Tuesday, March 26, 2013

147. Ford Meadows: Better Than The Babe

I love those "what if?" questions in history. You know, those major events in history that hinged on one minor and insignificant event or individual: what if Hitler had gotten into art school or what would America be like now if Lee Oswald was a lousy shot? Baseball has plenty of those great "what if's" as well, and it was one of those minor turn of events that gave the game its greatest player.

In the spring of 1914, Baltimore Orioles owner and manager Jack Dunn looked over his roster for the coming season and knew he had a problem - left-handed pitching, or more precisely, the lack of it. Fortunately Baltimore and the surrounding countryside was an untapped gold mine of amateur talent. Though the city had a major port, world-class universities and a many top-notch semi-pro teams, Baltimore's pool of ballplayers was often overlooked due to the close proximity of Washington, Philadelphia and New York City. For years the savvy Jack Dunn had it all to himself and he was famous for his meticulous scouting of local talent. When the time came for him to fill that left-handed spot in his pitching rotation Jack Dunn knew exactly who he wanted.

For a year Dunn had been following a local 19 year-old student at an Xaverian school who was mowing down every team he pitched against. He was a big fella and like most left-handers had a bit of a reputation for being a bit eccentric. To Dunn, a veteran judge of baseball talent, this kid was one of the greatest lefties he'd ever seen. In early February of 1914 the Orioles owner took his former third baseman and now New York Yankee Fritz Maisel along to talk to the Brothers who ran the school the young phenom attended. Dunn figured that by bringing along Maisel, a local boy, would make it easier to get the Xaverians to give up their star player if they could see that being signed by the Orioles was a stepping stone to the big time.

Brother Gilbert, the schools baseball coach and athletics director, met with the two men apprehensively. While one one hand he wanted the young man to succeed, on the other he also wanted a winning ball club for the upcoming season and this kid was his ace. Brother Gilbert thought about how he could keep him for just one more season and settled on the old bait and switch tactic.

"Sure my boy is great" he told the two men, "but this other lefty we faced last season was even better". Dunn, intrigued, must have wondered who this other unknown star was. 

"Ruth from St. Mary's" was Brother Gilbert's reply.

See, the pitcher Jack Dunn had scouted and called one of the greatest left-handers he'd ever seen was not the young Babe Ruth, but a student at Mount St. Josephs College named Ford Bernard Meadows. 

At the time, Meadows was hands-down the best pitcher in Baltimore. In the 1913 season the kid had shut out Georgetown, Boston College and Holy Cross - all in one week. His games were given as much coverage in the Baltimore newspapers as the Washington Senators and Orioles. There was no doubt that Meadows was a budding superstar. As far as anyone was concerned, no one had heard of this Ruth kid over at St. Mary's that Brother Gilbert had spoke of.

And in truth, the Xaverian Brother and baseball coach was fibbing a bit: he'd never actually seen Ruth pitch before. In all the games Mount St. Josephs played against St. Mary's Ruth appeared as a left-handed catcher. The big kid impressed Brother Gilbert not with his pitching but with his bat, a skill he used to eat up any pitcher Mount St. Josephs threw at him. Because both St. Mary's and Mount St. Josephs College were run by Xaverian brothers, Gilbert was familiar with Ruth's coach, Brother Matthias, and through him had learned of Ruth's strong and accurate arm. 

It was a brilliant tactic and Jack Dunn fell for it. Within days he'd signed the young George Herman Ruth without ever seeing him play an inning of baseball, all based on the little white lie of an Xaverian Brother who was trying to keep his prized ball club intact for one more season.

But what became of Ford Meadows? 

Well, he continued to dominate the collegiate scene. He kicked off the 1914 season with a brilliantly pitched game against the Orioles. Though he lost, the newspapers reported that had he been backed by a capable catcher and right fielder, Meadows would have defeated the Birds. A few weeks later he pitched a no-hitter and at the end of the college season was in Frederick, Maryland playing semi-pro ball and making headlines with his pitching feats. So while Ruth played half a season with the Orioles and made it up to the Boston Red Sox, Meadows was still an amateur, though a well-known and highly touted one. 

After school ended in the spring of 1915, Jack Dunn swooped in and finally signed the southpaw he'd originally wanted. Dunn's Orioles has been forced to relocate to Richmond after they were beaten at the box office by the upstart Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. While with Richmond the former phenom was less than mediocre. He was consistently wild and in 13 games could only muster an 0-2 record. But the New York Yankees saw something in him and in late August Dunn sold Meadows to New York for a $5000 profit. 

