Sunday, December 15, 2013
166. Earl Huckleberry: Straight to the Majors and Back
I don't have much family left now-a-days, so one of the added bonuses I received when I married my wife Andrea in August was that I became part of her family. More often than not, the phrase "in-laws" accompanies some horror story or otherwise unpleasant holiday tale. That's just not the case with Andrea's family - they're all great people who have made me feel more welcome than I had ever thought possible.
Now, I'm sure most are wondering what the heck does my in-laws have to do with The Infinite Baseball Card Set? Well, I found out about this week's ballplayer via my wife's sister.
For the past two years Andrea and I have driven out to Oklahoma City to spend Thanksgiving with her sister Cathy and their family. Her husband, Scott (an L.A. Dodgers fan) was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. They have 3 teenagers who are healthy, smart, athletic and so well-grounded that spending time with them has renewed my faith in the future of America. So anyway, last Thanksgiving the whole family plus Andrea and I hopped in the family Suburban and went antique shopping. Oklahoma City has a huge number of very good antique stores and in one Cathy was thoughtful enough to pick up a present for me. It was a large hard-bound volume called "Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma". It's a very well made and researched book and not one I'd seen before. Not only does its authors cover the various major league players that hailed from the state, but its also heavy on the various minor leagues and semi-pro teams that populated the state before the second world war. My wife's sister hit the jackpot because it's the kind of book I absolutely love and within its pages that I came across a guy that has one of the best names in baseball history: Earl Huckleberry.
Throughout the bleak summer of 1935 Ira Thomas prowled the western half of the United States. As the odometer on his beat up Ford V8 clicked off mile after dusty mile, Thomas had a front row seat to the desolation the great depression and dust bowl had wrought on the American landscape. The usually sparsely traveled roads were now choked with refugees fleeing the dust storms and foreclosed farms that littered the great plains. While it seemed like everyone was on the move out of there, Thomas stepped on the gas and headed in. He was looking for arms.
His boss, the venerable and saintly Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had scattered his scouts to the far corners of the country looking for pitching. Thomas, Mack's former catcher from his first dynasty of the early teens, was the A's chief scout and although he didn't specifically come out and say it, the old man was counting on him to come through with a miracle. The stock market crash had hit the Athletics' owner hard and for the second time in his long career, Mack had to dismantle what may have been the greatest baseball team in major league history. For three glorious years, 1929 to 1931, Mack's A's had dethroned the mighty New York Yankees and won three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Championships. But by the summer of 1935, slugger Jimmie Foxx and outfielder Doc Cramer were the only stars remaining. The once great pitching staff of Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg and George Earnshaw were long gone, their place in the rotation taken by a long list of punch-drunk veterans and a revolving door of fuzzy-faced college kids. Connie Mack, for all his years in the game, was slow to accept the new concept of farm teams. Both his American League dynasties were assembled through good scouting and decades worth of connections he'd cultivated. In the past when a low-level minor league team had a promising youngster, Mack counted on managers to contact him and offer up the kid's contract. Now with many minor league clubs under working agreements with big league teams, Mack's pipeline had dried up. That's why Thomas was roaming around racking up more miles than a bible salesman.
Late August found Thomas sitting in the bleachers watching a semi-pro tournament in Oklahoma. Two pitchers from the Seminole Redbirds caught his attention - Vallie Eaves and Earl Huckleberry. Both right handers were well known on the dust bowl diamonds of Oklahoma and the two often found themselves teammates on semi-pro teams that had the cash to pay for their services. Eaves was a Native American with a lame leg and Huckleberry was a lanky Okie fireballer. Neither of these guys were another Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove, but the most important thing here was that both men were free agents. With his boss back in Philly desperate and nothing to lose, Ira Thomas quickly got both hurlers signatures on standard American League players' contracts and sent the duo east on the next train.
Back in Philadelphia, Connie Mack watched helplessly as his once proud team careened out of control down the American League standings. The pitching staff seemed to disintegrate in the late summer heat: rookie Lee Roy Mahaffey and veteran George Blaeholder blew their arms out and were done for the year, while promising lefty Whitey Wilshere abandoned the sinking ship to return to the University of Indiana. Apparently hitting the books was a more appealing prospect than ending the season with a lousy team like the Athletics.
The A's were in 7th place, a few games atop the lowly St. Louis Browns - that is, they were, until the Browns took 4 straight from Mack's men. Mired in last place and in a tailspin that now stretched to 13 consecutive losses, Mack was desperate and out of tricks - Thomas' telegram announcing the signing of the two Okies couldn't have come at a better time.
The two westerners joined the team in Philadelphia. Thursday, September 12 was a double header against the Chicago White Sox. The only remaining A's pitcher that was any good, Johnny Marcum, won the first game to snap the 13 game losing streak. For the second game, Connie Mack handed the ball to Vallie Eaves who proceeded to go the distance and beat White Sox ace Monty Stratton 4-3. It was a big enough win that the wire services picked up Eaves' story.
The next day, Friday, September 13th was Earl Huckleberry's turn.
Wearing number 24, the lanky Oklahoman took the Shibe Park mound. Veteran A's catcher Charlie Berry would be catching him that afternoon. Huckleberry wound up and threw his fireball. He wasn't the fastest anyone had ever seen, but out west his fastball had nice movement and that big pitch worked fine on the semi-pro lots. Games of more than a dozen strike-outs weren't uncommon for Huckleberry, and for over five summers that ol' fireball had baffled hundreds of his opponents. In the major leagues it took the White Sox less than a handful of pitches to figure him out. By the time the inning ended the Sox had scored a run on a couple hits and Huckleberry's own error.
It wasn't the best of debuts, but fortunately White Sox starter Ray Phelps was even worse. By the time he was finally yanked and sent to the showers without finishing the first inning, Phelps had walked 8 batters and gave up seven runs. Reliever Jack Salveston let in another run before getting the last out.
Now working with a 7 run lead, the Oklahoman bore down and shut out Chicago for the next four innings. He struck out two Sox and his control wasn't bad for a guy coming directly from the sandlots to the majors. Meanwhile, A's batters piled on 4 more runs to make it 12-1 going into the bottom of the 6th. A handful of hits resulted in two Chicago runs but he got out of it. The A's added another 2 runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 14-5.
But then Connie Mack's newest find ran out of gas. Huckleberry managed to retire 2 Sox but let two more runs in before Mack gave him the hook. Dutch Lieber came in and shut Chicago down for the rest of the game. Though he gave up 7 earned runs and 8 hits, Huckleberry was awarded the win.
