Wednesday, February 7, 2018
238. Tony LaZerre: Joosta Like Babe-A-Da Ruth*
This week we'll continue to go backwards through baseball history and examine the single-season home run leaders of the pre-steroid era. Today we have Tony LaZerre. Never heard of him? How about Tony Lazzeri - you know him, right? Victim of Pete Alexander's big strikeout in the '26 World Series, member of the Yankees' Murderer's Row and first superstar ballplayer of Italian heritage - well back before he was with the Yanks he made baseball history under a different name...
Saturday, May 23. Salt Lake City, Utah
Cesare Rinetti was in the stands enjoying the unofficial game of his adapted homeland: baseball. The afternoon was perfect, right around 65, sunny and mild. The hometown Salt Lake City Bees were hosting the Seattle Indians. In a true rarity at Bonneville Park, usually a hitter's paradise, the game began as a pitcher's duel. Seattle's John Miljus was holding the Bees to just a pair of singles while the home team's starter Elmer Ponder had scattered 5 harmless hits. Then, in the bottom of the fifth, the Bees began to sting. A single sandwiched between a pair of Seattle errors started a rally for Salt Lake. In the stands, Rinetti and the rest of the crowd began to stir. Just like that, three runs scored before Miljus managed to get two outs. That brought the home crowd roaring to their feet. Now, with runners at the corners, Salt Lake's rookie hitting sensation Tony LaZerre stepped to the plate. Seven weeks into the 1925 season, the shy shortstop from San Francisco was simply murdering the ball: a .358 average and 9 for 18 in his last at bats.
Caught up in the excitement of the moment, Cesare Rinetti couldn't contain his enthusiasm. For Rinetti, this wasn't just his hometown team taking the lead, but the man who stood at the plate was his paisan - a fellow Italian-American - his "Tone." In the two months since Tony came to town, Rinetti had made it his mission to befriend and take care of his fellow Italian and his wife Maye. As the co-propriator of the Rotisserie Inn, Rinetti had been feeding the young slugger all the Italian fare he could eat. He couldn't swear by it, but inside Rinetti knew his friendship and good food played a part in the success Tony was experiencing so far in the season. So it wasn't just passion for his home team that got Rinetti all worked up, it was the pride in witnessing a fellow Italian-American making good playing America's game.
Eying the runners at the corners, Rinetti searched through his limited data bank of English phrases, searching for the right one to yell at that moment - something that would inspire "Tone," as he called him, to get a hit and advance those runners. When his mental search came up empty, Rinetti improvised. He cupped his hands to his mouth, and in his accented English he hollered out: "Push 'em up, Tone!" The fans nearby were puzzled by the expression, but as Rinetti yelled it a second, then third time, stressing the the first word, they picked up the curious chant.
"Poosh 'em up, Tone!" "Poosh 'em up, Tone!" "Poosh 'em up, Tone!"
Then, as if on cue, Tony sent a Miljus fastball over the left field wall. Three runs scored - Tone had indeed pushed 'em up.
Anthony Michael Lazzeri was the first born son of Augustine and Julia Lazzeri. His parents had immigrated from Italy and settled in the Cow Hollow section of San Francisco. Though its name evokes peaceful pastures, Cow Hollow was a rough part of Frisco, and the young Tony quickly knew how to used his fist to defend himself. Baseball also piqued his interests, and he began playing sandlot ball around the neighborhood.
Besides the disadvantages that went with being the son of immigrants, Tony was born with epilepsy. There isn't much written about how this affected his early life, but it must have been a hard thing to live with back in 1910's San Francisco. Virtually nothing was known about epilepsy back then, and people afflicted with it were often shunned and discriminated against socially, especially if a seizure was witnessed. The frequency with which he experienced his seizures is not recorded, but the fact that he was able to lead the life of a normal teenager says that perhaps the episodes were not very frequent.
Preferring boxing and baseball to books, Tony was expelled from school at the age of 15. He joined his pop as a boilermaker's assistant which paid dividends for him very quickly. Besides getting a steady union paycheck, the job also gave the teen an excuse to play baseball for the company team and a semi-pro team on Sundays. It also led to his being introduced to a teammate's sister, Maye Janes. The two began a relationship that would endure until the end of Tony's life.
Word of Tony's prowess spread beyond the industrial leagues and on to Duffy Lewis. The former Red Sox star was now the manager of the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League, one step below the majors. Lewis invited the 18 year old to the Bees spring training camp in Modesto. Lewis liked what he saw and took the kid back to Salt Lake when the season opened. From the start it was obvious that the rookie was out of his league. He hit a paltry .92 in 45 games and committed 11 errors. Yet Duffy Lewis knew a diamond in the rough when he saw one. He arranged for the teenager to be sent to a lower minor league for seasoning.
