all the tramps I’d ever seen.

“’How about buying me a drink, fellow?’ was his opening remark.  I bought him a drink.  Then I had to buy him another drink.

“’How do we get out to this ballpark?’ he asked.

“’We walk,’ I said, ‘if you are going with me.’ Then a sudden morbid thought hit me.  ‘Isn’t your name Raymond?’ I asked.

“’Yes,” he said ‘Bugs Raymond.’

“I figured then what my recommendation to the Atlanta team was worth.  Something less than two cents.

“’Do you happen to know,’ I suggested, ‘that you are pitching today against the Boston Americans?’

“’I never heard of ‘em,’ Bugs said.  ‘Where’s Boston?’

“On the walk to the ballpark that afternoon Bugs spent most of the trek throwing rocks at pigeons, telegraph poles and any target in sight.  People I had known in Atlanta gave me an odd look after taking a brief glance at my unshaven, rough and rowdy looking companion.”

Once at the ballpark, Rice said:

“Raymond started the game by insulting Jimmy Collins…and every star of the Boston team.  He would walk from the pitcher’s box up towards the plate and let them know, in forcible and smoking language, what he thought they were.”

In Rice’s version, the cocky, seemingly drunk Raymond shuts Boston out 3-0 on three hits.  He got those details wrong as well, and Raymond’s performance was just as incredible without the embellishments.

Bugs Raymond

Bugs Raymond

The Atlanta Constitution said on the day after the game:

“No better than bush leaguers looked the Boston Americans…yesterday afternoon at Piedmont Park, when ‘Bugs’ Raymond came near to scoring a no-hit game against the bean-eating crew, who escaped a shut-out through two errors made by (Morris “Mike”) Jacobs in the eighth inning.

“Score—Atlanta 4, Boston 2.

“’Bugs’ was there with the goods.  Boston hitter after hitter stepped up to the plate, pounded the pan, looked fierce for awhile, and then went the easy out route.

“’Bugs’ was in his glory.  It was in the eighth inning before a single hit or run was scored off his delivery

Both Boston hits were ground balls Atlanta shortstop Frank “Whitey” Morse beaten out by  Collins and Myron ”Moose” Grimshaw:

“As inning after inning went by, the Boston sporting writers along with the team began to think of the possibility of defeat, and, about the seventh inning, when it looked strangely like a shutout game, they pulled out their books of excuses and began to look for the proper one to use in Tuesday morning’s newspapers.

“The one finally agreed upon at a conference of all four writers read like this:

“’The eyes of the Boston players were dimmed by the flying moisture from the spit-ball delivery of one ‘Bugs’ Raymond, who let himself out at full steam, while our pitchers were waiting for the opening of the coming season.  It does a major league club good to be beaten every now and then, anyway.”

The Box Score

                 The Box Score

Given Raymond’s alcoholism, there might be some truth Rice’s embellishments although there is no evidence for most of his version.

The performance against Boston was quickly forgotten as Raymond just as quickly wore out his welcome with Manager Billy Smith.  On May 6 he was suspended indefinitely because, as The Constitution put it “(Raymond) looks with delight in wine when it is red.”  On May 31, Atlanta sold Raymond to the Savannah Indians in the South Atlantic leagues. An 18-8 mark there, followed by a 35-11 season with the Charleston Sea Gulls in the same league in 1907, earned Raymond his return to the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals.

By 1912, the pitcher, about whom Rice claimed John McGraw said “Even half sober Raymond would have been one of the greatest,” was dead.

“The Next Babe Ruth”

18 Mar

After he hit 11 home runs in 1918, and for the next two decades, stories about the discovery of “The Next Babe Ruth” became commonplace in newspapers across the country.

One of the first was Joe Doyle, “The Babe Ruth of Great Lakes,” signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in November of 1918.  Doyle was the star of the team representing Camp Dewey at Great Lakes Navel Training Station where, The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said he made a name for himself, hitting “a dozen home runs and nine triples…(and) flogging a home run over the Camp Dewey Drill Hall, a smash that might be compared to a lift over the left fences of any major league park.”

Doyle began his professional career the following spring with the Houston Buffaloes in the Texas League and played his entire career in Texas.  “The Babe Ruth of Great Lakes” hit just eight home runs over five minor league seasons.

Ben Paschal had the distinction of being declared “The Next Babe Ruth” twice.  When the Boston Red Sox purchased Paschal from the South Atlantic League’s Charlotte Hornets in July of 1920, Manager Ed Barrow told The Boston Herald he had acquired “A second Babe Ruth.”

Paschal joined the Red Sox after Charlotte’s season ended in September.  He had 10 hit in 28 at-bats, but no extra base hits, and was returned to Charlotte after the season.

After four more excellent seasons in the South Atlantic League and Southern Association (he hit .335 with 68 home runs from 1921-1924) he was  purchased by the New York Yankees for $20,000 in August of 1924.

