Wednesday, June 15, 2011
80. Farmer Dean: His Own Meal Ticket
Let me first start out by saying that what follows is a true story - it might not read like it is, but it's all taken from a wide variety of period newspapers and wire services from February to April, 1935... While digging up old newspaper articles on the Tokyo Giants games against the Pacific Coast League teams during the spring of 1935, I happened upon one of those crazy characters that only baseball seems to attract: Oscar "Farmer" Dean. The first mention was of the Great Farmer Dean being slated to pitch against the Giants. The name sounded interesting and I made a note of it. Later I noticed his name kept popping up as I read the west coast newspapers from the spring of that year. When I found a mention of his eating capacity, I decide I had to dig deeper. Who was this guy? The truth was weirder that I ever imagined...
Out of thousands of baseball hopefuls who turned up at spring training camps all across America trying to escape the grips of the great depression, "Farmer" Dean quickly set himself apart from the pack. After writing to every club in the Pacific Coast League bragging of his unbridled talent, the Los Angeles Angels were the quickest on the draw and invited The Farmer to camp that spring. Even before he arrived the press was abuzz with anticipation of yet another great hurler with the "Dean" moniker.
In the previous year the brother duo of Dizzy and Paul Dean devastated the National League not only with their fastball but with the great copy their wild bragging and colloquial quotes brought. The Dean's won all 4 of the Cardinals victories in the '34 World Series and now there seemed to be yet another one of these "diamond in the rough's" out there. The aspiring pitcher that reported to the Angels camp on February 11th wasn't a spring chicken - he claimed to be 23 but looked like he was well into his mid-30's, six foot four and over 190 lbs. When not in uniform, Farmer wore an old suit of overalls complete with a sign sewn on the back declaring "I Am Farmer Dean." And just in case you failed to take notice of all that, he brought along his own agent/manager, Herb Levine, to make sure you did. The beat writers ate this stuff up.
While most of the Angels' hopefuls tried their damnest to distinguish themselves on the field, Farmer Dean made headlines with his prodigious apatite. His relentless assaults on the team's hotel restaurant became legendary - eating 2 steaks before morning workout became his routine. While others threw the ball around or worked on their curve ball, Farmer Dean held court, giving the eager sportswriters plenty of copy for their papers.
He was was fresh out of the U.S. Army, he said, where he learned how to pitch while posted at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "My best throws are my cannon and submarine throws" the Antelope Valley resident said. While he claimed to be of no blood relation to the Cardinals' two sibling superstars, Dizzy and Paul Dean, The Farmer admitted that he possessed the same level of ability, and while he'd never seen either one in person, by reading about them he could confidently state they "haven't anything on me." Apparently The Farmer could do the the Dean's of St. Louis one better: he claimed he was such a good hitter he played outfield when he wasn't mowing 'em down with that fire ball of his.
Apparently the Angels management didn't think the same way because after a week Farmer Dean and his agent/manager Herb Levine were cut loose.
On February 19th sports pages across the country carried the UP article exclaiming Farmer Dean's signing by the Mission Reds of San Francisco. The Reds sent Dean a contract and told him to travel north to Marysville, California where the Mission team was opening their training camp on February 25th. The Red's manager, Gabby Street, who a few years earlier was Dizzy Dean's catcher on the Cardinals, optimistically told the press: "He's just like Dizzy when he signed with the Cards" and The Farmer himself added confidently "I'll win 20 games in this league."
The article also went on to list Farmer Dean's weight as 200lbs.
Before the Reds even opened the doors to their spring training camp in Marysville, Farmer Dean was a local superstar: he was presented with the key to the city. Earlier in the month the Reds' Bay area rivals, The Oakland Oaks, were chastised in their local newspapers for not being quick enough in responding to The Farmer's letter of introduction and letting him slip away to the Angels. Now that he turned up in the rival Reds' camp made it even harder for the Oaks fans to take.
The reporters who covered the Reds badgered manager Gabby Street for updates on the team's prized rookie. "Well, I'll tell you. The big fella has a lot of color and is sure attracting a lot of attention. He's plenty big, says he can pitch and certainly acts the part of a fellow looking to make good. He talks a great game and he eats like a big leaguer." Street went on to contrast The Farmer with Dizzy, saying The Farmer was more modest because when asked how many games he planned on winning that year said: "I guess about twenty games would be enough for the first year, eh Sarge?"
The Sarge promised to put The Farmer through a rigorous tryout to determine the full extent of the rookies prodigious talent. "I will find out mighty quick if this big boy has anything of value in a baseball way. What a card he will be if he can really pitch. If he can't, the Mission club will be out the price of his car fare and the meals he absorbed."
On the afternoon of Saturday, March 2nd Gabby Street handed the The Farmer the ball to see what he could do in a game situation. The Mission Reds faced the touring Tokyo Giants in the first of a series of games they scheduled against Pacific Coast League teams. The Tokyo Giants were a young team, mostly made up of college stars and featured the schoolboy sensation, Eiji Sawamura who made history that winter when he struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx in succession during an exhibition game in Japan. Before the game Dean went over the pitches he planned on unleashing that afternoon: "I got a submarine ball and a fire ball, but my fire ball is the best. It starts out fast and leaves a smoke screen as it curls up."
