Friday, October 17, 2014

180. Bob Bowman: Integrating Dixie


This post has been over 20 years in the making, and much like the path my life has taken, there's a bit of wandering on the way the to the point, so bear with me 'cause it's worth it.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and up until I left for art school in Baltimore, I'd never experienced life outside a 50 mile radius of Manhattan. When I graduated college I swore to myself that I would use my career as a designer and illustrator to live in as many different parts of the United States as I possibly could. I wanted to experience and see first hand everything this great country had to offer, but not as a visitor - I wanted to know what it was like to live in all these vastly different places. 

After Baltimore, the first stop in what would become a long odyssey was Cincinnati, Ohio. It was as far removed from where I was from as the moon. As I would repeat in every other place I called home, I threw myself into exploring every nook and cranny I could. I was particularly intrigued by mysterious and inviting land just across the Ohio River: Kentucky. I was 25, 26 years-old at the time and after work on Fridays I'd pack the saddlebags of my old motorcycle with a tent, sleeping bag and cans of food and cross the river into Kentucky. I'd ride the back roads south as long as it was light, then stop in a small town hotel or camp in an open field. In that manner I explored much of the beautiful Bluegrass State and met hundreds of people that a kid from the streets of New Jersey could have only imagined existed. On one of those weekend journeys I wound up in a roadside tavern somewhere in the state's coal region. Of course a Reds game was on the television behind the bar and I struck up a conversation with an old fella on the next stool. We traded baseball trivia and after a few Negro League teasers he lobbed one at me that made me swing and miss:

Who was the first black ballplayer signed to play for a team below the Mason-Dixon Line?

I figured it was someone from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and I racked my brain trying to come up with a good candidate. I forget now who I threw out there, but it didn't matter, I was wrong. "The answer", said the old fella, "was a pitcher named Bob Bowman in 1951".

I confessed I never heard of him before and dutifully noted his name in my pocket sketchbook, filing Bob Bowman away for future research. Months later I was in the Cincinnati Public Library and I stumbled on the little note. I got a stack of old Spalding Guides from the reference desk and micro film of The Sporting News and looked up Bob Bowman. I found he'd played for the Middlesboro Athletics of the Class D Mountain States League in 1951. It was at the tail end of a long career in organized baseball stretching back to the 1930's including a 4 year stretch in the majors with the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. Clearly Bob Bowman was not black, but white. In fact he carved out his own niche in baseball infamy as the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who beaned Joe Medwick in 1940. Medwick was the National League's best slugger at the time and was never the same after Bowman brained him. The injury, besides being horrific even by the rough standards of the day, was significant in that it brought about he adaptation of modern batting helmets.

So, Bob Bowman was indeed an interesting guy, but not a pioneer of baseball integration. A dead end - or so I thought.

Fast forward to last week. In my spare time I'm working on a little personal book project featuring ballplayers who either hailed from or spent a significant portion of their career in Kentucky. I had already written about Mickey Stubblefield who integrated the KITTY League back in 1952 and Happy Chandler, a semi-pro ballplayer in Lexington back in the 1920's who went on to become the baseball commissioner who green-lighted the signing of Jackie Robinson. I was at the library hoping to find some interesting Bluegrass ballplayers to feature when I picked up "Bat, Ball and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South" by L.M. Sutter. The book features West Virgina, Virginia and Kentucky coal town baseball so I put it on my stack of books and checked out. Later that night I was thumbing through it and lo and behold there was a photograph of Bob Bowman, pitcher of the Middlesboro Athletics. Not former Cardinals pitcher and white guy Bob Bowman, but black guy Bob Bowman. Turns out L.M. Sutter was a much more diligent researcher than I was and, fortunately for baseball history, was able to uncover the forgotten story of the first black ballplayer to be signed to a team below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bob Bowman hailed from the Appalachian coalfields of Virginia. As a boy his family moved over the border to Middlesboro, Kentucky, the place he would call home for the rest of his life. The young Bowman grew up big and strong, eventually topping out at 6 foot 2 inches. By incessantly skipping stones across water as a boy, Bowman developed a devastating sidearm throwing motion that translated nicely to baseball when he took up the game.

