Saturday, December 29, 2012

140. Oscar Bielaski: Poles and Bats

There was a time when I was growing up when I had no idea what I was. I mean, I knew basically what I was - a 6 or 7 year-old boy growing up in New Jersey, just like all the other kids on my block. Then came the day when I suddenly had another name to describe what I was: "a Polack". It was one of the Irish kids' father from the next block who called me that. He was a rummy and there was always a stream of exotic-sounding words that shot out of his mouth as he stumbled home from the tavern, but this time it was directed at me. Later I asked my father what that word meant. I can still see the red in his face when I repeated "Polack" to him. After asking who'd called me that, he sat me down at the kitchen table and explained to me that what it meant was that my family was originally from a place called Poland. He went on to carefully say that while being from Poland is not bad, the word "Polack" is not a nice term. The proper word is "Pole" to describe a person from Poland. Having no idea of the world beyond Manhattan Island, hearing that my family came from some far away place was, well, neat. I knew both sets of grandparents spoke a different language when they didn't want me to know what they were discussing, now it was all starting to make sense. It was a little later when one of those Irish kids started in on the Polack jokes that I started to get the meaning of being lumped into an ethnic category. I didn't like it. After dispensing a few busted lips and bloody noses the Polack jokes dried up, but it started me on a life-long interest in my family's history and the land they came from. It was only natural that as a baseball fan I began looking for famous ballplayers of Polish heritage - Ted Kluszewski, Carl Yastrzemski and the brothers Coveleski were the obvious ones. Then came Al Simmons, aka Aloys Szymanski and Stan The Man Musial. If you dig deep you can find plenty of Poles in the big leagues, many with Americanized names like Johnny Podres and Jack Quinn. And then that got me thinking, who was the very first Polish-American big leaguer?

The people of the former kingdom of Poland, effectively wiped off the map at the end of the 18th century, seethed under the thumb of the combined rule of Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Their language was banned, religion eradicated and men conscripted into foreign armies. While many other countries under similar circumstances bent and withered, the Poles developed a proud and stubborn resilience inherent in their psyche to this very day. Under penalty of imprisonment they refused to forget their language and subversive schools and societies popped up to keep it alive. Their Catholic faith became stronger through threat of death and Polish soldiers honed their already formidable warrior reputation while biding their time in the armies of others. Freedom and the idea of liberty found a place in the heart of every Pole. By November of 1830 the Polish people had had enough and launched an insurrection against the Russian government in the eastern part of the country. Although terribly over matched in both numbers and weapons, the Poles fought valiantly capturing the attention of the world's press who overwhelmingly sided with the underdog Poles. The end came in September of the following year when the Russians succeeded in taking Warsaw after a bitter last-ditch stand by the Poles. It is this bitter determination to resist that became the root of the "stupid Polack" jokes. The Poles' natural inclination to fight back at all costs which they see as their only way to be free was perceived by other ethnicity's as stupid and useless. 

Survivors of the 1830 insurrection scattered to all corners of the globe in what became the first large wave of Polish immigrants. One ex-soldier, Russian-trained officer Alexander Bielaski, seriously wounded leading a commando-like unit during the final battle of Warsaw, landed in the United States. Settling in Illinois he made the acquaintance of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. He made a living teaching sword fighting, then relocated to Washington, D.C. and put his engineering education to use for the U.S. General Land Office. Before Civil War broke out he took a wife, Mary and the two had six children: Rosetta, Victor, Oscar, Agnes Alexander and Eugene.

Being a bonafide, European-trained warrior, it was only natural the when war broke out Bielaski would offer his valuable experience to his adapted country. Quickly appointed a Captain he organized the Federal Army for it's first campaign in the Western theater, an attack on the Mississippi River Valley. It wasn't long afterwards that Captain Bielaski met his death in battle. Serving on the staff of General McClernand, Bielaski could have stayed out of combat but during the Battle of Belmont in Missouri he volunteered to lead troops at the front. Leading a massed attack, the Captain had his horse shot out from under him, then grabbed a Springfield Rifle from one of his fallen men and led the assault on foot. Seeing the flag bearer go down he dropped his rifle, took hold of the American flag and waved it aloft to inspire his men. As the attack continued he was hit in the head with a bullet, dead before he hit the ground.

After the heroic death of his father, 16 year-old Oscar ran away to join the army. Signing on with Troop A of the 11th New York Cavalry, he aimed to take up the fight just like his father. The 11th Cavalry had campaigned first around Virginia and Maryland, then penetrated into Mississippi and Louisiana. When Bielaski joined them in September of 1864, the regiment was camped in Louisiana awaiting orders. In the idle down time Bielaski learned a game that was spreading rapidly from regiment to regiment on both sides of the conflict - baseball. After serving as a trooper for a month his superiors found out he wasn't the 19 year-old he claimed he was and promptly discharged him from further service. Though I'm sure he was disappointed to have been thwarted in his attempt to avenge his father's death, the discharge may have saved his life: a month after he was sent home most of the regiment drowned when the troop ship North America sank off the Florida coast.

Bielaski returned to Washington and brought his interest in baseball with him. Still wanting to serve his country he joined the Navy when he turned 19 but missed out on any action. When his hitch was up he returned to Washington and continued to play baseball. He apparently trained as a clerk, which would have given him the opportunity to pursue his beloved sport since it was commonly played by young urban professionals. 

Apparently baseball had become a family affair for the Bielaski's as Oscar played in the same infield as his younger brother Alex on the Rosedale Club. Records show he then played for the Capitol and Union clubs in the years before any organized national leagues existed. In 1872, a year after the first professional league, the National Association was formed, Oscar Bielaski was signed by his hometown Washington Nationals, making him the very first professional Polish-American baseball player.

The Nats were a terrible club in 1872, losing all 11 games they stumbled through. Bielaski was one of their starting outfielders and though batting a paltry .174, he led the team in runs scored with 13, so when he got on base he at least made the most of it. The Nationals disbanded at the end of the season and were replaced by the Blue Legs who finished last of 9 teams but managed to win 8 of 39 games. Bielaski's .283 average was second best on the team and was about average for the National Association. He also led the team in walks. The Blue Legs folded too at the conclusion of the season and Bielaski packed his kit and moved over to Baltimore.

Besides having a terrible baseball name, the 1874 Baltimore Canaries were another lousy ball club, finishing in last in the National Association. Bielaski batted .241 and his 3 stolen bases led the team. Though this doesn't sound like much, Bielaski was a good player on bad teams. Newspapers called him a sure fielder and a good man to have in the clutch. Problem was, he was getting old and by this time he'd married his wife Mary and had a child on the way. Playing on lousy ball clubs that folded every Fall wasn't going to cut it for much longer.

In 1875 Bielaski migrated to Chicago to join the White Stockings. He hit .239, helping the team finish just under .500 for the season. When Al Spalding formed his own White Stockings the following year and entered them in the new National League, Oscar Bielaski was recruited to play outfield for them. Finally Bielaski had a berth on a real contender and the team, led by Cap Anson, Cal McVey, Deacon White and Al Spalding, stormed to the top of the standings becoming the very first National League pennant winners. 

That great championship season was the last for Bielaski. Taking his .243 career average with him, he returned home to Washington, D.C. where a stable career as a clerk in the auditor's office at the Navy Yard awaited him. In between raising his 3 sons and 2 daughters, the old outfielder kept his hand in the game by coaching teams made up of Navy Yard personnel. On November 8, 1911 while boarding a streetcar at 6th and G Streets, he had a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. Following a funeral service attended by many ex-ballplayers, Oscar Bielaski was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His simple headstone is inscribed with his name, company and regiment, but nothing about his being the very first Polish-American to play professional baseball.