Meadows rode the Yankees bench for the rest of the season, never getting into a game but was invited to join the team in Macon, Georgia the next year for spring training. Unfortunately for Meadows he pitched poorly and was quickly let go, rejoining the Orioles, who had again set up shop in Baltimore after the demise of the Federal League. 

Now Jack Dunn began to sour on the former college star. Throughout the spring he failed to impress. He couldn't find the plate and Dunn complained he was sorely out of shape. Exasperated with Meadow's performance and attitude, Dunn suspended him. In what was a pretty ballsy move for the time, the southpaw filed a grievance with the minor league baseball commission and Dunn was told to play him or let him go. This kind of insubordination from one of his players couldn't have sat well with the autocratic manager and owner. While Dunn was well known for treating his ballplayers with unheard of respect, the Orioles were his team, an extension of himself. That one of his boys would have the stones to file a grievance against him and challenge his authority to run the club as he saw fit must have angered him immensely.

Dunn reluctantly took him back into the fold. 

Ford Meadows, the guy who was more highly touted than Babe Ruth, would finally get his own place in the baseball history books, but not in a good way. On June 30, 1916 Dunn put him in as a relief pitcher against Richmond. Down 8-2, Meadows took the mound for the home half of the sixth and started walking everyone in sight. By the time it was over he issued free passes to 11 Richmond batters and set what was then a record. Dunn, his point made, gave Meadows his unconditional release later that day.

As far as I can tell, Meadows never appeared in another professional game. He did, however, find love and on August 4th married Miss Grace Miller. Meadows was still so well known that the Baltimore newspapers wrote about his wedding and one article reported that the couple honeymooned in Atlantic City and that since his release from the Orioles he had been playing amateur ball around Baltimore. 

With the World War raging in Europe it was just a matter of time before Meadows, 22 at the time, was caught up in it. He served with the 514th Pioneer Infantry in France where he dislocated his shoulder and had his ear shot off in the fighting. He returned home on a transport ship with thousands of other wounded doughboys almost six months after the war was over.

I couldn't find any other traces of Ford Meadows after that. Most likely he returned to his wife and made a life for himself around Baltimore. While his ball playing career might not have lived up to the promise many expected from him, he was instrumental in launching the career of the greatest baseball player of all time.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

146. Charlie Hoover: Talented But Troubled

When I was looking for any kind of reference on Humpty Badel, I could find only one other person who had written about him in the last 90 or so years - Thom Karmik. His website Baseball History Daily is a joy to read, a fact that I can personally testify to. After reading the Badel story I found myself going deeper and deeper into his archive of past stories until I had to restrain myself - I was getting dangerously off the track of my Badel research. His endless trove of interesting ballplayers and new (to me) stories had me hooked. Seeing that we both share a similar taste in obscure players and stories, I emailed Thom and asked him if he'd be interested in writing a story for my site as a guest author. Lo and behold he agreed and quickly sent me this great bit of original research on a really interesting guy from the early days of the game. So, without further delay, I'll turn it over to Thom Karmik...

Charles E. Hoover is one of a select group; Major League players for whom no information is available about when or where he died.  Like many 19th Century ballplayers he eventually became better known for his demons than for his ability, and eventually faded into obscurity.

Hoover was born in Mound City, Illinois in September of 1865; the town, upriver from Cairo was incorporated just seven years earlier and was the site of the Union Army’s largest hospital in the west and a shipyard that produced three Union ironclads:  the U.S.S. Cairo, the U.S.S. Mound City, and the U.S.S. Cincinnati.

Nothing is known about Hoover’s childhood, but at some point he settled in Hannibal, Missouri, where he would return throughout his life. 

His professional career began in 1886 with the Lincoln Tree Planters in the Western League.  Hoover played for three teams in the Western League in 1887, and his .342 batting average and growing reputation as a solid catcher with an excellent arm earned him a contract with A.G. Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings. 

Between the 1887 and ’88 seasons Hoover’s troubles began.

He was drunk in Lincoln, Nebraska (some contemporary papers said the incident happened in Kansas, but it appears Lincoln was the site) in early December of 1887 when he was arrested for shooting at a carriage driver.  In January a wire service report which appeared in several papers said Hoover had been released from jail and would be joining the white Stockings in the spring:

“(Hoover) has written a letter to President Spalding in which he proves by the court record that the charge preferred against him was entirely fictitious and the work of two men he whipped in a fight.”

The story said a fight broke out between Hoover and the two men and the gun “accidently discharged” and, “Spalding, after investigating all the evidence at hand has come to the conclusion that Hoover, while perhaps a little hotheaded, did nothing especially reprehensible.”

