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.