Thursday, March 12, 2015

194. Johnny Frederick: A Diamond in the Muck


I'm usually not one to blame a manager on the overall performance of his team. There's usually a combination of circumstances that lead to a stink-o season and the manager is simply a cog in the whole broken machine. There are exceptions however. Take Dusty Baker. He had no less than three great ball clubs under his care: the '02 Giants, '04 Cubs and the '12 Reds. Let's give Baker the benefit of the doubt and take the '02 Giants out of the equation because I think the it can be argued the Angels and Giants were equally matched that year. In the case of the Cubs and Reds, Baker was completely out-managered by the skippers of teams fielding less talented ballplayers. Then there is Bobby Valentine of the turn-of-the-century Mets. Bobby V had a virtual National League All-Star team right there in his club house, yet he couldn't crack down and whip those idiots into the dynasty they should have been. While those two examples are relatively recent, we can go back to the 1920's where we find the hapless Wilbert Robinson of the Brooklyn Robins.

Brooklyn had gone to the World Series in 1916 and again in 1920, and although both trips ended in defeat, fans still had vivid memories and the faint taste of past glory. However, by the late 1920's that memory and taste of glory became bitter, a feeling of insurmountable failure setting in. A combination of infighting between the owners, failure to develop young talent and a dwindling bank account led to the ball club's quick slide into the second division. 

On top of all this, the team's manager Wilbert Robinson seemed utterly defeated and out of his element by the mid 1920's. Robinson had once been a superstar catcher with the fabled Baltimore Orioles of the 1890's. He followed his pal John McGraw to the Giants and worked as his coach until a terrific rift between the two sent Robinson over the East River to manage Brooklyn in 1914. At first Robinson was successful, leading the team to the 1916 and 1920 pennant and the franchise was even renamed "The Robins" after the popular manager. But after a few losing seasons Robinson just gave up. The once formidable baseball sage was now known as "Uncle Robbie", a lovable, comical and overweight loser. The only reason he kept his job was that the majority owner felt a loyalty to the washed up manager, much to the chagrin of the other owners and fans. Though the team was stocked with has-beens, never-were's, and out-right novelty acts like Pea Ridge Day, Brooklyn actually had some solid ballplayers. Babe Herman was a real bonafide slugger whose fielding ineptitude had been much exaggerated by the press to sell papers. First baseman Del Bissonette always finished in the league's top home run leaders and third baseman Harvey Hendrick was a feared batsmen. Dazzy Vance was as solid a starting pitcher as you could get and despite a career spent with Robinson's losers he still managed to make it to Cooperstown. Because of no run support Watty Clark had a losing record but consistently finished the season with one of the lowest ERA's in the National League. So the Robins had the makings of a good team but unfortunately Uncle Robbie did nothing to turn around the culture of complacency and depression in the club house.

Into this cesspool of failure fell a few very talented ballplayers whose careers were completely wasted because they wound up wearing a Brooklyn uniform. Perhaps the most talented was a slight outfielder from out West named John Henry Frederick.

By the time he made it to Brooklyn, Johnny Frederick was 27 and had toiled away in the minor leagues for seven years. He was tall and wiry and possessed such speed that when he played center field he made the left and right fielders obsolete. Twice he came excruciatingly close to making the big leagues. The first was in 1923 when the Washington Senators tried to buy Frederick from the Salt Lake City Bees. The Bees' owner, Bill Lane, held out for $50,000 and the Senators folded, picking out a more modestly priced outfielder instead. The next season the Cardinals showed interest. Everyone from Frederick's manager on the Bees to opposing PCL players told St. Louis GM Branch Rickey that Frederick was a big league material. However, one person planted a bug in the GM's ear that Frederick had an inaccurate arm so Rickey hopped a train to Utah to see for himself. Always the savvy flesh trader, Rickey used the rumor of a bad arm to try to muscle Lane into reducing Frederick's sale price. To complicate the matter, Frederick's manager made the mistake of informing the kid that the Cardinals GM was in the stands, specifically to see how he handled throws from center field. Knowing this was his chance to make The Show, he chomped at the bit to show off his rifle-accurate arm. Neither Rickey or Frederick had long to wait. Branch Rickey sat in the press box and watched as Salt Lake's pitcher gave up a triple in the first inning. Then came Frederick's chance. With a man on third, the next batter sent a line drive rocketing towards left field. Frederick charged over from center and cut off the left fielder, making a beautiful one-handed shoe string catch. He then quickly wheeled around and threw to home plate to catch the runner from scoring. Frederick was off balance and the ball sailed completely off course - right at the press box. Sports writers said that if there hadn't been a screen Rickey would have caught the ball right between his eyes. Rickey caught the next train back to St. Louis and Frederick stayed in Utah.

Though a solid .340 hitter in the Pacific Coast League, no other big league club wanted to take a chance on him. See, Frederick was a throwback to the dead ball era, a contact hitter who turned his singles into doubles and triples with his speed. But this was the mid 1920's and every team wanted their own Babe Ruth, a guy who could wallop the horsehide, score a run with a single stroke. So even though he was hitting the ball at a .340 clip, all the big league clubs passed - all except Brooklyn.

Even before spring training started in March of 1929, the Brooklyn newspapers were heralding Frederick's arrival as a change in the team's fortunes. After a slow start he began to tear the cover off the ball and easily made the big club as their starting center fielder. Playing between Rube Bressler who hit .318 and Babe Herman who hit .389, the Robins had one of the hardest hitting outfields in the league.

For Frederick, 1929 was a rookie year for the ages. In 628 at bats he struck out just 34 times. Because of his tremendous speed, 52 of his 206 hits went for doubles, a big league record at the time and still the most in the history of the Dodgers franchise. His .328 batting average and 75 RBI made him the National League's best lead-off hitter. If there had been a Rookie of the Year Award back in '29, there's no question Frederick would have taken that home with him in the fall. The next year he was even better, batting .334 and again striking out a mere 34 times. With Frederick's bat added to the the club, Brooklyn managed to stay in the pennant race all summer, just falling short the last week of the season. But as Brooklyn's pennant hopes began to fade in September, so to did Frederick's career. First he suffered an severe bone bruise in the joint between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The joint never healed properly and gave him trouble the rest of his career. Then, with two weeks left in the season, Frederick dove for a sinking liner and landed hard on his right ankle. Though he limped off the field under his own steam, x-rays showed he'd broken it, ending his 1930 season early. 

For 1931 the Robins added Lefty O'Doul, making the Brooklyn outfield on paper look like the second coming of Murder's Row. But paper's paper and baseball's baseball. Though his team looked good on the line up card, old Uncle Robbie could do nothing right. Every time he was handed a new way to successfully manage his club, he went right back down his well traveled freeway to failure. For instance, his coaches realized every team in the National League knew and were stealing the Robins' signals. There were a few reasons for this: 1. Robbie hadn't changed them in decades. 2) Every time a player was traded from Brooklyn he informed the his new team of Robinson's signal system and 3) he made no effort to hide his signals, lazily flashing them in full view of the opposing team's dugout. After a losing streak, a coach delicately suggested they try playing a few games without using hand signals. Robinson, at wits end, agreed. Without telegraphing the opposition what was coming, Brooklyn promptly won the next two games, yet just a quickly Uncle Robbie went back to the old hand signals. The losing continued.