He developed a unique fastball which he gripped by overlapping his index finger over his middle one and delivered with a submarine delivery from the right side. By 1930 he was a local baseball star around Kentucky's coal region playing with the semi-pro Middlesboro Blue Sox. The Blue Sox was an all-black team that played local amateur white teams from the mines and visiting Negro League clubs. Bowman pitched for the Blue Sox throughout the 1930's and eventually took over as the team's manager. Then as the 1937 season began Bowman disappears from Middlesboro. Author L.M. Sutter speculates that Bowman was picked up by the Ethiopian Clowns, a novelty traveling blackball team. The Clowns made annual trips to Middlesboro and a few of Bowman's teammates on the Blue Sox were recruited by the Clowns during this time. It isn't much of a stretch to see why the Clowns would snatch up Middlesboro's star hurler as well.

Since the Clowns played ball mixed with slap-stick sketch comedy that the serious-minded Bowman would have found distasteful, he never really discussed his time with the barnstormers. The addition of Bowman did much to raise the Clowns' level of play and by 1940 the club had become as respected for their baseball as they were for drawing a cheap laugh from a crowd. For whatever reasons, life with on the road wasn't to the pitcher's liking. He was a family man and three or four summers of playing baseball in a different town everyday with a bunch of ballplayer/comedians had probably wore thin. By 1941 he was back home in Middlesboro with the Blue Sox. 

The popularity of black baseball during World War II led to Bowman again leaving home, this time with the Ashville Blues of the Negro Southern League. The NSL was sort of a minor league for the Negro National and American Leagues. Besides playing teams from their league, Ashville played a heavy schedule against town and factory teams throughout the eastern part of the United States. The hard toll such traveling took on Negro League players is well known but for around $275 a month Bowman stuck it out through 1950 when he returned to Middlesboro. He was back with the Blue Sox when history came calling.

Middlesboro had an entry in the Class D Mountain States League. Though Jackie Robinson and a handful of other black ballplayers had broke the minor league color barrier in 1946, the Mountain States League was still lily-white. In 1950 one of the leagues teams tried to field a black ballplayer but tapped out when faced with opposition from the rest of the circuit. The following season the Middlesboro Athletics tried.

Bob Bowman was an obvious choice to be the man to become the first black player to join a team based south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though he was 45, the submariner was well-known to local white fans from his decades with the Blue Sox and his ability to pitch on a professional level was proven. On May 8, 1951 he signed a contract with the Athletics and that very night took the mound in relief against the Big Stone Rebels. By all accounts the Athletic's 45 year-old rookie received a warm standing ovation when he entered the game during the 8th inning. Middlesboro was up 9-7 but runners were on second and third with one out. Bowman, perhaps nervous, walked the first batter he faced, then unleashed a wild pitch that let a run to score. Now Bowman's veteran instints took over and he whiffed the next two batters. Middlesboro scored an insurance run in their half of the eighth to make it 10-8. Bowman got the first batter on a fly out then proceeded to walk the bases loaded. As he had done the previous frame, the big veteran bore down and got the next two Rebels in order to preserve the win. It wasn't exactly a barn-burner of a debut, but the important thing was no one refused to play against a black ballplayer and there wasn't a race riot. Bob Bowman had quietly integrated Dixie.

Bowman solidified his position as as the ace of the Athletics staff after he one-hit the Norton Braves at the end of May. The other Bob Bowman was the pitcher/manager for the Braves and that is where the confusion over the two men stems from. What the former major leaguer thoughts were when his struggling Braves team was one-hit by Bowman and subjected to a 27 run onslaught is not recorded. The submariner also baffled Braves batters as he sent 17 back to the bench on strike outs.

Behind the veteran right hander Middlesboro climbed to the top rungs of the standings for the first time in their 3 year existence. Author L.M. Sutter found that the club's home attendance spiked during the teams 1951 revitalization as they battled the Hazard Bombers for the pennant. As good as the Athletics were, the Bombers featured a teenage Johnny Podres. The 18 year-old went 21-8 and in 2 years would be a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The aged Bowman finished up with an admirable 17-6 record, making him the second best in the Mountain States League behind the Brooklyn-bound Podres.

Middlesboro faced the Morristown Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. "Big Bob" as he was now called was on the mound for the final deciding game. Bowman pitched the game of his life, striking out 11 Red Sox in 12 innings of shutout ball. He finally gave out in the 13th when he walked in the winning run. It was called the greatest game ever seen in that part of the Appalachins and was Bowman's last game in organized baseball.