The papers made much of Mack's two new discoveries, calling them "Mack's Kindergarten Class". Despite promises to play the Okie rookie again, September 13th, 1935 was Huckleberry's first and last appearance in organized baseball and neither Oklahoman made any difference in the A's nose-dive of a season. When the books mercifully closed on the 1935 season two weeks after Huckleberry's win, the Athletics were firmly locked in the cellar of the American League, a staggering 34 games out of first place.
Not many men can say they skipped the minor leagues on their way up and down from the big leagues, but Earl Huckleberry can. While his professional career was started and finished in the span of an afternoon, he continued to be a much-sought out baseball mercenary in Oklahoma. A year after his major league game, Huckleberry and Eaves joined forces again to pitch the Halliburton Cementers to victory in the Denver Post Tournament. He was still pitching up into the 1940's for various semi-pro clubs like the Enid Oilers and Seminole Red Birds, living his entire life in his native Oklahoma. He and his wife Dollie, who he married in 1933, had a daughter, and by the time he passed away in 1999, the Huckleberry's had two grand kids and three great-grand kids. Now I don't know this for sure, but I'd be willing to bet my bottom dollar that Grandpa Huckleberry bent their ears on many a Thanksgiving Day telling his brood about his one day on the mound for Connie Mack's Athletics.
I say this all the time, but it's stories like this that make this game interesting to me. You can take all the Hall of Famers and multi-million dollar contracts. I'll take Earl Huckleberry's one afternoon in the big leagues anytime.
Monday, December 9, 2013
165. Sam Kau: The Travelin' Chinese Spitballer
Here's a great little slice of baseball history I learned about from an update I received from Gary Bedinfield, proprietor of Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice. After reading Gary's fine bio on Apau Kau, I called up my old pal Scott Simkus, the man behind the now defunct Outsider Baseball Bulletin, who tapped into his vast OBB archives and supplied me with some hard-to-find newspaper photo's of Kau from which I did my drawing. Various old newspaper articles along with some background of the Hawaiian All-Chinese Travelers team from Joel Frank's book filled out the rest of Kau's story.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Sam Kau grew up playing ball in the fast paced Oahu League. Armed with a devastating spitball to go along with a good fastball and professional curve, Kau joined the All-Chinese Hawaiian Travelers that toured the U.S. mainland every summer from 1912 to 1915. When the All-Americans team came to Hawaii in 1914, Kau pitched against the major league stars, losing 5-2. The big leaguers were impressed with his spitball and noted that 4 of the runs came during one bad inning. On the Travelers’ 1915 American tour, Kau held the minor league San Antonio Bronchos to 6 hits (though he lost 3-2) and then tossed a perfect game against Baylor University, striking out 20. Kau moved permanently to Philadelphia where he continued to be a sought-after semi-pro pitcher.
A former member of the Hawaiian National Guard (as were a good number of his teammates on the Travelers), Kau enlisted in the army in 1918. With his prior experience he made sergeant quickly and was sent to officer candidate school. Anxious to get to the fighting, the former spitballer voluntarily resigned from officer training in order to join his old regiment when it received orders to France.
The 315th Infantry was posted to the Verdun Sector during the last week of the war. On the night of November 4th they moved into the front lines to spearhead an attack on Hill 378 which was outside the town of Borne-du-Cornouiller. Going over the top at the head of his squad, Sergeant Kau was killed by German bullets. It was only six days until the war ended.
Though Kau never played in the majors or even the minor leagues, he was a big enough name that his death in battle was reported by the wire services.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
164. Chino Smith: Like a Meteor
Some ball field, somewhere in 1928 or 1929.
The air was electric. With the score tied up for the past 6 innings, the crowd had settled in the sticky late afternoon heat. After the first batter struck out, the number two man had just hit a cheap single that dropped behind the shortstop who was playing for a bunt. Now the crowd came to life. They knew who the man on deck was and what he could do. Chino Smith could break a ballgame wide open with a single swing of his bat. The stands were filled with taunts, screams, insults - even a few hats were launched onto the grass, but Chino Smith didn't care.
Savagely throwing the two extra bats he used to warm up behind him, he strode slowly towards the plate. Instead of walking in a straight line, he swung deliberately out of his way towards the hostile crowd. The noise got louder and he paused at one point to gaze menacingly over his shoulder. His eyes, slightly slanting at the corners, gave him a faintly Asian look, and from that sprung his nickname - Chino. Turning back, he continued his walk to the plate. He kicked savagely at the dirt, digging a hole for his spikes to get traction. He swung the bat back and forth and finally pointed it at the pitcher.
"I'm gonna kill you today".
His voice was loud, booming and eerily even. The crowd ate it up and yelled louder than before. They cried for the pitcher to stick one in his ear. The catcher said something, but no one could hear for the crowd. The pitcher didn't say a word. He checked the runner on first.
The first pitch was close, a brush-back, up just beneath his chin. Fully expecting it, Chino dodged it and unleashed a foul stream of tobacco juice at it as it hissed by. The runner on first had taken off and took second standing up. Chino pointed at the runner, silently taunting the pitcher. The crowd loved it and hated it.
"That all you got? That all you gonna throw?"
The pitcher pounded his glove and eyed the man on second.
"Cause if that's all you throwin', I'm gonna kill you today."
The stands erupted with an even louder torrent of hatred. Someone threw a soda bottle. Chino suddenly made towards the box seats along the first base line but stopped after a few steps. A smile curled up from the edge of his mouth and he turned back towards the plate. The umpire kicked the bottle back towards the crowd.
The next pitch sailed in just a bit outside but still within reach. With a flick Chino smashed the ball straight back at the pitcher who feebly stabbed at the ball while instinctively jumping out of the way. The runner on second crossed the plate before the center fielder made the play and Chino stood on first base like he owned it. When the crowd quieted down he motioned at the pitcher.
"Hey! I made you jump out there!"
The pitcher threw the ball in the dirt and charged towards first. The slight curl in the corner of Chino's lips turned into a full-blown smile as he braced for the coming fight.
