Friday, August 19, 2011

88. Harry Frank: Who The Heck Was Harry Frank?

Who the heck was Harry Frank? That's exactly what I wanted to know. I stumbled on his name while looking at the record of the Baltimore Orioles from 1919-1925. As some of you might know, the Orioles won the International League pennant 7 years in a row causing all kinds of problems with the other league owners who cried foul. See, the Baltimore Orioles were an independent minor league team, unaffiliated with any Major League ballclub. Baltimore's owner, Jack Dunn, scouted and recruited his own players, mostly from the local Maryland and Pennsylvania countryside. While other minor league teams lost their best players at the end of the season when the big club called them up, Dunn was able to keep his best players and sell them off at his leisure. If the price wasn't good enough, didn't matter to him, they just stayed in Baltimore another year. If a Major League club shelled out the cash, then Dunn would just send his scouts out to, say, Western Maryland and bring back another Lefty Grove. Great if you were an Orioles fan, but lousy if you were in Toronto and your team was finishing second every season with no chance of usurping the Orange swarm. If the Orioles ran away with the pennant every friggin' year, why would fans in Newark, Montreal, Rochester and all the other International League cities care any more? In the end, Jack Dunn was forced to sell off his stars and bust up his dynasty for the good of the league. These transactions created the nucleus of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics dynasty as Baltimore alumni made up a big portion of his 1929-31 pennant winning teams. Lefty Grove, Max Bishop, Joe Boley and George Earnshaw all were important cogs in the white elephant's interruption of the New York Yankees pennant-winning machine.

So back to the old Orioles. I was marvelling at the staggering records the Baltimore pitching staff racked up during those years, Grove had seasons of 25, 18, 27 and 26 wins, Rube Parnham won 28 then 33, Tommy Thomas won 32 in another, Jack Bentley not only led the I.L. in winning percentage but also led the league in batting that season as well! Those teams were just stocked with unbridled talent. And then I saw the name Harry Frank. In 1919, his first season with Baltimore, Frank was 24-6, good enough to be the team's second best after Rube Parnham who won 28 games that year. What makes it all the more impressive was that 1919 was not only Harry Frank's first season with the Orioles, it was his first season in professional baseball! While the International League wasn't the majors, it was the highest level of the minors at that time and all the other teams were stocked with both seasoned veterans and rising stars waiting for an opening spot on a major league roster. Winning more than 20 games in any league was pretty impressive, but to have a stellar record like that in his first season as a professional in the best minor league against first-class talent - well that deserved some further investigation.

To make sure it wasn't a fluke, I looked up 1920. No sophomore jinx here, Frank was 25-12!

Who the heck was Harry Frank?

The first place I looked for Harry Frank was in Fred Lieb's 1955 book "The Baltimore Orioles" where I found this: "...but a little Jewish chap, Harry Frank, playing his first season of pro-ball, was the marvel of the staff, winning 24 games out of 30." And that was it. The other go-to book when it comes to the Orioles International League days, James Bready's "Baseball In Baltimore: The First 100 Years" only mentioned that he was in fact a native Baltimorean. The sports information superhighway, had his minor league record but absolutely no biographical info except the name "Harry G. Frank."

So this wasn't going to be easy. Spending more time then I should have, since I was supposed to be packing up my studio for the move, I managed to piece together the short but sweet career of Harry Frank.

Harry Gilmore Frank was born on March 4, 1899 to Perry and Emma Frank. Harry was the couple's first born and was followed 6 years later by a sister, Lillie. Perry Frank was a Baltimore City police officer and Emma a homemaker at 2001 Pulaski Street in West Baltimore's Walbrook neighborhood. The Frank's shared the typically narrow Baltimore-style row house with Perry's mother, brother and sister. Although I found no traces to prove it, I can guess that the young Harry grew up playing sandlot ball for one of the many youth athletic clubs that were all over the city at the time. By 1918 Harry was employed as a clerk downtown at the Manufacturers & Traders Trust Company Bank. Although a Sporting News article from 1922 mentions Frank going strait from the sandlots to the International League, he actually played in the Baltimore Interclub League with the New Amsterdam Casualty Company team. Frank became known for his awesome control and while with New Amsterdam he once pitched 8 straight games and allowed but 1 walk. It was just a matter of time before Jack Dunn would hear of the kid and put him in Oriole pinstripes.

