Tuesday, September 23, 2014

178. Charles "Square Deal" Cromwell: Blackball Umpire

I've said it before many times, but I'll say it again: one of the best benefits about writing/illustrating The Infinite Baseball Card Set is all the baseball historians, writers and artists I've met. I've asked a few to be a "Guest Author" on here and this week I'm pleased to have Bernard McKenna grace this site with a story. I became acquainted with Bernard due to our mutual interest in Baltimore Negro League history. I've always felt that with all the rich history in that city it has been sorely overlooked when it came to good solid books on the subject. The Black Sox and Elite Giants have been mentioned many times in chapters in books on general Baltimore baseball history, and the Black Sox in particular would make a great book subject. Cue Bernard McKenna. You may have already heard of him as he made some noise a few years ago when he discovered the only aerial photograph of Maryland Baseball Park where the Black Sox played. Up until McKenna's discovery, very few knew what the park looked like or was even located for that matter. Now baseball historians can gauge the dimensions and layout of the part which in turn helps put the feats of the Negro League greats in perspective. 
So, when I asked McKenna if he'd like to contribute to The Infinite Baseball Card Set he readily agreed, contributing yet another gem of Blackball research: a short history of a Negro League umpire! I hope you enjoy this extremely rare look into a little-known aspect of pre-war black baseball...

Charles Cromwell had a decision to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.  Rube Foster wanted him to come to Chicago and umpire games for the Negro National League (NNL).1  It was a tempting offer.  Foster had founded the NNL in 1920 and, in part, through sheer force of will, had carved out a successful black-baseball organization, which included the major cities in the Mid-West: Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis among others.  By 1923, at the time of Foster’s offer, there was talk of cooperation between the NNL and the newly formed Eastern Colored League (ECL), which included teams from Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York.

Foster wanted to hire, in the language of the day, “race men,” African American professionals, to serve as umpires but insisted on excellence.  He regretted that there were not more qualified African Americans who could serve as umpires and canvassed the country to find those who were.2  Foster only wanted the best for the league.  He had already lured Billy Donaldson from the Pacific Coast League, where he had established a reputation as one of the best umpires in California, gaining the respect of ballplayers both white and black.
3  If Cromwell went to NNL, he would be at the top of the profession.

On the other hand, he had been with the Baltimore Black Sox since 1917, around the time that Charlie Spedden brought the club and moved them into the Westport Baseball Grounds.
4  Spedden offered to match Foster’s offer,5 so money wasn’t a factor.  If he had given thought to job security, the choice was harder than it might seem today, in hindsight.  At the time, Baltimore was a model franchise, with an ownership fully committed not only to its on-field success but also to improving playing conditions for its players and working conditions for its employees.6  Charles Spedden had just left his job with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, so he too was invested in the team’s long-term well-being.  The Black Sox had also recently (1921) built a new home, the Maryland Baseball Park, and had made major upgrades for the past two seasons, making it the “most complete colored baseball park in the country”7    He had other ties to the community as well.  He was a champion bowler, and the Afro American had asked him to write a regular column on the game.8
Add to this, Spedden had hired another “race man” to umpire, luring Henry “Spike” Spencer north from Washington, DC.
9  If Cromwell stayed in Baltimore, he too would be part of an elite umpiring crew.  Such a pairing would place him and Baltimore at the top of the profession.  Further, he wouldn’t have to uproot his family, and it could not have escaped his attention that he would then become a role model for and leading member of Baltimore’s African American community.  He chose to stay with the Black Sox.

There must have been times over the next few years that he regretted his decision.  In 1925 the ECL took the job of hiring umpires away from the teams, putting Cromwell out of work for that season.  A white sportswriter from Philadelphia made the assignments and did not favor “colored” umpires.
10  The league suspended that practice the following year, and Spedden brought Cromwell back in 1926.11  However, Spedden was forced to resign from the Black Sox in 1927, and George Rossiter, who had been Spedden’s partner, took control of the team’s business operations.  Rossiter chose not to employ African Americans as umpires, firing both Spencer and Cromwell shortly after Spedden left the team.  Rossiter  “insist[ed] on the use of white umpires” until “Negro umpires . . . prove competent.”12   He would eventually hire Cromwell back, but conditions had changed.  The ballpark, which had been an impressive facility, was allowed to deteriorate,13 even as the Black Sox became one of the best teams in the nation, winning the 1929 championship.  The Depression further exposed the club’s weakened financial position, and the Black Sox would cease to exist as a franchise in the early 1930s.  By that time, Cromwell had moved on.

In 1932, he would be named Lead Umpire in the Southern Colored Athletic Association.
14   Later that decade, he would return to the majors, umpiring games for the Baltimore Elite Giants.  His name appears in box scores and, occasionally, surfaces because of a controversial call.15  However, those times are rare, which bodes well for an umpire.  He did not infuse his personality into the game, preferring instead a quiet yet rigorous professionalism.  In 1941, his doctors strongly advised that he take a break from the game, but he returned a year later.16 His name last appears in a box score in 1947.17  His career spanned four decades and at least thirty-one years.  He was reported to be “one of the ‘finest’ umpires in the East.”18 He also gave back to the community, enlisting in the army during the First World War.  He also rushed into a burning building to save a woman’s life.19

If he had taken Foster up on his offer, Charles Cromwell would have likely served with distinction, ranking with Billy Donaldson and Bert Gholston as the best umpires in the NNL.  Instead, he chose to stay in Baltimore.  As a consequence, his career was twice interrupted because of racism.   He persisted, carving a place for himself in the community and in local baseball.  His years of service, his distinctions, and his work in the community rival those Major League umpires in the Hall of Fame.  Moreover, he worked in a time where a “colored umpire” was often the punch-line of a joke.
20  In this context, it is remarkable we know as much as we do about Cromwell.  For many of the “race men” hired by Rube Foster or who labored in black baseball we will never know their names.  For others, there are a few pictures or the name or partial name in a box score or a rare news story.  It’s worth remembering those we know:  Leon Augustine, Lucian Spaer, Caesar Jamison, William Embry,21 Frank Forbes, Judy Gans, Cooper, Greenwald, Ben Taylor, Peirce, Brown, Craig, and Moe Harris.22  In 1932, Bert Ghoston wrote a column, calling them “The Forgotten Men.”  Indeed, they were and are. 

