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.