Saturday, January 7, 2017

226. Ralph Branca: Because he was strong enough.


Except for scattered clumps of disheveled, half crocked men back-slapping one another and chirping kids darting back and forth from the light of one street light to another, the parking lot was mostly deserted. Ralph could see his fiancee's Chrysler parked at the far end of the fenced-in player's lot, but he didn't move until she gently took his elbow and guided him through the doorway and into the October night. The security guard at the door nodded and Ralph could detect what he perceived to be a wry smile turn up the edges of his mouth. As his fiancee Ann took one side, family friend, Father Pat Rowley, sidled up on the other, and the threesome crossed the long emptiness of the Polo Grounds parking lot. 
Ralph's ears could still hear the echoing of the cheers reverberating in the air, or was it a deafening silence? He couldn't tell. 

As the little group paused while Ann fished around in her clutch for the keys to the Chrysler, Ralph looked at Father Rowley and asked "Why me?"

Without hesitation the Jesuit priest replied "Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”

And so he did.

Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I knew the name "Ralph Branca" ever since I could remember. I was born twenty years after he threw that single pitch that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant, and both the teams in the game no longer existed anymore, yet that game and the players who took part were as a part of my childhood. 

Everyone I grew up with had an endless supply of family stories about where so-and-so was when Branca gave up that home run: My grandma was working in a cookie factory and the game was so important that it was broadcast to the workers over loudspeakers. An uncle of mine was 7,800 miles away in war-torn Korea and listened via Armed Forces radio as the pennant was snatched away from his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I had a friend who could send his grandfather into a snarling, swear conjuring rage just by imitating Russ Hodges' dreaded call of "the Giants win the pennant! the Giants win the pennant!" And thirty years after that home run it was humiliating to me when the shortstop on my team yelled "nice one, Branca" after I gave up a cheap home run that lost us a ballgame. It wasn't a playoff game, or even the 9th inning, but man, it was an insult that cut worse than any swear word we had in our already salty vocabularies.

No other moment in sports history comes close to that single game in October, 1951. Countless non-fiction books have been written about the '51 pennant race, the game, what happened to the home run ball, and the players after the cheering died down. Thomson's home run has been employed as a plot device for shelves of fiction novels and TV shows, and hardly an autobiography of a person alive in 1951 could escape mentioning where they were on that day.

Ralph Branca grew up a New York Giants fan, an irony not lost on bitter Brooklyn fans many years later. After a high school tryout with the Giants ended with their scouts telling the tall string bean to get lost, Branca enrolled in NYU and soon his physique developed into an imposing 6'-3", 205lb. After his freshman year at NYU, the 18 year-old found himself on the mound in Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger. This was 1944, and unlike most of the wartime replacement players rushed into the majors just to keep the game going, Branca and his 95 mph fastball had what it took to stick. 

He bounced from the high minors and Brooklyn in 1945 and when the veterans came back from the war in '46, Branca was good enough to make the club full time. Manager Leo Durocher used the big righty as a spot starter and reliever, all the while letting the kid soak up the knowledge passed down to him by the Dodgers' two grizzled veterans, Kirby Higbe and Hugh Casey. In one of the most exciting pennant races up to that time, the Dodgers fought the Cardinals tooth and nail into September. Durocher turned Branca loose down the stretch and his pitching helped land the Dodgers in a best-of-three playoff with St. Louis for the National League pennant. Branca was tapped for Game 1, but the Cardinals scored three runs and knocked him out of the box in the third inning. The Dodger bats couldn't rally, and Brooklyn lost the game 4-2. They were then crushed 8-4 in Game 2 and the Cardinals went to the World Series.

Ralph Branca blossomed into the Dodgers' ace the next year. At the age of 21, Branca had now matured into a confident, although sometimes cocky, starter. He tempted fate by wearing number "13" - something superstitious ballplayers avoided lest they anger the baseball Gods. Not Branca. For him 13 was a lucky number. He led he league in starts and came in second with 21 wins that got the Dodgers into the World Series. But, as great as he was on the mound in '47, Branca was always prouder of what he did off the field that summer. 

Nineteen forty-seven was the year Jackie Robinson integrated the game, and Ralph Branca was right there for the whole spectacle. While several Dodgers were openly hostile to Robinson, most of the other players simply ignored the newcomer. Not Ralph Branca. The ace of the staff went out of his way to befriend Robinson, and the two men laid the foundation of a friendship that would last until Jackie's death in 1972. It was Branca who unhesitatingly stood next to Robinson on Opening Day, and told skeptical teammates that unless they were blind, it was easy to see that they could win the pennant with Robinson as their teammate. It was Jackie's powerful drive to win that eventually won over his teammates, but a small part of his acceptance has to be credited to Ralph Branca. On trains in between games the pitcher ate his meals with Robinson and then encouraged him to join his teammates in the shower after a game instead of waiting until everyone had finished. To have the Dodgers' number one pitcher in his corner went a long way to making Jackie feel a bit more accepted.

Branca won one game and lost one as the Dodgers fell to the Yankees in the '47 Series. The next summer he had 10 wins under his belt at the all-star break when he was pegged in the shin by an errant throw during batting practice. The injury developed into an infected bone lining, and he spent three long weeks in the hospital. In the meantime, the Dodgers blew the pennant to Boston. The next season Branca's arm just wasn't the same. His 13-5 record looked good when printed in the sports section, but the velocity was no longer there and he was pitching on smarts most of the time. By 1950 he was relegated to the bullpen, number 13 called in only to mop up after a game was already blown or just to soak up some innings. 

Then, the following spring, the heater came back. All the throwing he did in the bullpen the last two years contributed to reviving his ailing arm. Ralph became a spot starter and the Dodgers seemed to have the 1951 pennant wrapped up going into September. For his part Branca had a great 13-5 record, but then the wheels came off the Brooklyn pennant train. After being a dozen games in front, the team played .500 ball for the rest of the year. Branca dropped seven games and couldn't nudge his win number past that number 13. The Giants went on a 37-7 tear and remarkably caught the Dodgers on the last day of the season. 

The best-of-three series for the pennant began with Ralph Branca on the mound in Ebbets Field for Brooklyn. Branca gave up just six hits, but two of them were home runs by Monte Irvin and a game winner by Bobby Thomson, and the Dodgers lost 3 to 1. The next game was played in the Polo Grounds and the Dodgers crushed the Giants 10-nothing. 

Now the pennant came down to a winner-take-all Game 3. Big Don Newcombe held the Giants back and took a 4-1 lead into the ninth. Now Newk tired, giving up a run on a pair of singles and a double. Bobby Thomson, hero of Game 1, came to the plate and rookie Willie Mays knelt menacingly on deck. With runners on second and third with one out, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen looked to his bullpen. Two righties were up and throwing, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. Dodgers coach Clyde Sukeforth told Dressen that Erskine had just bounced a curve in the dirt, and just like that it, number 13 jogged out of the bullpen and into infamy. 

