Tuesday, February 16, 2016

214. Bill Sisler: Have Glove, Will Travel (Part 1)

Ever been to Moline, Muskogee or Martinsburg? How about Clarksburg, Charleroi or Cumberland? Pitcher Bill Sisler not only hung his hat in all of those places but also over 40 more towns across America and Canada in a career that spanned from 1923 through 1953! 

This is the first of what should be close to forty posts I will periodically do covering the minor league odyssey of Bill Sisler. This series will be fun for a few different reasons, the foremost being that I love researching and illustrating old uniforms, and Sisler's appearing for over 40 different teams lets me really show a wide variety. To make this whole series a bit easier is that Sisler kept himself in top physical condition throughout his playing days in order to be ready to play at a moment's notice. This means he didn't gain weight or otherwise change his body shape with age. For all my Sisler illustrations I am going to use the same pose, but each uniform graphic will change to represent a new team. Likewise the backgrounds will vary to reflect each town he played in. In addition, as the years tick by, the glove, cap and uniform style will change to reflect the modernization of the equipment. For instance, today's post shows Bill on his first pro team, the Elmira Red Jackets. Since this is 1923, Sisler is using a Spalding split-finger style glove as was common at the time. The webbing between the thumb and index is a solid piece of leather, not leather lacing as was common later in the decade. His jersey has the "sun collar" which was the standard for baseball uniforms up until the mid-1930's, and the cap has a shorter brim as was common in 1923.

So, who was Bill Sisler? 

He was born in Rochester, New York in the first year of the 20th century, 1900. By all newspaper stories I've read about him, Sisler is described as a sturdy and stocky fellow who stood a compact 5'-6" - just below average for a ball player at the time and considerably shorter than what was the accepted height for a pitcher. None-the-less, Sisler must have had something on his fastball, and his being a lefty probably didn't hurt either. 

The first mention I can find of Sisler is in 1923 when he appeared in 3 games for the Elmira Red Jackets. Elmira played in the old New York-Penn League which was classified by organized baseball as a "Class B" circuit. Baseball classifications through the decades gets a bit confusing so bear with me as I try to explain. Back in 1923, organized baseball - that is, the white ball clubs who were dues paying members recognized and regulated by the National Commission - had 33 clubs in 6 "Classes". The top was of course the National and American Leagues - the "Big Leagues" if you will. Right below them were the 3 AA leagues. These included the Pacific Coast League, the midwestern American Association and the eastern International League. These would be the equivalent of today's Triple A (AAA) classification. Next came four Class A leagues. These included the Texas League, Southern Association, Eastern League and the Western League and would be on the level with today's Double A (AA) leagues. Below this came the 6 Class B leagues. These were loops such as the Virginia League and the New York-Penn League - where Bill Sisler got his start. Today we would call this Advanced A (AdvA). One rung below this were 4 Class C leagues such as the Piedmont League and the Florida State League, and these were today's Single A (A) level. And at the very bottom of the organized baseball food chain were 14 Class D leagues. These are now called the Rookie League level and back in Bill Sisler's time they were the most common level of pro baseball found around the country. 

As you know from my site, I like diving into the weird world of the Semi-Pros because there are so many great stories found there. While today the concept of semi-pro means a level far below even the Rookie League, yet back in Bill Sisler's day there were many semi-pro teams that could have and did whip Major League teams on a good day. Take a team like the Brooklyn Bushwicks - research by baseball archaeologist Scott Simkus (if you don't have his book "Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe", you NEED to get it right now!) shows that the Bushwicks operated on a level hovering between today's AA and AAA leagues. So what I'm trying to get at is that besides vertical scale of organized ball there was a horizontal scale of semi-pro teams that a ball player could catch on with at various time in his career. A journeyman like Bill Sisler did just that to keep a paycheck coming and his spikes in the game in-between minor league assignments.

I'm gonna stop here and leave you with a 22 year-old Bill Sisler, pitcher for the Elmira Red Jackets. It's the spring of 1923 and he's at the very dawn of a journey that will take him to almost every state in the nation with stops in leagues of every classification organized baseball had to offer - all except the highest one.

One more thing  - I'm not too big to know when I need help with something. While I'm a pretty good researcher with a vast archive of uniform reference, some of Bill Sisler's teams remain elusive for me. If anyone can help with photographs of some of his teams, I'd be most grateful. You can see a list of his stops HERE.