The Bielaski family produced a few other notables - remember Oscar's younger infield-playing brother Alex? He became a very highly respected Reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. One of his sons, also a stand-out high school and college ballplayer, A. Bruce Bielaski, became the head of the Bureau of Investigation before J. Edgar Hoover (see a trend here with directors of the F.B.I. initializing their first name?). 

So that's the story of the first Polish-American professional ballplayer. I went back and forth over the Christmas holiday about this story. You see, though I'm proud of and identify with my Polish heritage, I'm first and foremost an American. My family all came here with dreams of becoming a part of something big and great - the United States of America. A country so special that it attracts people of all religions, colors and ideals would never have become that way if everyone insisted on clinging to those hyphens many insert before the word "American". Teddy Roosevelt (a life-long hero of mine) said it eloquently and succinctly in 1915:

"There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism... a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts "native" before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else."
One of the reasons I love baseball so much is that it seems to have been one of the main things that helped new immigrants blend in and become American. The game was wholly an American one, a complex one but something everyone could learn if they tried hard enough. It wasn't something brought by Italians or Mexicans or Irish - it was something that was already here, something that could be found everywhere, no matter where one settled in the country. To play and understand baseball was your entry ticket to greater things. It made you an American.

That's why I struggled with this story. To call attention to "the first" anything - Pole, Jew, Italian, Japanese - simply erects walls that baseball had previously eliminated. I guess I finally decided to post this story tonight because of the story I related at the start of this piece. The day when that juicer called me a Polack, it helped me discover what it meant to be a Pole and the contributions Poles brought to the United States and how those blended and added to the contributions of all the other nationalities that make up the fabric of this nation, and that made me truly understand what this great country really was all about.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

139. Jimmy Lyston: One of the Big Birds

In the Fall of 1988 I turned up in the city of Baltimore, Maryland for my freshman year of art school. I'd never been to the city before, in fact I never left a 40 or 50 mile radius of Manhattan until I was dropped off on Mt. Royal Avenue that Sunday in August. Growing up within subway distance of the Big Apple, I was sorely disappointed when I first arrived in Charm City - It was small. The people had weird accents. Their subway really didn't go anywhere. They only had big league baseball for less that 35 years (and American League no less!)... there was more, but they all soon became moot points, just the typical reaction of a lonely kid thrust into very different world from what he was used to. In time I grew to love Baltimore - 
the quaintness of the different neighborhoods, its people with their Cockney-Appalachian hybrid accent, the unique quirky qualities many cities sorely lack - but most of all I fell for it's rich baseball culture. The great blackball teams of the 20's, 30's and 40's were a favorite of mine to research, and later the deep major and minor league heritage of the first Orioles caught my attention. This was especially driven home in 1991 when I was doing my research for the graphics I was designing for the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I wanted the graphics for the new ballpark not to merely pay homage to those great teams and ballplayers, I wanted it to look like a place they would be proud to take the field, look around, and call home. The Baltimore fans, who I'd come to respect more than anything from the countless afternoons and nights spent in the bleachers of the old Memorial Stadium, deserved a worthy place to house their century of unwavering baseball support.

Even though I left the city over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. Many baseball historian's call them the best minor league team of all time. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies 
no one has really written about them. It's a part of baseball history that is sorely overlooked and that's why I became very excited when my pal Dr. Bob Hieronymus called and told me he was having an author on his syndicated radio show who'd written a book about his grandfather, Jimmy Lyston, who played on the 1921 Baltimore Orioles. In fact, Dr. Bob said, the book wasn't just about his grandfather, but about a succession of generations of the Lyston's playing pro and semi ball in Baltimore. When the book arrived it exceeded all expectations - this was one of the best books on minor league baseball's glory years that I'd ever read. The author, Jimmy Keenan, traces his relatives as they navigated through the bush leagues from the 19th century to the 1930's. As an outsider baseball historian, a book like this means so much more to me - for every Mickey Mantle and Hank Greenberg, there were thousands of Jimmy Lyston's whose story will never be told. Fortunately for us, Jimmy Keenan was a good enough writer, loving grandson and baseball historian, to pay the ultimate homage to his family's personal connection to the national pastime. 

So it gives me great pleasure to finally have Jimmy Keenan tell you a little about his Grandfather, Jimmy Lyston...

Jimmy Lyston was born on January 18,1903 in the Waverly section of North Baltimore, just a stones throw away from the sites of many of Charm City’s most famous ballparks. He was the fourth child of Katherine and John M. Lyston, a major league pitcher in the late 19th century and the nephew of former professional baseball players, Bill and Marty Lyston. Jimmy’s brother John C. Lyston was a standout pitcher in the Baltimore amateur and semi pro ranks. He signed with Frederick of the Blue Ridge League in 1922.

As a youth, Jimmy worked at Oriole Park at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue in a variety of capacities, including peanut vendor, batboy and groundskeeper. In the winter of 1921, team president/manager Jack Dunn signed seventeen-year-old Jimmy to a professional baseball contract with the International League Baltimore Orioles. Seven years earlier, Dunn, a cultivator of home grown talent, signed another Baltimore boy by the name of George Herman Ruth to an Oriole contract. Jimmy, who was an excellent student at Loyola High School and a standout quarterback on the local gridiron, turned down a football scholarship to the University of Maryland in favor of pursuing a career in professional baseball.

Dunn’s Orioles were coming off two straight International League championships and they would go on to win five more championships in a row. The 1921 Baltimore Orioles compiled 119 victories against 47 losses, the second highest win total in the history of professional baseball.

Jimmy traveled south with the Orioles to their training site in Goldsboro, North Carolina in the spring of 1921. He performed well and his steal of home off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Grove in an inter-squad game was one of the highlights of the camp.

Jack Dunn decided in advance that Jimmy, who had now turned eighteen, would be sent to the Waynesboro Villagers of the Blue Ridge League to gain experience.

A broken finger suffered in practice shortly after his arrival in Waynesboro precipitated a trip back to Baltimore for medical treatment. While recuperating, Lyston worked out regularly with Dunn’s Birds who were in the midst of an amazing 27 game winning streak. In late June, a number of Dunn’s front line players came down with injuries and Jimmy was placed on the Oriole’s active roster.

For the next few weeks, Jimmy, a natural second baseman, saw duty at every outfield and infield position, except first base. The Baltimore newspapers regularly highlighted the great defensive plays that the youngster was making during this time. One of these excerpts from the Baltimore Sun of July 11, 1921, read, “ Lyston Makes Good – Jimmy Lyston played left field and drew the applause of the Buffalo fans by the manner in which he was pulling down flies. He also doubled with two on base, his hit giving the Birds a comfortable lead.”

All of Baltimore’s baseball fans were rooting for the Waverly lad to succeed. There was even a song written about young Lyston by a local musician who penned the verse, “Dunnie made a star out of the Babe and he’ll make a star out of you.”

In early August, on an overcast and rainy day, Jimmy was hit in the right elbow by a mudball thrown by Newark pitcher Joe “Happy” Finneran. The crafty Finnerran, a former major league hurler, knew that rubbing mud on the ball created considerable movement on his pitches and he used this trickery to great effect.
Lyston, unaware that Finneran’s pitch had broken his arm, kept playing for three more weeks until Dunn, noticing that the youngster was unable to throw, sent him to the team physician for an examination. The prognosis was not good as the doctor discovered that Jimmy’s arm had been broken just below the elbow. The Oriole’s doctor said that the break and nerve damage was so severe, there was a good chance that Jimmy would never be able to throw a baseball again.

Proving the doctor wrong, Lyston reported to the Orioles training camp at Winston Salem, North Carolina in the spring of 1922. After another good showing , he was farmed out to Waynesboro of the Blue Ridge League. Jimmy played well at Waynesboro, leading the league in double plays turned by a second baseman (53) while finishing fifth in the loop in stolen bases (23). His contract was sold to Charleston Palmettos of the South Atlantic League in 1923.

