Wednesday, October 19, 2016

224. Fred Clarke:

I've said it before many times, but I'll say it again: one of the best benefits about writing/illustrating The Infinite Baseball Card Set is all the baseball historians, writers and artists I've met. I've asked a few to be a "Guest Author" on here and this week I'm pleased to have Angelo Louisa. You may have heard of him, he's been the author, co-author or editor of a bunch of solid baseball books, and there's a good chance one of them sits on your bookshelf right now. I know his book on the 1926 Pirates sits on mine, and Angelo chose a character from that very book as the subject of this week's story...

With virtually the same personnel that had won both the National League pennant and the World Series the previous season, the 1926 Pittsburgh Pirates were favored by the majority of preseason prognosticators to capture the pennant for the second year in a row.  But they ended up in third place, four and a half games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

That failure has largely been attributed to the alleged dissension caused by the presence of vice president and assistant to the manager Fred Clarke on the Pirate bench and to the ramifications of an attempt by several players to remove him, known as the "ABC Affair."   

For the casual fan of baseball history, the name Fred Clarke may not mean anything.  But for the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian, it may conjure up images of the fiery player-manager of the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates, someone who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a left fielder but who could have been elected as either a player or a manager.  As a player, Clarke was an excellent hitter, an aggressive base runner, a daring defender, and a fierce competitor who, according to (as of September 18, 2016), placed in the final seasonal top 10 in positive offensive and defensive statistical categories 194 times (not including games played, defensive games played as an outfielder, at bats, and plate appearances) throughout his 21-year career in the National League.  As a manager, he led his teams to four pennants, one World Series championship out of two appearances, a remarkable 14 straight first-division finishes, and a .576 regular-season winning percentage (.595 with the Pirates).  And he accomplished these feats while managing against such notable skippers as Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, George Stallings, John McGraw, and Frank Chance.

However, even the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian may not be aware that Clarke was much more than a baseball personage.  The ninth of 12 children of a blacksmith-farmer and his homemaker wife, Clarke used his dual passions of baseball and working the soil, his athletic and mechanical talents, and his optimistic nature and belief in fate to become an outdoorsy Renaissance man and a multimillionaire.  During his nearly 88 years in this world, Clarke was an innovative and highly successful rancher whose income skyrocketed when oil was discovered on his land; a Kansas state champion amateur trapshooter; an outstanding equestrian who did riding tricks from the back of his horse; an avid hunter, fisherman, and golfer; and a skillful inventor who created and held patents for, among other things, flip-down sunglasses, sliding pads, and a mechanical apparatus for putting the tarpaulin over the baseball field.

In addition, Clarke was a community leader in Winfield, Kansas, who co-founded the area’s country club, helped to build the town’s current Holy Name Catholic Church, and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan when it tried to harass him for being a Roman Catholic.

Nor would the knowledgeable fan or the baseball historian necessarily be aware that, at the request of Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss, Clarke returned to the Pirates in 1925 as assistant to the owner, assistant to the manager, and head of scouting and was one of the key people responsible for the Bucs winning the National League pennant and the World Series championship that year.  Clarke remained with the Pirates in 1926, having become vice president of the club during the offseason while retaining his positions as assistant to the manager and head of scouting, and endeavored to aid them in seizing another pennant.  But his efforts came to naught.  A talented Pirate team did not live up to expectations and a scapegoat had to be found to explain the bronze medal finish.  For certain Pittsburgh sportswriters and fans, that scapegoat was Clarke, a belief that some later writers have also held.         

However, in 2006, I began to research the ’26 Pirates in general and the ABC Affair in particular, looking at all five mainstream Pittsburgh newspapers—not just those that criticized Clarke or those that have been digitized—as well as various player interviews and other primary sources and discovered that the blame assigned to Clarke has been mostly misplaced and that the reasons for the Bucs' failure were far more complex.  The result of my research is a book titled The Pirates Unraveled:Pittsburgh’s 1926 Season, which was published last October by McFarland.  But I’ll resist temptation to say anything else about it because I want you to read the details for yourself.  To order a copy of the book, go to 

Angelo J. Louisa is a researcher, writer, and community educator who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.  A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, he has contributed articles to books, periodicals, and websites, is co-editor of ForbesField: Essays and Memories of the Pirates’ Historic Ballpark, 1909-1971 and Mysteries from Baseball’s Past:Investigations of Nine Unsettled Questions, and is series co-editor of McFarland Historic Ballparks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

