Sunday, December 12, 2010

60. Johnny Vander Meer: Pride Of The Garden State

I'm not one who goes bananas over baseball records. Cal Ripken breaking Gehrig's record for consecutive games really didn't do that much for me because as a resident of Charm City back in the 80's and 90's I saw first-hand how this selfish pursuit of a lousy record hurt the Orioles rather than helped them. Sure the Birds probably made a ton of cash selling "Working Class Hero" garbage at the souvenir stands, but for a period of years the O's stagnated in part because of Ripken's run at Gehrig's meaningless record. And who really holds the single season and lifetime home run records as sacred anymore, now that McGwire and Bonds and Sosa dragged their hormone and steroid-bloated stats into the record books? I'm sorry, Bonds and his arm-armor contraption coupled with his steroid use cheated his way into baseball history. As did McGwire with his hormone treatments and Sammy Sosa, not only hopped up on steroids, but additionally aided by his corked bat. In my view, they soiled a beautiful game and records and Hank Aaron and the other elders of baseball should have been screaming about that from day one.

That said, there is one record I can think of that will most likely never be broken. No amount of steroid shots a shady clubhouse attendant can give you in the keister will aid you in surpassing it. I'm talking about the 2 consecutive no-hitters hurled by a Cincinnati Reds pitcher in 1938. Since I am headed back to New Jersey for Christmas, I thought I'd throw out a card and story of one of The Garden State's most cherished sons...
Johnny Vander Meer.

The small town of Midland Park is one of the reasons license plates in New Jersey bear the slogan "The Garden State." The quaint, picturesque rural community nestled in what is now Bergen County was settled by the Dutch in the 1600's and even though it is only a few miles from Manhattan, when Johnny Vander Meer was born in 1914 it was still rather remote. The son of a Dutch-born stone mason, by his teens Johnny was the ace of the Midland Park Rangers, a six-foot tall lefty with tremendous speed.

Like every boy in the country, the Yankees' Babe Ruth was his hero and he was a New York Giants fan because their ace, Carl Hubbell, was a lefty just like him. But it was New York's other team who showed interest in him. Vander Meer was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933 and sent to their Dayton Ducks farm team in Ohio. Vander Meer had speed but no control and he finished the year 11-10. He pitched for the Scranton Miners the following year improving his record to 11-8 while bringing his ERA down some from the previous season. But the Brooklyn organization didn't know what to do with him after his control showed no signs of improvement the next year. His contract was bought by the Boston Bees and he reported to Nashville for the 1936 season. Pitching for the Vols, Vander Meer had a tendency to get rattled when a runner was on first base. Opposing teams jumped all over this weakness and as runners danced off the bag, his control went down the toilet. Nashville had enough after 10 games released the tall southpaw. Cincinnati's general manager, Larry MacPhail, thought there was something special about the kid from Jersey and claimed him for the Reds. MacPhail sent him to the Durham Bulls where manager Johnny Gooch took him under his wing and taught him how to pitch effectively with runners on the bases. Refreshed and armed with a new sinkerball, Vander Meer went 19-6 for the Bulls striking out a remarkable 295 batters in 219 innings.

The Red took him back with them to Cincinnati after spring training and on April 22, 1937 Johnny Vander Meer made his debut in the major leagues. He got into 19 games, half of them in relief and had a 3-5 record for a miserable Cincinnati team. Still haunted by control problems the Reds sent him to their highest minor league team, the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League for further seasoning.

He made the big club again after spring training in 1938 and became the youngest of their starting rotation that included veterans Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer and Peaches Davis. The jury was still out on the rookie when he tossed a 3 hitter against the National League Champion New York Giants on June 5th. His record now stood at a respectable 5-2.

Not one for set pitching rotations, 2 hours before game time on June 11th, manager Bill McKechnie tossed Johnny the ball and told him he was starting that afternoons game against Boston. The first inning went 1-2-3 but with 2 outs in the second, Gil English smashed a ball to deep center. Harry Craft, with his back to the plate raced to the wall and made a sensational over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning. He put them down again in the third and the next inning walked a batter who was promptly taken care of in a double play initiated by veteran catcher Ernie Lombardi when he caught a pop foul and fired to first, catching the runner off the bag. In the bottom of the inning Cincinnati's bats finally came alive and they scored a run.

In the fifth Vander Meer again walked a batter but Lombardi picked him off to clear the bases. Before the inning was over he walked another batter but got out of the inning without any more trouble. Lombardi slugged a two-run homer in the Reds half of the fifth to give him a 3-0 lead to work with.

Now-a-days Casey Stengel is remembered as the wise, funny and beloved old manager of the Yankees of the 1950's, but back in 1938 ol' Casey was a bitter manager of second-rate teams. After being run out of Brooklyn in the mid 30's he was now Boston's manager. Today it is considered bad form to try to jinx or taunt a pitcher who is throwing a no-hitter, even if he is on the opposing team, but back then everything was fair game. Stengel walked up to Vander Meer between innings and hissed "So you've got a no-hitter in your hands? Well, you won’t get it because we’re going to get you in the next inning.” This was the first time Johnny realized he was throwing a no-hitter because his teammates kept quiet so as not to break his concentration.

As uncouth as Stengel's taunt was, Vander Meer refused to get rattled and retired the rest of the Bees that afternoon. After the walk in the fifth, no other Boston player reached base. 4 innings later the rookie from New Jersey had thrown a no-hitter! The city of Cincinnati went wild with excitement. The Reds had had terrible teams the past decade and finally with new management the team was starting to gain momentum. And now a no-hitter, too!

The Reds headed east on a road trip and on June 15th found themselves in Brooklyn to face the Dodgers in the first night game ever played in Ebbets Field. It was a big night in Flatbush. Marching bands played before the game and Olympic champion Jesse Owens was on hand to race Ernie Koy of the Dodgers and Lee Gamble of the Reds around the bases to the delight of the fans. Among the 40,000 sold-out spectators was Johnny's parents who took the trip over from New Jersey to see their first professional baseball game. Several hundred of their fellow townspeople also came to show appreciation for Midland Park's favorite son. By chance, 2 hours before game time manager Bill McKechnie tossed Vander Meer the ball and told him he was starting.

Through the first 2 innings Vander Meer put the Dodgers away. The Reds scored 4 runs in the second and another in the fifth. By this time Vander Meer knew he was throwing another no-hitter and he was nervous. His wildness, which he was carefully keeping under control started showing. In the seventh McKechnie sent Bucky Walters to the bullpen to loosen up, just in case. The sold-out crowd had now come around and was cheering for the lefty. They were watching history and they knew it. For this one time they were rooting against their Bums. When they saw Walters throwing, the crowd started booing him.

The ninth inning came and the Reds scored another run. It was now 5-0 and Vander Meer was 3 outs away from another no-hitter. Taking the mound, the first batter, Buddy Hassett knocked the ball back to Vander Meer who threw him out. With every living soul in the stadium on edge, the kid from Jersey was now 2 outs away from the unthinkable. Catcher Babe Phelps drew a walk. As did Cookie Lavagetto and then Dolph Camilli and suddenly the bases were loaded.

McKechnie called time and walked out to the mound. He told Vander Meer to take his time, but get the no-hitter. Ernie Koy was the next batter. He grounded a ball to third and Hassett was forced out at the plate. 2 outs.

Brooklyn manager and shortstop Leo Durocher stepped up to the plate. The first pitch was a ball, followed by a strike and then another ball. Leo lined the next pitch deep but it turned foul before dropping into the upper deck. The count was 2 balls and 2 strikes. Vander Meer caught his breath and bore down. Durocher smacked the next pitch to Harry Craft in center field who caught it. Game over.

Ebbets Field went berserk. Fans rushed onto the field and chased Vander Meer into the locker room. Babe Ruth, then a coach for the Dodgers pushed his way up to Johnny and said "nice going, kid." Such was the power of Babe Ruth that Vander Meer later said meeting his boyhood hero like that was better than pitching those two no-hitters. Sports writers realised that counting his June 5th game against the Giants, Vander Meer now had pitched 18.1 consecutive hitless innings. Only the great Cy Young's record of 23 hitless innings was better, and on his next start, June 19th in Boston, Young was among the sell-out crowd watching.