The “Class League Rule” was instituted in professional baseball in 1922 and it would have a great impact on Lyston’s career. A “class” man was generally defined as a player or manager that had participated in at least 25 games and 15 games for a pitcher in a league of higher than D classification. Some leagues differed in the variation of the rule but nonetheless, it was incorporated to keep the big name players out of the lower minors. There were also monthly team salary caps put in place for the same reason. Most leagues allowed three class men including the manager, who was usually an active player, on a team roster at any one time.

Jimmy played 33 games at the highest level of the minor leagues as a rookie in 1921 and was now considered a class man. The “Class League Rule” would follow him throughout his professional baseball career. The Baltimore native enjoyed brief yet successful stints with Wilkes-Barre (.333) in 1925, Spartanburg (.412) in 1928, and Hagerstown (.333) in 1931 but he enjoyed his best full seasons as a pro in the Eastern Shore League. Lyston posted career highs in batting average (.304) with the Laurel Blue Hens in 1923 and stolen bases (27) with the Salisbury Indians in 1924.

From 1921 through 1931 Lyston was a player on a number of semi-pro, professional and barnstorming baseball teams. During this time, he played with and against some of the true immortals of our national pastime. Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Hack Wilson, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Home Run Baker, Red Ruffing, Frank Frisch plus Negro League icons Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Pete Hill, Jud Wilson and Biz Mackey were just some of the great stars that he crossed paths with on the diamond.

During the thirties, Jimmy played for the great Baltimore Police baseball teams that won numerous championships in the local amateur and semi-pro leagues. In 1964, Lyston retired from the Baltimore City Police Department with the rank of Captain. Jimmy married the former Edith Wade on December 26,1929. The couple had two daughters, Peggy and Nancy along with six grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Lyston was a founding member of the Oldtimers Baseball Association of Maryland and the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association. He was elected into the Oldtimers Hall of Fame in 1960. Jimmy Lyston died on March 21,1983 and is buried at New Cathedral cemetery in West Baltimore.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Lystons by Jimmy Keenan. I don't think I've ever come across a book that better documents the life of a typical 1920's minor league ballplayer than Keenan has done. Besides being a valuable look at the life and times of roarin' 20's baseball, Keenan's book is a heart-felt tribute to the man who raised him and played such an important part in his early life. There are only so many times you can re-read the same retread bio's of Satchel Paige and Cal Ripken - "The Lyston" shines a bright light on a part of baseball history that is rarely told and that is unceasingly interesting.

Monday, December 3, 2012

138. Pete Hill: Friars, guns and umps

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that last year at this time I teamed up with Ron Hill and Gary Ashwill to produce a 15 card set of Hall of Famer Pete Hill. Ron Hill, Pete's nephew, was the driving force behind producing a nice card set to commemorate his famous uncle and he uses the set to teach kids about the great black ballplayers prior to Jackie Robinson. Baseball historian and statistical archaeologist Gary Ashwill uncovered some fantastic information on Pete's long and successful career that spanned the years just prior to the organized Negro leagues. Pete seemed to have played ball everywhere and with or against everyone! The list of teams he played on is basically a list of the best black teams prior to the first world war. The set is high on the list of favorite things I've done because I was able to really illustrate some fantastic looking early baseball uniforms as well as visually tell the story of a little-known Hall of Fame ballplayer. The card you see here is case-in-point: look at that unique caramel brown uniform, quilted pants and striped undershirt - a baseball artist couldn't ask for something better than that to work with! I was lucky in that most of the teams Pete played for sported interesting duds and you can see them all in the set.

Besides my illustrations, the running text on the backs of each card tells Pete's story for the first time thanks to Gary Ashwill's ground-breaking research (if his name sounds familiar, it should - Gary's the guy behind the massive Negro League Statistical Database on Below is the story on the back of his Club Fé card:

The Cuban League, which dated back to 1878, had only rarely featured North Americans, and had never seen any black American players, excepting only Negro league teams visiting for fall exhibition series-until 1907. That year the Fe Base Ball Club, nicknamed Los Fraíles (the “Friars”), hired several major black stars from the United States, including Rube Foster, Grant Johnson, and Pete Hill. Fe, which had finished dead last the previous year, mounted a serious challenge to the defending champion Almendares club (Los Azules, or the Blues). Going into the last game of the season, the two teams were knotted with identical 16-13 records. The Blues prevailed in a tight game, 4 to 2, with all the close decisions going their way. After the last out the Fe players surrounded the umpire, whereupon he drew a pistol and held off the angry Friars until he could escape in a police wagon.

Monday, November 26, 2012

137. Len Koenecke: Trains, Planes and Fire Extinguishers

On the advice of a few colleagues, I've been actively searching around for someone to represent my baseball illustrations. After many years in my line of work I've built up an impressive body of work, but through it all I know one thing - I'm a terrible business man - most artists are. Talking about my work has always been a tough thing for me to do, I've always been shy about tooting my own horn and as a result I've never been able to take advantage of opportunities a more savvy professional would have leaped at, and I'm finally come to the point where I'm seeking someone to handle that. That said, if anyone has any suggestions, I'd be most appreciative.

But back to baseball... I've been working on this week's story for quite some time. The illustration was completed 6 months ago and it's one of my favorites so far. What artist could turn away from that striking dark blue Indianapolis Indians flannel uniform with the white socks? The subject of the story has a chiseled granite mug that no illustrator would pass up the opportunity to render. But it's the story that makes this week's chapter worth while. Len Koenecke was always fascinating to me - he's a footnote, a trivial oddity you come across in quite a few baseball anthologies  and I've been looking forward to researching it from the perspective of contemporary accounts. My Grandfather, who was a die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fan at the time Koenecke was roaming center field at Ebbets Field, would talk about him every so often and I suppose it's through him that I heard of him first. Over the past months I've amassed a nice-sized binder of clippings and accounts and finally gotten 'round to putting the whole thing together this Thanksgiving weekend...

It seemed like some crazed pulp magazine story but it was really happening.

The lone passenger picked himself up off the floor and drew his broad 6' frame up as tall as the cramped airplane cabin would allow, which wasn't much. The cabin of the single-engine Stinson SM-1 Detroiter wasn't much bigger than a modern Chevy Suburban. Surprised that the man still had it in him to get up, the exasperated co-pilot tore a portable fire extinguisher from the cabin wall, determined to defend the cockpit from this maniac who was equally determined to crash the plane. Behind him, the pilot struggled to keep the Stinson SM-1 airplane steady in the early morning skies over Toronto. The fight had pitched the plane violently and the pilot had lost all navigational bearings just trying to keep the plane level. All three men were yelling incoherently but with the noise from the engine nothing could be heard, just the twisted faces of two men desperately fighting for their lives and a third trying his best to end it for them all. 

The passenger pulled his head down into his broad shoulders and lunged forward. Drawing the metal fire extinguisher across his body the co-pilot hit the charging man as hard as he could. With a noiseless scream he easily deflected the heavy metal canister which spun through the air and hit the pilot in the shoulder. Defenseless, the co-pilot was no match for the crazed passenger who now hammered on his body with ham-sized fists until he slumped to the cabin floor.

Now nothing stood between him and the pilot. 