Ben Paschal

Ben Paschal

Paschal was again dubbed the “Second Babe Ruth” by newspapers.  His second stint as the second Ruth was longer and more successful than his first.  From 1924-1929 he hit .309 in with 24 home runs in 750 at-bats as an outfielder playing behind Ruth and Bob Meusel (Meusel was himself dubbed “Another Babe Ruth” by Manager Miller Huggins when he joined the Yankees in 1920).  On Opening Day in 1927 the Second Babe Ruth pinch-hit for Ruth (who was 0-3 and struck out twice) in the sixth inning; Paschal singled, and the Yankees went on to an 8 to 3 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.

Then there was Dorothy Hodgens.  In 1921, Hodgens was a 20-year-old student at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  Hodgens briefly became a celebrity and was called the “feminine Babe Ruth” by many newspapers after The Associated Press (AP) reported that while growing up in Philadelphia Napoleon Lajoie said she was “the only girl he ever knew who could play ball.”

After her picture appeared in papers across the country, Hodgens, who played several sports at the school, was interviewed by The Harrisburg Evening News as she was “ready to enter a basketball game:”

“Yes, I’m terribly fond of baseball, and I’ve been playing it ever since I’ve been a bit of a youngster.”

She said Lajoie was a neighbor in Philadelphia when she was a child:

“Lajoie used to come out and pitch ball with the boys and girls in the neighborhood.  He told me I was the only girl he ever knew who could pitch and gave me a box of league balls that I have treasured ever since.”

Dorothy Hodgens "The Feminine Babe Ruth."

Dorothy Hodgens “The Feminine Babe Ruth.”

While she said her real ambition was to become an actress, Hodgens said, “I never expect to give up baseball entirely though, and I certainly think that every girl should learn to play the game.”

The “Feminine Babe Ruth” disappeared from the public eye shortly afterward.

And finally, there was “Another Babe Ruth” who had a brief moment in the limelight in the fall of 1920.  This one was a three-and-a-half pound white Leghorn Chicken who was named “Babe Ruth,” and had just established a new record.

"Babe Ruth"

“Babe Ruth”

The AP said:

“(T)he home run king has a rival…She bats 326 eggs, and this beats the record of 314 (for a single year).  By experienced poultrymen, her record of 326 perfect eggs is considered the most remarkable in the history of the poultry industry.”

There was no report of how she performed the following season.

Brief Bios–Ferris and Angier

24 Oct

Doc Ferris

Ernest H. “Doc” Ferris won 20 games twice over eight seasons in the low manors between 1913 and 1923, and posted a respectable 109-86 record.  The otherwise forgotten right-hander also pitched one of the most efficient games in baseball history.

Ferris was born on September 7, 1887 in Blue Ash, Ohio; the youngest of 13 children.  There is little information about his early life on his father Solomon’s farm, with the exception of a few brief mentions in Cincinnati newspapers of his being active in the Hamilton County Ohio Farmer’s Alliance.

The first reference to him related to baseball was when the 25-year-old signed a contract with the Durham Bulls of the North Carolina State League in 1913.  After two sub .500 seasons –10-12 in 1913, 9-16 with the Asheville Tourists—he had his best season in 1915, when he won 27 games (he lost 12) for Asheville.

Ernest "Doc" Ferris

Ernest “Doc” Ferris

In 1916 he was signed by the Columbia Comers of the South Atlantic League.  The Highlight of Ferris’ 18-15 season was during a 3 to 1 victory over the Albany Babies on July 18.  The Columbia State said:

“Doc Ferris probably made a new record for the league by going through the game with only 73 pitched balls, 14 of which were balls and 59 strikes…the Columbus pitcher did not issue a pass…Ferris set up a record that will probably stand for many moons.  To go through nine innings pitching only 73 balls is a remarkable feat.  The smiling hurler was seldom in the hole, going to three balls on only one batter.”

The game was completed in 78 minutes.

The Box Score

The Box Score

(Charles “Red” Barrett of the Boston Braves set the major league record for fewest pitches in a game, when he shut out the Cincinnati Reds 2-0 in Crosley Field on August 10, 1944–he threw just 58 pitches–Barrett’s game was also three minutes shorter than Ferris’ effort.)

After pitching for and managing the Asheville Tourists and Hagerstown Terriers in 1917 and 1918, Ferris quit baseball for two years, and according to The Durham Morning Herald accepted “a responsible position with a manufacturing concern.”

In 1921 he returned to the diamond, pitching three seasons for the Greensboro Patriots in the Piedmont League—after going 20-9 in his first season, he slipped to 6-9 and 4-5, before retiring for good after the 1923 season.

After baseball Ferris operated a company that manufactured and installed canvas awnings.  When he started the business he told The Greensboro Daly News:

“During the eight years I sweated in the blazing sun, I often thought of the advantage it would be to have and awning overhead, so when I finally decided to quit the diamond I naturally gravitated into selling the things that looked so attractive to me while I was pitching.”