When it comes to blackball, you take it for granted that due to lack of newspaper coverage, record keeping and plain-old racism that it's tough to discern truth from myth. With a guy like Chino Smith, the waters become as murky as Lock Ness. His career was so meteoric and short that over the years he took on an almost King Arthur-like reputation. And like the Medieval knight, whose story is based in fact, much of what is repeated is not. Often called a small man, listed in most books as 5'-6", if you just look at a team photo you can see he was most likely 5-11 or 6 foot. Not a giant, but average for a ballplayer in 1930. I reckon somewhere in some newspaper many years ago there is a typo that just kept getting reprinted. Even his great nickname "Chino", which he is universally known by today, is not quite correct. While the Spanish language press and fans in Cuba dubbed him Chino, after his "Chinese-looking eyes", in the States he was known to fellow players by the less racy "Smitty", and to the public as just plain-old "Charlie", his given name.
Though said to be from Greenwood, South Carolina, baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill uncovered that Charlie Smith really came out of Hamlet, North Carolina. As a teen he added muscles by lugging baggage in New York's Pennsylvania Station and honed his baseball skills playing for the ball club made up of porters like him called the Redcaps. Boasting quite a few future and former blackball players, the Redcaps were a valuable training ground and after a few seasons playing for second-tier teams, Smith turned pro in 1925. Smitty's team, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, were one of the old independent blackball teams, but by 1925 they'd joined the Eastern Colored League. Playing alongside aging vets like Dick Redding, Bill Holland and Jesse Hubbard, Smith spent 1925 and 1926 getting his bearings and learning his craft. By 1927 he emerged as one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game.
In an era filled with hard characters, Smith quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest. He was the grandfather of trash-talkers and decades later when old-timers tired of waxing poetically about Smitty's skills with a bat, they often turned to talking about the verbal abuse he slung like line drives. Once in Cuba he'd had a bust up with the Yankee's ace Johnny Allen which over the years turned into something of a legend. While some blackball players like Satchel Paige delighted crowds with good-natured antics, Smitty made them angry and dangerously on the edge. He deliberately riled up the crowd which in turn made him play harder.
Playing for the Royal Giants, Smitty averaged above .400 in league games in '27 and '28. In 1929 Smith moved from the aging Royal Giants to the New York Lincoln Giants, a younger and more competitive club. Just 28 and at his peak, Smith crushed the ball, going .465 and then .429 in 1930. He was the most feared batter outside the major leagues, which some might argue doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. A common argument is made that the Royal Giants and his next team, the Lincoln Giants, played their home games in an oddly shaped ballpark called the Catholic Protectory Oval up in the Bronx. It was shaped, as it's name suggests, like an oval, much like the Polo Grounds where the New York Giants and Yankees played. The field had very shallow left and right field dimensions, making many modern historians look disparagingly at Smith's Ty Cobb-like averages. On the surface that's a great argument, but the Royals and the Lincolns didn't play the majority of their games "at home". Negro League teams traveled more than professional white teams and even league games were scheduled at neutral parks. The Lincolns, for instance, played some of their home games at Yankee Stadium during Smith's career. In games played against the other big names of the day, Smitty hit as good or better than the best outsider baseball had to offer.
Like many of the big stars of the Negro leagues, Smith was invited to play winter ball in Cuba. Down in the Caribbean the blackballers got to test their mettle against not only the best Latin players, but also against touring major leaguers and up and coming white stars. In the handful of winters spent on the island, Smith batted in the range of .340, putting him right about the top 10 of the time. In addition, pioneer blackball historian John Holway tracked down a slate of Stateside games in which Smith got to face off against active major league pitching (active big league hurlers, not washed up retreads throwing for semi-pro teams). Smitty clipped them at the same pace he did the Eastern Colored League pitchers: In 11 games against big leaguers Smith had 15 hits in 37 at bats, a .405 average.
The two best pitchers of Smith's day, Baltimore's Laymon Yokely and the eternal Satchel Paige whose career spanned the 1920's to the 1960's, both put Smith in the top 3 of the toughest batters they faced. When Colonel Ruppert opened up Yankee Stadium to black teams in 1930, Charlie Smith was the star of the inaugural game. Facing the Baltimore Black Sox, defending champs of the American Negro League, Smith walked in the first, hit a two-run homer in the third, smashed an RBI triple in the fifth and then wrapped it all up with a three-run homer in the seventh. Nothing it seemed, could stop Smitty.
Then, just like that, it was over.
Sometime during the 1931 season, Smith started to feel sick. Self-medicating with a variety of different elixirs failed to prevent his batting average to plummet. Traveling to Cuba for the winter season, Smitty played a few games and then returned home to his wife in the Bronx. In less than a month after Christmas he was dead. Some attributed his illness to a game against the Homestead Grays when he took a knee to his stomach during a savage collision with Walt Cannady, others say it was yellow fever picked up in Cuba. Baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill however put an end to the speculation when he uncovered Smith's death certificate which stated he died of stomach and pancreatic cancer. He was just 31 years old.
I went back and forth whether or not to put "Chino" on the front of Smith's card. When I started doing my illustrations and stories over 3 years ago, I began with the idea that I wanted my work to be as accurate as possible. Most of the time this comes down to very minute things like uniform details, but in this case I eventually thought it important to put the name he was known for in the States. In my research going through 1920's and 30's newspapers, the name Chino was never used, only "Charlie Smith". Since I illustrated him as a member of the 1930 Lincoln Giants playing at the Catholic Protectory Oval, I ultimately decided to give him the name he would have been known by as at the time.
Monday, November 11, 2013
I originally posted the story of Captain Eddie Grant, former New York Giants 3rd baseman, 3 years ago in honor of Veterans Day. To show my respect and gratitude to all the men and women who interrupted their lives in order to serve and protect this country, I'd like to post it again, my small way to say thank you.
On a day like today, Veteran's Day, I want to feature a real hero. These days it seems anyone who does anything can be termed a hero. We are losing the real meaning of that word and that is something that really bothers me, especially when I learn about ordinary men and women who somehow rise to the top and emerge as real heroes. Miners trapped in Chile may be survivors and noteworthy, but they are not heroes. But, instead of writing an introduction outing the many pseudo-heroes that the media seems to create, I will let the story of a real, bona-fide hero speak for itself.
They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.
During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.
The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.
The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.
By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.
The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.
Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.
Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.
New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.
Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.
Friday, November 1, 2013
163. Joe Boley: The Cost of Being Too Good
Even though I left Baltimore over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. From 1919 to 1925 they won a record seven straight pennants and many baseball historians 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. The talent stacked up on this club was unbelievable and no less than four would go on to be key members of Connie Mack's 1929-31 A's juggernaut, often called the best major league team of all time. Among the stars of the team was Joe Boley, hailed by contemporary sports writers as the best shortstop in baseball, at any level. All but forgotten today, Boley had the makings of a superstar and indeed was, just on a minor league level. It wasn't a lack of talent that stood in the way of his making the big leagues, it was that Joe Boley was too good...
