Monday, December 15, 2014

183. Clint Thomas: The Hawk

I wish everyone a great Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever you may celebrate this time of year. I for one am looking forward to Christmas with my wife and her family in Southern California. This month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a busy one. The biggest news is that I am down to the final edits on my book, The League of Outsider Baseball". It's slated to be in bookstores May 8th of next year, just in time for Father's Day. The whole process has been both unbelievably fun and nerve-racking for me. Fun because I have been able to finally present what I have been doing on the website for almost four years to a larger audience and in a format you can hold in your hands. Websites are fine for some, but I'm an old-school type of guy and love the feeling of something substantial in my fingers. That this will be a 240 page hard cover tome really gets me excited! The nerve-racking part comes when I realize that 240 pages isn't nearly enough to showcase all the great stories and drawings I want to! Each time Simon & Schuster sends me a new draft to edit I get pangs of regret about the players I had to leave out, but that's just my self-depreciating personality - when I look at the book objectively even I have to admit that this is going to be an unbelievably great book. I made the book I always hoped to find in a bookstore ever since I was a kid. With a bit of luck, the book will be a big enough success that I get the opportunity to do a volume 2. I thought you might be interested to see what one of these massive drafts looks like, so I took a quick picture:

Well, let's get on to the main reason this site exists - baseball stories and drawings! Today's story is one I have had on the back burner ever since I devoured Neal Lanctot's masterpiece "Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932". Among the great players that once graced the Hilldale Club's lineup was a guy they called "The Hawk". While he isn't normally mentioned in the same breathe as Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige, Clint Thomas was among the best all-around ballplayers of the 1920's and 30's. Recognized by his peers as one of those rare "complete ballplayers", The Hawk not only hit for average and power, but his skill in the outfield, accurate arm and base running ability made one of the most dangerous players to take the field.

Clint Thomas was born in Greenup, Kentucky, a town along the banks of the Ohio River in 1896. According to Thomas, he didn't play much baseball as a kid because there wasn't any ball fields for he and his friends to play on. It wasn't until his family moved to the more urban surroundings of Columbus, Ohio where the teenager began his baseball career. He played a little ball when he wasn't working in a grocery store, but then World War I began. Thomas served a year in the Army and was a Sergeant by the time his year hitch ended. He returned to Columbus and began playing ball more serious. Within a year he'd migrated to New York after he heard the Brooklyn Royal Giants were looking for a third baseman. That after only a single summer of semi-pro ball Thomas felt he was ready for the big time speaks highly of his confidence. The Royal Giants were on the down-side of being one of the premier blackball outfits and still boasted legend John Henry Lloyd at short and Jesse Hubbard on the mound. While Thomas' confidence was at a pro level his skills weren't and after batting under .200 returned to Columbus. 

Fortunately for Thomas the newly formed Negro National League put a franchise in Columbus called the Buckeyes. His teammate from the Royal Giants, John Henry Lloyd, was the new team's manager and Thomas played the 1921 season hitting just shy of .300. Still, all the pieces weren't right for Thomas. Because of his speed he was always shifted between second and third base but never felt comfortable at either position. Then the Buckeye's folded and Thomas was cut loose. 

His contract was acquired by the Detroit Stars 1922. He was still floundering at second base when fate stepped in. Regular center fielder Jessie Barber got injured and when the right fielder was switched to center, Thomas took his place in right. It was a stroke of genius. The fleet footed Kentuckian snatched up anything that can near him including balls meant for the center fielder. The next game he was switched to center and a Negro League legend was born. More comfortable in his new position, Thomas loosened up and finished 1922 as the Star's best hitter. The following year Hilldale, an eastern powerhouse club located just outside Philadelphia, poached Thomas away.

With Hilldale he became known as "The Hawk" for his fielding skills, gliding all over the outfield making plays with a skill so graceful that old-timers could clearly remember one Hawk play or another through the fog of decades gone by. Ted Page, a Negro League star from the mid 1920's to the mid-1930's recalled that Thomas "attacked the ball the way a dog attacked raw meat." Hall of Famer Monte Irvin grew up in Paterson, New Jersey watching the best black and white teams of the 1930's and, starting in 1937, played in both the Negro and Major Leagues. His opinion should be taken very seriously when out of all the black players he witnessed, it was Clint Thomas who Irvin called “the black Joe DiMaggio". To draw a more contemporary comparison the Hall of Famer said "Clint was a Pete Rose type of player, he always went all out".

That aggressive attitude didn't just apply to batting and fielding - Thomas quickly established himself as one of blackball's best base runners as well. Buck Leonard, Hall of Famer and contemporary of Thomas remembered "when he got on base we all knew what was on his mind. He had stealing on his mind." Judy Johnson, another Hall of Famer and contemporary called him one of the best he ever saw play and said "I called him "Racehorse" because he ran to first so fast that he almost had to turn around backwards to stop".

The Hawk was Hilldale's clean-up hitter throughout the 1920's. Thomas, along with Judy Johnson, Frank Warfield, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop, Thomas powered Hilldale to three consecutive Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-25. This may have been one of the greatest blackball teams of all-time and no less than four players: Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop and John Henry Lloyd have plaques hanging in Cooperstown. 

After dominating the east coast baseball scene for almost a decade, Hilldale began to hemerage players to other teams with bigger pocket books. At this time finances for black baseball teams were precarious at best and Thomas spent the next couple years surfing the dollar sign around from team to team. As the best clean-up man in the game, The Hawk was a much sought after item and after periods with the Atlantic City Bacharachs and Homestead Grays, Thomas returned to New York City where his pro career began. He hooked up with the old Lincoln Giants, a once proud powerhouse now winding down as an independent team playing in the lucrative Metropolitan semi-pro scene. Even though New York had a huge black population with disposable income to burn, Negro League teams found it hard to build a strong team in the city. Shady gangster "Soldier Boy" Semler took over the remains of the Lincoln Giants and formed the New York Black Yankees in 1931. Semler hired Clint Thomas and John Henry Lloyd to add some credibility to a team of underpaid kids and washed up vets. Despite their grandiose name, the Black Yankees were the whipping boys of the Negro Leagues. Still the team was monetarily successful due to their monopoly on the New York City market. Unfortunately Semler used the team primarily to launder his underworld profits and did nothing to improve the Black Yankees talent pool. Still, Thomas continued to shine. It was during this period that he was able to demonstrate his considerable talent to the largest audience. Unlike Hilldale which primarily stayed close to Philadelphia, the Black Yankees not only played in Yankee Stadium but also toured extensively.

During one such road trip Clint Thomas made what has gone down to be the greatest catch in blackball history. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, built a grand stadium to house the virtual All-Star team he was assembling. For the very first game in Greenlee Field, the Crawfords hosted the Black Yankees. With Satchel Paige on the mound the Craws expected opening day at the only black-owned sports complex to be an easy win for the home team. Unfortunately Clint Thomas had other ideas. With the Black Yanks up 1-0 and a few Crawfords on base slugger Josh Gibson pounded a long fly ball to deep left center. The Hawk turned on his heels and peeled off for the fence, his back to the plate. The left fielder ran along side yelling "got it Hawk, got it?" Thomas just ran as fast as he could and when he reached the wall, stretched his arm out high and snagged the ball right at the top of the wall. The air went out of the Crawfords after that and the Black Yankees beat Paige. Ted Page, a member of the Crawfords that day remarked "Clint could chase that ball into another world".