Doc Ferris

Doc Ferris

Ferris died in Greensboro on November 11, 1964.

Shorty Angier

Malbourne Addison “Shorty” Angier was a teammate of Doc Ferris with the Durham Bulls in 1913.   Angier was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1892, but grew up in Durham. His grandfather, and namesake, was a prominent Durham merchant.

Angier made a name for him himself as a teen in the Piedmont League—before 1920 various quasi-professional/industrial league incarnations of the Piedmont operated; he played for Durham Hosiery in 1911 and 1912.

When he was signed by the Durham Bulls in 1913, The Charlotte Evening Chronicle said he “hit around .400 in the Piedmont League last year,” and had turned down offers from two other North Carolina State League teams, the Charlotte Hornets and Greensboro Patriots.  The expectations were high:

“Those that have seen Angier play predict that he will make good in the league and that the next few years will see him in the big company.”

The Charlotte Observer described his physical appearance:

“(S)tocky torso, the hefty underpinning, and abbreviated neck.”

Whatever ability he had with the bat in the Piedmont League left him as a professional.  Angier hit just .199 during his first season at Durham in 1913.  After a hot start the following season—he was hitting nearly .400 in July—he finished with a .268 average.  In 1915 he hit .175.

Although a weak hitter, he  was one of the best athletes in the North Carolina League—during the league’s “Field Day” activities in 1914 The Charlotte News said he “easily won” the distance throwing competition and his 15 and 1/5 second time circling the bases was the league’s best.

He split the 1916 season between the South Atlantic League Columbia Comers (where he was again teammates with Doc Ferris) and Jacksonville Tarpons; he hit a combined .175 for the year.

The following spring The Durham Morning Herald reported that Angier was in a local hospital in critical condition after “the young man swallowed poison.”

The Greensboro Daily News said Angier drank from a bottle that he was not aware contained “poisonous medicine,” but the paper said “attempted suicide was discounted,” by his friends.

Whether the poisoning was a contributing factor or not, Angier did not play in 1917, and went to work at a tobacco store he co-owned in Durham.

After volunteering for military service in the fall of 1917—he was a second Lieutenant in the cavalry, stationed in Columbia, South Carolina—he returned to his business in Durham.

Each season from 1919 through 1921, North Carolina newspapers reported that Angier would be joining the Durham Bulls; although he does not appear in any surviving team records, Angier played in a handful of games for the team in September of 1921.

He never played again after his brief return to the diamond in 1921.  Angier owned several tobacco and grocery businesses in and around Durham and later relocated to Green Cove Springs, Florida where he died in 1937.

Advertisement for Angier's cigar store

Advertisement for Angier’s cigar store

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.

Jack Grim

2 Jun

John J. “Jack” Grim never amounted to much as a player.  Statistics are nearly nonexistent for his playing career, and those that do survive are unimpressive; primarily a catcher, he played for all, or parts of nine seasons from 1894 until 1902.  The Cincinnati native made his mark, now all but forgotten, as a manager and executive.

John J. "Jack" Grim

John J. “Jack” Grim

Often confused with former major league catcher John Helm “Jack” Grim—for example, most sources list John H. Grim as the manager of the 1904 Columbia Skyscrapers in the South Atlantic League, it was John J. Grim who managed that team, and during that season might have made his greatest contribution to the game.

Grim’s first managerial appointment was with the Anaconda Serpents in the Montana State League in 1900.  He guided the team to a second-place finish in the first half, and the club was in first place in the second half race on August 11, when Grim abruptly resigned.  The Anaconda Standard said Grim sent a letter to the team directors in which he charged “there is a feeling in certain quarters, against me.” He said:

“I cannot do myself justice while laboring under these conditions.”

Arthur “Dad” Clarkson, brother of Hall of Famer John Clarkson, replaced Grim; the team finished the second half of the season in second place under Clarkson.  Grim became an umpire in the league for the remainder of the season.

In 1901 Grim went to the West Coast with William H. Lucas, a former minor league pitcher who had been president of the Montana State League, to join Dan Dugdale to reestablish  the Pacific Northwest League; Lucas served as league president and Grim managed the Portland Webfoots to the championship, winning the pennant by 16 games.

The league expanded from four to six teams for 1902, and Grim was hired to manage the Spokane franchise, which had finished in last place (41-67) under three different managers in 1901.  The Sporting News said:

“(Spokane’s) stockholders have given (Grim) full power to act in signing players.”

The Sporting Life said Spokane fans were “feeling confident that (Grim) will this year sustain his reputation for always piloting winners.”  Despite the free reign, and high hopes, Spokane struggled, finishing in last place with a 46-75 record.

