Thursday, December 29, 2011

99. Leon Day: The 1945 G.I. World Series

Writing up the Subway Sam Nahem story last month, I related how I learned about him from Negro League All-Star and Baseball Hall Of Fame member Leon Day, who'd played with Nahem during the war on one of the first, if not the first, integrated military baseball team. Like I related in the Nahem story, Leon told me that the game he was most proud of in his long and storied career was the one he pitched against Patton's 3rd Army team in the 1945 G.I. World Series. It's a great and little known part of baseball history and I thought it deserved a place here at the Infinite Baseball Card Set...

By 1942 Leon was one of the best pitchers in baseball. During that year's East-West All-Star Game Day entered the game in the 7th inning and beat Satchel Paige, striking out 5 of the first 7 batters. The next year Newark had a lousy team, hampered by players entering the service and Day fell to 4-5 but he pulled extra duty as an outfielder and hit a nice .304 before he too got the call from Uncle Sam.

Day shipped out to England with the 818th Amphibian Battalion and went ashore on Utah Beach on June 6th, 1944. Leon drove a DUKW, a six-wheeled amphibious vehicle, across France and Belgium throughout 1944 and '45. When the war ended, Day was recruited to pitch for the Com Z OISE All-Stars baseball team that represented the Forward Base at Reims, France. With the war over and thousands of troops anxiously waiting around to go home, baseball leagues were organized to take the men's minds away from mischief. The U.S. Army had a plethora of former big league ballplayers and each unit fielded a competitive team with the local champs going through a serious of playoffs culminating in the G.I. World Series to be held in September, 1945.

The OISE All-Stars were a scrappy hodge-podge made up of former semi-pro players and low-level minor leaguers put together by former Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Subway Sam Nahem. With the inclusion of Leon Day and former Kansas City Monarch slugger Willard Brown the All-Stars became one of the first integrated ball clubs in the military. Against all odds, the OISE team decisively beat team after team, steadily advancing through the playoffs.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe in occupied Germany, the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers team pounded their way through the playoffs. Led by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ewell Blackwell and St. Louis Cardinals star Harry Walker, the Red Circlers boasted an alarming 9 former major leaguers and 3 more who'd play in the bigs right after the war. Representing General George Patton's 3rd Army, the Red Circlers were the odd-on favorites, and just to be sure, Patton had 7 former pro ballplayers transferred to the 71st Infantry just in time for the opening game of the G.I. World Series.

On September 2nd, 1945, 50,000 GI's packed Nuremberg Stadium to see the first game of the best of 5 series. Armed forces radio was on hand to broadcast the games to the thousands of other GI's stationed throughout Europe and Africa. It wasn't the real world Series, but there was enough major league talent on hand to make it enjoyable. During the course of World War II, no less than 500 big league ballplayers and 4,000 minor leaguers were in the service, and all the best ones seemed to be on Patton's team. As expected, the Red Circlers' beat up on Bobby Keane, former Brooklyn Bushwicks semi-pro hurler, and won the first game 9-2.

The next day was Labor Day in America and in Nuremberg 45,000 soldiers filled the stands of Hitler's former stadium expecting to watch another one-sided contest. Coach Nahem gave the ball to Leon Day. Facing major league talent was nothing new to Day, heck he was a veteran of the Negro National League and had out-dueled Satchel Paige himself on numerous occasions. The Red Circlers may be more well known than the OISE All-Stars, but that didn't mean Leon Day couldn't handle them. Facing off against minor leaguer Walter "Ole" Olson, Day was simply magnificent, holding the big league sluggers to just 4 hits and not allowing a single run for the first 8 innings. However Olson also did well, keeping the game scoreless despite being hit hard by the All-Stars. OISE's first baseman Tony Jaros, a 6'-3" giant who played Big Ten basketball for Minnesota before the war, belted out 3 doubles in the game and Subway Sam Nahen added two doubles of his own to the mix. Finally in the sixth with no one out, St. Louis semi-pro Joe Herman singled followed by a walk to Roy Marion. That brought up Kansas City Monarch All-Star Willard Brown who banged out an RBI singles scoring Herman. Jaros came up next but went down swinging. Nick "Warehouse" Macone popped out and then Olson fanned Ty Richardson to get out of the inning. The next inning the All-Stars jumped on Olson again, this time Emmet Altenburg tripled to right-center field followed by Coach Nahem's double to the same place, pushing across a run.

