Tuesday, February 18, 2014
It's odd today to think that of the hundreds of native Puerto Rican ballplayers who have played in the majors to date, the first one debuted only as recently as 1942. That he only played 4 seasons of big league ball and the average baseball fan probably never heard of him doesn't mean he doesn't have a hell of a story...
On December 27, 1951 Almante, Mexico police officer Ambrosio Castillo Cano was escorting a suspected car thief to jail. Officer Cano had apprehended the man as he tried to sell his '47 Buick for a few hundred dollars, suspiciously way below what it was actually worth. When officer Cano asked to see the ownership and registration papers the suspect couldn't produce them which caused his arrest. As the pair rode to the police station, the suspect suddenly attacked the officer, causing him to fatally shoot the suspect. As he lie bleeding in the street outside the town bus station, the suspect used his dying words to utter "I am a member of a communist cell on an important mission". It was an odd story but one that possibly would have ran under the radar had this suspected car thief and Commie agent not been Hi Bithorn, former Major League baseball player and nothing short of a hero in his native Puerto Rico.
Hiram Gabriel Bithorn-Sosa was the husky offspring of a Dutch mother and Puerto Rican father. 6-1 and 200lbs, Bithorn made a name for himself on the island as a star basketball player, playing for the national team in the 1935 Central American and Caribbean Games. Unfortunately there was no future for even the greatest basketball players back then - the sport was still an amateur and collegiate novelty. Besides, Hi loved baseball and there was indeed a future in that.
Puerto Rico had produced a number of good home grown talent, but unfortunately their avenue of advancement was severely hampered by their skin tone. It was tough enough already for a lily-white Latino to make it in organized baseball in America, but the darker the skin pigment, the fewer opportunities there were. Unfortunately guys like Pancho Coimbre, Millito Navarro and Perucho Cepeda (Orlando Cepeda's pop) would be known only to fans of outsider baseball, simply because they were judged too dark.
But not so with Hi Bithorn. By 1936 the sturdy pitcher had made enough waves with his semi-pro Leones de Ponce team that people began to take notice. When the visiting Brooklyn Eagles Negro League team came to Puerto Rico in the spring of 1936, they were a little light in pitching. The team, featuring Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge and Leon Day, tapped the 20 year-old Puerto Rican to start their game against the Cincinnati Reds. For seven innings the young Bithorn held the big leaguers to a single run before yeilding 3 to tie the game up. Brooklyn eventually won the game and the young pitcher became a national hero. Along with his local fame, his credible performance brought Major League interest. Besides a good fastball, Bithorn's pigment was working in his favor as well: as a light skinned Puerto Rican with one European parent, Bithorn was deemed racially safe enough to be signed by the best ballclub in the world - the New York Yankees.
In the States, Bithorn consistently posted winning records: 16-9 with Norfolk in 1936 followed by 17-9 for Norfolk and Binghamton the next year. However, no matter how many games he won or how high he climbed in the Yankees chain, he was stuck behind one of the best pitching staffs in the majors - Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Spud Chandler, Bump Hadley, Monte Pearson, Atley Donald, Johnny Murphy - the Yanks pitching staff was a never ending rotation of All-Star arms. No matter how good he was, the Yankees simply had no room for him. Luckily, after a half dozen years stuck on the Yankees farm, Bithorn was picked up by the New York Giants and then acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 1941.
After winning the pennant in 1938, the Cubs never recovered from their 4 game sweep by the Yankees in the World Series. Their pitching staff was a mess and looking for a miracle, so in the spring of 1942 all eyes were on their new Puerto Rican import. Carrying the honor and responsibility of being the very first from his island to make it to the majors, Bithorn put up a 9-14 record for the year. As is so often the story, numbers don't tell the whole story of course - the Cubbies were miserable in '42 and when you take Bithorn's 3.68 ERA in account his year looks a little more promising. 1943 was his breakout year, easily establishing himself as the Cubs ace by going 18-12 with a nice 2.60 ERA. His seven shutouts topped the National League and the future seemed bright for Chicago's newest star.
Unfortunately World War Two was raging and Bithorn enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The Cubs ace was quoted in newspapers as quiping "after being with a losing team many years, I am now joining an outfit that can't lose."
Stationed at the San Juan Naval Air Station, the Navy put Bithorn's star status in Puerto Rico to good use as manager of a service team that entertained troops and raised money for the Red Cross and other causes. It was during his time in the service that Bithorn may have suffered the first of a succession of arm injuries, which was compounded by packing on over 25 pounds (some reports state as much as 45lbs) from solid Navy food.
Discharged in September of 1945, Bithorn missed out on the Cubs pennant and World Series but was expected to be an integral part of their post-war plans. As he did before the war he joined the San Juan Senators for the Puerto Rican Winter League season and helped lead the team to the Championship against Mayaguez. It was during that series that Bithorn suffered an injury to his arm during a play at the plate. The injury was still unhealed when he joined the Cubs in the spring of 1946 and seemed to worsen as the summer wore on. By the end of the season he was relegated to the bullpen and managed a weak 6-5 record. It was clear he no longer had his stuff and the Cubs sold their former ace to the Pirates who quickly sold him to the White Sox.
Bithorn returned to Chicago in 1947 but pitched just 2 innings in as many games before he was released to the Hollywood Stars who cut him loose after 4 games. Realizing he needed help, Bithorn underwent surgery on his arm and sat out the 1948 season in the hopes his arm would recover. His comeback fizzled out after he gave up 65 hits in 46 innings during a season split between Oklahoma City and Nashville. Still wanting to stay in the game, Bithorn changed uniforms and learned to be an umpire. He completed his training and was hired by the Pioneer League for the 1951 season, the first Puerto Rican umpire in organized baseball. After the season Bithorn went south to Mexico to attempt a comeback in the Mexican Winter League. When the season ended, Bithorn loaded up his '47 Buick and began the long lonely drive back to the United States.
He made it as far as the dusty little town of Almante.
That's right, the deceased secret agent car thief was Hi Bithorn. When the press got wind of Puerto Rico's first big leaguer's death and questions started to be asked, Officer Cano's story started coming apart. For starters, why the hell would Hi Bithorn be selling his Buick, his only means of transportation, in the middle of nowhere? Plus, the former Cub had over a thousand U.S. dollars on his person, negating the theory he needed some quick cash. And that whole Commie confession? Bithorn's brother swore up and down his brother was no Red. In the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of 1951, Officer Cano probably figured he'd be looked on as a hero for gunning down a real Red spy. Probably thought he'd get a medal. No, it became pretty obvious Officer Cano was an inept shakedown artist with a badge and he had murdered an unarmed Hi Bithorn. The Mexican justice system agreed and Cano was sentanced, albeit to a paltry 8 years for the ballplayer's execution.
It was a sad and pointless end to a promising life. While in America his role as the very first of a long line of fine Puerto Rican ballplayers is a footnote at best, back in Puerto Rico, Hi Bithorn is far from forgotten. When it came time to name the island's biggest and most modern baseball stadium in 1962, it was a given that it would bear the name "Estadio Hiram Bithorn" in his honor.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
May 18, 1926.