The following season, as a result of the West Coast baseball war—the California League expanded to the Pacific Northwest, becoming the Pacific Coast League—the Pacific Northwest League expanded into California and became the Pacific National League.  Grim managed the Portland Green Gages.

On July 1 the Portland franchised was, according to, The Oregon Journal “transferred bag and baggage to Salt Lake City.” In Salt Lake City Grim quickly wore out his welcome.

After it was reported in late July that Grim might be let go, six players, including the team’s star shortstop Charles “She” Donahue, went on strike.  They missed two games, but returned after the team’s president said: “he has no intention of letting Grim out.”  The harmony didn’t last and just weeks later Grim was released and fined $100 for what The Salt Lake Herald called “starting a mutiny within the ranks of the club.”

The trouble in Salt Lake wasn’t over.  Near the end of the season, Donahue’s contract was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals.  The sale was reportedly engineered by Grim after he was let go as manager.

The Herald said:

“What kind of a con game is Jack Grim trying to work on the Salt Lake ball club?  What right had Jack Grim, who was fired…got to sell Donahue to the St. Louis club?  How many more of the Salt Lake’s players is Grim trying to dispose of in the same way?  What did Grim do with the money he received from (Cardinals President Benjamin) Muckenfuss of the St. Louis team?”

Grim told The Cincinnati Enquirer he entered into negotiations with the Cardinals over Donahue on September 14. But The Herald noted:

“At that time Grim’s sole business in Salt Lake was to hang around with the ballplayers and try his best to create discord among them.  He had been fired long before.”

The National Commission ruled the sale/signing legal.  Garry Herrmann, chairman of the commission, said that in the contract he signed with Portland for 1903 “Donahue had a specified agreement that he was not (placed on the reserve list)” despite the fact that the Salt Lake team claimed he had already signed a contract for the following season.  As a result, there was nothing stopping Grim from delivering Donahue to the Cardinals, and the money he received—the amount was never reported—was his.

Grim was again involved in a new league in 1904, when he and fellow Cincinnati native Ed Ashenbach, helped form the first incarnation of the South Atlantic League—Grim managed the Columbia Sky Scrapers and Ashenbach managed the Charleston Sea Gulls in the six-team circuit.  Grim only lasted until mid-July as manager and finished the year as an umpire in the league.

It was that season that that he claimed he made his great contribution to the game.  According to Grim, he was the first person to alert the Detroit Tigers about a 17-year-old outfielder for the Augusta Tourists named Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

While Cobb was not sold to the Tigers until August of 1905, some credence for the claim was provided by Cobb himself in 1910, when an article appearing under his name—likely ghostwritten by Roger Tidden of The New York World—said Grim had tried to purchase his contract when he was struggling at Augusta, shortly after “I left home to show up the league.”

In 1905 Grim was one of the principal organizers of the Virginia-North Carolina League and managed the Greensboro Farmers—Grim lasted less than half a season and by August The Sporting Life said he was scouting for the Cincinnati Reds.

Grim finally found some stability in 1906.  He again helped found a league and owned and managed a club.  Grim’s Lynchburg Shoemakers won the Virginia League pennant in 1906—the team was led by pitcher Walter Moser (24-8), who would make the jump from the C-league Shoemakers to the Philadelphia Phillies in August.   But after a fifth-place finish and 1907, and a slow start the next season, Grim sold the team in July of 1908.

1906 Lynchburg Shoemakers, Virginia League champions. Grim is third from left on the bottom row.

1906 Lynchburg Shoemakers, Virginia League champions. Grim is third from left on the bottom row.

Just after selling the team, Grim’s wife reported him missing.  She told police in Louisville, Kentucky that she hadn’t heard from him for three weeks and thought he might be in Louisville after visiting family in Cincinnati.  Al Orth, the New York Highlanders pitcher, said he saw Grim in New York and told The Associated Press “He did not look like a man who was missing from anywhere.”

Al Orth

Al Orth

 

Grim eventually returned to Virginia and his disappearance was never explained.  Orth, who was from Lynchburg, returned there later that summer purchased an interest in the team and managed the club until early 1909 when he returned to the Highlanders.

For the next four years Grim bounced back and forth from team ownership (he managed, and owned part of two more Virginia League franchises (Portsmouth in 1910 and Newport News in 1912) and real estate speculating on the West Coast and in Virginia.

At the beginning of the 1912 season a small item in The Richmond Times-Dispatch hinted that there was trouble ahead:

“Jack Grim has a combination of troubles.  One is of the financial variety—well the other is nobody’s business.”

The financial troubles came to a head in August.  The Times-Dispatch said:

 “Because Manager J.J. Grim would not pay their salaries, all of the players of the Newport News baseball club except (Frank) ‘Deacon’ Morrissey, struck just before the scheduled double header between Newport News and Petersburg.”

After the game was awarded to Petersburg by forfeit, Grim’s co-owners removed him—outfielder William “Buck” Hooker was named manager for the remainder of the season.