It was in the dark hours after Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" that Branca asked Father Rowley "why me?" and received the important answer of "Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”

Branca was now the most reviled man in Brooklyn. His name was cursed from Flatbush to Green Point. While many a man would have wilted or cracked under the stress of it all, Branca took Father Rowley's advice to heart. He posed for goofy and humiliating publicity shots with Thomson during the World Series and even sang a dopey novelty re-working of “Because of You” with his foe. Some might have looked upon all this as a guy making the best of a bad situation, but for Brooklyn fans, seeing Branca make nice with the man who snatched the pennant from them made Number 13 a hated man. 

In the aftermath of the playoff loss, coach Clyde Sukeforth lost his job and many thought the same should have happened to Branca. Whispers opined that the only reason the pitcher wasn't traded to the Browns or some other backwater team was because in the off-season he had married his fiancee, Ann, whose family owned the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, if Branca was now untouchable, that didn't mean his uniform wasn't - come spring the front office forced Branca to turn in his number 13 and replace it with what was hoped to be a luckier number 12 instead. Despite all the publicity surrounding the pitcher ditching his unlucky digits - there were photos Branca dumping the old jersey in a garbage can - he never got a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Dodger fans after that fateful pitch to Thomson.

In the spring of '52 Branca was playing cards in the clubhouse when his chair tipped backwards and he landed on a coke bottle. The heavy glass container knock his spine out of line and Branca was never an effective pitcher again. He was out of baseball by 1956, a once promising career now reduced to a single bad pitch.

Instead of shrinking into the shadows and avoiding any reminder of that terrible day, Branca leveraged his part in social history into a new line of work. For better or for worse, everyone in the Metropolitan area knew the name "Ralph Branca", and he turned this into a lucrative career in insurance. As an executive in Manhattan throughout the 1960's, Branca frequently ran into his old teammate Jackie Robinson who was an executive himself with Chock Full of Nuts Coffee. 

While lesser men would have spent their remaining years bitter about the bad shake baseball had given them, Branca spent the rest of his life giving back. He became a leading figure in the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which lent a helping hand to old ballplayers who needed financial help. The old pitcher also appeared frequently with Bobby Thomson at autograph signings and TV shows that marked the October 3 anniversary of the "Shot Heard Round the World". Branca was a graceful figure in defeat, yet as inspiring as he was, he had a deep secret he kept to himself. 

As early as 1953, Branca knew that the Giants had installed an elaborate sign-stealing system in the Polo Grounds. A spotter with a telescope hidden high up in the Giants office windows in the scoreboard relayed the opposing catcher's signs via a buzzer system. The pitch was signaled to the batter who could choose to use this insider knowledge or not. As Giants players were traded off the '51 club, word eventually made its way back to Branca and by the 1960's the Giants sign stealing plot was an open secret. 

What kind of inner strength did it take for him not to scream out to the world "Thomson knew what was coming!"

The whole affair was given the big league treatment in Joshua Prager's indispensable book "The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World". The pitcher later told interviewers that his friendship with Thomson was never the same after Prager's 2008 book because Thomson refused to even acknowledge the sign steeling scheme to Branca. Standing next to Thomson at all those card shows co-signing thousands of baseballs suddenly lost its appeal, and the two drifted apart. Still, Branca was gracious enough not to speak his mind as long as Thomson was alive. Those words spoken to him back in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds made all the difference in how he led his life since 1951 and he stuck to it.

So, Ralph Branca passed away this past month. Of course, all the headlines went something like "Ralph Branca, who gave up 'Shot Heard 'Round the World,' dies" or "Ralph Branca, beloved Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ home run, dead at 90". It was inevitable, and something Branca himself probably would have smiled at. After all, he proved he was strong enough to bear that cross.

Notes on the Illustration: I was originally hesitant to do a Ralph Branca story and illustration. Whenever a ballplayer dies there's always a glut of hastily written tributes, especially on the internet, and I didn't feel like I could add anything worthwhile. However, a fella named Shaun that I met at a presentation I gave last summer sent me a very well thought out and inspirational email about Branca's passing, particularly stressing the pitcher's strength of character in the aftermath of the home run. Because of Shaun's eloquent and personal take on Branca's passing, I was persuaded to do a piece on him.

When it came time to starting the drawing, I knew I wanted to depict that dreaded number "13" on his back. It was simply too ironic and iconic not to. That done, I then ran into the problem of what background to choose. I did a few different ones showing the Polo Grounds box seats, and then one of him in front of the section of wall where Thomson's homer sailed over, but it just didn't seem right. Then I thought up the background you see now. Since the Giants had the hidden telescope in the office windows in the center field scoreboard, I knew that was the only background for this card. The Chesterfield sign, the green scoreboard and those dark, mysterious windows... it just made sense.



Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/sports/mlb/article116826993.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

225. Honus Wagner: The Flying Dutchman Lands in Louisville



I just got back from two long business trips. Looking out the window as the place followed the Ohio River toward the airport, I got that "it's good to be back" feeling, and when my plane touched down in Kentucky, I can't tell you how glad I felt that this was my home. So, in honor of my adopted state, I thought I'd share a larger illustration I did of one of baseball's greatest players, and tell you a bit how he got his start in ol' Kentucky...

Future New York Yankees president Ed Barrow was managing the Paterson Silk Weavers in New Jersey when he discovered Honus Wagner. The big, bow-legged kid from Pennsylvania turned out to be a tremendous hitter - but a liability in the field. None the less Barrow could see Wagner’s potential and convinced Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Louisville Colonels to sign him in 1897.


Louisville was a National League team at the time and Wagner hit big league pitching at a .330 clip. He also turned himself into a superior third baseman and by 1899 was one of the best players in the National League. Despite his ungainly physique, Wagner was one of the era’s most daring and successful base runners and in 1898 he was the first player to steal second, third and home in succession.


Wagner was a big hit with the Louisville fans. He won a throwing contest by hurling a ball 403 feet. To make the most of his popularity his likeness was used to sell locally made cigars - a practise he famously discontinued a decade later when he forced the removal of his baseball card from cigarette packs. The few copies that survive are the most sought after and valuable piece of sports memorabilia in existence. 


The National League contracted from twelve to eight teams after the 1899 season and the Louisville franchise was eliminated. Barney Dreyfuss bought into the Pittsburgh club and took Wagner with him. In his first season in Pittsburgh Wagner won the first of eight batting crowns he would win during his Hall of Fame career. And even though Honus Wagner left Kentucky after 1899, he returned in 1905 to sign a contract with Hillerich & Bradsby becoming the first ball player to have his own signature model Louisville Slugger bat.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Wild Bill Wright Makes the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame!