Following spring training in 1923, the Bees sent Tony to the Peoria Tractors of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. The Three-I League was a few rungs below the PCL and a good place for him to play everyday and get used to professional ball. Despite being sent down, the Salt Lake Tribune remarked that he was a "young player with extraordinary talent. He is a first-class fielder and has the best arm seen in the Coast League since Salt Lake entered the circuit." Pretty high praise for an 19 year-old being demoted. Tony didn't show up in Peoria alone - he married his long time girlfriend Maye and the couple traveled east together.
While his .248 average didn't exactly shatter any Three-I League records at Peoria, he did bang out 14 home runs and his fielding improved dramatically. When the season ended, Salt Lake called Tony back and he quickly showed the big club how much he'd matured in Peoria. On September 27 he went 4 for 5 with a double against San Francisco, then on October 5 he went a perfect 4 for 4 with a double against Los Angeles. At the end of the season he'd hit .354 in 39 games. Still, the Salt Lake management felt he needed some more experience and assigned him to the Lincoln Links for 1924.
Right from the start it was apparent he was far to talented for the Western League - in 84 games he belted 28 home runs and batted .328. Besides shortstop, he filled in at any spot in the infield. In August the Bees recalled him and he added 16 more round trippers to bring his season total to 44 home runs. Salt Lake's management finally felt the kid was ready, and sold their 1924 starting shortstop, Pinky Pittenger, to the Cubs.
At the Bees spring training camp in Long Beach, California, Tony dazzled both the sportswriters and the Bees new manager Oscar Vitt. While one could say he was a bit raw on the inside and rough around the edges, it was obvious the kid had the makings of a big leaguer, and it wasn't just his hitting. In the field the quiet newcomer dazzled the veterans with what was labeled as "the best arm in baseball," but it was his bat that really did the talking for him.
Now let's take a time out to put what Tony Lazzeri did in 1925 into historical (and statistical) perspective.
The Pacific Coast League in which the Bees played in was one of America's premier minor leagues. Rated a "Class AA" circuit, this archaic designation is the equivalent of today's AAA minor league. In its heyday, the PCL played a long 200 game season, thereby providing the canvas in which some crazy-looking season totals were accomplished. When looked at today without the benefit of context, it's easy to think that the pitchers in the PCL were just overpowering (multiple 25+ game winners were common) and the hitters were automatic hit machines. Up until the 1940's, the PCL was fiercely independent, meaning they could sell (or not sell) their players to whatever team they chose. In Lazzeri's time, the Chicago Cubs had a "working agreement" with Salt Lake, but all that meant was they had first dibs on a Bees player; they still had to pay Salt Lake's price. So, with stat totals artificially inflated due to 40 more games in their schedule, it was inevitable that expectations placed on PCL players to deliver in the majors were unreasonably high.
Another factor that must be considered when talking about Lazzeri's 1925 season is the ballpark he played his home games in. Since the Bees came to town in 1915, their home grounds was Bonneville Park. Salt Lake City is over 4,300 feet above sea level, and the rarefied air put an extra zing into every ball hit at Bonneville. Add to that the park's cozy dimensions of 308' to left, 408' to center and 320' to right and you had a hitter's paradise. In fact, in the 11 years the Bees called Salt Lake City home, the team led the PCL in home runs nine times and in batting eight. With the PCL's long 200 game seasons and Salt Lake's long ball-friendly atmosphere, Bees batters produced some eye-popping statistics. Case-in-point: Two years earlier, in 1923, Salt Lake's Paul Strand, a former pitcher with the Boston Braves turned outfielder, had one of the most impressive seasons in the history of the PCL. Strand won the Triple Crown with a .394 average, 43 home runs (a new PCL record) and 187 RBI. On top of that, he set the organized baseball record for most hits in a season with 325. Now keep Strand in mind because we'll come back to him a little later.
When Tony made the Bees lineup for good in 1925, he also acquired a new surname: "LaZerre" (or alternately "Lazerre"). This is a little odd, because when he was in town for short stints in 1922, 1923 and 1924, the local papers spelled his name correctly, but when he was back to stay 1925, the scribes modified it to the less Italian, but no less exotic "LaZerre." Whatever the reason - whether he was too shy to correct it, or that he just didn't care - for the remainder of his minor league career he would be "Tony LaZerre."