The newspapers called him "Silent Joe" because of, well, he didn't talk all that much. In fact, Joe didn't do much of anything except play shortstop better than anyone else and hit like the bat was an extension of his forearm. He came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants whose real name was Bolinsky. Working underground since the age of 10, Boley began playing ball in his spare time using one of his heavy work gloves as a makeshift mitt. Being from a large family, such niceties as a baseball glove were not something the Bolinsky's meager household income would allow. Eventually, when his love of the game and talent became evident, his parents finally bought him the coveted piece of equipment. With foul balls swiped at local semi-pro games, Joe sharpened the fielding that would make him famous by throwing them against a barn door and chasing them down. By 1914 at the age of 17 he was being paid $2 a game and two years later he was playing for Chambersburg in the Blue Ridge League. Somewhere he shortened his name to Boley, making it a little easier on sportswriters and having a more "American" feel to it. Catching on as a pro seemed to elude him as he bounced around the lower rungs of the minor leagues throughout the northeast. Somewhere in the Pennsylvania semi-pro circles he became friends with Max Bishop, a Baltimorean and aspiring second baseman. When Bishop was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1917, the first thing he did was tell owner Jack Dunn about this crackerjack shortstop named Boley.
The Baltimore Orioles back then were an unaffiliated team, meaning they grew their own players and Dunn was under no obligation to pass along his good ones to the majors, unless of course, they met his asking price. Back in 1914 Dunn had sold his greatest find, Babe Ruth, to the Red Sox in order to keep his team afloat. Though the Ruth sale gave him a much needed influx of capital to run his club, Dunn was always bitter about having to sell the kid, which derailed any plans he had of building a dynasty based around The Babe. Now back in business in Baltimore, Jack Dunn was slowly accumulating the ball players who he would lead to an unimaginable seven straight International League pennants.
Boley joined Baltimore after a stint in the army at the tail end of the war. He'd had interest from a few other clubs, but it was his friendship with Max Bishop that led Boley to becoming an Oriole. The Orioles of 1919 went down as one of the best minor league teams of all time (as would their 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925 editions; this team was that good). First base had Jack Bentley, a slugger who doubled as the team's ace on the mound. Second was Max Bishop, Boley's pal from the Pennsylvania semi-pro days. Veteran Yankee speed merchant Fritz Maisel held down third. Outfielders included Merwin Jacobson and Otis Lawry, both big leaguers and The Babe's old catcher, Ben Egan captained a platoon of three receivers. But it was the pitching staff that really made the Orioles stand out. Besides the before mentioned Jack Bentley, Rube Parnham won 28 games and Harry Frank added 24. In a year Lefty Grove and Jack Ogden would add their arms to a squad that simply dominated the International League.
Boley became the team's starting shortstop from the start and hit .301 as the Orioles won the pennant. After just one year in the game's top minor league circuit, the writers were saying Boley was ready for the big show. 40 miles away in Washington, the Senators sure thought so and tried to buy the young shortstop after the 1919 season, but Dunn's price was too steep. There was no way in hell the O's owner and manager was going to let another dynasty slip away like he did in '14.
When the 1920 season started the shortstop was 23, still plenty of time to make the big leagues. Boley pounded out a .308 average and continued to turn heads at his fielding. By the time the Orioles wrapped up the '20 pennant, the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates were negotiating with Dunn. Again, the price was just too high.
Boley wasn't the only Oriole the majors tried to pry loose from Dunn. First baseman Jack Bentley was considered a second Babe Ruth due to his hitting and pitching and was tagged as the next big star of the game. But Dunn was reluctant to let his finds slip away easily. He set his prices just out of reach of what a major league owner would pay, so it looked as if the players were available, but they weren't. As a club owner, Dunn first and foremost wanted to make money and put fans in the stands; if he dumped all his good players Baltimoreans would loose interest in the team. With a good team year after year, the city would embrace his team and that was his aim.
While it might seem unfair that Dunn kept all these talented players in the minors for so long, he did treat his boys extremely well. The Orioles owner ran his club like a big league outfit: first-class travel and lodging everywhere they went and the best equipment. Dunn had a relaxed managerial style and left his charges on a loose reign. He wasn't stingy with his pocketbook either, his players were paid extremely well, many were on par with what they would make in the majors. In the spring of 1922 he even broke with tradition and gave his star shortstop a two-year contract, unheard of at the time.
When the Orioles won the 1922 pennant (their 4th in a row), the other International League owners cried foul. While Baltimore's dominance was great for Charm City, the other cities in the league saw their attendance dwindle. Fans were reluctant to follow teams that were left so far behind by the Orioles year after year. By the winter of 1922 the other owners tried to force Dunn to sell Bentley and Boley to even the playing field. The New York Giants plucked down $72,500 for Bentley but Boley stayed put in Baltimore.
While there's no sure statistic that can adequately measure fielding, by all accounts Boley was among the best shortstops at the time. Contemporary sports writers who saw him play lavished praise on his work in the infield. There was no doubt in the minds of those in the know that Boley was of major league star quality. It was just a matter of when he'd get to prove it.
For a while Boley didn't seem to mind he was stuck just short of the majors. When he sat down to negotiate that 2 year contract in 1922, Dunn asked if he was happy to stay in Baltimore of if he wanted to go to the National or American Leagues. Boley replied that as long as he was paid well he didn't mind staying with the Orioles.
By 1923 he was the highest paid player in the minor leagues, making in the range of $10,000 a season, almost twice the salary of a typical major leaguer of the time. He hit .343 in 1922 and then .306 in next season. Brooklyn offered Dunn $100,000 for him, but no dice. Then the White Sox threw around the figure of $125,000, but no sale. It seems that by the end of the year Silent Joe was getting restless. Countless articles in the sporting press were proclaiming him a big league star and it probably started to wear on him that though he was treated well in Baltimore, it was still the minor leagues. After the Orioles swept to yet another pennant, Boley's stellar play trailed off and there were rumors he purposely slacked off during the Little World Series against Kansas City. In fact he even left the series early, supposedly due to a family issue, but it would be a good guess that either he was so disillusioned that he bailed or that Dunn, angered over his lackluster performance, sent him home.