Hoover joined the White Stockings in the spring, but was released to the Western Association before the season began.  The catcher split time between the Chicago Maroons and the Davenport Onion Weeders.  He was purchased for $8500 at the end of the season by the Kansas City Cowboys in the American Association and made his major league debut in October, appearing in three games for the Cowboys.

The following season in Kansas City was a stormy one.  There were numerous reports that he and Kansas City manager Bill Watkins did not get along, and Hoover’s reputation as a talented, but “troubled” player grew.

After another disagreement with Watkins in July, The Sporting Life said:
“Hoover is a peculiar ball player. Fines, bad treatment and threats of expulsion don't seem to  have any effect on him. The management had tried everything on him. It was thought for a time that he would be released, but yesterday he was put in to catch and caught the best game ever played in this city. His work was simply wonderful.”

Then, a few days before the end of the season, Hoover fought with a fan in Kansas City.  The Sporting Life was not ready to give up on him and provided his defense, despite acknowledging he was probably drunk:

“Many a ball player has done worse and has been forgiven readily. Hoover had been drinking. He was mad and angry and when a spectator insulted him, he lost his temper altogether.”

Besides, The Sporting Life said “He did some of the best catching this season in the American Association.”

Despite his defenders, Hoover was finished with Kansas City. When he returned to the Western Association the following season, The Denver Republican said:

“(He) is a good backstop, an excellent thrower, fair hitter and rapid baserunner.  He is cursed however, with a tinder-like temper, which no manager has yet been able to control.”

There are no available statistics for the1890 season.  Hoover began the season with the Kansas City Blues and was acquired in August by the Lincoln Rustlers. 

Hoover’s troubles continued.  The Omaha World-Herald reported that summer that Hoover’s “Mistress” in Lincoln, was the “Keeper of a disreputable house at 6th and M Streets,” and shortly after the end of the 1891 season Hoover was arrested in Lincoln another incident involving Hoover shooting at someone while drunk.

The erstwhile catcher managed to avoid prosecution again when he was signed to a contract with the Sacramento Senators of the California League.  In February, The World-Herald said:

 “At 5 o’clock this morning Charley Hoover was escorted to the Burlington depot by an officer and put upon a train bound for California… (The) ballclub telegraphed $150 and from it he extracted $25 and paid his fine.  If he ever shows up in Lincoln again he will be prosecuted for assault with intent to kill.”

The Sporting Life said Hoover “Who but for his besetting sin, drink, would be one of the great catchers of the profession…He has signed a contract to abstain from liquor, a forfeiture of salary being the penalty for a violation of his agreement.”

By late May Sacramento manager John McCloskey had tired of Hoover and the catcher was released.  Hoover went first to Hannibal, and then signed a contract to play for a semi-pro team in Bozeman, Montana.  The next season he signed with the Omaha Omahogs of the Western League.  The World Herald said Hoover was:

“One of the best backstops in the business…he has been signed on the condition that he keeps straight.”

He didn’t, and was released before the season began.  Hoover spent the year working as a bricklayer in Butte, Montana.

He was next heard from in January of 1893 when The Sporting Life said “Hoover got into several scrapes in Butte, so the town became so hot for him that he shook the dust off his feet and returned to his Hannibal, MO home.”

That spring, Charlie Comiskey was desperate for a catcher to back up Farmer Vaughn and signed Hoover.  The Sporting Life’s opinion of Hoover had soured, and the paper did not support the move:

"Comiskey is sufficiently hard up for a catcher to take chances with an unreliable man, notwithstanding costly experience. He is trying Charlie Hoover, the ill-tempered and bibulously inclined ex-Kansas City catcher."

Hoover’s last chance at the Major Leagues ended when Comiskey chose to stick with Morgan Murphy, who had hit .197 and committed 18 errors in 74 games the previous season, as Vaughn’s backup.  Hoover dropped out of sight for the remainder of 1893, but returned the next two seasons playing in the Southern and Western Associations—the 29-year-old’s professional career was over after the 1895 season.

Hoover returned to Hannibal and was not heard from again until 1899.  Hoover was drunk when he attempted to pass a bad check at the Stillwell Packing Company in Hannibal.  He was arrested, and for the first time convicted and sentenced to prison—for five years. 

In 1902, Missouri Governor Alexander Dockery pardoned Hoover.  The St. Louis Republic said:

"Hoover’s propensity to gaze upon the wine when it was red has caused him all his trouble.”

But the paper was hopeful for Hoover’s future:

“He is considering several offers to play ball and will probably accept one of them.”