223. Bill Crouch: One for the Record Books

Baseball is completely governed by statistics and records. It's the one thing that makes the game unique when compared to other sports. While football, hockey and (especially) basketball have radically evolved over the years in both playing style and equipment, since the introduction of the juiced up ball in 1920 baseball is essentially the same. That means you can pretty much compare a guy like Dazzy Vance, Brooklyn pitching star of the 1920's with Sandy Koufax of the 1960s and then with Orel Hershiser of the 1990's. There's differences of course, like mound height, watered-down talent pool, etc., but much less so than any other big-money sport. That's why baseball's records are more sacred than other sports. Home run totals, hitting streaks, etc, are all measuring sticks we use to gauge how good a ballplayer is. Some records are ever changing, like career home run totals or stolen bases. Others, like single season wins by a pitcher will never be topped because we've learned (and been told by agents and the Player's Union) not to over-use a player. A 30 game season is simply unreachable these days, let alone Hoss Radburn's 59 set in 1884. Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters is one that theoretically could be matched, but the odds are radically against it. Heck, even complete games are rare. Today it's newsworthy when a pitcher makes it past the 7th inning stretch, and that's why the record set in today's story - most strikeouts in one game - will never be broken. Most fans know that Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Max Scherzer hold the MLB record for most K's in 9 inning game: 20. When the game gets extended into extra innings, the totals go a bit higher: Tom Cheney struck out 21 in a 16 inning game back in 1962. Trudge into the wild and woolly recesses of the minor leagues and it gets even better: in 1952 Ron Necciai whiffed 27 batters in a 9 inning Appalachian League game and Hooks Iott struck out 30 batters in a 16 inning Class D game in 1941. But one semi-pro pitcher topped even that, in both innings pitched and K's recorded...

It was about as good a debut a rookie could ask for. For five years Bill Crouch had been toiling in relative obscurity on the sandlots of his native Wilmington, Delaware when suddenly in July of 1910 he was signed by the St. Louis Browns. Crouch was twenty-three years old, a hefty lefthander with a good fastball and a serviceable curve who'd carved out an admirable record playing in Wilmington's semi-pro industrial leagues. The first professional baseball contract Bill Crouch signed his name to was the one he'd just signed with St. Louis. Now, the St. Louis Browns in 1910 were a pretty miserable lot. They'd finish the year 47-107, and when a ball club reaches that low a point they'll try just about anything to right the ship. Indeed, twenty different pitchers appeared for St. Louis that summer, and on July 12, 1910, it was Bill Crouch's turn. 

The Browns were in Washington to face the Senators at American League Park. It was a grey, rain-swept afternoon in the nation's capital as the 23 year-old southpaw prepared for his first professional baseball game. For a guy catapulted from the sandlots right into to the big leagues, it must have been a nerve-racking prospect. Pitching on weekends for the DuPont Powder Company baseball team was one thing, suiting up for the St. Louis Browns was quite another. I'm sure it made him even more unnerved when he discovered his opponent that afternoon would be Walter Johnson - on his way to becoming the greatest right handed pitcher in the history of the game. Johnson was in his fourth big league season and would win 25 games for Washington that year. 

The game was scoreless through two frames before St. Louis scored two off Johnson in the third. Washington got to Crouch in the fourth inning, plating three runs. The rookie was a bit wild, walking seven, and he struggled when it came to fielding his position. Washington used this to their advantage and bunted often, resulting in two errors by the hefty lefty. The young Walter Johnson was firing on all cylinders, striking out 13 Brownies until the fifth when his throwing error let in two runs for a 4-3 St. Louis lead. After a pair of rain delays the evening gloom was setting in and just when it looked like Crouch would have his first big lead victory, a few walks capped off with an error by the shortstop let in the tying run. By this time the ballpark was wrapped in darkness and the game was called, forever locked in a 4-4 tie.

It wasn't a bad debut. Dueling Walter Johnson to a tie is never something to sneeze at, and the newspapers the next morning said as much. Considering the Browns' deplorable mound corps, it was expected that Crouch would get another start, but it wasn't to be. Citing his "inexperience", Browns manager Jack Reynolds released the southpaw to the Richmond Colts of the Virginia League. But life in the Bush Leagues wasn't what Bill Crouch had in mind. Telling St. Louis' manager "it's the major leagues or nothing", Crouch took the train back to Wilmington. He had a wife, Effie, and three year-old boy, Bill Jr., and besides, he made more making explosives and pitching on weekends for DuPont than an anonymous minor league pitcher ever could. His one-and-done big league career makes Bill Crouch one of the very few ballplayers to go from the semi-pros directly to the majors without spending any time in the minors. It's quite an accomplishment, and that's where history would have left Bill Crouch, had it not been for an even more extraordinary mound appearance six years after his one and only big league game.