Nervous, annoyed at all the publicity and just wanting it all to end already, Vander Meer retired the Bees for three more innings. Mercifully, Deb Garms hit a looper to center with fell for a base hit ending the streak at 21.2 innings.

It was a heady time for Johnny. The press had a field day with the rookie pitcher who barely made it to the majors. Everywhere you looked there was Johnny Vander Meer's face. There was a serious movement in to erect a statue of Johnny next to the one of President Garfield in downtown Cincinnati. He was suddenly the idol of thousands of little boys all over the country. The Reds management even tried to get him to change his uniform number from 57 to 00. He declined.

After the Boston game his record stood at 8-2 and he won his next 3 starts before he cooled off. At the end of the season he was 15-10 and the Reds had finished in 4th place. The next year those old control problems returned and even though the Reds won the pennant, Vander Meer turned in a disappointing 5-9 record. He told reporters that all the interviews, photographs and attention was just too much for him to take. The next year he was sent down to Indianapolis to work out his problems. He came roaring back in '41 winning 16 games and lowering his era to 2.82 and the next year won 18 games with a career low 2.43 era. He led the National league in strike outs for three seasons starting in 1941.

Vander Meer was a good pitcher, not a great one, and his spectacular record made him seem more than what he was. To many he never lived up to the promise he showed in June of 1938, but he was good enough to stay in the majors through the 1951 season. His final major league record stands at a mediocre 119 wins and 121 losses.

Johnny bounced around the minors for a few years and he made headlines again in 1953 when he threw a no-hitter against Beaumont for the Tulsa Oilers. After his playing days ended Vander Meer managed teams in the low minors for the Reds organization before returning to Midland Park. Until his death at the age of 82, Johnny was a well-liked member of the community and was always generous with his time and money. He quietly donated thousands of dollars to the Midland Park Baseball Association, enabling generations of young boys to enjoy the game that made him a star.

I for one can't imagine anyone coming close to Vander Meer's record and if it was broken, I can almost guarantee it wont be by some steroid-riddled bum using dishonest equipment to do so.

Monday, December 6, 2010

59. Dwight David Eisenhower: AKA: Wilson, cf

My apologies for the delay in getting a new player up. I have been busy finishing up projects and wrapping up the premier issue of "Number 21" in order to prepare for a 4 week trip to visit my family back in Jersey City for the holiday. It has been a year since I have been back there and this will be the longest time I have spent in Jersey since I left in 1988. I've always had a love-hate relationship with the place of my birth, but this year I am really looking forward to being there again. Living in California I have come to miss the feel of winter, the way the air smells before the snow comes and the stunning, brittle silence even in the city the morning after a big snowfall. Anyway, without further delay, here is card 59 of the Infinite baseball Card Set...

Fresh from winning the war in Europe, commander of all Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, landed in New York Harbor, the first stop on a whirlwind victory tour of the States. A life-long baseball fan, the first thing he did was take in a New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds. While meeting the players in the locker room after the game, the General told the awed players and beat reporters that at one time, he too was a baseball player and had played in the minor leagues in Kansas. This wasn't the first time Ike had let slip his brief stint playing the National Pastime professionally. During the war he often talked about baseball and that in the summer before he went to West Point he played centerfield in Kansas under the pseudonym "Wilson". Indeed, a very often used quote from Eisenhower illustrates his love of the game: "When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish."

That one of our Presidents had a passion for and even played the game is not a big deal in itself, however the fact that Ike did it before he was a Cadet at West Point is a sticky point. He tried out for the baseball team but did not make it, saying later "Not making the baseball team at West Point was one of the greatest disappointments of my life, maybe my greatest." While not destined to be a college baseball player, Eisenhower was the star running back and linebacker of the West Point football team, even tackling Jim Thorpe in a game. That is where the problem lies. If Eisenhower did play minor league baseball back before West Point, he would have been ineligible to play college sports at West Point. Jim Thorpe, who Eisenhower famously tackled in a 1912 game, ran afoul of the same amateur rule when he forfeited his Olympic gold medals because of playing semi-pro baseball for money early in his career. If it was true that he played baseball for money, Eisenhower played sports at The Academy under false and dishonest pretenses.

At the time Ike was at West Point, the idea of college players earning an extra paycheck playing under a false name was nothing new. The Hall Of Fame features quite a few players who did just the same thing Eisenhower did in order to preserve their amateur status. Colleges and universities looked the other way back then, happy to field a winning team. But with Eisenhower, the situation was much more complicated.

West Point prides itself on its rigid "Cadet Honor Code". This beautifully simple ethics guideline is as follows: "A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." That's it. Although not formally adapted until the 1922, West Point had always held their cadets to that standard since it opened its doors in 1802. To have played college athletics would have put Ike in severe violation of The Code. If he had been caught as a Cadet, there is the possibility of his dismissal from the Corps of Cadets.

Years later when elected President in 1952, the press, eager to find any human interest story on the new Commander-in-Chief, seized on his collegiate football record and started asking questions about his baseball past. It had been common knowledge that Ike played baseball and the Kansas story was even quoted in the New York Times after the meeting with the Giants players in 1945. In 1952 baseball was still America's Game and their new war-hero President played the game for real. What a feature story this would be, kids would eat it up. But writers asking the President's staff for further information on his baseball career were met with silence. Eisenhower realized the ethical bind that fateful summer in 1911 had put him and ordered his staff to ignore any inquires into the subject. After meeting the wall of silence, newspapers found other things to write about and the story faded away.

So did Dwight Eisenhower really play baseball professionally? In 1911 Ike was 20 years-old and living in Abilene, Kansas. A former star outfielder for his high school baseball team, he was now a low-level engineer at a dairy plant and trying to gain acceptance to the Naval Academy or West Point. From his biography we know he was very short of money back then and desperate to pursue a higher education and get out of Kansas. A check of the records shows that in 1911 the Class D Central Kansas League had a team in nearby Junction City. The team was nicknamed the "Soldiers" after the massive Fort Riley Army base that lie right outside town. Box scores indeed show a "Wilson, c.f." played for Junction City for that summer only. Eisenhower was quoted by numerous sources as claiming to have used the name "Wilson" during his one baseball season. "Wilson" played in 9 games for the Soldiers and batted .355 in 31 at bats. Having committed no errors, his fielding percentage is a perfect 1.000. Because no first name, age or any information for that matter exists of "Wilson", we will never know for sure if this was Eisenhower. But the evidence is pretty good that it was.

Does this tarnish Ike's reputation and paint him as a liar? No, I don't really think so. In 1911, Eisenhower was just a young fellow trying to make a buck and better himself. He may have bent the truth a little. Whether or not his violation of The Code would have earned him a dismissal from The Academy will never be known. Perhaps it would have been overlooked much like most other colleges around the country at the time. What ever the truth may be, we do know that Dwight David Eisenhower, first as a General and then as President, devoted his life to the service of this country and for that, he will be remembered with great admiration. And to me, that he played minor league ball makes him an all the more cooler President.

Monday, November 29, 2010

See You At The Movies...

As some of you might know, one of the things I do as a designer is create period-correct graphics for movies and television. I'm able to accurately reproduce posters and packaging that looks like it is from a certain time period, but is not a real product, for example when you watch a movie scene that takes place in a bar in say, 1953, chances are the beer the characters are drinking are a made-up brand that just looks like it is from the era. The reasons for this is 1) it's too hard for a production company to get permission from the manufacturer of every product in every scene in every movie or tv show, and 2) using real antiques is just too cost-prohibitive.

So anyway, lately I have been working on a line of 1920's era vintage sporting posters. They are not team specific, but only city specific, in this case all New York City oriented. I thought I'd show some here and give everyone an example of what I do when I'm not drawing baseball cards!

Check out my NEW POSTER WEBSITE at to see these and many other posters I have done and now sell! If you have any questions or want a special poster, please email me at

Monday, November 22, 2010

Just In Time For The Holidays!

Just in time for the holidays... the first edition of a little baseball art and history journal called "Number 21". Named after the number of my Pop's favorite player, Number 21 will hopefully become a semi-regular series of themed books which will include 12 short stories and illustrations of the type of ballplayers you've come to expect from The Infinite Baseball Card Set Blog.