The Hawk wrapped up his career in 1938. He drove a delivery truck for the Ballantine Scotch Company then segued into a small real estate business. Finally The Hawk settled in West Virginia where he became a staff supervisor for the state's Department of Mines and then a messenger for the State Senate, a post he held well into his 80's. Thomas was one of the most likable players of his time and when The Hawk turned the big eight-oh in 1976, his old home town of Greenup, Kentucky honored him with a birthday party that became the very first Negro League reunion. Long before the big collector-fueled heyday of Negro League collecting of the 1990's, the annual Greenup reunion was an intimate affair where the old superstars of segregated baseball congregated to relive their past glory. At the center of it all was The Hawk.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

182. Jackie Robinson: Veterans Day 2014

Since I began this website I always liked to feature a special story for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Indeed some of my favorite stories have been part of this little series: Eddie Grant, Bill Niemeyer and Sam Kau to name a few. This Veteran's Day I'm reminded that not all vet's served in combat. Some men served in peacetime like Sig Jakucki and Torpedo Mills, and then there were those who for whatever reasons were spared the horrors of battle.

Jackie Robinson was one of those men. 

In the summer of 1944 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself at Camp Breckinridge, an infantry replacement training depot in the hills of western Kentucky. The war had been rough for Robinson - not on the battlefields of France or a nameless island in the Pacific, but at home in a racial war whose injuries were not physical but mental.

Before the war Jackie Robinson was a well-known collegiate athlete. His exploits as a track star at UCLA set numerous records and his skills on the gridiron made the sports page from coast to coast. If he had been white, Jackie Robinson would have had to fight off offers from National Football League teams upon graduation. Instead Robinson took a position with a government-run athletic program which quickly folded. Looking for employment, Robinson took the most lucrative sports job he could find - semi-pro football in Hawaii. After a successful 1941 season, Robinson booked passage on a steamship back to Los Angeles. On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 he was contemplating his next move when the Japanese decided it for him. 

The 23 year-old Robinson received his draft notice in early 1942. After basic training with a cavalry regiment he and several other black soldiers requested a transfer to officer's candidate school. Robinson's natural leadership qualities and UCLA education made him ideal officer material but his skin color worked against him. His transfer was put on the back-burner until boxer Joe Lewis stepped in to help open the gate allowing black soldiers to attend officer's school. By January 1943 the former college star was 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson,U.S. Army.

Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood Texas. Known as the "Black Panthers", the 761st would go on to earn a distinguished combat record serving under General Patton in Europe. For two reasons Lt. Robinson wasn't one of them.

Years of strenuous athletic activity had left Robinson with an old ankle injury that required testing to guarantee he was combat-ready. On afternoon while awaiting the results of the test, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus and took a seat near the front. When the driver told Robinson to sit in the back he flatly refused. The driver reported the incident to the Military Police who took the insolent lieutenant in custody. The commander of the 761st flatly refused to prosecute his young officer but the matter was taken out of his hands when Robinson was transferred to another battalion. His new commanding officer happily signed off on court-martial proceedings before the ink was dry on his transfer papers.

After a humiliating trial in which he was acquitted of all charges, Robinson found himself a soldier without an army. His unit had deployed to Europe during his court martial and medical tests found his ankle was tender enough to keep him out of combat. The trial had made news and his superiors at Ft. Hood didn't want him around so he was transferred to another black unit, the 372nd Infantry Regiment.

The 372nd had a brilliant battle record from the first world war. The units shoulder patch was a red hand on a white disk trimmed in blue and red. This striking insignia was bestowed on the regiment by the French Army of Africa with which the unit had fought with in 1918. By the time Lt. Robinson caught up with the regiment at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky it was being used as a feeder unit that trained replacement infantry troops. As a distinguished college athlete, Robinson was named the regiment's athletic director.

It was only a temporary assignment. Robinson's fight against the bogus court marshal gained him a reputation as a hard case, and with a bum ankle he wasn't any good for combat. The army decided to discharge him. In the meantime, Robinson waited for the slow moving paperwork to wind its way through Army bureaucracy by keeping the recruits occupied with baseball.

One afternoon Robinson happened upon a soldier throwing big league curve balls on the baseball field. The soldier was Ted Alexander, a former pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Robinson had had a brush with Negro League baseball back before the war when a traveling blackball team had played a pickup team which Robinson was a part of. When the game ended the team took off without giving Robinson his agreed upon money for the exhibition. The whole experience left Robinson with a bad taste in his mouth and a lingering distrust of black baseball operations. When Robinson told Alexander of his concerns about post-army employment, the pitcher revealed the the Monarchs were always hiring good talent. The war had hit black baseball as hard as the white version with many of its good players in the service. However with many blacks now employed in high paying war industry jobs, blackball was the most popular diversion for their new-found disposable income. The Negro Leagues were experiencing their most profitable period in their history.

The former Monarchs pitcher surely related all this to Robinson and before the two men parted ways Alexander had given the Lieutenant Kansas City Monarchs' owner Tom Baird's contact information. When he received his honorable discharge in November of 1944, Robinson wrote to the Monarchs inquiring about a position. In the meantime he took a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. When spring rolled around the Monarchs sent Robinson a $400 a month contract and instructed him to report for spring training. 

Jackie Robinson's baseball career had begun.

This was a neat story I stumbled on when seeking players for my Kentucky Baseball book project. Much has been written about Jackie Robinson, yet I found it a much neglected side bar that the roots of his professional baseball career actually dated back to a late summer afternoon in western Kentucky. This was a fun illustration to work on especially since his army regiments insignia was so unique - I just knew that red hand would make the drawing. My old pal Will Arlt, owner of Ideal Cap Co. was in town last week and I showed him my illustration. We both agreed that the cap I depicted Jackie wearing would have to be an eventual offering from Ideal, so be on the look out for it next year.

Next week I will revert to the customary baseball card format for my drawings - it just so happens that I recently completed two full-page illustrations for the Kentucky project and I thought it would be a shame to shoe-horn them into a smaller format.

Anyway, this post is dedicated to all the men and women who have served in the United States military. It was your sacrifices and sense of duty that allowed me the life I am fortunate to enjoy. I think of that every day, not just on Memorial and Veteran's Day. Thank you from this very grateful artist.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

181. Jim Bunning: A Perfect Father's Day

Now that my book is wrapped up and at the publisher (on track for a May 8, 2015 release), I returned to a series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Kentucky is my adapted home and I wanted to do a baseball tribute to this wonderful place. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman

Like I said, some aren't too well known, but today I'd like to show you a full-page illustration I just finished of a Kentuckian who is quite well-known and does indeed have a plaque in Cooperstown - Jim Bunning.