The next inning Patton's men came to life and finally tapped Day for a run. With two outs, St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Harry "The Hat" Walker got a double off of Day and then Cincinnati Reds' second baseman Benny Zientara doubled him home. With the tying run on second and the go-ahead run at the plate in the form of Pittsburgh Pirate Johnny Wyrostek, Leon Day, proving that the previous 2 years in the service didn't hamper his pitching, struck him out to end the inning. It was a surprising upset and Day proved he could more than hold his own against white major league talent. All told, Day had struck out 10 batters and walked only 2 that day and the OISE All-Stars evened the series at 1 game a piece.

The series then shifted to Reims, France where the OISE All-Stars were based. Subway Sam penciled himself in as the starting pitcher and tossed a great game, winning 2-1. With the All-Stars now unbelievably up 2 games to 1, Leon Day was tapped to pitch game 4.

Unfortunately Leon didn't have his stuff that afternoon and by the 4th inning he's given up 4 runs on 6 hits and was taken out of the game. The Red Circlers won 5-0 and evened up the series. The fifth and deciding game was a see-saw event with the All-Stars eventually scoring the winning run in the 9th inning to take the game and the series, 2-1. Now OISE was supposed to be headed to Rome to take on the Mediterranean champs but unfortunately things got fowled up. Not content with being the losing team, many of the major league players on the Red Circlers got themselves transferred to the OISE All-Stars and many of the unknown semi-pros who were the heart and soul of the scrappy team were left behind in Reims. Leon was still bitter about that years later when retelling the story. But, in the end I guess it didn't matter all that much, Leon got his honorable discharge and in his first Negro League game threw a no-hitter against the Philly Stars on opening day, 1946. While not as flashy and well known as Satchel Paige, Leon Day was shown the ultimate tribute when a panel of his peers elected him into the Baseball Hall of Fame shortly before his death in 1995.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Card Sets Have Arrived!

The Pete Hill Card Sets have arrived! Today I've been sorting them into sets (we're not exactly hi-tech here) and numbering each one by hand and the first ones will be mailed out on Saturday... I'm not one to crow, but THESE CARDS MIGHT BE THE BEST I'VE DONE SO FAR! Each one holds up on its own and when viewed together as a whole set you can see and read about the whole career of the dead-ball ear's greatest black ballplayer. The different uniforms really make each card visually appealing and Gary Ashwill's impeccably researched text and statistics make this a card set like no other. And if you order a set by December 31st you get THIS CARD as a bonus! Alright, that's all I'm going say about them and let the pictures speak for themselves...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

98. Russ Van Atta: The Babe, Oil and One Dead Finger

Well, it's Christmas time again and I'm preparing for my trip back to New Jersey to visit my Brother and Mom. Although I left that place when I was 17 and never really looked back, Christmastime always makes me a bit nostalgic about growing up there and I get a little homesick for my home state. So, like last year at this time when I did a feature on New Jersey native Johnny Vander Meer, I'd like to introduce you to another son of The Garden State, former Yankee pitcher Russ Van Atta.

Back when I was growing up in New Jersey, my Grandparents would take my brother and I out into the country of the northwest part of the state to pick apples. Sussex County was as far away from the belching smokestacks, endless overpasses and teaming city streets of the eastern part you think of when the word "New Jersey" is invoked. No, Sussex County was and still is a dazzling wilderness of rolling green foothills, black and white milk cows, race horses and tidy red barns. It was the reason New Jersey's often-derided nickname is "The Garden State."