Due to overwhelming requests, the first book will be Jewish Baseball Pioneers and Stars. Besides including different takes on "the Big 3"- Greenberg, Koufax and Berg, I went all out to bring you 9 other guys you may or may not have heard of so it will appeal to ALL baseball history fans, whether you're Jewish or not.

Each edition will be a soft covered 20 page book printed on card stock and includes 12 different stories and artwork. Along with a short introduction about Jews and baseball these is also a 2 page section of baseball book suggestions from small-publishing companies that I think would be worthy additions to your library.

The book is being priced out now by printers and will sell for about $25 - 30.00. Stay tuned to the blog and I should have a definite publication date right after Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 12, 2010

58. Bill Byrd: Call Him "Daddy"

When I left New Jersey and arrived in Baltimore to attend art school back in 1988, I brought with me a growing passion for the negro leagues. From what books and material I was able to get a hold of in those pre-computer days, I of course knew about the mighty Kansas City Monarchs and the venerable Homestead Grays. But it was while living in Baltimore that I learned to appreciate the other teams that made up the negro leagues. The city of Baltimore had a rich black history and its baseball lineage included two great teams, the Baltimore Black Sox and the Elite Giants. Back then many former players were still alive and I tried my best to meet every one I could. My friendship with television and radio host Dr. Bob Hironemus helped me out immensely as he and his wife Zoe were big contributors to the memory and preservation of negro league history. Because of living in Baltimore, I kind of adapted the Elite Giants as "my" team and plunged myself into finding out everything I could about them. Each week as I draw and write about a different player I have to restrain myself from doing a feature on another Elite Giant player. So far I have been good and done only one other Elite, second baseman Sammy T. Hughes. Today I introduce the second Elite Giant to grace the virtual pages of The Infinite Baseball Card Set, pitcher Bill Byrd...

For every flashy Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the Negro Leagues, there were guys like Bill Byrd. The big right-hander was the ace of the Baltimore Elite Giants staff. Byrd had a formidable arsenal of specialty pitches; blazing fastball, slider, various speed knuckle balls, change-up and a big ol' roundhouse curve all thrown with pin-point accuracy. But what he was most known and feared for was his spitball. Byrd was the last pitcher in the negro leagues who was allowed to use the slippery pitch. Opposing players swore he used it all the time, but Byrd claimed what he did was use the threat of it more often than not and psyche-out the batter. Byrd would later say that he did not even like throwing the pitch, but that his managers would always ask for it, knowing the value of its formidable reputation. And if he really didn't want to throw it, they told him to fake it.

An opposing player once asked Byrd if he really did throw a spitter to him, to which Byrd replied "if you thought I did, I did."

To throw the pitch, Byrd would chew a tree bark called Slippery Elm which produced a real nice consistency of lubricated saliva. After loading up his thumb, index and middle fingers, Byrd would grip the ball between the seams, wind up and throw the ball not so it rolled off the finger tips, but squeezed the ball out from between the wet fingers. Robbed of its natural spin, the baseball would hurtle towards the plate and suddenly drop away from the batter, kind of like a filthy split-finger fastball. Besides being hard to hit, it was a damned scary thing to try to catch as well.

The fatherly Byrd took it upon himself to look after the younger players, who nicknamed him "Daddy", including a husky young high school kid from Philadelphia named Roy Campanella. The future Hall Of Famer was just a 16 year-old kid when he joined the Elites in 1938. The much older and responsible Byrd took Campanella under his wing and watched over the young catcher, steering him away from the temptations of the road, all the while teaching him the ropes of how to handle big league pitchers. Later while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Campanella and pitcher Preacher Roe made a formidable battery because Campy knew exactly how to handle Roe's illegal spitball. Campanella later credited his years on the Elite Giants catching Bill Byrd as the key to his success in handling the unpredictable pitch. Another one of Byrd's young charges was future Dodger star Junior Gilliam. So too was a cocky young college kid named Joe Black, who joined the Elites as a shortstop in 1943, but his rifle arm made him more valuable as a pitcher. However Black was more of a "thrower" than "pitcher" and it was Byrd who quietly taught Black how to select pitches, set-up and outsmart a batter. Byrd's advice eventually turned Black into an All-Star pitcher and one of the first players to integrate the majors. Later joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Joe Black's 1952 rookie season ranks among the most dominant season ever for a relief pitcher. Unfortunately an arm injury the next Spring curtailed Black's promising major league career.

Back in the 1930's and 40's Byrd was known as a "Money Pitcher". What this meant was that when a game meant something, this was the guy you wanted on the mound for you. When Byrd played ball, the negro leagues usually played about 3 official league games a week, the rest of the week being games against semi-pro and town teams or exhibition games that did not count in the standings. Negro league teams usually didn't play their best players in these meaningless exhibitions, saving guys like Byrd for the games that counted. More often than not, Bill Byrd came through. He was a workman-like pitcher, striking a batter out when he had to and letting him hit it to try to get a double play or pop out, what ever it took to win. Along with his suitcase of different pitches, Byrd would also use what ever was handed to him. Though he claimed to never do it himself, Byrd was also masterful at using a "cut ball". Negro league pitchers of his day were notorious for "cutting" the ball, making grooves or peeling back a part of the cover along the seams in order to make the ball do funny things. The money conscience negro leagues would use a baseball until it was either hit out of the park or fell apart so Byrd was often left with an artificially modified baseball to work with. Being the consummate professional, he made do with what he had.

Although statistics are incomplete it is fairly certain Byrd has the fourth best record for strikeouts in official negro league games. He is also credited with a lifetime league record of 114 wins and 72 losses, an approximate .615 winning percentage. The games he did lose were more often by a slim margin. For example, in box scores I collected from the 1942 season in which Byrd had 9 wins and 2 losses in league games, those 2 defeats were by the scores of 2-1 and 3-2 to the Homestead Grays who were the eventual Negro National League champs that year.

Perhaps more than his pitching skills, Byrd really was proud of his hitting prowess. As a boy he taught himself to hit by rigging up a stick on a rock and laying a smaller stick on top of that, then stepping on the first stick which popped the small stick into the air which he would then hit. The speed of which was required to hit the stick came in handy years later when he played professional ball. Byrd's bat speed was tremendous as was his power. He would often play the outfield during his days off with the Elites and he was the go-to guy when a pinch-hitter was needed. In the days when negro league teams carried only about 15-18 men on the roster, a multi-skilled player like Byrd was especially prized. As a "money pitcher" Byrd was often called upon to pitch in the Yankee Stadium four-team Sunday double-headers which attracted huge crowds, both black and white. Beside his pitching skills, it was Byrd's slugging power that really paid off in Yankee Stadium where the short right field porch was made for the switch-hitting slugger who had more power when batting from the left side. Byrd reckoned he hit 6 or 7 balls into the stands there.

The waning years of Bill Byrd's career echoed the demise of the negro leagues itself. After the Elite Giants won the Negro League World Series in 1949 when the now 42 year-old pitcher went 12-3, Byrd finally called it quits the next Spring. Attendance was rapidly declining and the Elites ceased to pay players salaries, instead dividing up a percentage of the gate receipts. The end of the league soon followed and the Elite Giants left Charm City for Nashville in 1951 and then disbanded. Byrd played semi-pro ball around Baltimore for a few years and then moved north to Philadelphia where he worked for General Electric.

Baltimore's Byrd might have retired, but his legacy lived on with three of his students moving on to the Major Leagues and stardom. Without their "Daddy", Dodger fans might never have gotten to see Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eddie Grant: A Real Hero for Veteran's Day

On a day like today, Veteran's Day, I want to feature a real hero. These days it seems anyone who does anything can be termed a hero. We are losing the real meaning of that word and that is something that really bothers me, especially when I learn about ordinary men and women who somehow rise to the top and emerge as real heroes. Miners trapped in Chile may be survivors and noteworthy, but they are not heroes. But, instead of writing a bitter, angry introduction outing the many pseudo-heroes that the media seems to create and force-feed to us non-stop, I will let the story of a real, bona-fide hero speak for itself.

They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.

During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.

The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.

The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.

By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.

The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.

Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.

Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.

New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named
Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.

Dedicated to Captain Eddie Grant and every other serviceman and servicewoman who gave their life so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lefty Grove Art on ebay, too!

And a Lefty Grove is also on ebay this week...