Frederick muscled through 1931, hitting a respectable .270 average with 17 homers, but by the time 1932 dawned, Frederick was fading fast. His legs never regained their pre-1931 speed and the multiple injuries he'd suffered necessitated a long pre-game ritual of adhesive taping and bandaging. It was a shame because the team's owners had finally dumped Uncle Robbie and replaced him with Max Carey. The team, now re-named the Dodgers, responded by finishing in third place.

Although Frederick's speed was gone, he still had his batting eye and became the best pinch hitter in Dodgers history. In the 62 times he was sent in to pinch hit, Frederick connected for 19 hits, a remarkable .309 average. 1932 was his best year hitting in the pinch, going 9 for 29. What's most remarkable is that of those nine hits, all but one was for extra bases and of those 8 extra base hits, SIX were home runs! This was a major league record that stood until Dave Hanson and Craig Wilson hit seven apiece in 2000 and 2001 respectively (all be it in a 162 game season against the 154 game season of Frederick's time). 

Relegated to part-time, Frederick posted .308 and .296 for 1933 and 1934 with a marked reduction in his power at the plate. The Dodgers replaced Max Carey with Casey Stengel for 1934 and the team quickly took on the same air of failure that existed earlier under Robinson. Stengel covered up his managerial ineptitude by cracking jokes at his players expense and pandering to beat writers so he looked like a genius surrounded by fools. As would happen later when he managed the Boston Braves and New York Mets, his players became discouraged and the ball club sank into the depths of the standings. Amid all this wreckage, Frederick failed to run out a single and was subjected to Stengel's wrath. At the end of the season he told Frederick that he "didn't fit into his plans for 1935". Apparently Stengel's plans for the season included a fifth place finish, 29 1/2 game back.

When no other team picked up his contract, he expressed a desire to be signed by a west coast minor league team so he could be close to home. Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League gladly snatched up the former Dodger where he became a star attraction. Back where he started, Frederick hit .363 and in 1936 he moved over to the Portland Beavers where his .352 average led the team to the Coast League championship. He played through 1940, retiring at age 38 and never hitting below .300. Frederick put his glove on the shelf and began a second career running a combination ranch/tourist camp outside Portland. The best pinch hitter in Dodgers history passed away in 1977 at the age of 75.

Besides his Dodgers franchise record for doubles and the MLB record for pinch hitting home runs, the rangy outfielder can also claim another spot in the record books for his part in developing a piece of equipment used today by every baseball player. Remember that thumb injury at the end of the 1930 season? Since the bone never healed properly, any contact with the ball became excruciatingly uncomfortable. Frederick remedied the situation by taping up his thumb with football padding to put a layer of cushion between the bat and bone, something he did for the remained of his career. While it might not seem that extraordinary, no one had done that before on a permanent basis. At the same time teammate Lefty O'Doul remedied a temporary hand injury by wearing an ordinary leather glove to add some cushion while he batted. The combination of the two Brooklyn outfielder's home-made remedies gave birth to what we now know as the batting glove...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Minnie Miñoso: An Eternal Shame on Whoever Votes for the Hall of Fame



Minnie Miñoso passed away today at a well seasoned 90 years old. Though his Major League Baseball career was not very long, his style of play and raw talent made quite an impression on both ballplayers and fans who saw him play.

This post was originally written and illustrated by me in July of 2012. Apparently Minnie had a legion of very loyal fans - either guys who saw him play for the White Sox or Indians in the late 40's or 50's, or younger fellas who were interested in his early Negro League career. I remember I had gotten many requests for a post on Miñoso and I finally knuckled under and did the story you're about to read...

The strapping young man from the rural providences stood tall and straight as he approached Rene Midesten, the manager of the Ambrosia Candy baseball team. His skin was dark as night and his body was as strong as a bull from working in the cane fields. For the past 4 or 5 years the young man before him had traveled the country making a name for himself playing amateur ball for sugar plantations and mining company teams. Now 16, the time had come to make the move to the big city of Havana and become a professional ballplayer.

The Ambrosia Candy team was one of many factory and government teams that played in the Havana Semi-Pro league. Once a ballplayer got on one of those teams and did well, it was just a short time before the professional Cuban League came calling.
Midesten listened passively as the young man described how he could pitch and catch and hit - he'd heard it all before. Every niño from the sticks thought he was the next Martin Dihigo. But as the young man talked he was also watching Midesten's team work out on the field behind him. The third baseman made one bad play after another. Besides pitch, catch and hit, he told the manager, he was also a third baseman. Midesten's ears perked up and moments later for the princely salary of $2 a game and a guaranteed job in the company's garage, Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso became a professional ballplayer.

Two years later and after moving his way up the semi-pro ladder, Miñoso was signed by the Marianao Tigers, one of the Cuban Winter League's best teams. Besides featuring the best Cubans, the winter league attracted the finest Negro league players from the United States. The level of play was top draw and to say the pay was better would be an understatement. Miñoso signed for $150 a month which was quickly bumped up to $200 when the ball club realized how good he was. By the time the season ended he'd batted .301 and was the 1945-46 Rookie of the Year.

In the years before Jackie Robinson, a Cuban ballplayer had two options if he wanted to play in the United States: if he was light skinned with wavy hair, he went into organized ball. If he was a darker hue with kinky hair, it was the Negro leagues. You really couldn't get any darker than Miñoso, so it was the Negro leagues.

The Negro National League had among its clubs a team called the New York Cubans. Though not exclusively made up of Latin players, the Cubans were the main club the Latins gravitated to when they wanted to play ball in the States. The Cubans played most of their games at the Polo Grounds and though they hadn't won a pennant yet, were always among the finest in the National League. It just so happened that one of Miñoso's coaches with Marianao was Jose Fernandez who was the manager of the New York Cubans. By the time the Cuban season had ended Fernandez had convinced the owner of the Cubans, Alex Pompez, to offer Miñoso a contract.

There was a potential problem. The Pasquel brothers, Jorge and Bernardo, who ran the upstart Mexican Baseball League was offering staggering amounts of cash to professional ballplayers in order to stock their new league. Because the Pasquel's were persuading players to break their contracts with existing teams they were considered outlaws and were physically thrown out of many ballparks when they were caught talking to players. The huge salaries they were offering for the upcoming 1946 season was more than many players could imagine and they succeeded in luring a number of major leaguers in addition many of the finest black and Latin players. While the money was good, the risks were high - in short order organized baseball decreed that anyone breaking a contract to play in Mexico were banned from playing in the major or minor leagues. Latin and black ballplayers also were affected because the Cuban Winter League was under a tentative contract with organized ball as well. Even if a ballplayer was not signed by a major or minor league team, he was still ineligible to play in Cuba if he appeared in the Mexican League. It was big risk and when Miñoso was confronted with a large duffel bag of cash and a 2 year contract for $30,000, the young star turned it down flat. He wanted to play in the Unites States.

Miñoso signed his name to the contract Alex Pompez sent and for $150 a month he became the New York Cubans' rookie third baseman.

