Sunday, December 15, 2013

166. Earl Huckleberry: Straight to the Majors and Back


I don't have much family left now-a-days, so one of the added bonuses I received when I married my wife Andrea in August was that I became part of her family. More often than not, the phrase "in-laws" accompanies some horror story or otherwise unpleasant holiday tale. That's just not the case with Andrea's family - they're all great people who have made me feel more welcome than I had ever thought possible. 

Now, I'm sure most are wondering what the heck does my in-laws have to do with The Infinite Baseball Card Set? Well, I found out about this week's ballplayer via my wife's sister.

For the past two years Andrea and I have driven out to Oklahoma City to spend Thanksgiving with her sister Cathy and their family. Her husband, Scott (an L.A. Dodgers fan) was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. They have 3 teenagers who are healthy, smart, athletic and so well-grounded that spending time with them has renewed my faith in the future of America. So anyway, last Thanksgiving the whole family plus Andrea and I hopped in the family Suburban and went antique shopping. Oklahoma City has a huge number of very good antique stores and in one Cathy was thoughtful enough to pick up a present for me. It was a large hard-bound volume called "Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma". It's a very well made and researched book and not one I'd seen before. Not only does its authors cover the various major league players that hailed from the state, but its also heavy on the various minor leagues and semi-pro teams that populated the state before the second world war. My wife's sister hit the jackpot because it's the kind of book I absolutely love and within its pages that I came across a guy that has one of the best names in baseball history: Earl Huckleberry.

Throughout the bleak summer of 1935 Ira Thomas prowled the western half of the United States. As the odometer on his beat up Ford V8 clicked off mile after dusty mile, Thomas had a front row seat to the desolation the great depression and dust bowl had wrought on the American landscape. The usually sparsely traveled roads were now choked with refugees fleeing the dust storms and foreclosed farms that littered the great plains. While it seemed like everyone was on the move out of there, Thomas stepped on the gas and headed in. He was looking for arms.

His boss, the venerable and saintly Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had scattered his scouts to the far corners of the country looking for pitching. Thomas, Mack's former catcher from his first dynasty of the early teens, was the A's chief scout and although he didn't specifically come out and say it, the old man was counting on him to come through with a miracle. The stock market crash had hit the Athletics' owner hard and for the second time in his long career, Mack had to dismantle what may have been the greatest baseball team in major league history. For three glorious years, 1929 to 1931, Mack's A's had dethroned the mighty New York Yankees and won three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Championships. But by the summer of 1935, slugger Jimmie Foxx and outfielder Doc Cramer were the only stars remaining. The once great pitching staff of Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg and George Earnshaw were long gone, their place in the rotation taken by a long list of punch-drunk veterans and a revolving door of fuzzy-faced college kids. Connie Mack, for all his years in the game, was slow to accept the new concept of farm teams. Both his American League dynasties were assembled through good scouting and decades worth of connections he'd cultivated. In the past when a low-level minor league team had a promising youngster, Mack counted on managers to contact him and offer up the kid's contract. Now with many minor league clubs under working agreements with big league teams, Mack's pipeline had dried up. That's why Thomas was roaming around racking up more miles than a bible salesman.

Late August found Thomas sitting in the bleachers watching a semi-pro tournament in Oklahoma. Two pitchers from the Seminole Redbirds caught his attention - Vallie Eaves and Earl Huckleberry. Both right handers were well known on the dust bowl diamonds of Oklahoma and the two often found themselves teammates on semi-pro teams that had the cash to pay for their services. Eaves was a Native American with a lame leg and Huckleberry was a lanky Okie fireballer. Neither of these guys were another Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove, but the most important thing here was that both men were free agents. With his boss back in Philly desperate and nothing to lose, Ira Thomas quickly got both hurlers signatures on standard American League players' contracts and sent the duo east on the next train.

Back in Philadelphia, Connie Mack watched helplessly as his once proud team careened out of control down the American League standings. The pitching staff seemed to disintegrate in the late summer heat: rookie Lee Roy Mahaffey and veteran George Blaeholder blew their arms out and were done for the year, while promising lefty Whitey Wilshere abandoned the sinking ship to return to the University of Indiana. Apparently hitting the books was a more appealing prospect than ending the season with a lousy team like the Athletics.