Monday, October 18, 2010

55. Basilio Cueria and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

This is the second installment of the "Guest Author" series. This week the story is by Gary Ashwill, famed baseball researcher and co-proprietor of
The Outsider Baseball Bulletin. Gary is one of the foremost experts on black baseball and when he agreed to do a story for the site I was keenly interested to see who the ballplayer would be. To my surprise he hit the proverbial home run, at least for me. See, as well as being interested in pre-war baseball history, one of my other passions is the Spanish Civil War, especially the international volunteers who fought on both sides. Until Gary emailed me his story, never in a million years would I have guessed those two interests could be combined...

Basilio Cueria was big and powerful, an ex-soldier who had been a baseball prodigy from the time of his childhood in Marianao, a suburb of Havana. He was an all-around player, a catcher who could also play the outfield and first base, and even filled in at second and third occasionally. The owner of one of his teams, the promoter Syd Pollock, even hyped him as “Babe Ruth Cueria”—but despite his potential, he never hit enough to make him more than a benchwarmer with several Cuban traveling clubs in the United States during the 1920s, when he wasn’t working in a Long Island factory.

So how did this Afro-Cuban immigrant, journeyman ballplayer, and blue collar worker become the subject of admiring profiles by two of the twentieth century’s greatest poets?

Cueria may not have been not a great ballplayer, but he was an ardent opponent of dictators and would-be dictators. He came to the United States in 1921 to play baseball with Abel Linares’s All-Cubans team, then became involved with Cuban émigrés who opposed the authoritarian governments of Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista. Cueria wound up more or less exiled from Cuba for the better part of two decades. After retiring from pro baseball, he organized an amateur team in Harlem called the Julio Antonio Mella Baseball Club, named after the founder of the Cuban Communist party, who had been assassinated in Mexico.

At two in the morning on January 20, 1937, Cueria arrived in France aboard the S.S. Berengaria, then secretly made his way overland to Spain, where he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—American volunteers fighting on behalf of the Spanish Republic against the fascist rebels led by Francisco Franco. During his first year in Spain Cueria survived trench warfare at the Battle of Jarama and artillery and air bombardments at Brunete. He transferred to the regular People’s Army, and rose to the position of artillery captain under the famous peasant general Valentín González, known as “El Campesino.”

That fall Nicolás Guillén, the greatest Cuban poet of the twentieth century, traveled to Spain as a magazine correspondent. Looking to interview Cubans in the Republican forces, he quickly found his way to Cueria, whom he remembered as catcher for the Marianao club in the Cuban League. Now, Guillén wrote in the the leftist journal Mediodía, Cueria had “exchanged the diamond for the trenches,” and “the ephemeral glories of baseball championships” for “the higher glories of fighting fascism.”

Guillén also introduced Cueria to the American poet Langston Hughes, who was reporting on the Spanish war for the Baltimore Afro-American. Hughes described the former Cuban Star as a “tall fine looking captain who was immensely popular with the officers and men under his command.” Cueria, Hughes claimed, was trying to teach baseball to Spanish soldiers, and was looking forward to returning home to New York, where his family still lived. “Our side is sure to win,” he said. “We can’t let the Fascists put it over on us. They’d put all the worst old prejudices back into force and probably even introduce new ones, like Hitler and his Aryanism in Germany. No, we’re not going to let them win!” He asked Hughes to “tell the Mella Club to keep up that team in Harlem, so I can play with them when I get back. Tell all those Harlem baseball players hello!”

Guillén’s interview shows a more pensive side of the soldier/ballplayer. He asked Cueria about his plans for the future, and whether he intended to come home to Cuba. “Look, I can’t say anything about the future,” Cueria replied. “I’m no fortune-teller. But my thinking now is to return to Cuba when this is done, when we’ve won, and it’s safe. And nothing gives me greater hope than the possibility of seeing people who are dear to me, people I haven’t seen for a long time. My friends, my teammates, like Oms, Fabré, José María Fernández…” He fell silent. Then, as if talking to himself, Cueria murmured: “If they don’t kill me, I’ll come back.”

Come back he did. Nothing seems to have been written about the rest of Cueria’s experience in Spain. Franco had won by April, 1939; records show that Cueria re-entered the United States from Havana in April, 1940, so he may have spent a year or more looking up those old friends and teammates. But the Spanish Civil War was, of course, only the beginning. On October 26, 1942, Basilio Cueria, former captain in the Spanish Republican Army, enlisted in the United States Army—as a 43-year-old private. He wasn’t going to let them win.

On July 22, 1943, based at Camp Rucker in Alabama, Private Cueria, “Negro,” submitted a petition for naturalization as a United States citizen to authorities in Montgomery, Alabama—where, soldier or not, anti-fascist or not, he would have had to go to the back of the bus. Nor could he have voted, or exercised very many of the other rights he would supposedly gain as a citizen. Had he objected, he could have found himself beaten, arrested, even killed. All the “worst old prejudices,” you might say.

I don’t know where he served in the war, but Basilio Cueria, veteran of three armies, two wars, and ten years of professional baseball, died on May 8, 1959, aged 60, and was buried in Long Island National Cemetery.


Gary Ashwill writes the baseball history blog Agate Type ( and co-writes The Outsider Baseball Bulletin, an email newsletter about ongoing research into obscure corners of diamond history ( He has been compiling Negro league and Cuban League statistics for more than a decade. Along with work in journalism and freelance editing, Gary has written on American history and culture for such publications as the African American Review and the Oxford Companion to United States History.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ted Williams Artwork on ebay

If anyone is interested, I put this Ted Williams drawing up on Ebay. (Frame not included). I have a few drawings like this that I had displayed in a show for fun and have no desire to keep them anymore, so if you want to see it or bid on it, go to:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

53. Jimmy Horio & the 1935 Japanese All-Stars

While learning about the negro leagues years ago, I became interested in the various teams they competed against when not playing against other black teams. Back before the Second World War there was a whole parallel universe of baseball operating just out of bounds of the recognized leagues affiliated with major league baseball. Researchers Scott Simkus and Gary Ashwill seem to have coined the perfect phrase for these teams and the games they played: "Outsider Baseball". As a young amateur historian I found out about the bearded House Of David religious colony from Michigan which sent out as many as 3 different traveling teams a season to play all over the country. I heard about the Nebraska Indians, made up of, you guessed it, Native Americans. I read about barnstorming teams made up of major league stars angling to make a buck. All-Girl teams. Teams of washed up players sponsored by a shoe company. Prison teams. The F.B.I. had a team which J. Edgar Hoover never failed to come out and support. And I also came across the Japanese All-Stars which toured North America in 1935.

The team that toured North America in 1935 was an off-shoot of the Japanese "All-Nippon" Team that was assembled in the fall of 1934 to challenge the American All-Star Team that visited the island nation that year. I briefly talked about this tour in my Moe Berg post back in July. Although stocked with the best college ballplayers on the island, the Japanese lost all 17 games against the Americans. While it was looked upon as a national embarrassment, it inspired the formation of a regular professional team sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun Newspaper. In the Spring of 1935 the team, now called "The Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu" (Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada. Among it's players was a 28 year-old Hawaiian named Jimmy Horio.

Jimmy Horio was born in Maui, Hawaii in 1907. Like most Americans, he learned baseball at an early age and was fortunate in growing up in Hawaii as the island was a hotbed of very talented teams made up of Japanese-Americans. He lived in Japan for a few years with his grandparents and later returned to Maui. He dropped out of high school with the ambition to become the first Japanese-American to play in the Major Leagues. The speedy Horio was signed by the Sioux Falls Canaries of the Class D Nebraska State League in the Spring of 1934. Jimmy batted .264 in 110 games. After the season ended he learned of the up-coming tour of Japan by the Major League All-Stars and wrote to the Japanese National Team's manager sending his semi-pro and minor league records and asked to be a part of the team.

Horio became the team's centerfielder but against the Big Leaguers didn't do too well, batting a lowly .196. But hey, he was batting against Lefty Gomez and Earl Whitehall, winners of 26 and 14 games that season. Jimmy's biggest contribution to the team however was not his bat, but the practical experience he brought with him as a bona-fide American Minor League player, which he readily shared with his teammates.