Playing their home games in the Polo Grounds, the rookie batted a respectable .309 in 33 games for the New York Cubans in 1946. Making his talent known, his salary was doubled to $300 a month to ensure he wasn't tempted by the roving Mexican League recruiters. Miñoso enjoyed playing in the United States and with his generous income he soon established himself as one of the Negro National League's best dressed ballplayers. Nap Gulley, who played against Miñoso in those years swore the Cuban had 40 or 50 immaculate suits. He went on to state that he could have been a magazine model. One other thing Miñoso prided himself on was his language skills. While some other teammates chose to speak only Spanish, Miñoso tried to communicate solely in English. He figured that he was playing in America so he should know the language. It's interesting to note that although players and sports writers always made comments about his accented English and rogue grammar, Miñoso none-the-less was proudly fluent in the tongue of his adapted homeland.

Besides his fashion sense and budding bilingualism, Miñoso impressed his teammates by eagerly learning all he could from the veterans. He watched the stars on the opposing teams and continually improved his craft. Fellow ballplayers soon learned that no matter how well he played his game, Miñoso strived to do it even better.

The next season Miñoso took off, leading the team with a .294 average and establishing himself as the best lead-off man in the league. Black fans across the nation appreciated his play and he was voted to represent the East team in that year's East-West All Star Game in Chicago. He played the whole game but went 0-3 as the West won 5-2. Along with slugger Pat Scantlebury and pitchers Dave Barnhill and Luis Tiant, the speedy Cuban led his team to the pennant. In the Negro World Series against the Negro American League champion Cleveland Buckeyes, Miñoso batted a remarkable .423 as the Cubans defeated Cleveland in 6 games.

The following season Miñoso continued to improve and by the All-Star break in July was batting about .400. Again he was recognized by the sporting public by being selected to his second East-West Game. This year he went 1 for 4 with a stolen base in another loss to the West. By now Miñoso was undeniably a star and it was tempting for him to think organized ball could be a possibility. The stakes were high in that 1948 All-Star Game as the stands were crawling with major league scouts and every player knew it was their best shot at making the big time. Due to the popularity of the game and also presumably to give the players even more of a shot at showcasing their talents to a mixed audience, a second East-West Game was played in the middle of August in New York. Before the game, Miñoso's teammate Jose Santiago was approached by the Cleveland Indians' scout. Besides Jose, the Indians were looking at Miñoso as well. Realizing this was his chance, Miñoso performed spectacularly. In his first at bat he stretched a chintzy single into a double and later knocked in the East's winning run. By the time he'd showered, Miñoso's contract had been purchased by the Cleveland Indians.

Sent to the Dayton Indians, Miñoso hit .525 in 11 games and the Indians made him a big leaguer the following year. His famed nickname "Minnie", probably a by product of too many sprained Caucasian tongues trying to pronounce his last name properly, came shortly afterwards. All-in-all, Miñoso spent almost 30 years spread over 5 decades playing baseball in Cuba, the United States and Mexico. Miñoso is one of those borderline players who always seem to come up short when the Hall of Fame voting comes around. Though I might not be as enlightened as a real live sportswriter who gets the final vote on such things, I am under the impression guys like Miñoso, Gil Hodges and Sammy T. Hughes deserve a plaque in the Hall more than say, Ron Santo, Vic Willis, or Phil Rizzuto. But hey, I'm just an artist and it's baseball and without what-ifs like this, what else would there be to talk about during those long winter months, soccer?


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

193. Cesar Fernandez: Spring, 80 Years Ago



Today the pitchers and catchers of the Cincinnati Reds organization begin spring training. Although it's 12 degrees here in Kentucky and I'm getting ready to go out and shovel snow, somewhere the sun is shining. Today is a hopeful day, the dawn of another year where anything can happen. 

I love this time. 

If you are a fan of a lousy team, then today is probably the brightest it will be all year, before the statistics are tallied and standings count, before playoff dreams are shattered yet again. If you are a fan of a good team, then today is the dawn of a year you will look back and remember with a certain fondness and years from now proudly tell your pals "I knew it from Spring Training we were going all the way!"

At least for a short while we can all forget about steroid scandals, sleazy player's unions and $12 beers and just focus on the game. Over the next few weeks we'll all watch the little one paragraph baseball stories in the morning newspaper grow longer and more plentiful as the rosters are pared down. In between European Premier League soccer segments and the latest football scandal, maybe ESPN will squeeze in an interview with a new can't-miss star. Some of us will quietly close the office door at work and tune in to a radio broadcast of a split-squad game from far away Florida or Arizona.

The point is, starting today with the "thwack!" of the first ball hitting a catcher's mitt, anything is possible.

And that brings me to Cesar Fernandez.

I don't know who Cesar Fernandez was. All I can find is that he was one of the many hopefuls that turned up at the Cincinnati Reds training camp in Tampa in the spring of 1935. The press photo I stumbled upon said nothing more than his name and that he was a catcher trying to land a place on the team. I don't know where he came from - Cuba or perhaps Puerto Rico? Could be Florida or NorCal. I managed to find that a guy named "Fernandez" (no first name) appeared in 17 games the previous summer with a single A Reds team in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. He hit .295 with a homer, triple and pair of doubles in 44 trips to the plate. As a catcher he made 5 errors in 14 games behind the plate. Probably was Cesar, I'd lay odds it was, but we'll probably never know. After his photo was taken he seems to have disappeared all together.

But today, it doesn't really matter who Cesar Fernandez was. Let's just look at the hope in his face and remember that on that spring day 80 years ago, he, like us, have no idea what the upcoming season holds. 

Play Ball!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

192. Shumza Sugimoto: A False Spring or Lost in Translation?




Yesterday I found a box on my porch containing five advance copies of my book "The League of Outsider Baseball". With shaking hands I cut open the box and started peeling back the cardboard packaging. Peering inside I hesitantly eyed the culmination of five years of work, the actual hard-bound realization of the most pleasurable project of my long career as an illustrator and writer. Next week I'll write a post with some nice photos (not lousy iPhone shots) of the book which I hope you find as incredibly rewarding and interesting as I do! 

Shumza Sugimoto.

He's a footnote to a footnote of baseball history, a ballplayer known not for what he did on the field, but for how he was kept off that field by the white powers that be. You can find Shumza Sugimoto mentioned in books and articles on Japanese baseball, New York Giants histories and scholarly studies of racism in the game. Some writers elevate Sugimoto to a Jackie Robinson before his time, one of the game's great "what-if?" questions. Some more creative historians draw a direct line linking Sugimoto with baseball's most favored "what-if" character, Moonlight Graham.

Who was Shumza Sugimoto?

First mention of the man comes in the Spring of 1905. The mighty New York Giants were beginning their pre-spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Manager John McGraw, always on the prowl for fresh talent, spotted a Japanese ballplayer who happened to be in Hot Springs. As most blackball aficionados know, at the turn-of-the-century Hot Springs was the winter base for the best black baseball talent in the country. The opulent resorts in town fielded virtual outsider baseball all-star teams made up of some of the best black ballplayers in the land who doubled as hotel employees. In the days before radio, television and movies, taking in a ballgame was first-rate daytime entertainment for their guests.