Back in Wilmington Crouch resumed his position as the local sandlot hero. With a big league game under his belt, the southpaw was in high demand, but fate intervened. Arm trouble and an operation sidelined him for all of 1911 and when he came back in 1912 his left arm was useless. Still, his natural talent and name recognition kept him in the lineup as a first baseman on lower-tiered clubs through 1915. Then, the old wing started to come around and by 1916 Bill Crouch was back on the mound. Now thirty and a little bit on the portly side, Crouch took up mound duties for the Brandywine Athletic Association team in the All-Wilmington League. 

The game that would set a world record for Bill Crouch wasn't supposed to even take place. The May 30, 1916 game was an unscheduled make-up tilt between Eastlake and Crouch's Brandywine club. Eastlake scored a run off the old lefthander in the second inning but Brandywine took the lead the next inning with two runs. Eastlake tied it up in the sixth. Crouch hummed along, striking out Eastlake player after Eastlake player. And as good as Crouch was, Ennis, Eastlake's pitcher, was keeping pace with the veteran. The zeros piled up as the afternoon wore on. Eight, nine, ten innings and still no score. Both pitchers has great control with only two walks apiece. While Ennis was retiring the Brandywine players on ground balls and fly outs, Crouch was blowing the ball past the Eastlake bats. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen innings ticked by and no runs. The crowd stayed put in their seats, everyone knowing they were watching the greatest baseball game ever played in Wilmington. Three hours and forty-five minutes and nineteen innings after the game's start, Wilmington finally got a rally started. A single and some good base running got Brandywine three runs. Crouch came on in the bottom of the 19th and retired the side for the win. When the scorebook was tallied, Bill Crouch had faced 70 batters, given up only a pair of walks and scattered ten hits over 19 innings. But the most remarkable thing was that e has struck out 31 batters - a new world record and one that will most likely never be broken. Crouch's feat made newspapers coast-to-coast but failed to bring any offers to resume his short big league career. With just 16 major league teams in 1916, no club was willing to take a chance on a middle-aged pitcher with a history of arm trouble - world record or no world record. Besides, chances are Bill Crouch didn't want the hassle of starting a new career. He had carved out a nice niche for himself and like many semi-pro stars of the pre-WWII period, made good money on his own terms. 

That was pretty much the extent of Bill Crouch's career in baseball. During the 1930's the Crouch's moved to Michigan where the old ballplayer worked for Cadillac. He passed away a few days before Christmas, 1945, at the age of 59. 

If you look up Bill Crouch in the Baseball Encyclopedia (sorry, that's a force of habit - of course today everyone uses, you'll find his one-line career. But right below you'll see that in 1939, another pitcher named Bill Crouch, this one a righty, made his big league debut for Brooklyn. This was Bill Crouch Jr., son of the old lefthander. Junior had a three year career with the Dodgers, Phillies and Cardinals, posting a 5-3 career record.

I hope you enjoyed this little story. I really enjoy plucking these players from baseball's hidden corners, dusting off the obscurity and letting their stories come to life again. There's ten thousand books and articles on Ty Cobb, and you can find them in any bookstore. To find a Bill Crouch you have to stumble over his story in the dim light of baseball's past. That's what I like, and I hope you do, too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

222. Hack Wilson: Stouts takes the field

Last year I began to write a story about the early career of Hack Wilson. I was always fascinated by the guy, ever since I saw a photo of him standing with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in a book I had as a kid. His odd physique (5'-6" with a Ruthian barrel chest wearing a size 5 1/2 shoe) made me do a double-take, and when I learned of his amazing 191 RBI season in 1930 it made me want to learn more about this odd guy. Wilson and the other 1920's Cubs really came alive for me in "Mr. Wrigley's Ballclub" by Roberts Ehrgott (a must-read for any pre-war baseball fan, I can't recommend this book enough!) and I drew up a few versions of a Hack Wilson minor league card. However, to use a real flaky artist term, none of them "felt" right to me and I never got around to finishing the story. Instead, I stumbled upon a newspaper story from the opposite end of his career and got gleefully side tracked. You can read that story HERE, it's become one of my favorites. So, the pre-big league Hack Wilson story got put on the shelf - that is until now. This weekend I put the finishing touches on an illustration of Hack that I felt fit him perfectly and dug up my stack of 1921-1922 newspaper clippings and notes and got to work...