When the Dia Nippon team was formed, Jimmy Horio was again selected as it's centerfielder. In February of 1935, Japan's first all-professional baseball team sailed out of Yokohama Harbor, destination North America to try their lot against a full schedule real baseball competition. The Dia Nippon's toured extensively playing all-levels of ballclubs from small town factory teams to AAA level minor league teams. Gauging their success and talent is not an easy thing to do as they did extremely well against amateur teams and very good against minor league opposition, however the games against minor league teams were during spring training and many of the teams did not field their best players. None-the-less, the tour was very successful and huge crowds packed the ballpark when the Japanese came to town. American audiences were fascinated by their cultural differences such as tipping their caps and bowing deeply to the umpire when coming to bat or being thrown out steeling. Particularly noted during the tour was Jimmy Horio's excellent fielding and newspaper accounts are filled with mentions of the Japanese-American's exploits in the centerfield. His fluency in Japanese and English made it much easier for the tour to navigate it's way through the back roads of North America. It is reported that the Dia Nippon team's record for the 1935 tour stands at 74 wins and 34 losses.

After the Japanese players went home, Horio stayed in the United States where he was signed by the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League. The opportunity to play in the PCL might have come from a recommendation from Frank "Lefty" O'Doul who was part of the U.S. team in 1934 and now playing manager of the San Francisco Seals. Jimmy hit .250 in 20 games for Sacramento which at that time was part of the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. The following year the Japanese team was back in the States, this time as the Tokyo Giants, now part of the first Japanese Baseball League. And this wasn't an exhibition tour, it was a serious spring training to get the team ready for the inaugural 1936 Nippon Professional Baseball League season.

Horio returned to Japan and joined the Hankyu Ball Club where he batted .233 for the first half of the slit season and .217 for the second. Again, although his averages were low, his influence on the game in Japan well out-weighed his offensive output. Horio steadily increased his batting average, batting over or close to .300 for the 1937-41 seasons. Horio starred for the Hanshin Tigers from 1939 to 1941 when he and Tadashi Kameda, the other American player in Japan, left the island due to the deteriorating political situation between the two countries. Jimmy continued to play semi-pro ball in Hawaii during the war, playing until he was 39 years-old. Jimmy Horio died from bone cancer in 1949 and although he never reached his goal of becoming the first Japanese-American in the majors, his influence on the game in Japan is still felt, forever known as "The Ty Cobb of Japan".

I'd like to thank two historians whose grateful sharing of their research made this post possible. Scott Simkus, co-proprietor of The Outsider Baseball Bulletin ( lent me his newspaper files on the 1935 tour as well as his painstakingly compiled statistics culled from available box scores. Robert Fitts, Japanese baseball card expert and author of two major books on Japanese baseball history: "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball" and "Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History Of The Game", helped me out with identifying and translating Japanese photo captions and generally sharing his knowledge of early professional baseball in Japan. I am also anxiously awaiting his book on the 1935 U.S. Tour of Japan, "Banzai Babe Ruth!" which is due to be released next year. (

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New Victor Starffin Card For Sale!

As a teaser for a new feature I have coming up, I thought I'd offer a limited edition Victor Starffin card. If you ordered on the the Series 1 set, you have a card of Japan's greatest pitcher, but this is a whole new drawing, featuring the big Russian in his 1934 All-Japan team uniform. Although he didn't get more than 2 innings of playing time against the Major League All-Star Team that visited Japan that year, it was none-the-less Starffin's profession debut. Within two years he and Eiji Sawamura would be the mainstay of the Tokyo Giants pitching staff. To order a card, click on the aptly named button above "Victor Starffin Card".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

51. "Pete" Petrzilka by guest author Scott Simkus

This is the first of what I hope becomes a semi-regular "Guest Author" series of cards. I enjoy finding and researching my own ideas, but I thought it might be really interesting to collaborate on stories with authors and researchers who have a particular interest in a player or time period and would like to share it with a wider audience and give it a card of its own. I have already asked a few people to participate but if anyone else has an interest in writing a story, feel free to email me and maybe we can work it out...

This week's piece is by Scott Simkus, who along with Gary Ashwill is the proprietor of the outstanding "Outsider Baseball Bulletin" a weekly, subscription e-zine devoted to baseball history. Each issue features original research, statistics, personal essays, and humor. There are also be stories about baseball-related car crashes, sex scandals, home decorating and... murrrrder!! I highly recommend it if you enjoy the characters who I feature on my site. Scott and Gary have graciously offered a special free trial subscription to the readers of this site, information located at the bottom of Scott's story...


Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at his. Here!

I had three grandfathers.

The gentleman featured on this baseball card is my mother's father. He'd be grandfather number *two,* if you're keeping score at home, and it's worth mentioning that I never knew him. In fact, my mother never knew him.

His name was Joseph Petrzilka, he was the son of Czech immigrants who lived on Chicago's south side, and although his name was Joseph, he was known by friends and family simply as "Pete." Pete was, by all accounts, a devoted husband, a good man. He aspired to be a great father. When my mother was born, Pete was attending night classes, working towards attaining his degree in accounting. He was, as far as I know, the first person in our family to attend college. This is back in the late 1930s.

He was also, by all accounts, an outstanding athlete. He ran track, excelled in gymnastics, won medals in A.A.U. competitions. We have an old photograph of him performing a perfect handstand, muscles tense as he balances atop a wooden ladder, in the back yard of some forgotten three-flat in a working-class neighborhood which no longer exists. We have fading pictures of him at the beach in Michigan, smiling in the sun, flexing his muscles, mugging for the camera. My grandmother, young- much younger than I am now- is present in many of these black and whites, smiling in the background, laughing at her future husband. Fawning over the future grandfather number two.

And we have pictures of him in baseball garb. Baseball! There he is, in the baggy woolen uniform, black leather shoes, tiny fielder's glove. He apparently batted right, threw right, played for a high school team or semi-pro outfit, or both. I have no idea what position he played, or whether or not he was any good at the game, or if he struggled with the curve ball or had trouble with pop ups, but I can tell by the smile on his face that he loved it in some way, that it meant something to him. But it was baseball for goodness sakes, and baseball means something to all of us, right?

As my grandmother neared the end of her pregnancy, Pete didn't feel right. He was run down, tired. He was working full-time as a bookkeeper during the day, taking advanced classes at night. Perhaps the pressure of burning the candles at both ends, a baby on way, supporting his wife: perhaps this stuff was getting to him. I'm guessing he might have thought this, and soldiered on through each week, until he couldn't take the pain any longer. He was young- twenty-six- and still in athletic condition, still in great shape.

About twenty-five years ago, a strange man showed up at my parent's front door, said he'd been a classmate of Pete's. He didn't give his name, but instead he handed over a crumpled, brown paper bag filled with text books and papers, said he wanted us to have them. They were science and math books, Pete's signature on the front, his hand-written notes and doodles covered the pages inside. Everything dated from 1930 or 1931. The strange man was in his car, driving away, before anybody thought to ask any questions.

Other pieces have Pete have drifted into our lives over the years. The baseball pictures were buried in an old box, and discovered later on. A journal with his meticulous, hand-written notes (detailed income calculations, shopping lists, goals, memories from his honeymoon trip to Kentucky with my grandmother) was discovered in my grandmother's basement, when she was being moved to assisted living fifteen years ago. Courtesy of the internet, I've discovered that Pete's younger brother (the uncle my mother never knew), had been a college quarterback and team captain, back during the early 1940s. I also learned, in the Chicago Tribune archives, that his other younger brother, Fred, died tragically at the age of 8, after falling into the Chicago River. Turns out, Pete was there, maybe ten years old at the time, playing with his little brother when the kid slipped in. They tried to save him, Pete and some friends from the neighborhood, but it was too deep, they were too late.

My mother was born in early October, the day after Gabby Hartnett hit his famous 'Homer in the Gloamin,' and six weeks later my grandfather Pete simply hit the wall. He couldn't take it anymore. The excitement of becoming a father couldn't temper the pressure of working everyday, studying every evening, and getting very little sleep at night and on the weekends. Around Thanksgiving time, he finally went to see the doctor about the pain and fatigue. They took some blood, did some tests, told him to enjoy his holiday and they'd get back to him the next week if anything was wrong.