Seeing his friend and co-pilot rendered useless, the pilot, with one hand on the controls, reached down at his feet and grabbed hold of the fire extinguisher. While the co-pilot was a slightly-built man, the pilot was a former star athlete and tonight he would need all his strength to save his life. In the dim cockpit lighting he could see the shadow of the passenger quickly looming behind his seat. Blindly he swung the extinguisher behind him and hit something - it was the co-pilot's head. The pilot swung the extinguisher again and this time hit the looming passenger in the side of the face. With the big man momentarily stunned, the pilot drew back and swung, again hitting the passenger in the face. Blood splashed in all directions and the pilot swung again, another head shot, and then another. And another. The man took a step back and crumpled into the back seat in a pool of rapidly spreading blood. As the man slumped forward, he brought the heavy canister down once more onto the top of his head before the blood made the extinguisher slip from his grasp and roll away into the dark recesses of the cabin. 

This time he wasn't getting up. The lone passenger, Len Koenecke, outfielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was definitely dead.

Len Koenecke's career had been about as rocky and turbulent as his last airplane ride. He was from a Wisconsin railroad family, hard-working men who made the giant steam engines run. Following in his Pop Herman's footsteps, young Len took a job as a fireman, shoveling coal into the hungry fires that propelled the Chicago & North Western locomotives across the midwest. The work hardened the boy's 6' bony frame and he developed hulking shoulders and powerful arms. More importantly though, young Koenecke was assigned the Escanaba to Ispheming run where he met brakeman Murray Boyle. 

Before Murray Boyle was a brakeman he was a minor league ballplayer, but now managed the Escanaba town team. One week Boyle knew Escanaba needed a catcher for that weekend's game and he asked the athletically-built Koenecke if he'd care to play. Though he never caught before he did a good enough job that he kept playing and soon jumped to another semi-pro team where he was spotted by a fella who told a friend who knew the manager of the Class B Springfield Senators of the Three I League. Koenecke took a leave of absence from the railroad and headed south to Illinois. Unfortunately his skills behind the plate were poor for a class B team and he was dropped in May without ever playing a game. He slipped over to Moline which was a class D level and when the Plowboy's regular outfielder got injured, Koenecke took his place. In 117 games he his 20 homers and batted a nice .343. In the fall he returned to the Chicago & Northwestern where he shoveled coal throughout the off season. 

When spring came, Koenecke rejoined the Moline Plowboys. From the hard railroad work he was a physical specimen to behold, but found it took weeks to finally unlimber his massive back muscles and swing a bat comfortably. He increased his average to .389 for 1928 and was sold to the Class B Quincy Indians at the end of the season. Quincy was in turn owned by the  Indianapolis Indians and the big club had Koenecke join them for the remainder of the American Association season. Indianapolis was Class AA, the highest rung of the minor leagues. Getting into 17 games Koenecke  hit .394 and clocked 4 homers. In October he went back to Wisconsin and rejoined the railroad.

1929 was much the same as 1928 with the long spring training spent getting his body back to baseball form. He was sent down to Quincy in the first part of the season and when his swing came back he moved up to Indianapolis. The books show he hit .323 for the year. Again, winter was spent with the railroad where his leave of absences was starting to rub the other workers the wrong way. Koenecke's Pop Herman was an engineer on the line and no doubt his position and seniority had everything to do with his son's excessive leaves each summer. Fact of the matter was that each time Koenecke returned he pushed out another well-trained worker. Baseball just didn't pay enough for Koenecke to take the winter off nor was he sure his career would go anywhere. The constant back and forth between the mid and high minors left him uncertain of his future so he needed to keep his railroad job as long as he could. In February he married Gladys Stoltenberg which made his position even more precarious. He needed to keep both feet in, it was just the smart way to play it.

That spring he again wound up in the lower Class B level and stayed there except for 67 games with Indy where he his a disappointing .250. The long time it took each spring to work back into baseball shape was taking its toll on him and when he returned to the railroad in the fall, he was confronted with a decision: work or play. No more leaves of absence. Koenecke chose baseball.

In the spring he came barreling into training camp and made the Indianapolis roster to stay. Throughout the season he prowled the outfield like a hungry leopard and hit everything in sight. He punished the American Association pitchers at a .353 clip, second best on the team. He led Indianapolis in hits (224), triples (19) and home runs (24). In one great leap Koenecke went from human pinball machine to top-rung minor league star. And important people were watching.

John McGraw, long-time manager of the mighty New York Giants, was looking around for a new outfielder. The Cardinals and Cubs had usurped the Giants as the best teams in the National League and the hated Yankees were now THE New York team to root for. McGraw was determined to find a ballplayer of immense quality to plug the gaps of his sinking ship, win pennants and fill the stands. Although he was in ill-health, McGraw boarded a train west and personally scouted the Indianapolis Indians' phenom from the stands. Liking what he saw, the Giants manager bought Koenecke for an unbelievable $70,000.

When he boarded the train to Los Angeles for spring training, Koenecke left behind a trail of Indianapolis baseball records that still stand: 5th highest season batting average (.353); 3rd in hits (224); 1st in runs scored (141); 4th in triples (19) and 3rd in RBI (131).

In sunny L.A., Koenecke was the talk of the camp. His high price tag made him a sure topic for the newspaper boys and McGraw fed them lines proclaiming that his new outfielder was sure to "be a bright star in the National League". On the field he performed well, seeming to live up to the hype that swirled around him.When the Giants suited up for Opening Day, Len Koenecke was right along with them wearing number 31.

1932 was a dismal year for New York. No matter what McGraw tried his boys slipped further and further down the standings. The Old Man was not well and perhaps this rubbed off on the team. The Giants were beginning a transition from the old-time baseball of their manager and the modern-day tactics of the heir-apparent, outfielder Bill Terry. The new $70,000 wonder-boy had a hard time breaking into the veteran lineup. The outfield consisted of future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Freddie Lindstrom and 2 time National League MVP and 5 time All-Star Jo-Jo Moore. None-the-less McGraw played Koenecke off and on but after 40 games he was barely batting .250. Most insulting to McGraw was his 5 errors in the outfield including an unforgivable misplay on a ball that gave Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean an inside-the-ballpark home run.

The New York Giants at this time was a close-knit fraternity and difficult for any outside ballplayer to break in. McGraw was a hard man to play for and many players failed to make good solely because of his criticism and acidic personality. Besides being an over-aged rookie, Koenecke reportedly was quiet and had a fragile ego, a trait that didn't bode well for a new ballplayer, especially one who had the press clippings and expectations that he came with. To make an already bad situation worse, somehow he'd gotten under the skin of Bill Terry, McGraw's right-hand man. When the Old Man retired after the first 40 games of the season, any protection he was getting from McGraw evaporated. New skipper Bill Terry had enough on his plate than worry about bringing along a 28 year-old rookie he had personal problems with. Despite what his mentor might have thought of Koenecke's talent, Terry sent the $70,000 Man across the Hudson River to the minor league Jersey City Skeeters.

While it must have been frustrating for Koenecke to again be swung back and forth between teams, he performed well with the Skeeters. The Giants might not have a place or time for him but his .355 with 18 homers got the Brooklyn Dodgers interested and they swapped Lefty O'Doul and Watty Clark for him and infielder Sam Leslie. Brooklyn let Koenecke spend another season in the minors and he batted .334 with the Buffalo Bisons for the 1934 season.

When Spring rolled around again the 30 year-old Koenecke was now an old man in baseball years. He had a reoccurring foot injury that made him sit out games but he was still strong and eager to make good. The Brooklyn team that was training in Orlando was a miserable bunch. Besides youngster Van Mungo and the elderly Ray Benge the pitching staff was a collection of never-were's and the majority of the bench were has-beens. It was Casey Stengel's first season as a Major League manager and he worked hard to make something of the rubble calling themselves Dodgers. 

In what is one of the only cases of that I've heard of Casey Stengel going out of his way to tutor a ballplayer, Brooklyn's new manager drilled Koenecke all spring. Newspapers gave Stengel credit for giving the former bonus baby back the confidence he left on the Giants locker room floor back in 1932. Where Koenecke was a good outfielder before, Stengel put Koenecke through the paces until he caught anything that came near him. When the Dodgers headed north to start the 1934 season, Koenecke was raring to go.