The Kansas City Monarchs won again that afternoon, and befitting their name, the team went out to celebrate in regal style. The Monarchs were the class-act of blackball, the most professional and talented of ball clubs and its players were welcomed everywhere they went in black Kansas City. Ragtime was transitioning into jazz and the though prohibition was law of the land, liquor flowed freely in KayCee if you knew where to look. The town was theirs.
At the head of the party looking to celebrate was their star shortstop, Walter "Dobie" Moore, known to fans as "The Black Cat". Loud and boisterous, Moore was not shy about shooting his mouth off to criticize his teammates, his big size - 200 lbs and just shy of 6 foot - enabling him to back up most anything that passed his lips. But that night there was no reason to criticize anything - the Monarchs had beat the Chicago American Giants, Moore was batting .415, in the prime of his career, and the night was young.
Though he was married, the best shortstop in the game wasn't adverse to stepping out and conveniently his current girlfriend, Elsie Brown, was owner of a popular brothel. So naturally "The Black Cat" led his boys over to Elsie's to cap off the evening. In retrospect it's not too hard to see how a cocky, hot-headed ball player, souped up on illegal liquor, could get into an argument with his brothel-owning girlfriend, and according to Elsie, that's exactly what went down that night.
Engaged in a heated arguement in her bedroom, Elsie Brown told police that the big shortstop slugged her in the face three times before she managed to get a hold of her pistol and shot Moore in the leg. The Black Cat, leaking blood and fearing a second, more fatal shot from his girlfriend, staggered onto the balcony and leaped into the dark alley below.
Unfortunately not all cats land on their feet.
Upon hitting the pavement, the impact from the 2-story jump shattered Moore's already injured leg. His Monarchs teammates carried him to the team's physician, Dr. Bruce, where he discovered the ballplayer had no less than 6 compound fractures of both the tibula and fibula and that the bullet could not be successfully extracted. In other words, Dobie Moore's career was through.
But what a career it was...
Walter Moore was born in Atlanta Georgia in 1896. He was functionally illiterate and never shared any details about his life before he joined the U.S. Army in 1916. Assigned to the 25th Infantry, one of the peacetime Army's few black regiments and something of an elite outfit, Moore was stationed in Hawaii. The 25th boasted one of the best semi-pro baseball teams of the time and Moore learned his trade playing shortstop with a number of future Negro League stars: Catcher Oscar Johnson, nicknamed "Heavy" for obvious reasons, was a pure slugger, Lemuel Hawkins was a solid first baseman and the team's captain, best pitcher, clutch hitter and perhaps the best all-around ballplayer of all-time, was Bullet Joe Rogan. Along with Moore, the four would form the nucleus of the Kansas City Monarchs when discharged in 1920.
As the Monarchs quickly established themselves as the most professional and dominant team in black baseball, Moore usurped the mantle of the best shortstop from the former king, John Henry Lloyd. Though not the most graceful of fielders, somehow Moore's threw his big 200lbs frame around the infield with the nimbleness of a ballerina, pouncing on any ball hit in his direction. Newspapers began calling him "The Black Cat". Moore also wasn't adverse to bending rules a bit in his favor, like grabbing hold of base runners belts as they made their way to third, causing them to loose a stride or two. Through hours of practice, his arm became about as powerful and accurate as the '03 Springfield rifle he used in the service and his skill with the bat made him one of the team's most feared hitters. In his seven years in blackball, spent entirely with the Monarchs, Moore hit in the area of .350 against professional Negro League competition.
Like many black ballplayers, Moore played ball year-round and his numbers in both the integrated California Winter League against white major and minor leaguers and the tough Cuban Winter League is consistent with his Negro League averages, .385 and .356 respectively.
1924 was his best season as a pro, but the story of that milestone year actually starts in the winter of '23-24 in Cuba. Moore sailed to the island nation to join the Santa Clara Leopardos, one of the four Cuban major league teams. Santa Clara was stocked with the best black and Hispanic players of the time: pitchers Jose Mendez and Dave Brown, a Hall of Fame quality right-left punch, Oscar Charleston and Alejandro Oms in the outfield and an infield made up of Heavy Johnson, Weasel Warfield, Oliver Marcelle and the best shortstop in the game, Dobie Moore. The Leopardos easily took the pennant and the team has gone down in island history as the greatest Cuban League team of all-time, the 1927 Yankees of their day. And among this all-star conglomeration, Moore hit .386 and led the league in hits and triples. After the winter season ended, Moore rejoined the Monarchs where he hit .453 to lead the Negro National League in hitting and Kansas City defeated Hilldale to take the first Colored World Series title. Moore had 12 hits in 49 at bats and then took a train to southern California for the Winter League season. Playing with the Los Angeles White Sox, Moore hit .487 against the white major league and Pacific Coast League players and led the circuit in hits, doubles, triples, home runs average and slugging percentage.
The 1925 edition of the Kansas City Monarchs was weakened with their heart and soul, Bullet Joe Rogan, out with an injury but still the club managed to take the pennant before bowing to Hilldale in the World Series. Moore hit .333 that season, a bit less than his epic '24 numbers but was still the best shortstop outside the major leagues. In the series loss he still put up a .364 against Hilldale's formidable pitching staff.
And that brings us back to those first weeks of the 1926 season. In the fifteen games against league teams, Moore rapped out 22 hits and was hitting at a .415 clip, seemingly on-track for another spectacular season, that is until he found himself in a crumpled and bleeding heap in the alley below Elsie Brown's bedroom.
Aided by a sanitized version of the shooting in which Ms. Brown mistook Moore for a robber, the Monarchs fans rallied around The Black Cat and the local colored newspaper, The Call, started a fund to help with his medical bills. Unfortunately the leg was too badly damaged and never healed properly. Despite his claim that a comeback was in the cards, Moore's career was through. By the end of 1926 he left KayCee and ended up in Detroit where the ex-Monarch played a bit of semi-pro ball, hobbling around first base as best he could. After a mid-1940's newspaper article showing the former shortstop on crutches reminiscing about the old days he disappears. A 1947 death certificate from Detroit may be Moore's, but a 1948 newspaper articles mentions the old ballplayer as a pallbearer at a former teammates funeral. Since the earlier article shows Moore on crutches, it may be assumed the article was wrong and the pallbearer was not in fact the former star. Regardless, it was an inglorious end to what may have been the best shortstop of the 1920's.