A February 10, 1905 newspaper story reported that John McGraw discovered Shumza Sugimoto in his hotel's massage parlor where he was working as a masseuse. A New York Times article lists Sugimoto as being a 23 year-old outfielder weighing in at 118 pounds. Described as a "jiu jitsu expert", Sugimoto revealed that he had played the previous season with the Cuban Giants. At the time the Cuban Giants were one of the best outfits playing outside the white major leagues. To suit up with them you had to have some serious chops. The story goes on to say that McGraw had the masseuse/ballplayer/jui jitsu expert practice with the Giants who pronounced him as having "all the goods". It was reported that Sugimoto was "as good with the willow as with the wrestling art". Articles claimed that the Japanese outfielder could field, hit and run in "first class style". John McGraw told the sports writers that when the Giants broke training camp and went south on their spring exhibition tour he was taking the Japanese ballplayer with them. Some papers chose to leave off the part where the manager stated that he didn't think Sugimoto would eventually make the team. Follow up stories became a touch more fanciful, playing up Sugimoto's Jiu Jitsu. One story even claimed that Sugimoto came close breaking Turkey Mike Donlin's neck in a club house martial arts exhibition!

Then, as soon as it began, the story ends. Before the Giants left Hot Springs, Sugimoto declared in the February 25th edition of Sporting Life Magazine that he "does not like the drawing of the color line in his case, and says he will remain a semi-professional with the Creole Stars of New Orleans if his engagement by the Giants will be resented by the players of other clubs.”

Sugimoto's semi-voluntary retirement was picked up by a few newspapers who spun it into a broader discussion on race and sports. The above quote is interesting in that it is one of the earliest use of the phrase "color line" in conjunction with baseball. Articles appeared in the sporting press questioning why Japanese were excluded when American Indians were welcomed. One article has Cincinnati Reds managers Frank Bancroft and Ned Hanlon and the team's owner Garry Herrmann going on record as having no objections to a Japanese ballplayer and notes that there appeared to be no rule or by-law prohibiting Sugimoto from joining the Giants. Interestingly, Black athletes were not mentioned in the race discussion. At any rate, the Giants headed south to play their way into shape and Shumza Sugimoto disappears.

Or did he? I think the better question is: "Did Shumza Sugimoto  even exist in the first place?"

I'm really not sure. 

The Sugimoto story brought together two of the finest Blackball and Japanese baseball historians you could assemble: Rob Fitts and Ryan Whirty. However, this research dream team could unearth no previous or subsequent record on Shumza Sugimoto. Fitts, probably the fore-most American expert on Japanese baseball history, could find no trace of a ball playing Sugimoto in Japanese archives. Whirty is a specialist in Louisiana blackball and he could not verify even the existence of the Creole Stars of New Orleans team Sugimoto was to play for in 1905. Over the years Negro League historians like Gary Ashwill and Phil Dixon have successfully mined newspaper archives for information and box scores for the 1905-era Cuban Giants. Although the Cuban Giants played on the fringes of organized baseball, the team was very successful and left a trail of box scores and stories from wherever their barnstorming took them. Sugimoto doe not appear in any photograph of the team nor does his name appear in any box score or game recap.

But Bill Staples, the go-to man on Japanese ball players in America and head of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee has another take on the Cuban Giants/Creole Stars link. Bill suggests we take a step back from taking team names mentioned in the newspaper articles literally - "Cuban Giants" might have referred to one of the many barnstorming teams that used the name "Cubans" back at the turn-of-the-century. In Bill's own words: "It's not out of line to think that as an Issei, Sugimoto's English was not perfect, so perhaps he tried to explain his playing experience and a reporter misinterpreted what he said? I've seen many articles where a reporter gets a fact wrong, and then it is repeated by others. If we explore this possibility then maybe this would point us to more clues about Sugimoto the real person."

Also Bill brings to our attention that the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis brought many foreign ball players to the States. Again, I'll let Bill explain: "That year baseball was an exhibition sport there (perhaps with the Olympics too, which was held in conjunction with the fair), and teams and players came from all over to compete." Bill emailed me an example of a 1904 immigration record of a Cuban ball player arriving at the Port of New Orleans with the intention of attending the World's Fair. "With that it mind, I suspect there were other Cubans playing ball in St. Louis in 1904, and maybe this is where Sugimoto played briefly with a team that might have called themselves the Giants (Giants was a popular team name in the early 1900s). In Ancestry.com we see that on March 8, 1904. S. Sugimoto arrived in New Orleans from Cuba. Perhaps he learned about the Cuban baseball plans in St. Louis World's Fair when he was in Cuba?" 

Very interesting stuff.

My own research uncovered that if you opened a newspaper in the spring of 1905 you'd find a few mentions of men and women named "Sugimoto", just none who played ball. There was a troupe of female Japanese jugglers and acrobats called the "Sugimoto's Score of Japanese" who toured the country from 1904 through 1906. These geisha-clad ladies played every vaudeville and opera house from California to Denver to Baltimore. A Mr. Sugimoto could be found touring the east coast giving intellectual talks on Buddhism to packed houses. Another man named Sugimoto was a prominent businessman in Cincinnati, Ohio and was touring the Midwest giving lectures on Japan. In the spring of 1905 it was announced that Waseda University's baseball team was scheduled to tour the eastern United States for the first ever Japanese-American Intercollegiate games.

Besides the name Sugimoto and Japanese baseball being readily found in newspapers across the United States, you have to take a broader look at the time period during which this McGraw story takes place. 

During 1904 and 1905 the Japan and Russia were fighting a savage war in Manchuria. While this conflict is all but forgotten today, back in '04 and '05 this was big news. Russia was a creaky superpower on the way to revolution and Japan was a brand-new nation that fascinated the West. The war began with Japan's sneak attack on the Russian port of Port Arthur. The complete defeat of the Russian Pacific Fleet was the first time an Asian nation inflicted a military defeat on a Western power. The subsequent Russo-Japanese War was the first modern conflict to be fought on a large scale using machine guns, observation balloons and all-steel and steam warships. This clash of modern arms attracted newspaper correspondents and military observers from every nation. Since the Japanese were on the offensive, most of the newspaper correspondents were attached to the Japanese army and the majority of newspaper articles on the war were Japan-centric. 

America loves an underdog and the majority of the country was pulling for little Japan. Plus the United States was in the middle of a surge of immigrants from Poland, Ukraine and other countries that were under the oppressive thumb of the Czar. All these newly minted Americans were rooting for Japan to kick the hell out of Russia.

If you were a bored and mildly playful sportswriter in the spring of 1905 with a hankering to file a phony dispatch about a foreign ballplayer, you'd most likely conjure up a Japanese one.

It's isn't like this hadn't happened before: as far back as 1887 the story of a Chinese ballplayer signed by the White Sox made the rounds. (Please the wild tale on Teang Wong Foo HERE). It is very interesting to note another, more well known incident that took place just a four years earlier featuring the exact same elements of the Sugimoto story: John McGraw, Hot Springs, Arkansas and an ethnic ball player. In the spring of '01, McGraw was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles and he tried unsuccessfully to pass off blackball star Charlie Grant as an American Indian named "Chief Tokohama". (For the whole story please see my post on Chief Tokohama HERE). The story made all the papers and the incident became an early baseball legend. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a bored sports writer conjuring a fake story to sell a few more newspapers. 

Bill Staples enters again to offer his take on whether or not a sports writer would fake this story. The February 25th Sporting Life article in which Sugimoto reveals he will remain a semi-pro was written by William F. H. Koelsch. Back at the turn-of-the-century Koelsch was a highly respected sports writer who closely followed the New York Giants before, during and after spring training. McGraw and his club were Koelsch's beat and he was the go-to man for anything Giants. Bill raises a good point: Would a guy like Koelsch risk his reputation by spreading false information?