Go he did. Batting clean-up, the re-born Koenecke batted .320 against National League pitching, second best on the team. While not a speed-demon, he was smart and sure-footed on the base paths but it was in the field where he excelled. In 123 games Koenecke made but 2 errors - a .994 fielding percentage and still a National League record. While the Dodgers finished in 6th place, 23 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, Brooklyn finally had something to look forward to in the coming season. With Len Koenecke, the Dodgers had a bonafide star.

The off-season was spent making the usual rounds a newly minted star did back then - steak and potatoes testimonial dinners and drinks on the house from coast-to-coast. While newspapers back east speculated on the glories Koenecke was going to lead the Dodgers to in 1935, Koenecke bulked up back home in Wisconsin. The formerly reserved and emotionally tender ballplayer rolled into Brooklyn's training camp in Orlando with a swelled head and body to match. 

If you look at the record book for 1935 and isolated all other years, on the surface Leonard George Koenecke didn't have too bad of a season: .283 average in 100 games ain't nothing to sneeze at. Under the hood however, the numbers tell a different story: where he only struck out 38 times in 536 at bats the previous year he now swished 45 times in only 374 chances. His power seemed to disappear over the winter and his already bad feet now all but hobbled him through out the summer. His record-making fielding dissipated as well and he was charged with 8 errors. Stengel watched with horror as his protege of the previous year crumbled before his eyes. The team as a whole was falling apart, too. Where the year before the rookie skipper was the darling of the sports page, he soon discovered his corny jokes and witticisms only make you look stupid when your team is stinking up the National League.

As the summer churned into the humid days of September, Stengel was at the end of his rope. Losing his cool he lashed out at his team for making him look bad. Koenecke in particular drew his ire due to his disappointing record. As September began the Brooklyn skipper let the press know that there was changes a-comin' - and he was cleaning house. Word leaked that Stengel was trying pawn Koenecke off on any team that would take him - minor league teams. All these Stengel-fueled rumors swirled around the team as they brought their losing show on the road. In Boston last year's hero went 5 for 8 then 2 for 18 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. When the Dodgers turned up in Chicago, Koenecke sat out the first game then went 1 for 4 before being benched for the last game at Wrigley Field. In the 9th inning Stengel tapped Koenecke to pinch hit. He grounded out. Didn't matter anyway. He could have hit a grand slam and it wouldn't have mattered. When the team arrived in St. Louis the following day, Stengel had arranged for Koenecke and two other slackers, Bob Barr and Les Munns, to go to Buffalo. Len Koenecke was sent back to the minor leagues again.

You have to try get in the head of Len Koenecke to fully understand what led up to the event described in the beginning of this story. Baseball lore has twisted the story of Len Koenecke's demise so many ways it is hard to tell what really happened in his final hours, but let's try. Here he was, 31 years-old, been sent up and down the rungs of organized baseball so many times he had to look in a mirror and read his jersey to see what ball club he was with on any given day. He was a married man with a 5 year-old girl waiting for him in their apartment in Brooklyn. The Great Depression was in full swing and the once lucrative security of his railroad job was long gone. His feet were bad and he'd been thrown off two major league teams in disgrace, both times after garnering high praise and expectations. With a fragile ego that was probably coming apart at the seams, Koenecke packed his bags once again. Before he picked up his plane ticket back to New York he paused and wrote a postcard to his daughter Anne: "Hurrah, I'll be with you tomorrow."

The Brooklyn Dodgers' use of airplane travel was rare for 1935, especially since the three men the reservations were made for were being demoted. Whatever the front office's motives behind the swanky travel plans, Munns, Barr and Koenecke took a cab to St. Louis' airport and boarded an American Airlines flight to Chicago. From there they would change planes in Detroit before arriving in Newark, New Jersey the next day. It was a long journey but much shorter than taking the train. Somewhere on the way to the airport the ballplayers picked up a bottle or two of whiskey. What better way to drown your sorrows and cover up any anxieties of flying than with booze?

The first leg of the trip went off fine. They were late to Chicago but made the flight to Detroit. Witnesses reported seeing Koenecke with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. Once on board the three men were rapidly becoming intoxicated. Koenecke, who I've read wasn't known as a big drinker, was by far the worse of the former Dodgers that day. Juiced-up and combative, the large-framed Koenecke started a fight with a fellow passenger. When a stewardess tried to calm things down Koenecke knocked her down as well. The former railroad fireman's hulking size and strength made him extremely dangerous in the confined space of the primitive aircraft and it took a handful of men to wrestle Koenecke to the ground and tie him up. The plane's co-pilot came out of the cockpit in order to personally sit on the ballplayer until they landed in Detroit.

He was carried off the plane passed out and snoring by Munns and Barr who unceremoniously deposited their former teammate into a waiting room chair. A representative from American Airlines tore up his connecting ticket and refunded the Dodgers' money - there was no way they were going to let him on another flight. Munns and Barr left Koenecke snoozing on a bench and boarded their own flight back to the minor leagues.

Sometime after midnight Koenecke snapped awake. Realizing he was marooned in Detroit he frantically looked around the deserted airport for a way home to his wife and daughter. Suddenly the door opened and a leather jacketed man walked in off the runway. Quickly assuming correctly he was a pilot, Koenecke offered to charter a plane to New York and home. The pilot, William Mulqueeney, owned a single engine Stinson Detroiter. The small passenger plane could seat six including the pilot and despite the late hour and the disheveled state of the man before him, he decided to accept. The catch was he would go only as far as Buffalo. Koenecke thought it over and decided he could catch the morning train to New York City and be home in Brooklyn for lunch.

Mulqueeney, either thinking he may have some trouble with the intoxicated passenger or just wanted some company on the flight back, asked his friend Irwin Davis to join him. Though Davis was later referred to as a co-pilot, he was in fact just Mulqueeney's pal. He was also known as "The Human Bat" for his dare-devil parachute stunt where he would jump out of a plane in a black bat-wing parachute. In 1935 people ate that stuff up and he was fairly well-known in the Midwest.

Davis later described Koenecke as being under "a great stress" as the three men boarded the Stinson. Mulqueeney squeezed in behind the controls on the left side of the cockpit and Koenecke sat next to him in the co-pilot's chair. The Human Bat stretched out by himself on the plush bench seat behind them. They were cleared to taxi and took off into the night sky.

Both men said later that Koenecke was quiet for the first few minutes of flight. Then he started nudging the pilot. No one knows what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he was just being funny. Lord knows liquor makes many a man a bad comedian. But this just wasn't funny. In 1935 there was no auto-pilot, flying a plane back then was a full time operation. In the confines of a primitive airliner like the Stinson, any false move could be a pilot's last. Mulqueeney told him to quit it. He did. Then he started up again. He poked Mulqueeney. Then he nudged him with his shoulders - those huge rock-solid shoulders. The plane swayed. Mulqueeney told him to knock it off. Koenecke made a grab for the controls and at that point the pilot had enough of the sole passenger. Reluctantly Mulqueeney and Davis coaxed Koenecke into the back seat. But it was far from over.

Koenecke lost his mind. He tried again to shove the pilot. Davis did his best to restrain the hulking ballplayer but he was just too small. He knocked him back a few times, every time thinking he would just pass out in his drunken stupor, but then it would start over. It was getting serious now - both Davis and Mulqueeney said later they were convinced Koenecke was trying to crash the plane. Davis tried to fight Koenecke back but the big man pounded on him, even bit his shoulder, then pounded him some more.

That's when the fire extinguisher came into play.