- Lester, Larry Baseball's First Colored World Series (McFarland & Company 2006)
- Revel, Dr. Layton and Munoz, Luis Walter "Dobie" Moore (Center for Negro League Research, 2009)
- Holway, John B. Dobie Moore (Baseball Research Journal, 1982)
- Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
- Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
One of my favorite stories I have written on this site has been the day-in-the-life of Joe Jackson during his days as a baseball mercenary. When I started envisioning the stories and drawings I wanted to include in my book, this one always can to mind first - indeed it was one of the handful I included in my book proposal. I knew from the start that I wanted to make it a 6-7 page story with 3 different illustrations interspersed with the text. I saw the main, full-page drawing being of Jackson in action on that bush-league Hackensack ball field, a million miles away from Comiskey Park. Knowing that I would be giving it full-page status, the extra space enabled me to expound on what I had wanted to do with the original drawing. One of those things was that I wanted to portray the overflowing crowd that lined the rural ball field, and opposing players and cars in the parking lot - all of which I now poured into this piece. Other little details include Jackson's trademark two-toned "Black Betsy" bat and his plain, grubby, second-hand gray flannel uniform.
And now, here is the story behind the drawing...
Shoeless Joe Jackson's One Day in Baseball Purgatory
The man standing in the shade of the building was deeply suntanned and wrinkles ran round his face, making him seem older than his 32 years. He wore a black suit, finely tailored, though of an older style cut and starting to show it’s age around the edges. In his rough, calloused hand he gripped a leather travel bag, which, upon closer examination, showed that the ornate brass plaque between the handles had been crudely altered: someone had scratched away all traces of the original engraved initials.
The man stood outside the box office entrance to the town ballpark. It was a small, well built ball yard, but in actuality he hardly took notice. After all, he’d played in a different one almost every weekend that summer and now they were all starting to blend together. If he hadn’t stopped at the coffee shop back in the train station he’d probably have had no idea where exactly he was, which, by the way, was Hackensack, New Jersey.
After standing around in the late morning sun for a few minutes a caravan of dirty open cars turned into the dirt lot beside the ballpark. Stopping in a cloud of dust, a dozen men poured out. These were to be his teammates for today’s ballgame. He watched as the men unloaded canvas bags of equipment. The oldest looking one of the group saw him standing near the box office door and walked quickly over to him, extending his hand. He introduced himself as the manager. In his other hand he offered up a manila envelope. The suntanned man opened it and pretended to count the money inside and quickly shoved it in his coat pocket. It was time to get ready.
The locker room was a locker room in name only. The small room was damp and had 2 long wooden benches that ran the length of the room and the walls had a shelf about neck high opposite each bench and a row of hooks beneath that. Each of the ballplayers staked out a space on one of the benches and unpacked their small traveling bags. Most of the players talked loudly with one another, laughing and throwing around swear words. Their accents were harsh to his ears and sometimes not too easy to follow. A few of the players stared unabashedly at the suntanned man and he began to grow more uncomfortable than he usually felt. As the suntanned man undressed he hung his jacket from the hook and folded his black pants and silk pink shirt. Running his hand over the folded silk garment to smooth it out before placing it on the shelf, he quietly touched the gold embroidered “J” monogram over the pocket.
The suntanned man removed a worn baseball uniform from his leather satchel. It was of a rougher quality wool than he was used to but it was a baseball uniform just the same. There was no name on the front, just black pinstripes. The cap he retrieved from the satchel was black as well, with a white button and white “P” on the front - a souvenir of an afternoon up in Poughkeepsie the week before. His name was “Joe Nutter” that day.
The manager appeared with another ballplayer in tow. He introduced him as “Smith” but the suntanned man recognized him as a young pitcher with Toronto. He couldn’t recall his name, but it sure as hell wasn’t Smith. The manager repeated the story he’d already heard - that his Westwood town team, traditionally a local powerhouse, had been unexpectedly clobbered by Hackensack a month before. There was always a heated rivalry between the two towns and the games always attracted spirited betting, the action being covered by heavies from nearby New York City and Newark. Westwood swore Hackensack had a few ringers on their team that day and, needless to say, much money was lost by Westwood’s fans that day. Plenty of people were pissed off and thirsty for revenge. Taking up a collection, Westwood decided to purchase some insurance for today’s game, hence the manila envelope of cash. Today, the suntanned man’s name was “Josephs,” at least that’s what it said on the lineup card.
By this time he could hear the roar of the crowd. Through the row of filthy windows that lined one wall above the shelves he could make out much movement as hundreds of people jostled for seats. He could hear men shouting and children squealing. Someone threw something through one of the open windows and every few minutes some wiseguy would bang on the glass and shout something nasty. One of the suntanned man’s temporary teammates sidled up and said: “They know you’re here.”
Emerging out from the darkness of the locker room he pulled his cap down as low as he could over his eyes to protect them from the sun. The crowd went wild when they recognized him.
“My God, it’s Shoeless Joe Jackson!”
Spectators were spilling out onto the field and bits of paper littered the field. Glancing out to center field he could see it was cleared of fans, which made him feel a little better. The roar was deafening. There must be more than 1000 here today, probably more. Ugly, twisted faces shouted unintelligible words at him. Small children stared and women craned their heads and stood on tip-toes to catch a glimpse of him. He’d seen it all before. He did this every weekend.
The game wasn’t much to remember as far as he was concerned. It was a standard affair - the Hackensack manager came over to the Westwood bench and in between swearwords made it clear his team would be playing the game under protest. Westwood held back the Toronto pitcher until he was unleashed in the 3rd inning after Hackensack scored a few runs. It was smart managing as it gave the gamblers time to settle the odds before the Toronto kid shut them down for the rest of the game.
In between hitting a home run, double and two singles there were a few notable incidents. A news photographer ran onto the field while Westwood was batting and attempted to take a photo of him as he sat on the bench. Two of his teammates started shoving the newsman and threatened to beat the hell out of him if he didn’t get back to the stands. When Westwood’s catcher reared back, ready to throw a punch, the fella ran off so fast he left his hat behind. The catcher stomped on it with his spikes and the rest of the ballplayers laughed. A few times the game was stopped, not by the umpire but because everyone paused to watch a fist fight in the bleachers. He noticed that the couple of policemen stood by and did nothing - wading into a crowd like this was pointless and after a few minutes the fighting stopped on its own anyway. At a few points in the afternoon the play was stopped while the players collected some of the larger items that were thrown onto the grass. Bottles of beer, scorecards, newspapers and even a few straw hats were picked up and thrown in a pile behind home plate. One call by the amateur umpire cause a heck of a row. When he called Westwood’s left fielder out for supposedly not touching first base on his way to an easy double, the bench cleared and for a time it looked like the poor umpire was going to catch a beating. He sat on the bench and watched. The guy missed touching first by a mile anyway. A few innings later a Westwood fan charged out of the stands and accused a Hackensack outfielder of putting a concealed second baseball in play when he couldn’t get to a deeply hit fly ball. He just pulled his cap lower over his eyes and thought about his wife.
He was proud of one play he made that day, not at bat but in the outfield. On a long ball hit out to him in center, he’d made the catch and threw a straight liner back to the surprised catcher who tagged out the equally surprised runner to end the inning. The bases had been loaded and it squelched a rally and when all was wrapped up it probably made the difference in Westwood’s 9 to 7 defeat of Hackensack. Most of the crowd cheered but some threw even more crap on the field. This wasn’t Comiskey Park.