Outwardly, I'm pretty much a pessimist. It's just one of those base survival skills one picks up as a kid, in my case it is probably because if I expected a lousy outcome, it was a sweeter suprise when something did actually work out. And I got that same sweet feeling last week when I heard from Bryan Steverson that Wild Bill Wright finally got voted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame! Here's the press release Bryan sent along to me:

NASHVILLE, TN., Nov. 01, 2016 — The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame announced today the names of eleven inductees to be enshrined at its 51st Annual Induction Banquet on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at the Omni-Nashville Hotel.
 

Announced inductees include Ashley McElhiney Ayers, Vanderbilt University Women’s Basketball player and the 1st female coach of a male professional basketball team, Nashville Rhythm; Will Perdue, Vanderbilt University Basketball star and former 1st round NBA selection; Chantelle Anderson, Vanderbilt University Women’s Basketball star and former 2nd overall pick of the 2003 WNBA Draft; Julius Chuck Meriwether, former Major League Baseball Umpire; Chad Clifton, University of Tennessee and Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame Offensive Lineman; Al Wilson, University of Tennessee All-American Linebacker and 1st Round selection of the 1999 NFL Draft. Additional inductees include Haskel Stanback, University of Tennessee and Atlanta Falcons Running Back; Candy Reynolds, Knoxville-born Professional Tennis player; Willie Gault, University of Tennessee All-American Wide Receiver and 1st Round selection of the 1983 NFL Draft. Rounding out the class are posthumous inductions for Graham Vowell, University of Tennessee’s 1st All-American, and Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright, a Negro League All-Star and Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame member.

Tickets for the Induction Banquet can be purchased by calling Lynn Powell Toy at 615.202.3996 or lynnpowelltoy@gmail.com

Congratulations to Wild Bill and a great job to Bryan Steverson and his group who have tried for years to get Bill Wright the recognition he so rightly deserved! For those who missed my story and illustration of Wild Bill I'm running it again below...



Ever since I was a kid researching the Negro Leagues on microfilm and ancient bound newspaper volumes, I always wondered how certain players would have done had there not been a color barrier. I'm not talking about guys like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day or Martin Dihigo - those guys were sure-fire big league stars. I'm talking about those second-tier stars, you know, the Dale Murphy's to the Wade Boggs'.

One of those players I often wondered about was a fella named Wild Bill Wright. I had first discovered Wright through old box scores, but it wasn't until I met a few oldsters in Baltimore who saw him play firsthand that I really came to appreciate him. For a time Wright was one of the premier stars of the Negro National League, and looking at his numbers and testimony from his peers, the name "Wild Bill Wright" should be well-known today. Yet for a few reasons it isn't.

Burnis Wright was born in Milan, Tennessee in 1914. By the time he reached his teens he grew to the then enormous height of 6'-4". Because of his imposing stature, Wright was put to work as a pitcher where he earned the moniker "Wild Bill" from his inability to find the strike zone. In spite of being built like a football player he possessed lightening speed and graceful agility, making him perfect for covering outfield pastures.

Somewhere along the way he taught himself to hit from both sides of the plate, and word got around that Wright was something special. Being from Tennessee, it was only natural that the big kid signed with Tom Wilson's Nashville Elite Giants in 1932. Wilson was a typical 1930's Negro League owner - he made his money through a combination of legit businesses and illegal enterprises like the illegal lottery, called "the numbers" back then. Although Wilson kept his base of operations firmly rooted in Nashville, he was forced to move his Elite Giants through a succession of different cities in search of the most lucrative market. The teenager they called "Wild Bill" began working out with the Elite Giants, then eased into exhibition games, all the while learning about professional Negro League ball by watching the veterans.  Finally, in 1933, he began playing against other top-shelf Blackball clubs. The 19 year-old hit .328 - today a respectable average - but in 1933 Negro League offensive numbers were sky-high, so Wright was considered still a novice. This changed when he went West during the winter and played in the California Winter League. This loose semi-pro circuit was made up of a few all-white teams that featured major and minor league stars who lived on the coast and one all-black club filled with the best talent Blackball had to offer. This time Wright held his own not just against the white professionals but also the Negro League stars - his .351 average was bested only by Cool Papa Bell and Willie Wells, two future Hall of Famers.

In 1935 Tom Wilson moved his Elites to Columbus, Ohio trying to find a larger black audience for his team. Wright was batting close to .300 when he was voted to his first East-West Game, the Negro League's All-Star classic held in Chicago's Comiskey Park. Representing the East, Wright struck out as a pinch hitter. 1936 saw the Elites relocate again, this time to Washington, D.C. and again Wright was voted to the East-West Game. As a nod to his burgeoning talent, the 22 year-old was asked to join a Blackball all-star team that competed at the 1936 Denver Post Tournament, the World Series of semi-pro baseball. Five of the players on the champion Negro League team - Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown and Buck Leonard, are now enshrined in Cooperstown. 1937 was probably Wright's best year, at least in the Negro Leagues. Besides hitting .387 and being among the leaders in all offensive categories, Wright had two singles and a double in the East-West Game and his running catch of Newt Allan's line drive saved the game for his team.

In 1938 the Elite Giants finally found a permanent home in Baltimore, Maryland. Wright had an off year, hitting under .300 and going hitless in four at bats in the East-West Game, but rebounded in 1939. Finishing second in batting with a .398 average, Wright and the Elites won their first and only Negro National League pennant. It was Wright's double in the final game that sparked an Elite Giants' rally that won them the Championship. Facing white big leaguers in a post-season exhibition game, Wright went 3 for 8 including a double off Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians. At this point Bill Wright was just reaching his prime as a ballplayer. Due to his gracefulness in the outfield, Sportswriters referred to him as the "Black DiMaggio" and his speed on the base paths saw him finish at or near the top in steals each season. While he didn't possess the slugging power one might expect from a 6'-4" giant, Wright was always among the leaders in extra base hits. He mastered the art of the drag bunt, using his speed to beat out any throw to first. Although it can't be definitively documented, legend has it Wright was clocked circling the bases in 13.2 seconds - the world record is 13.3 set by minor leaguer Evar Swanson in 1932. With a combined average of .371 against white big leaguers in post-season exhibition games, Wright undeniably demonstrated that he could not only hold his own against the best Blackball had to offer, but white professionals as well. Had he played out his entire career in the Negro Leagues it would be much easier for us to gauge the level of his talent and put it in easy to understand and translate figures. However, beginning in 1940, Wright left the Negro Leagues and went to Mexico to play ball.