With the passenger crumpled in a bloody mess on the floor of the cabin, Mulqueeney brought the Stinson in for a forced landing on the first flat clear spot he could find. Both he and Davis were dripping with blood and on top of the dead man lying in the cabin, when the two men opened the door and spilled out onto the grassy earth, what they thought were wild animals charged out of the darkness at them. Fortunately they were just the guard dogs of the caretaker of the country club they had landed on. They were in Toronto, Canada. In their airborne do-or-die fight they had over shot their destination of Buffalo by miles.

The next morning all the newspapers carried the story of Koenecke's wild flight. Mulqueeney and Davis were swiftly arrested and charged with murder. Photographers snapped pictures of the two men with torn, bloody clothes and shocked expressions. A reporter caught Stengel in St. Louis before that day's game against the Cardinals and he was uncharacteristically shaken: "I can't believe it - I won't believe it" he said. It was the manager's demotion of Konecke that put him on that plane. His teammates were devastated. The Dodgers organization circled their wagons and said nothing to the press except condolences. Team secretary John Gorman later released a statement to eager newspapermen that Koenecke "apparently was not depressed when he left the team."

Lawyers were hired and the rumors began. Some carried the line the big outfielder was trying to kill himself in one last blaze of glory. Others said it was some kind of murder, motive unknown. Another claimed Koenecke made unwanted sexual advances towards the two men - put into play by the two survivor's lawyer who was probably throwing anything out there to get his clients off the hook fast. 

Researching the story I can't honestly say what his motivations were. Some modern accounts I've read play up that Koenecke was a brawler who got violent when he drank, yet I can't find any contemporary accounts supporting this and I have no clue where those writers got it from. Maybe it's just an obvious guess - many ballplayers back then were tough boozers, God knows I've written about quite a few on this site myself. But the things I've read seem to indicate Koenecke wasn't a bad-tempered tough guy and he didn't appear to drink more than anyone else. However, it is known he was tanked up on that final day of his life. Hell, who wouldn't hit the bottle after being canned from their job and faced with an uncertain future? But intentionally try to kill himself and two innocent people, too? It just doesn't seem right and I can't believe it was anything more sinister than a man mentally at the end of his rope filled with so much whiskey he didn't fully comprehend what he was doing. Koenecke's widow Gladys refused to believe he would try to commit suicide and the upbeat postcard to his daughter seemed to back it up. The Toronto authorities fully investigated the whole incident and held Mulqueeney and Davis in custody until a jury sifted through the evidence. When the Canadian court ruled it self-defense the story quickly went away.

All that remained was a grieving widow, a fatherless daughter and one heck of a story that became a classic of baseball lore.

  • The Sporting  News (December 20, 1934)
  • The Pittsburgh Press (May 7, 1935)
  • The Telepraph Herald (August 10, 1934)
  • The Milwaukee Journal (March 21, 1934)
  • Ludington Daily News (August 8, 1938)
  • New York Daily News (April 7, 2003)
  • Toronto Sun (June 1, 2009)
  • The New York Times (September 17, 1935)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

136. Henry Wiggen: 200 Miles from Perkinsville to Cooperstown

3 years ago, I had a crazy idea of honoring my Pop and the time we spent talking about old ballplayers with a never-ending card set. On random scraps of paper, cocktail napkins and service station receipts I made crazed lists of the players I wanted to depict. Besides creating drawings and stories for real-life ballplayers, I also wanted to do the same for those memorable fictional characters from movies and literature. Roy Hobbs, Mayday Sam Malone, Bump Bailey, Chief Gedsudski... they all have a place right beside Babe Ruth and Pee Wee Reese here at The Infinite Baseball Card Set. There's one more character that I seem to get a number of requests for each year and that's Henry "Author" Wiggen, star of Mark Harris' baseball trilogy. I always put off doing a Wiggen card for the simple reason that I don't remember all that much from reading the books. Not wanting to fake it, I sat back and waited for someone who was more intimately familiar with Harris' work. 

Enter Bill Schubert, author of this week's story...

Baseball is great for nicknames. It seems the better the player, the more colorful the moniker. George Herman Ruth was “The Babe” and “The Sultan of Swat”. Bob Feller was “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater From Van Meter”. Henry Aaron became “Hammerin’ Hank”. Reggie Jackson was “Mister October” and Roy Hobbs was simply “The Natural”. It goes on and on: “Catfish”, “Charlie Hustle”, “The Rocket”, “Goose”, “The Splendid Splinter”, “Mudcat”, and “The Wizard”.

The dominant New York Mammoths teams of the early 1950s had some of the best nicknames in history. Led by Manager Herman “Dutch” Schnell, they had “Lucky” Judkins, “Sunny Jim” Trotter, and “Swanee” Wilks patrolling the outfield, “Ugly” Jones, “Coker” Roguski and “Canada” Smith in the infield, and the veteran catcher “Red” Traphagen flashing the signs to pitchers “Horse” Byrd, “Knuckles” Johnson, and “Sad Sam” Yale.

When the young southpaw Henry Wiggen joined the Mammoths in 1952, he had a brash confidence to go along with his blazing fastball, wicked curve, and nearly unhittable screwball. By the end of his rookie year Henry had won a league best 26 regular season games and 2 World Series games (New York beat Philadelphia to take the ’52 Series 4 games to 1). He took home both the MVP Award and the Sid Mercer Memorial Award of the Baseball Writers Association as Player of the Year. What Henry Wiggen did not have was a proper nickname.

Over the off-season Wiggen wrote a book, The Southpaw (“Punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved by Mark Harris”), about his early life in Perkinsville, New York, his two years with the AA Queen City Cowboys, and his magnificent rookie campaign. Henry paints a vivid picture of life in the small town of Perkinsville and of his baseball-crazed early days. He was raised by his father, a former minor league pitcher with Cedar Rapids and star of the local semi-pro team the Perkinsville Scarlets. Henry’s whole world revolved around the grand old game. Henry starred on the mound for Perkinsville High. He cheered his Dad. He walked from his house to Fred Levine’s cigar store in town to buy “The Baseball Digest”, “Ace Diamond Tales”, and “The Sporting News”. He stole the local library’s copy of Sam Yale -- Mammoth and read it over so many times that he was able to quote whole passages to “Sad Sam” himself when eventually they were teammates in New York. He cut a picture of Sam out of the stolen book and carried it in his wallet next to a picture of his “Pop”. He made Sam’s “Rules to Live By” his own: always play hard, live a clean life, listen to your coaches, and, especially, have faith in yourself. Henry always played hard, never smoked or chewed tobacco or drank alcohol during his playing years, and had the utmost confidence in his abilities.

I believe that some day I will be counted amongst the immortals and have my statue in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Connie Mack says Lefty Grove was the greatest and maybe so, and some say Mathewson and some say Walter Johnson, some say Bobby Feller and some say Satchel Paige. Yet you will see some writers that say that on my best days I am better and faster than any, and I believe them. ( The Southpaw, 17) 
When the Mammoths reassembled in Aqua Clara for spring training in 1953, Henry got his nickname. He was then and ever after Henry “Author” Wiggen. As if to live up to the nickname, Henry would go on to author three more books about his life on and off the diamond, Bang The Drum Slowly, A Ticket For A Seamstitch, and It Looked Like Forever.