1 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Afro American, March 30, 1923, 14.
2 “We Need and can use Colored Umpires,” Afro American, January 13, 1922, A8.
3 Foster gets Umpires,” Afro American, April 13, 1923, 1. 
4 “Bowlers get Ready,” Afro American, September 8, 1922, 8. 
5 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Ibid. 
6 “Black Sox Club to be Real Ball Team,” Afro American, March 10, 1922, 9
7 “Sox sign Catcher and new Pitchers,” Afro American, February 9, 1923, 11.
8 “Charles Cromwell as a Bowler,” Afro American, February 14, 1925, 6.
“Best in the League,” Afro American, September 11, 1926, 9.
10 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” Afro American, April3, 1926, 8.
11 Ibid.
12 “Can’t Secure Good Umpires,” Afro American, Aug 10, 1929, 15.
13 Bill Gibson, “The Passing Review,” Afro American, May 4, 1929, 15.
14 “Eagles Still Hold Ace Spot,” Afro American, June 23, 1934, 21.
15 “Player Ejected as Elites Split with Cubans,” Afro American, July 22, 1929, 23.
16 “Charlie Cromwell Quits as Umpire,” Afro American, August 30, 1941, 23.
17 “Elite Giants Lose Game,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1947, 15.
18 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” 8.
19 “Both Heroes,” Afro American, April 30, 1927, 20.
20 “A New baseball Ruling,” Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1911, 6.
21 “Rube Foster Signs 7 Colored ‘Umps,’” Afro American, April 27, 1923, 14.
22 “Ghoston calls them the Forgotten Men,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1932, 14.

Bernard McKenna was born and raised in Baltimore City, near Memorial Stadium.  He currently works as an English professor at the University of Delaware.  Much to the delight of his wife and children, he's starting to look for the old Baltimore Black Sox, recently discovering images of their ballparks.

Friday, September 5, 2014

177. "El Toro" Cepeda: The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico

This whole season I have been completely immersed in the history of baseball, so much so that I have not been able to attend a single ballgame. I live within crowd-hearing distance of the Cincinnati Reds stadium and 15 miles from a really fun unaffiliated minor league team, yet I've been so busy I haven't had time to sit in the stands and enjoy the game I have written and illustrated all year. In a way, that isn't a bad thing. The new replay rules have really dampened my enjoyment of the game. Take last night for example: my wife is a die-hard Angels fan, and watches every game. In the 9th inning there was a close pick-off play and the dopey umpires stood around waiting 5 minutes for some clown in New York City to make a call that should have been handled right on the field in Minnesota. Five Minutes. Baseball's biggest drawback is that some see the game as too slow. How does this help? I don't know. I just stuck my nose back into another book on baseball history and let my mind find the safe haven of a simpler game.

I find myself doing that more and more recently, retreating inside my mind and finding solace in baseball history. Every morning I read the papers and see how things are going bad all over: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, China... baseball, as always, gives me a brief reprieve from all the chaos of the modern world. It wasn't until sometime in July that it all hit home for me. I had downloaded the third game of the 1936 World Series: New York Giants vs. New York Yankees. I don't particularly care for either team and of course I know how the series ended, but I decided to listen to the whole game for "atmosphere" while I worked on a drawing of Jake Powell for my book, a member of the Yanks that year. I was struck by the energy of the broadcast - this was the World Series - the most important sporting event in America and the broadcasters made you hear that in their voices. As the innings ticked by I slowly realized that when that game was played millions of Americans were listening in, many in the game the peace and solace I do decades later. The fall of 1936 found the world falling apart. Spain was torn apart by civil war and the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy used the conflict to test out their ideology and military hardware in a precursor to WWII. The United States had sank back into depression and millions were out of work, many for 5 years or more. Japan was being taken over by a military who within a year would throw Asia into a war that would last a decade. Yet, on the afternoon of October 3rd, 1936 virtually every ear in the nation was glued to their radio to hear Tom Manning, Ty Tyson and Red Barber call the third game of the World Series. With what was happening in the world, their urgent and enthusiastic calls and the very audible roar of the crowd took on a whole new meaning.

Baseball, then as now, has always been a great comfort and a pleasant though brief distraction from the world around us. The New York Mets are in town this weekend playing the Reds. I think I will go. I need to go.

Now remembered as the father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, back in the 1930’s Pedro Cepeda was Puerto Rico’s greatest ballplayer. Called “El Toro” for his build as well as his combativeness on the field, Cepeda refused offers to play in the Negro League due to his concerns over how Blacks were treated in the United States.

Cepeda’s talent is evident in his being a member of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones team. The Dragonnes brought together the greatest talent outside the Major Leagues including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. When the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed in 1938, Cepeda played on the Guayama Brujos (Witches) with Paige and won the batting championship the first two seasons the league operated. In subsequent years Cepeda consistently beat Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin in batting.

While many ball players have been compared to Ruth for their talent on a ball field, Cepeda truly earned his title of “The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico” by matching Ruth in the hard-living and hard-drinking category as well. The Bull lived just long enough to see his son sign a contract to play pro ball before his excesses and malaria caught up with him. Orlando used his $500 signing bonus to pay his father’s funeral expenses. Although his father never got the chance to see his son play ball, 45 years later when Orlando was inducted in the Hall of Fame, his son was pleased to see his father was already there in a team picture of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

176. Charlie "Slats" Dorman: Right Place, Right Time

Charlie Dorman is another Outsider who didn't make the final cut for my book. It's a shame, because Charlie has a great, all be it tragic, story and I had fun untangling and uncovering contemporary newspaper articles to help me write his story. I was originally drawn to Dorman by a small piece I found in a newspaper while looking up someone else (I love when that happens!). The story, from 1921, related how a failed minor league catcher was pulled from the stands during a game to fill in as a catcher. It's one of those great feel-good stories I like, although when I started to research Dorman I found his life took an unhappy turn and he was dead by 1928...

After two mediocre years in the minors, Charlie “Slats” Dorman had given up on his pro baseball dreams. But on the afternoon of July 30, 1921, the former catcher was in the right place at the right time. Dorman was sitting in the stands watching the San Francisco Seals take on the visiting Salt Lake City Bees when Salt Lake’s catcher was injured and the reserve backstop thrown out for arguing. The team had no one else left to catch, but then someone recognized Slats in the crowd. Within minutes he was suited up and behind the plate for the Bees. Not only did he errorlessly fill in, but he knocked in the winning run. When the Bees left town Slats was with them. He was back in pro ball.

Within a few months he was with the Washington Senators but before he could play a game the Chicago Cubs claimed Dorman had signed a contract with them. The matter was settled in the Cubs favor but he refused to report. Dorman then signed with the cross-town White Sox where on May 14, 1923 he went 1 for 2 in his one and only major league game.
Dorman quit pro ball just a year after his professional debut and went back to San Francisco and joined the police department. His brother had been in law enforcement as well and had been murdered by gangsters back in 1921. By October of 1928 Dorman was a detective sergeant and had just married. He was playing in a Sunday baseball game with his Elks Lodge when he shattered his kneecap during a run-down play. Infection and pneumonia set in and three weeks later on November 15, 1928 Slats Dorman was dead.