There's a haunting photograph in the Chicago Tribune. My great-grandmother standing on a bridge under an umbrella, as she watches the police drag the water below, looking for Fred's body as the rain comes down. Little pieces of Pete's life, both happy and sad and indifferent, continue to find me. Although my attention is almost completely monopolized by my own family and my baseball writing career, little glimpses into Pete's vacations and athletics and academics keep poking me in the side, demanding my attention.

Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!

The first week of December, the doctor sits Pete down in his office and tells him he wishes he had better news. You're sick, he told him. I don't know of any better way to tell you this, to convey the gravity of the situation, other than you are very, very sick.

Doctor said he had something called leukemia, and although they didn't have a set course of action, they had some experimental things they could try. By this time, it was January of '39, and hospitals back then tried a lot of things which didn't work. After a couple weeks of medicines which had no positive effect, they finally tried a blood transfusion.

It was devastating to the family, but just six short weeks after the diagnosis, the young man who once performed handstands on a ladder in the backyard, the guy who won A.A.U. track medals and played baseball in the neighborhood, the father of a newborn daughter, passed away. He was in his mid-twenties.

My grandmother was twenty-two, a widow, and single mother of an infant daughter. My grandmother's name was Libbie.

Libbie and Pete were childhood sweethearts. They lived on the same street, next door, in fact, to one another. Pete was a couple years older, used to walk my grandmother to school, carry her books. My grandmother told me these things before she passed.

Their houses were small ("cottages" was the way my grandmother used to describe them), and situated so close to one another, Libbie and Pete could pass notes through their bedroom windows. That's how they got to know each other. That's how they fell in love.

Everybody who knows me realizes I lean toward the agnostic side of the fence. Sometimes, I'm in full-blown atheist mode. Other times: Catholic-agnostic. Most times: Not worrying about it one way or the other. Once we're gone, we're gone, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Makes me want to get up every morning and enjoy as much of this fleeting existence as humanly possible.

Of course, I don't believe those who've gone before us can communicate from the great, unknown beyond. I don't believe it for a second. But I have changed my position in at least one respect: with the advances in technology, the digitization of papers and shipping manifests and other documents; with the photographs and old home movies, with out expanded understanding of DNA, and with the treasure-laden fragments of stories which have been passed down…we're getting better.

Those who have gone before us can't speak to us, but we're getting better at reaching out to them.

Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!

Scott Simkus is the publisher of the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (, a weekly ezine devoted to baseball history. In 2009, he helped the Strat-O-Matic Game Company create their first Negro League set. His work as a baseball researcher has been been profiled in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and the USA Today, among others.

Get a FREE 4 week trial subscription to the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (where they can see more of my illustration work). No obligation to subscribe, all you have to do is email Scott at and put GARY in the subject line and PRESTO you'll get four weeks of free issues to check out.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

49. Warren Spahn: My Father's Favorite

My Father died one year ago this week. In some ways it seems like a million years since he passed and yet at the same time I still reach for the phone to call him several times a week as if it never happened. I'm not going to go on about The Old Man dying, but in honor of his passing, I give you a card of his all-time favorite player, Warren Spahn.

When I was a kid, I was a Mets fan. I suppose I still follow them. It was pre-destined that I wind up that way. See, my Father's Father was a die-hard Brooklyn fan and having a Cieradkowski being a fan of the Yankees was just not going to happen. So all I had was the Mets. This was the 1970's- Not the giddy, pennant winning Mets of the early 1970's, but the stinky, bottom-of-the-barrel Metropolitans of the late 1970's. Because the Mets stunk so bad, talking about them just wound up turning into angry complaining sessions, so out of a lack of quality Mets topics to discuss, baseball talks with my Dad often turned into question and answer sessions with me asking The Old Man about baseball when he was my age, kindling my interest in baseball history.

The best baseball talk I remember having with my Pop happened one muggy Saturday afternoon. The two of us had just got home after working a half-day in the factory. My Dad was a garment cutter and on Saturdays I swept floors, made boxes and did other menial and filthy things to have spending money and to teach me the meaning of a good day's worth of work. Plus I was convinced Pop lived to bust my balls and what better way than to make your kid work in a garment industry sweat shop. Anyway, I was about 12 and we're sitting in the kitchen and The Old Man was working on his first beer of the afternoon. Growing up in Passaic, N.J. and being the son of the biggest Brooklyn fan in the tri-state area, I always figured Pop would have been a Dodger fan, but I was wrong. Pop was a Braves fan! "How the hell did that happen?" I asked incredulously. Ignoring the swear word (a luxury he allowed me and my brother when Mom wasn't around) he uttered one phrase: "1957. Grab me another beer".

I was intrigued. I never met anyone who liked a team other than the Mets or Yankees, or if they were older, maybe the Giants or Dodgers. But the Braves? My Father told me that back in 1957, everyone knew the Dodgers were skipping town. He was 8 that year and was fishing around for a new team. Remember, the Yanks didn't factor into this choice and the Mets were just a nightmare in Casey Stengel's dreams. So the World Series rolls around and in '57 it was a fairly tight race. Both Brooklyn and St. Louis made a good run for the pennant but it was Milwaukee behind the pitching of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette that carried the Braves to the finish line. They'd been pretty competitive in the years prior with guys like Adcock, Aaron and Mathews but Brooklyn and New York always seemed to have the edge over them. On the other side that year waiting to take them on lie the New York Yankees. They won the World Series 5 times already that decade and they were heavily favored to win again. But it wasn't meant to be. Lew Burdette beat the Yanks 3 times and Warren Spahn won another to give them the Series win and a young Polish kid in Passaic, N.J. had a new favorite team.

Yeah, I know it might seem strange that a boy would choose his favorite ballclub based on the fact they defeated another team. But hell, this was the Cieradkowski's and we just didn't do things the right way. See, my family's hatred of the Yankees was an artform all its own. It was a seething, horrible hate that was carefully passed down from generation to generation, the seed of which festered and grew in each of us as we aged, manifesting itself in different and terrible ways. I'll pass on telling about how I deal with my distaste for the other New York team, but I'll tell you this about my Dad: he would watch every Yankee game year after year just on the off-chance they would lose. Yeah, that's right. Instead of having a beer, enjoying a Braves game and watching a team and players he liked, the Old Man would sit and simmer in front the tv watching the Yankees play their sterile, winning games, all the while listening to whatever annoying announcer they had at the time blather on about Yankee Glory. That was my Dad. Hell, ask him who his favorite football team was and he'd say the Philadelphia Eagles. I don't think he ever even stepped foot in Philly his whole life, but he loved those Eagles. Why? Well, in 1960 the Eagles defeated the dreaded New York Football Giants in the season championship. Yeah, in my family the Football Giants warrented the same hatred as the Yankees. (My Grandfather's favorite team was the old Cleveland Browns. Why? He saw them defeat the Giants sometime long ago and he never forgot that).

So anyway, back to the Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn. As the sun set that day and The Old Man worked through a double sixer of cheap beer, the baseball stories poured forth. Up to that point, my father and I were never particularly close. I was a loner then and like him not very talkative. But that humid day we found a connection for the first time. He told me about how he and his cousin Glen would write away to all the Major League teams asking for free stuff and how Milwaukee sent them the biggest package with all kinds of stickers and pennants. Told me about how all he wanted for his birthday one year was a baseball mitt and when he opened his present that year, there was a mitt, but it was a second hand split finger model, not the modern pocket ones everybody else in the neighborhood had. But mostly he talked about Warren Spahn. I had never heard of him before. Pop reeled off numbers that seem astronomical to a Mets fan like myself. 21 wins and 11 losses in 1957. 22-11 in '58. 21-15 in '59. The stats went on. I got dizzy, I was lucky if one of my guys on the Mets could put up a winning record let alone win 20 or more games 13 times in a career. Told me how he was a bona-fide war hero, getting a battlefield commission and Silver Star during the Battle Of The Bulge. Pop talked about listening to Spahn pitch on the radio and then finally seeing him pitch against the Mets in '62 and '63 at the old Polo Grounds. How he threw a no-hitter against the Phillies at age 39 and then another against the Giants at age 40. He told me how Spahn wore number 21 and that it became his number whenever the need for one arose. Told me about the stately indian brave's head that the team wore on their sleeves and how they changed it later to a cool screaming brave. He went on about how stunning the dark blue and bright red uniforms looked on television and in real life when you watched them from the bleachers. That how as an artist I of all people could appreciate that. How the tomahawk was such a cool logo when he was kid and how he'd try to draw it over and over again. He told me how Spahn would throw his arms back behind him and swing them forward like some graceful machine to begin his delivery. How he would kick his leg high into the air, higher than anyone could think was possible. "Spahn finished all his games, too" he said and a quick check with the record book shows this to be true, he led the National League in complete games 9 times in his career. And he told me how he watched first hand as his hero Warren Spahn finished up his career playing for the '65 Mets, going 4-12 with them, only the second time in 21 years that he recorded more losses than wins in a season.