At the end of the 1912 season, Grim found himself in an odd predicament.  The Cincinnati Enquirer said:

“Though minus a franchise, Jack Grim, formerly of Cincinnati, has a ball team under reservation, for he owns title to the players of the Newport News club…It develops that in the adjustment of the club’s affairs in August, Grim who was manager and part owner, got out without losing title to the players, though he lost the franchise.”

As a result, when the Cleveland Naps drafted third baseman Ray Bates from Newport News after the 1912 season, the draft price went to Grim.

It was the last good thing to happen to him; from there, Grim’s life spun out of control.

In October, he attended the World Series in New York (his wife later said he attempted to kill her during that trip).

In November of 1912 the Virginia League turned down his attempt to secure a franchise for 1913; next his effort to start a new league with teams in Virginia and the Carolinas fell through.

In addition to being unable to secure a franchise and running out of money—an effort to secure the New York-New Jersey League franchise in Kingston, New York also fell through–Grim’s wife had him arrested  during the first week of March 1913, and told a Lynchburg judge he had repeatedly “threatened Mrs. Grim with bodily harm.”  Grim was held in jail, but according to The Times-Dispatch “is doing everything possible to effect a reconciliation with his wife.”

Grim was released on bond after a week, but quickly rearrested, and by March 23 The Times Dispatch said:

“That a commission of lunacy will be summoned early this week to investigate the Sanity of john J. Grim, the well-known minor league baseball magnate , seems now to be a foregone conclusion…Since his incarceration Grim’s condition has grown so bad that there is no doubt in the minds of the jail attaches that he is insane…Grim has not had his clothes off in a week, and he spends his time in his cell singing, shouting, talking and pacing up and down, begging to be liberated.”

The “commission of lunacy” found Grim insane based on the testimony of Grim’s wife and a doctor named Albert Priddy, and ordered him sent to Virginia’s Southwestern State Hospital in Marion.  It was in front of the commission that Mrs. Grim related the story of the “attempt to murder her with a razor in New York City.”

Southwest State Hospital, Marion, Virginia

Southwest State Hospital, Marion, Virginia

Contradictory reports about Grim’s condition came out during the next year.  The Associated Press said in August Grim was “A raving maniac…not far from death.”  A December story in The Cincinnati Enquirer said “he is improving rapidly and probably will be discharged at an early date…Grim expects to return to Cincinnati.”

Almost a year later, he was still in the hospital, and The Enquirer reported that “Grim is improving in health and expects to visit his Cincinnati friends soon.”

That item was the last newspaper reference to Grim; he was never released and died in the state hospital.

The doctor who testified that Grim was insane, Albert Sidney Priddy, was superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Madison Heights, Virginia.  The doctor, and that institution became infamous in the case of Buck v. Bell (the case was Buck v. Priddy until Priddy’s death in 1925; Bell was his successor at the State Colony).  The Supreme Court’s decision in the case–upholding the Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law– resulted in the forced sterilization of more than United States citizens in Virginia and states that enacted similar laws.

“The Longest Hit in the World”

10 Oct

Walter “Judge” McCredie, longtime Portland Beavers player, manager and president said the longest home run he ever saw was hit by Otis L. “Ote” Johnson when Johnson played for him:

“The drive of Ote Johnson’s at Los Angeles (in 1909) was the longest clout I have ever witnessed.  Out in center field they had a pavilion 150 feet long.  Hits at Chutes Park in Los Angeles had never come within fifty feet of the pavilion…Johnson put the ball clean over the pavilion and the ball bounced into the bandstand for what I call the longest hit in the world.”

By the time he hit that ball in Portland he had already been called “Home run” Johnson for at least five years, a name earned in the Texas League when he hit 22 home runs in two seasons for the Dallas Giants—he finished third with 12 in 1903 and led the league with 10 in 1904.

Otis "Ote" Johnson

Otis “Ote” Johnson

Johnson was born in Fowler, Indiana in 1882, and grew up in Muncie.  The Dallas Morning News said fellow Indianan Claude Berry recommended Johnson to Dallas.  Primarily a shortstop, Johnson also played first, third and outfield, and appeared in more than 30 games as a pitcher during his professional career.

Johnson was sold to the Little Rock Travelers near the end of the 1904 season; he remained with Little Rock through 1906 but hit just .210 against “A” class Southern Association pitching.  He was sold to the Charleston Sea Gulls in the class “C” South Atlantic League before the 1907 season and hit .263, leading the team in doubles (27), triples (13) and home runs (10).

His performance in Charleston earned him another shot in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) when his contract was sold to Portland.  After a slow start at the tail-end of the 1907 season, Johnson regained his form, hitting .280 with 10 home runs in 1908 and .293 with 13 home runs (including his “longest hit in the world”) in 1909.