The 36-year-old Hoover did not sign with any professional team.  That was last that was heard from Hoover--one of the few who reached the Major Leagues and disappeared without a trace.

Be sure to visit Baseball History Daily. When I asked Thom to write about what his site is all about, this is what he said: 

“In the days before electronic media the players who toiled in hundreds of small and medium sized towns across North America were heroes, idols and sometimes villains; and they were household names.  While organizations like SABR have provided reams of research on professional baseball, so many of those household names, and the teams and the leagues in which they played, have been lost in the mists of time.”

"What I’ve also discovered is that just as many stories of the players who reached the pinnacle of their profession and played in the largest cities in country have also faded into obscurity."

"What has made it especially fun and satisfying for me is that I have actually heard from ancestors of some of the players I’ve profiled and had them tell me they learned something about a great-grandfather or uncle that they hadn’t known. I’m a former broadcast journalist and also worked on political campaigns for a decade;  I relocated to Las Vegas a year ago and no longer do either of those things." 

Friday, March 1, 2013

145. Humpty Badel: Almost Major League

Although I'm originally from New Jersey, I've come to adopt the Commonwealth of Kentucky as my home. It wasn't a quick decision - over the years I'd moved here and then left 2 times - yet last year when I was looking for a place to settle after 6 years in Los Angeles there was only one place that truly felt like home - Kentucky. I live right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and within minutes I can go from a Reds game to the beautiful farm where my girlfriend boards her horse, Lefty (great name, huh?). For some reason, of all the places I've called home over the years, Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Colorado - Kentucky is where I want to be. And as a little private way to say thanks to my adapted state, I like to feature players with Kentucky roots like Pee Wee Reese, Carl Mays and Bill Niemeyer.

But there's one team I always wanted to do a card for: the short-lived Covington Blue Sox. Covington, Kentucky is the city directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and in 1913 was host to a franchise in the newly-formed Federal League. That first season was a trial run for what in 1914 would become almost a third major league. The Blue Sox lasted only a few months before they were forced to move west to Kansas City, becoming known as the Packers. Since I lived in Covington and know the spot Federal Park once stood, I have been avidly searching for the perfect player to represent Covington's brush with baseball history. After rummaging through pages and pages of 1913 Cincinnati newspaper files, I found that certain player and his story was better than I could have hoped for...

At a time when the only way someone with a handicap could get onto a professional ball club was as a mascot, hunchback Fred Badel came surprisingly close to making the major leagues. Badel came from Carnegie, one of the many gray steel towns outside Pittsburgh. He was born in 1881, or maybe before that, we just don't know for sure - like many ballplayers throughout the history of the game, he probably shaved a couple of years off as he grew older. Newspaper stories during his playing career make note of his peculiar accent and that he spoke German so he was probably the son of immigrants, of which the greater Pittsburgh area had no shortage of. He suffered from a severe curvature of the spine called Kyphosis which caused a hump to form on Badel's back. In those pre-politically correct times it inevitable he would be known as "Humpty". He could neither read nor write and contemporary sportswriters weren't shy in declaring Badel a bit on the slower side of things. He apparently had trouble remembering simple instructions and one manager said he lacked common sense. Newspaper articles called him "odd" and "picturesque." Humpty could, however, play ball.

Badel got his professional start around 1902 or 1903 playing for Youngstown in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League. In 1905 he surfaced with the Johnstown Johnnies of the "outlaw" Tri-State League. The "outlaw" brand meant that the league wasn't affiliated with the minor or major leagues which fell under the umbrella of the National Association. While playing outfield for the Johnnies, Badel attracted the attention of the Buffalo Bisons of the Class A Eastern League, which was the equivalent of today's AAA.

The manager of the Bisons was George Stallings, later manager of the 1914 World Champion Boston Braves. Stallings became very smitten with Badel during spring training. Accounts state that he was above average contact hitter with a good eye. On the base paths he was described as a "whirlwind" and fearless. Moreover, Badel used his disability to his advantage: due to his hump and curved spine his strike zone was quite small making him a hard man to pitch to. By the time the Bisons broke camp and headed towards Buffalo, he was penciled in as the starting right fielder.

Playing their way north, the Bisons stopped in Cincinnati to play the Reds. After a short series between the two clubs reds manager Ned Hanlon offered Stallings $5,000 then and there for Badel but was rebuffed. Stallings felt he had a budding star and wanted him for himself. 

The presence of a hunchback on the club was as much a source of interest and amusement for press as it was for his new teammates. It was a different time and like black children and midgets, hunchbacks were considered good-luck charms by superstitious ballplayers. "Rubbing the hump" for luck was as time-honored a tradition in baseball as spitting. Unfortunately for Badel, some of his new teammates couldn't differentiate between the ball-playing Badel and the lucky hunchback Badel.