As another side-note to this tangled tale is a story originating from Chicago in the winter of 1911. According to Chicago Cubs president Charles Webb Murphy an infielder named Ito Sugimoto wrote asking for a tryout with the club. The article mentions that this Sugimoto played semi-pro ball in Hawaii and San Francisco where he was a resident. The letter was forwarded to manager Frank Chance and just like Shumza six years before, this Sugimoto conveniently disappears...

Well, that's my take on the whole Sugimoto - first Japanese ballplayer - Cuban Giants story. On one hand, I would like to see the whole yarn proven true. The stories it provoked sparked a dialogue on racism and baseball's color line like never before. Like I wrote in the introduction, I've even seen it writen quite matter-of-factly that when Sugimoto left the Giants his place was taken by - wait for it - Archibald "Moonlight" Graham! Now that would be one heck of a story. (As Bill Staples points out, this comes from both men being mentioned in the same half page Sporting Life article by William F. H. Koelsch). On the other  hand, when put into a broader historical context, it not only reveals a long forgotten war but also demonstrates how Americans and the west in general were fascinated with the world's mysterious new superpower, Japan.

Special thanks goes out to Bill Staples who adds a great counter-point to my original story. You may remember Bill from a story and illustration we collaborated on just after the publication of his book "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer”. This excellent piece of research not only recounts the life of a pioneering ball player but also tells the story of Japanese-American baseball in America, one of the great untold chapters of baseball history.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

191. Shipwreck Kelly: Football Star, Baseball Mercenary



Ah, Super Bowl Sunday. For a die-hard baseball fan like myself, no day makes baseball season seem as far away as Super Bowl Sunday. As a nod to football, yet keeping baseball in the forefront, I give you Shipwreck Kelly. Hard-core football historians (if there are any of them) know Kelly was a star running back for the University of Kentucky in the late 20's - early 30's and then was one of the first stars of the fledgling NFL. He also played baseball.

This little story about Shipwreck Kelly is part of a
series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Now that my book is wrapped up and at the publisher (on track for a May 5, 2015 release), I returned to this hardball tribute to my adapted home. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman
   
Hailing from Springfeld, Kentucky, John Simms Kelly was the University of Kentucky’s first star running back. He earned the nickname “Shipwreck” because of what he did to the opposing team’s defensive line. Kelly won the All-Southern Conference honors in 1929, 1930 and 1931 and still holds the university record for most yards gained in a game (280). Before one game he called a press conference to predict a 50 yard touchdown run (he did!).
 

Besides a gridiron star, Kelly was one of the Wildcat’s varsity outfielders from 1929 to 1931. When UK dropped their baseball program in 1932, Kelly and many of the other Wildcats hired themselves out to the various semi-pro teams around Lexington.

After graduation Kelly played professional football in the NFL’s New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. His larger than life personality and wealth made him one of the most popular sports stars of the 1930’s. After his playing days Kelly bought the Dodgers football team. During World War II he worked with the FBI as a spy tracking the movements of Nazi agents in South America and the Caribbean. A charter member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, Kelly later became both a champion golfer and world-class big game hunter and is a relative of Giants quarterback Phil Simms.

Friday, January 30, 2015

190. Marius Russo: Battle-tested on the Fields of Bushwick



This is the fifth and last of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

So far we've seen three of the four types of players that made up the Brooklyn Bushwicks:

1) The guy who had all the talent in the world, but never wanted to turn pro.

2) Aging big leaguer on his way back down into the civilian world. 

3) The career minor leaguer who just didn't have that certain "something" to make the majors.

Today we have Marius Russo, a guy who perfectly personifies the fourth and last type of Bushwick:

4) The young guy from the area who wanted to make a name for himself.

With pin-point control and a nice side-arm fastball, Marius Russo cut through collegiate competition like a knife. The Long Island University student's 8-2 record and headline-grabbing win at the Greater New York College All-Star Game grabbed the attention of the Yankees super-scout Paul Krichell. When Russo's college athletic eligibility was used up in the spring of 1936, the lefty found his services were in much demand in New York City's semi-pro circuit. The college kid hired his arm out to various teams including the Glendale Farmers and Brooklyn Bay Parkways. Krichell sat in the stands and watched closely but before he got the kid's signature on a Yankee contract he wanted to see more. He wanted to see how the lefty did against the best players outside the major leagues. Krichell wanted to see how Russo did against Negro League teams.

After ascertaining the kid wanted was game to pursuing a career in pro ball, Krichell made a phone call to Max Rosner and within days Russo was in a Brooklyn Bushwick's uniform. 

Krichell knew, and Russo soon discovered, that whiffing a bunch of college kids was a lot different than facing the Negro League teams. A great many of the blackball players he would face in the summer of 1936 were of obvious major league caliber but for their skin color. 

His first brush with blackball came against the New York Black Yankees. Formed from the ashes of the old Lincoln Giants, the Black Yankees were the perennial losers of the Negro National League but still had some solid ballplayers like Tubby Scales and Fats Jenkins - not Hall of Famers but had they been the right hue they'd be on a big league roster somewhere. The Black Yanks slapped Russo around for 7 runs on 15 hits. Next he faced the Philadelphia Stars, Negro National League champs two years earlier. The Stars had future Hall of Famers Jud Wilson and Turkey Stearnes in their line up and knocked the kid out of the box by the 5th inning. Russo went on to lose his next four starts against the black teams. None of his losses came close to being as dramatic as the game he pitched against the Pittsburgh Crawfords in June. 

The Crawfords were the New York Yankees of blackball. Ruthlessly assembled by racketeer Gus Greenlee, the Craws had by 1936 assembled the greatest team in Negro League history. No less than five Hall of Famers - Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson - came to face Russo and the Bushwicks that day. By now the college kid had faced blackball teams a few times and knew they played fast and hard. His teammates on the Bushwicks were much more experienced - the median age was about 31 - and their advice on how to pitch to those guys was starting to pay off. In that June game against the Craws Russo was holding onto a 4-3 lead going into the 9th inning. It had been a see-saw game but three more outs and Russo would have his first victory over a black team. 

Second baseman Dickie Seay was up first. He was playing on a swollen ankle and had gone hitless all afternoon. Now he led off the ninth with a cheap single that found a hole in the Bushwicks infield. Manager Oscar Charleston put in a pinch runner and the pitcher Leroy Matlock sacrificed him over to second. With one away Cool Papa Bell came up to the plate. Cool already tapped Russo for three hits that day but he popped a ball up to the infield that is caught for out number two. Russo is one out from beating the best team in blackball history. 

Speedy outfielder Jimmie Crutchfield is due up but the Craws manager Oscar Charleston takes the bat from his hands and pencils himself in as a pinch hitter. Charleston, who many say was the absolutely best black (heck, some say of any color) ballplayer of all time, was now into his fourth decade and beginning to pack on the chub. Regardless, when Russo hung his fastball over the inside of the plate Charleston sent it 410 feet over the right field wall for a two run homer and the 5-4 edge. Russo recovered enough to snag Sam Bankhead's liner back to the box for out number three. The Bushwicks still had one more inning to retaliate and the odds weren't bad until Satchel Paige emerged from the bullpen to pitch the ninth. Satch was in the prime of his career and his blazing fastball sent the three Bushwicks he faced back in order for the win.

