Saturday, August 22, 2015

202. Red Solomon: The Luckiest Boy in the World!

Since my book came out in May I've been lucky enough to have been a guest on over 60 radio shows across the country (you can listen to a selection HERE). At first I was uncomfortable, but after I had a few under my belt I became very at ease with live radio. I even looked forward to each interview as a challenge, not knowing what questions a host would throw at me. I think I had a much easier time than the usual author because with the exception of but one interviewer, I could tell the hosts had actually read my book. Many times the host would tell me before the interview or during a commercial break that they do not always get the chance to or necessarily want to read the books they get in, but the League of Outsider Baseball was an exception. A few of the radio station engineers even told me that the guys in the office were fighting over who got to keep the book! I can't tell you how proud that made me feel inside.
Although the range of questions thrown at me were wildly different (heck, there are 240 pages of stories to choose from!) there were two that always seemed to pop up. The first, and most difficult, was "Who's your favorite player in the book?" That's a tough one as it changes all the time. One day I might like the Frankie Zak story because it was personal to me, while another day I would say the Farmer Dean story because no one ever wrote about him before me. It would have been easier for me to answer a trigonometry question instead of who's my favorite!

The other question that came up often is "How did you find the players in the book?" That one was easier to answer, though there is no single answer. If you've read this blog for some time, you already know that sometimes I find mentions of a player in a book about a better known player - like Ford Meadows. This was the guy who was deemed a better prospect than a young Babe Ruth in 1913 Baltimore. He was briefly mentioned in a Ruth biography and I wanted to know who that guy was - so I did. Or another way I find ideas is like what happened with the Lou Gehrig story in the book. I remember hearing that a young Gehrig played under an assumed name for a town team in New Jersey when he was a student at Columbia. This is briefly touched on in a few Gehrig books but with no details given. I dug and dug and found a guy in Morristown, New Jersey who was also researching this forgotten part of Gehrig's life. He was kind enough to share what he found and I built upon that to the point where I tracked down not only box scores from his time in Morristown but also a team photograph that had once hung in a tavern that had long since closed. The third way I find stories is simply by accident. Sometimes I just stumble upon an interesting newspaper article when researching something entirely separate. That's how I came upon Farmer Dean when I was researching the 1935 Tokyo Giants American Tour. When I do come across those hidden gems I print them out or make notes and put them in a bulging manila folder which I usually take with me on business trips or on airplanes to pass the time. It was on my recent trip to Los Angeles to accept the 2015 Salin Award that I re-discovered the star of today's post: Red Solomon.

In the summer of 1929 the woeful Chicago Cubs suddenly emerged as a National League contender. In the decade since their drubbing in the 1918 World Series by Babe Ruth and the Red Sox, the Cubs had foundered. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley purchased the team in 1926 and began making positive changes to the club. Backed by Wrigley's deep pockets, Cubs president William Veeck, Sr. began to assemble a team of proven veterans and promising cast-offs. By spring training 1929, the Cubs had a solid roster and was poised to wrestle the pennant from the defending Pittsburgh Pirates. That year's edition of Northsiders fielded a squad of sluggers that rivaled the Yankees Murderer's Row: Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, Kiki Kuyler... all future Hall of Famers. Their pitching staff was among the best in both leagues with Pat Malone leading the NL with 22 victories and Charlie Root and Guy Bush winning 19 and 18 games respectively. And like the Yankees' Murderer's Row, the Cubs also led the league in characters. Pat Malone and Hack Wilson were the life of a seemingly never-ending party of gin-joints, speakeasies and road houses. Their manager Joe McCarthy, a journeyman infielder who never made the big leagues, defied his many detractors and led the Cubbies to 98 wins. In that last summer before the Great Depression descended on the nation, the 1929 Cubs were the last gasp of the Roarin' 20's fun and excess.