The old right hander retired as an active player but kept his hand in the game by coaching the local kids who tried to emulate their heroes' sidearm delivery. In 1975 Bob Bowman suffered a stroke that eventually led to his death on June 25th. He was 69 years old and except for grateful fans in Middlesboro, Kentucky, all but forgotten for his role in integrating the game he loved.

My synopsis of Bowman's short but important career in organized baseball pales when compared to the chapter on him in "Bat, Ball and Bitumen". Hopefully it will introduce a new round of baseball history buffs to a forgotten ballplayer who played a small but important part in breaking down baseball's color line. After I read the chapter about Bowman I emailed the author, L.M. Sutter with a few lingering questions I had about him. Sutter enthusiastically answered all my inquiries and told me that finding Bob Bowman remains one of her proudest moments. I can see why - without Sutter's dogged research one of baseball's integration pioneers would have remained anonymous and eternally confused with the career of a white ballplayer who happened to share the same name.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

179. Fred Toney: The Real Iron Man


I'm not a big "records" type of baseball fan. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire took all the fun out of records for me as did the manufactured hype over Cal Ripken's meaningless consecutive game thing. On the other hand, DiMaggio's hitting safely in 56 consecutive games and Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters are still impressive and awe-inspiring. It's probably safe to say neither will be broken or even equaled anytime soon. Which brings me to Fred Toney. This relatively forgotten pitcher from the first 2 decades of the last century has no less than three unbelievable pitching performances that I'd bet will never be equaled, if only for the reason there is no way a pitcher would ever be allowed to even be in a position to try to match any of Toney's feats...

According to baseball lore, sometime in 1908 a minor league scout found himself lost on a mountain road in the back woods of Tennessee. In need of direction, he came upon a brawny teenager with with three dead squirrels in tow. The scout had engaged the barefoot hunter in conversation when he suddenly realized the boy had no rifle, pistol or even a bow and arrow. "How did you kill the squirrels?" he asked, to which the boy matter-of-factly replied "I killed them by throwing rocks at 'em". The story ends with the scout returning to civilization with young Fred Toney's signature on a pro contract. 

But that's all there is to it, just a story.

Fred Toney was born and raised just outside Nashville, Tennessee. He was big and strong for his time, just over six foot and 200 pounds of farm boy muscle. A right hander, Toney got his start as a teenager with the local Nashville Free Silver Sluggers where he won 26 out of 32 games. In 1908 the nineteen year old ventured north to Kentucky to play for a semi-pro team in Bowling Green. How he came to play for Bowling Green is not known, but he was probably lured North by the prospect of a steady factory job with extra pay for playing on the ball club. When the team folded midway through the summer Toney headed back home to Tennessee, but a professional scout was hot on his heals. When the representative from the Winchester Hustlers finally caught up with Toney he was taken aback when the pitcher rebuffed all offers of a professional contract. Money wasn't the object: it seems that young Fred Toney didn't want all the pressure that being a pro ballplayer brought on. Toney's friend, "Greasy" Hanly eventually convinced Toney to sign on with Winchester and as a contract stipulation the Hustlers agreed to take along Hanly as well.

Toney finished out the '08 season in the Blue Grass League, his fastball garnering comparisons to a young Walter Johnson. The following season, 1909, is where Fred Toney enters the history books.

On Monday May 10, 1909, three hundred fans sat in the stands at Garner's Park to watch the Hustlers take on the visiting Lexington Colts. The game started in the late afternoon and the light crowd was what could be expected on a rainy, miserable spring afternoon. As the innings ticked by, neither team was able to score. Toney was magnificent, striking out batters with ease and refusing to give up a single hit. After nine frames neither team had scored and Toney had a no-hitter, but the game wasn't over. As more innings passed without a hit, word spread around Winchester of what was transpiring in their little ballpark. A boy on a bicycle raced back and forth from the ballpark to the business district with updates as the historic game went on. Crowds began to gather outside the park as Toney steadfastly remained on the mound holding the Colts hitless. By the time the game entered the 12th inning, darkness was beginning to fall over the Kentucky town. Now not only was there a race to score the first run but to do it soon as the game and no-hitter would be struck from the record if it were to be called because of darkness. The Colts' pitcher, Baker, was still on the mound as well, allowing just 6 hits through 17 innings. Finally in the bottom of the 17th Winchester's right fielder Ellis singled to right center. Left fielder Schmidt sacrificed Ellis over to second but Baker made a throwing error to first as the runner was safe and Ellis took third. Eddie Goosetree fouled off one of Baker's pitches which was caught for the first out. With runners on the corners Hustler's manager Newt Horn called for a squeeze play. Shortstop Ellis layed down a bunt and Ellis raced across the plate with the winning run.