Playing against the Negro League, Cuban and Puerto Rican stars who were lured south by lucrative contracts, Wright hit .360 and led the league with 30 doubles, finished second to Cool Papa Bell in hits and second to Sam Bankhead in steals. The following season his .390 average beat out Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Martin Dihigo, Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells and Ray Dandridge for the batting crown. That winter Wright played for San Juan in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Again, playing against the best players outside the major Leagues, Wright was a standout, being named to the All-Star Team and hitting the home run that put his team ahead in game one of the two-game series.

Due to the war and draft regulations, Wright returned to the United States for the 1942 season. Having an off-year, he barely managed .300 as the Elites lost the second-half pennant in the last weekend of the season. Wright was off to Mexico again in 1943 where he won the Triple Crown and stayed the following season as well. He was back in Baltimore for the 1945 season where he finished second in the batting championship. This would be Wright's last season in America.

In interviews he gave after his retirement, Wright stated that he preferred the absence of racial animosity in Mexico. South of the border he was an acknowledged star, while in his own country, no matter how good he was, he was only a marginal figure, known only by those who followed segregated baseball. Besides, life was easy for a ballplayer in Mexico. Unlike the Negro Leagues where playing two games in different towns on the same day was not unheard of, the Liga Mexicana played only on Friday, Saturday and Sundays. The travel was by train or airplane, a world apart from the bone-rattling bus rides that were the normal mode of transport in the Negro Leagues. Age also has something to do with Wright's decision to stay in Mexico. When Jackie Robinson integrated organized baseball in 1946, Wright was 32, too old to be seriously considered for a shot at the majors. This, combined with the quick collapse of the Negro Leagues after 1946, kept Wild Bill Wright in Mexico. The Mexican League had one last great season, 1946, when not only Negro League players, but also white big leaguers, ventured south. In what can be called his last hurrah, Wild Bill outhit all the white major league imports. He played through 1951, then opened a restaurant with his Hawaiian-born wife in Aguascalientes. Called "Bill Wright's Dugout," the restaurant capitalized on the familiarity of his name to Mexican sports fans. Wright raised his family in Aguascalientes, venturing back to the States only later in life to attend Negro League reunions. For his contribution to Mexican baseball, Wright was elected to the Mexico's Salon de la Fama in 1982.

So that's the story of Wild Bill. It's always bothered me that not only was this fine athlete denied the big league career his skills surely merited, but he's not even widely known today because the same mindless racism that kept him from the majors also forced him to move to another country where he played out his career in relative obscurity. While his contemporaries who played the bulk of their career in the U.S. have belatedly received the recognition they deserved, Wright, despite his statistics, remains a largely forgotten figure. I think it's fair to say that it is his time spent alternating between the Negro and Mexican Leagues that hindered any late recognition of his career and rendered analysis of his talent difficult. I'd always wanted to do a story and illustration of Bill Wright, but it wasn't until I was at a book signing in Tennessee last summer that I put Wild Bill on the front burner. Among the people who turned out for the event was a nice group of Knoxville SABR members. One of the fellas struck up a conversation about Wild Bill Wright which, of course, peaked my interest. Turns out he was part of movement to get Wright elected to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Bill Wright has not been elected to this organization. No doubt his career spent in the shadows of baseball history has everything to do with this oversight.




Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker and it throws off the real ratings. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

224. Fred Clarke:



I've said it before many times, but I'll say it again: one of the best benefits about writing/illustrating The Infinite Baseball Card Set is all the baseball historians, writers and artists I've met. I've asked a few to be a "Guest Author" on here and this week I'm pleased to have Angelo Louisa. You may have heard of him, he's been the author, co-author or editor of a bunch of solid baseball books, and there's a good chance one of them sits on your bookshelf right now. I know his book on the 1926 Pirates sits on mine, and Angelo chose a character from that very book as the subject of this week's story...

With virtually the same personnel that had won both the National League pennant and the World Series the previous season, the 1926 Pittsburgh Pirates were favored by the majority of preseason prognosticators to capture the pennant for the second year in a row.  But they ended up in third place, four and a half games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.



That failure has largely been attributed to the alleged dissension caused by the presence of vice president and assistant to the manager Fred Clarke on the Pirate bench and to the ramifications of an attempt by several players to remove him, known as the "ABC Affair."   



For the casual fan of baseball history, the name Fred Clarke may not mean anything.  But for the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian, it may conjure up images of the fiery player-manager of the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates, someone who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a left fielder but who could have been elected as either a player or a manager.  As a player, Clarke was an excellent hitter, an aggressive base runner, a daring defender, and a fierce competitor who, according to Baseball-Reference.com (as of September 18, 2016), placed in the final seasonal top 10 in positive offensive and defensive statistical categories 194 times (not including games played, defensive games played as an outfielder, at bats, and plate appearances) throughout his 21-year career in the National League.  As a manager, he led his teams to four pennants, one World Series championship out of two appearances, a remarkable 14 straight first-division finishes, and a .576 regular-season winning percentage (.595 with the Pirates).  And he accomplished these feats while managing against such notable skippers as Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, George Stallings, John McGraw, and Frank Chance.



However, even the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian may not be aware that Clarke was much more than a baseball personage.  The ninth of 12 children of a blacksmith-farmer and his homemaker wife, Clarke used his dual passions of baseball and working the soil, his athletic and mechanical talents, and his optimistic nature and belief in fate to become an outdoorsy Renaissance man and a multimillionaire.  During his nearly 88 years in this world, Clarke was an innovative and highly successful rancher whose income skyrocketed when oil was discovered on his land; a Kansas state champion amateur trapshooter; an outstanding equestrian who did riding tricks from the back of his horse; an avid hunter, fisherman, and golfer; and a skillful inventor who created and held patents for, among other things, flip-down sunglasses, sliding pads, and a mechanical apparatus for putting the tarpaulin over the baseball field.



In addition, Clarke was a community leader in Winfield, Kansas, who co-founded the area’s country club, helped to build the town’s current Holy Name Catholic Church, and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan when it tried to harass him for being a Roman Catholic.



Nor would the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian necessarily be aware that, at the request of Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss, Clarke returned to the Pirates in 1925 as assistant to the owner, assistant to the manager, and head of scouting and was one of the key people responsible for the Bucs winning the National League pennant and the World Series championship that year.  Clarke remained with the Pirates in 1926, having become vice president of the club during the offseason while retaining his positions as assistant to the manager and head of scouting, and endeavored to aid them in seizing another pennant.  But his efforts came to naught.  A talented Pirate team did not live up to expectations and a scapegoat had to be found to explain the bronze medal finish.  For certain Pittsburgh sportswriters and fans, that scapegoat was Clarke, a belief that some later writers have also held.         