After the game he tried to dress as quickly as possible. Half the team was drunk and in various stages of undress. One of the guys threw his spikes through one of the glass windows. He was too busy packing his leather satchel to find out why. Someone was pounding on the locker room door but no one answered. After a while he slipped his black suit coat over his pink silk shirt, once again obscuring the embroidered “J” above the pocket. He opened the locker room door and ignoring the lingering spectators in the parking lot headed off towards the train station, trying to remember where he was going to be next weekend and what his name would be when he got there.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Today I thought I'd preview one of the full-page illustrations I'm working on for my upcoming book. I'll be doing this every so often because I'm very, very excited about the way these new illustrations are shaping up. Every one I finish I think "that's the best one I've done yet!", so it's hard to keep them under wraps. While many are all new subjects some are re-do's of older illustrations, enhancing them to make them more in-line with my evolved style or to give them a full-page treatment.
A few years back I did this card and story on Fujio Nagasawa, one of the Tokyo Giants players that toured North America in the spring of 1935. One of the curious things the team would do was that before every player batted, he would remove his cap and bow at the catcher and umpire to show respect. It was something the American fans latched on to and the press ate up. My previous drawing portrayed the scene I envisioned, but now that I am doing the book, I knew that this idea had to be given the full-page treatment. The book will be 7 1/2" square (slightly bigger than my previous little book), so each full-page illustration will be a nice-sized piece, perfect for the Nagasawa scene.
Hailing from the island of Hokkaido in the northern-most part of Japan, first baseman Fujio Nagasawa was the star of his college team from Hakodate Commercial School. After graduating he continued to play ball for the Hakodate Oceania Baseball Club. His talent was such that at the “advanced” age of 30 was recruited to represent Japan against the Major League All-Stars in the winter of 1934.
Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the All-Stars wiped the floor with the Japanese team but the Americans came away with the impression that the Japanese players they faced were at a AA level. Nagasawa himself hit .226 in 11 games against major league pitching. With practice against good, professional competition, American sportswriters speculated they would improve quickly. Major Leaguer Lefty O'Doul was on that 1934 team and had previously played on tours that stopped in Japan earlier in the decade. Through his friendships with influential businessmen eager to start a Japanese league, O'Doul suggested sending the Dai-Nippon team to the United States in the spring to play against the American professional teams that held spring training on the west coast. O'Doul was newly named manager of the San Francisco Seals and offered to act as intermediary in arranging other ball clubs to play against the Japanese.
Besides acting as middle-man for the Japanese, the publicity-savvy O'Doul made a few suggestions to the Dai-Nippons - the first of which was to change their name: The Dai-Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club was just too much of a mouthful for the American public to digest. O'Doul suggested the "Tokyo Giants" and the name has held to this day. Other suggestions by O'Doul was for the Japanese to capitalize on national customs that would be unique to their team when they toured America. Despite the fact that Japanese baseball teams all used English words and numbers on their uniforms, for the tour jerseys would sport the player's number in traditional Japanese kanji characters on their backs and the kanji characters for "Tokyo" would appear on their sleeve. O'Doul instructed them to continue the tradition of tipping their caps and bowing as a group to the crowd before and after a game. Each batter was told to also tip their cap and bow to the umpire before each at bat and even after being thrown out on the base paths runners were to do the same. Another unique aspect of a Tokyo Giants game was their football-like huddle before each inning. Newspaper scribes in America were kept busy debating just what was being discussed during these mysterious huddles. Curious little things like that really made a difference to the American public and the team was awarded with decent-sized crowds and much newspaper publicity.
Among the photographs that accompanied the Tokyo Giants press kit was a much-reproduced photo of Fujio Nagasawa tipping his cap to the home plate umpire. American sportswriters commented favorably on his fielding skills and he batted right around .300 on the 6 month tour. The success of the tour back in Japan led to the formation of the nation’s first professional league and Nagasawa was signed to be the Tokyo Giants first baseman. As the Giants lead off hitter, Nagasawa became the very first batter in the Japanese Baseball League when play began in 1936. Now in his early 30's, Fujio Nagasawa's playing days were coming to an end and the arrival of first baseman Tetsuji Kawakami, soon to be known as "The God of Batting" led to his retirement in 1943. Nagasawa then switched gears and became a successful reporter for the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, dying at the age of 80 in 1985.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
For those who haven't heard yet, I'm officially working on a full-scale Infinite Baseball Card Set book for Simon & Schuster. It's going to be a much-expanded version of the small privately published book I completed last spring. While some of the drawings and stories are derived from this blog, it'll also be chock-full of new material - which explains why I haven't been doing updates a often as I used to. Getting married in August and then moving and then working on the book proposal had taken it's toll on my time to do this blog. However, now that it's a go on the book, I plan on not only updating more often, but also periodically sharing sneak-peeks of some of the new drawings I've been doing. To say I'm excited is an understatement; this book will be my grand statement as an artist and writer, the fruition of 4 years of producing a labor of love that means more to me than any artistic endeavour I've done in my entire career. To say it will be a culmination would be wrong, it will be more like just the beginning, a whole new route that my career will take. Stay tuned!
This week's story and illustration is of Cuba's greatest ballplayer, Cristóbal (known to his peers as Carlos) Torriente. Countless baseball artists have done drawings of Torriente, always taken from the same photos. For me, I wanted to do the Hall of Famer for specific reason: through my years of reading about the Negro leagues, there's something than no other artist ever managed to capture when illustrating him - Torriente was famous for wearing gold bracelets on his wrist that he'd jingle before batting to rile up the crowd. I thought this a very important and frankly fun detail that made a standard Hall of Famer jump off the pages of history and into real life. It's details like that that drew me to outsider baseball history over 3 decades ago and epitomises what I wanted to do with my drawings when I began here 4 years ago.
It’s the fall of 1920 and the overflowing crowd at Havana’s Almenares Park was whipped to a frenzy. The great Babe Ruth had arrived with the New York Giants to take on Cuba’s best ball club, the Blues. Their star was a dark-skinned slugger named Torriente and everyone wanted to see him match his skills against The Babe. Ruth put on his usual show, but his trademark long distance shots, which would have been homers in any American park, were reigned in for outs due to the monstrous dimensions of the outfield. Helped by the Giants pitcher, who was normally a first baseman, the Cuban blasted three home runs. With the bases loaded, Ruth limbered up and took the mound to face Torriente. Just two years earlier, The Babe was the best left-hander in baseball and he was sure he could make short-work of his adversary. Torriente hammered a ball past the third baseman for a 2-run double. The Babe frowned and the crowd went hysterical. He was forever after known as “The Babe Ruth of Cuba”. Described as “fun-loving”, Torriente had a string of eccentricities like the gold bracelets he wore on this wrists which he would jingle when he came to bat to excite the crowd. He’s most known for his years on the Chicago American Giants where manager Rube Foster put the versatile Cuban to good use as an everyday utility player. He hit with power and his average was usually in the area of .350. The major leagues were very close to signing him on numerous occasions but reportedly the only thing that stood between him and stardom in the white leagues was Torriente’s kinky black hair. By the mid 1920’s the slugger’s enjoyment of the nightlife and the hard life of outsider baseball began to take its toll on him. He bumped around from team to team and was out of baseball by 1933. The “Babe Ruth of Cuba” died a penniless alcoholic from tuberculosis in New York City in 1938. He was but 44.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
I don't have much family left now-a-days, so one of the added bonuses I received when I married my wife Andrea in August was that I became part of her family. More often than not, the phrase "in-laws" accompanies some horror story or otherwise unpleasant holiday tale. That's just not the case with Andrea's family - they're all great people who have made me feel more welcome than I had ever thought possible.