In the spring of 1964 veteran right hander Jim Bunning was easing into his first season in the National League. Bunning had been the Detroit Tigers' ace since the late 1950's and one of the only brights spots in a dismal ball club. Besides his fastball Bunning had a tough slider and nice curve, all delivered in a 3/4 sidearm motion that often left him flying off the mound like an out of control starfish. It was unorthodox, but it worked. In his first full season, 1957, he led the American League pitchers with 20 wins and subsequently posted seasons of 19, 17 and 17 victories. His trade to Philadelphia in 1964 was expected to be final piece needed to push the Phillies to a pennant. In his first two starts he struck out a combined total of 20 Mets and Cubs, then on May 23rd he was 6 2/3 innings through a perfect game before a pop fly got the best of aging outfielder Wes Covington. By Father's Day the 32 year-old pitcher was 6-2 and looked like he was on his way to his finest season.

That Father's Day weekend the Phillies were in New York playing the Mets for the first time at their new ballpark, Shea Stadium. The World's Fair was also in full swing and Bunning had his wife Mary and his daughter Barbara join him for a mini Manhattan getaway. The other eight Bunning children stayed at their Cherry Hill, N.J. home that weekend. Friday June 19th was a doubleheader, both ends won by Philadelphia and the Mets managed to take the Saturday game. Sunday was Father's Day and another doubleheader was scheduled. Bunning was to pitch the first game.

That morning Bunning family, devout Catholics, attended mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral then feasted on a breakfast of sausage and eggs. The morning was already showing signs of the 90 plus degree weather forcast for that afternoon. While many players bemoaned playing in flannel uniforms in such high temperatures, Bunning loved pitching in the heat. Sometimes he'd sweat through three jerseys during the course of a game. 

By noon the Phillies Ace was in Queens warming up for the 1:15 afternoon game. Though Bunning didn't feel any different warming up, manager Gene Mauch said later that he could tell something was special about the way his starter was throwing. 

The Phillies started off the first inning with a walk, sacrifice and run scored on a single. Bunning set down the Mets with a strike out, grounder and pop fly. Philadelphia scored again in the second giving Bunning a 2 run cushion. Again he set down the Mets one two three. In the fifth Bunning got Joe Christopher to pop up to shortstop Cookie Rojas, bringing up Mets catcher Jesse Gonder. The big catcher hit a screaming liner between first and second that looked like a hit - but suddenly second baseman came flying out of nowhere and knocked down the ball. Crawling on his knees he retrieved the ball and threw to first nailing Gonder.

Philadelphia broke the game wide open in the top of the sixth. First Jimmy Callison hit a solo home run, followed by a walk to Wes Covington. Mauch sent Bobby Wine in to pinch run and a single by Tony Taylor put runners on first and second. Gus Triandos hit a Tracy Stallard fastball into center field scoring Wine and then Bunning hit a bases clearing double to make it 6 nothing.

Now there is that old baseball superstition that teammates never talk about a no-hitter or perfect game in progress - to do so is supposed to be a jinx. Bunning apparently had no such qualms, telling his teammates "C'mon, dive, do something out there. Let's get this perfect game!"

The Mets continued to be set down in order in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Now the Mets fans began cheering for Bunning. No National League pitcher had thrown a perfect game since 1880 - this was real history unfolding before them. 

Charley Smith led off the bottom of the ninth and promptly popped a ball foul. Bobby Wine raced in from shortstop to haul it in for out number one. Now in today's game, it's considered bad form to put in a pinch hitter to try to break up a no-hitter or perfect game - not so in 1964. With the exception of his decade of piloting the Yankees in the 1950's, Mets manager Casey Stengel had been humiliated most of his managerial career. As leader of more inept ball clubs than anyone else in modern memory Stengel had also been on the short end of the first of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. If he could help it, there was no way he was going to be a victim a second time to baseball history. Looking down his bench he sent George Altman in to pinch hit for Amado Samuel.

As pinch hitter Altman strode to the plate, Bunning signaled for his catcher Gus Triandos to join him on the mound. Thinking he was there to discuss how to pitch to Altman, he was taken aback when Bunning asked him to tell him a joke. Triando, thinking his pitcher was nuts, laughed nervously and jogged back to home plate. For a second it looked like Stengel had found the right man to derail Bunning's masterpiece - Altman smashed a fly ball to right that finally hooked foul and dropped into the stands. He then fouled the next pitch behind home plate for strike two. Bunning bore down and threw a third strike past the swinging Altman for the second out. 

Now the crowd was wild. From their box seat Mary and Barbara Bunning stood breathless along with 32,000 others. All across the tri-state people were glued to their TV and radios. In Cherry Hill, N.J. Bunning's other 8 kids watched their father's perfect game unfold on their television.

Again Stengel tried to bust up Bunning's masterpiece. He took his line up card and crossed out his pitcher and sent John Stephenson in to pinch hit. Fortunately Bunning had faced Stephenson in the first week of the season and knew he had a hard time with the curve. He wielded back and threw a breaking ball which Stephenson swung on an missed.  Strike one.

The second pitch was another curve. Stephenson watched it break over the corner of the plate for strike two.

Two curves. Surely the next pitch was going to be a fastball, right? Wrong. The 32 year-old veteran broke off another curve which Stephenson missed by a mile. Strike three. It was Bunning's 90th pitch of the afternoon and his 10th strike out.

Today in 2014 it's hard to imagine just how special Bunning's perfect game was. It had been more than 80 years since the last National League perfecto had been tossed and it came during a season that had Philadelphia chasing their first pennant in over a decade. As we all know that pennant proved elusive as the Phil's ended the season in a nosedive that remained legendary until the 2007 Mets season-ending crash. Jim Bunning's great day was the icing on a Hall of Fame career. After he retired from the game the pitcher went into politics and represented Kentucky in the United States Congress, first as a Representative from 1987 to 1999 and then as a Senator for two terms.

While Kentucky may not be able to boast as many Hall of Famers as other states, we can say that the Bluegrass State has been home to two men who are not only Baseball Hall of Famers but also served as United States Senators - Jim Bunning and Happy Chandler.

Friday, October 17, 2014

180. Bob Bowman: Integrating Dixie

This post has been over 20 years in the making, and much like the path my life has taken, there's a bit of wandering on the way the to the point, so bear with me 'cause it's worth it.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and up until I left for art school in Baltimore, I'd never experienced life outside a 50 mile radius of Manhattan. When I graduated college I swore to myself that I would use my career as a designer and illustrator to live in as many different parts of the United States as I possibly could. I wanted to experience and see first hand everything this great country had to offer, but not as a visitor - I wanted to know what it was like to live in all these vastly different places. 

After Baltimore, the first stop in what would become a long odyssey was Cincinnati, Ohio. It was as far removed from where I was from as the moon. As I would repeat in every other place I called home, I threw myself into exploring every nook and cranny I could. I was particularly intrigued by mysterious and inviting land just across the Ohio River: Kentucky. I was 25, 26 years-old at the time and after work on Fridays I'd pack the saddlebags of my old motorcycle with a tent, sleeping bag and cans of food and cross the river into Kentucky. I'd ride the back roads south as long as it was light, then stop in a small town hotel or camp in an open field. In that manner I explored much of the beautiful Bluegrass State and met hundreds of people that a kid from the streets of New Jersey could have only imagined existed. On one of those weekend journeys I wound up in a roadside tavern somewhere in the state's coal region. Of course a Reds game was on the television behind the bar and I struck up a conversation with an old fella on the next stool. We traded baseball trivia and after a few Negro League teasers he lobbed one at me that made me swing and miss:

Who was the first black ballplayer signed to play for a team below the Mason-Dixon Line?