However, in 2006, I began to research the ’26 Pirates in general and the ABC Affair in particular, looking at all five mainstream Pittsburgh newspapers—not just those that criticized Clarke or those that have been digitized—as well as various player interviews and other primary sources and discovered that the blame assigned to Clarke has been mostly misplaced and that the reasons for the Bucs' failure were far more complex.  The result of my research is a book titled The Pirates Unraveled:Pittsburgh’s 1926 Season, which was published last October by McFarland.  But I’ll resist temptation to say anything else about it because I want you to read the details for yourself.  To order a copy of the book, go to www.mcfarlandpub.com. 


Angelo J. Louisa is a researcher, writer, and community educator who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.  A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, he has contributed articles to books, periodicals, and websites, is co-editor of ForbesField: Essays and Memories of the Pirates’ Historic Ballpark, 1909-1971 and Mysteries from Baseball’s Past:Investigations of Nine Unsettled Questions, and is series co-editor of McFarland Historic Ballparks.
 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

223. Bill Crouch: One for the Record Books


Baseball is completely governed by statistics and records. It's the one thing that makes the game unique when compared to other sports. While football, hockey and (especially) basketball have radically evolved over the years in both playing style and equipment, since the introduction of the juiced up ball in 1920 baseball is essentially the same. That means you can pretty much compare a guy like Dazzy Vance, Brooklyn pitching star of the 1920's with Sandy Koufax of the 1960s and then with Orel Hershiser of the 1990's. There's differences of course, like mound height, watered-down talent pool, etc., but much less so than any other big-money sport. That's why baseball's records are more sacred than other sports. Home run totals, hitting streaks, etc, are all measuring sticks we use to gauge how good a ballplayer is. Some records are ever changing, like career home run totals or stolen bases. Others, like single season wins by a pitcher will never be topped because we've learned (and been told by agents and the Player's Union) not to over-use a player. A 30 game season is simply unreachable these days, let alone Hoss Radburn's 59 set in 1884. Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters is one that theoretically could be matched, but the odds are radically against it. Heck, even complete games are rare. Today it's newsworthy when a pitcher makes it past the 7th inning stretch, and that's why the record set in today's story - most strikeouts in one game - will never be broken. Most fans know that Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Max Scherzer hold the MLB record for most K's in 9 inning game: 20. When the game gets extended into extra innings, the totals go a bit higher: Tom Cheney struck out 21 in a 16 inning game back in 1962. Trudge into the wild and woolly recesses of the minor leagues and it gets even better: in 1952 Ron Necciai whiffed 27 batters in a 9 inning Appalachian League game and Hooks Iott struck out 30 batters in a 16 inning Class D game in 1941. But one semi-pro pitcher topped even that, in both innings pitched and K's recorded...

It was about as good a debut a rookie could ask for. For five years Bill Crouch had been toiling in relative obscurity on the sandlots of his native Wilmington, Delaware when suddenly in July of 1910 he was signed by the St. Louis Browns. Crouch was twenty-three years old, a hefty lefthander with a good fastball and a serviceable curve who'd carved out an admirable record playing in Wilmington's semi-pro industrial leagues. The first professional baseball contract Bill Crouch signed his name to was the one he'd just signed with St. Louis. Now, the St. Louis Browns in 1910 were a pretty miserable lot. They'd finish the year 47-107, and when a ball club reaches that low a point they'll try just about anything to right the ship. Indeed, twenty different pitchers appeared for St. Louis that summer, and on July 12, 1910, it was Bill Crouch's turn. 

The Browns were in Washington to face the Senators at American League Park. It was a grey, rain-swept afternoon in the nation's capital as the 23 year-old southpaw prepared for his first professional baseball game. For a guy catapulted from the sandlots right into to the big leagues, it must have been a nerve-racking prospect. Pitching on weekends for the DuPont Powder Company baseball team was one thing, suiting up for the St. Louis Browns was quite another. I'm sure it made him even more unnerved when he discovered his opponent that afternoon would be Walter Johnson - on his way to becoming the greatest right handed pitcher in the history of the game. Johnson was in his fourth big league season and would win 25 games for Washington that year. 

The game was scoreless through two frames before St. Louis scored two off Johnson in the third. Washington got to Crouch in the fourth inning, plating three runs. The rookie was a bit wild, walking seven, and he struggled when it came to fielding his position. Washington used this to their advantage and bunted often, resulting in two errors by the hefty lefty. The young Walter Johnson was firing on all cylinders, striking out 13 Brownies until the fifth when his throwing error let in two runs for a 4-3 St. Louis lead. After a pair of rain delays the evening gloom was setting in and just when it looked like Crouch would have his first big lead victory, a few walks capped off with an error by the shortstop let in the tying run. By this time the ballpark was wrapped in darkness and the game was called, forever locked in a 4-4 tie.

It wasn't a bad debut. Dueling Walter Johnson to a tie is never something to sneeze at, and the newspapers the next morning said as much. Considering the Browns' deplorable mound corps, it was expected that Crouch would get another start, but it wasn't to be. Citing his "inexperience", Browns manager Jack Reynolds released the southpaw to the Richmond Colts of the Virginia League. But life in the Bush Leagues wasn't what Bill Crouch had in mind. Telling St. Louis' manager "it's the major leagues or nothing", Crouch took the train back to Wilmington. He had a wife, Effie, and three year-old boy, Bill Jr., and besides, he made more making explosives and pitching on weekends for DuPont than an anonymous minor league pitcher ever could. His one-and-done big league career makes Bill Crouch one of the very few ballplayers to go from the semi-pros directly to the majors without spending any time in the minors. It's quite an accomplishment, and that's where history would have left Bill Crouch, had it not been for an even more extraordinary mound appearance six years after his one and only big league game.

Back in Wilmington Crouch resumed his position as the local sandlot hero. With a big league game under his belt, the southpaw was in high demand, but fate intervened. Arm trouble and an operation sidelined him for all of 1911 and when he came back in 1912 his left arm was useless. Still, his natural talent and name recognition kept him in the lineup as a first baseman on lower-tiered clubs through 1915. Then, the old wing started to come around and by 1916 Bill Crouch was back on the mound. Now thirty and a little bit on the portly side, Crouch took up mound duties for the Brandywine Athletic Association team in the All-Wilmington League. 