During the winter of 1923-24, it was announced that a blockbuster deal sending Boley to the Yankees was all but done. The Yankees were on their way to becoming baseball's greatest dynasty and what better way to cinch it than installing the game's best shortstop between Lou Gehrig and Joe Dugan. By Christmas the deal fell apart due to financial reasons and Joe Boley remained property of the Baltimore Orioles. Dunn's asking price cost Silent Joe his place on one of the most famous teams in the history of the game.
Boley returned in 1924 but hit .291, his only time as an Oriole that he failed to reach the .300 mark. He was now 27 and his price was dropping accordingly. Time was running out for Boley and he knew it. After the 1925 season he refused to resign with the Orioles and Jack Dunn reluctantly agreed to set him free. All through the 1926 season he shopped Boley around, finally agreeing to deal him to the Athletics for what was variously reported as $50,000 to $65,000.
So, at the age of 30, Joe Boley finally made the major leagues. Joining the A's, Silent Joe found himself in company with former Orioles Lefty Grove and Max Bishop. George Earnshaw would join the club the following year and by 1929 the A's would be the World Champions. Boley for his part had a phenomenal rookie year, hitting AL pitching at a .311 clip and turning plays in the infield that made even the most jaded sports writer take note. Along with Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Boley sparked the A's to winning 3 straight pennants and two world championships. The 29-31 A's teams are often considered the best team ever assembled and Joe Boley was the center of it's defense.
With each passing summer, Silent Joe's talent decreased rapidly as injuries took their toll. By 1931 he was a well-used 34, and Joe Boley was at the end. He hung on in the minors through 1936 and then returned to the coal region he originally sprang from. He worked various jobs before rejoining the A's organization in the late 40's as a scout.
Boley was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 1954, but one wonders if he would have his own plaque in Cooperstown had he reached the big leagues long before the age of 30. Instead of being a footnote in baseball history, perhaps the name Joe Boley would be mentioned along side Honus Wagner, Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese and Barry Larkin...
- Hanson, Darrell, Joe Boley (SABR Online Biography)
- Bready, James H., Baseball in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins Press, 1998)
- Bready, James H, The Home Team (Self-Published, 1959)
- The Sporting News, 1919-1927
Thursday, October 24, 2013
162. Max Manning: The Honor & Integrity of Dr. Cyclopse
There's no doubt that baseball's full of stories about guys who got the short end of the stick. When you're talking about the Negro leagues, the list gets even longer. Even after the majors were integrated there were precious few slots open to the black players and many men of doubtless talent were left languishing in the minors or never received the call they hoped for. Max Manning is one who received that longed-for call. When I learned about the life and career of Manning, known by the frightful nickname of Dr. Cyclopse, from his former teammate Leon Day, I figured if anyone had the right to be bitter, it was this guy. When I was fortunate to sit down with Dr. Cyclopse himself in the summer of 1992, I was pleased to see that he wasn't in the least bit bitter about the way things shook down for him. On the contrary, I found the former All-Star to be a gracious, friendly man who readily shared his observations of over 10 years in the Negro Leagues with me.
In the spring of 1948, honor and integrity was the only thing that stood between Max Manning and his shot at the big leagues. Manning was relaxing at his New Jersey home, fresh from another successful winter season in Cuba where he went 10-8 for Cienfiegos. That he had that many losses stemmed from his trying out new pitches, namely a straight change-up taught to him by Carl Erskine of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a few weeks Negro Leagues spring training would start and he and those new pitches were ready to go. Two years earlier Manning got out of the service and had roared back into action with the Newark Eagles, posting a 9-1 record in '46 and following that up with 15-6 in '47. 1948 promised to be even better.
Then one chilly spring afternoon the telephone rings. On the other end is Alex Pompez, former owner of the New York Cubans of the Negro National League, now a scout for the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead and almost two dozen other black ballplayers have already been signed to play professional ball. Three of his teammates with the Newark Eagles, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Ray Dandridge, have been signed to play in the white leagues and now, according to Pompez, it was Manning's turn.
All the tall, lanky pitcher had to do was go up to the Polo Grounds, add his signature on a contract Pompez had on hand and he was property of the New York Giants. Sounded great, but there was a problem: Manning had already signed a contract to play for the Newark Eagles in 1948. To most black ball players and the white teams that signed them, that little technicality was conveniently overlooked, which was exactly what Alex Pompez and the New York Giants expected Manning to do.
Suddenly the black Bakelite telephone receiver weighted 100 pounds in Manning's hand. Sorry, he couldn't break his word: the Giants would have to negotiate with Newark owners Abe and Effa Manley. No doubt Pompez brought up all the other ball players who jumped their Negro League contracts: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson... but those guys weren't Max Manning. Taken aback, the scout asked again if he wanted to pitch in the major leagues, to which Manning replied "more than you could ever know, but if you don't have honor, what do you have?"
It wasn't the first time Max Manning had a cruel brush with the Majors. Back at Pleasentville High, Manning had tossed a couple no-hitters and a 23 strike-out game, he made the papers quite a few times. One day in 1937 a letter arrived from former Athletics star Max Bishop, now a scout for the Detroit Tigers. The letter, accompanied by a questionnaire, told young Max Manning that the Tigers were looking forward to seeing him in the spring for a tryout with the team. Obviously super-scout Max Bishop had just read the sports pages and not looked any further than Manning's stats. The letter was a mistake. A cruel mistake, but a mistake all the same.
Manning pitched on weekends with a semi-pro outfit out of Atlantic City called the Johnson Stars. His teammates were Pop Lloyd, Rats Henderson and a bunch of other ancient blackball stars. These oldsters taught the teenager how to pitch like a pro. At 18, Manning was a slim 6 foot 4. He possessed a side-arm fastball that would eventually register in the 90's and he had a streak of wildness. That speed coupled with his thick glasses made his wildness all the more scary to opposing batters. Leary batsmen soon called the skinny kid "Dr. Cyclopse".
Since a Major League career with the Tigers was not an option, Manning entered his father's alma matta, Lincoln University. His teammate on the baseball team was Monte Irvin and soon the two had attracted the attention of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. With his father's permission, Max Manning embarked on a career in baseball.