I figured it was someone from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and I racked my brain trying to come up with a good candidate. I forget now who I threw out there, but it didn't matter, I was wrong. "The answer", said the old fella, "was a pitcher named Bob Bowman in 1951".

I confessed I never heard of him before and dutifully noted his name in my pocket sketchbook, filing Bob Bowman away for future research. Months later I was in the Cincinnati Public Library and I stumbled on the little note. I got a stack of old Spalding Guides from the reference desk and micro film of The Sporting News and looked up Bob Bowman. I found he'd played for the Middlesboro Athletics of the Class D Mountain States League in 1951. It was at the tail end of a long career in organized baseball stretching back to the 1930's including a 4 year stretch in the majors with the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. Clearly Bob Bowman was not black, but white. In fact he carved out his own niche in baseball infamy as the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who beaned Joe Medwick in 1940. Medwick was the National League's best slugger at the time and was never the same after Bowman brained him. The injury, besides being horrific even by the rough standards of the day, was significant in that it brought about he adaptation of modern batting helmets.

So, Bob Bowman was indeed an interesting guy, but not a pioneer of baseball integration. A dead end - or so I thought.

Fast forward to last week. In my spare time I'm working on a little personal book project featuring ballplayers who either hailed from or spent a significant portion of their career in Kentucky. I had already written about Mickey Stubblefield who integrated the KITTY League back in 1952 and Happy Chandler, a semi-pro ballplayer in Lexington back in the 1920's who went on to become the baseball commissioner who green-lighted the signing of Jackie Robinson. I was at the library hoping to find some interesting Bluegrass ballplayers to feature when I picked up "Bat, Ball and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South" by L.M. Sutter. The book features West Virgina, Virginia and Kentucky coal town baseball so I put it on my stack of books and checked out. Later that night I was thumbing through it and lo and behold there was a photograph of Bob Bowman, pitcher of the Middlesboro Athletics. Not former Cardinals pitcher and white guy Bob Bowman, but black guy Bob Bowman. Turns out L.M. Sutter was a much more diligent researcher than I was and, fortunately for baseball history, was able to uncover the forgotten story of the first black ballplayer to be signed to a team below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bob Bowman hailed from the Appalachian coalfields of Virginia. As a boy his family moved over the border to Middlesboro, Kentucky, the place he would call home for the rest of his life. The young Bowman grew up big and strong, eventually topping out at 6 foot 2 inches. By incessantly skipping stones across water as a boy, Bowman developed a devastating sidearm throwing motion that translated nicely to baseball when he took up the game.

He developed a unique fastball which he gripped by overlapping his index finger over his middle one and delivered with a submarine delivery from the right side. By 1930 he was a local baseball star around Kentucky's coal region playing with the semi-pro Middlesboro Blue Sox. The Blue Sox was an all-black team that played local amateur white teams from the mines and visiting Negro League clubs. Bowman pitched for the Blue Sox throughout the 1930's and eventually took over as the team's manager. Then as the 1937 season began Bowman disappears from Middlesboro. Author L.M. Sutter speculates that Bowman was picked up by the Ethiopian Clowns, a novelty traveling blackball team. The Clowns made annual trips to Middlesboro and a few of Bowman's teammates on the Blue Sox were recruited by the Clowns during this time. It isn't much of a stretch to see why the Clowns would snatch up Middlesboro's star hurler as well.

Since the Clowns played ball mixed with slap-stick sketch comedy that the serious-minded Bowman would have found distasteful, he never really discussed his time with the barnstormers. The addition of Bowman did much to raise the Clowns' level of play and by 1940 the club had become as respected for their baseball as they were for drawing a cheap laugh from a crowd. For whatever reasons, life with on the road wasn't to the pitcher's liking. He was a family man and three or four summers of playing baseball in a different town everyday with a bunch of ballplayer/comedians had probably wore thin. By 1941 he was back home in Middlesboro with the Blue Sox. 

The popularity of black baseball during World War II led to Bowman again leaving home, this time with the Ashville Blues of the Negro Southern League. The NSL was sort of a minor league for the Negro National and American Leagues. Besides playing teams from their league, Ashville played a heavy schedule against town and factory teams throughout the eastern part of the United States. The hard toll such traveling took on Negro League players is well known but for around $275 a month Bowman stuck it out through 1950 when he returned to Middlesboro. He was back with the Blue Sox when history came calling.

Middlesboro had an entry in the Class D Mountain States League. Though Jackie Robinson and a handful of other black ballplayers had broke the minor league color barrier in 1946, the Mountain States League was still lily-white. In 1950 one of the leagues teams tried to field a black ballplayer but tapped out when faced with opposition from the rest of the circuit. The following season the Middlesboro Athletics tried.

Bob Bowman was an obvious choice to be the man to become the first black player to join a team based south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though he was 45, the submariner was well-known to local white fans from his decades with the Blue Sox and his ability to pitch on a professional level was proven. On May 8, 1951 he signed a contract with the Athletics and that very night took the mound in relief against the Big Stone Rebels. By all accounts the Athletic's 45 year-old rookie received a warm standing ovation when he entered the game during the 8th inning. Middlesboro was up 9-7 but runners were on second and third with one out. Bowman, perhaps nervous, walked the first batter he faced, then unleashed a wild pitch that let a run to score. Now Bowman's veteran instints took over and he whiffed the next two batters. Middlesboro scored an insurance run in their half of the eighth to make it 10-8. Bowman got the first batter on a fly out then proceeded to walk the bases loaded. As he had done the previous frame, the big veteran bore down and got the next two Rebels in order to preserve the win. It wasn't exactly a barn-burner of a debut, but the important thing was no one refused to play against a black ballplayer and there wasn't a race riot. Bob Bowman had quietly integrated Dixie.

Bowman solidified his position as as the ace of the Athletics staff after he one-hit the Norton Braves at the end of May. The other Bob Bowman was the pitcher/manager for the Braves and that is where the confusion over the two men stems from. What the former major leaguer thoughts were when his struggling Braves team was one-hit by Bowman and subjected to a 27 run onslaught is not recorded. The submariner also baffled Braves batters as he sent 17 back to the bench on strike outs.

Behind the veteran right hander Middlesboro climbed to the top rungs of the standings for the first time in their 3 year existence. Author L.M. Sutter found that the club's home attendance spiked during the teams 1951 revitalization as they battled the Hazard Bombers for the pennant. As good as the Athletics were, the Bombers featured a teenage Johnny Podres. The 18 year-old went 21-8 and in 2 years would be a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The aged Bowman finished up with an admirable 17-6 record, making him the second best in the Mountain States League behind the Brooklyn-bound Podres.