Now back then, in the late 1970's, chances were if you stopped in any diner or tavern in the county there would be one thing that they all had in common besides offering cold Ballantine Beer in bottles - an autographed picture of Babe Ruth. Every single establishment had one, even hotels, golf courses, hardware stores... they were as common as a calendar. Who was behind this county-wide plethora of Bambino ephemera? The Sheriff, that's who.

Long before he was known as "The Sheriff", Russ Van Atta was just another poor kid trying everything he could to escape the zinc mines that dotted the foothills of Northwestern New Jersey. Understandably, working underground all day for 53 cents an hour wasn't how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Like many other young kids in the United States before and since, Russ figured baseball was his way out. A southpaw pitcher, Van Atta was good enough to have been offered a partial scholarship to Penn State in 1924. Unlike most of his well-to-do classmates, Van Atta took on any odd job he could find in order cover school costs - making the beds in fraternity houses and keeping the furnaces lit during the bitter winter months. By the time graduation rolled around Van Atta had firmly established himself as the Nittany Lion's ace pitcher, losing only 1 game in 4 seasons.

For a $250 bonus, super-scout Paul Kritchell got Van Atta's signature on a New York Yankees contract and by June the kid from the mines was dressed in pinstripes, sitting on the Yankees bench wondering when he was going to pitch. Manager Miller Huggins quickly waved away any delusions the kid had about cracking the Yank's rotation when he sat him down and told him he didn't even trust him to pitch batting practice, let a lone a real game. No, the newly-minted college grad was going to Hartford in the Eastern League for seasoning.

He was 8-4 in 24 games for the Hartford Senators with a 2.37 ERA. In August he went the full 9 innings against the Boston Braves, shutting the National Leaguers out on 4 hits. The word was he was wild but talented and the next year the Yankees moved him up to their St. Paul team.

Van Atta now suffered through two seasons of bad luck and even worse pitching. The control problems became a real issue and by the time spring 1931 rolled around all Van Atta had to show for two seasons was a lousy 7-14 record. During the off-season he contemplated giving up game but eventually decided to give it the old college try. It was a good choice.

New to the Saints in 1931 was veteran Cardinals and Giants catcher Frank Snyder. Working closely with Van Atta, Snyder used his 16 years of major league experience to mold the discouraged southpaw into a first-class pitcher. By August he was considered the best pitcher in the American Association and finished 13-5 for the '31 pennant winning Saints.

The following year was Van Atta's break-out season as a pitcher. He tied for league-leader in wins with 22 and on May 19th, 1932 Van Atta barely missed making a baseball history by following up teammate Slim Harriss' no-hitter of the previous afternoon with one of his own against the Kansas City Blues. Van Atta's no-hit bid was busted up in the 8th when Pat Collins doubled and he had to settle for a one-hitter. Together the two St. Paul pitchers tossed 17 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. By now Van Atta was considered as a no-questions asked sure thing and after the Yankees struck their spring training camp and headed north to start the 1933 season, Russ Van Atta was wearing his own set of pinstripes with the number 14 on the back, his signature freshly inked on a $3,500 Yankee contract for the season.

On April 25th the Yankees were in Griffith Stadium to play the Washington Senators. Once the butt of many a joke, the Senators now possessed a talented team that would eventually derail the mighty Yankees' annual pennant. Russ Van Atta took the ball and began one of the most memorable and infamous debut performances in baseball.

Van Atta had the Senators handcuffed and scoreless for the first 3 innings. In the top half of the 4th, Yankee outfielder Ben Chapman came to bat. Chapman was a mediocre ballplayer who more than made up for his inadequacies with ruthless determination and a mean streak 16 miles long. On the professional, sterile New York Yankees, Chapman stuck out like a sore thumb, provoking fights and cultivating his reputation as a rabid anti-Semite, to the point of taunting Jewish fans in Yankee Stadium with the Hitler salute. So Chapman hits a double off Monte Weaver and after rounding first sees Washington's star second baseman Buddy Myer blocking the base. Chapman bears down and slides into the base spiking the hell out of Myer in the process. Buddy Myer, a tough ballplayer himself, jumped to his feet and kicked Chapman in the head. Being Jewish he undoubtedly figured Chapman's aversion towards his religion had something to do with the intentional spiking. The two went at it and slugged it out. Both benches emptied as the players ran onto the field to fight.