Despite all the newspaper and press coverage lavished on the Cubbies that summer, very few moving images exist of the team. One of the rare reels that remain was shot by Movietone News at the Polo Grounds on August 18th. Among the shots of Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler and the fellas limbering up before the game is a segment featuring the team's wonder manager Joe McCarthy and a short freckle-faced kid. McCarthy smiles uneasily, obviously still not used to all the attention foisted upon him as leader of the best team in the National league. The freckle-faced kid on the other hand, pounds his glove and looks totally natural in his grey pinstriped uniform with "NY KAWANIS" written across the chest. Remarkably, it's a "talkie", the latest in moving picture technology at the time. After a few false starts McCarthy puts his hand on the boy's shoulder and says "Folks, I want you to meet Red Solomon, the Jewish boy with the Irish face". McCarthy goes on to say that the kid is the youngest ballplayer to sign a major league contract and he'll be 13 years-old next month.

And finally there's a great shot of little Red standing with a group of six Chicago Cubs. Each man has on a dirty road uniform and a scowl on his face - including little Red. Afterwards Red plays catch with a few of his "future teammates", the older men yelling back and forth telling the kid to take it easy as he's too young to have a sore arm. Then the film reel runs out and the Cubs and Red are gone.

Turns out Samuel Solomon - called "Red" for his flaming red hair - was well known around New York City. Red's Kiwanis Club sponsored team played in a city-wide sandlot league run by the impressively-named Captain George H. Maines, former president of the Michigan-Ontario League. The organization Maines put together wasn't just some suburban Little League - the loop boasted over 1,000 teams with more than 15,000 boys - of which Red Solomon stood out as the very best. At the age of 12 Red not only was the team's star third baseman but he also managed the team. The newspaper articles I found seem to all have a line in them about how Red Solomon's timely hitting or robust defense saved or won the game. The 1928 Bronx Kiwanis club finished with a 20-1 record and capped off the season by winning the city-wide sandlot championship.

So Red Solomon was already fairly known to New Yorkers when the announcement came that he was signed by the Chicago Cubs. Back in 1915 the New York Giants had signed 15 year-old Waite Hoyt, but the 75 pound freckle-faced redhead made Hoyt look like he was a grizzled veteran. After Solomon put his signature on a contract, Cubs manager Joe McCarthy told the assembled writers "I consider young Solomon the best natural baseball player for his size I have ever seen". 

After news of the historic signing made the newspapers and newsreels, Red worked out with the Cubs whenever they played in New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Wearing a pint-sized Cubs uniform, Red took batting tips from the great Rogers Hornsby and roomed on the road with outfielder Kiki Cuyler. He was quoted time and again proclaiming himself "the luckiest boy in the whole world". The Cubs put their young prospect on a strict regimen designed to turn him into a future star. Before he signed his Cubs contract, Red told sportswriters that his typical breakfast consisted of a doughnut and cup of coffee. Now the Chicago trainers had the boy eating fresh fruit each morning. 

Realizing that being a big league ball player did not stop after a game, Red was paired with Miss Betty Van Alan who would teach him the proper etiquette expected of a major leaguer. A newspaper printed a list of commandments that Red was to live by under his most unique apprenticeship, of which some are quite obvious:

• Bathe after every baseball game
• Don't smoke or drink
• Brush your teeth

while some are quite quaint:

• Help another boy every day
• Don't ever be late for an appointment
• Study your baseball rules

and others are, well, sort of bizarre:

• Don't butter a whole slice of bread
• Don't drink milk with meat
• Don't cut a salad with a knife
• Don't wash your food down with water
• Don't cut more than one piece of meat at a time

While many news stories portrayed the Red Solomon signing as a feel-good human interest piece, others did not see it so positive. Cubs skipper Joe McCarthy said later that he received many angry letters from mothers berating him for allowing a 13 year-old to play on the same field as grown men. The concerned moms warned of the dangers a screaming liner would do to the 75 pound third baseman. Some sports writers warned of how difficult adult 20 year-old rookies found the pressures and expectations of trying to make good in the big leagues - how would a 13 year-old boy be able to cope with all that?

The Cubs took the National League pennant by 10 1/2 games and prepared to meet the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The '29 A's were perhaps the greatest team ever assembled in the history of the Major Leagues, but Red for one was not worried. In the build up to the Series he was often quoted in the papers as predicting a quick finish to the Philadelphians. Red's optimistic outlook and earnest appeal led to him being picked up as a featured correspondent for United Press International wire service. 

