Saturday, June 28, 2014

174. Percy Skillin: Ace of the Ivy League

Here's a look at one of the ballplayers I included in a chapter on "The Could Have Beens" - you know the guys who had it all but somehow fell short of their expectations. It's a fun chapter chock-full of interesting characters. Some are well-known like Pete Reiser and Steve Dalkowski, but many are on the more obscure side, just the way I like 'em. This fella made it into the book because my wife's father and two brothers are Dartmouth men. I thought it would be fun to find a ballplayer from their alma-mater, since the college had a baseball program that stretched way back to 1866. Though Red Rolfe is by far the most famous ballplayer to don the green and white of Dartmouth, I wanted to find someone a little more interesting - enter Percy Skillin, Class of '08. As baseball archaeologist and author Scott Simkus wrote, Percy Skillin was the Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg of his day. The southpaw simply dominated the Ivy League during 1905 to 1907 and returned home to the Chicago area during the summer to match arms with the best outsider baseball had to offer.

Back in 1906, Percy Skillin had it all. The 19 year-old southpaw was in his sophomore year at one of the nation’s elite colleges and possessed an arm that had major league teams throwing money at him.

He came to Dartmouth in 1905 from Oak Park, Illinois and made an immediate impact, winning his varsity “D” in his very first game. By the end of the season he was considered the best collegiate pitcher in the east. During the summer he played semi-pro ball in the much vaunted Chicago City League. Skillin matched arms with the major league mercenaries of Nixey Callahan’s Logan Squares and the best blackball team in the country, the Leland Giants. Tall and lean, Skillin possessed great speed with pinpoint control that when combined with a coolness under fire made him unbeatable.

Returning to Dartmouth in 1906 he was made the team’s captain, a rare honor for a mere sophomore and a true measure of his maturity on the ball field. He dominated the Ivy League circuit with two shutouts and a no-hitter against Brown. He won seven of his ten decisions and the three losses were through fielding errors by his teammates - two were three hitters and the other was a two hit masterpiece. Skillin struck out 124 and was charged with a single earned run the entire season.

The Red Sox put an unbelievable $4,000 on the table to entice the teen to drop out of Dartmouth while Cleveland was reported to have presented Skillin with a comparable offer. He turned down both offers and returned to Oak Park a local hero. As the most popular amateur ballplayer in the city, he hired out his left arm to various teams throughout the summer. Again the youngster faced off with the best in outsider baseball. Rube Foster, thought by many to be the best pitcher in blackball history, had joined the Lelands and Skillin battled the future Hall of Famer on numerous occasions.

The name Percy Skillin now was so well known in baseball circles that it caused a problem when he returned to Dartmouth in the fall of 1907. Like today, athletes could lose their collegiate eligibility by playing professional ball. At the turn-of-the-century these rules were usually winked at if the player employed an alias, which Skillin did not do. At first he was declared ineligible but somehow it was settled and he returned to captain the team again.

Following another fine season at  Dartmouth, Skillin was approached by the Chicago Cubs. The Northsiders were the best team in the National League and would win back-to-back World Series’ in 1907 and 1908. That they gave the Ivy Leaguer the full court press to get his signature on a contract speaks to how good a prospect this kid must have been. At this point it looks like Skillin was close to putting Dartmouth on hold and making the jump to the big leagues, but not for the Cubs: Skillin was a White Sox fan. He held out for an offer from the Southsiders and was rewarded with the invitation to tryout when he returned home to Oak Park that summer. 

However Skillin never appeared with the White Sox or with any other major league team. All the innings pitched during the previous three years took its toll on his magic left arm. He graduated from Dartmouth, class of ‘08 and took a job as a representative of the Spalding Sporting Goods Company. He pitched semi-pro ball around Chicago until he married in 1913, then went overseas during World War I teaching baseball in France. Skillin put his Dartmouth education to good use and became a wildly successful investment broker and a very rich man. The home he commissioned on Chicago’s North Shore is still considered an architectural landmark of the Prairie Style. The ace of the Ivy League passed away at the young age of 39 and today the name Percy Skillin still appears in the top 10 of many pitching records at Dartmouth.

Thanks to my father-in-law Dr. Alan Gazzaniga ('58) for the assist on some details on Dartmouth athletics. Just as an aside, when I was researching Ol' Percy, I of course wanted to replicate the proper Dartmouth uniforms of the time. I lucked out because the college had a great pillbox cap and an even snazzier double-breasted warmup duster complete with a Gothic "D". As an artist who tries to get the detail right, this was a great find!