Middlesboro faced the Morristown Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. "Big Bob" as he was now called was on the mound for the final deciding game. Bowman pitched the game of his life, striking out 11 Red Sox in 12 innings of shutout ball. He finally gave out in the 13th when he walked in the winning run. It was called the greatest game ever seen in that part of the Appalachins and was Bowman's last game in organized baseball.

The old right hander retired as an active player but kept his hand in the game by coaching the local kids who tried to emulate their heroes' sidearm delivery. In 1975 Bob Bowman suffered a stroke that eventually led to his death on June 25th. He was 69 years old and except for grateful fans in Middlesboro, Kentucky, all but forgotten for his role in integrating the game he loved.

My synopsis of Bowman's short but important career in organized baseball pales when compared to the chapter on him in "Bat, Ball and Bitumen". Hopefully it will introduce a new round of baseball history buffs to a forgotten ballplayer who played a small but important part in breaking down baseball's color line. After I read the chapter about Bowman I emailed the author, L.M. Sutter with a few lingering questions I had about him. Sutter enthusiastically answered all my inquiries and told me that finding Bob Bowman remains one of her proudest moments. I can see why - without Sutter's dogged research one of baseball's integration pioneers would have remained anonymous and eternally confused with the career of a white ballplayer who happened to share the same name.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

179. Fred Toney: The Real Iron Man

I'm not a big "records" type of baseball fan. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire took all the fun out of records for me as did the manufactured hype over Cal Ripken's meaningless consecutive game thing. On the other hand, DiMaggio's hitting safely in 56 consecutive games and Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters are still impressive and awe-inspiring. It's probably safe to say neither will be broken or even equaled anytime soon. Which brings me to Fred Toney. This relatively forgotten pitcher from the first 2 decades of the last century has no less than three unbelievable pitching performances that I'd bet will never be equaled, if only for the reason there is no way a pitcher would ever be allowed to even be in a position to try to match any of Toney's feats...

According to baseball lore, sometime in 1908 a minor league scout found himself lost on a mountain road in the back woods of Tennessee. In need of direction, he came upon a brawny teenager with with three dead squirrels in tow. The scout had engaged the barefoot hunter in conversation when he suddenly realized the boy had no rifle, pistol or even a bow and arrow. "How did you kill the squirrels?" he asked, to which the boy matter-of-factly replied "I killed them by throwing rocks at 'em". The story ends with the scout returning to civilization with young Fred Toney's signature on a pro contract. 

But that's all there is to it, just a story.

Fred Toney was born and raised just outside Nashville, Tennessee. He was big and strong for his time, just over six foot and 200 pounds of farm boy muscle. A right hander, Toney got his start as a teenager with the local Nashville Free Silver Sluggers where he won 26 out of 32 games. In 1908 the nineteen year old ventured north to Kentucky to play for a semi-pro team in Bowling Green. How he came to play for Bowling Green is not known, but he was probably lured North by the prospect of a steady factory job with extra pay for playing on the ball club. When the team folded midway through the summer Toney headed back home to Tennessee, but a professional scout was hot on his heals. When the representative from the Winchester Hustlers finally caught up with Toney he was taken aback when the pitcher rebuffed all offers of a professional contract. Money wasn't the object: it seems that young Fred Toney didn't want all the pressure that being a pro ballplayer brought on. Toney's friend, "Greasy" Hanly eventually convinced Toney to sign on with Winchester and as a contract stipulation the Hustlers agreed to take along Hanly as well.

Toney finished out the '08 season in the Blue Grass League, his fastball garnering comparisons to a young Walter Johnson. The following season, 1909, is where Fred Toney enters the history books.

On Monday May 10, 1909, three hundred fans sat in the stands at Garner's Park to watch the Hustlers take on the visiting Lexington Colts. The game started in the late afternoon and the light crowd was what could be expected on a rainy, miserable spring afternoon. As the innings ticked by, neither team was able to score. Toney was magnificent, striking out batters with ease and refusing to give up a single hit. After nine frames neither team had scored and Toney had a no-hitter, but the game wasn't over. As more innings passed without a hit, word spread around Winchester of what was transpiring in their little ballpark. A boy on a bicycle raced back and forth from the ballpark to the business district with updates as the historic game went on. Crowds began to gather outside the park as Toney steadfastly remained on the mound holding the Colts hitless. By the time the game entered the 12th inning, darkness was beginning to fall over the Kentucky town. Now not only was there a race to score the first run but to do it soon as the game and no-hitter would be struck from the record if it were to be called because of darkness. The Colts' pitcher, Baker, was still on the mound as well, allowing just 6 hits through 17 innings. Finally in the bottom of the 17th Winchester's right fielder Ellis singled to right center. Left fielder Schmidt sacrificed Ellis over to second but Baker made a throwing error to first as the runner was safe and Ellis took third. Eddie Goosetree fouled off one of Baker's pitches which was caught for the first out. With runners on the corners Hustler's manager Newt Horn called for a squeeze play. Shortstop Ellis layed down a bunt and Ellis raced across the plate with the winning run.

As word of the victory spread from the ballpark, the town's factories let loose their steam whistles, church bells pealed and cars honked their horns. Toney, who just one year earlier had refused to play pro ball because of the pressure, had pitched a beautiful 17 inning no-hitter complete with 19 strike outs and giving up but two stingy bases on balls. The 17 inning game was completed in just over 2 hours, 45 minutes.
For those who haven't done the math, Toney's gem was an inning shy of two complete no-htters and remains today as the longest professional no-hitter on record. I can't find any "unprofessional" no-hitter 17 innings or more so I'm going to assume Toney's feat is unmatched. Like-wise, it's probably safe to say it would never be matched as there is no way a pitcher would be allowed to throw 17 innings in one outing today.

The feat made all the sports pages from coast to coast and Toney was soon courted by the big leagues. In July the Phillies were reported to have acquired the right hander but apparently the deal fell through. A few months after his record making game Toney again went the extra mile when he pitched all 16 innings of a game against Shelbyville, this time relinquishing six hits. In 191o the Chicago Cubs sent a man south to take the measure of Winchester's rubber armed ace. Knowing the Chicago scout was in the stands, Toney did everything he could to make himself look inept. Despite maintaining his cool and poise through two years of pro ball and tossing some of the most nerve racking games in modern memory, Fred Toney was afraid to move up to the big leagues.

He made his debut in 1911 and in 18 games he was a marginal 1-1. The Cubs sent him back and forth between the minors and Chicago before releasing him. After some fine work with Louisville Brooklyn signed him in 1914 but Toney played hardball in contract negotiations and the Reds managed to pick him up. 

Now in his mid-20's and a bit more sure of himself, Toney became one of the National Leagues best right handers. He ticked off seasons of 17, 14 and 24 wins for a young Cincinnati team. On May 2, 1917 the Reds were in Chicago to play the Cubs. Toney took the mound for Cincinnati and faced the Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn. The two men had faced off before back in the minor leagues where Toney found he could get the edge on Vaughn by letting him hit a long single, the base running tiring him out.

