Friday, August 13, 2010

44. Slim Jones - The Greatest Pitcher of 1934

One of my favorite things about baseball, and history in general for that matter, is the big "what if..." question. You know, what if the South won the Civil War, what if Babe Ruth stayed a left- handed pitcher, questions that would have changed everything in a radically different way than events turned out. And then there are the little what if questions. Stuart "Slim" Jones is one of those nagging little questions and for a long time a player I have been fascinated with...

Jones was was a tall thin lefty from Baltimore and although he grew up playing softball, hardball was where the money was if you wanted to escape the grim depression then gripping the country back in the early 30's. Like Leon Day shortly after him, Jones tried joining the hometown Baltimore Black Sox. The once proud powerhouse had fallen on hard times and all its stars had fled to better paying teams, but the club still attracted the best black local talent and gave many players their start in professional baseball. So Stuart, now nicknamed "Slim" for obvious reasons, brought his 6'-6" frame to a tryout with the Sox but just didn't have enough to stick with the team. The next year he had developed a nice curve to compliment his blazing fastball and under manager Dick Lundy's watchful eye Jones stuck with the club and registered a 4-2 record for 1933.

Back before the 1960's most ballplayers, no matter how good they were, black or white, had to have a job during the winter to support themselves and family. Some of the most talented were able to get a berth on a team in the Cuban, Puerto Rican, California, Mexican or South American winter leagues. Because spaces on the teams were limited and players of all colors and nationalities were trying out, only the best were eligible to play down in paradise. In the winter of 1933, Slim Jones, with barely 1 year of professional experience with a marginal ballclub, made the Puerto Rican Winter League. It was down there that Jones really had his breakthrough. The reason for his dramatic rise is lost to history, maybe it was the experience of being around great veteran players in the islands or perhaps the 21 year-old just matured, but Jones struck out a resounding 210 men down there and the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League came looking for that tall lefty as soon as he and his luggage arrived back in the States.

1934 was all about Slim Jones. Right from the start of the season everyone that followed negro league baseball knew that someone special was in their midst. Jones simply dominated not only the various semi-pro and town teams the Stars played against, but the professional teams in the Negro National League as well. By mid-season Jones garnered enough fan votes for the annual East-West All-Star Game to eclipse the reining giant of negro league ball, Satchel Paige. Slim started the game instead of Satchel, a clear indication of his popularity with the fans and a nod to his talent on the mound. Pitching against the best players the West had to throw at him, Jones kept them hitless in the first inning but in the second he gave up a walk and a hit and now had runners on second and third with no outs. Slim bore down and struck out the powerful Sam Bankhead for the first out. Larry Brown of the Chicago American Giants was up next and hit a scorcher to third baseman Jud Wilson who knocked it down and threw out Mule Suttles at the plate as he tried to score. Two out, two men on base. Nashville's Sammy T. Hughes was up next. Hughes was one of the best clutch hitters who ever wore spikes but he too hit the ball to Wilson who made the long throw to first, inning over. Jones pitched the third inning as well and all told against the best negro league players of 1934 he pitched 3 innings, gave up 1 hit, walked 1 and fanned 4. Not bad for a 20 year-old in his first year in professional ball.

Negro League baseball has always been known for its showmanship as well as talent and in 1934 fans had the perfect storm. Everyone wanted a duel between the one and only Satchel Paige and the young upstart Slim Jones. On September 9th, the stars aligned at Yankee Stadium in New York City as the Paige's Pittsburgh Crawfords met Jone's Philadelphia Stars. Paige drove all night from a freelance pitching assignment and slept in his car outside the stadium. Jones told his teammates before the game "get me 2 runs and I'll win."

From the start everyone knew they were watching something special. Paige and Jones fanned batter after batter, double plays were turned as if it were a life or death battle and through 6 innings both men were pitching 1 hit shutouts. Then in the top of the 7th Dewey Creacy got a hit off Paige and scored on a double by Slim's catcher Biz Mackey. With 2 outs Jake Dunn hit a long fly to right fielder Ted Trent to made a spectacular shoe-string catch. The base umpire called it a trapped ball however and Mackey scored from second but then the home plate umpire ruled it a legit catch. No run scored, inning over and the score remained 1-0 Philadelphia.