To say Harry Frank must have been impressive would be an understatement. The Orioles owner and manager Jack Dunn was in the final stage of assembling the juggernaut that would eventually win 7 strait pennants. With former major leaguers Rube Parnham, Socks Seibold, Ellis Johnson and Red Hill he had a pretty solid pitching staff going into the 1919 season. For a 20 year-old kid with absolutely no professional experience to be given the chance to play on such a team along side major league veterans in the best minor league in the nation, well, that speaks volumes about the natural ability Harry Frank must have possessed.

For his part, the local kid didn't disappoint.

As the Birds tore through the 1919 campaign Frank quickly emerged as Dunn's number 2 starter, right behind the eccentric but effective Rube Parnham. In the August 10th edition of The New York Times, Harry Frank was singled out for his impressive 17 win and 4 loss record to date. Box scores began to make note of his sweeping curve ball that shot outwards and pin-point control. Though his strikeout record wasn't mind-blowing, he walked less than 3 batters per 9 innings. Dunn also felt comfortable enough with the way the rookie worked in a pinch because he used him more and more for relief appearances in addition to his regular starts.

By the time the season ended, Baltimore had won the pennant by 8 games over the defending champions, Toronto. The rookie Harry Frank led the International League in games (48) and had the best winning percentage (.800). Teammates Rube Parnham led in wins (28), Otis Lawry had the best average (.364), Merwin Jacobson led in hits (203) and speedster Fritz Maisel cornered the market in doubles (44) and runs (135). And as a team, the Orioles led the league in batting, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases... you get the idea.

With pretty much the same team in 1920, Dunn's Orioles floundered out of the gate and finished the first month of the season in 4th place. Slowly the Birds gained momentum and started climbing. By the middle of July Baltimore was unstoppable, winning 56 of the last 69 games for a princely .812 percentage. The team even tied the existing minor league record by winning 25 strait games. It seems they were helped out a little by their loyal fans who did their best to intimidate the opposing teams with bottle barrages and heckling so severe it made the national sporting pages.

Our boy Harry Frank finished up his second season in pro-ball with a 25-12 record and again led the league with 48 game appearances. Frank established himself as the team's premier relief specialist due to his control ability. Relief pitching was still in its prehistoric stages and no statistic was available for the save. Jack Dunn appears to have been one of the trendsetters when it came to sparing his pitchers when the going got bad. Pitchers were expected to throw all 9 innings and to fail in doing so was look at as a weakness as well as a sure way to not make it to the majors. The high minor leagues were littered with the shells of once promising young pitchers who threw their arms out trying to toss one too many complete games. At a time when most managers simply stuck with their starter come hell or high water, the fans in Baltimore showed their appreciation to Frank and his pioneering role by presenting the hometown boy with a gold watch and chain bearing the inscription: "Harry Frank: The King Of Relief Pitchers."

On September 23rd the New York Yankees came to town on an off day between playing the Athletics and Senators. Major League team commonly made extra money on off days by scheduling exhibition games with minor league teams and the Yankees were no exception. Besides, Babe Ruth was a Baltimore boy himself and was sure to bring in a huge amount of cash at the gate. With the bases loaded Harry Frank was put into the game in the 8th inning and struck out Baltimore's favorite son helping preserve the Orioles 1-0 win over the Yankees.

The champion Orioles were now slated to face the St. Paul Saints, winners of the American Association pennant, in the Little World Series. Baltimore won the first 3 games at Oriole Park but Frank lost the 4th game due to bad fielding and no run support. As the series moved to Minnesota, the press remarked on how the Charm City fans surprised everyone and acted civilized during the home stand. The same couldn't be said for the citizens of St. Paul. The visitors were under siege as soon as they arrived and even leaving their hotel became an ordeal as they had to run a gauntlet of rabid St. Paul rooters. Outfielder Otis Lawry narrowly missed being assaulted when he bobbed and weaved an assailants punches while trying to get to the ballpark. Tempers rose to a fever pitch as the Orioles won 3 strait games to take the title.