While their bouts in the minors may have been memorable, nothing could compete with what would happen that afternoon in May. Not only did Toney not allow Vaughn a base hit, but he silenced all the other bats in the Cubs lineup as well. Vaughn did the same to the Reds and after nine complete innings both men were throwing no-hitters. Finally in the top of the 10th Vaughn gave up a single to Larry Kopf who went to third on an error and came home on a Jim Thorpe single. Toney finished off the Cubs in the bottom of the inning and won the the only double no-hit game in baseball history.

As if Fred Toney needed to prove his iron man standing, later that season he did another feat that would be impossible n today's game - pitched and won both games of a double header. Facing Pittsburgh on July 1st, Toney gave up just three hits and a single run in each game - 18 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs. Incredible. Unfortunately for Toney it was a quick decent from being the most revered pitcher on the Reds to their most reviled. 

In April of 1917 America declared war and all able bodied men were expected to serve the war effort in some capacity. Toney was married with a child and as such was given a deferment in the draft. Somehow it was leaked that not only was Toney three years separated from his wife and kid, but was currently involved with a young lady other than Mrs. Toney. Federal Marshall's arrested the Reds ace and he went to trial for draft dodging. When the trial ended in an unsatisfying hung jury he was slapped with violating the Mann Act - bringing a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The Cincinnati fans ripped him apart and the Reds unloaded him and his legal problems on the New York Giants. Between pitching for New York Toney pleaded guilty to violating the Mann Act and served out a short prison term. Through it all he pitched good ball posting 13, 21 and 18 win seasons for the Giants.

In the spring of 1924 Toney busted a finger while executing a bunt. The injury ruined his grip on the ball and he slipped back into the minor leagues. The 36 year-old hung up his spikes for good in 1925 and headed back home to Tennessee. In the town he was born and raised in he opened up a soda fountain, the walls adorned with mementos from a 17 year career highlighted by some of the most heroic pitching performances in the history of the game. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

178. Charles "Square Deal" Cromwell: Blackball Umpire

I've said it before many times, but I'll say it again: one of the best benefits about writing/illustrating The Infinite Baseball Card Set is all the baseball historians, writers and artists I've met. I've asked a few to be a "Guest Author" on here and this week I'm pleased to have Bernard McKenna grace this site with a story. I became acquainted with Bernard due to our mutual interest in Baltimore Negro League history. I've always felt that with all the rich history in that city it has been sorely overlooked when it came to good solid books on the subject. The Black Sox and Elite Giants have been mentioned many times in chapters in books on general Baltimore baseball history, and the Black Sox in particular would make a great book subject. Cue Bernard McKenna. You may have already heard of him as he made some noise a few years ago when he discovered the only aerial photograph of Maryland Baseball Park where the Black Sox played. Up until McKenna's discovery, very few knew what the park looked like or was even located for that matter. Now baseball historians can gauge the dimensions and layout of the part which in turn helps put the feats of the Negro League greats in perspective. 
So, when I asked McKenna if he'd like to contribute to The Infinite Baseball Card Set he readily agreed, contributing yet another gem of Blackball research: a short history of a Negro League umpire! I hope you enjoy this extremely rare look into a little-known aspect of pre-war black baseball...

Charles Cromwell had a decision to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.  Rube Foster wanted him to come to Chicago and umpire games for the Negro National League (NNL).1  It was a tempting offer.  Foster had founded the NNL in 1920 and, in part, through sheer force of will, had carved out a successful black-baseball organization, which included the major cities in the Mid-West: Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis among others.  By 1923, at the time of Foster’s offer, there was talk of cooperation between the NNL and the newly formed Eastern Colored League (ECL), which included teams from Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York.

Foster wanted to hire, in the language of the day, “race men,” African American professionals, to serve as umpires but insisted on excellence.  He regretted that there were not more qualified African Americans who could serve as umpires and canvassed the country to find those who were.2  Foster only wanted the best for the league.  He had already lured Billy Donaldson from the Pacific Coast League, where he had established a reputation as one of the best umpires in California, gaining the respect of ballplayers both white and black.
3  If Cromwell went to NNL, he would be at the top of the profession.

On the other hand, he had been with the Baltimore Black Sox since 1917, around the time that Charlie Spedden brought the club and moved them into the Westport Baseball Grounds.
4  Spedden offered to match Foster’s offer,5 so money wasn’t a factor.  If he had given thought to job security, the choice was harder than it might seem today, in hindsight.  At the time, Baltimore was a model franchise, with an ownership fully committed not only to its on-field success but also to improving playing conditions for its players and working conditions for its employees.6  Charles Spedden had just left his job with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, so he too was invested in the team’s long-term well-being.  The Black Sox had also recently (1921) built a new home, the Maryland Baseball Park, and had made major upgrades for the past two seasons, making it the “most complete colored baseball park in the country”7    He had other ties to the community as well.  He was a champion bowler, and the Afro American had asked him to write a regular column on the game.8
Add to this, Spedden had hired another “race man” to umpire, luring Henry “Spike” Spencer north from Washington, DC.
9  If Cromwell stayed in Baltimore, he too would be part of an elite umpiring crew.  Such a pairing would place him and Baltimore at the top of the profession.  Further, he wouldn’t have to uproot his family, and it could not have escaped his attention that he would then become a role model for and leading member of Baltimore’s African American community.  He chose to stay with the Black Sox.

There must have been times over the next few years that he regretted his decision.  In 1925 the ECL took the job of hiring umpires away from the teams, putting Cromwell out of work for that season.  A white sportswriter from Philadelphia made the assignments and did not favor “colored” umpires.
10  The league suspended that practice the following year, and Spedden brought Cromwell back in 1926.11  However, Spedden was forced to resign from the Black Sox in 1927, and George Rossiter, who had been Spedden’s partner, took control of the team’s business operations.  Rossiter chose not to employ African Americans as umpires, firing both Spencer and Cromwell shortly after Spedden left the team.  Rossiter  “insist[ed] on the use of white umpires” until “Negro umpires . . . prove competent.”12   He would eventually hire Cromwell back, but conditions had changed.  The ballpark, which had been an impressive facility, was allowed to deteriorate,13 even as the Black Sox became one of the best teams in the nation, winning the 1929 championship.  The Depression further exposed the club’s weakened financial position, and the Black Sox would cease to exist as a franchise in the early 1930s.  By that time, Cromwell had moved on.