Now, I'm sure most are wondering what the heck does my in-laws have to do with The Infinite Baseball Card Set? Well, I found out about this week's ballplayer via my wife's sister.
For the past two years Andrea and I have driven out to Oklahoma City to spend Thanksgiving with her sister Cathy and their family. Her husband, Scott (an L.A. Dodgers fan) was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. They have 3 teenagers who are healthy, smart, athletic and so well-grounded that spending time with them has renewed my faith in the future of America. So anyway, last Thanksgiving the whole family plus Andrea and I hopped in the family Suburban and went antique shopping. Oklahoma City has a huge number of very good antique stores and in one Cathy was thoughtful enough to pick up a present for me. It was a large hard-bound volume called "Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma". It's a very well made and researched book and not one I'd seen before. Not only does its authors cover the various major league players that hailed from the state, but its also heavy on the various minor leagues and semi-pro teams that populated the state before the second world war. My wife's sister hit the jackpot because it's the kind of book I absolutely love and within its pages that I came across a guy that has one of the best names in baseball history: Earl Huckleberry.
Throughout the bleak summer of 1935 Ira Thomas prowled the western half of the United States. As the odometer on his beat up Ford V8 clicked off mile after dusty mile, Thomas had a front row seat to the desolation the great depression and dust bowl had wrought on the American landscape. The usually sparsely traveled roads were now choked with refugees fleeing the dust storms and foreclosed farms that littered the great plains. While it seemed like everyone was on the move out of there, Thomas stepped on the gas and headed in. He was looking for arms.
His boss, the venerable and saintly Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had scattered his scouts to the far corners of the country looking for pitching. Thomas, Mack's former catcher from his first dynasty of the early teens, was the A's chief scout and although he didn't specifically come out and say it, the old man was counting on him to come through with a miracle. The stock market crash had hit the Athletics' owner hard and for the second time in his long career, Mack had to dismantle what may have been the greatest baseball team in major league history. For three glorious years, 1929 to 1931, Mack's A's had dethroned the mighty New York Yankees and won three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Championships. But by the summer of 1935, slugger Jimmie Foxx and outfielder Doc Cramer were the only stars remaining. The once great pitching staff of Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg and George Earnshaw were long gone, their place in the rotation taken by a long list of punch-drunk veterans and a revolving door of fuzzy-faced college kids. Connie Mack, for all his years in the game, was slow to accept the new concept of farm teams. Both his American League dynasties were assembled through good scouting and decades worth of connections he'd cultivated. In the past when a low-level minor league team had a promising youngster, Mack counted on managers to contact him and offer up the kid's contract. Now with many minor league clubs under working agreements with big league teams, Mack's pipeline had dried up. That's why Thomas was roaming around racking up more miles than a bible salesman.
Late August found Thomas sitting in the bleachers watching a semi-pro tournament in Oklahoma. Two pitchers from the Seminole Redbirds caught his attention - Vallie Eaves and Earl Huckleberry. Both right handers were well known on the dust bowl diamonds of Oklahoma and the two often found themselves teammates on semi-pro teams that had the cash to pay for their services. Eaves was a Native American with a lame leg and Huckleberry was a lanky Okie fireballer. Neither of these guys were another Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove, but the most important thing here was that both men were free agents. With his boss back in Philly desperate and nothing to lose, Ira Thomas quickly got both hurlers signatures on standard American League players' contracts and sent the duo east on the next train.
Back in Philadelphia, Connie Mack watched helplessly as his once proud team careened out of control down the American League standings. The pitching staff seemed to disintegrate in the late summer heat: rookie Lee Roy Mahaffey and veteran George Blaeholder blew their arms out and were done for the year, while promising lefty Whitey Wilshere abandoned the sinking ship to return to the University of Indiana. Apparently hitting the books was a more appealing prospect than ending the season with a lousy team like the Athletics.
The A's were in 7th place, a few games atop the lowly St. Louis Browns - that is, they were, until the Browns took 4 straight from Mack's men. Mired in last place and in a tailspin that now stretched to 13 consecutive losses, Mack was desperate and out of tricks - Thomas' telegram announcing the signing of the two Okies couldn't have come at a better time.
The two westerners joined the team in Philadelphia. Thursday, September 12 was a double header against the Chicago White Sox. The only remaining A's pitcher that was any good, Johnny Marcum, won the first game to snap the 13 game losing streak. For the second game, Connie Mack handed the ball to Vallie Eaves who proceeded to go the distance and beat White Sox ace Monty Stratton 4-3. It was a big enough win that the wire services picked up Eaves' story.
The next day, Friday, September 13th was Earl Huckleberry's turn.
Wearing number 24, the lanky Oklahoman took the Shibe Park mound. Veteran A's catcher Charlie Berry would be catching him that afternoon. Huckleberry wound up and threw his fireball. He wasn't the fastest anyone had ever seen, but out west his fastball had nice movement and that big pitch worked fine on the semi-pro lots. Games of more than a dozen strike-outs weren't uncommon for Huckleberry, and for over five summers that ol' fireball had baffled hundreds of his opponents. In the major leagues it took the White Sox less than a handful of pitches to figure him out. By the time the inning ended the Sox had scored a run on a couple hits and Huckleberry's own error.
It wasn't the best of debuts, but fortunately White Sox starter Ray Phelps was even worse. By the time he was finally yanked and sent to the showers without finishing the first inning, Phelps had walked 8 batters and gave up seven runs. Reliever Jack Salveston let in another run before getting the last out.
Now working with a 7 run lead, the Oklahoman bore down and shut out Chicago for the next four innings. He struck out two Sox and his control wasn't bad for a guy coming directly from the sandlots to the majors. Meanwhile, A's batters piled on 4 more runs to make it 12-1 going into the bottom of the 6th. A handful of hits resulted in two Chicago runs but he got out of it. The A's added another 2 runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 14-5.
But then Connie Mack's newest find ran out of gas. Huckleberry managed to retire 2 Sox but let two more runs in before Mack gave him the hook. Dutch Lieber came in and shut Chicago down for the rest of the game. Though he gave up 7 earned runs and 8 hits, Huckleberry was awarded the win.