The Newark Eagles team Manning and Irvin joined seemed to always be a bridesmaid and never the bride. The powerful Homestead Grays with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard never failed to swoop in and take the pennant every year, but the Eagles had some good talent. Pitcher Leon Day was the equal of Satchel Paige and also happened to be one of the teams best sluggers as well. Shortstop Willie Wells and third baseman Ray Dandridge anchored what was dubbed the "Million Dollar Infield", Mule Suttles' bat added the power hitting pop to the line up and catcher Biz Mackey was a 20-year vet who most consider the best receiver in blackball history. All those men would eventually end up in Cooperstown.
By 1939 Manning was the team's number-two started after Leon Day. Though young and as thin as a reed, Dr. Cyclopes earned the respect of opposing batters with a dose of 90 MPH medicine thrown with a side of wild. He broke even his first full season with a 4-4 record. In '40 he busted out a 14-7 slate and became the Eagles ace after Leon Day jumped ship for Mexico. That he resisted the temptation of the big money Mexico waved in front of black ballplayers should have made Manning popular with the Eagles' husband-wife owners, Abe and Effa Manley, but it didn't. Manning, who was a bit more educated than the average ballplayer of the time, knew how much his arm was worth and his annual salary disputes with the Manley's kept him from being a front office favorite. While Effa's affections were slathered all over fellow pitcher Terris McDuffie, Manning, who had a better record, was held in contempt by Effa and their relationship never improved.
At the height of his career, Manning was drafted into the Army. With his couple years of college, Manning would have been ushered into officer training had he been white, but as it were, he became a truck driver. As part of the famed "Red Ball Express", Manning drove ammo round the clock to Patton's Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Manning's reaction to Army racism earned him a stint in the brig and his time in the service left him with a bad taste in mouth. Honorably discharged in January of 1946, Manning was ready to re-start his baseball career.
After dropping his first decision, Manning went on a tear that had him winning every other game he pitched that year. He and Leon Day led the Eagles to the Negro National League pennant and he took home the Champion Pitcher Award, the blackball version of the Cy Young. Facing the fabled Kansas City Monarchs in the World Series, Manning beat Satchel Paige in Game 2 to even the series at a game a piece. Starting Game 5, Manning lost to Hilton Smith and the series was again even up at two games each. Newark eventually won in seven games and the 1946 edition of the Eagles have gone down as one of the best teams before integration. Two of his teammates, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby would make it to the majors and the Hall of Fame, and Johnny Davis, Pat Patterson, Rufus Lewis and Jimmy Wilkes would play in the minors. Leon Day and Biz Mackey would also eventually have a plaque in Cooperstown. It was a heck of a team and for that very reason it was quickly destroyed. Among the thousands of fans in the stands at the 1946 World Series was a whole corps of major league scouts. With Jackie Robinson, Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow already in the minor leagues, the big leagues were scouring the Negro Leagues trying to figure out the best talent they could grab. Not only were the two teams that played in the series that year stocked with great talent, as far as the majors were concerned, it was free for the taking.
Since black ballplayers for generations had taken the contracts they signed each spring with a grain of salt, "jumping" became common in the Negro leagues. Ball players were used to looking out for themselves and following the money and the owners very rarely had to money or legal staff to fight contract disputes. Since many of the owners, including Newark's Abe Manley, were gangsters who did not want to attract the kind of attention a court battle would bring, they grudgingly let the players jump from team to team with little retribution other than a small fine at best.
So, as the white teams came calling, black ball players didn't hesitate to jump. When Branch Rickey signed Robinson, Wright and Partlow, the Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays, their respective ball clubs, were not compensated a single cent. While the Monarchs and Grays let the matter drop, the Manley's were angered. Effa in particular was incensed. With Rickey being given God-like status for his racial sensitivity, Manley made as much of a stink as she could protesting what she considered stealing from the Negro Leagues. No one cared; white newspapers loved the controversy black ballplayers would unleash and the black press were ecstatic about the doors being opened for the first time in almost 50 years. When the Bill Veeck plucked Larry Doby for his Indians and then Horace Stoneham pulled Monte Irvin for the Giants, Effa swore to fight any other white owner who took any of her boys. Didn't really matter: there was only so many slots available for the influx of black talent and there were plenty of other teams to raid. That was why when Alex Pompez hung up the phone after Max Manning told him to negotiate his contract with the Manley's, the smart scout knew to look elsewhere. No one who knew Effa Manley wanted to negotiate with her.
For Max Manning, in the spring of 1948 he was in great shape, a young 29 and at the prime of his game. Sure he'd stood on his moral ground and it would keep him from going to spring training with the Giants, but his word was his word and that had to mean something. Of all the Newark players, Manning could especially make a case of jumping the club. Unlike Irvin and Doby, who were Effa's personal favorites, Dr. Cyclopse wasn't shown any particular love from the Manley's, but at least he could look himself in the eye every time he shaved. He was confident another team would come knocking. That winter in Cuba, many of the white major leaguers he played with and against told him he was of big league caliber, but he already knew that - white, black or brown skin, his fastball set 'em on their asses. He'd post another good season, augmented by that Erskine change-up, and then see what kind of offers came in.
But things don't always work out the way they should. It was a few weeks into the 1948 season that Manning separated his shoulder, and just like that, his baseball career was over. Manning consulted doctors and tried to hang on, pitching in Venezuela and Canada as the Negro leagues collapsed, but the fastball left and the pain was too intense. Now married, his wife talked him into going back to college. With help from the G.I. Bill, he graduated from Glassboro State and began a teaching career that would last for 28 years, retiring as Pleasentville's most beloved 6th grade teacher.
Perhaps it's this second career that kept Manning from being bitter. Or, more likely it's the fact that until the day he died in 2003 at the age of 84 that every time he ran a razor across his chin, he could look himself straight in the eyes, knowing his honor was intact.
- Author's meeting with Max Manning, Baltimore circa 1992
- 1946 Negro Baseball Yearbook (Sepia Publications, 1946)
- Holway, John B., Black Diamonds (Stadium Books, 1991)
- Holway, John B., Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues (Hastings House, 2001)
- Martin, Alfred M. & Martin, Alfred T., The Negro Leagues in New Jersey (McFarland, 2009)
- The Press of Atlantic City (June 25, 2003)
Sunday, October 13, 2013
161. Joe Styborski: The Mystery Man of The 1927 Yankees
If you look closely, he's there, standing on the top right, between the bear-like outfielder Ben Paschal and the diminutive trainer Doc Woods. It's the official team portrait of the legendary 1927 New York Yankees, commonly referred to as "The Greatest Team of All-Time". As the subject of countless books and thousands of articles, they're undoubtedly the most documented lineup in baseball history, so why has this one tall young man who stares straight at the camera remained anonymous and mislabeled until recently?