The Farmer, employing a novel submarine-style pitching motion shut out the Tokyo Giants for 2 innings until the roof caved in during the 3rd. Slapping him around for 6 runs, Tokyo knocked him out of the box on the way to a 12-5 win.
Obviously choosing to focus on only the first 3 innings of that afternoon's game, Dean went out on the town celebrating. By the time he meandered into the team's hotel, the Reds' president, Joe Bearwald, confronted his star hurler about breaking training rules. An indignant Dean declared; "I am a farmer, and Saturday is farmer's night. I do not care to retire now." The two men began a heated exchange but Bearwald had the last word: "You're fired."
The next morning as The Farmer and his agent/manager Herb Levine packed up their stuff, the Reds' manager Gabby Street spoke to the shocked press: "Farmer Dean didn't have a thing as a chucker." Dean had a lot of color he said, "but nothing on the ball."
At a rival meeting of the scribes, no doubt set up by agent/manager Levine, The Farmer gave his side of the story. "I walked out on The Missions because that old miser Joe Bearwald complained because I ate two steaks for dinner." The most famous pitcher in the Pacific Coast League was now free to take his talents elsewhere.
On March 5th he suddenly turned up in Santa Barbara and presented himself to the Seattle Indians owner Bill Klepper. At a press conference the following day Dean reported that Klepper and the Indians promised him "plenty of food" and promptly proved the point by devouring 2 full steaks before making his way to the field for practice. The newspapers described him as "... the 205lb Dean..."
Now boasting that he would win 25 games for Seattle this season, The Farmer was treated to a rigorous running regimen by the Indian's manager Dutch Reuther. Seeing as he put away 2 steaks, Reuther had Dean run around the field for 3 hours. The following morning the press reported seeing The Farmer only put away one steak at breakfast. Ruether adjusted his training regimen accordingly and made Dean run for only one hour. He was yet to appear in a game claiming the cards were not right yet. Farmer Dean, you see, consulted his horoscope before every game and if the stars were not favorable, Dean didn't pitch.
The newspaper now all seemed to focus on The Farmer's appetite instead of his fire ball. One paper claimed he ate "20 hot cakes every morning" and "carries with him a loaf of french bread and a roll of bologna sausage in a paper bag" to stave off hunger between meals. At the end of March he challenged teammate and the reining Indians eating champ, Mike Hunt, to an eating contest. The Farmer packed in "eight pounds of hamburger steak, three plates of potatoes and then ripped a beefsteak apart" on the way to thrashing Hunt and claiming the team title. After the crumbs settled Dean told manager Reuther that if they had a better class of steak he could really show 'em how to eat. Incredulous, Reuther called his bluff and ordered the pitcher a fresh T-bone. 10 minutes later it was gone.
Indians owner Bill Klepper declared: "if he could play ball like he can eat he'd be worth as much as Dizzy Dean."
The last traces I can find of The Farmer is at the end of March where the UP syndicated a photograph of Dean sitting awkwardly on the ground in front of the Indians dugout eating an impressive-looking sandwich. The supplied caption notes that to construct the sandwich he is consuming "...required 14 inches of bologna and a loaf of bread." He is also noted as being: "6' - 4" and 220lbs."
So who was Farmer Dean? There is no other mention of him after April 2nd of 1935. A teammate on the Indians did say that he had known Dean under a different name back on an unnamed Eastern team and that he was 35, not 23 as claimed. But he never gave the man's former name. Another clue I found was a mention of him being a resident of Lancaster, California. Then I found it. In a Los Angeles Times article, back when the L.A. Times still employed reporters that actually reported, writer Bob Ray's secret contacts told him that Oscar "Farmer" Dean's real name was "West" and that he once played with a team in the now-defunct Eastern League. Going through all the records found on Baseball-Reference.com I found no "West" who played in the Eastern League that would fit his age group (assuming he was born between 1900 and 1905). The only close fit I could see would be a Tommy West who played for the Lindale Pepperalls of the Georgia-Alabama League in 1930. The league collapsed following the 1930 season so it fits what was reported about Dean being out of a job after the folding of the league he played in. And taking into consideration that before showing up on the west coast he'd just served a 4 year hitch in the Army, that would fit into the timeline just fine. But this is all just a wild, though educated, guess on my part. So was this guy a real prospect or a publicity-hound trying to be his own meal-ticket? I'm guessing the latter and the teams in the Pacific Coast League played along. 1935 was one of the worst years of the depression and Americans grasped at any kind of distraction to keep their minds off their current predicament. If anything, Dean's romp through the P.C.L.'s spring training was beneficial to both himself and the league: the ever-hungry Dean gained in excess of 30lbs from free food and the Coast League gained national publicity and a much-needed boost to spring training attendance because of The Farmer and his personal publicity machine. I love the history of this game!
Note: I wasn't happy with the original drawing I did of The Farmer, he was too... animated. (You can still see the original version HERE on my facebook page) I decided to do a 2nd version showing the Ace Fire-baller Farmer Dean, staying out of the sun, contemplating what the afternoon's lunch menu may hold...