Van Atta was among them but was quickly grabbed by manager McCarthy and pushed back towards the bench - he was their pitcher and the Yanks couldn't afford to have him be thrown out of the game, or even worse, hurt. When he reached the Yankee dugout he discovered there were only two men still sitting there, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. From the dugout Van Atta marveled at the orgy of violence that unfolded before him. Finally the umpires managed to separate the players and promptly ejected both Chapman and Myer. As Chapman walked past the Senators bench on his way to the clubhouse, Washington pitcher Earl Whitehill shouted something at him and Chapman belted the pitcher in the mouth.

Now all hell broke loose.

An estimated 300 fans rushed onto the field to attack Chapman. Yankee outfielder Dixie Walker did his best to defend his teammate but was soon overwhelmed. The rest of the Yankees charged through the crowd to rescue the 2 men as the police beat back the enraged spectators trying to restore order. 20 minutes later it was over. In addition to Chapman and Myer, Dixie Walker was ejected and a handful of Washington fans were taken away in handcuffs. It was probably one of the worst riots in Major League history, but the day wasn't over yet.

Van Atta, much to his credit, resumed his mastery on the mound, unwilling to become rattled by the battle that took place. At bat he registered hit after hit, going 4 for 4, all singles, knocking in a run and scoring three. He kept the Senators to five hits and shut them out 16-0. It was one of the best debut performances for a pitcher to date but it was totally overshadowed by the riot in the 4th inning.

To Van Atta it didn't really matter because everything he did that season went his way. With an already overpowering fastball, the rookie worked with veteran pitcher Herb Pennock and developed a nasty little curve, the key being the pressure he put on the ball with the middle finger. As the season wore on number 14 registered win after win and closed out the season 12-4, his .750 win-loss percentage leading the quartet of Yankee starters. Besides his dominance on the mound Van Atta batted a nice .283 to boot. New York finished 7 games behind Washington who absolutely crushed the competition that year - all except the rookie Van Atta who was the winning pitcher 5 of the 6 times the Yanks managed to defeat the pennant-bound Senators.

Van Atta went home to the Jersey foothills a conquering hero. The Sporting News, back then the New York Times of the baseball world, picked him, along with Hank Greenberg and Joe Medwick, for their 1933 freshman all-star team. Besides the accolades in the sporting press, Van Atta had also made some influential friends, namely his teammate and the most famous athlete in the world, Babe Ruth.

The big slugger was winding down his career in New York and befriended a the young ballplayer from North Jersey. Both the Babe and Van Atta had a passion for the outdoors - hunting, fishing and golf, and Van Atta proudly took the big slugger home with him on off days to sample what his corner of The Garden State had to offer. The Babe fell in love with Van Atta's hometown and continued to visit there every year up into the 1940's. The locals who were already proud of their hometown hero now really had something to crow about, Van Atta brought The Babe home with him. Local roadhouses, well-stocked with liquor since the recent appeal of prohibition, all boasted Bambino visits and every golf course in that part of the state proudly displayed a personally autographed picture of the big guy.

Anyone in the know predicted great things for this lefty and when the Yankees sent him his 1934 contract filled out with the same $3,500 he made in '33, Van Atta wasn't shy about sending it back with a counter offer of $7,500. Both parties settled for $6,000 and Van Atta was so well touted for a great future even that made the papers nationwide. Then a week later, this tiny article appeared:

Russell Van Atta, New York Yankee pitcher, his mother, wife and child were left homeless when fire destroyed the family residence at Lake Mohawk, near Sparta, N.J. on December 13. Firemen from Sparta tried to save the house but the flames had gained such head-way that their efforts were unavailing.

Losing your house was a lousy way to cap off a great year, but so long as no one was injured, Van Atta had the world at this feet. Baseball season, and what was supposed to be another great year, was right around the corner.