Monday, February 8, 2016

213. Jimmy O'Connell: The Other Side of a Scandal

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear from several of the players whose portraits and stories I've included on my website, and that continued after my book "The League of Outsider Baseball" came out in May. One of the most memorable letters I received from a relative of Jimmy O'Connell. He's in the chapter entitled "The Bad Guys" due to his being thrown out of organized baseball for offering money to an opposing player to throw a game. Jimmy's great-niece wrote to say how bittersweet it was to find her great-uncle Jim in a chapter with a title of "Bad Guys". After telling me about how much she enjoyed the book she added this poignant passage: "So I'd like to put in a word for Jim O'Connell and let you know what a good guy he was. Devoted to his wife, my Aunt Esther, a loving uncle to my mom and her sister and madly in love with the game of baseball, long after it turned its back on him. ". 

Those words stuck with me ever since. These ballplayers I illustrate and write about had families who loved them. The letter made Jimmy O'Connell not just a name from old newspaper articles and box scores, but a very real person. I want to thank Jimmy's relatives for taking the time to write this great piece. The story of Jimmy O'Connell and the 1924 pennant scandal is often told, but never to my knowledge has it been told from the family's perspective. I'm both honored and humbled to be able to showcase this story here on my website. and without further delay, here the O'Connell family's "guest author" post on the old ballplayer they called "Uncle Jim"...

We all know the curdled feeling you get when your ball team loses. It is always at its most intense when the game hinges on a single error and your team ends up sinking a bit deeper in the loss column. But brighter tomorrows come easily in baseball. With its lengthy season and ambling games that always breed hope, the crummy feelings dissipate and faith is restored with one swing of a bat. But for New York Giants outfielder James "Jimmy" O'Connell, a single error of judgement in the 1924 pennant race meant a lifetime ban from professional baseball. The stamp of his poor decision stayed affixed to him and his name has traveled down nine decades of baseball history with a scandal attached.

But for me, the name Jimmy O'Connell doesn't exist solely in places like Gary's excellent book The League of Outsider Baseball. He was also my mother's "Uncle Jim", her lovable, generous and incontrovertibly optimistic uncle, friend and hero. My mom Mary June, her sister Margaret and cousin Bette always kept stories of dashing Uncle Jim alive for their combined 21 children. Although they never denied the fact that in the pennant race of 1924, Jim offered another player $500 if he didn't "bear down too hard ", they also handed down the story, detailed in their aunt's anguished letters, of heartbreak and misguided faith in the men of baseball who held Jimmy's fate in their hands. They told us, too, about the life Jim lived after the scandal, spent on dusty Outlaw League diamonds, and then back in California where some of the shimmer of his days as a San Francisco Seal stood him in better light with old fans and admirers.

In 1921, my grandmother's sister Esther moved from Montana to San Francisco to look for work. She found a secretarial job at accountants Price-Waterhouse and one day she noticed a photo of a young ball player named Jimmy O'Connell in the newspaper and set her heart on him. The handsome Irish-American was a member of the San Francisco Seals and Esther, chaperoned by her visiting mother, left a note for the first baseman at Recreation Park. "We went down to 14th Street and Valencia and left a note at the Seals office. I asked him to call on me at the Palace Hotel, if he wished. I got a call that afternoon," said Esther in an interview recorded on cassette tape before her death in 1978. Their first date was spent at the Pantages Theater seeing comedian Georgie Jessel. Recalling the evening, Esther said, "In his monologue he said, 'Did you ever see O'Connell hit one?'"

The young couple was married on October 2, 1922 and not long after their honeymoon, O'Connell was in the newspapers on both coasts due to the record-breaking sum paid by the New York Giants for his contract. "Babe Ruth Has Nothing on Seals $75,000 Beauty" and "N. Y. Giants $75,000 'Rookie'" sang the headlines. O'Connell went straight to work at the Giants' training camp, gearing up for a switch to the outfield.

The early 1920s were a glittering time in New York City and Esther was a faithful correspondent, describing to her mother and sisters the glamorous Broadway revels and pure excitement of the Polo Grounds. A family of inveterate newspaper clippers, Esther's sisters saved every mention of Jimmy O'Connell from printed game stats to the items in the society page depicting the young O'Connell and his smartly dressed wife on the town.

Then the 1924 season came to a staggering end and with it, the baseball career of Jimmy O'Connell. Books like Judge Landis by J.G. Taylor Spink and John McGraw by Charles C. Alexander have reported the details of what happened on Sept. 27, 1924 and the ensuing meetings held in Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' office. The main fact was thus: In a game whose win would only be an insurance policy in a National League pennant race they had nearly captured, NY Giants rookie outfielder Jimmy O'Connell approached Philadelphia shortstop Heinie Sand and whispered, "It will be worth $500 to you if you don't bear down too hard against us today."  Aghast, Sands refused and went straight to his manager to report the offer.  Word traveled swiftly to the ears of baseball commissioner Landis and O'Connell and coach Cozy Dolan were immediately summoned to explain their part in Sands' accusation. (And as it turned out, the Giants didn't need any funny business to win their "fourth straight flag". "Why offer Philadelphia $500 to lose?" one wag quipped. "They're happy to lose for free.")