Tony started the season slow, but soon went full throttle. Vitt positioned the kid in the number 5 spot. Batting behind the big bats of Johnny Frederick, Oscar Vitt, John Kerr and Lefty O'Doul gave Tony space to relax - with at least one of those guys usually on base when he came to bat, pitchers didn't have to option to pitch around him. He hit his first home run on April 16 against Portland, and added a second one before the game ended in a 18-9 win. He victimized Portland for another one the next afternoon as well. By late May he was batting in the .370's.
It was at this point that he received his peculiar nickname "Poosh 'em Up Tony." A sportswriter for the Salt Lake City Tribune named John C. Derks happened to take notice of the crowd's chant and crafted it into a memorable headline for the next morning's paper. Playing on the stereotypical broken English and speech cadence of Italian immigrants, Derk's headline read:
"Poosh Um Up, Tone,' Yella Da Fan, an' Tone She Push"
You couldn't get away with mocking an immigrant's speech today, but back in 1925 people had thicker skin and were amused by that sort of stuff. Plus, it was down right catchy. Derks' nickname stuck and for the rest of his career he was "Poosh 'em Up Tony" Lazzeri.
Starting on June 10, Tony began hitting home runs at a pace that seemed down-right Ruthian. In the June 28 game against San Francisco, Tony hit three home runs, one to each field to make his point. By July he was past the 20 mark, but inevitably there had to be a slump. For the better part of July, Tony lagged at the plate. One explanation might be stage fright. The slugging of Tony, Lefty O'Doul and Johnny Frederick brought forth a swarm of scouts that attended every Bees game, studying their every move and dispatching their reports back to the big club. Fortunately, Tony broke out of his slump in style during the July 29 game against Sacramento. He not only hit for the cycle (a single, double, triple and home run), but twice cleared the bases during the game, once with a double and the second time with a grand slam. He was credited with driving in nine runs in the Bees 23-11 win.
The Chicago Cubs had that working agreement with Salt Lake, and their scouts had been keeping tabs on the rookie's progress all season. But while the reports were overwhelmingly favorable regarding his play on the field, his history of "fits" made them pass. The Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators both showed interest but ultimately shied away for the same reason as the Cubs. Looking back, it's hard to understand why big league teams weren't lining up to take a chance on the PCL home run leader. That the Senators passed could be excused - they were on the verge of winning their second consecutive pennant and had no reason to take an expensive risk. Cincinnati and Chicago, however, are a different story. Cincinnati was stuck in second place and needed that extra something that would send them over the top. The Cubbies on the other hand were mired in the cellar and should have grasped at anything that could have meant a better showing in the standings. But back in '25, epilepsy was a frightening and mysterious affliction. A bum ankle or broken arm could be easily treated and monitored, but a malady that came on without warning was too much for the folks in 1925 to understand.
There was also one other factor that made teams leery of spending big bucks on the Salt Lake sensation: Paul Strand. Remember him? He was the Bees' 1923 Triple Crown winner and baseball's all-time single season hit leader. After his record setting year, Connie Mack opened up his miserly change purse and shelled out $35,000 and five good players (including Pinky Pittenger who Tony replaces at shortstop) for Strand. The PCL phenom started the '24 season with the A's, but was unceremoniously dumped off on Toledo after 47 games, zero home runs and a .228 average. Strand's crash and burn and Mack's financial bath was still fresh in the minds of the other big league execs as Tony LaZerre was burning up the PCL a year later.
In early August, only one team was willing to take a chance on Tony, and it was the one thought least likely to need another home run hitter: the New York Yankees. The Yanks had sent several scouts west to take a look at the kid, and while they dutifully reported back about his "fits", the stories of his hitting power and strong throwing arm excited general manager Ed Barrow. Beginning in early July, the New Yorkers had been trying to buy him, but were continuously rebuffed by Bees owner Frank Lane. Scout Ed Holly put an offer of fifty grand on the table but Lane refused. It wasn't that he didn't need the cash - in fact Lane's Salt Lake franchise was in deep financial trouble in the summer of 1925. Even with his exciting lineup of powerhouse sluggers, the Bees were only pulling in an average of 900 fans per game. The other PCL teams, who were all located along the west coast, disliked traveling so far inland to Salt Lake, especially when their part of the gate following a series with the Bees didn't cover their travel costs. The only thing that kept less fans going to Bonneville Stadium was a marquee attraction like their slugging shortstop. If he was to leave, how many fans would leave, too? Lane's refusal to sell Tony to the Yankees in July was him trying to stave off the inevitable. The Bees owner was now riding the fine line between keeping his franchise above water and open for business and cashing in his most valuable asset and risk closing shop.