First of all, the young man's name is not "unknown" or "Walter Beall" or "John Stiborski". His name is Joseph Styborski.
He was born in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of Antoni and Helen Styborski, immigrants from Russian Poland. The family would have 4 more children before moving to the rural Cambridge Springs, tucked away in the upper western corner of Pennsylvania. Antoni rented a dairy farm on which he and his family worked. Joe developed into a husky teen, just shy of six feet tall. Somewhere, like almost every other American boy, he learned baseball. For Joe it wasn't so much a game; it was his ticket to a better life.
After high school Joe matriculated to Penn State. By his sophomore year the big righty was the mainstay of Penn's pitching staff. Like many young pitchers, Styborski got by on just his speed ball, which by all newspaper accounts, was something to behold. Along with his tremendous velocity came the inherent wildness and Penn's coach Hugo Bezdeck worked with him to achieve greater accuracy. The extra work paid off and he was the undisputed ace of the university's 1926 staff. In a May 20th game against Princeton, Styborski gave up a pair of walks in the first inning and then a run scored on two errors, but he held the Tigers to a just two hits, striking out 4 through nine innings, only to lose the game 1-0. It was a rare loss for Styborski, who soon got the nickname "Cy", a comparison to the great Cy Young. (Plus, "Cy Styborski" is just fun to say - try it).
Coach Bezdeck must have known his ace had the stuff for a career in professional baseball and he began to help Styborski prepare for the 1927 season. In the off season, Bezdeck helped his ace develop a change up and it paid dividends when his senior year came around. In his first start, Styborski beat North Carolina 8-2, scattering 6 hits, striking out 11 and smashing a two-run homer. Against Syracuse he hit a double while giving up 4 hits and whiffing 6 Orangemen. A week later he went the distance against Princeton, striking out 5, scattering 8 hits and again getting a double, winning 8-2. And so it went for the 1927 season, Styborski finishing with a 6-1 record. His solitary loss was from a May 22nd game against NYU when he came in to relieve Russ Van Atta, a lefty from New Jersey who would also eventually wind up in the Yankees farm system.
With the heavy press coverage Penn State ball games received and his great record over three collegiate seasons, Styborski was courted by major league scouts. While the offers were welcomed, Styborski wanted one thing more than a contract: his diploma. The young ace rebuffed all offers until the sheepskin was firmly in his grasp. On June 13th, 1927 he graduated from Penn State with a degree in Arts and Letters, and signed a contract with the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees. Two days later young Joe Styborski was on a train to New York to join the team.
It was a great time to be a Yankee, the team blew into the '27 season as defending American League champs. Ruth was in the midst of his greatest season and Lou Gehrig had finally come into his own as one of the games best young stars. The team's starting rotation of Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, both future Hall of Famers, and ace reliever Wilcy Moore were the perfect counterpoint to the teams offensive punch.
Due to a rain delayed series with Boston during which the beat writers had nothing much to report, Styborski's signing made the major papers. Much was made out of his college education, which was indeed a rarity amongst major league players of the time. The sportswriters played up his hitting, quoting the Yankee scouts report to manager Miller Huggins "Joe is quite a ball player, hitting about as well as he pitches." The scribes also warned future scorekeepers of the tongue-twisting, pencil-breaking Styborski-Grabowski pitcher-catcher battery. (Johnny Grabowski was the Yankee's back-up catcher).
So by mid-July, Penn State's Cy Young was fitted out for a set of pinstripes and took his place in the Yankees dugout. If Styborski thought he'd soon get a chance on the mound backed by Murderer's Row, he was wrong. During the his tenure as skipper of the Yanks, Miller Huggins habitually brought up newly signed youngsters and had them practice with the team and ride the pines during league games. That was Huggin's way of deciding what minor league level the team should farm the ball player out to. It was tantalizingly close to the big show, riding the pines in a new set of pinstripes, and many young kids foolishly thought they were going to actually get into a game. He did, however get to work out with the team and throw batting practice, all under Huggin's watchful eye.
In the years before corporations and unions took the fun out of the game, it was common for major league teams to spend an off day playing a minor league or semi-pro team for extra money. It was a quaint way for fans in pre-radio days to get to see a big league team play. It was also a time that managers like Miller Huggins used to see what his new or little-used players could do in game situations. So, on Friday June 24th, the Yankees swung into Springfield, Massachusetts on their way home from Boston. Not wanting to waste any of his starters, Huggins penciled in Roy Chesterfield to start the game against the Ponies.
Over 7,000 fans turned out to see the mighty Yankees and they weren't disappointed: Babe Ruth socked two trademark home runs plus a double and Lou Gehrig hit a 2-run blast. Chesterfield gave up 3 runs in three innings before Huggins handed Styborski the ball. Taking the mound in the bottom of the fourth, the pre-rookie blanked the Ponies for a few innings before giving up 4 big runs in the 6th which tied it up. A Ruth homer the following inning put the Yankees ahead by a run.
Joe Giard took the mound in the eighth, which happened to be the last completed frame since the game ended prematurely when 500 boys burst from the overcrowded stands and mobbed Babe Ruth. With a smile on his broad face, Ruth obligingly signed for his young fans. The kindness wasn't reciprocated because in the confusion someone walked out of the ballpark with nine of The Babe's bats, including his favorite. Ruth promptly offered a no-questions-asked $25 reward along with a duplicate bat if the thief would return his lumber.
After the game the Yankees took the train back to New York to get ready for the Philadelphia Athletics. It is probably during this July home stand that the famous photograph was taken. With the Yanks running away with another pennant and Ruth and Gehrig on path to shatter all previous home run records, someone recognized the need to photographically capture this great ball club.
