Tuesday, August 11, 2015
201. Jake Atz: His Whole Story from A to Z
I know I haven't been posting stories as often as I used to - it's been a busy summer. I've been fortunate to have been invited to several book signings around the country and on top of all that I was awarded the 2015 Tony Salin Award from the Baseball Reliquary in July. The Salin Award is presented to individuals in recognition of their part in the preservation of baseball history. As far as I know there's no higher recognition a baseball historian, writer or artist can receive than the Salin Award, and I am extremely humbled and proud of this achievement. I'll post a picture of the award and a bit more about the 2015 ceremony in the near future, so stay tuned.
One more thing before I introduce this week's story. Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.
When I first started this blog a little over five years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of tales I like to write - guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Jake Atz was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 3 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." (although it's a different illustration).
Since the Cincinnati Red Stockings first stepped foot on a ball field back in 1869, professional baseball has produced more great legends than any other sport in history. From Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes to Babe Ruth's called shot to Steve Bartman being the sole cause of the Cubs playoff collapse, baseball's great legends, whether true or false, are what made the game so enduring over the decades. And as many tales and legends are attributed to Major League Baseball, the minor leagues have produced an infinitely greater number.
Take the story of Jake Zimmerman. It's the turn of the century and Zimmerman was a young Jewish kid from Washington, D.C. trying to get his foot firmly placed on the bottom rung of the professional baseball ladder. The story goes that Jake's teammates lined up alphabetically to receive their pay each week. Finances in the low minors at the turn of the century was precarious to say the least, and from time to time by the time Jake got to the front of the line, the team treasurer had run out of funds. Refusing to let a mere surname get in the way of his financial stability, Jake Zimmerman became Jake Atz. Problem solved and an enduring baseball legend is born.
There's only one problem - well, two actually: Jake never changed his name because he never had to - nor was he a Jew.
Jacob Henry Atz was born in Washington, D.C. in 1879. His father's people were German Lutherans and his mother's side of the family was Irish. Sometime, somewhere very early in his baseball career Jake was taken for being a Jew. He didn't think it necessary to do anything to correct the notion so today he's always on the list of Jewish Major Leaguers. I also fell victim to the great story surrounding Jake Atz and included him in my little book on Jewish ballplayers back in 2011, further perpetuating the myth. It wasn't until recently that modern researchers dug up Jake's ancestral records and found not only his religious background incorrect but the birth name often listed for him - John Jacob Zimmerman - was wrong. So after one hundred years the two things that made Jake Atz such a great baseball character were proven to be myths. Still, even when you brush away the legend, Jake Atz was still a pretty remarkable ball player.
Atz got his professional start with the Raleigh Senators in 1901. After making his mark his contract was soon sold to the New Orleans Pelicans. Although the Pelicans played in the Southern Association, a higher minor league than Raleigh, a trip to the deep south meant terrible humidity, rowdy fans and rampant disease epidemics - it was not uncommon for a player to contract malaria while playing in the Southern Association. Like many players of his era, Jake refused to go. New Orleans’ manager trekked up north to meet with Atz in person. When told he would be making $125 a month, Jake responded that for that sum he’d play in Alaska!
Managing to avoid malaria, dehydration and riotous spectators, Atz finished up the year in New Orleans and batted .275 for the Pelicans. The next year the Washington Senators called him up for a look-see. In front of his hometown fans, Atz got into three games but managed only 1 hit in 10 at bats. The Senators sent Jake back down south where he played for New Orleans and then Memphis. Jake then went out to the West Coast where he played for Los Angeles and Portland, all the while hitting around .250.
In 1908 he was back in New Orleans hitting .312 when the big leagues came calling again. The Chicago White Sox brought Atz up as a reserve infielder and the next year he was their starting 2nd baseman. He was an average-skilled infielder but his major league career ended prematurely in part because of an injury to his hip suffered when he deliberately leaned into a Walter Johnson pitch in order to get on base. Released to the Providence Grays in 1910 he took over as manager during the second half of the next season. Although the team finished last in the Eastern League, Jake had found his calling. He was a natural manager.
Atz bumped around the low minors again making the most out of his waning playing days until he landed a berth as player/manager of the Fort Worth Panthers. His early years as manager didn’t go so smoothly and the hard-headed Atz quit the team in a huff after the owner second-guessed his decision to leave a struggling pitcher in the game instead of going to his bullpen. Atz’s popularity was such that the next year the owner was forced out by the minority stock holders and their first move was to bring Jake back as manager. Extremely popular with both fans and players, the colorful Atz drove the Panthers to the Texas League pennant every year from 1919 to 1925. The Panthers became a dynasty due to the owners, W.K. Stripling and Paul LaGrave who paid top dollar for the best players they could find. So well paid were their men that some even turned down promotions to higher leagues because they would make much less than what the Panthers paid them. Besides, “Jake Atz’s Cats” as they were dubbed, were winners. His 109 wins in 1922 and again in 1924 set a Texas League record that still stands. The Panthers also played in the inaugural Dixie Series that pitted the champs of the Texas League against the winners of the Southern Association. Even though the Southern League had a higher minor league classification than the Texas League, Atz’s Cats won the series every year between 1920 and 1925 except 1922. He left Ft. Worth after the 1929 season and managed various other teams, mostly in the Texas League until finally retiring after the 1941 season.
All told, Jake Atz managed in the minors for 22 years. His lifetime record of 1,972 wins places him 12th among the most wins by a minor league manager. The last team he helmed was the 1941 Winston-Salem Twins whose shortstop that year was a young Jewish kid from New York named Mickey Rutner who would go on to become the inspiration for the fictional character “Mike Kutner” in Eliot Asinof’s literary baseball classic, “Man On Spikes”.
Jake Atz died of cancer in his adopted hometown of New Orleans in 1945. The next year the Texas League introduced the “Jake Atz Trophy”, still awarded at the end of each season to the league champions. So, even with the myths dusted off Ol' Jake Atz's story, he still managed to make quite a mark on the game he loved...