The game that would set a world record for Bill Crouch wasn't supposed to even take place. The May 30, 1916 game was an unscheduled make-up tilt between Eastlake and Crouch's Brandywine club. Eastlake scored a run off the old lefthander in the second inning but Brandywine took the lead the next inning with two runs. Eastlake tied it up in the sixth. Crouch hummed along, striking out Eastlake player after Eastlake player. And as good as Crouch was, Ennis, Eastlake's pitcher, was keeping pace with the veteran. The zeros piled up as the afternoon wore on. Eight, nine, ten innings and still no score. Both pitchers has great control with only two walks apiece. While Ennis was retiring the Brandywine players on ground balls and fly outs, Crouch was blowing the ball past the Eastlake bats. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen innings ticked by and no runs. The crowd stayed put in their seats, everyone knowing they were watching the greatest baseball game ever played in Wilmington. Three hours and forty-five minutes and nineteen innings after the game's start, Wilmington finally got a rally started. A single and some good base running got Brandywine three runs. Crouch came on in the bottom of the 19th and retired the side for the win. When the scorebook was tallied, Bill Crouch had faced 70 batters, given up only a pair of walks and scattered ten hits over 19 innings. But the most remarkable thing was that e has struck out 31 batters - a new world record and one that will most likely never be broken. Crouch's feat made newspapers coast-to-coast but failed to bring any offers to resume his short big league career. With just 16 major league teams in 1916, no club was willing to take a chance on a middle-aged pitcher with a history of arm trouble - world record or no world record. Besides, chances are Bill Crouch didn't want the hassle of starting a new career. He had carved out a nice niche for himself and like many semi-pro stars of the pre-WWII period, made good money on his own terms. 

That was pretty much the extent of Bill Crouch's career in baseball. During the 1930's the Crouch's moved to Michigan where the old ballplayer worked for Cadillac. He passed away a few days before Christmas, 1945, at the age of 59. 

If you look up Bill Crouch in the Baseball Encyclopedia (sorry, that's a force of habit - of course today everyone uses Baseball-reference.com), you'll find his one-line career. But right below you'll see that in 1939, another pitcher named Bill Crouch, this one a righty, made his big league debut for Brooklyn. This was Bill Crouch Jr., son of the old lefthander. Junior had a three year career with the Dodgers, Phillies and Cardinals, posting a 5-3 career record.

I hope you enjoyed this little story. I really enjoy plucking these players from baseball's hidden corners, dusting off the obscurity and letting their stories come to life again. There's ten thousand books and articles on Ty Cobb, and you can find them in any bookstore. To find a Bill Crouch you have to stumble over his story in the dim light of baseball's past. That's what I like, and I hope you do, too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

222. Hack Wilson: Stouts takes the field


Last year I began to write a story about the early career of Hack Wilson. I was always fascinated by the guy, ever since I saw a photo of him standing with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in a book I had as a kid. His odd physique (5'-6" with a Ruthian barrel chest wearing a size 5 1/2 shoe) made me do a double-take, and when I learned of his amazing 191 RBI season in 1930 it made me want to learn more about this odd guy. Wilson and the other 1920's Cubs really came alive for me in "Mr. Wrigley's Ballclub" by Roberts Ehrgott (a must-read for any pre-war baseball fan, I can't recommend this book enough!) and I drew up a few versions of a Hack Wilson minor league card. However, to use a real flaky artist term, none of them "felt" right to me and I never got around to finishing the story. Instead, I stumbled upon a newspaper story from the opposite end of his career and got gleefully side tracked. You can read that story HERE, it's become one of my favorites. So, the pre-big league Hack Wilson story got put on the shelf - that is until now. This weekend I put the finishing touches on an illustration of Hack that I felt fit him perfectly and dug up my stack of 1921-1922 newspaper clippings and notes and got to work...

It was Opening Day in the Blue Ridge League, 1921. 

The Martinsburg Blue Sox, a league powerhouse since the loop was founded, looked like they had another pennant winner. But besides the hold overs from last season like Reggie Rawlings and Johnny Neun, there was a new kid in town, about as odd a looking ballplayer to ever step foot on a diamond.

The kid (and I'm using that term loosely now) sprang forth from the rough factory towns of Western Pennsylvania. The illegitimate son of part-time laborer and full-time drunk and a wandering prostitute, Lewis Wilson grew up more or less on his own. His mother died of appendicitis when he was seven and his father entrusted the boy to the care of the woman who ran the boarding house they lived in. Fortunately the proprietor and her son were a huge baseball fans and both tutored the young boy in the finer points of the game. 

Like I mentioned earlier, Lew was an odd looking fella - he was short, had a big, flat, moon face, a stocky torso perched on dainty ankles that terminated at even daintier feet. He also perspired - a lot. Modern scholars of the game have speculated that Lew's appearance and later actions as an adult had the hallmarks of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a birth defect brought on by excessive drinking during pregnancy. With his parents track record, it could very well be the case. Being such an ungainly looking figure made him the object of every bully in town, so Lew grew up knowing how to use his fists. With no good male role models except his booze-hound of a father, he also took to drinking at a young age, a habit that would have serious consequences to both his career and personal life (see my earlier story HERE). At 16 he quit school and worked first in a locomotive factory, then a shipyard. The intense physical labor not only hardened his rough physique, but it also gave him the chance to showcase his baseball skills in the highly competitive industrial leagues in operation at that time. 

Now at his full adult height of 5'-6", 190 pounds with a size 5 1/2 foot, Lew billed himself as a catcher and his prowess with a bat earned him a $175 a month contract to play ball for the Martisburg Blue Sox. Martinsburg was a mid-sized mill and railroad town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. It was an unpolished, homey kind of place and Lew took to it like it was the home he never had. Indeed, Martinsburg would be his primary residence for most of his life and the town still proudly claims him as one of their own. 

The Blue Sox had a pretty good veteran core in 1921. The team already had a starting backstop, but by the time spring training ended Lew had edged his way into the starting lineup. So, that Opening Day in 1921, Martinsburg fans were expecting great things from Lewis Wilson. 

They'd have to wait. 

Sliding into home plate that Opening Day, Wilson suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia. Back in 1921 this was a very serious injury that often left a man with a limp for the rest of his life. A gimp leg would mean no professional baseball career. Somehow Wilson kept himself positive during the long hospital stay. This was no doubt helped when he made the acquaintance of the friend of one of his nurses. Wilson and Virginia Riddleburger hit it off and soon the pair were seriously dating. Virginia was a good dozen years older than the 21 year-old ballplayer, and it would not be out of line to suspect that Wilson saw her as part mother-figure. Virginia had been married before, and at age 34 might have felt that this colorful young ballplayer was her chance to shake off grim prospect of living the rest of her days as a small town spinster divorcee. Whatever the reason, the two were devoted to one another and soon Virginia was a baseball fan.

After two months out of the action, Wilson played the last 30 games of the season, his new girl in the stands cheering him on. Now hobbled with a slight limp he'd have the rest of his life, Wilson pounded out 36 hits in 101 at bats for a nice .356 average. His total of five home runs were but a tiny taste of what was to come. When the season ended Wilson stayed in Martinsburg to work in the mills and court Virginia. Wilson was a jovial, good natured fella who soon became a favorite character around town. His odd barrel chested frame earned him the nickname "Stouts" and every Blue Sox fan looked forward to the 1922 season. 