But right from the start something was wrong. His fastball lost it's sting and the new-found curve left town. By May Van Atta had been knocked out of the box 4 times and quickly slipped from New York's starting rotation. The former phenom soon found himself in the bullpen, back then a shameful demotion for such a young player. 1934 ended with a disappointing 3-5 record with an unacceptable 6.34 E.R.A. Newspapers debated Van Atta's season - was it the dreaded sophomore jinx, did he strain his arm in spring training, maybe the other batters around the league simply "figured" the southpaw out. No one knew for sure until the real reason finally leaked out.

Remember that December fire? Well, there was an injury that fateful night. As the fire engulfed the family home, Van Atta took stock of his family members - mother, wife, child, dog... wait, where was the dog? Realizing his cocker spaniel was missing Van Atta dashed back into the burning house to find his dog. In the rescue attempt somehow the pitcher sustained a terrible cut on the index finger of his left hand, severing the nerves. Van Atta staggered back outside clutching his pitching hand only to discover his dog waiting for him.

As the winter turned to spring, Van Atta's finger healed in appearance but the nerves had been destroyed. He could no longer get a good grip on the ball which pretty much threw his newly-found curve ball out the window and robbed his fastball of its velocity. He told no one about the injury, not the Yankees, not even his wife. In spring training he muddled through, trying to get by on his fastball as best he could but the finger was so badly damaged he could run a lighted match along it with out feeling a thing - not a bad cocktail party trick but meaningless for a big league pitcher trying to stay in the game.

After his wipe out in 1934, Van Atta stumbled through spring training in '35 before being sold for the waiver price to the St. Louis Browns. Van Atta's career was effectively over. He went 18-32 with the miserable Brownies, all the while feuding with their despot of a manager, Rogers Hornsby. He held on in the Browns' bullpen until the spring of 1940 and then returned home to the foothills of New Jersey. Still a popular fella, Van Atta ran for Sheriff of Sussex County and with the help of his old pal Babe Ruth, easily won. The Babe's campaign pitch was simple: with a wink of the eye he told the locals if you don't elect Russ, I'm not coming back to this part of the state anymore. And that's how Russ Van Atta became known as "Sheriff" Van Atta. A few years later as The Babe lay dying from cancer, Van Atta made the trek to his hospital bedside to bid his old pal goodbye. He died 2 days later.

After a term as sheriff he moved on to the post of County Freeholder and then on to a highly successful career as a representative of the Gulf Oil Company. Shrewd land deals made him a wealthy man. Renown throughout Sussex County as an all-around good guy, "Sheriff" Van Atta spent his retirement traveling around the country visiting his old teammates, reliving his once promising career and reveling in all the friendships he made. Alzheimers finally claimed the old southpaw and Sheriff Van Atta died at the age of 80 on October 6, 1986.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

97. Sam Nahem: Subway Sam vs. The World

About a year ago when I was researching Jewish players I wanted to write about (and draw) for the first issue of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball, my old friend Leon Day came to mind. Not that Leon was a Jew - he was in fact one of the greatest Negro League pitchers of all time, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and I was fortunate to know him back in the late 80's. No, I thought of Leon because of the conversations I would have with him in his baseball room on the second floor of his Baltimore row house. Leon would talk about anyone and everyone else, heaping praise on his teammates on the Newark Eagles as well as famed opponents such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson. It would always take a lot of prodding to get Leon to talk about his own career and the first thing I remember asking him was "what was the best memory you have from playing baseball?"

Without pausing he told me about the 1945 G.I. World Series he pitched in after the fall of Nazi Germany. Leon played on an integrated team called the OISE All Stars that represented a supply unit of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. After beating all the competition in France and Belgium they were to meet the formidable team from Patton's 3rd Army who'd decimated all the German and Austrian based Army teams. Patton liked a winner and his team was made up of the best major league talent serving in the U.S. Army in Europe, many of the players finding themselves on his team after a round of shady back-room transfers from their old units into his 3rd Army. Looking like a David going to meet Goliath, Leon's scrappy OISE All-Stars were coached by a former major league pitcher and Jew from New York named "Subway Sam" Nahem. Subway Sam. Now that was a name I couldn't forget and I stored it away in the back of my mind until he reemerged to take his rightful place on page 13 of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball...