Bisons' ace pitcher Rube Kisinger was so infatuated with Badel's hump that he would wait for him to come in from the outfield after each inning and rub his hump all the way to the dugout. While Kisinger probably meant no disrespect doing what a newspaper at the time called an "affectionate demonstration", Badel was mortified by the superstitious ritual and pleaded to the Bisons' management for relief. None came. Rube Kisinger was a former big leaguer and the best pitcher on the Bisons. Though Badel was warmly accepted by the Buffalo fans and he was holding his own in the league, by July the "humpstroking business" became unbearable. He was also having a hard time learning the club's field and batting signs and his teammates began to poke fun at his illiteracy and ignorance. Badel was also disgruntled with his pay on the Bisons which was less than what he was getting in outlaw ball. A 1907 Sporting Life article relates that Badel borrowed $100 from Stallings then told him he was jumping the club. A hundred bucks in 1906 was a hefty sum and Stallings had to have his lawyer talk him out of physically attacking Badel and beating his money out of him. On July 6th he quit the club.

By leaving the Bisons Badel effectively KO'ed his chances at making the majors. Breaking a professional baseball contract, especially one in the high minors, was career suicide. Not only would a club think twice about signing a known "jumper" but in most instances couldn't because the rebellious ballplayer would be blacklisted from any league that was part of the National Association. That's exactly what happened to Badel who had no other choice but to return to Johnstown. He hit a nice .302 for the remainder of the season but suffered a setback when health problems and the death of his mother and brother kept him off the diamond in 1907.

Back with the Johnnies in 1908, Badel played for Ed Ashenback, a life-long minor leaguer who also wrote a very funny and insightful book about his career called "Humor Among the Minors". Ashenback describes how Badel couldn't comprehend simple hit-and-run signs or any other instructions for that matter. Discovering Badel spoke fluent German like himself, Ashenback tried simply shouting base running instructions in that language. This too came to naught since Badel would become excited while speaking German and get picked off base. 

Badel spent the next decade in and out of baseball, mostly in the low minors or Midwestern independent and outlaw leagues. In 1912 he was with the outlaw Cincinnati Pippins. The Pippins were part of the United States League which was formed to challenge the National Association's vice-grip on professional baseball. The league tried to place teams in many big league markets but their brand of ball was of a much lower standard than the majors and fans stayed away. Badel was popular with the sparse Cincinnati fans who did turn out for Pippins games and in May was batting a smooth .364. Unfortunately poor attendance and sub-standard talent forced the league to fold after less than 30 games.

In late July Badel surfaced in the South Atlantic League where he managed the Columbia Comers. Stats show he hit a paltry .203 but he made headlines when he took the mound for the Comers and pitched a complete game win over Columbus. 

For 1913 Badel returned to the Cincinnati area. Crossing the Ohio River to Kentucky he joined up with the Covington Blue Sox. Covington was a franchise in the new Federal League which grew in part out of the ashes of the defunct United States League. The 1913 season was to be a trial run for the Federals who aspired to become a third major league. By this time Badel was mostly playing first base, likely due to his age being somewhere in the mid-thirties range. He apparently still possessed his legs because in June he was listed as leading the Federal League in doubles. The Blue Sox played in a bread box of a stadium called Federal Park that held a cozy 6,000 and boasted outfield dimensions of 218 feet down the right field line, 267 feet to center and 194 feet down the right field line. With the big league Reds a trolly car ride away, the Blue Sox couldn't make ends meet and wisely moved to Kansas City in June.

Badel had one more year of baseball with Maysville, Kentucky of the Ohio State League, batting .246 before he was released in June. After that I could find no other mention of Badel anywhere. Giving it one last try I stumbled on a very impressive blog by Thom Karmik called Baseball History Daily. Karmik wrote the only modern summary of Badel that I've come across and it was through his story that we can get one last glimpse of him (as well as his approximate date of birth and name of the condition he suffered). According to his World War I draft registration, Badel moved back to Ohio and became a carpenter. After 1919 he simply disappears from history.

  • The Sporting Life (July 1, 1905)
  • The Sporting Life (March 2, 1907)
  • Washington Evening Star (January 23, 1907)
  • Washington Times (August 3, 1912)
  • Ashenback, Edward, Humor Among the Minors (M.A. Donohue & Company, 1911)
  • Okkonen, Marc, The Federal League of 1914-1915 (Society for American Baseball Research, 1989)
  • Thom Karmik (Baseball History Daily)