The Yankees were all dressed and on the field taking batting practice. Unlike today, the 1927 Yankees wore what they would wear for that afternoon's game - no special BP jersey or cap. Someone, probably from the front office, gathered the men together in front of Section 10, just to the left of home plate. The dirt before them is churned by spike marks, meaning batting practice had just ended and the grounds crew were about to dismantle the batting cage visible in the far right edge of the photo. The seats behind the players are peppered with men in suits and hats, relaxing in the warm, early afternoon sun. Those were the expensive seats, reserved for the swells that could afford them. The Yankees are posed formally in the time-honored tradition of baseball team photos, front row sitting "Indian-style", second row seated and the back row standing. Front and center is the team's bat boy since 1921, Eddie Bennett. Directly behind him, seated, is manager Huggins, arms folded tightly and cap brim tilted forward to shield his eyes from the sun. The mighty Babe Ruth is standing in the back row, towards the left side, his belly starting to show the effects of too much road cuisine. Lou Gehrig stands off to the extreme left, hands behind his back, his powerful legs apart. There's a playful tilt to his head, like he is amused by something. It isn't a stretch to imagine that Herb Pennock, standing beside Lou, said something funny to mess up the photograph, another timeless component to baseball team pictures. And all the way to the opposite side of the back row, second man in, is the face that was mis-identified or left unknown for many years. Joe Styborski. He stares straight at the camera, hand resting jauntily on his left hip. Then the photographer snapped the shutter and Joe Styborski was forever immortalized beside the Gods of baseball history.
On that home stand the Yanks won 10 out of 14 and then packed up for a series against Detroit. Along the way the team stopped off in Toronto to play the Maple Leafs. This was another chance for Huggins to test the new guys and gauge their level of talent. The Leafs played in the International League, today's AAA level. While not stocked with Hall of Famers, almost every man on the Toronto roster had played in or were future major leaguers. For the Thursday day game, Huggins gave the ball to Styborski.
The Yankees team that took the field that afternoon were a mixture of starters and subs. Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig bolstered little used Julie Wera at third, Cedric Durst in left, Ray Morehart at second and a catcher named Pickens. To shake things up, Ruth and Gehrig swapped positions for the game.
Perhaps unnerved by the large crowd and knowing his future was riding on his performance that afternoon, the young pitcher ran into trouble, yielding a single to the first batter. The next Leaf forced the runner out and two walks loaded up the bases. Former St. Louis Brown Bobby Lamotte hit a hot liner right at Ruth who made the play and doubled the runner off first to end the inning. The Babe, who always took his pre-game warm-up at first base, knew his way around the bag.
In the second, Styborski got the first man on a ground out then gave up a single and walk. He bore down and struck out the next batter then lost all composure by walking the next batter, loading the bases again. Styborski still couldn't locate the plate and he gave a free pass to veteran Bill Webb to force a run home. Former Yankee Merwin Jacobson dropped a single in short left scoring another run but Cedric Durst fired the ball to the catcher who tagged out another potential Toronto run to end the inning.
Styborski led off the third and got a hold of an Augie Prudhomme pitch but Merwin Jacobson shagged it for an out. By the time Styborski picked up his glove and took the mound, he'd calmed down a bit and got the side out fast with two ground balls to Lazzeri and an outfield fly out.
The Yankees came alive in the forth, kick started by Gehrig's lead-off single. With one out Lazzeri smashed a double to left, moving Lou over to third. Third baseman Julie Wera knocked in both runners with a long single and suddenly it's 2-0 New York. The catcher Pickens hit into a double play to end the frame.
On the mound again, Styborski gave up a quick single to the right fielder. With one on and no outs and the game on the line again, Styborski reached deep down and fired a pitch to Fred Bratschi. The left fielder swung and hit it deep to left field but Durst made the play, halting the runners. The pitcher Prudhomme hit the ball back to Styborski who fielded it and threw his counterpart out at first. Now with the runner on second and two away, former Detroit Tiger and lead-off batter Les Burke stepped to the plate. Styborski fired the ball in and Burke hit it back to Wera at third. End of inning.
The pitcher paused in the dugout just long enough to grab his bat before stepping up to the plate. Prudhomme was a bit wild and he walked Styborski. Earle Combs flied out to center field, freezing Styborski at first. Ray Morehart smashed a ball to Burke at second and beat the throw, moving the runner over to second as well. And that brought up Babe Ruth. While the crowd must have been thinking home run, Ruth hit a cheap fly behind first base and by the time the right fielder caught up with it, everyone was safe and the bases were filled for Gehrig. Lou banged a liner to center and Styborski ran home followed by Morehart. Ruth advanced to third. Pruhomme was rattled by this time and walked Durst to load the bases again, and it was only a well executed double play off a Lazzeri hit that ended the inning.
Since it was an exhibition game and Huggins wanted to see what his other youngsters could do, the fifth inning was to be Styborski's last of the day. He got Webb to hit an infield out to short, then got Jacobson to hit a foul ball down the third base side that Wera raced over to snag. He put Tony Rensa on with a walk, who promptly stole second off the youngster. Lamotte then hit the ball right at Morehart at second who threw to Ruth at first to end the inning. Styborski walked off the mound, took his glove off and left his final game as a New York Yankee.
A few days later, Miller Huggins finished the evaluation of his collegiate pitcher and sent him back to New York to gather his things: he was headed to the Easton Farmers of the Class D Eastern Shore League. Facing somewhat easier opposition, Styborski got into 12 games and finished with a 4-3 record. After the season ended he entered dental school in St. Louis. While professional baseball was a dream come true for most American boys, Joe Styborski desired to become the first doctor in his family. He returned to baseball every summer after school ended, steadily climbing his way up the minor league ladder. Moved up to Hartford in 1928, the year started off terribly when manager Paddy O'Connor took a dislike to the budding dentist and did a number on his confidence by yanking him every time he walked a batter. Styborski said he became scared to cut loose, lest he miss with a fastball and be pulled from the mound. Mercifully he was traded to Albany. Senators skipper Bill McCorry took the pitcher aside before his first game and told him he was the starting pitcher and was sticking with him for nine innings, no matter what. The show of confidence worked and Styborski began to win. He salvaged his season with a 13-9 record including 4 shutouts. In 1929 he turned in a stellar 19-5 season to become the ace of the Albany staff. Then, as before, he returned to dental school.
Styborski played one more season of pro ball, going 11-10 with three different teams. There his baseball record ends and his dental career began.
After he graduated dental school, the former pitcher relocated to Woonsocket, Rhode Island and opened his own practice. He and his wife Helen had 2 daughters. It was his grandson who was watching CNN in 1993 and heard that Mark Koenig, the last member of the 1927 Yankees had passed away. That was incorrect he knew, because his grandfather Joe Styborski was alive and well. Thus, a former ball player emerged from the shadows of baseball history, correcting over half a decade's worth of mis-identified photograph captions. Not unknown, not Walter Beall or even John Stiborski.
It was Joe Styborski.
There's a companion piece to this story, which traces my creative process when researching, writing and drawing. It can be seen here.
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