While many young ballplayers would have been discouraged by continued failure, Russo did not. He'd lose seven times before he could claim a win over the black teams and he used this crash course in blackball to become a smarter pitcher. Over all his stats weren't horrible. Scott Simkus meticulously reassembled Russo's 1936 Bushwicks season and found the kid had a respectable 3.82 ERA in 12 games against Negro League clubs. By the end of the summer Russo was a seasoned veteran, a graduate of the Dexter Park Academy of hardball. On September 2nd he got the chance to face the Crawfords again, and this time it was he who was the victor. As opposed to the 12,000 who watch their first tryst, just 4,400 braved the threatening weather for the night game. In what may have been Marius Russo's greatest pitching performance of his entire career, the lefty shut out the Crawfords on two hits and struck out nine.

Krichell has seen enough. Before the summer was through Russo was part of the Yankees organization. 

The Yankees sent him to their top farm team which happened to be just across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. The team Russo joined has gone down in history as possibly the best minor league team of all time. Of the 32 men who suited up for the Newark Bears  that year, no fewer than 27 would go on to play in the majors, either with the Yankees or other big league teams. The kid from Queens won 8 games for the pennant-bound Bears, and the Yankees ear-marked him to be the heir-apparent to the great Lefty Grove. To give him a touch more seasoning he spent 1938 in Newark where he posted a record of 17 wins and then was called up to the big club for 1939.

Now Marius Russo became an integral part of what historians believe was the greatest team in major league history, the 1939 Yankees. As part of this juggernaut the lefty won 8 games with a 2.41 ERA, not bad at all for a rookie. He followed that up with 14 wins in 1940 and then another 14 in 1941. By now he was the best pitcher on the Yankees and manager Joe McCarthy had him pitch Game 3 of the World Series against the Dodgers. With the series tied at a game apiece he faced off against veteran Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons. Both men pitched magnificently, neither giving up a run through six innings. Then in the bottom of the seventh, Russo hit a line drive that smashed into Fitzsimmons' kneecap. Brooklyn rushed reliever Hugh Casey into the game who promptly gave up 2 runs while Russo cruised to a 4-hit complete game victory to give the Yankees the edge in the series. The hometown kid was an instant hero and the Yanks went on to beat the Dodgers in seven games. 

His fame was short-lived. Sometime early in the '42 season he hurt his arm. He managed a 4-1 record but to relieve the pain in his arm he began noodling with his delivery and soon the velocity was gone from his fastball. 1943 was a disappointing 5-10, but with a still respectable 3.72 ERA. With a good part of his pitching staff evaporating into the service, McCarthy tapped Russo to pitch Game 4 of the 1943 World Series against St. Louis. The Cards had been fortunate in regards to the draft and still had all of their starters in uniform. Russo came through with one last glorious game. Holding Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Marty Marion and the rest of the Cards to seven hits, the sore armed lefty hit two doubles and scored the go ahead run in the eighth. The win put the Yanks up 3 games to 1 in their eventual win over St. Louis.

Russo joined the Army after the series and briefly came back to the Yanks in 1946 but the arm was through. He put away his spikes and worked in the aircraft industry on Long Island, eventually retiring to a life of travel with his wife. The old lefty was a popular character at old-timers games and became a font of first hand knowledge for historians interested in the great Yankees teams of the 1930's. He passed away at the age of 90 in 2005.

Baseball archaeologist Scott Simkus wrote a wonderful piece on Russo and his 1936 season with the Bushwicks in the much-missed Outsider Baseball Bulletin. Simkus meticulously reconstructed the lefty's record against the Negro Leaguers and uses these and other Bushwicks stats in a brilliant formula to accurately gauge the level of talent found in the black leagues. I can't stress how important his book "Outsider Baseball" is to modern researchers and can't recommend it enough. 

This concludes the "5 Bushwicks in 5 Days" series. It's been fun concentrating on one little-known aspect of baseball history in one break-neck marathon session. I'm not quite sure where next week's story will take us, but you can be assured it sure as heck will be interesting!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

189. Walt VanGrofski: Good, But Just Not Good Enough



This is the fourth of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

Some where, many years ago I came across a catcher named VanGrofski. For the life of me I can't remember where or how I first heard of him, but for the better part of a decade I've tried to piece together the career of this journeyman catcher. Maybe it was the odd Polish name with the Dutch prefix. Or perhaps it was because he came from Bloomfield, New Jersey, close to the city of Passaic where I was born. What ever it was, it certainly wasn't because he was well-known. VanGrofski never played in the majors and his last name is misspelled in records and newsprint more often than it is spelled correctly. Still, every time I came across a box score or article that mentioned him, I put it in my "VanGrofski file", just waiting for the right time to put it all together. Now, with this "5 Bushwicks in 5 Days" series I have that perfect opportunity - Walt VanGrofski is the perfect example of one of the four types of players on the Brooklyn Bushwicks...

Walt VanGrofski was good, just not good enough to make it all the way to the majors.

Walt VanGrofski came out of the same Polish neighborhood in Bloomfield, New Jersey that produced future Yankees Hank Borowy and Dan Savage. At Bloomfield High he knocked the cover off the ball and divided his time between the outfield and calling the shots from behind the plate. Even in the early 1930's Walt VanGrofski was described as a throwback - an old school backstop cast from the same mold as Ray Schalk. Just over 6' tall and 170 lbs, VanGrofski possessed a take no prisoners attitude with a gritty, excitable drive that became immediately obvious when you were on the wrong end of his dark, steely-eyed glare. His friends and local sports writers called him "Beeky", a nickname no one outside Bloomfield dared to use.

He turned pro in 1931 with the Clarksburg Generals of the the entry-level Mid Atlantic League. The next season he was picked up by the Dodgers organization and shipped to York of the New York-Penn League. VanGrofski batted around .250 through 1933 and was picked to join a tour of minor league prospects stopping at Puerto Rico and parts of South America. While in San Juan VanGrofski learned his contract was picked up by the Pirates who promoted him to the Little Rock Travelers, a team which today would be AA level ball. Now the catcher's career seemed to stall. He hit a lack-luster .214, then was demoted back to the New York-Penn League. When the Pirates decided to send him to Savannah the catcher called foul. Rather than play low-level ball in the sweltering Georgia summer, VanGrofski packed his grip and took the next train back to New Jersey. On his way out of town he told reporters he intended to stay in Bloomfield indefinitely and play semi-pro ball in the New York Metropolitan area.

A week later Pittsburgh punted him back to the Brooklyn organization who shuttled him to the Allentown Brooks. It was while playing for the Brooks in 1936 that VanGrofski made headlines for his hitting, just not the kind you did with a bat. Allentown was beating the snot out of future Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy. (Mulcahy would earn the unfortunate nicknames of "Losing Pitcher Mulcahy" and "Hard Luck Mulcahy" after twice losing 20 games in a season for the Phils). VanGrofski had three hits off the future Phillie when he came up the forth time with runners in scoring position. Mulcahy lost his cool and fired a fastball at VanGrofski's head. Walt threw away his bat and charged the mound. The pitcher, who had a few inches and 20 lbs on VanGrofski, left the mound to meet him. Before Mulcahy could get a swing in, VanGrofski landed a devastating hook that opened up a large cut above the pitchers eye and another quick jab that settled the score. A fight broke out that eventually rose to riotous proportions, necessitating a platoon of police to quell the mess. VanGrofski was slapped with a $25 fine and Mulcahy charged $10 as punishment.