When I read the newspaper article that Dorman had died due to a baseball related injury, I of course consulted my copy of Robert Gorman and David Weeks' "Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities of Players, Other Personnel and Spectators in Amateur and Professional Baseball, 1862-2007". This is the go-to guide when researching any kind of tragic happening on a baseball field and I highly recommend it. When I looked up Dorman, I found to my surprise that he wasn't in there! I then began a correspondence with author Bob Gorman and found that he'd never come across Dorman. I had exhausted my research resources and that's when Bob Gorman took up the Dorman torch. Within a few weeks he'd tracked down two Bay-Area newspaper accounts of his death and a death certificate confirming that Dorman had died as a result of his on-field injury. Although I was sorry to have to cut Dorman from my book, Gorman and Weeks are in the process of revising their book and you can expect to see and entry on ol' Charlie Dorman in their book when it comes out!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

175. Buzz Arlett: Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues

This past Monday (which also happened to be my 44th birthday) I sent off the completed manuscript of my book to Simon & Schuster. It's titled "The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" and is already up on Amazon, which was a neat feeling to see for the first time. 

Despite the relief and joy I had bundling the 270 page book off to the publisher, I had a small tinge of sadness at the same time. I've worked non-stop for almost 5 months on this book, trying to make it the greatest project of my 30 year career as a professional artist. It's going to be bittersweet waking up next week and knowing that I wasn't going to be drawing or writing about baseball all day. There's also that piece of me that wanted to call my father up as soon as I sent the final book out on Monday, but as you all know, he passed away four years ago, and this book and the blog that preceded it, came about through my missing him. While I wish he was around for me to throw a real copy of the book at him when it comes out next year, I know he'll be around watching.

One of the hardest things about finishing the book was that I had in excess of 100 pages and 65 illustrations that I had to chop from the final manuscript. You have no idea how tough that was to have to decide who to keep and who to cut! It was especially tough when it came to guys like Buzz Arlett. This fella was part of a chapter I entitled "The Babe Ruths" which featured all the players who at one time or another was named after the greatest player of them all. Buzz was one a few ballplayers who were dubbed "The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues" - two others that were in that chapter was Ollie Carnegie and Nick Cullop. I had to drop the whole chapter, but managed to put a few of the players into other chapters. I had to choose between Cullop, Arlett and Carnegie. It was a hard choice, each had a great story. Since I already featured Cullop on my blog, I decided to drop him, which left Carnegie and Arlett. Buzz Arlett had made it to the majors, all be it for a brief time, but Carnegie had never made The Show. For some reason I felt bad for Ollie, and couldn't bring myself to leave him behind again. He got the call for the book and I cut poor ol' Buzz. In a way it worked out all right, I had a hard time trying to choose which illustration to choose for Buzz, the home white Oakland Oaks uniform or the navy blue road. I figured I'd share both, along with the story that didn't make the cut.

Today there would never be a “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”. Once a player becomes a star in AA or AAA he’s called up before too long. With larger rosters and the American League’s designated hitter position, players that were once passed over because of poor fielding or age now can find a place. However, back in the 1920’s and 30’s it was a different game and many guys like Buzz Arlett were doomed to spend their career just shy of the big time, remembered only as “The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”.

 In 1918, teenager Russell Arlett followed his big brother Alex to the Oakland Oaks spring training camp. After a series of injuries depleted the Oaks pitching staff, the kid brother was pressed into service. The 6’-3” 220lbs lug turned out to be a whizz-bang right hander. He soon got the nickname “Buzz” from the way he sawed through the opposing Pacific Coast League lineups.

From 1918 to 1922 Buzz won 99 games including one season of 29 wins. The Cincinnati Reds were on the verge of buying the big righty but a couple of things troubled them. The first was Buzz’s reputation of running out of “fight” whenever a game was out of reach or when playing for a lousy team. The big guy also had a bit of a temper. It was a good thing the Reds waited, for by 1922 his arm was fried.

Since he was already known as a good hitting pitcher, the Oaks kept his bat in the line up by converting him to an outfielder. He taught himself to hit left handed to let his arm heal and soon exploded with tremendous power from both sides of the plate.

Buzz was a fan favorite with rugged movie star looks and his Ruthian home runs made him the premier ballplayer on the West Coast. The Oakland front office realized his tremendous drawing power and were reluctant to let him go cheap. With a $75,000 price tag keeping Major League owners at bay, Buzz continued to hit home runs.

From 1924 to 1930 Arlett hit 153 home runs with a .354 average and the majors took notice. But despite his drawing power and home runs, the big league scouts recognized the same things the Reds back in 1921, plus a new, more troubling flaw - his fielding, while not horrible by Pacific Coast League standards, wasn’t near major league quality. Still, all those home runs...

 Brooklyn almost had pen to paper in 1930 but Buzz’s temper got the best of him and an umpire clobbered him with his face mask. When the dust settled Buzz found himself with a dozen stitches, a lengthy suspension and still in the minor leagues. As his thirtieth birthday came and went, the Oaks began to lower his price.

Finally in 1931, at the age of 32 he made the majors with the last place Philadelphia Phillies. For a short while it looked as if he was going to live up to the Babe Ruth moniker, but as summer wore on Buzz’s age began to show. His lackluster approach to fielding might have been endearing in the minors, but major league base runners were trained to take advantage of such things, and by August he riding the pines. The Phillies tried to keep his bat in the line up by using him as a pinch hitter, but even though he hit well off the bench, it didn’t make up for his fielding. At the end of the season he was back in the minor leagues.

Buzz’s 1933 season with the Baltimore Orioles was even more spectacular than his Oakland days. He finished the year with 54 home runs including an incredible pair of 4 home run games. Still, no major league team called even after he hit 39 homers in 1934. By now Buzz was 35 and nearing the end of the line. He had one last gasp with 43 homers for Minneapolis and three years later he was out of the game. In a 17 year career (13 as a full-time position player) Buzz hit 432 home runs, a minor league record that stood until Hector Espino surpassed it almost 40 years later.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Victory Faust Gets a Second Chance

One of the good things about getting the chance to do a full-scale book is that I am able to re-do many of my older drawings or, as in the case of Victory Faust, expand the illustration from a small card to a full-page. 

Victory Faust is a guy my father introduced me to, and it's fitting that he will be given a full-page in the book. As most of you probably know, the whole Infinite Baseball Card Set came from the terrible sence of loss I felt after my father died suddenly over 4 years ago. This site and the drawings became my place to continue to share the odd-ball characters and forgotten stars of baseball history. My father was no longer at the end of a phone to talk to, but I got the chance to share what was originally something between my father and I with thousands of others who have the same interest. Anyway, that's a little more than I wanted to say about that, let's get back to ol' Victory Faust.

