Friday, December 4, 2015

208. Pete Alexander: October 10, 1926

This Fall was pretty hectic for me. Along with my usual design work I was lucky enough to participate in a couple of book festivals and signings. I've also had a few interesting art commissions, most notably the "Casey at the Bat" interpretation for The National Pastime Museum. In addition to the Mudville 9, The Museum also asked me illustrate two Hall of Famers for their collection. The first was Grover Cleveland Alexander.

"Pete" Alexander had a remarkable career that stretched from his rookie year in 1911 through the late 1930's when he was an arm-for-hire on the barnstorming circuit. In 1915, 1916 and 1920 Alexander won the pitching Triple Crown, leading his league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Six times he topped the NL in wins, including four consecutive seasons. He won a staggering 373 games plus three in the World Series. Along with being one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game, Alexander earned himself a reputation as a surly prima-donna with a drinking problem. He also suffered lingering effects of shell-shock from his days in France during the First World War and was an epileptic, untreatable and misunderstood back then. Alexander tried to hide his epilepsy, the result being that his seizures were often mistaken for bouts of drunkenness.

Pete Alexander also left us with one of the most dramatic moments in Post-Season history - one so clouded in mystery it's not known whether it even happened like the often-repeated story.

And that's the moment I wanted to depict in my illustration.

Of course I'm talking about Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.

The 39 year-old Alexander had already chalked up two complete game wins against the Yankees, the second coming in Game 6 to even up the series and force a deciding seventh game. Those things are hard facts - now the legend kicks in. Knowing he would not be called to pitch in the final game the next afternoon,  Alexander went out after the game to celebrate his victory. According to stories told by a few of his teammates which have since become baseball legend, Alexander spent most of Game 7 in the Cardinals bullpen either horribly hung over, or awake and still sneaking drinks from a hidden bottle of whiskey. Either way he supposedly didn't expect to be called on to play that day. 

That all changed in the seventh inning when Cards starter Jesse Haines developed a blister on his pitching hand. With two outs and St. Louis clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Yankees had loaded the bases. Future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri was due up next. The game and the World Series hung in the balance so Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby called on the one man with the right skills and experience needed to get the job done - Pete Alexander.

So hung over, sleeping or still drunk, Pete Alexander emerged from the bullpen and took the mound. The results was one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history: he struck Lazzeri out. The old righty then took the mound in the 8th and 9th innings, holding the Yankees scoreless and winning the World Series for St. Louis.

The tale has gone down as one of those great baseball stories, like Bobby Thomson's home run in the '51 playoffs, Curt Schilling's bleeding ankle and Babe Ruth's called shot. But was it that dramatic? I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, it was THE pivotal point in the game - the Yankees with Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, and all those other guys was a dangerous powerhouse. You just weren't safe with a one-run lead. My problem lies with two other aspects of the story. 

The first is whether or not Alexander was sleeping, completely hung over or still boozing it up in the bullpen. It ain't a secret that Ol' Pete was a juicer. In fact 1927 would be his last effective season in the big leagues before the sauce took over his life. So it isn't far fetched to see the aging Alexander tying one one the night he won Game 6. He probably did have a hangover the next day. But was he still boozing it up in the bullpen or still drunk? I say no. Pete Alexander may have been a lot of things, but he was first and foremost a professional. Back in 1926 there really was no specialized relief pitchers and Alexander knew that if Haines got into trouble the chances were pretty good that he'd be put in to pitch. Sure he pitched a complete game the day before, but doing a little relief work was nothing out of the ordinary for a seasoned starter like Alexander. He knew this, the manager Rogers Hornsby knew it and that's exactly what happened when Haines got his blister in the 7th inning. Back during that 1926 World Series, Alexander knew he was reaching the end of his career and thus far his great performance in the Series solidified his stature as one of the game's greatest pitchers. He was at the top of his career and he lived for moments like this. Years later when Alexander was working the barnstorming circuit with teams like the bearded House of David, the old ace was in the throes of full-blown alcoholism. His career was in the toilet, his wife left him and he was eking out a living pitching an inning or two in dusty Midwestern towns for a team of bearded amateurs. Now at the low part of his life it isn't hard to see Alexander having to rely on the bottle to dull his senses and indeed many of the stories of him being drunk on a ball field stem from this period of his life - not from his big league days.

Another little tidbit that helps pooh-pooh the bottle in the bullpen tale is that the Cards' manager, Rogers Hornsby, was a teetotaler who wouldn't even let his players see a movie or read a newspaper in the locker room lest it harm their batting eye. Drinking in the bullpen? No freakin' way. Alexander was a superstar and probably was permitted to get away with a lot, but not that much.

The other aspect that is slightly troubling about the story centers around the guy Alexander struck out - Tony Lazzeri. Today we all know Lazzeri as the Hall of Fame second baseman who more than held his own in a Yankee line up that featured the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a smorgasbord of other superstars. But in 1926 when this story unfolded, Tony Lazzeri was a fresh-faced rookie. Sure he finished his freshman campaign third in the AL in both home runs and RBI, but he batted .275 and led the league in... strikeouts. So in short, when Alexander took the mound and peered down at the fellow with the bat in his hands 60'-6" away, he knew he was facing a kid who had power but was not guaranteed to put the ball into play. So we had a seasoned veteran, completely confident in his skills up against the rookie who whiffed more than any other man in the American League. It's not a situation any pitcher would have relished being thrust into, but f I was betting man, I'd put my greenbacks on Alexander.

So when The Museum commissioned me to do an illustration of Alexander, I wanted to depict Ol' Pete at the moment he received Hornsby's call to take the mound in Game 7. I wanted to show him the way I believe he was during that famous game, tired and at the end of a magnificent career, but a true professional, ready for anything.

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 out of jealousy or boredom. 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.