Esther's side of the story was delivered in a long, tear-stained letter she composed to her mother after sitting out all night with Jim in Central Park to avoid the hordes of reporters that had descended upon their residence.  "He didn't want to but when he asked the older men what to do he was told, 'You know how thick McGraw and Dolan are, so it is orders.'" McGraw was brusque Giants owner John McGraw and those "older men" were future hall-of-famers Frank Frisch, Ross Youngs and George Kelly, who all denied saying anything and escaped punishment.

For a time, the couple remained hopeful. Jimmy never denied having made the offer to Sands, saying that he was told by coach Dolan to send out a feeler. And there is nothing that has ever been published (to my knowledge) that states that Jimmy O'Connell was solely responsible for the offer. Several baseball writers have asked, "Who put together the money?" and a couple have wondered aloud whether it was all a prank against a credible greenhorn. But adjudication was solely in the hands of Judge Landis and he handed Jimmy O'Connell and Cozy Dolan lifetime bans from professional baseball.

Stunned, Jim and Esther left New York and returned to Northern California. Esther wrote to her sister, "Jim has youth and health and we have each other and we can start over again in time." Jim's love for baseball (and his terrific athletic ability) drew him down to New Mexico to play outlaw baseball in a small league that hosted several other banned players and was looked upon with scorn by organized baseball. The Fort Bayard team was sponsored by a group of World War One vets, most of whom were bedridden with lingering wounds and tuberculosis in the post hospital. Jimmy was so popular with the fans and the vets that he eventually formed a team for the Southwest New Mexico League called "Jimmy O'Connell's All-Stars". Throughout his six years in New Mexico, Jim thrived in his roles of team captain and raiser-of-spirits to the men of Fort Bayard Hospital.

There was no shortage of calls and petitions for the reinstatement of Jimmy O'Connell made to Judge Landis. None other than the colorful writer Damon Runyon asked Landis to reconsider. "Don't you think this boy has been punished enough, Judge? I believe the public would be with you if you reinstate him." But Landis never budged and eventually Jim and Esther left the Southwest and headed back to California to begin another chapter in their lives. Jim took a job with Richfield Oil and enjoyed a long career with the oil company, starting as a refinery worker and ending his career in public relations, promoting the development of the Alaska Pipeline.

My mother, Mary June, described a visit to Uncle Jim and Auntie Esther in her 1940 diary, composed when she was nineteen years old. She flew from Cheyenne, Wyoming to San Francisco and stayed for a week in the O'Connell's Sausalito home. Each day she recorded a marvelous sightseeing trip with her Uncle Jim, culminating in a visit to the World's Fair. My mother always treasured the souvenir photograph that Uncle Jim gave her that day. And with good reason. There aren't many photos of Jimmy O'Connell in our family collection and very little memorabilia outside of a silver "Open Gate" medallion given to Jim by the NY Giants in 1924.

When Esther O'Connell returned home from Jim's funeral in Bakersfield in 1976, there was a baseball collector waiting in the driveway. Brushing past him and his inquiries, Esther made a bonfire in her backyard and threw Jim's mitts, uniforms and memorabilia on the flames. Jim had allowed himself to move on, but Esther's anger at baseball had never subsided. Mom's cousin Bette managed to save one box of Jim's things from the bonfire, but Esther had already torn the photos in two. A team photo of the SF Seals, a press photo of Jim and Sox player Willie Kamm, and a photo of Jim shaking hands with John McGraw were poignantly pieced back together with transparent tape. It is a small, but cherished, collection that I hope will spur the curiosity and baseball fever of my grandnieces and nephews as it has mine.

I am so very grateful to Gary Cieradkowski for including Jimmy O'Connell in his book and for creating such a wonderful illustration of Uncle Jim. I wasn't sure if I was just dispatching an email into the wild blue yonder when I wrote to Gary about another side of Jimmy O'Connell's story. HIs gracious reply has allowed me to share these personal reminiscences of my family and provide another view of a man who, by all surviving post-scandal accounts, was admired by just about everyone he came across.