This expanded illustration is more or less the same pose as in the original. I liked the way I depicted his arms in the crazed windmill style windup he was said to have. There is no photographs or motion pictures that captured his delivery, but many contemporary newspapers wrote about it and I think I was able to accurately capture the feeling of his wind up. For the larger canvas I had to work with I was able to include a few New York Giants players in the background watching him warm up. Faust was a sideshow attraction at the Giants games and fans and players stopped what they were doing to watch him limber up.

So that's the new Victory Faust illustration, and below is the story of Mr. Faust if you don't recall it from a few years ago:

Another season has begun and frankly I've been stricken with writers and artist block, unable to settle on who should be next in the Infinite Baseball Card Set. After attending Cincinnati's famous opening day parade and the Reds home opener I came home and sat down at my desk, instinctively reaching for the phone to call my Pop to give him a report of the game. Then it hit me - it's been 2 and half years since he passed away and I could keep dialing all night but he wasn't going to answer. Putting the phone back down I thought about a day more than 10 years ago when I got a call from my Pop...

"Victory Faust." said the gruff voice on the other end of the phone. I knew it was my Dad, calling from work at the factory because I could hear the familiar hum of the Maimin garment cutting machines in the background.

"What?" I said.

"You heard me: Victory Faust."

It was a challenge. The Old Man and I had a long running baseball trivia contest which normally consisted of him calling me at random times during the work day, spitting out an impossible baseball history question he either read about in that morning's New York Daily News or heard on WFAN, followed by me correctly answering it and him swearing and abruptly hanging up on me.

But this time he had me. I tried to delay...

"What did you say?"

"Victory Faust - C'mon tough guy, you can't answer it, can you?"

I racked my brain searching every nook and cranny for a remembrance of that odd name. Try as I might, I knew the Old Man had me dead to rights. After a few minutes of silence, save the hum of the cutting machines in the background, he made that nasty game-show buzzer noise of his.

"Time's up! - you bastard, I got you!"

For the next few minutes my Pop told me all about Victory Faust. I can still hear the happiness in his voice knowing that he was telling his grown son something he didn't know about the game they both loved so much. So, to open the 2012 Season of the Infinite Baseball Card Set, I bring you the story of "Victory" Faust, a player I learned about from my Dad...

In the summer of 1911 a strange, gawky, 30-something year-old fella walked up to three men in the lobby of the Planter’s Hotel in St. Louis. The largest of the men was John McGraw, long-time manager of the mighty New York Giants. His companions were two of the team’s starting pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Red Ames. The three men quickly learned that the odd man before them wasn’t your ordinary eager ballplayer looking for a tryout. No, this weird, intense man was on a mission to fulfill a prophecy. According to him, Charley Victor Faust was destined to lead the New York Giants to World Series victory.

Charley Faust was what was back then referred to as “dim-witted.” Although we’ll never know what exactly his deal was, it’s safe to say he was suffering from some sort of mental health issues. Though apparently able to speak and write quite well, his eyes didn’t seem to lineup properly and he went around with an nonstop goofy smile on his face. In other words, Charley just wasn’t all there.
He’d grown up on a farm in Kansas, the oldest of six children born to a strict Russo-German immigrant and like many Midwesterners of Teutonic origin, spoke with a pronounced accent (think Lawrence Welk). Although by birth right Charley should have taken over the family homestead, due to his state of mind his younger brothers were tapped to run things, leaving Charley free to daydream and explore aimlessly. That fateful summer of 1911, Charley’s wanderings brought him to a country fair where he plopped down a five-spot and had his fortune read. Charley Faust, it seems, was destined for great things: he was going to pitch the New York Giants to the world’s championship, meet a woman named Lulu and produce a long line of baseball prodigies.

After wrestling with the prediction for a few weeks he came to the conclusion that there was only one thing for him to do - hop a train to St. Louis where the New York Giants were playing the Cardinals, and join the team.

The Giants were stuck in second place behind the Chicago Cubs. Despite a first-rate pitching staff that included future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, the Giants just couldn’t catch a break. In fact the Sporting News had run a front page feature that week speculating on the end of the great Mathewson’s career. With that thought in the back of his mind, or maybe he just wanted to give his boys a few pre-game chuckles to keep loose, McGraw invited this strange man to join the team on the field the next day - Charley Faust was going to get his tryout for the Giants.
The next day Faust walked onto the field at League Park, removed his suit coat and bowler hat and took the mound. John McGraw grabbed a catchers mitt and crouched down behind the plate.

Charley threw his arms back and forth in a crazed windmill wind-up, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. One writer likened it to “a worm being chopped in three pieces.” Round and round his lanky arms went and then he unleashed his best pitch - a disappointingly average fastball with no movement on it. After a few of these, released only after that excruciatingly long crazy windmill wind-up, McGraw had the fella grab a bat to see how he could hit.

By this time the other Giant players began gathering around and the pre-game crowd began to pay attention. McGraw had him run out every ball he hit and then had Faust slide into base after base, wrecking his suit and scraping the hell out of himself. The crowd and players loved it. As a reward, McGraw let him watch the game from New York’s bench.

The next day Faust showed up at the stadium and this time McGraw gave Charley a uniform. Though a child’s size, it didn’t matter, Faust walked on the field dressed as a New York Giant. Again McGraw had him warm up and run and slide for the amusement of the crowd. Diving into bases getting bruised and bloodied all over again. In this day and age it’s considered bad taste to extract amusement by exploiting a mentally disabled man, but back in 1911 this was a rip-roaringly good show.
When the game started Charley stayed on the bench. The Giants won, 8 zip. Now that the team was slated to move on, McGraw and the rest of the Giants figured they’d seen the last of this kook. Charley Faust thought otherwise - he was destined to pitch the Giants to the world championship.
A few weeks later the Giants were still playing mediocre ball, stuck in second place. McGraw was at his wits-end trying to break the jinx his team was under when Charley Faust turned up. Still insisting he could lead them to the championship, McGraw let him sit on the bench again.
The Giants began winning.

Soon Charley was had his own appropriately-size Giants uniform and repeating his pre-game warm-ups. The players thought him a good-luck charm but were relentless in the jokes they played on him. Though he knew he was the butt of many a joke it didn’t deter him from trying to help his team.
It was his destiny to lead the Giants to the world championship.

When a player got hurt he talked to them to convince them that the injury was only minor. Each morning he would sit in the hotel barber shop as the players got their shaves. Lathered up and unable to poke fun at him, the muted players would listen as Charley would launch into a one-sided conversation telling each man what great hits or plays he destined to do in that day’s game. More often than not, Charley was right.

Sportswriters soon picked up on the story and dubbed him “Victory Faust”. Fans began coming to the ballpark to catch a glimpse of this mysterious creature. And the Giants kept winning.