In 1932, he would be named Lead Umpire in the Southern Colored Athletic Association.
14   Later that decade, he would return to the majors, umpiring games for the Baltimore Elite Giants.  His name appears in box scores and, occasionally, surfaces because of a controversial call.15  However, those times are rare, which bodes well for an umpire.  He did not infuse his personality into the game, preferring instead a quiet yet rigorous professionalism.  In 1941, his doctors strongly advised that he take a break from the game, but he returned a year later.16 His name last appears in a box score in 1947.17  His career spanned four decades and at least thirty-one years.  He was reported to be “one of the ‘finest’ umpires in the East.”18 He also gave back to the community, enlisting in the army during the First World War.  He also rushed into a burning building to save a woman’s life.19

If he had taken Foster up on his offer, Charles Cromwell would have likely served with distinction, ranking with Billy Donaldson and Bert Gholston as the best umpires in the NNL.  Instead, he chose to stay in Baltimore.  As a consequence, his career was twice interrupted because of racism.   He persisted, carving a place for himself in the community and in local baseball.  His years of service, his distinctions, and his work in the community rival those Major League umpires in the Hall of Fame.  Moreover, he worked in a time where a “colored umpire” was often the punch-line of a joke.
20  In this context, it is remarkable we know as much as we do about Cromwell.  For many of the “race men” hired by Rube Foster or who labored in black baseball we will never know their names.  For others, there are a few pictures or the name or partial name in a box score or a rare news story.  It’s worth remembering those we know:  Leon Augustine, Lucian Spaer, Caesar Jamison, William Embry,21 Frank Forbes, Judy Gans, Cooper, Greenwald, Ben Taylor, Peirce, Brown, Craig, and Moe Harris.22  In 1932, Bert Ghoston wrote a column, calling them “The Forgotten Men.”  Indeed, they were and are. 

1 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Afro American, March 30, 1923, 14.
2 “We Need and can use Colored Umpires,” Afro American, January 13, 1922, A8.
3 Foster gets Umpires,” Afro American, April 13, 1923, 1. 
4 “Bowlers get Ready,” Afro American, September 8, 1922, 8. 
5 “Black Sox Want Cromwell Here,” Ibid. 
6 “Black Sox Club to be Real Ball Team,” Afro American, March 10, 1922, 9
7 “Sox sign Catcher and new Pitchers,” Afro American, February 9, 1923, 11.
8 “Charles Cromwell as a Bowler,” Afro American, February 14, 1925, 6.
“Best in the League,” Afro American, September 11, 1926, 9.
10 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” Afro American, April3, 1926, 8.
11 Ibid.
12 “Can’t Secure Good Umpires,” Afro American, Aug 10, 1929, 15.
13 Bill Gibson, “The Passing Review,” Afro American, May 4, 1929, 15.
14 “Eagles Still Hold Ace Spot,” Afro American, June 23, 1934, 21.
15 “Player Ejected as Elites Split with Cubans,” Afro American, July 22, 1929, 23.
16 “Charlie Cromwell Quits as Umpire,” Afro American, August 30, 1941, 23.
17 “Elite Giants Lose Game,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1947, 15.
18 “Cromwell to Call ‘em at Sox Park,” 8.
19 “Both Heroes,” Afro American, April 30, 1927, 20.
20 “A New baseball Ruling,” Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1911, 6.
21 “Rube Foster Signs 7 Colored ‘Umps,’” Afro American, April 27, 1923, 14.
22 “Ghoston calls them the Forgotten Men,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1932, 14.

Bernard McKenna was born and raised in Baltimore City, near Memorial Stadium.  He currently works as an English professor at the University of Delaware.  Much to the delight of his wife and children, he's starting to look for the old Baltimore Black Sox, recently discovering images of their ballparks.

Friday, September 5, 2014

177. "El Toro" Cepeda: The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico

This whole season I have been completely immersed in the history of baseball, so much so that I have not been able to attend a single ballgame. I live within crowd-hearing distance of the Cincinnati Reds stadium and 15 miles from a really fun unaffiliated minor league team, yet I've been so busy I haven't had time to sit in the stands and enjoy the game I have written and illustrated all year. In a way, that isn't a bad thing. The new replay rules have really dampened my enjoyment of the game. Take last night for example: my wife is a die-hard Angels fan, and watches every game. In the 9th inning there was a close pick-off play and the dopey umpires stood around waiting 5 minutes for some clown in New York City to make a call that should have been handled right on the field in Minnesota. Five Minutes. Baseball's biggest drawback is that some see the game as too slow. How does this help? I don't know. I just stuck my nose back into another book on baseball history and let my mind find the safe haven of a simpler game.

I find myself doing that more and more recently, retreating inside my mind and finding solace in baseball history. Every morning I read the papers and see how things are going bad all over: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, China... baseball, as always, gives me a brief reprieve from all the chaos of the modern world. It wasn't until sometime in July that it all hit home for me. I had downloaded the third game of the 1936 World Series: New York Giants vs. New York Yankees. I don't particularly care for either team and of course I know how the series ended, but I decided to listen to the whole game for "atmosphere" while I worked on a drawing of Jake Powell for my book, a member of the Yanks that year. I was struck by the energy of the broadcast - this was the World Series - the most important sporting event in America and the broadcasters made you hear that in their voices. As the innings ticked by I slowly realized that when that game was played millions of Americans were listening in, many in the game the peace and solace I do decades later. The fall of 1936 found the world falling apart. Spain was torn apart by civil war and the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy used the conflict to test out their ideology and military hardware in a precursor to WWII. The United States had sank back into depression and millions were out of work, many for 5 years or more. Japan was being taken over by a military who within a year would throw Asia into a war that would last a decade. Yet, on the afternoon of October 3rd, 1936 virtually every ear in the nation was glued to their radio to hear Tom Manning, Ty Tyson and Red Barber call the third game of the World Series. With what was happening in the world, their urgent and enthusiastic calls and the very audible roar of the crowd took on a whole new meaning.

Baseball, then as now, has always been a great comfort and a pleasant though brief distraction from the world around us. The New York Mets are in town this weekend playing the Reds. I think I will go. I need to go.

Now remembered as the father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, back in the 1930’s Pedro Cepeda was Puerto Rico’s greatest ballplayer. Called “El Toro” for his build as well as his combativeness on the field, Cepeda refused offers to play in the Negro League due to his concerns over how Blacks were treated in the United States.

Cepeda’s talent is evident in his being a member of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones team. The Dragonnes brought together the greatest talent outside the Major Leagues including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. When the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed in 1938, Cepeda played on the Guayama Brujos (Witches) with Paige and won the batting championship the first two seasons the league operated. In subsequent years Cepeda consistently beat Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin in batting.

While many ball players have been compared to Ruth for their talent on a ball field, Cepeda truly earned his title of “The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico” by matching Ruth in the hard-living and hard-drinking category as well. The Bull lived just long enough to see his son sign a contract to play pro ball before his excesses and malaria caught up with him. Orlando used his $500 signing bonus to pay his father’s funeral expenses. Although his father never got the chance to see his son play ball, 45 years later when Orlando was inducted in the Hall of Fame, his son was pleased to see his father was already there in a team picture of the 1937 Cuidad Trujillo Los Dragones.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

176. Charlie "Slats" Dorman: Right Place, Right Time

Charlie Dorman is another Outsider who didn't make the final cut for my book. It's a shame, because Charlie has a great, all be it tragic, story and I had fun untangling and uncovering contemporary newspaper articles to help me write his story. I was originally drawn to Dorman by a small piece I found in a newspaper while looking up someone else (I love when that happens!). The story, from 1921, related how a failed minor league catcher was pulled from the stands during a game to fill in as a catcher. It's one of those great feel-good stories I like, although when I started to research Dorman I found his life took an unhappy turn and he was dead by 1928...