Teammates in the minor leagues called him “Subway Sam” because he was a real-live New Yorker, the first many had ever seen outside a movie theater. But Subway Sam was different in many other ways as well. Born in New York City to a family of affluent Syrian Jews, his first language was Arabic. Sam loved baseball but was unable to break into his high school team’s lineup. Undeterred, he played sandlot ball and by the time he entered Brooklyn College he was good enough to join the college team as a pitcher, making a name for himself by beating rivals Fordham University with a 6 hitter and St. John’s University with a 3 hitter.

When no major league teams came to him, Sam went to them. In 1935 he showed up at Ebbets Field one day and impressed manager Casey Stengel enough so that he was hired to pitch batting practice. The Dodgers sent Nahem to the Clinton Owls in Iowa where he finished the 1937 season with a nice 15-5 record. In the off-season he finished up law school at St. John’s. Being a New Yorker and a Jew already made Subway Sam stand out amongst his teammates but being a spectacle-wearing college-educated lawyer really separated him from the pack. He was also known to read the classics like Balzac in the dugout and his views on the integration of baseball put him at odds with the majority of his peers. Sam felt that many were against allowing blacks into the white leagues simply because there were only so many roster spots as it was and with integration there would be even fewer opportunities for the more marginal players. At a time when most in the low minors kept their heads down and did not make waves, Subway Sam was an idealist who believe people deserved more and he dedicated himself to try to make it a reality.

At the end of the 1938 season Sam made his debut with the Dodgers, a 6-hit complete game victory. Sam toiled in the back waters of professional baseball finally getting the call back to the big show after being traded to the Cardinal organization. Sam pitched in 26 games for St. Louis, mostly in relief and ended the year with a 5-2 record. The next year he was traded to Philadelphia where he appeared in 35 games record. The next year he was traded to Philadelphia where he appeared in 35 games and posted a 1-3 record for the dreadful Phillies. Serving in Europe during the war he was manager of the OISE All-Stars, a team made up of semi-pro and Negro league players. Sam joined the great Leon Day making a formidable one-two pitching staff that faced Patton’s 3rd Army team in front of over 50,000 G.I.’s in Nurnberg’s Zeppelin Field. Patton’s team was stocked with former major league stars like Ewell Blackwell, Harry Walker, Johnny Wyrostek, Benny Zientara and Bob Ramazzotti but behind the pitching of Subway Sam and Leon Day the underdog OISE All-Stars emerged the winners of the 1945 G.I. World Series.

Coming back from the war, Sam practiced law during the week and pitching on the weekends with the Brooklyn Bushwicks. Although termed semi-pro, the Bushwicks had a huge following and boasted many future and former major league players on their roster. It was while with the Bushwicks that Sam participated in a little-known baseball “world” series. A prototype of the current pre-season series held today, The Inter-American Tournament was held in Caracas, Venezuela and featured one team from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and the United States. The Bushwicks, who rarely ventured outside Brooklyn, were invited to represent America. Facing such Latin stars as Chico Carrasquel and Bobby Avila, Sam was the ace of the Bushwick’s staff, winning 3 and losing 1 as the American team won the month-long series with a 9-3 record. Subway Sam had the honor of winning the championship game, a 7-6 win over the Cuban team. After returning to the States, Nahem had one more trip to the majors when he went 3-3 for the Phillies in 1948.

After retiring from baseball, Sam Nahem went out west to the Bay area and put into practice his long held views of social equality. Subway Sam became a union organizer and tirelessly worked to better the conditions of the members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Sam organized strikes and participated in negotiations even after he retired from his position.

Subway Sam died at the age of 88, leaving behind the story of one of the more interesting guys ever to wear spikes.