As for Harry Frank, it seems he was a bit cocky coming off those two great seasons, as of course he should have been. The Sporting News reported Dunn's young ace as a hold out until the manager assured Frank that the Birds would repeat again in 1921. It seems the young pitcher had grown accustomed to the fat $600 Little World Series check he received in October and wanted a pay raise to make sure he covered the spread in case they didn't repeat in '21. Dunn pushed all worries aside and made an addendum to Frank's contract that he would personally cover a $600 bonus if the team failed to make an appearance in the Little World Series. The Sporting News reported that none of their scribes had ever heard of such an unorthodox contract bonus.

On the surface, 1921 was another steamroller year for Baltimore as the team decimated the International League finishing a staggering 20 games in front of the runner up, Rochester. If one looked under the hood, however, one could see that Dunn's pennant machine was held together with wire and chewing gum. Outfielder Bill Holden bowed out with malaria. Max Bishop was crippled when he tore a ligament sliding into a base and Dunn had to bring outfielder Otis Lawry in to 2nd to cover for him. Local teenage sandlot player Jimmy Lyston filled in wherever needed, most often in the outfield. The bright spot was the pitching staff: Lefty Grove won 25 games in his first full season with the Birds and veteran Jack Ogden won 31 games. Native Baltimorean Tommy Thomas debuted by winning 24 for his hometown team and first baseman Jack Bentley not only won the league batting title with a record .412 average, he also was 12-1 on the mound and led the league with a .923 winning percentage! The Orioles were unstoppable, but what about Harry Frank?

Leading the league in games pitched for 2 years in a row finally took its toll on Frank's right arm. Plagued by injuries he managed only 13 wins against 7 losses. Although he appeared in 36 games, it was mostly as a spot reliever. The Sporting News, reporting on the Orioles woes, mentioned that Frank didn't have the same form after literally pitching his arm off in 1919 and 1920. With Bentley, Thomas and Groves holding down the pitching rotation, Dunn was able to ease up on the youngster and let him work out of the bullpen for most of the season.

In the first game of the Little World Series against the Louisville Colonels, Frank relieved a battered Lefty Grove after he gave up 5 runs in the 3rd inning. Louisville manager Joe McCarthy, taking note of Frank's full wind-up despite men on base, ordered a steal of home, showing up the pitcher on the way to an embarrassing 16-1 win. The Colonels went on to upset the heavily favored Orioles and take the 1921 title. Some whispered that a few of Baltimore's star players, unhappy at Dunn for letting them advance to a Major League club, simply dogged the series. The best shortstop in the minors, and arguably in the whole game, Joe Boley was one of the Orioles who's uneven play aroused suspicion. Boley in fact left the series early and went home to Pennsylvania.

Dunn put the disappointed post-season behind him. Announcing his plans to have Baltimore spend spring training in Winston-Salem, South Carolina, the manager specifically mentioned to The New York Times that "pitcher Harry Frank had signed his contract for next season."

Frank, just like the Orioles, roared back to life in 1922. Maybe Dunn's sparing use of the righty the previous season healed his arm, or perhaps it was his recent marriage that reinvigorated the pitcher. What ever the cause, by the end of June Harry Frank regained his form and was leading the International League in wins. Ending the season boasting a nice 22-9 record he regained his title of league leader in appearing in the most games (45). Again beating out Rochester by 10 games, the Orioles faced off with St. Paul again in the Little World Series. Versatile Jack Bentley continued the lack-luster play exhibited in the previous post-season, to the point of leaving a game instead of playing first base after being taken off the mound. Baltimore fans soured on the star and by the end of the month he was property of the New York Giants. Never-the-less, Baltimore held it together and beat St. Paul 5 games to 2.