As word of the victory spread from the ballpark, the town's factories let loose their steam whistles, church bells pealed and cars honked their horns. Toney, who just one year earlier had refused to play pro ball because of the pressure, had pitched a beautiful 17 inning no-hitter complete with 19 strike outs and giving up but two stingy bases on balls. The 17 inning game was completed in just over 2 hours, 45 minutes.
For those who haven't done the math, Toney's gem was an inning shy of two complete no-htters and remains today as the longest professional no-hitter on record. I can't find any "unprofessional" no-hitter 17 innings or more so I'm going to assume Toney's feat is unmatched. Like-wise, it's probably safe to say it would never be matched as there is no way a pitcher would be allowed to throw 17 innings in one outing today.

The feat made all the sports pages from coast to coast and Toney was soon courted by the big leagues. In July the Phillies were reported to have acquired the right hander but apparently the deal fell through. A few months after his record making game Toney again went the extra mile when he pitched all 16 innings of a game against Shelbyville, this time relinquishing six hits. In 191o the Chicago Cubs sent a man south to take the measure of Winchester's rubber armed ace. Knowing the Chicago scout was in the stands, Toney did everything he could to make himself look inept. Despite maintaining his cool and poise through two years of pro ball and tossing some of the most nerve racking games in modern memory, Fred Toney was afraid to move up to the big leagues.

He made his debut in 1911 and in 18 games he was a marginal 1-1. The Cubs sent him back and forth between the minors and Chicago before releasing him. After some fine work with Louisville Brooklyn signed him in 1914 but Toney played hardball in contract negotiations and the Reds managed to pick him up. 

Now in his mid-20's and a bit more sure of himself, Toney became one of the National Leagues best right handers. He ticked off seasons of 17, 14 and 24 wins for a young Cincinnati team. On May 2, 1917 the Reds were in Chicago to play the Cubs. Toney took the mound for Cincinnati and faced the Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn. The two men had faced off before back in the minor leagues where Toney found he could get the edge on Vaughn by letting him hit a long single, the base running tiring him out.

While their bouts in the minors may have been memorable, nothing could compete with what would happen that afternoon in May. Not only did Toney not allow Vaughn a base hit, but he silenced all the other bats in the Cubs lineup as well. Vaughn did the same to the Reds and after nine complete innings both men were throwing no-hitters. Finally in the top of the 10th Vaughn gave up a single to Larry Kopf who went to third on an error and came home on a Jim Thorpe single. Toney finished off the Cubs in the bottom of the inning and won the the only double no-hit game in baseball history.

As if Fred Toney needed to prove his iron man standing, later that season he did another feat that would be impossible n today's game - pitched and won both games of a double header. Facing Pittsburgh on July 1st, Toney gave up just three hits and a single run in each game - 18 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs. Incredible. Unfortunately for Toney it was a quick decent from being the most revered pitcher on the Reds to their most reviled. 

In April of 1917 America declared war and all able bodied men were expected to serve the war effort in some capacity. Toney was married with a child and as such was given a deferment in the draft. Somehow it was leaked that not only was Toney three years separated from his wife and kid, but was currently involved with a young lady other than Mrs. Toney. Federal Marshall's arrested the Reds ace and he went to trial for draft dodging. When the trial ended in an unsatisfying hung jury he was slapped with violating the Mann Act - bringing a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The Cincinnati fans ripped him apart and the Reds unloaded him and his legal problems on the New York Giants. Between pitching for New York Toney pleaded guilty to violating the Mann Act and served out a short prison term. Through it all he pitched good ball posting 13, 21 and 18 win seasons for the Giants.

In the spring of 1924 Toney busted a finger while executing a bunt. The injury ruined his grip on the ball and he slipped back into the minor leagues. The 36 year-old hung up his spikes for good in 1925 and headed back home to Tennessee. In the town he was born and raised in he opened up a soda fountain, the walls adorned with mementos from a 17 year career highlighted by some of the most heroic pitching performances in the history of the game. 

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. 

NOTES
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!