So, as the sun set that day in New Jersey, I had found a common ground with my Dad that lasted the rest of his life, growing more and more as we both aged. Through each season, every time we talked or got together in person, there was always baseball. And through it all, I secretly adapted Warren Spahn as my good luck charm. Whenever I played ball, I wore the cherished number 21 on my back. A colored pencil drawing I did in high school of Warren Spahn going through his wind up won a major award, was featured in a calendar and started me on my way to a career in art. Years later we both liked to team up and play roulette in Atlantic City and ol' 21 red became the lucky bet for us. And in 1998 when I got to meet Spahn over a few drinks in a hotel bar, I couldn't wait to tell The Old Man about it, how his old idol was really a pretty damn good guy in person. I could hear the relief in his voice all the way on my end of the country.

So anyway, this entry is dedicated to my Father, Gary Joseph Cieradkowski and his boyhood hero, Warren Edward Spahn.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

48. The Weasel vs. The Ghost

I 'm doing something a little different for this post. Instead of focusing on one player I decided to feature 2 players and the story that binds the two of them together.

When I was first researching negro league baseball back in the early 1980's, the first great solid piece of work I stumbled upon was Robert Peterson's "Only The Ball Was White". Published in the early 1970's it was the groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for all the subsequent books and research on black baseball. Although riddled with inaccuracies (through no fault of his own, he was the first for God's sake!) Peterson's book shines a light on the dark and hidden world of early black ball. The stories in it ware fascinating to me, almost like ancient legends from another time and place. These were men who were playing the most popular sport in the country in front of millions of fans, yet no one ever heard of them. They were existing in a parallel universe and Peterson's book still gives me that feeling of mystery and danger when I think back on reading it so long ago. It was through his book that many of us were first introduced to two of the greatest infielders of the 20th century, Frank "The Weasel" Warfield and Oliver "The Ghost" Marcelle and the story that links them together forever in baseball lore.

By 1929 Frank Warfield and Oliver Marcelle were both stars and veteran infielders for the champion Baltimore Black Sox. So talented were they that along with teammates Jud Wilson at first base and Dick Lundy at shortstop they were called the "Million Dollar Infield". Warfield and Marcelle had been teammates before, playing together on the Detroit Stars. The Black Sox, always a strong team but never able to pull it together and win the championship, did just that in 1929, winning the Negro American League Pennant under Warfield's management. Warfield hit a mediocre .221 but it was his managerial experience and superb fielding that made the difference for Baltimore. His style of leadership has been described as rough and abrasive and he was often engaged in arguing and baiting umpires and berating his own players right on the field in front of everyone watching. He was quiet and brooding, flashed big wads of cash and was quick with a knife. Unpopular and sarcastic, his fellow teammates dubbed him "The Weasel".

Oliver Marcelle was the best third baseman of the 1920's. His ability to play deep and seemingly to appear at the right spot out of nowhere earned him the nickname "The Ghost". Marcelle was a good looking Creole from Louisiana and the vainest man in the league. He also had one of the nastiest dispositions in the negro leagues and the chronicle of black baseball is littered with stories of his battles. He was a stone-cold street fighter and would use anything to gain the upper hand in a fight. Already nasty, he was only worse when under the influence of alcohol. Once while fighting Oscar Charleston (himself a legendary brawler who had once ripped the hood from a Klansman who was threatening him) he hit the much larger Charleston over the head with a bat. He fought with opposing players, umpires and his own teammates.

After the successful 1929 season, Marcelle and Warfield headed south to Cuba for winter baseball. Back before the Second World War, Cuba's winter league attracted the best players of all colors who were eager to supplement their regular salary with some post-season employment. Only the best players were asked to play and being part of the "Million Dollar Infield" guaranteed an invitation for Warfield and Marcelle. The Weasel went with the Santa Clara Club and The Ghost to Almendares. It was playing in Cuba during that winter of 1929-30 that the incident occurred that bound those two volatile players together forever in baseball history.

It started with a dice game. Warfield and Marcelle were in a group shooting craps at a hotel in Santa Clara and Warfield was riding a winning streak. For every winning throw of the dice The Weasel threw, The Ghost crapped out finally coming up broke. Marcelle asked Warfield for five bucks to continue to play. The Ghost said it was owed to him by the Black Sox from the previous season in Baltimore. The Weasel refused. Things started getting nasty. Both men were not adverse to violence. It got out of hand quickly. Marcelle challenged Warfield to fight and slugged him in the mouth. It was on. The fight was so brutal that it was only ended after Warfield had managed to bite off a piece of Marcelle's nose. That's right, he bit off the part that covered the nostril on one side of Marcelle's nose.

Marcelle was taken to the hospital were he pressed charges against his former manager. Warfield cooled his heals in a Cuban jail for a few days while a minor international incident swirled around the fight. Eventually charges were dismissed and he was quietly released because both men were American citizens and Cuban officials probably just wanted to rid themselves of two nasty and violent men.

Now remember, Marcelle was one the vainest men to step on a ballfield. Losing a big ol' chunk of his proboscis in the days before plastic surgery must have been a crushing blow. He took to wearing a black eye patch over his nose to cover the hole. The once sarcastic and cruel player was now on the receiving end of what must have been an endless cycle of jokes from his opponents on the ballfield and the fans in the bleachers. It got to be so bad that Marcelle left organized ball and drifted out west where he was not known, playing semi-pro ball in dusty frontier towns along the way. He settled in Denver as a house painter and was instrumental in getting the Kansas City Monarchs an invitation to play in the Denver Post Tournament in 1934. The Monarchs promptly won the tourney and the white sports world was introduced to their pitching star, Satchel Paige. But The Ghost continued to drink, his addiction getting so out of hand that his family left him and he died alone and broke at age 51. No one in his neighborhood knew he was once a great ballplayer. they just remembered the guy with the nose patch.

Warfield, the victor in the fight, went back to Baltimore and resumed managing the Black Sox. His playing days were drawing to a close but he was coming into his own as a successful manager. In 1932 he took up the reigns of the Washington Pilots and while in Pittsburgh that July he died under shady circumstances. Warfield, always the ladies man, was with a woman that July night when he was rushed to the hospital bleeding. Internal hemorrhaging led to a heart attack and death. He was 37.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

47. "Happy" Felsch: Life After The Black Sox

As a White Sox fan (and I mean a REAL ONE, not a politically-motivated one like the president who, when pressed, could not name a single friggin' player on the team he supposedly was a die-hard fan of), I don't glamorize the infamous 1919 team. They were what they were, damn good ballplayers who succumbed to temptation and betrayed the game they loved and violated the simple understood trust between players and fans that when they pay to see a game, each team tries their best to win. In my view, betraying this basic pillar of sportsmanship is a forfeiture of the right to continue playing that game. I don't care that Joe Jackson was underpaid. I don't give a damn Eddie Cicotte was cheated out of his 1919 bonus money. It is not an excuse that Chick Gandil felt he deserved more money from the White Sox. What those 7 men (I leave Weaver out of this as he was probably clean) did was wrong. Plain and simple. All that said, I was always fascinated by what happened to those players post-1920. Where did they go, what did they do? Did baseball still play a part in their lives? The answer as we have seen in my Eddie Cicotte post a few months ago is yes. Each player, in their own way kept baseball in their lives even though they had to do it secretly or in an un-organized way. This post is about the White Sox's centerfielder, "Happy" Felsch.