The papers made much of Mack's two new discoveries, calling them "Mack's Kindergarten Class". Despite promises to play the Okie rookie again, September 13th, 1935 was Huckleberry's first and last appearance in organized baseball and neither Oklahoman made any difference in the A's nose-dive of a season. When the books mercifully closed on the 1935 season two weeks after Huckleberry's win, the Athletics were firmly locked in the cellar of the American League, a staggering 34 games out of first place.
Not many men can say they skipped the minor leagues on their way up and down from the big leagues, but Earl Huckleberry can. While his professional career was started and finished in the span of an afternoon, he continued to be a much-sought out baseball mercenary in Oklahoma. A year after his major league game, Huckleberry and Eaves joined forces again to pitch the Halliburton Cementers to victory in the Denver Post Tournament. He was still pitching up into the 1940's for various semi-pro clubs like the Enid Oilers and Seminole Red Birds, living his entire life in his native Oklahoma. He and his wife Dollie, who he married in 1933, had a daughter, and by the time he passed away in 1999, the Huckleberry's had two grand kids and three great-grand kids. Now I don't know this for sure, but I'd be willing to bet my bottom dollar that Grandpa Huckleberry bent their ears on many a Thanksgiving Day telling his brood about his one day on the mound for Connie Mack's Athletics.
I say this all the time, but it's stories like this that make this game interesting to me. You can take all the Hall of Famers and multi-million dollar contracts. I'll take Earl Huckleberry's one afternoon in the big leagues anytime.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Here's a great little slice of baseball history I learned about from an update I received from Gary Bedinfield, proprietor of Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice. After reading Gary's fine bio on Apau Kau, I called up my old pal Scott Simkus, the man behind the now defunct Outsider Baseball Bulletin, who tapped into his vast OBB archives and supplied me with some hard-to-find newspaper photo's of Kau from which I did my drawing. Various old newspaper articles along with some background of the Hawaiian All-Chinese Travelers team from Joel Frank's book filled out the rest of Kau's story.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Sam Kau grew up playing ball in the fast paced Oahu League. Armed with a devastating spitball to go along with a good fastball and professional curve, Kau joined the All-Chinese Hawaiian Travelers that toured the U.S. mainland every summer from 1912 to 1915. When the All-Americans team came to Hawaii in 1914, Kau pitched against the major league stars, losing 5-2. The big leaguers were impressed with his spitball and noted that 4 of the runs came during one bad inning. On the Travelers’ 1915 American tour, Kau held the minor league San Antonio Bronchos to 6 hits (though he lost 3-2) and then tossed a perfect game against Baylor University, striking out 20. Kau moved permanently to Philadelphia where he continued to be a sought-after semi-pro pitcher.
A former member of the Hawaiian National Guard (as were a good number of his teammates on the Travelers), Kau enlisted in the army in 1918. With his prior experience he made sergeant quickly and was sent to officer candidate school. Anxious to get to the fighting, the former spitballer voluntarily resigned from officer training in order to join his old regiment when it received orders to France.
The 315th Infantry was posted to the Verdun Sector during the last week of the war. On the night of November 4th they moved into the front lines to spearhead an attack on Hill 378 which was outside the town of Borne-du-Cornouiller. Going over the top at the head of his squad, Sergeant Kau was killed by German bullets. It was only six days until the war ended.
Though Kau never played in the majors or even the minor leagues, he was a big enough name that his death in battle was reported by the wire services.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Some ball field, somewhere in 1928 or 1929.
The air was electric. With the score tied up for the past 6 innings, the crowd had settled in the sticky late afternoon heat. After the first batter struck out, the number two man had just hit a cheap single that dropped behind the shortstop who was playing for a bunt. Now the crowd came to life. They knew who the man on deck was and what he could do. Chino Smith could break a ballgame wide open with a single swing of his bat. The stands were filled with taunts, screams, insults - even a few hats were launched onto the grass, but Chino Smith didn't care.
Savagely throwing the two extra bats he used to warm up behind him, he strode slowly towards the plate. Instead of walking in a straight line, he swung deliberately out of his way towards the hostile crowd. The noise got louder and he paused at one point to gaze menacingly over his shoulder. His eyes, slightly slanting at the corners, gave him a faintly Asian look, and from that sprung his nickname - Chino. Turning back, he continued his walk to the plate. He kicked savagely at the dirt, digging a hole for his spikes to get traction. He swung the bat back and forth and finally pointed it at the pitcher.
"I'm gonna kill you today".
His voice was loud, booming and eerily even. The crowd ate it up and yelled louder than before. They cried for the pitcher to stick one in his ear. The catcher said something, but no one could hear for the crowd. The pitcher didn't say a word. He checked the runner on first.
The first pitch was close, a brush-back, up just beneath his chin. Fully expecting it, Chino dodged it and unleashed a foul stream of tobacco juice at it as it hissed by. The runner on first had taken off and took second standing up. Chino pointed at the runner, silently taunting the pitcher. The crowd loved it and hated it.
"That all you got? That all you gonna throw?"
The pitcher pounded his glove and eyed the man on second.
"Cause if that's all you throwin', I'm gonna kill you today."
The stands erupted with an even louder torrent of hatred. Someone threw a soda bottle. Chino suddenly made towards the box seats along the first base line but stopped after a few steps. A smile curled up from the edge of his mouth and he turned back towards the plate. The umpire kicked the bottle back towards the crowd.
The next pitch sailed in just a bit outside but still within reach. With a flick Chino smashed the ball straight back at the pitcher who feebly stabbed at the ball while instinctively jumping out of the way. The runner on second crossed the plate before the center fielder made the play and Chino stood on first base like he owned it. When the crowd quieted down he motioned at the pitcher.
"Hey! I made you jump out there!"
The pitcher threw the ball in the dirt and charged towards first. The slight curl in the corner of Chino's lips turned into a full-blown smile as he braced for the coming fight.
When it comes to blackball, you take it for granted that due to lack of newspaper coverage, record keeping and plain-old racism that it's tough to discern truth from myth. With a guy like Chino Smith, the waters become as murky as Lock Ness. His career was so meteoric and short that over the years he took on an almost King Arthur-like reputation. And like the Medieval knight, whose story is based in fact, much of what is repeated is not. Often called a small man, listed in most books as 5'-6", if you just look at a team photo you can see he was most likely 5-11 or 6 foot. Not a giant, but average for a ballplayer in 1930. I reckon somewhere in some newspaper many years ago there is a typo that just kept getting reprinted. Even his great nickname "Chino", which he is universally known by today, is not quite correct. While the Spanish language press and fans in Cuba dubbed him Chino, after his "Chinese-looking eyes", in the States he was known to fellow players by the less racy "Smitty", and to the public as just plain-old "Charlie", his given name.