Unfortunately Red's optimism didn't last long. The Athletics completely dismantled the Cubs in 5 games. Red's articles are at first fun to read, written from the perspective of a 13 year-old fan and featuring peppy little "interviews" with the Cubs players. But after each heart-breaking loss Red struggles more and more to stay optimistic. Game 4 saw Chicago's 8-0 lead evaporate in an A's 10 run 7th inning and in the fifth and final game Philadelphia rallied for a 3 run ninth to bet the Cubs 3-2. The humiliating loss was a devastating surprise. Perhaps the first line of Red's final dispatch best sums up the Cubs fans' frustration and dismay: 

"What's the use of writing a story now? It's all over."

The Cubs slinked back to Chicago and Red returned to school in the Bronx. Although he says in his final dispatch that he would be back with Cubs for the 1930 campaign he never did. Like most people already knew, the Cubs signing of little Red was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Capt. Maines, the guy who ran the league Red played in, had drummed up the whole scheme to publicize his organization. Most likely the Captain approached and had been turned down by the local Yankees, Giants and Dodgers before the Cubs took the bait. Bill Veeck, Sr. obviously possessed some of the huckster mentality his more well-known son turned into an art form when he ran the Browns, Indians and White Sox.

Red continued to play superb sandlot ball, first with his Kiwanis club and then with the Bronx Incas. Solomon's name could be found in the New York sports pages throughout the summer of 1932 and 33 when he starred for a team assembled by the New York Yankees. When Red tried to join another amateur league he was temporarily banned because he failed to secure a waiver from his former club - sandlot ball in 1930's New York sure wasn't like today's Little League - these guys were serious! 

Finally in the summer of 1933 Red was old enough to be invited to try out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. On the very morning of the tryout Red was practicing with the Incas at Cretona Park when a runner crashed into him as he covered third base. When the dust settled Red lay in a heap, his left leg suffering a double compound break. Solomon was rushed to Morrisania Hospital where doctors told the newspapers his baseball career was through. Fortunately though, Red had friends in places a normal teen didn't. Joe McCarthy, Cubs skipper back in '29, was now managing the New York Yankees right there in the Bronx. When the Yanks heard of Red's dire prognosis the team sent their own doctors to work on the boy and by the end of September Red was expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, to help Red's family pay for all the hospital bills a benefit baseball game was held at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were out of town. While he was laid up in the hospital Joe McCarthy came calling with a ball signed to him by Rogers Hornsby, his old teammate from 1929 and now manager of the Browns. Red's old bunk mate Kiki Cuyler dropped by when the Cubbies were playing the Giants and fellow Bronx native Hank Greenberg made an appearance. Red may not have been on a big league roster but he sure had friends of major league quality!

Despite all the rosy predictions, the injury did hamper Red's game. He went south with the Chicago White Sox for spring training in 1934 but failed to make the team. A wire story from the Jewish Telegraphy Service the following spring had Red going to spring training with the New York Giants, but again he didn't make the cut. For the rest of the decade Red Solomon played the game he loved. You can find him playing with semi-pro teams like the Murray Hills and the Paterson Silk Stockings, both of which featured former major leaguers and college stars.

I tried as best as I could to find out what became of Red. I re-read Roberts Ehrgott's great book on the 1920's and 30's Cubs "Mr. Wrigley's Ballclub" looking for Solomon but he's not mentioned. Nor was he included in SABR's comprehensive study of the '29 Cubs "Winning on the Northside". Even the handful of books about Bill Veeck, Jr. fail to bring up his dad's signing of the 13 year-old third baseman. This is perhaps the biggest oversight as I can't help but hypothesize that Veeck Sr's 1929 stunt influenced Veeck Jr's 1951 Eddie Gaedel signing and all his subsequent big league hijinx.

Regardless, after 1940 Red disappears from newspapers and into the unpublicized normal lived most of us lead. My best guess is Red's the Samuel Solomon who passed away in 1991 aged 75, but I'm not positive. If it is, I wonder how Red looked back across all those decades to the summer of 1929 when he was the luckiest boy in the world...

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

1 comment:

  1. On Rogers Hornsby's page on there's a letter to Solomon from Hornsby in 1929. Feel free to contact me at the website.