Now firmly in first place, McGraw began having Charley warm up in the bullpen when the team was losing. More often than not the New Yorkers staged a rally and won. By the end of August Victory Faust was a minor celebrity around the league. The city of Pittsburgh presented Faust with an ornate medal which he pinned to his Giants jersey before every game. Vaudeville came knocking and Faust left the team for $200 a week to appear on stage and be, well, himself. Unfortunately his stage career ended when the Giants lost three games in a row. Charley took his place in the bullpen and the team began winning again.

Now for the crazy part: all-told, when Charley was suited up and on the field with the Giants, the team was an astonishing 36-2. But Charley wasn’t satisfied with his good luck-charm notoriety - that fortune teller made it clear - he was destined to PITCH the New York Giants to the championship. John McGraw was happy to string the odd fellow along with vague promises to pitch him, but the old Oriole was a serious baseball man, unwilling to take the chance on a man who obviously had no business in a big league uniform - that is at least until after they clinched the pennant. In the 9th inning of the October 7th game against Boston, McGraw finally let Faust pitch.

The Giants were down 4-2 as Faust lumbered to the mound. The crowd laughed as Faust went through his crazed wind-up and threw to Bill Rariden. Holding back laughter, Rariden took a strike and a ball before he belted the third offering for a double. Lefty Tyler executed a textbook sacrifice bunt and Rariden took third. He then scoring on Bill Sweeney’s sacrifice fly. Faust had given up an earned run but now had two out as Turkey Mike Donlin came to the plate. Laughing heartily, he grounded out to end the inning. Faust was on deck to bat in the bottom of the ninth when the game ended. Boston however was caught up in the spirit of things and stayed on the field to allow Charley, who evidently failed to notice that the game was over, to take his turn at bat. Lefty Tyler served up a slow one and Charley bopped it over to first baseman Fred Tenney, who bobbled it. Faust awkwardly ran around the bases as the Boston infield continued to misplay the ball. With the crowd screaming, Charley rounded third and began a hook-slide into home. About ten feet short of the plate he ran out of momentum and was tagged out. The fans rushed the field and all hell broke loose.

Charles Victor Faust had appeared in a major league game, becoming part of official baseball history and fulfilling part of his prophecy. It wasn’t exactly as he envisioned it, but still, the Giants were champions of the National League.

For good measure, McGraw let Charley pitch an inning in the last game of the season against Brooklyn. This time he kept the opposing batters scoreless and even scored a run after he was hit by a pitch. Walking off the field after the game Faust asked his teammates: “Who’s a loon now?”
But now Charley and the Giants came up against 2 things that threatened to derail Faust’s prophecy: Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and their good-luck charm: Louis Van Zelst.

The humpbacked Van Zelst was originally University of Pennsylvania’s mascot but the Athletics stole him away during the 1910 season. Although a young black boy was a common mascot on quite a few major and minor league teams, a real-live humpback was the penultimate good-luck charm back then. Batters would rub the poor man’s deformed hump before stepping to the plate to ensure a hit. During the run-up to the 1911 World Series, the A’s stepped up their association with Van Zelst in order to counter Victory Faust’s good-luck mojo.

If the outcome of the 1911 series is to be used as definitive proof, let it be known that a humpback trumps a dim-wit. See, the Athletics beat the Giants 4 games to 2.

The following season Charley tried to take his former place with the team but he’d lost his former novelty. He spent spring training with Brooklyn, taught himself to pitch left-handed to be twice as helpful and even pitched a complete game, giving up only four runs.

Though he wanted to get back to serious baseball, McGraw reluctantly took Charley back for there was one thing even the surly manager couldn’t deny - the Giants kept winning. As long as Faust was on the Giants’ bench New York won over 80% of their games! Still, McGraw tried to get the loon to leave and the players eventually convinced Charley to go home to Kansas and await McGraw’s call for him.

It never came.

After Charley left, the Giants started losing, but held on to win the pennant before being beaten in the series. The following spring Faust tried rejoining the team but McGraw had had enough. After getting nowhere with McGraw he tried peppering the National League Chairman Garry Herrmann with claims of contract obligations and back pay from the Giants, all to no avail.
By the winter of 1914 he was in a Washington State insane asylum. Five months later, Charles Victor “Victory” Faust, former Major League baseball player, was dead of tuberculosis. There is no record of whether he ever met his Lulu or not.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Frankie Zak, ESPN and Uncovering What the Pirates Wore in '44

Last week Steve Wulf from ESPN contacted me about Frankie Zak. It's All-Star time again and Steve was writing a column on Ol' Frankie, usually tagged as the worst All-Star of All-Time. Since I wrote the longest and most documented story on Zak's life (I aint braggin' it's just that who the heck but me would have been odd enough to do so!), Steve called me to talk about Frankie and his life. I gave him a copy of the illustration of Zak I re-worked for my upcoming book, and he used it for his article. 

Steve wrote a nice, balanced piece of him, calling him "The Accidental All-Star", which is much nicer than what other authors have called him in the past. You can read Steve's piece HERE and take a trip down memory lane to my original story HERE.

And below is the illustration I recently finished of Frankie Zak. He's more or less the reason I got into researching these odd-ball baseball characters many years ago and when I worked out my "line up" of players I wanted in my book, Frankie, of course, made the starting squad. Take a gander at the illustration, and if you're still interested, below it I'll tell you a little about the process of drawing the piece.

My original drawing of Frankie Zak, completed in what seems like a million years ago. Since he started out with the Tarboro Orioles and the a good part of the story dealt with how he started out in organized baseball, I depicted him with that minor league club. Now when I outlined my book, I wanted a chapter to be called "The Short Timers", guys who played only a short period but have a great story (you gotta see the new Moonlight Graham illustration I finishing up!). That meant I needed to show Zak on the Pirates, his major league team. No problem, big league teams are the most photographed and documented out of any sport in history. How hard would it be to accurately depict a 1944 Pittsburgh Pirates uniform? Turns out, much harder than could be imagined!

