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.

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