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.


  1. Great story! I love reading about the Jersey boys. Enjoy your time back here.

  2. Interesting story. I wonder why Babe and Lou sat in the dugout during that brawl. Were they "above the fray", or did McCarthy tell them to stay put?

  3. I was really taken with Van Atta's mention of The Babe and Gehrig staying behind in the dugout as well. I know Ruth was not adverse to scrapping, he got into a few as a younger player, but I've never heard anything like that about Gehrig. Maybe it was in their contract to avoid fighting, perhaps Ruth was just too old at that point and left the brawling to the young fellas and Lou felt he was above fisticuffs - who knows. I looked around like crazy trying to find an answer but came up empty...

  4. Wow, I always wondered about him -- I just figured his arm went dead, as happens sometimes to pitchers inexplicably. Great story.

    I wonder if the reason Gehrig stayed out of the brawl had anything to do with the streak and not wanting to injure himself in something so frivolous. Just wild speculation, of course, but around that time was when the media really started to cover it. Babe is more puzzling -- you'd think he'd have wanted to be right in the center of these things.

  5. Great story of the day. I wonder how his career would have turned out if not for that fire. Heres a video of pictures and sound bites of Russell Van Atta....https://vimeo.com/129843155

    1. Thanks! I made sure I put Russ' story in my new book and did a new illustration of him pitching in Yankee Stadium just for the book. Thanks for posting the video!