From the start Wilson pounded the ball. By July he broke the Blue Ridge League record for single season home runs and had doubled it by the end of the summer. He hit the ball at a .366 clip and eventually adjusted to his new position of outfielder. The Blue Sox won the pennant and then league Championship. Home run champ of the Blue Ridge League was swell, but Wilson wanted to be a big leaguer. The only way to reach that goal was to keep posting good numbers until someone from a higher up league took notice. Lucky for him, someone did.

After hearing of a big little fella making a whole lot of noise up in the Blue Ridge Mountains all season, Frank Lawrence traveled to Martinsburg to have himself a look. Lawrence owned the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League, a rung or two higher up the ladder than Martinsburg. Impressed and quite satisfied, Lawrence wrote a $500 check to the Blue Sox ownership and Stouts Wilson became a Trucker. 

He was one step closer to his dream.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

221. Wild Bill Wright: The Neglected Negro League Star


It's been a busy summer. Even though I tried to deny it, I wound up taking the summer off from writing this blog. It's not like I've been idle - on the contrary I've been both writing and drawing up a storm. It's just that every time I finish a story, I decide to include it in the issue of "21" that I'm preparing. I wish I could just go ahead and run some of the articles I've been cooking up - Lou Gehrig's Columbia days, Steve Bilko and the Summer of '56, Al Gizelbach (who? - you'll see!), spitballer and civil rights pioneer Doc Sykes - and the illustrations? Man, they're some of my finest yet. So anyway, I know this blog has been neglected too long. Summer Break is over and it's time to get back to basics. 

It's time to resume "The Infinite Baseball Card Set!

 Ever since I was a kid researching the Negro Leagues on microfilm and ancient bound newspaper volumes, I always wondered how certain players would have done had there not been a color barrier. I'm not talking about guys like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day or Martin Dihigo - those guys were sure-fire big league stars. I'm talking about those second-tier stars, you know, the Dale Murphy's to the Wade Boggs'.

One of those players I often wondered about was a fella named Wild Bill Wright. I had first discovered Wright through old box scores, but it wasn't until I met a few oldsters in Baltimore who saw him play firsthand that I really came to appreciate him. For a time Wright was one of the premier stars of the Negro National League, and looking at his numbers and testimony from his peers, the name "Wild Bill Wright" should be well-known today. Yet for a few reasons it isn't.

Burnis Wright was born in Milan, Tennessee in 1914. By the time he reached his teens he grew to the then enormous height of 6'-4". Because of his imposing stature, Wright was put to work as a pitcher where he earned the moniker "Wild Bill" from his inability to find the strike zone. In spite of being built like a football player he possessed lightening speed and graceful agility, making him perfect for covering outfield pastures.

Somewhere along the way he taught himself to hit from both sides of the plate, and word got around that Wright was something special. Being from Tennessee, it was only natural that the big kid signed with Tom Wilson's Nashville Elite Giants in 1932. Wilson was a typical 1930's Negro League owner - he made his money through a combination of legit businesses and illegal enterprises like the illegal lottery, called "the numbers" back then. Although Wilson kept his base of operations firmly rooted in Nashville, he was forced to move his Elite Giants through a succession of different cities in search of the most lucrative market. The teenager they called "Wild Bill" began working out with the Elite Giants, then eased into exhibition games, all the while learning about professional Negro League ball by watching the veterans.  Finally, in 1933, he began playing against other top-shelf Blackball clubs. The 19 year-old hit .328 - today a respectable average - but in 1933 Negro League offensive numbers were sky-high, so Wright was considered still a novice. This changed when he went West during the winter and played in the California Winter League. This loose semi-pro circuit was made up of a few all-white teams that featured major and minor league stars who lived on the coast and one all-black club filled with the best talent Blackball had to offer. This time Wright held his own not just against the white professionals but also the Negro League stars - his .351 average was bested only by Cool Papa Bell and Willie Wells, two future Hall of Famers.

In 1935 Tom Wilson moved his Elites to Columbus, Ohio trying to find a larger black audience for his team. Wright was batting close to .300 when he was voted to his first East-West Game, the Negro League's All-Star classic held in Chicago's Comiskey Park. Representing the East, Wright struck out as a pinch hitter. 1936 saw the Elites relocate again, this time to Washington, D.C. and again Wright was voted to the East-West Game. As a nod to his burgeoning talent, the 22 year-old was asked to join a Blackball all-star team that competed at the 1936 Denver Post Tournament, the World Series of semi-pro baseball. Five of the players on the champion Negro League team - Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown and Buck Leonard, are now enshrined in Cooperstown. 1937 was probably Wright's best year, at least in the Negro Leagues. Besides hitting .387 and being among the leaders in all offensive categories, Wright had two singles and a double in the East-West Game and his running catch of Newt Allan's line drive saved the game for his team.

In 1938 the Elite Giants finally found a permanent home in Baltimore, Maryland. Wright had an off year, hitting under .300 and going hitless in four at bats in the East-West Game, but rebounded in 1939. Finishing second in batting with a .398 average, Wright and the Elites won their first and only Negro National League pennant. It was Wright's double in the final game that sparked an Elite Giants' rally that won them the Championship. Facing white big leaguers in a post-season exhibition game, Wright went 3 for 8 including a double off Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians. At this point Bill Wright was just reaching his prime as a ballplayer. Due to his gracefulness in the outfield, Sportswriters referred to him as the "Black DiMaggio" and his speed on the base paths saw him finish at or near the top in steals each season. While he didn't possess the slugging power one might expect from a 6'-4" giant, Wright was always among the leaders in extra base hits. He mastered the art of the drag bunt, using his speed to beat out any throw to first. Although it can't be definitively documented, legend has it Wright was clocked circling the bases in 13.2 seconds - the world record is 13.3 set by minor leaguer Evar Swanson in 1932. With a combined average of .371 against white big leaguers in post-season exhibition games, Wright undeniably demonstrated that he could not only hold his own against the best Blackball had to offer, but white professionals as well. Had he played out his entire career in the Negro Leagues it would be much easier for us to gauge the level of his talent and put it in easy to understand and translate figures. However, beginning in 1940, Wright left the Negro Leagues and went to Mexico to play ball.

Playing against the Negro League, Cuban and Puerto Rican stars who were lured south by lucrative contracts, Wright hit .360 and led the league with 30 doubles, finished second to Cool Papa Bell in hits and second to Sam Bankhead in steals. The following season his .390 average beat out Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Martin Dihigo, Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells and Ray Dandridge for the batting crown. That winter Wright played for San Juan in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Again, playing against the best players outside the major Leagues, Wright was a standout, being named to the All-Star Team and hitting the home run that put his team ahead in game one of the two-game series.