McCredie said the day Johnson hit his home run against Los Angeles scouts from the New York Highlanders was in the stands:

“(A)fter the battle they asked me to put a price on Ote.  I did, and a few days later the deal was consummated.”

The price was $4,000.

As Johnson prepared to join the Highlanders and manager George Stallings for spring training in Georgia, the New York press was excited about the team’s new prospect who was spending the winter in Muncie working and playing goalie Muncie’s professional roller polo team.  The New York Globe said:

“There is a ‘terrible Swede’ coming to New York next season.  He is a glass blower and makes from $6 to $7 a day in a factory at Muncie, Ind., and in the summertime he makes his living at swinging a large club and gathering bad and good bounders on the baseball field…The boy we’re harping about is Ote Johnson, who will be a member of the New York Americans. (In the PCL) he is known as ‘Home Run’ Johnson.  They say he has driven many a pitcher to the bench.”

George Stallings

George Stallings

Phil Cooney, a New Yorker, who played with Johnson in Portland, told The Globe:

“They seem to think that this boy Johnson can’t hit a curve ball, but Stallings will find out that he can hit any kind.”

On March 23 Stallings told The New York American that Johnson, who was playing third base and shortstop, “couldn’t hit.” Two days later The American said:

“Ote Johnson this afternoon gave an apt illustration of a home run and for the first time since he reported to Stallings the Portland demon found his batting eye.  But for the most daring burglaries on the part of (William) Birdie Cree, the big third sacker would have hit for 1.000 during the afternoon.  As it was he had a single and a homer in three times at bat.  His single might have been a homer had not (2nd baseman) Earle Gardner sprang into the air and retarded its progress by a blind stab.  But the four-base smash was beyond reach.

“Johnson got to one of (Dick) Carroll’s choicest curves and knocked the ball further than any had ever before traveled in Georgia.  Birdie Cree was playing deep for the big fellow.  The ball went so far that Cree had not gotten to it by the time Johnson crossed the home plate, and he only jogged from second.  The ball rolled to the fence, which is fully 300 yards from the plate.”

As late as April 1 it looked like Johnson might stick with New York.  The Trenton Evening Times said:

“The latest ‘phenom’ to be discovered is Otis Johnson, the New York Americans’ third sacker.  This recruit has been playing sensational games around the last station since he joined the club…Johnson is also quite a slugologist.  In the last few games the youngster has been batting like a Tyrus Cobb.  In a recent game at Athens, Ga., he made four hits in as many times at bat.  Among them was a home run.  Manager Stallings says he thinks Johnson will make a great name for himself this season.”

Despite the build up, and the reports of his prowess at the plate, Johnson did make Stallings’ club.  His contract was sold to the Jersey City Skeeters in the Eastern League.

The (Portland) Oregonian said New York “farmed out” the former Beaver star despite the fact that:

“New York critics credit Ote, nevertheless, with having more promise than some of the players retained by Stallings.”

Johnson hit just .223 with 9 home runs (second in the league) with Jersey City, but would benefit from unrest in the New York clubhouse.  Manager George Stallings accused his star first baseman, Hal Chase, of trying to throw a game in St. Louis (the first of what would become many accusations against Chase). Stallings said he would resign if Chase wasn’t let go; Highlander owner Frank Farrell sided with Chase and forced Stallings out in September; Chase was named manager.

Hal Chase

Hal Chase

After the season ended the New York papers said Johnson would on Chase’s club the following season, either at third base in place of Jimmy Austin (who was rumored to be on the market, and eventually traded to the St. Louis Browns), or to play shortstop in place of John Knight  who would be moved to second base to replace Frank LaPorte (also on the market, and also eventually traded to St. Louis with Austin).

More Otis Johnson on Monday.

Roy Spruell

14 Aug

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century there were thousands of independent and industrial league baseball teams that operated across the country; the only distinction, in many cases, between the quality of these teams and their players and those in “professional” leagues was the “professional” teams were recognized by The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

Given the economics of the game, which usually required players to be employed during the off season, it was often as profitable, or even more so, to play with an independent or semi-professional team that either paid the same or more as the “professional” leagues or provided the player with a job.

As a result, there are thousands of players, who while well-known names in the towns, cities and regions where they played, have been largely forgotten.

Roy Layton Spruell is one of them.

From 1920 until 1939 Spruell was a fixture in Southern baseball, specifically on the Gulf Coast, although his “official” statistics only indicate limited “professional” appearances between 1924 and 1936.

Spruell appears to have been born January 25, 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama according to state records and census data, (his grave lists his birth year as 1902, but like many players of his era, he likely subtracted a couple of years at some point during his career and the new date stuck).

Raised in Mobile, Alabama, he first made a name for himself in 1920 pitching with industrial teams at the Southern Kraft Paper Mill and White Swann Laundry Company in Mobile.