Whether it was frustration building up or just Walter being what the press described as "the aggressive type of player", VanGrofski rode the adrenaline and was hitting a career high .304 when an incident happened that might be the reason the catcher never made the bigs. During a close game against Elmira and the pennant on the line, second baseman Packy Rogers attempted to score on a long single. VanGrofski took the throw from the relay man and waited for Rogers who came in spike high. In the terrible collision Rogers' metal spikes tore the catcher's mitt completely off VanGrofski's hand but somehow he held onto the ball to tag the his assailant out. Newspapers at the time remarked on how nasty a play it was and there remained bad blood between the two teams for quite some time. There was no mention I could find about an injury, but one phrase began appearing after this incident to describe VanGrofski: "weak armed".

The Brooklyn organization took notice of the 25 year-old firebrand and sent him to the Winston-Salem Twins as their player-manager. He was still with Winston-Salem in '38 when he butted heads with the club's president. When the dust settled VanGrofski was fired and exiled from the Dodgers family. He went back to Jersey again and soon found a berth with the Trenton Senators, part of the Washington Senators organization. A newspaper article from the time finds a vengeful VanGrofski chomping at the bit to face the Dodgers farm team that played in the same league as Trenton. The accompanying photograph shows a man you'd not want to cross. This time the animosity didn't translate to success on the field and he finished the summer with a lousy .198 average. When he hit the same numbers in 1940 he found himself without a job in organized baseball.

Again, VanGrofski went home to New Jersey. Bloomfield is a short bus or train ride from Manhattan, the hotbed of semi-pro baseball. VanGrofski might have been out of organized baseball, but that didn't mean he was finished as a player. While many young ballplayers used the semi-pro's as a place to gain the attentions of big league scouts, experienced veterans like VanGrofski hoped that a good season on the sandlots would rejuvenate their flagging career. In the spring of 1940 Walt VanGrofski was 28 years-old and far from giving up his major league dreams.

The best semi-pro outfit in the country, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, had a bona-fide major league veteran behind the plate in Charlie Hargreaves. The 43 year-old spent 8 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates and now was making a comfortable living playing semi-pro ball at Dexter Park. However, since the Bushwicks played double headers on Saturday and Sundays, Hargreave's 43 year-old knees would necessitate an understudy and Walt VanGrofski was available.

The catcher's plan to stay in the minds of the baseball powers-that-be worked, but just like Allentown in 1936, it was for the wrong reason.

On Sunday July 21st, the Bushwicks were hosting the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League for a double header. As usual Hargreaves caught the first game and VanGrofski took the night cap. In the sixth inning Howard Easterling, the slugging third baseman of the Grays, hit a long fly down the right field line. The Bushwicks typically hired two umpires for a game as opposed to the majors who used three at the time. While this saved money it sometimes made for bad calls and this was one of those times. Umpire Meyers called the blast a home run which would have tied the score at 3-all. The other umpire by the name of Shannon ruled it foul and Meyers reversed his call. The 10,000 fans in the stands made their disapproval known and a deluge of seat cushions, scorecards and hats began. When those ran out they started with the soda pop and beer bottles.

Someone in the third base box seats fired a Coca Cola bottle at VanGrofski that just missed his head. If you've ever held one of those old glass Coke bottles in your hand then you can understand why the Bushwick's catcher became super-pissed. Already a high-strung and aggressive competitor, VanGrofski picked out who he believed threw the bottle, a black guy named Henry Strong, and charged into the stands to settle accounts. In seconds he was over the rail and all over Strong, but just as fast the crowd turned on VanGrofski and he had to be rescued by his teammates. Meanwhile more than one hundred angry fans swarmed onto the field. A squad of Brooklyn's Finest met them head on and brought order back to Dexter Park.

Being this was an inter-racial sporting event, the consequences could have been very dire. Fortunately this was Brooklyn, not Birmingham or Atlanta and no repercussions followed. The Bushwicks continued to play the top-level Negro League teams without incident and VanGrofski was soon back in organized ball.

The Yankees saw a promising leader in the fiery catcher and assigned him to their Wellsville team as a player/manager in 1942. The Wellsville fans embraced their scrappy manager and the team became known throughout the league as "VanGrofski's Ruffians". Then almost as soon as he returned to pro-ball he was drafted into the Army. He served a year as an athletics instructor before sent back home. The battle damage inflicted on his body during his more than ten years as a professional catcher was probably the reason for the early discharge. He was working as recreation attendant at Newark's Wilson Avenue school when the Yankees gave him a call. Their top farm team, the Newark Bears, were a team full of kids too young for the draft and aging veterans useless for combat. An experienced backstop with managerial experience like VanGrofski was just the thing the Bears needed. Now well into his thirties, VanGrofski finally made it to one step shy of the major leagues.

The catcher barely hit above .200 in 59 games in 1944, but the next year he swatted the wartime pitching at a .290 clip. The problem was that his arm was shot and runners knew it, swiping bases off him at their leisure. When the war ended, VanGrofski and most of the wartime Bears were released. The Yankees saw managerial promise in VanGrofski and sent him to their Sunbury, Pennsylvania club where they'd just built a $200,000 stadium. Described by local sports writers as "a high-strung fellow", VanGrofski led the league in being thrown out of games by umpires. He even nursed a private feud with the scribes in the press box. The fans loved it. He managed for a few more seasons, passing from the Yankees to the A's organization before calling it a career after more than twenty years. He returned to Bloomfield where he and his wife Mathilde raised an athletic son named Tom and put in 25 years as an electrician. The fiery receiver passed away at his home in Ocean City, New Jersey in 2000. 

As a foot note, I wish I'd have known VanGrofski was still alive and living near my Grandma until 2000. I'd began researching his career years before that and would have loved the chance to talk to him in person, to sit face to face with the guy who I'd read so much about. While guys like Joe DiMaggio or Honus Wagner had careers that took them to Cooperstown, to me they're a bore compared to a journeyman like Walt VanGrofski.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

188. Dazzy Vance: Dazzy's Last Dance



This is the third of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

One of the greatest attraction for Bushwicks fans was the revolving door of former big league stars who suited up at Dexter Park. George Earnshaw, Waite Hoyt, Jeff Tesareau and Dazzy Vance were among the aging marquee names that played a last season or two with the semi-pros. 

Dazzy Vance was by far the Bushwick fan's favorite. For more than a dozen years Vance had toiled for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although he'd won the MVP Award in 1924, led the National League in strike outs seven consecutive times and wins twice, Vance never seemed to get the adulation he deserved, solely because he played for a lousy ball club. Still, the cowboy from Iowa kept a cheery attitude and went out there every time determined to win. By the time he was released by the Dodgers in August of 1935, Vance had won just three game shy of 200 games all for a team that very rarely finished over .500. It was this determination in the face of overwhelming odds endeared him to the blue collar Brooklyn fans. Vance was a well-traveled 44 years of age when the Dodgers handed him his walking papers. Over the hill as he might be, Vance still felt he had life left in his arm and someone, somewhere would want him on their side. He didn't have to look far. 