I have been encouraged to write about Uncle Jim for many years by my Aunt Margaret. At 92, she is in full possession of her detailed memories of her beloved Uncle Jim.  I dedicate this blog post to her. She is the last person in our family (and perhaps the world!) to have seen Jimmy O'Connell play baseball. She saw him play on the Richfield Oil company team on a visit to California in 1935. She was eleven years old.

I spoke to her on the phone the other day and asked her if Jim ever talked about his regrets or suffered from the anguish that plagued Esther. She said, "He never said a word about it. It was all in the past. When he walked in the room, he'd look me and Mary June in the eyes and say, "Shall we get an ice cream cone, girls?"

A Note About the Illustration: I wanted to show Jimmy back before he joined the Giants, circa 1923 while with the San Francisco Seals, when his future was bright and the sky was the limit for him. I depicted him in the time-honored baseball chore of "boning" his bat with a horse shoe. This was done back before players used 100's of bats each year. Players would spend spare time rubbing a horse shoe, Coke bottle or steak bone on the bat which closed the pores of the wood, making it rock-hard and less likely to break.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

212: Tomás Romañach: Afraid of being what the Americanos call "the lemon"

In the spring of 1913, Cincinnati Reds fans, players and management were finally confident their club was turning a corner. Two years earlier, in what was thinking outside the box for the time, the Reds signed Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida to fill holes in their roster. Now they were awaiting the arrival of another Cuban to solve their shortstop problem. Tomás Romañach had hit .300 in the minors the previous summer and big leaguers that played against the kid in Cuba said he was another Johnny Evers in the field. Reds owner Garry Herrmann decided to sign him and instructed Armando Marsans, who was teammates with Romañach in the minors and in Cuba, to get his signature on a contract. However, as spring training progressed Romañach failed to report. The Cincinnati beat writers looked to Armando Marsans for answers. The cheery Cuban outfielder pondered the question, turning it from English to his native Spanish and then reversing the order for his reply:

"It is of this way with Tomás Romañach - he is proud and sensitive. If by reason of youth he should fail, the people of dear old Habana they would not understand. They would cry "Ah Tomás, he is what the Americanos call the lemon".

Before he retired in the early 1920's, Tomás Romañach would have several flirtations with the Major Leagues, be one of the few men to play in both the white minor leagues and the Negro leagues and would be remembered as being one of the best shortstops in outsider baseball.

Although newspapers usually reported his age two to four years younger than he actually was, records show Tomás Romañach was born in Havana, Cuba in 1890. His nickname while playing ball was "El Italiano" - "The Italian" - which supposedly reflected his ancestry. However contemporary newspapers have him as being of Basque origin. He seems to have come from an affluent family and one newspaper article claims that his father was the major of Marianao. Romañach was reported to be an architect and he must have been attending university in Cuba when he began playing pro ball in 1908. That year he signed with the Rojo club and appeared in one game. Two years later he was with Almendares where the 20 year-old got into 8 games and hit a soft .182. 1911 he came into his own as Almendares' regular second baseman and he showed off his skill playing against American big leaguers that toured the island that winter.

His performance in Cuba brought about an invitation to play in the U.S. The New Britain Perfectos of the class B Connecticut League was one of the few minor league clubs to actively recruit Latino players. As far back as 1908 the team was liberally stocked with Cubans and no less than three - Armando Marsans, Rafael Almeida, and Alfredo Cabrera - would go on to play in the majors. When Romañach joined the team in 1912 he was most likely sorely disappointed with the conditions he found there. It was reported that opposing fans perpetually harassed the Cuban imports and there were endless inquiries into the familial background of all the Cubans to make sure there was no Black ancestry. Having failed the background check, the great Luis Padron had been hounded out of the league in 1909 even though he was the team's best hitter. So it's no wonder that Romañach didn't last more than a few games with the Perfectos. He was an educated man from a good family - he didn't need all this needless hassle so he headed south to Long Branch, New Jersey where he joined a team in the Atlantic League called the Cubans. Unlike the Perfectos who had a mixture of Latino and American players, the Long Beach Cubans were entirely made up of players from the island nation. The team was put owned and managed by Dr. Carlos Henriquez, a Cuban national practicing medicine in New Jersey. In this familiar environment Romañach flourished. He successfully made the switch to shortstop and he finished the season hitting over .300. He was blessed with lightning speed and began hitting in the leadoff spot. This got the big league scouts on his trail and when he tore up the Cuban League that winter with a .362 average and comparisons to the great Johnny Evers, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox dispatched agents to sign him.