Due to the war and draft regulations, Wright returned to the United States for the 1942 season. Having an off-year, he barely managed .300 as the Elites lost the second-half pennant in the last weekend of the season. Wright was off to Mexico again in 1943 where he won the Triple Crown and stayed the following season as well. He was back in Baltimore for the 1945 season where he finished second in the batting championship. This would be Wright's last season in America.

In interviews he gave after his retirement, Wright stated that he preferred the absence of racial animosity in Mexico. South of the border he was an acknowledged star, while in his own country, no matter how good he was, he was only a marginal figure, known only by those who followed segregated baseball. Besides, life was easy for a ballplayer in Mexico. Unlike the Negro Leagues where playing two games in different towns on the same day was not unheard of, the Liga Mexicana played only on Friday, Saturday and Sundays. The travel was by train or airplane, a world apart from the bone-rattling bus rides that were the normal mode of transport in the Negro Leagues. Age also has something to do with Wright's decision to stay in Mexico. When Jackie Robinson integrated organized baseball in 1946, Wright was 32, too old to be seriously considered for a shot at the majors. This, combined with the quick collapse of the Negro Leagues after 1946, kept Wild Bill Wright in Mexico. The Mexican League had one last great season, 1946, when not only Negro League players, but also white big leaguers, ventured south. In what can be called his last hurrah, Wild Bill outhit all the white major league imports. He played through 1951, then opened a restaurant with his Hawaiian-born wife in Aguascalientes. Called "Bill Wright's Dugout," the restaurant capitalized on the familiarity of his name to Mexican sports fans. Wright raised his family in Aguascalientes, venturing back to the States only later in life to attend Negro League reunions. For his contribution to Mexican baseball, Wright was elected to the Mexico's Salon de la Fama in 1982.

So that's the story of Wild Bill. It's always bothered me that not only was this fine athlete denied the big league career his skills surely merited, but he's not even widely known today because the same mindless racism that kept him from the majors also forced him to move to another country where he played out his career in relative obscurity. While his contemporaries who played the bulk of their career in the U.S. have belatedly received the recognition they deserved, Wright, despite his statistics, remains a largely forgotten figure. I think it's fair to say that it is his time spent alternating between the Negro and Mexican Leagues that hindered any late recognition of his career and rendered analysis of his talent difficult. I'd always wanted to do a story and illustration of Bill Wright, but it wasn't until I was at a book signing in Tennessee last summer that I put Wild Bill on the front burner. Among the people who turned out for the event was a nice group of Knoxville SABR members. One of the fellas struck up a conversation about Wild Bill Wright which, of course, peaked my interest. Turns out he was part of movement to get Wright elected to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Bill Wright has not been elected to this organization. No doubt his career spent in the shadows of baseball history has everything to do with this oversight.




Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker and it throws off the real ratings. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

220. Ollie Carnegie: Still Shut Out of the Big Show


For anyone in the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Area - On Thursday, August 11th I'll be speaking and signing books at the Newport Branch of the Campbell County (Ky.) Public Library at 7pm. It's free, but you need to RSVP (the talk I did in Bowling Green last month was filled to capacity). I get a charge out of speaking before a group and this should be a lot of fun so I hope some of you in the area can stop by and talk some baseball history with me!

My wife and I just returned from a spectacular trip to Italy. It was my first time in the country, and seeing in person all the great masterpieces by Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Botticelli and the other fellas was very exciting and humbling for an artist like myself. Besides the 14-16th Century masters I was lucky to catch a superb exhibit in Rome of one of my favorite poster designers, Alphonse Mucha, as well as a stunning exhibit of 20th Century modern pieces from the Guggenheim collection in Florence. 

Among the wonders of Italy I was fortunate to see first hand was the Coliseum in Rome. Sure, you see it in books and movies, but in real life it truly is amazing - but besides the miracle that it still stands after hundreds of centuries is the fact that it is remarkably similar to modern baseball stadium design! The whole set up and plan of the Coliseum is still used today in modern sporting facilities, from the box seats and entry gates to the vending areas for souvenirs. And despite all the art and history that surrounded me as I toured the former gladiator palace, I of course, thought of baseball and the contributions to the game by descendants of that rich culture. Besides the original engineering ideas that inspired the very stadium that the sport is played in, men of Italian descent have left an indelible mark on the game. Imagine the history of baseball without seeing the names DiMaggio, Berra, Rizzuto, Piazza, Lasorda, Campanella, LaRussa - do I need to go on?

So anyway, on the long flight back home to Kentucky I got to thinking about the Italian-American ballplayers I have in my book and on this website. Off hand I recalled there was Billy Martin, Roy Campanella, the DiMaggio boys and lesser known figures like Marius Russo and Ollie Carnegie. When I got back in the studio I looked up what I had written about the last guy, Ollie Carnegie. He was one of the 50 or so fellas I had to cut from The League of Outsider Baseball when I ran over by about 100 pages. I always felt bad about cutting Ollie, his career was marked by being left out and passed over and to do that to him yet again seemed really cruel. From time to time I've posted some of the leftovers from the book and felt for sure I had done the same with Ollie - but when I looked on my website he was not there! 

Well, now he is...

A late start to his career and appendicitis kept Ollie Carnegie a minor league Babe Ruth. The son of Italian immigrants, Carnegie was a semi-pro superstar on the sandlots of his native Pittsburgh. The young slugger turned down contracts from the Pirates and Senators, preferring to keep his steady job in a steel mill. When he did give pro ball a shot in 1922, appendicitis ended his baseball dreams after just seven games. It wasn’t until Carnegie lost his job to The Depression and was well into his 30’s that he decided to give the game another try.
After a summer in the low minors, Carnegie joined the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, just one rung below the big leagues. He finished in the top five in home runs four out his first five seasons with the Bisons, and though he seemed perpetually on the verge of being signed by a Major League team, his age and a 1936 ankle injury kept him in Buffalo.
Just when the 39 year-old was being written off as over the hill, Carnegie finished first in home runs (54), RBI (136) and total bases (358) and was second in slugging percentage (.649) and third in hits (182). He was voted the 1938 International League’s Most Valuable Player but astonishingly, no Major League contract materialized. 


By then Carnegie had accepted that he’d never be a big leaguer and spent the next few years cementing his reputation as the greatest and most beloved ball player to ever play in Buffalo. After he hung up his spikes “The Bambino of Buffalo” tried his hand at managing the Bisons before becoming a scout, riding around in a personalized station wagon given to him by his grateful Buffalo fans.