When I am working on my illustrations, I try to be as accurate as possible - I'm weird that way. I love the details of the old jerseys and caps, which I guess is why I have had a 25 year relationship will Will from Cooperstown Ballcap Company and now runs Ideal Cap Co., makers of the most accurate and beautiful caps in the universe. Since the 1980's Marc Okkonen's "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" has been the go-to for anyone trying to accurately depict major league uniforms. It's a monumental and ground-breaking work, and as such, it has some flaws, and the 1944 Pirates is one of them. Here's what happened: The Pirates colors back then were medium blue and red. I know this by a documented Pirates jersey in the Hall of Fame from the summer of 1944. Ok. that was easy. Now for the cap. All reference shows a dark blue cap with a yellow "P". Since it's in the Okkonen book, anyone doing something with the mid-forties Pirates followed the guide. But the combo never made sense to me. yellow "P" with a navy cap coupled with the red and royal jersey? I dug deep. Looked at contemporary press photos and modern auction catalogues to find the truth. The old black & white photos show a slight difference in the colors of the brim and crown of the cap. Hmm. Ok. That's interesting can it be medium blue and red? The designer in me says yes, so I updated my drawing to a red and royal two-tone cap with a yellow "P". Looks kind of nice, but still I wanted to make sure I did this right. Then I found the Holy Grail - a bona-fide Honus Wagner cap from the 1944 season! It came up for auction a few years ago and has a rock-solid provenance to date it to 1944 - he kindly mailed it a Pittsburgh native who was serving in the Navy during the war. The sailor kept Wagner's letter in which he tells the Navy man that it is his own cap that he wore all summer - the summer of '44. The cap was beat to hell - the recipient was a lieutenant who saw much action in the Pacific, but it verified my suspicions that it was medium blue and red. The "P" was a yellow-ish hue so ok, I made my illustration with a yellow "P". But something didn't sit right with me, so I went back to the auction photos of the old cap and looked closely: the button on top of the cap, though worn, was obviously white. The "P", though appearing to be yellow, must have been discolored by being worn all summer and then being sent to a war zone. It was originally white.

I know, who cares, right? Well, I do. I can't stand it when artists can't take the time to properly research their subjects. The way I always go about my own work is that I try to be as realistic as I can always keeping in the back of my mind that someone may use my work as a guide for theirs. Plus, the research keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. And just for the record, I'm not faulting Okkonen's book and research in the least! It was an unbelievable undertaking and if I ever meet the man I'd like to buy him a drink or two to say thanks. He's a giant in baseball history and one of my favorite authors/researchers. Heck, his Federal League book makes my top 5 book list every time.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the drawing, Steve's article and a look under the hood of The Infinite Baseball Card Set!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

174. Percy Skillin: Ace of the Ivy League

Here's a look at one of the ballplayers I included in a chapter on "The Could Have Beens" - you know the guys who had it all but somehow fell short of their expectations. It's a fun chapter chock-full of interesting characters. Some are well-known like Pete Reiser and Steve Dalkowski, but many are on the more obscure side, just the way I like 'em. This fella made it into the book because my wife's father and two brothers are Dartmouth men. I thought it would be fun to find a ballplayer from their alma-mater, since the college had a baseball program that stretched way back to 1866. Though Red Rolfe is by far the most famous ballplayer to don the green and white of Dartmouth, I wanted to find someone a little more interesting - enter Percy Skillin, Class of '08. As baseball archaeologist and author Scott Simkus wrote, Percy Skillin was the Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg of his day. The southpaw simply dominated the Ivy League during 1905 to 1907 and returned home to the Chicago area during the summer to match arms with the best outsider baseball had to offer.

Back in 1906, Percy Skillin had it all. The 19 year-old southpaw was in his sophomore year at one of the nation’s elite colleges and possessed an arm that had major league teams throwing money at him.

He came to Dartmouth in 1905 from Oak Park, Illinois and made an immediate impact, winning his varsity “D” in his very first game. By the end of the season he was considered the best collegiate pitcher in the east. During the summer he played semi-pro ball in the much vaunted Chicago City League. Skillin matched arms with the major league mercenaries of Nixey Callahan’s Logan Squares and the best blackball team in the country, the Leland Giants. Tall and lean, Skillin possessed great speed with pinpoint control that when combined with a coolness under fire made him unbeatable.

Returning to Dartmouth in 1906 he was made the team’s captain, a rare honor for a mere sophomore and a true measure of his maturity on the ball field. He dominated the Ivy League circuit with two shutouts and a no-hitter against Brown. He won seven of his ten decisions and the three losses were through fielding errors by his teammates - two were three hitters and the other was a two hit masterpiece. Skillin struck out 124 and was charged with a single earned run the entire season.

The Red Sox put an unbelievable $4,000 on the table to entice the teen to drop out of Dartmouth while Cleveland was reported to have presented Skillin with a comparable offer. He turned down both offers and returned to Oak Park a local hero. As the most popular amateur ballplayer in the city, he hired out his left arm to various teams throughout the summer. Again the youngster faced off with the best in outsider baseball. Rube Foster, thought by many to be the best pitcher in blackball history, had joined the Lelands and Skillin battled the future Hall of Famer on numerous occasions.

The name Percy Skillin now was so well known in baseball circles that it caused a problem when he returned to Dartmouth in the fall of 1907. Like today, athletes could lose their collegiate eligibility by playing professional ball. At the turn-of-the-century these rules were usually winked at if the player employed an alias, which Skillin did not do. At first he was declared ineligible but somehow it was settled and he returned to captain the team again.

Following another fine season at  Dartmouth, Skillin was approached by the Chicago Cubs. The Northsiders were the best team in the National League and would win back-to-back World Series’ in 1907 and 1908. That they gave the Ivy Leaguer the full court press to get his signature on a contract speaks to how good a prospect this kid must have been. At this point it looks like Skillin was close to putting Dartmouth on hold and making the jump to the big leagues, but not for the Cubs: Skillin was a White Sox fan. He held out for an offer from the Southsiders and was rewarded with the invitation to tryout when he returned home to Oak Park that summer. 

However Skillin never appeared with the White Sox or with any other major league team. All the innings pitched during the previous three years took its toll on his magic left arm. He graduated from Dartmouth, class of ‘08 and took a job as a representative of the Spalding Sporting Goods Company. He pitched semi-pro ball around Chicago until he married in 1913, then went overseas during World War I teaching baseball in France. Skillin put his Dartmouth education to good use and became a wildly successful investment broker and a very rich man. The home he commissioned on Chicago’s North Shore is still considered an architectural landmark of the Prairie Style. The ace of the Ivy League passed away at the young age of 39 and today the name Percy Skillin still appears in the top 10 of many pitching records at Dartmouth.

Thanks to my father-in-law Dr. Alan Gazzaniga ('58) for the assist on some details on Dartmouth athletics. Just as an aside, when I was researching Ol' Percy, I of course wanted to replicate the proper Dartmouth uniforms of the time. I lucked out because the college had a great pillbox cap and an even snazzier double-breasted warmup duster complete with a Gothic "D". As an artist who tries to get the detail right, this was a great find!

Friday, June 20, 2014

173. Monty Stratton: A Career Blown Away

Unlike most baseball fans, I have a strong dislike for most of the baseball-themed movies that make every one's top ten list. While most love "Bull Durham", I can't stand it, likewise for "League of Their Own", "Pride of the Yankees" and "Major League". I did, however, enjoy and still will watch "Bang The Drum Slowly", "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams". The Kevin Costner movie "For Love of the Game" was a surprisingly good movie and I guess was overlooked by most after "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham" saturated the market. "The Bad News Bears" is probably my all-time favorite though. But that's here nor there, because I'm here to write about another classic baseball movie, or actually the subject of the film - Monty Stratton. Jimmy Stewart starred in the Hollywood production of his life, titled curiously enough "The Monty Stratton Story". 