Oscar Felsh was born and raised in Milwaukee and he earned his nickname honestly, he really was a happy-go-lucky fella. "Hap" was the quintessential American success story. The son of German immigrants, he rose from his humble origins and with the support of his baseball-playing father, Charles, Oscar soon attracted the attention of scouts and after playing on a succession of semi-pro teams he was signed by the hometown Milwaukee Brewers. Quick with a smile and joke, popular with his teammates, Felsch was also blossoming into a superior outfielder. It was only a matter of time before he caught the attention of the majors and after a bidding war between Cincinnati, Washington, New York and both Chicago teams he was sold to the White Sox for the 1915 season. It is at this point in his career that sympathetic fans try to make a point for Felsch being just a victim of circumstances that eventually lead to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Felsch had but a sixth grade education and as such it has been argued that he was at the mercy of smarter, more cunning team owners when it came to contract negotiations. That may be true but thousands of other players came from comparable or even more disadvantaged backgrounds and did not succumb to the temptation to throw a game for money.

After a pretty good rookie season marred by leg injuries, Felsch developed into a first-class centerfielder, recognized as among the best in the American League. In the White Sox's magnificent 1917 season Felsch really came into his own batting .308, being first among outfielders in put-outs, second in RBI's and fourth in home runs. The Sox went on to win the series that year and many rank that team among the best in history. It was also during this season that Happy came upon a hunch-back kid in New York hanging around the Polo Grounds and adopted him as the White Sox mascot that year. That hunch-back was Eddie Bennett who later went on to be batboy for Brooklyn in 1920 and then the Yankees from 1921-32.

The White Sox of this period was a club divided by class-consciousness. One part of the club was dominated by Eddie Collins, a college educated ballplayer who knew what he was worth and how to extract it from the crafty club owners. The other half of the team was run by Swede Risberg and Chick Gandil, uneducated, street-smart ballplayers who were close with the shady gamblers who were an all-too frequent part of the sporting scene back then. Felsch, with his limited education and zest for fun naturally found himself with the later group.

The full story Black Sox scandal is a tale that need no elaboration in this entry, but suffice it to say it was partly Felsch's uncharacteristically shoddy fielding that gave the first inclination that something was just not right with the series. The collaborators stories quickly fell apart and after the 1920 season Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte, Fred McMullin and Happy Felsch were banished from organised baseball. All the 8 players with the exception of Williams and Felsch were probably past their prime. Fesch was just reaching his peak as a ballplayer and with that, he was out of a livelihood.

Fortunately for the 8 men, baseball was the most popular sport in the land and every small town and decent sized company had a team of their own. It was a matter of pride to have a good team and some towns and companies stopped at nothing to field an unbeatable team. Former players who found themselves out of the big leagues but still a few more years of game left in them found employment with such teams looking for an edge over the competition. In addition to the town and company ballclubs, hundreds of travelling teams crossed the county playing against anyone who would take up the challenge and provide a decent day of ticket sales. It was in this atmosphere that the former White Sox players formed a team of their own called the "Ex-Major League Stars". The short, bitter history of this team was covered in my entry on Eddie Cicotte (

After the breakup of the team, the Sox went their separate ways. Felsch went back to Milwaukee where he remained a hometown favorite. He opened up a grocery store and engaged in numerous legal battles related to the fix of the world series and his attempts to get back pay from the Sox after being banned from baseball. Felsch was batted around mercilessly by smarter attorneys and he returned home to Milwaukee time after time defeated and humiliated. Now married with 2 children and realising his career as a major leaguer was over, Felsch migrated west and found a home with the Scobey, Montana baseball team. Swede Risberg was already a star player on the Scobey team and was the obvious reason Felsch found a home there. This was a low point of Felsch's life and in this rough and tumble world of outlaw baseball played out west, Felsch and Risberg made a reputation for themselves as two tough customers who should never be crossed when drinking, a tall compliment in the still wild west of 1925 Montana. The two banned players earned a nice $600 a month plus expenses and attracted huge crowds eager to see how real professional ballplayers played the game. Hap entertained the crowds by smacking tremendous homeruns all the while enduring taunts by opposing players and fans about being a crook. Arguments were often settled after the game with fists instead of words. He spent the following season in Montana and then turned north to Regina, Saskatchewan where he played on and managed the Balmorals. The following seasons were spent with a succession of lower quality semi-pro teams culminating in the 1930 season playing with the travelling American-Canadian Clown Team. The 39 year-old Felsch was at the end of his career as a ballplayer.

Returning home to Milwaukee as he always seemed to do, Felsch began a long career as a saloon keeper on the Northside where each bar he operated became a hangout for the local sandlot and semipro players who came to partake of Hap's jovial company. Not many brought themselves to ask the friendly barkeep of the famous scandal and he never brought it up. After his saloon owning days ended, Felsch became a crane operator and died at age 73, still an avid fan of the game he and his teammates betrayed.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

46. Lipman Pike: Somebody's Gotta Be First

Somebody has always got to be the first to do something, but not many people get that distinction multiple times. Lipman Pike is one of those people.

First of all, "Lipman" is his real name. I have no idea where that name derives from, but when Pike was born in New York City in 1845, his parents were Dutch Jews who owned a haberdashery so perhaps one of those things had something to do with the name. Whatever the origins, "Lip" as he was inevitably nicknamed, became a graceful athlete by his teens and he and his brothers took up the new sport of base-ball then popular with the young middle-class merchants in the city. As Pike's talents on the diamond became known, he switched from team to team continuously upgrading to better clubs. By the time he reached age 21 Lipman had travelled to Philadelphia where he joined the baseball team called the "Athletics". Pike was the prototype of a powerhitter and his early accomplishments at the plate includes a 6 home run game. The final score ended up being 67-25 so it remains a mystery how anyone noticed but 6 homers in 1 game is impressive none-the-less.

It was during this 1866 season that a horrific scandal enveloped the Philadelphia ballclub. Pike and two other teammates were discovered to be paid $20 a week to play ball for the Athletics. The sport was at that time a wholly gentlemanly amateur affair and to play for more than just glory, comradeship and exercise was just unthinkable. A hearing was set up by the National Association of Base Ball Players, the committee that oversaw the sport at the time. Apparently the controversy quickly subsided because no one showed up on the date the hearing was to be held and the whole matter dropped. Everyone knew some of the better players had been accepting cash secretly for years, it was just that Pike and his 2 teammates did it in the open. So with Pike accepting the money he became the first paid professional baseball player. With this distinction comes another first for Lipman Pike. Not only was he the first pro ballplayer, he was also the first Jewish ballplayer as well. This was not just an idle distinction, Pike was a true superstar of his time, almost 70 years before Hank Greenberg became the first modern Jewish baseball hero.

Philadelphia released Pike a year later because he was from New York and considered an outsider or foreigner by the Athletics, who I guess had conveniently forgotten this information the whole year he was on their payroll. Didn't matter much to Lip as he was a star and he played for the powerful Irvington, New Jersey team before being lured to the New York Mutuals. The next year, 1870, he crossed the East River and played for the Brooklyn Atlantics, the club that has the distinction of ending the Cincinnati Reds 89-game winning streak. Pike batted a tremendous .610.

In 1871 the National Association was formed, becoming the first professional baseball league. Pike of course became a player in this league and he signed with the Troy Haymakers. He batted a nice .377, good for 6th best in the league. It was with Troy that Pike grabbed another first when he led the National Association with 4 homers. Pike was now the first ever home run champion in baseball history. Pike continued to move around from team to team, Baltimore Canaries, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds... his talents were always welcome at any location. He continued to hit for high averages including .574 with Hartford in 1874. But besides his hitting prowess, Pike was also a fast runner and often was a leader in steals at the season's end. So fast was Pike that he would challenge anyone to beat him for a cash prize. Seldom did he lose. In a famous 1873 incident he even raced a horse in a 100 yard dash, actually beating the challenger who happened to be a professional trotter.

By 1881 Pike was playing in the minors, having played the game for almost 20 years. Halfway through the 1881 season he was brought back to the big leagues when the National League Worchester Ruby Legs (I ain't making that up) needed a centerfielder. He played terribly and after a series of questionable lapse in the field, Pike was accused of throwing games. Unfortunately at the time this was a common occurrence and at the seasons end Pike and 8 other players were banned for life, effectively ending his career.

So Lipman Pike, first professional baseball player, first Jewish ballplayer, first home run champ, returned to New York City and opened up a haberdashery, dying at the age of 48 from heart disease. His funeral was a big event for the time, well attended by the baseball community who came to honor one of the first superstars of the game.