Despite being the Orioles number 2 starter and ace fireman, Harry Frank made no appearance in the series. Newspapers make no mention of the reason, but it wouldn't be hard to guess that Frank had re-injured his arm. Of course these were the days before pitch-counts, bullpen coaches and hot-tubs. Pitchers were expected to throw whenever they were asked and playing for a high profile team like the Orioles probably made Frank less prone to complain - Dunn was starting to sell off his best players to the majors and the more ink a player got, the better his chances at being sold.

1923 found Frank working almost entirely out of the bullpen. He scattered 179 innings of work over 49 game appearances. His record was a respectable 9-2 but his ERA ballooned to 4.68, but that might be because of a spike in hitting that year. Despite his past promise, it is evident that by now Harry Frank was not going to make it to the major leagues, especially as a relief pitcher.

As the 1924 season dawned, Jack Dunn realized time was running out on his Charm City dynasty. Each year secret meetings were held by all the other team owners about what was to be done about the endless onslaught from Baltimore. Although Baltimore's attendance had been very good, even Dunn was becoming worried that his fans were getting bored of the constant winning. If he was nervous then what was the other owners going through? The major leagues as well were getting pissy about Dunn's perceived hoarding of talent. Although he let a few players like Jack Bentley, Joe Boley, Lena Styles and Max Bishop slip away to the majors, he made them pay through the nose. What's more, guys like Bentley and Boley broke into the majors well past their prime and after a few great seasons showed their age. No, Jack Dunn could see the storm clouds brewing.

Despite the looming pressure, the 1924 team charged ahead on their way to their 6th strait pennant. The pitching staff was exactly the same as the previous season, except for one: Harry Frank.

Showing the effects of his overuse, Frank managed to get into just 8 games before he was traded to the Jersey City Skeeters along with outfielder Otis Lawry. Lawry had been, along with Frank, the stars of the 1919 Orioles and he was embittered at being traded to a perennial last place team. He disappeared for a while before finally joining the Skeeters and batting .303. Jimmy Walsh had been traded to Jersey before the 1924 season and was now Jersey City's new manager and perhaps Dunn sent old hands Frank and Lawry to help out his former first baseman.

Regardless of how Frank wound up in Jersey City, the fact of the matter was that he was at the end of the line. The Skeeters finished dead last again and Harry Frank posted a 6-12 record. Handed the ball 35 times, he just didn't have the arm he used to and the pin-point control, much commented on in his hey-day, was gone - for the first time in his career Frank walked more batters than he struck out. He went back to Baltimore and never played professional ball again.

What Harry Frank did back home in 1925 is unknown, but he and his wife had a son in 1926, Harry Gilmore Frank, Jr. He surfaces briefly as an umpire in the class D Blue Ridge League in 1928 but 2 years later he is working as an accountant for the Maryland Racing Authority. This becomes Frank's second career and for the rest of his life he works as a race track auditor, first in his native Maryland, then Florida and finally New York. His son Harry Jr left Baltimore's Boy's Latin High School in 1943 to enlist in the army. Wounded in the Battle of The Bulge, Harry Jr received the Bronze Star and 59 years later his widow was awarded his an honorary Class of 1944 diploma.

Frank Sr., the old Oriole pitcher, relief pitching pioneer and Baltimorean, died in Rockville Centre, New York on November 9, 1965, age 66.

Now you know who Harry Frank was.

I just want to give a big thank-you to Jimmy Keenan for adding some great information about Harry Frank, specifically his relief pitching and the item about his being awarded the gold watch and chain by the Oriole fans. Jimmy Keenan wrote a spectacularly interesting book about his family's history with baseball in Baltimore called "The Lystons: The Story of One Baltimore Family and Our National Pastime." It's a massive book and filled with really interesting facts and anecdotes about the city's rich baseball history, but the best part is the largest portion of the book that relates his grandfather Jimmy Lyston's odyssey through all levels of semi-pro and minor league ball from the teens through the 30's. Signed by Jack Dunn off the same sandlots as Harry Frank, Jimmy Lyston played on the famous 1921 Baltimore Orioles team (and I hope Jimmy will grace us with a "guest author" story about his Grandpa here on the Infinite Baseball Card Set). Thanks again Jimmy!

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