WPIX used to play it on TV all the time on summer Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, and when I started this blog 4 years ago, Stratton was one of the guys I wanted to feature. But, like so many other things, he was forgotten and lost in the shuffle, only reappearing when I started outlining the book I am working on. Culling my files for guys who slipped through the cracks, I found a card I started on Monty Stratton, and just finished the illustration and story last night. So, without further small talk, here's a sneak peak at Monty Stratton...

During the late 1930’s it seemed that the only hope the White Sox had of dragging the team out of the American League cellar rested on the shoulders of a thin 6’-6” Texan named Monty Stratton. In three seasons Stratton managed to rack up a winning 35–21 record with a 3.67 ERA for a truly miserable White Sox team.

Stratton never had a desire to play pro ball, he was too busy running his family farm to support his widowed mother. One day the local town team tapped him to pitch, the idea being that even if he couldn’t pitch well, he would at least scare the opposing team with his size.

But pitch well he did. Stratton was soon signed to a White Sox contract and after a couple years burning up the minor leagues with his fastball, he made it to Chicago. Then, after three brilliant summers, it all ended.

Hunting rabbits on his family farm after the ‘38 season, Stratton tripped and his pistol went off, blowing a hole in his right leg, severing an artery. Doctors amputated and Stratton was left trying to adjust to a wooden leg and a life without baseball.

In what has to be one of the most remarkable comebacks of all-time, Stratton, with his wife Ethel acting as his catcher, taught himself to pitch again. He made it back into pro ball in 1946 when he pitched for the Sherman Twins of the Class C East Texas League. Despite batters relentlessly bunting against him, Stratton won 18 games, inspiring Hollywood and Jimmy Stewart to immortalize him in the 1949 movie “The Monty Sratton Story”.

Monday, June 16, 2014

172. Lucas Juárez: Mexico's El Indio

When I began outlining the chapters for my book, one of the first I sketched out was an international chapter. I was always fascinated by the way baseball spread across the globe, sticking in some places and being eclipsed by easier, more basic sports in others. Mexico, America's neighbor to the south, would of course be one of the first places baseball would naturally spread, and I was interested to discover who that country's first great ball player was. U.S. Navy sailors introduced baseball to the port city of Vera Cruz in 1846, and when American engineers began building Mexico’s railroad system in the 1870’s they spread the game throughout the interior. But it’s a short tour by the World Champion Chicago White Sox in the spring of 1907 that is credited with cementing the game’s popularity  and established the reputation of Mexico’s first great ballplayer.

Enter "El Indio" - Lucas Juárez...

He's a guy not many American baseball fans know about, because he not only didn't play in the big leagues, but he never really ventured north of the Rio Grande, preferring to stay in Mexico where he was a star. 

Known by his nickname “El Indio”, Lucas Juárez was a rare combination pitcher/catcher. The righty with the luxurious handlebar mustache was from Paso del Norte, now called Ciudad Juárez and began playing ball professionally around 1900. When the White Sox ventured south he was playing for the country’s best team, Club Mexico and an exhibition game was scheduled between the two teams. For the first half El Indio dominated, his sharp breaking curve and fastball striking out six of the World Champions before running out of gas. The final score was 14-4 but Charles Comiskey was so impressed with the native pitcher that he tried to entice him north. Juárez, who was illiterate and most likely didn’t speak English, refused to go to the States, the first of several offers  he turned down.

Besides being Mexico’s first pitching star, with a bat in his hands El Indio was a power hitter who possessed good speed on the bases. He spent the later part of his career in Vera Cruz, playing until 1917. When the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1939, El Indio was among the first nine selected and garnered the most votes out of all the candidates.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Satchel Paige: Baseball as a Campaign Tool

When I wrote out the outline for my book, there were a few key illustrations I knew I wanted to expand into full-page drawings - Satchel Paige on the 1937 Los Dragones team was one of them. I like the tropical setting and moving from the vertical, narrow format I use for my cards into a more roomy square let me really illustrate the story that I was trying to tell.

Hall of Famer and blackball legend Satchel Paige was almost as good a storyteller as he was a pitcher. In a career spanning five decades and a dozen countries, Satchel accumulated countless great tales of his exploits, and the one I’m about to tell is one of his most famous.
In 1937 the Dominican Republic was ruled by a nasty dictator named Rafael Trujillo who found his control over the island nation beginning to slip. Opposition groups formed in distant parts of the country and one rival in particular began gaining in popularity, partly through his alliance to a powerful baseball team in the Dominican Baseball League. An election loomed in 1938 and there was no way Trujillo was going to lose. What better way to regain the heart and minds of a baseball-mad country than field an even greater team to represent the capitol city, Ciudad Trujillo (one of the perks of being dictator is you get to rename the capitol city after yourself).

So in the spring of 1937, Dominican agents were dispatched to America and bring back a team of hired guns to win the pennant for Trujillo. According to Paige, a carfull of Trujillo’s torpedoes abducted him off a New Orleans street at gunpoint and took him to a hotel room. Confronted with an offer he couldn’t refuse bolstered by a suitcase filled with money, Paige agreed to assemble a dream team of outsider ballplayers.

Ok, let’s pause there and hose down Paige’s tale and see what it looks like underneath.
Rafael Trujillo was indeed the dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 up until he was assassinated in 1961. A look through Latin American history books confirm that the Trujillo regime was in fact a bit wobbly in the spring of ‘37. Opposition groups were gaining strength in the country side and El Presidente’s secret police roamed the streets in a red Packard dubbed “carro de la muerte” (“car of death”) picking up dissidents. He was one bad dude.

Satchel Paige was, of course, the most famous ball player outside the major leagues. In the spring of 1937 he was with with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered by most historians to be the greatest assemblage of blackball talent before integration. Though not as well known as the Puerto Rican and Cuban leagues, there was a Dominican Baseball League that attracted many Caribbean ballplayers during the mid 1930’s. For 1937, Liga Dominicana was streamlined to three teams representing the country’s biggest cities: Águilas Cibaeñas (Santiago), Estrellas Orientales (San Pedro de Macorís) and Los Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo. The Santiago team was supported by Trujillo’s opposition and boasted some top-draw talent imported from Cuba and the United States. They were the odd-on favorite to win the ‘37 pennant.