It was Opening Day in the Blue Ridge League, 1921. 

The Martinsburg Blue Sox, a league powerhouse since the loop was founded, looked like they had another pennant winner. But besides the hold overs from last season like Reggie Rawlings and Johnny Neun, there was a new kid in town, about as odd a looking ballplayer to ever step foot on a diamond.

The kid (and I'm using that term loosely now) sprang forth from the rough factory towns of Western Pennsylvania. The illegitimate son of part-time laborer and full-time drunk and a wandering prostitute, Lewis Wilson grew up more or less on his own. His mother died of appendicitis when he was seven and his father entrusted the boy to the care of the woman who ran the boarding house they lived in. Fortunately the proprietor and her son were a huge baseball fans and both tutored the young boy in the finer points of the game. 

Like I mentioned earlier, Lew was an odd looking fella - he was short, had a big, flat, moon face, a stocky torso perched on dainty ankles that terminated at even daintier feet. He also perspired - a lot. Modern scholars of the game have speculated that Lew's appearance and later actions as an adult had the hallmarks of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a birth defect brought on by excessive drinking during pregnancy. With his parents track record, it could very well be the case. Being such an ungainly looking figure made him the object of every bully in town, so Lew grew up knowing how to use his fists. With no good male role models except his booze-hound of a father, he also took to drinking at a young age, a habit that would have serious consequences to both his career and personal life (see my earlier story HERE). At 16 he quit school and worked first in a locomotive factory, then a shipyard. The intense physical labor not only hardened his rough physique, but it also gave him the chance to showcase his baseball skills in the highly competitive industrial leagues in operation at that time. 

Now at his full adult height of 5'-6", 190 pounds with a size 5 1/2 foot, Lew billed himself as a catcher and his prowess with a bat earned him a $175 a month contract to play ball for the Martisburg Blue Sox. Martinsburg was a mid-sized mill and railroad town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. It was an unpolished, homey kind of place and Lew took to it like it was the home he never had. Indeed, Martinsburg would be his primary residence for most of his life and the town still proudly claims him as one of their own. 

The Blue Sox had a pretty good veteran core in 1921. The team already had a starting backstop, but by the time spring training ended Lew had edged his way into the starting lineup. So, that Opening Day in 1921, Martinsburg fans were expecting great things from Lewis Wilson. 

They'd have to wait. 

Sliding into home plate that Opening Day, Wilson suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia. Back in 1921 this was a very serious injury that often left a man with a limp for the rest of his life. A gimp leg would mean no professional baseball career. Somehow Wilson kept himself positive during the long hospital stay. This was no doubt helped when he made the acquaintance of the friend of one of his nurses. Wilson and Virginia Riddleburger hit it off and soon the pair were seriously dating. Virginia was a good dozen years older than the 21 year-old ballplayer, and it would not be out of line to suspect that Wilson saw her as part mother-figure. Virginia had been married before, and at age 34 might have felt that this colorful young ballplayer was her chance to shake off grim prospect of living the rest of her days as a small town spinster divorcee. Whatever the reason, the two were devoted to one another and soon Virginia was a baseball fan.

After two months out of the action, Wilson played the last 30 games of the season, his new girl in the stands cheering him on. Now hobbled with a slight limp he'd have the rest of his life, Wilson pounded out 36 hits in 101 at bats for a nice .356 average. His total of five home runs were but a tiny taste of what was to come. When the season ended Wilson stayed in Martinsburg to work in the mills and court Virginia. Wilson was a jovial, good natured fella who soon became a favorite character around town. His odd barrel chested frame earned him the nickname "Stouts" and every Blue Sox fan looked forward to the 1922 season. 

From the start Wilson pounded the ball. By July he broke the Blue Ridge League record for single season home runs and had doubled it by the end of the summer. He hit the ball at a .366 clip and eventually adjusted to his new position of outfielder. The Blue Sox won the pennant and then league Championship. Home run champ of the Blue Ridge League was swell, but Wilson wanted to be a big leaguer. The only way to reach that goal was to keep posting good numbers until someone from a higher up league took notice. Lucky for him, someone did.

After hearing of a big little fella making a whole lot of noise up in the Blue Ridge Mountains all season, Frank Lawrence traveled to Martinsburg to have himself a look. Lawrence owned the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League, a rung or two higher up the ladder than Martinsburg. Impressed and quite satisfied, Lawrence wrote a $500 check to the Blue Sox ownership and Stouts Wilson became a Trucker. 

He was one step closer to his dream.