Though said to be from Greenwood, South Carolina, baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill uncovered that Charlie Smith really came out of Hamlet, North Carolina. As a teen he added muscles by lugging baggage in New York's Pennsylvania Station and honed his baseball skills playing for the ball club made up of porters like him called the Redcaps. Boasting quite a few future and former blackball players, the Redcaps were a valuable training ground and after a few seasons playing for second-tier teams, Smith turned pro in 1925. Smitty's team, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, were one of the old independent blackball teams, but by 1925 they'd joined the Eastern Colored League. Playing alongside aging vets like Dick Redding, Bill Holland and Jesse Hubbard, Smith spent 1925 and 1926 getting his bearings and learning his craft. By 1927 he emerged as one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game.
In an era filled with hard characters, Smith quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest. He was the grandfather of trash-talkers and decades later when old-timers tired of waxing poetically about Smitty's skills with a bat, they often turned to talking about the verbal abuse he slung like line drives. Once in Cuba he'd had a bust up with the Yankee's ace Johnny Allen which over the years turned into something of a legend. While some blackball players like Satchel Paige delighted crowds with good-natured antics, Smitty made them angry and dangerously on the edge. He deliberately riled up the crowd which in turn made him play harder.
Playing for the Royal Giants, Smitty averaged above .400 in league games in '27 and '28. In 1929 Smith moved from the aging Royal Giants to the New York Lincoln Giants, a younger and more competitive club. Just 28 and at his peak, Smith crushed the ball, going .465 and then .429 in 1930. He was the most feared batter outside the major leagues, which some might argue doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. A common argument is made that the Royal Giants and his next team, the Lincoln Giants, played their home games in an oddly shaped ballpark called the Catholic Protectory Oval up in the Bronx. It was shaped, as it's name suggests, like an oval, much like the Polo Grounds where the New York Giants and Yankees played. The field had very shallow left and right field dimensions, making many modern historians look disparagingly at Smith's Ty Cobb-like averages. On the surface that's a great argument, but the Royals and the Lincolns didn't play the majority of their games "at home". Negro League teams traveled more than professional white teams and even league games were scheduled at neutral parks. The Lincolns, for instance, played some of their home games at Yankee Stadium during Smith's career. In games played against the other big names of the day, Smitty hit as good or better than the best outsider baseball had to offer.
Like many of the big stars of the Negro leagues, Smith was invited to play winter ball in Cuba. Down in the Caribbean the blackballers got to test their mettle against not only the best Latin players, but also against touring major leaguers and up and coming white stars. In the handful of winters spent on the island, Smith batted in the range of .340, putting him right about the top 10 of the time. In addition, pioneer blackball historian John Holway tracked down a slate of Stateside games in which Smith got to face off against active major league pitching (active big league hurlers, not washed up retreads throwing for semi-pro teams). Smitty clipped them at the same pace he did the Eastern Colored League pitchers: In 11 games against big leaguers Smith had 15 hits in 37 at bats, a .405 average.
The two best pitchers of Smith's day, Baltimore's Laymon Yokely and the eternal Satchel Paige whose career spanned the 1920's to the 1960's, both put Smith in the top 3 of the toughest batters they faced. When Colonel Ruppert opened up Yankee Stadium to black teams in 1930, Charlie Smith was the star of the inaugural game. Facing the Baltimore Black Sox, defending champs of the American Negro League, Smith walked in the first, hit a two-run homer in the third, smashed an RBI triple in the fifth and then wrapped it all up with a three-run homer in the seventh. Nothing it seemed, could stop Smitty.
Then, just like that, it was over.
Sometime during the 1931 season, Smith started to feel sick. Self-medicating with a variety of different elixirs failed to prevent his batting average to plummet. Traveling to Cuba for the winter season, Smitty played a few games and then returned home to his wife in the Bronx. In less than a month after Christmas he was dead. Some attributed his illness to a game against the Homestead Grays when he took a knee to his stomach during a savage collision with Walt Cannady, others say it was yellow fever picked up in Cuba. Baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill however put an end to the speculation when he uncovered Smith's death certificate which stated he died of stomach and pancreatic cancer. He was just 31 years old.
I went back and forth whether or not to put "Chino" on the front of Smith's card. When I started doing my illustrations and stories over 3 years ago, I began with the idea that I wanted my work to be as accurate as possible. Most of the time this comes down to very minute things like uniform details, but in this case I eventually thought it important to put the name he was known for in the States. In my research going through 1920's and 30's newspapers, the name Chino was never used, only "Charlie Smith". Since I illustrated him as a member of the 1930 Lincoln Giants playing at the Catholic Protectory Oval, I ultimately decided to give him the name he would have been known by as at the time.
Monday, November 11, 2013
I originally posted the story of Captain Eddie Grant, former New York Giants 3rd baseman, 3 years ago in honor of Veterans Day. To show my respect and gratitude to all the men and women who interrupted their lives in order to serve and protect this country, I'd like to post it again, my small way to say thank you.
On a day like today, Veteran's Day, I want to feature a real hero. These days it seems anyone who does anything can be termed a hero. We are losing the real meaning of that word and that is something that really bothers me, especially when I learn about ordinary men and women who somehow rise to the top and emerge as real heroes. Miners trapped in Chile may be survivors and noteworthy, but they are not heroes. But, instead of writing an introduction outing the many pseudo-heroes that the media seems to create, I will let the story of a real, bona-fide hero speak for itself.
They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.
During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.
The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.
The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.
By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.
The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.
Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.
Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.
New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.
Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.
Friday, November 1, 2013
Even though I left Baltimore over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. From 1919 to 1925 they won a record seven straight pennants and many baseball historians call them the best minor league team of all time. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies no one has really written about them. The talent stacked up on this club was unbelievable and no less than four would go on to be key members of Connie Mack's 1929-31 A's juggernaut, often called the best major league team of all time. Among the stars of the team was Joe Boley, hailed by contemporary sports writers as the best shortstop in baseball, at any level. All but forgotten today, Boley had the makings of a superstar and indeed was, just on a minor league level. It wasn't a lack of talent that stood in the way of his making the big leagues, it was that Joe Boley was too good...
The newspapers called him "Silent Joe" because of, well, he didn't talk all that much. In fact, Joe didn't do much of anything except play shortstop better than anyone else and hit like the bat was an extension of his forearm. He came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants whose real name was Bolinsky. Working underground since the age of 10, Boley began playing ball in his spare time using one of his heavy work gloves as a makeshift mitt. Being from a large family, such niceties as a baseball glove were not something the Bolinsky's meager household income would allow. Eventually, when his love of the game and talent became evident, his parents finally bought him the coveted piece of equipment. With foul balls swiped at local semi-pro games, Joe sharpened the fielding that would make him famous by throwing them against a barn door and chasing them down. By 1914 at the age of 17 he was being paid $2 a game and two years later he was playing for Chambersburg in the Blue Ridge League. Somewhere he shortened his name to Boley, making it a little easier on sportswriters and having a more "American" feel to it. Catching on as a pro seemed to elude him as he bounced around the lower rungs of the minor leagues throughout the northeast. Somewhere in the Pennsylvania semi-pro circles he became friends with Max Bishop, a Baltimorean and aspiring second baseman. When Bishop was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1917, the first thing he did was tell owner Jack Dunn about this crackerjack shortstop named Boley.