The A's were in 7th place, a few games atop the lowly St. Louis Browns - that is, they were, until the Browns took 4 straight from Mack's men. Mired in last place and in a tailspin that now stretched to 13 consecutive losses, Mack was desperate and out of tricks - Thomas' telegram announcing the signing of the two Okies couldn't have come at a better time.

The two westerners joined the team in Philadelphia. Thursday, September 12 was a double header against the Chicago White Sox. The only remaining A's pitcher that was any good, Johnny Marcum, won the first game to snap the 13 game losing streak. For the second game, Connie Mack handed the ball to Vallie Eaves who proceeded to go the distance and beat White Sox ace Monty Stratton 4-3. It was a big enough win that the wire services picked up Eaves' story.

The next day, Friday, September 13th was Earl Huckleberry's turn. 

Wearing number 24, the lanky Oklahoman took the Shibe Park mound. Veteran A's catcher Charlie Berry would be catching him that afternoon. Huckleberry wound up and threw his fireball. He wasn't the fastest anyone had ever seen, but out west his fastball had nice movement and that big pitch worked fine on the semi-pro lots. Games of more than a dozen strike-outs weren't uncommon for Huckleberry, and for over five summers that ol' fireball had baffled hundreds of his opponents. In the major leagues it took the White Sox less than a handful of pitches to figure him out. By the time the inning ended the Sox had scored a run on a couple hits and Huckleberry's own error.

It wasn't the best of debuts, but fortunately White Sox starter Ray Phelps was even worse. By the time he was finally yanked and sent to the showers without finishing the first inning, Phelps had walked 8 batters and gave up seven runs. Reliever Jack Salveston let in another run before getting the last out.

Now working with a 7 run lead, the Oklahoman bore down and shut out Chicago for the next four innings. He struck out two Sox and his control wasn't bad for a guy coming directly from the sandlots to the majors. Meanwhile, A's batters piled on 4 more runs to make it 12-1 going into the bottom of the 6th. A handful of hits resulted in two Chicago runs but he got out of it. The A's added another 2 runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 14-5.

But then Connie Mack's newest find ran out of gas. Huckleberry managed to retire 2 Sox but let two more runs in before Mack gave him the hook. Dutch Lieber came in and shut Chicago down for the rest of the game. Though he gave up 7 earned runs and 8 hits, Huckleberry was awarded the win. 

The papers made much of Mack's two new discoveries, calling them "Mack's Kindergarten Class". Despite promises to play the Okie rookie again, September 13th, 1935 was Huckleberry's first and last appearance in organized baseball and neither Oklahoman made any difference in the A's nose-dive of a season. When the books mercifully closed on the 1935 season two weeks after Huckleberry's win, the Athletics were firmly locked in the cellar of the American League, a staggering 34 games out of first place.

Not many men can say they skipped the minor leagues on their way up and down from the big leagues, but Earl Huckleberry can. While his professional career was started and finished in the span of an afternoon, he continued to be a much-sought out baseball mercenary in Oklahoma. A year after his major league game, Huckleberry and Eaves joined forces again to pitch the Halliburton Cementers to victory in the Denver Post Tournament. He was still pitching up into the 1940's for various semi-pro clubs like the Enid Oilers and Seminole Red Birds, living his entire life in his native Oklahoma. He and his wife Dollie, who he married in 1933, had a daughter, and by the time he passed away in 1999, the Huckleberry's had two grand kids and three great-grand kids. Now I don't know this for sure, but I'd be willing to bet my bottom dollar that Grandpa Huckleberry bent their ears on many a Thanksgiving Day telling his brood about his one day on the mound for Connie Mack's Athletics.

I say this all the time, but it's stories like this that make this game interesting to me. You can take all the Hall of Famers and multi-million dollar contracts. I'll take Earl Huckleberry's one afternoon in the big leagues anytime.


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