1955 should have been another great year for “Author” and the Mammoths. Henry was an All-Star for the third year in four, and New York made it back to the World Series, this time beating Detroit behind two victories by Henry. But that season, chronicled in Henry’s bitter-sweet second book, Bang The Drum Slowly (“Certain of his enthusiasms restrained by Mark Harris”), was played under a cloud, the knowledge that back-up catcher Bruce Pearson was dying of Hodgkins disease. Henry and Bruce drove down to Aqua Clara together that spring. On the way they decided to keep Bruce’s condition a secret from everyone for fear that the Mammoths would release Pearson if they knew the awful truth. They made a detour to visit Bruce’s folks in his tiny hometown of Mill, Georgia. Eventually they shoved off for spring training without even sharing the truth with Bruce’s parents. Once in Aqua Clara, Henry sat in the stands watching his teammates practice. He was holding out for more money. Finally, Henry and the club settled on a figure, but “Author” was not through negotiating. He would not sign until a clause was written into his contract saying that he and Bruce “…will stay with the club together. Whatever happens to one must happen to the other, traded or sold or whatever. We must be tied in a package on any deal under the sun.” (p. 67, Bang The Drum Slowly) Manager Dutch Schnell did not like the unusual request, saying, “What is up between you 2? A roomie is a roomie, Author, not a Siamese twin brother fastened at the hip.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 70) Eventually the manager relented and the clause was put into Henry’s contract.

On Memorial Day, with spring turning to summer, the Mammoths were under-performing. They could not put any distance between themselves and Washington. They clung to a slim 1 1/2 game lead despite Sid Goldman hitting home runs on a pace to break “Babe” Ruth’s single season mark of 60. With 16 of the roster’s 25 players veterans of the 1952 World Series Championship team, they should have had a perfect mix of experience and youth. But, something was not right in the clubhouse. The players were ragging each other, especially their small town back-up catcher, Bruce Pearson. “It takes him longer than most to discover a thing like that.... It is easy pickings, like punching a punching bag that can not punch back.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 121) Wiggen and Pearson’s secret was like an anvil around the neck of the mammoths; it was holding them back, dragging them down.

The bigger the secret, the harder it can be to keep, and, eventually, the truth about Bruce’s diagnosis spread through the clubhouse and front office. As the disease began to take its toll on Pearson, the club rallied around him. They pulled together and began to play to their potential. Before he became too weak, Bruce was able to make significant contributions on the field, but soon the disease was too much. He played for the last time on a rainy day after Labor Day in Washington. Henry described it this way,

... and then everybody begun running, for the rain come in for sure now, and he seen everybody running, but he did not run, only stood there. I started off towards the dugout, maybe as far as the baseline, thinking he was following, and then I seen that he was not. I seen him standing looking for somebody to throw to, the last pitch he ever caught, and I went back for him, and Mike and Red were there when I got there, and Mike said, ‘it is over, son,’ and he said, ‘Sure’ and trotted on in. ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 237-238)

Bruce stayed with the club. He sat in the dugout in his uniform, too weak to play, cheering his teammates. Though he grew thinner and paler day by day, and his hands shook, his spirits remained high. He was there in Cleveland when they clinched the pennant, and he was there in New York when they took the first two games of the World Series. But, he did not feel up to the trip to Detroit, saying, “I will see you in the spring. I will be back in shape by spring.” ( Bang The Drum Slowly, 242) The Mammoths swept the Tigers for the title. Pearson died on October 7. Henry went down to Georgia where he helped carry Bruces’s casket. Then he returned home to write about the 1955 season and about Bruce Pearson. “He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.” (Bang The Drum Slowly, last paragraph)

1970 was Henry’s last season with the Mammoths. He won only three games and they did not offer him another contract. Like so many players, he was not ready to walk away from the game, not ready to hang up his spikes. Self-confidence is often the last thing a veteran ballplayer loses, long after his legs, his arm, his eye, and his reflexes have abandoned him. Rare is the man like Sandy Koufax who retired at or near his best after the 1966 season, a year that saw him put up his career best ERA (1.73) while winning 27 games and his third Cy Young Award. Much more common is the sad sight of a formerly great player, like Willie Mays, rendered average or worse by the passage of time, yet seemingly the last to notice.

Henry was aware of his diminishing skills, “The ball done what I told it. The only thing it could not do was go fast. My fastball come up nothing,…” ( It Looked Like Forever, 65) Yet, he spent months making phone calls and taking trips in hopes of catching on with another club. He even travelled to Japan to investigate the possibility of joining the Oyasumi Cobras. Finally, in June, “Suicide” Alexander, owner of California’s club, signed “Author” as a relief pitcher. Henry resumed his career on June 16th, and in his first nine appearances out of the pen he went nine innings giving up just one hit and allowing no runs. But, his comeback would be short-lived. On July 2nd, in San Francisco, Wiggen was brought into the game in the eighth inning with one out and a man on first. “Muddy” Rivers came to the plate. Henry got ahead of him quickly with two consecutive curves, but the third pitch, another curveball, did not fool Rivers.

Now and then, with a small glass of sherry, I use to run California 1
more time through my TV cassette machine in the belief that may be that boy
name of Muddy Rivers would change his mind about my third pitch. He
never did. Strike 1. Strike 2. Then smash, and the next thing you see I
am flat on the ground unconscious. It give me the headache.... After a while
I no longer required the film but give it to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown,
N. Y., along with many other silvernears (sic) of time gone by. (It Looked Like
Foever, last paragraph)

Between his emergence as a green nineteen year old September call-up in 1951, when he gave the Mammoths one perfect inning against Boston, and his fateful final pitch to Muddy Rivers just four days shy of his fortieth birthday, Henry “Author” Wiggen fashioned a magnificent career. Over nineteen full seasons, he pitched 4,824 innings. When he retired he had 247 wins, tying him with “Iron Man” McGinnity and John Powell for twenty-seventh on the all-time list. He was a perfect 4-0 in the four World Series games he pitched (The Mammoths won the crown in both 1952 and 1955). He was a multiple all-star and an MVP.

When Henry’s minor league Manager, Mike Mullrooney, told him that he was being called up to the big leagues, his simple advice was to listen to the veteran catcher Red Traphagen; “When he says something that has got to do with baseball you must hang on his every word as if it was the word of God. He is the smartest ballplayer in baseball today.” ( The Southpaw, 118)

In his own book, Backing Up First, Traphagen wrote, “I have expressed my aversion to superlatives. Nevertheless, the ‘best’ pitcher I ever caught was Henry Wiggen.”

It must be true. 

Thanks again to Bill Schubert for the story. Not only did Bill graciously take on the task of crafting a great Wiggen biography, but he patiently answered all my silly little questions about what the character looked like and other little details that helped me make a card. A little about what went into creating Wiggen's card: Since the books are written in first-person, Harris doesn't really give a comprehensive description of the hero. Over 6'-3" tall, broad shoulders, 195 lbs... and that's pretty much it. Same for the Mammoths' uniforms. That real poor movie with Robert DeNiro, "Bang The Drum Slowly" (yeah I said it - and I don't like "Bull Durham", either) had the ballplayers in Yankee-esque pinstripes with a terrible intertwined "NY" logo. As a designer, it gives me agida to see the characters run around in those lousy jerseys and caps, so I sure as hell wasn't going to copy them for my card. There was a television play done in 1956 and I found a couple of stills from that but the uniforms were kind of generic and didn't look up to the level that a National League team would have worn at the time, so that, too, was no help. Harris only mentions that instead of "MAMMOTHS" on the front it simply carried the name of the city of New York. Too bad for me because I would have loved to create a jersey that had "MAMMOTHS" on the front! So anyway, I wanted to stay as true as possible to what Harris envisioned when he wrote the books. As you just read in Bill's story, Henry Wiggen's career began in 1952 so I wanted the card to depict him between his rookie year and 1955 when the Mammoths won the World Series. I picked orange and blue for the Mammoths colors. I know Mark Harris was a New York Giants fan, and in fact had the pleasure of making his acquaintance at a Giants Spring Training game years ago. But, I didn't want to just copy the old Giants look. Using the blue which the Giants wore when Harris was a boy in the 1930's and 40's and the orange from the time period the books take place seemed like a good solution. Besides, what can I say, as an old Mets fan, I happen to like orange and blue. The logo, though you can't see it very clearly due to the size of the card, is a kind of Medieval script that I thought fit the era and was sufficiently different than any other team at the time. I also chose to pose Wiggen far away so as not to have to depict his face too well - everyone who reads a good book has their own idea of what a character looks like and I didn't want to stand in the way of that. And finally, the ballpark in the drawing is a take on the old Polo Grounds, a place Mark Harris knew well as a boy and its cavernous double-decked stands promised to make a fine background on which to place his hero...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

135. Rap Dixon: The Negro Leagues' Best Left Fielder

Every so often I get requests for ballplayers to feature on the site. This week's player was suggested by a reader over a year ago and not only did he ask me to feature this particular player, but he also took the time to write out a nice outline of his career to get me started. It took me quite a long time to assemble everything, research, drawing and actually writing it all down, but finally, here it is...