After two mediocre years in the minors, Charlie “Slats” Dorman had given up on his pro baseball dreams. But on the afternoon of July 30, 1921, the former catcher was in the right place at the right time. Dorman was sitting in the stands watching the San Francisco Seals take on the visiting Salt Lake City Bees when Salt Lake’s catcher was injured and the reserve backstop thrown out for arguing. The team had no one else left to catch, but then someone recognized Slats in the crowd. Within minutes he was suited up and behind the plate for the Bees. Not only did he errorlessly fill in, but he knocked in the winning run. When the Bees left town Slats was with them. He was back in pro ball.

Within a few months he was with the Washington Senators but before he could play a game the Chicago Cubs claimed Dorman had signed a contract with them. The matter was settled in the Cubs favor but he refused to report. Dorman then signed with the cross-town White Sox where on May 14, 1923 he went 1 for 2 in his one and only major league game.
Dorman quit pro ball just a year after his professional debut and went back to San Francisco and joined the police department. His brother had been in law enforcement as well and had been murdered by gangsters back in 1921. By October of 1928 Dorman was a detective sergeant and had just married. He was playing in a Sunday baseball game with his Elks Lodge when he shattered his kneecap during a run-down play. Infection and pneumonia set in and three weeks later on November 15, 1928 Slats Dorman was dead.

When I read the newspaper article that Dorman had died due to a baseball related injury, I of course consulted my copy of Robert Gorman and David Weeks' "Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities of Players, Other Personnel and Spectators in Amateur and Professional Baseball, 1862-2007". This is the go-to guide when researching any kind of tragic happening on a baseball field and I highly recommend it. When I looked up Dorman, I found to my surprise that he wasn't in there! I then began a correspondence with author Bob Gorman and found that he'd never come across Dorman. I had exhausted my research resources and that's when Bob Gorman took up the Dorman torch. Within a few weeks he'd tracked down two Bay-Area newspaper accounts of his death and a death certificate confirming that Dorman had died as a result of his on-field injury. Although I was sorry to have to cut Dorman from my book, Gorman and Weeks are in the process of revising their book and you can expect to see and entry on ol' Charlie Dorman in their book when it comes out!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

175. Buzz Arlett: Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues

This past Monday (which also happened to be my 44th birthday) I sent off the completed manuscript of my book to Simon & Schuster. It's titled "The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" and is already up on Amazon, which was a neat feeling to see for the first time. 

Despite the relief and joy I had bundling the 270 page book off to the publisher, I had a small tinge of sadness at the same time. I've worked non-stop for almost 5 months on this book, trying to make it the greatest project of my 30 year career as a professional artist. It's going to be bittersweet waking up next week and knowing that I wasn't going to be drawing or writing about baseball all day. There's also that piece of me that wanted to call my father up as soon as I sent the final book out on Monday, but as you all know, he passed away four years ago, and this book and the blog that preceded it, came about through my missing him. While I wish he was around for me to throw a real copy of the book at him when it comes out next year, I know he'll be around watching.

One of the hardest things about finishing the book was that I had in excess of 100 pages and 65 illustrations that I had to chop from the final manuscript. You have no idea how tough that was to have to decide who to keep and who to cut! It was especially tough when it came to guys like Buzz Arlett. This fella was part of a chapter I entitled "The Babe Ruths" which featured all the players who at one time or another was named after the greatest player of them all. Buzz was one a few ballplayers who were dubbed "The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues" - two others that were in that chapter was Ollie Carnegie and Nick Cullop. I had to drop the whole chapter, but managed to put a few of the players into other chapters. I had to choose between Cullop, Arlett and Carnegie. It was a hard choice, each had a great story. Since I already featured Cullop on my blog, I decided to drop him, which left Carnegie and Arlett. Buzz Arlett had made it to the majors, all be it for a brief time, but Carnegie had never made The Show. For some reason I felt bad for Ollie, and couldn't bring myself to leave him behind again. He got the call for the book and I cut poor ol' Buzz. In a way it worked out all right, I had a hard time trying to choose which illustration to choose for Buzz, the home white Oakland Oaks uniform or the navy blue road. I figured I'd share both, along with the story that didn't make the cut.

Today there would never be a “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”. Once a player becomes a star in AA or AAA he’s called up before too long. With larger rosters and the American League’s designated hitter position, players that were once passed over because of poor fielding or age now can find a place. However, back in the 1920’s and 30’s it was a different game and many guys like Buzz Arlett were doomed to spend their career just shy of the big time, remembered only as “The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”.

 In 1918, teenager Russell Arlett followed his big brother Alex to the Oakland Oaks spring training camp. After a series of injuries depleted the Oaks pitching staff, the kid brother was pressed into service. The 6’-3” 220lbs lug turned out to be a whizz-bang right hander. He soon got the nickname “Buzz” from the way he sawed through the opposing Pacific Coast League lineups.

From 1918 to 1922 Buzz won 99 games including one season of 29 wins. The Cincinnati Reds were on the verge of buying the big righty but a couple of things troubled them. The first was Buzz’s reputation of running out of “fight” whenever a game was out of reach or when playing for a lousy team. The big guy also had a bit of a temper. It was a good thing the Reds waited, for by 1922 his arm was fried.

Since he was already known as a good hitting pitcher, the Oaks kept his bat in the line up by converting him to an outfielder. He taught himself to hit left handed to let his arm heal and soon exploded with tremendous power from both sides of the plate.

Buzz was a fan favorite with rugged movie star looks and his Ruthian home runs made him the premier ballplayer on the West Coast. The Oakland front office realized his tremendous drawing power and were reluctant to let him go cheap. With a $75,000 price tag keeping Major League owners at bay, Buzz continued to hit home runs.

From 1924 to 1930 Arlett hit 153 home runs with a .354 average and the majors took notice. But despite his drawing power and home runs, the big league scouts recognized the same things the Reds back in 1921, plus a new, more troubling flaw - his fielding, while not horrible by Pacific Coast League standards, wasn’t near major league quality. Still, all those home runs...

 Brooklyn almost had pen to paper in 1930 but Buzz’s temper got the best of him and an umpire clobbered him with his face mask. When the dust settled Buzz found himself with a dozen stitches, a lengthy suspension and still in the minor leagues. As his thirtieth birthday came and went, the Oaks began to lower his price.

Finally in 1931, at the age of 32 he made the majors with the last place Philadelphia Phillies. For a short while it looked as if he was going to live up to the Babe Ruth moniker, but as summer wore on Buzz’s age began to show. His lackluster approach to fielding might have been endearing in the minors, but major league base runners were trained to take advantage of such things, and by August he riding the pines. The Phillies tried to keep his bat in the line up by using him as a pinch hitter, but even though he hit well off the bench, it didn’t make up for his fielding. At the end of the season he was back in the minor leagues.

Buzz’s 1933 season with the Baltimore Orioles was even more spectacular than his Oakland days. He finished the year with 54 home runs including an incredible pair of 4 home run games. Still, no major league team called even after he hit 39 homers in 1934. By now Buzz was 35 and nearing the end of the line. He had one last gasp with 43 homers for Minneapolis and three years later he was out of the game. In a 17 year career (13 as a full-time position player) Buzz hit 432 home runs, a minor league record that stood until Hector Espino surpassed it almost 40 years later.