This is when Garry Herrmann and Armando Marsans swooped in to snatch up Romañach and sign him to a Reds contract. As we already know, the shortstop failed to report to the Reds. For their part, Cincinnati tried everything to convince the shortstop to report, to the point of Reds manager Joe Tinker promising to keep Romañach with the club all season and not farm him out to a minor league team. Described in the American newspapers as shy, coy and timid, it appears he sat out the summer back in Cuba, presumably working as an architect.

During the winter the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition series in Cuba and the team's captain Jake Daubert was so impressed that he sent reams of telegrams back to Brooklyn begging owner Charlie Ebbets to sign this guy. John McGraw of the Giants heard of the Johnny Evers comparison and immediately dispatched someone to sign him at any cost. By the time he tracked Romañach down in Havana he had verbally committed to Brooklyn and the Giants man went home empty handed. Brooklyn may have been pleased to outfox McGraw and the Giants but their elation was short-lived. When Garry Herrmann got wind of Brooklyn's coup he produced the Cuban's contract from the previous year that effectively made him property of the Cincinnati Reds. Now while Ebbets began battling Herrmann for the right to sign him, Romañach began demanding an extravagant signing bonus of $2000 on top of his $3000 salary. Ebbets countered with a $1000 bonus but eventually tired of the whole affair and gave up. The Reds also lost interest and that's when Dr. Henriquez breezed into Havana and convinced Romañach to play the 1914 season with his Cubans.

The summer of 1914 proved to be Romañach's finest. The Cubans began the season in Newark but returned to Long Branch in July where there was a bigger fan base among the beach going vacationers. The Cubans had a powerhouse that year - of the five players in the Atlantic League who would go on to play in the majors, three were on the Long Branch Cubans. In a pennant race that went right down to the last week, the Cubans finished second and Romañach's .372 average put him at number 8 in batting leaders. Playing so close to New York meant that big league scouts were ever-present and Romañach's off season was again filled with tantalizing offers from Brooklyn and the outlaw Federal League - all of which he turned down after excruciating negotiations.

By now Romañach was being called the best (white) shortstop outside the major leagues. Besides being compared to Johnny Evers he was now said to be on par with Rabbit Marranville of the World Champion Boston Braves, another future Hall of Famer. It must have galled the Major League owners that they could do nothing to convince this lanky Cuban Evers-Marranville clone to sign a contract.

Spring of 1915 saw him return to Long Branch. The Atlantic League had folded during the off-season and the Long Branch Cubans were now part of a loose league called the Eastern Independent Clubs. This move is significant because this put Long Branch in what was essentially a Negro league and Romañach became one of the very few ball players pre-1947 that played in both the white minors leagues and the Negro leagues. The shortstop hit a resounding .377 and in August it looked like he was about to sign with the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the Federal League. Like he always seemed to do, Romañach held out for a big bonus, but this time he refused to sign unless the Tip Tops signed a second Cuban to keep him company. These time consuming negotiations and the precarious financial status of the Federal League precluded Romañach ever appearing for Brooklyn.

The following summer Romañach again played for Dr. Henrique who moved his team to Jersey City. Romañach was the team's best hitter with a .333 average against Negro league and semi-pro competition that again attracted big league scouts. With an unfulfilled hole in their middle infield, the Cincinnati Reds never gave up on the wiry shortstop and during the winter they sent a representative to try once again to coax Romañach to the big leagues.

To everyone's surprise, Tomás Romañach signed on the dotted line. But signing was only half the battle - the question on everyone's mind was whether or not the Cuban would show up in the Reds camp that spring. That's why when he got off the train in Shreveport, Louisiana he was the focus of all the beat writers. During the exhibition season Romañach reversed expectations by performing sub-standard in the field but tearing the cover off the ball at the plate. He still had to beat out weak hitting starter Larry Kopf for the shortstop job and things looked good when the Reds headed to Cincinnati for Opening Day. Sometime after they got to the Queen City Tomás Romañach was standing dead center just behind manager Christy Mathewson in the second row of the official team photo of the 1917 Reds. Then, without ever appearing in a league game, he was sold to Montreal of the International League.

As an aside, Romañach's appearance in the official team photo without ever playing a game has baffled historians for years, just as Joe Styborski would with his presence in the famous photo of the 1927 Yankees.
With his demotion to Montreal, Tomás Romañach's worst fears were realized - he was, as the Americano's say, "the lemon". The shortstop never appeared in a game for Montreal and he played only sporadically over the next few years. He returned to America's Negro leagues in 1920 with Alex Pomez's Cuban Stars and hung up his spikes for good afterwards. Although he never made the Majors, Romañach's play against American big leaguers was one factor that brought real credibility and respect to Cuban baseball. The talent he displayed each winter season in Cuba led to his being enshrined to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1948.

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.