For Slim's half of the 7th an error by second baseman Dick Seay and 2 singles tied the ballgame before he could extradite himself out of the inning. The next inning both pitchers ran into trouble but each time they pitched themselves out of it. Night was starting to descend on Yankee Stadium and going into the 9th each pitcher bore down harder. Fans were already calling it the greatest game ever played and Slim Jones retired the Crawfords in the top of the inning. Satch took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and set the Stars down one after another to end the inning. By now it was too dark to continue and fans ran on the field. Slim Jones had struck out 9 and gave up 3 hits, Paige wiffed 12 and relinquished 6 hits. The greatest game ever played was frozen for all eternity in a 1-1 tie.

Press coverage was incredible and the fans clamored for more. This is America after all, there has to be a winner and a loser. There must be a re-match! One week later, the two teams met again at Yankee Stadium in front of 30,000 fans. Dancer and honorary Mayor of Harlem Bill "Bojangles" Robinson presented both pitchers with a set of leather luggage - a very thoughtful gift seeing how much traveling the negro league teams did at the time. Jones struck out 6 and spread 5 hits over 9 innings, but Paige and the Crawfords bested the Stars, winning by a score of 3-1. Paige struck out 18 that day, gave up but 2 hits and forever sealed his reputation as the best clutch pitcher in the negro leagues.

So by the end of the 1934 season Jones had racked up the wins going 22-3 in league games and winning an additional 10 more games against semi-pros and lesser competition. In the hot pennant race of 1934 the Stars won the second half of the split season and now faced the first half winners, the venerable Chicago American Giants. In game one Jones came on in the ninth inning of a tie 1-1 game. Dewey Creacy made a bad throw on an easy out and Mule Suttles got a cheap hit through the infield scoring the winning run. Jones started game two but lost to Chicago's Ted Trent 3-0. Philly then evened the series forcing an eighth game after the 7th game ended in a tie due to darkness. Jones was at his best spreading 5 hits over the course of 9 innings and even smashed a double in the seventh scoring a run as the Stars cruised to a 2-0 shutout championship.

What else could top off such a spectacular year for a 20 year-old? How about pitching against the best pitcher in the white major leagues? The great Dizzy Dean, fresh off his 30 win season and marvelous world series performance against Detroit was barnstorming around the country with his brother Paul, also a star pitcher (19 wins) and a pick-up team of semi-pro players. Although the quality of Deans backing players may be suspect, Slim Jones still beat the Dizzy Dean All-Stars at Shibe Park capping off what may be the single greatest season ever recorded by a pitcher in baseball history.

So where do you go from here? Unfortunately for Slim, it was all down hill, and fast. Feted as the greatest pitcher in generations, Jones made the rounds of the bars and taverns in the off-season basking in the attention and indulging way too much. When he reported to the Stars at the start of the 1935 season he was out of shape and his ego inflated to a monstrous porportion. He fought with the management demanding a higher salery and at one point left the team in protest. His skills had eroded over the winter and by the middle of the season had still not registered a win. The fans still loved Slim and he received the second highest amount of votes for a pitcher that year for the East-West Game. Slim performed magnificently throwing 3 shut-out innings and had 2 hits including a two-run homer. But while that one day in Chicago may have reminded everyone of Jone's great promise, he finished 1935 with a 5-10 record. Winter of 1935-6 was spent back in Baltimore making the rounds of the clubs and bars cashing in on his reputation and when he returned to Philadelphia in 1936 his drinking had spiraled out of control. He finished the year 1-2, was 1-1 in 1937 and then 2-1 in 1938.

By the winter of 1938 Slim Jones, now a hopeless alcoholic barely holding on to a career as a ballplayer was out of cash and desperate. That winter was one of the worst in Baltimore history and Jones wired the Philadelphia Stars owner Ed Bolden for an advance on his next years salary. Bolden refused, partly because of Jone's declining performance and partly because of the precarious financial position his club was in. Like all negro league clubs the Stars barely turned a profit year after year and money, especially in the off-season, was tight. So now Jones, formerly the greatest pitcher in the world was desperate and thirsty wandering the streets of Baltimore searching for a drink. He sold his only overcoat to buy a bottle of whiskey and caught pneumonia. He died just before New Years, aged just 25.

Baseball is littered with stories like Slim, players who for a little while seemed to be the greatest in the game, only to have it all go away in a flash. Dizzy Dean, who Slim bested in 1934 had his brilliant career curtailed in 1936 due to an arm injury as did his equally talented brother Paul. Countless players drank themselves out of the game or were used up too fast because the fans wanted to see their hero pitch every time they went to the ballpark. But not many players had such a remarkable single season as Jones did in 1934 and he remains, at least for me, one of the biggest "what if" questions in baseball history.

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