Dr. José Enrique Aybar, Trujillo’s pal and head of the National Congress, took the reins of Ciudad Trujillo and figured if he made it a winner it would bolster El President’s popularity. Los Dragones already had a few key Latino stars including pitcher Rudy Fernandez and Puerto Rican slugger Perucho Cepeda, but to guarantee a championship Dr. Aybar sought out the best money could buy and that meant Satchel Paige. As far as the abduction at gunpoint story goes, it most likely never happened. Paige is well-known for disdain for authority, and I for one can’t see him working for a bunch of thugs waving automatics around, no matter what the size of the paycheck. Most likely the doctor had his men track down the elusive Paige and invite him to Aybar’s hotel suite. Surrounded by luxury, not guns, the pitcher was offered $30,000 to recruit and fund a team of Negro League stars.  Not as fun as the gun-toting Latino-gangster story, but that’s most likely how it went down that spring.

Paige was training with the Crawfords and since they had the best roster in blackball at the time, he knew the right men for the job. First was his personal catcher, Cy Perkins. Then came Cool Papa Bell, the team’s speed-demon hit-machine. The addition of Sam Bankhead, Leroy Matlock, Schoolboy Griffith and Harry Williams effectively gutted the Pittsburgh Crawfords. When Josh Gibson, blackball’s greatest slugger and almost Paige’s equal in popularity was recruited, Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee contacted his congressman about a foreign power stealing his players. While a minor international incident heated up, Paige and his mercenaries ducked out of the country.

The 8 week, 32 game season had already begun when Paige and his men arrived. They were fêted like the stars they were and almost immediately the night life took its toll. Paige, hung-over in his first start, performed poorly. Gibson couldn’t hit and quickly Santiago was atop the Liga Dominicana standings. Dr. Aybar’s plan to boost Presidente Trujillo’s image now began to make him look like a fool. That, in a dictatorship with secret police roving the streets in “cars of death”, was not a good thing.

According to Paige, Trujillo reacted just the way you’d expect from a dictator. Paige often told how the team was shadowed by armed escorts and locked up at night, virtual prisoners. The truth, as Los Dragonnes pitcher Rudy Fernández told it, was a little less extreme. Since the D.R. was not exactly a crime-free paradise and there were revolutionaries and other unsavory characters roaming around, an armed escort was sent out to make sure no harm came to the pricey imports. When the American’s night-clubbing and womanizing began to affect their game, Dr. Aybar put a stop to it by secluding a few of the key members, including Paige, on the nights before a game. The result was that Ciudad Trujillo began climbing up the standings. Again, not as cinematographic as being locked in a cell and held prisoner Caribbean Gestapo knock-offs, but the truth was still something you didn’t see in baseball back in the states.

With a dozen games left to play, Ciudad Trujillo was neck and neck with Santiago. Though they didn’t have the star-power like Paige, Bell and Gibson, Santiago had as strong a team as Los Dragonnes. Cuban superstar Martin Dihigo is widely regarded as the greatest ball player of all time. Chet Brewer was one of the best pitchers outside the majors during the 20’s and 30’s and often considered as good or better than Satchel Paige. Luis Tiant, father of the future Red Sox pitcher, rounded out a solid rotation. Clyde Spearman was one of Paige’s Crawfords teammates and was runner up for the Liga Dominicana batting crown that year.
Since Estrellas Orientales was out of the running, the league was narrowed down to just the two top teams and eight games left to play. Ciudad Trujillo took the first four and Paige, who seemed to benefit from his enforced sobriety, won two of them. Still, Santiago remained ahead by less than a percentage point and if they won three of the remaining four games they would be champs. Although a few of the team’s Cubans including Luis Tiant deserted, Águilas Cibaeñas took the next two games. One more and the championship was theirs.

Now this is a pretty dramatic set up, right? Two games left, winner take all? Two teams of baseball mercenaries, one representing a banana republic dictator and the other  the voice of opposition - you couldn’t dream something like that up. But Paige could turn any good story into a made-for-TV movie.

In his memoirs and quite a few newspaper and magazine stories, Paige recalled how the gun-toting crowd was primed for revolution - a clear warning to win or else. Pitching the game of his life, Paige still found himself down 5-4 going into the seventh. According to Satch, Trujillo had his soldiers fan out and line up on the sidelines - a very clear message of what the consequences would be if Los Dragones lost. Fortunately Ciudad Trujillo staged a two run rally and took a one-run lead. Paige, throwing to save the lives of he and his teammates, shut down Santiago for the last two innings and won the game. Within 24 hours all the Americans had fled back to the safety of the United States, never to return.
In actuality, Paige’s victory was not a do-or-die scenario in the slightest. While the air was surely charged with excitement and the crowd whipped up into a frenzy, if Santiago managed a win, an eighth game would have followed to decide the championship. In fact, Paige didn’t even start the game, only entering in the ninth when Ciudad Trujillo was up 8 to 3. Granted, there was a bit of drama by the time Paige came in from the bull pen: Santiago had two men on base and one out. Now the real excitement began. Paige gave up three hits and all of a sudden the score was 8-6. A sure Dragones victory was now in jeopardy. Though not as dramatic as he probably would have liked, Paige bore down and aided by a game saving throw from the outfield by Sam Bankhead, finally got out of the inning and won.

With the season finished, the Americans did quickly return to the United States, but not out of fear of their lives, but because it was only mid-July and there was still baseball being played up north. Instead of returning to their respective Negro League teams, the renegade ball players found heavy fines levied against them and banned from league play. Paige, ever the showman, hooked up with a Midwest promoter and formed the “Trujillo All-Stars”. Playing semi-pro teams throughout the country, Paige told the press an ever-growing tale of the team’s experiences in the Dominican Republic. Consisting of some of best ballplayers outside the majors, the Trujillo All-Stars entered the famous Denver Post Baseball Tourney and wiped the floor with the amateur teams they faced, each man taking home a hefty cash prize.

Realizing that regaining their stars was more important than taking a stand against contract jumping, the Negro League owners allowed the mercenaries to return to league play, all except Satchel Paige. His reputation as the best pitcher in the game allowed him to demonstrate an unrepentant attitude and still earn outsider baseball’s biggest salary by hiring himself out to the highest bidder.

Baseball in the Dominican Republic was effectively ruined for a generation - the high cost of foreign talent bankrupted all three teams. That summer Trujillo stepped up his reign of terror, culminating in the “Parsely Massacre”. Trying to rid his country of dark-skinned Haitians and claiming their country gave shelter to Dominican dissidents, Trujillo sent his army to the border. Knowing the French-Creole speaking Haitians couldn’t pronounce the trill of a Spanish “r”, Trujillo’s men would hold up a sprig of parsley, asking suspect Haitians “quien es?” or “what is this?”. Over 20,000 people couldn’t pronounce “perejil” the correct way and were shot. The international outcry forced the dictator to take himself off the ballot in the 1938 “election” and instead ran a puppet until he returned to power a few years later.
Baseball remains the National Pastime of the Dominican Republic and native sons Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez are among the best ballplayers to ever play in the majors.

Hope you enjoyed the sneak peak!