Two years later he was a member of an independent team in Mississippi, the Ocean Springs Regulars.  In addition to Ocean Springs, the loosely affiliated semi-pro league included independent teams from nearby Mississippi towns Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula  and Wiggins, and industrial teams out of New Orleans, including the Choro Colas (later renamed RC Cola), the Tokay Teas.

The following season Spruell played for another Southern Kraft Mills team; contemporary newspaper accounts alternately called the team either the Moss Point or the Kreole Papermakers—the mill was located in Moss Point, Mississippi, but the team appears to have played home games in nearby Kreole.  Spruell’s older brother Harvey was his teammate with the Papermakers.

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right.  His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row.   The other players are identified as: Standing at left - Manager McGee 2nd from left  - Pat McGee 3rd from left  - Matt Delmas 4th from left-unidentified. 6th from left - Sam Leslie   Seated at left - Johnnie Cunningham 2nd from left - Brother Nelson 4th from left - John Bell

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right. His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row. The other players:: Standing Manager McGee, Pat McGee, Matt Delmas, unidentified, Roy Spruell, and Sam Leslie
Seated Johnnie Cunningham, Brother Nelson, Harvey Spruell, and John Bell.

 

In 1924 he signed his first professional contract, posting an 11-12 record for the fifth place Laurel Lumberjacks, in the six-team Cotton States League.  The following season, pitching for the last place (51-70) Alexandria Reds, Spruell was 14-10.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks.  Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left.  The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be future big league pitcher Ray Moss who pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks. Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left. The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be Ray Moss, the only member of the Laurel club to play in the big leagues,; he pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

Spruell had his best professional season in 1926 as a member of the Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  He led the team to the Cotton States championship with a 22-8 record, and got his name in newspapers across the country in August.  The Associated Press said:

“Friday the 13th was far from unlucky for Roy Spruell, pitching star of the Hattiesburg club of the Cotton States League, Spruell hurled the first no hit, no run game of his career.”

Spruell allowed just two walks (shortstop/manager Herschel Bobo also made an error) to the Monroe Drillers, but still only faced the minimum 27 batters.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  Roy Spruell is standing third from left.  Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers. Roy Spruell is standing third from left. Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

At the end of the 1926 season Spruell was purchased by the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League, but never played in Texas.  He started the season with the Memphis Chickasaws in the Southern Association and was released to the Knoxville Smokies in the South Atlantic League in May of 1927.  He was 10-10 in Knoxville and also appeared in 20 games in outfield.  The Spartanburg Herald called Spruell “the elongated righthander,” (he was listed variously from 6’ to 6’ 2”).

Spruell returned to the Smokies for the 1928 season, but a hand injury led to a slow start and with a 1-3 record at the end of May he was released and returned to the Cotton States League. He pitched professionally through the 1930 season, but struggled with injuries his last three seasons and pitched for several teams:  Laurel and Hattiesburg again (he also pitched for the Baton Rouge Essos when the Hattiesburg franchise relocated there during the 1929 season) as well as the Jackson Senators in the Cotton States League, and the Jacksonville Tars in the Southeastern League.

Spruell spent the next decade playing with and managing independent and industrial league teams in the South.  He played from 1931 to 1935 in the Mississippi Coast League, a strong semi-pro league with teams sponsored by union and industrial interests.

He left the Gulf Coast the following year, relocating in Savannah, Georgia where he played for and managed the Union Baggers—the company team of the Union Bag and Paper Company, operator of the world’s largest paper mill.  The team was considered one of Georgia’s best semi-pro and industrial teams, playing in the Coastal League, which included teams in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937.  Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937. Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

Spruell’s baseball career appears to have ended around 1940.

He eventually relocated to Pensacola, Florida and worked for the Florida Pulp and Paper Company; he suffered a heart attack at work and died in 1950

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Like thousands of others who played baseball in small and large towns, and small and large leagues, throughout the country, Roy Spruell’s career brings to mind a passage from W. P. Kinsella’s great novel “Shoeless Joe:”

“For some reason, I recall the question at the bottom of the form sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame to everyone who has ever played professional baseball: ‘If you had it to do over again, would you play professional baseball?’  The historian at Cooperstown, Clifford S. Kachline, said he couldn’t recall even one ex-player answering ‘no’ to the question.  I wonder if any other profession can say the same?”

Thank you to Roy Spruell’s grandchildren, Paula Grady and Bob Gattis for sharing the photographs used in this post as well as a copy of Mr. Spruell’s obituary. 

“He was Not Crazy as Reported”

18 Jul

Ervin Thomas “Erve” “Dutch” Beck hit the first home run in the American League; on April 25, 1901, the second day of the season, as a member of the Cleveland Blues; Beck homered off White Sox pitcher John Skopec at Chicago’s South Side Park.

It was a highlight in a short, promising career, like many at the turn of the 20th Century, destroyed by alcoholism.