Now the first thing you think about when you here that a ballplayer's nickname is "Rap" is a massive slugger, right? Rap has got to be derived from the sound the ball makes when it "raps" into the outfield wall. Well, in Herbert Albert Dixon's case, "Rap" was short for the Rappahannock River. Why was he named after a river in Virginia? I have no idea. He was born in Kingston, Georgia and grew up in Steelton, Pennsylvania. I'll make an educated guess and throw it out there that perhaps Dixon's family, after leaving Georgia, briefly settled in Virginia, somewhere along the banks of that river. Moving to urban Pennsylvania it was probably just natural his nickname reflected the place he'd come from. But, like I said, it's all just a guess. What is known for sure is that by his teens Dixon was living in Steelton where his Pop was a steelworker.

Colonel Strothers, the owner and manager of the semi-pro Harrisburg Giants, spied the 20 year-old "Rap" Dixon playing sandlot ball in Steelton, Pennsylvania and snatched him up for his own ball club. Strothers was in the process of turning his semi-pro Giants into a big league quality team and the was Dixon played the outfield Strothers knew this kid would be an integral part of what he envisioned for his club. 

By 1924 the Harrisburg Giants had become that pro club the Colonel envisioned. To compliment his young left fielder, Struthers signed Oscar Charleston to play center and brought in Fats Jenkins to anchor right field. The Dixon-Charleston-Jenkins combo became what may have been the greatest outfield of all-time. 

The Giants joined the Eastern Colored League in 1924 and Dixon began what should be a hall of fame career. In 47 games he hit a .265 but did slug 4 homers and demonstrated solid skills on the base paths. His fielding out in left field was so impressive that there was no question he would be in that same place the next season. Playing full time in 1925 Dixon responded by knocking the ball around for a  .344 average. After the regular season, Dixon was invited to go to the West Coast and play in the winter league around Los Angeles. Off-season baseball work was scarce and only the best ballplayers were offered slots in the winter league so it speaks highly of Dixon's talent at the age of 23 that he was granted a berth on one of those all-star teams. 

Back east with Harrisburg again in 1926 he's credited with a .310 average and many Negro teams tried to get Dixon to jump the Giants and join their clubs, to no avail. The left fielder was tall and bony, just over 6 feet tall. His legs were stripped down and built for speed and his arms were the only thing on him that could be called muscular, which was the source of his cannon arm and the reason he could scatter booming line drives all over a ball field. By 1927 no one remembered that "Rap" had anything to do with a river. To blackball fans, "Rap" was what he did to a baseball, and that was that.

Instead of heading out west in the winter of 1927 and stopping at Los Angeles, Dixon was recruited by famed catcher Biz Mackey to join his team which was headed to the Orient to play ball. The team, dubbed the Philadelphia Royal Giants, stopped off in many exotic locations including the Philippines and Japan, spreading the brand of ball playing they played in the Negro leagues. Japan particularly embraced the American visitors and Dixon in particular. The fans were captivated by his "shadowball" pantomime routine before games and one of his home runs was so impressive that a plaque was erected to commemorate it. His batting performance in Japan was so impressive that it earned him a special trophy from the Emperor Hirohito. 

When the tour ended Dixon took his brand of ball playing to the Baltimore Black Sox. Baltimore had consistently fielded a competitive team but always seemed to fall short at the end of the season. The addition of Rap Dixon to the lineup was that missing part of the machine. After batting .382 in 1928, the Black Sox finally put it all together the next season and they won the league championship, Dixon's .369 tally adding considerably to a well-balanced ball club. Unfortunately the league disbanded after that and while the 1930 Black Sox were considered even better than the previous edition, they were an independent club and it's not easy to gauge in retrospect how good they were. 

One thing is for certain however, and that is that Rap Dixon was a superstar. In July of 1930 Yankee Stadium was officially opened up to black teams and the Black Sox were there to play the hometown Lincoln Giants in the House that Ruth Built. By the time the game ended that afternoon Dixon had gone down in the history books as not only the first black ball player to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium, but he hit three of them that day. It was a monstrous demonstration of power in front of a huge crowd in the largest city in the nation. If anyone didn't know about Rap Dixon by the morning before that game, they sure did afterwards. 

Unfortunately along with fame comes a whole cart full of unwanted baggage and Dixon fell victim to two of the most common ones - booze and ego. That drinking went along with the transient lifestyle of a ballplayer is not sup prizing. Black or white, many great careers were damaged by the sauce and Dixon was no different. Alcohol combined with a swollen head made for an unpleasant teammate. But, just like his white counterparts, as long as you performed on the field such unpleasantness's were overlooked.

Like many stars of blackball, Dixon now began the life of ball player for hire, frequently switching teams and showing up bat in hand to whichever team offered him the most money. One thing everyone who followed Negro baseball was that when Rap Dixon came to join your team, he was bringing speed, power and the the best fielding skills around. Dixon's appearance in the lineup was like money in the bank. In 1931 he was roaming left field in a Hilldale uniform. 1932 found him on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the best ball clubs ever assembled, black, white, brown or any other color. The next season he was recruited by the Philadelphia Stars and creamed the ball for a .370 average. When the voting for the very first All-Star Game was tallied in July of that year, Rap Dixon was the East's starting left fielder of course. He promptly stole the first base in All-Star history.

When he went south to Puerto Rico in the winter of 1933-34, Dixon was at the top of his game. Then it all ended. Sliding into second base, Dixon severely injured his spine. The all-star spent almost half a season in the hospital and when he finally returned to the game he wasn't even half the player he was before. Philadelphia cut Dixon loose but Baltimore took a chance on their old star and hired him as manager of the Black Sox. While he was one of the best ballplayers to ever step on a ball field, he wasn't a skilled enough manager to make a difference with the lack-luster club Baltimore saddled him with and the club folded. The Brooklyn Eagles picked up his contract the next season bu he didn't stick and he bumped around a series of teams in quick succession before hanging up his spikes after the 1937 season. He stayed in the game as a manager of a few low-level teams including a reconstituted Harrisburg Giants in the 1940's. Though Harrisburg's level of play wasn't one the same level as a Negro National League team, it was notable for another reason - it was an integrated ball club - a rarity back then and perhaps one of the many reasons which proved why Jackie Robinson should be given a shot at professional ball in 1946.

After a good 15 years of heavy drinking, Rap Dixon succumbed to tuberculosis in July of 1944. His heath had been declining steadily since his hospitalization ten years earlier and his death wasn't much of a surprise to those who knew him. When Oscar Charleston was creating his all-time dream lineup of Negro league players in 1949 he chose his old Harrisburg teammate to be the starting left fielder. Quite a compliment considering the source and the vast pool of talent he had to choose from. The Hall of Fame had Dixon on their ballot in 2006 but he failed to garner enough votes. Perhaps one day when guys like Gil Hodges and Sammy T. Hughes get their just rewards, the name Herbert Albert "Rap" Dixon will be right along with them.