Lane delayed parting with Tony throughout July, trying to wring any financial advantage the publicity of his sparkling season was reaping at the gates. But he couldn't hold out forever - in the beginning of August Lane was ready to sell. After extensive consultation with multiple medical experts eased Barrow's apprehensiveness over the ballplayer's "fits," the Yankees handed over a reported $50,000 cash and five players for Tony LaZerre.
In the meantime, since he wasn't due to report to New York until following spring, there was still the remainder of the 1925 PCL season to play.
At the time of his purchase on August 2, Tony had past the 35 home run mark. This was just eight shy of the PCL record Paul Strand had set in 1923, and there was still more than 50 games to go. It began to look like Tony could not only beat Strand but that he had a good shot at the all-time minor league record of 55 set by Clarence "Big Boy" Kraft set just a year before.
Tony not only beat Strand's record on September 13, but he annihilated it, bashing three home runs in a doubleheader against the Angels. A week later Tony had 50, but there he stalled. Unlike his July-long stage fright, according the newspapers PCL pitchers weren't giving the Salt Lake slugger anything to work with. It took him until October 2 to break Kraft's record, and then he stalled again when pitchers refused to challenge him. Tony's frustration came to the surface when the normally quiet shortstop disputed a call at second base and was ejected from the second game of a doubleheader. Finally, on October 11 came home runs 57 and 58, putting him one away from matching Babe Ruth's record of 59 set back in 1921.
Of course back in 1925 you had the haters who tried to pooh-pooh what was going on in Salt Lake. One of the first things mentioned was the PCL's extended season, more than forty more games than the major leagues and most minor leagues. Noted too, was that Tony was what the papers called a "Salt Lake Hitter," attributing his home run production with that rarefied air in Bonneville Park. It was a cold fact that 39 of his homers hit in 1925 were at home. Now that the PCL season coming to a close with Salt Lake's remaining games all on the road, Tony had to prove he wasn't just a "Salt Lake Hitter."
Saturday October 17 found the Bees in Sacramento for the final three games of the season. In the first game Tony tied Ruth with number 59. That left only a Sunday doubleheader in which to make history. To give him more chances at the plate, Oscar Vitt moved Tony up from the 5th spot to lead off. Sacramento conceded an edge to Salt Lake by positioning their outfielders as far away from left field as possible. Even with these favorable conditions he managed nothing more than a double in five tries in the first game. Then in the nightcap he came up empty in his first two tries. Finally in the seventh he got hold of one and lined a ball to deep left field. As the outfielders chased the ball to the wall, Tony circled the bases for an in the park home run. Though a bit tainted, he had set the new single season record for home runs.
That was all she wrote for Tony LaZerre. The following spring he had made the New York Yankees as Tony Lazerri and helped spark the Yanks to the first of six pennants they'd win with him in their lineup. Not only did he go on to a Hall of Fame career, but Lazzeri also was the first star ballplayer of Italian heritage, paving the way for guys like DiMaggio, Crosetti, Rizzuto and Berra.
As far as those dreaded "fits" went, it seems they had no bearing on his career. Ed Barrow later wrote that he was always concerned that something might occur, but they never did on the field. After he left the game, Tony returned to San Francisco where he and Maye raised a family and the old ballplayer ran a bar. On August 6, 1946, Maye returned from a trip out of town to find her husband collapsed inside their home, dead of a heart attack at age 42.
As with the rest of my stories, I relied heavily on contemporary newspaper stories. I also have to acknowledge Hal Schindler's 1993 article about Lazzeri's 1925 season. Unlike almost every other story about Lazzeri's nickname, Schindler actually dug deep and found the actual headline and story in the Salt Lake Tribune that used "Poosh Um Up, Tone" for the first time. That was some good research. Also, Richard Ian Kimball's "Bringing Fame to Zion" article in Nine, volume 14.2 offered some good background on what was going on in Salt Lake back in 1925. Since Lazzeri's big league career has been covered countless times, I concentrated solely on his Salt Lake City days. To find out the rest of Lazzeri's story I recommend Paul Voltano's Tony Lazzeri: A Baseball Biography and Fred Glueckstein's biography of him on the SABR website.
*The post's title, "Joosta Like Babe-A-Da Ruth," comes from a 1928 tin pan alley tune written by James Kendis. The title plays on the same Italian immigrant accent stereotype that Lazzeri's nickname derived from. I have no idea what "Joosta Like Babe-A-Da Ruth" sounded like, but I'm sure it was a helluva foot tapper.