Beck was considered the best young player in Toledo, Ohio when he joined the Adrian Reformers in the Michigan State League as a 16-year-old in 1895, then for the next five seasons, he was the star of his hometown Toledo Mud Hens in the Interstate League.  For the two seasons in Toledo for which complete records survive, Beck hit .298 in 1898 with 11 home runs and, a league-leading .360 with 15 home runs in 1900.

Erve Beck

Erve Beck

Earning the Nickname “Home run Dutch” in the Toledo papers, Beck was credited with 67  during his five seasons with the Mud Hens;  he would remain the team’s all-time career home run leader until 2007 when Mike Hessman (currently with the Louisville Bats in the International League) hit his 68th as a Mud Hen.

Beck also had a brief trial with the Brooklyn Superbas in the National League in 1899, hitting .167 in eight September games.

It’s unclear exactly when Beck’s problems with alcohol began, but according to fellow Ohioan Ed Ashenbach (alternately spelled Ashenback by several contemporary sources), a minor league contemporary who wrote a book in 1911 called “Humor among the Minors”,  it was well-known during Beck’s career that he was “addicted to strong drink,” and as a result suffered from “hallucinations.”

Ed Ashenbach

Ed Ashenbach (Ashenback)

Before the 1901 season, Beck, whose rights were held by the Cincinnati Reds, jumped to the Cleveland Blues in the newly formed American League; the twenty-two-year-old hit .289 and accounted for six of Cleveland’s twelve home runs.

Beck jumped back to the Reds before the 1902 season and received rave reviews early in the season.  The Cincinnati Tribune seemed to like him more at second base than veteran Heine Peitz:

“Erve Beck looks more like a second baseman than anyone who has filled the position since (Bid) McPhee went into retirement (in 1899).  He covers the ground, seems to know where to play and is capable of swinging the bat with some effect.”

His teammate, pitcher Frank “Noodles” Hahn claimed Beck hit the ball “harder than (Napoleon) Lajoie.”

Beck hit better than .300 playing second base in May but went to the bench when Peitz, who was filling in behind the plate for an injured Bill Bergen returned to second.

In June first baseman Jake Beckley missed a week with an injury and Beck filled in there; The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Ren Mulford said:

“(Beck) played the bag in splendid style…In handling ground balls Beck is as good as Beckley, and he is a better thrower… Beck gave another display of his versatility by plugging up a hole in right field.  He made one catch that was a lollapalooza…Most players would have lost heart when benched as Beck was, but he remained as chipper as a skunk during his term of inactivity, and gladly accepted the opportunity to get back into the swim. Beck is a phlegmatic soul, who takes life, as he finds it without a growl.”

In spite of a .305 batting average in 48 games and the great press he received, Beck was released by the Reds in July.  Whether the release was simply because he was the odd man out with Peitz, Beckley and right fielder Sam Crawford healthy or as a result of drinking is unknown.

Beck was signed almost immediately by the Detroit Tigers where he took over at first base after Frank “Pop” Dillon was sent to the Baltimore Orioles.  He hit .296 in 41 games but was again released at the end of the season.

Beck would never return to the big leagues.

In 1903 he .331 for the Shreveport Giants in the Southern Association, he jumped Shreveport the following season and played for the Portland Browns in the Pacific Coast League.   He returned to the Southern Association with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1905.  After starting the 1906 season in New Orleans, he was released in July and signed by the Nashville Volunteers; his combined average with both Southern Association teams was .211.

Beck’s drinking was, according to Ashenback and contemporary newspaper accounts, common knowledge by the time he wore out his welcome in Nashville in August and was sold to the Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic League.

That stop would last for only one game.

The 27-year-old, four years removed from the American League, played first base for the Tourists on August 6.  Augusta second baseman Ed McKernan said, “It was evident when he reported there was something amiss with him,” and claimed Beck chased “an imaginary flock of geese away from first base” during the game.

The following day, according to The Augusta Chronicle, Beck “created a sensation in the clubhouse…causing all but two of the players to leave the house.”  As a result, Augusta released him.

The following day The Chronicle said:

“(Beck) ran amuck this morning and created great excitement on the street.

“While in a room on the third floor of the Chelsea hotel the big infielder suddenly began to see things and sprang from the third story window to the ground below.  Only two intervening telephone wires and a rose bush saved his life.

“He then darted down an alley and hid himself in a store.  He was finally captured and came quietly back to his room with a policeman and (Tourists outfielder Frank) Norcum.”

The Sporting Life assured their readers that Beck “was not crazy, as reported, but only suffering from the effects of a (drunken) spree.”

McKernan said “During his convalescence…Beck would smilingly avow his determination to abstain from strong drink.”

There were varying reports regarding the extent of his injuries, and it’s unknown whether he was physically able to play after the fall, but Beck would never play professionally again.

He returned to Toledo where he operated a tavern and appears to have been unable “to abstain from strong drink;” he died in 1916 of Articular Rheumatism complicated by Hepatic Cirrhosis.