The Baltimore Orioles back then were an unaffiliated team, meaning they grew their own players and Dunn was under no obligation to pass along his good ones to the majors, unless of course, they met his asking price. Back in 1914 Dunn had sold his greatest find, Babe Ruth, to the Red Sox in order to keep his team afloat. Though the Ruth sale gave him a much needed influx of capital to run his club, Dunn was always bitter about having to sell the kid, which derailed any plans he had of building a dynasty based around The Babe. Now back in business in Baltimore, Jack Dunn was slowly accumulating the ball players who he would lead to an unimaginable seven straight International League pennants.
Boley joined Baltimore after a stint in the army at the tail end of the war. He'd had interest from a few other clubs, but it was his friendship with Max Bishop that led Boley to becoming an Oriole. The Orioles of 1919 went down as one of the best minor league teams of all time (as would their 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925 editions; this team was that good). First base had Jack Bentley, a slugger who doubled as the team's ace on the mound. Second was Max Bishop, Boley's pal from the Pennsylvania semi-pro days. Veteran Yankee speed merchant Fritz Maisel held down third. Outfielders included Merwin Jacobson and Otis Lawry, both big leaguers and The Babe's old catcher, Ben Egan captained a platoon of three receivers. But it was the pitching staff that really made the Orioles stand out. Besides the before mentioned Jack Bentley, Rube Parnham won 28 games and Harry Frank added 24. In a year Lefty Grove and Jack Ogden would add their arms to a squad that simply dominated the International League.
Boley became the team's starting shortstop from the start and hit .301 as the Orioles won the pennant. After just one year in the game's top minor league circuit, the writers were saying Boley was ready for the big show. 40 miles away in Washington, the Senators sure thought so and tried to buy the young shortstop after the 1919 season, but Dunn's price was too steep. There was no way in hell the O's owner and manager was going to let another dynasty slip away like he did in '14.
When the 1920 season started the shortstop was 23, still plenty of time to make the big leagues. Boley pounded out a .308 average and continued to turn heads at his fielding. By the time the Orioles wrapped up the '20 pennant, the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates were negotiating with Dunn. Again, the price was just too high.
Boley wasn't the only Oriole the majors tried to pry loose from Dunn. First baseman Jack Bentley was considered a second Babe Ruth due to his hitting and pitching and was tagged as the next big star of the game. But Dunn was reluctant to let his finds slip away easily. He set his prices just out of reach of what a major league owner would pay, so it looked as if the players were available, but they weren't. As a club owner, Dunn first and foremost wanted to make money and put fans in the stands; if he dumped all his good players Baltimoreans would loose interest in the team. With a good team year after year, the city would embrace his team and that was his aim.
While it might seem unfair that Dunn kept all these talented players in the minors for so long, he did treat his boys extremely well. The Orioles owner ran his club like a big league outfit: first-class travel and lodging everywhere they went and the best equipment. Dunn had a relaxed managerial style and left his charges on a loose reign. He wasn't stingy with his pocketbook either, his players were paid extremely well, many were on par with what they would make in the majors. In the spring of 1922 he even broke with tradition and gave his star shortstop a two-year contract, unheard of at the time.
When the Orioles won the 1922 pennant (their 4th in a row), the other International League owners cried foul. While Baltimore's dominance was great for Charm City, the other cities in the league saw their attendance dwindle. Fans were reluctant to follow teams that were left so far behind by the Orioles year after year. By the winter of 1922 the other owners tried to force Dunn to sell Bentley and Boley to even the playing field. The New York Giants plucked down $72,500 for Bentley but Boley stayed put in Baltimore.
While there's no sure statistic that can adequately measure fielding, by all accounts Boley was among the best shortstops at the time. Contemporary sports writers who saw him play lavished praise on his work in the infield. There was no doubt in the minds of those in the know that Boley was of major league star quality. It was just a matter of when he'd get to prove it.
For a while Boley didn't seem to mind he was stuck just short of the majors. When he sat down to negotiate that 2 year contract in 1922, Dunn asked if he was happy to stay in Baltimore of if he wanted to go to the National or American Leagues. Boley replied that as long as he was paid well he didn't mind staying with the Orioles.
By 1923 he was the highest paid player in the minor leagues, making in the range of $10,000 a season, almost twice the salary of a typical major leaguer of the time. He hit .343 in 1922 and then .306 in next season. Brooklyn offered Dunn $100,000 for him, but no dice. Then the White Sox threw around the figure of $125,000, but no sale. It seems that by the end of the year Silent Joe was getting restless. Countless articles in the sporting press were proclaiming him a big league star and it probably started to wear on him that though he was treated well in Baltimore, it was still the minor leagues. After the Orioles swept to yet another pennant, Boley's stellar play trailed off and there were rumors he purposely slacked off during the Little World Series against Kansas City. In fact he even left the series early, supposedly due to a family issue, but it would be a good guess that either he was so disillusioned that he bailed or that Dunn, angered over his lackluster performance, sent him home.
During the winter of 1923-24, it was announced that a blockbuster deal sending Boley to the Yankees was all but done. The Yankees were on their way to becoming baseball's greatest dynasty and what better way to cinch it than installing the game's best shortstop between Lou Gehrig and Joe Dugan. By Christmas the deal fell apart due to financial reasons and Joe Boley remained property of the Baltimore Orioles. Dunn's asking price cost Silent Joe his place on one of the most famous teams in the history of the game.
Boley returned in 1924 but hit .291, his only time as an Oriole that he failed to reach the .300 mark. He was now 27 and his price was dropping accordingly. Time was running out for Boley and he knew it. After the 1925 season he refused to resign with the Orioles and Jack Dunn reluctantly agreed to set him free. All through the 1926 season he shopped Boley around, finally agreeing to deal him to the Athletics for what was variously reported as $50,000 to $65,000.
So, at the age of 30, Joe Boley finally made the major leagues. Joining the A's, Silent Joe found himself in company with former Orioles Lefty Grove and Max Bishop. George Earnshaw would join the club the following year and by 1929 the A's would be the World Champions. Boley for his part had a phenomenal rookie year, hitting AL pitching at a .311 clip and turning plays in the infield that made even the most jaded sports writer take note. Along with Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Boley sparked the A's to winning 3 straight pennants and two world championships. The 29-31 A's teams are often considered the best team ever assembled and Joe Boley was the center of it's defense.
With each passing summer, Silent Joe's talent decreased rapidly as injuries took their toll. By 1931 he was a well-used 34, and Joe Boley was at the end. He hung on in the minors through 1936 and then returned to the coal region he originally sprang from. He worked various jobs before rejoining the A's organization in the late 40's as a scout.
Boley was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 1954, but one wonders if he would have his own plaque in Cooperstown had he reached the big leagues long before the age of 30. Instead of being a footnote in baseball history, perhaps the name Joe Boley would be mentioned along side Honus Wagner, Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese and Barry Larkin...