Max Rosner quickly put together a lucrative package to lure the pitcher to Woodhaven: $4,000 for 2 months work. This was a tidy sum back in 1935 and when adjusted for inflation would be about $69,000 today. For Rosner, the four grand was pretty much a guarantee that the Bushwicks would pull in sold out crowds for the rest of the season. 

While today it might seem sad to see a former star playing for a semi-pro team, Vance for one didn't think so. He was going from the worst team in the National League to a team that not only drew more fans than the Dodgers but also could probably beat his old team in a short best of seven series. Another factor was Vance would get to pitch at least for a little while longer before a crowd that totally idolized him. What aging ballplayer wouldn't want to hear that roar a few more times before slipping away into the history books?

There was one last reason Vance was eager to take the Bushwicks offer, something he couldn't get with any major or minor league team. The pitcher told reporters "I'm having my first fling, too, at pitching against Negro teams".

Dazzy Vance's debut for the Bushwicks was on August 30th. Before a huge crowd Vance threw 2 hitless innings against the semi-pro Springfield Greys, striking out three. Two days later he faced his first Negro League opponent, the Nashville Elite Giants of the Negro National League, the big leagues of blackball. Although the pitcher was sick earlier in the day, once he saw the 15,000 who packed into Dexter Park to see him, he suited up. The old hurler was terrific, scattering three hits through seven innings and striking out five.

And so it went. On September 8 the bearded House of David came to Dexter Park. Pitching for the House was an even older ex-big leaguer than Vance - Grover Cleveland Alexander. Alex was barely holding himself together at this point in his career, his 49 year-old body ravaged by alcohol abuse and years of neglect. Still, 20,000 fans watched as the two dinosaurs faced off one last time. Alex lasted barely two innings, but Vance put on quite a show, six shutout innings and striking out eleven of the beards that day. 

A week later he faced another Negro National League team, the Philadelphia Stars, going six innings and leaving the game down 4-3. Seven Stars were strike out victims. Five days later he lasted three innings against the Elmhurst Grays, a local white semi-pro team. On the 29th Vance pitched against the New York Cubans, striking out nine in six innings of work. If Vance truly wanted to test his mettle against the best Negro League clubs, the Elites, Stars and Cubans were among the best around, and for an aging 44 year-old, he did pretty good. 

The crowds that turned out to watch Vance's swan song certainly made Max Rosner's $4,000 investment worth while. It was now midway through October and the weather was getting cold and wet. Baseball season would soon be over, but there was still one big game left. On October 13th the rival Brooklyn Bay Parkways came to play, this time with the great Babe Ruth on their team. 

15,000 fans braved football weather to see the two oldsters face off. Vance was in top form, holding the 40 year-old Ruth hitless his first two at bats. When The Babe came to the plate the third time, the fans razzed the big man, all of which he took in stride. "Hell" he yelled to the crowd "I'm tryin' to get a hit!" Vance turned around and waved his outfielders in, the ultimate in baseball showmanship, a direct challenge to The Babe. Vance fired one straight down the middle for strike one. No one ever knew what the next pitch was because Ruth knocked it over the right field wall for a home run. Smiling broadly, The Babe circled the bases as the crowd went insane.

Dazzy Vance and The Babe faced off one last time a week later. Ruth went 1 for 3 and Vance, playing his last game, pitched five innings before calling it a career. The ancient pitcher retired to Florida, leading an active life and frequent guest at Brooklyn Dodgers reunions up until his death in 1961.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

187. Dutch Woerner: The Definition of a "Semi-Pro"



This is the second of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

Go ahead, search all the baseball reference books and online stat sites for as long as you want, but you'll never find Dutch Woerner in any of them. Yet for almost two decades William "Dutch" Woerner was a super star to baseball fans in the New York City area. He didn't play for the New York Yankees or John McGraw's Giants, not even the lowly Brooklyn Dodgers. Nor is he one of the countless Negro League players who never got a chance to play in the majors because of their skin tone. Dutch Weorner was a Brooklyn Bushwick.

There were basically four types of player on the Bushwicks:

1) Young guy from the area trying to make a name for himself.

2) Aging big leaguer on his way back down into the civilian world.

3) The career minor leaguer who just didn't have that certain "something" to make the majors.

4) The guy who had all the talent in the world, but never wanted to turn pro.

Dutch Woerner was one of the later. 

In the early 1920's the Bronx-born Bill Woerner blazed a three-sport path through Fordham's hallowed halls. You couldn't open the sports page of a New York newspaper without seeing his name mentioned in conjunction with some Fordham victory. By the time he graduated in 1924, Dutch was captain of the basketball team, All-American football hero and fleet-footed shortstop with offers sitting on the table from the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees. He also had himself a business degree from a first-rate university.

For most red-blooded American kids in 1924, the career choice was obvious - pick the pro baseball career! But for Dutch Woerner and many other talented athletes, the lure of the business world was much more powerful. Countless college athletes gave up on their dreams and chose the safer, more lucrative path of a real job instead of the hard-scrabble world of pro sports. With the exception of golf or tennis at the club, their athletic career was over for good.

Fortunately for Woerner he had a third option. Because he resided in New York City - the epicenter of semi-pro baseball, a guy with his talent and name recognition could carve out a nice, well paid career for himself. Many of the other semi-pro teams in the New York/New Jersey area paid their players. The Bushwicks were not only the most successful semi-pro outfit around but they also paid the best. Depending on the level of talent, a guy signing on with Max Rosner could expect about $20 game. The average take-home salary in 1931 was about $35. Since the Bushwicks played doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday and a weekday night game, an infielder like Woerner could go home Sunday with more than double the average man's paycheck - this on top of his regular job.

While weekdays he might be entry-level stock broker William Brendel Woerner, on weekends he emerged from the subway in Woodhaven Dutch Woerner -  star second baseman of the Brooklyn Bushwicks.

Dutch anchored the Bushwick's infield from 1931 through 1936. During those years he was consistently in the top five for batting average and local newspaper coverage marveled at both his clutch hitting and his ability to cover the infield "like a circus tent". Woerner's day job sometimes clashed with his weekend athletic career and he had to miss some games over the years, temporarily retiring during the '36 season so he could dedicate seven days a week to his work. The following summer he joined the rival Springfield Greys. He was batting lead-off as usual in a July 3rd game against the New York Black Yankees when pitcher Roy Williams drilled Dutch in the head with a fastball. Woerner collapsed with a fractured skull and he was raced to South Nassau Communities Hospital where he hovered between life and death for seven days. He eventually recovered after a long hospital stay but he never played baseball again. As a side note to Woerner's beaning, the Greys experimented with wearing leather polo helmets borrowed from a local country club during a game, one of the earlier recorded attempts to develop a batting helmet.


As for Dutch Woerner, he apparently got out of the brokerage business and opened a bar and grill in Lakewood, New Jersey. In 1958 he returned to Brooklyn where he was inducted into the "Sandlot Hall of Fame". While it sure wasn't Cooperstown, Dutch could look back at a nice semi-pro career that enabled him to make almost as much as a big leaguer, while at the same time raising a family, advancing in his career and enjoy being regarded as a first-rate ballplayer - all without traveling further than a subway token away from home. The Brooklyn Eagle's reporter covering the event that day in 1958 remarked how good the former shortstop looked more than twenty years after he hung up his spikes...