Saturday, November 11, 2017

235. Bob Crues: Chamberlined

No matter how you look at it, being second to achieve something just doesn’t hold the same weight as being the very first. After all, who remembers Clarence Chamberlin, right? Ol’ Clancy had the misfortune of being just a bit late on the draw when it came time to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – Charles Lindbergh had done it two weeks earlier. Chamberlin’s flight was no less outstanding than Lucky Lindy’s; it’s just that it was done before. Lost in the record of Chamberlin’s not-so-epic flight is the fact that he had a passenger aboard, thus making him the first pilot to carry a passenger across the Atlantic. Sure, that was something, but when compared to being the first to ever fly solo across the pond, it just doesn’t hold the same weight.

If there were a Hall of Seconds, Clarence Chamberlin would surely have a plaque hanging in its gallery of heroes. Somewhere nearby would be another plaque, with the name “Robert Fulton Crues” engraved on it, along with the text explaining his home run record.

For Bob Crues, his shot at having his own place in history came down to one night in Amarillo back in 1948. For 138 games, “Home Run Bob” had ripped apart West Texas-New Mexico League pitching. He was batting just north of the magic .400 mark and he had broken professional baseball’s single-season RBI record months before. With one last game to play, Crues’ home run tally stood at 69. One more and he would break the record set by Joe Hauser in 1933.

Almost 5,000 fans packed Gold Sox Park to see what they hoped would be a new record being made. All the major news outlets had correspondents in the press box and photographers ringed the field. Look magazine was present, their team ready to pull the trigger on the first feature photo article on baseball’s new home run king. A rep from Wheaties stood in the wings, a fresh breakfast cereal endorsement contract with Bob Crues’ name on it waiting to be signed as soon as number 70 left the ballpark. That night, Bob Crues was just one swing away from fame.

Just two years earlier, the married father with one infant son returned home from the army hoping to reclaim some semblance of the baseball career he had before the war. The former Red Sox farmhand was now 27 years old and competing against not only all the returning GI’s, but also the new crop of hungry teenagers. For Crues, this would be the third time he would have to re-start his baseball life.

Life was never easy for Robert Fulton Crues. He was born in Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas, but grew up in the state’s panhandle region. According to Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest, Crues was an orphan. Most likely due to the negative light to which orphans were held back during the Depression, Crues kept this a secret throughout most of his life. Before he entered grade school, young Bob lost the tip of the index finger on his right hand when his curiosity got the best of him while exploring the water pumping mechanism of a windmill. Just like almost every young boy at the time, Bob learned to play baseball. Instead of his finger being a hindrance to his playing the game, the missing digit actually gave any ball he threw an unnatural break to it. To capitalize on this, Crues taught himself to throw a devastating knuckleball and curveball. The finger also made Crues adapt a unique batting style, holding the bat loosely in his grip. He later said that growing up, Babe Ruth was his idol. It was the perfect choice for like his hero, Crues would also go from a promising pitcher to a home run champion.

By the time he was in his late teens, Crues looked every inch like a man of the Panhandle: 6 foot tall and dark complexioned, strong and lean just like a cowboy from central casting. At the tail end of the 1939 season, the Lamesa Lobos of the West Texas-New Mexico League signed the 20 year-old. The loop was then a Class D league, meaning it was the very bottom of professional baseball. He got into just two games, going hitless in both. The next year Crues was signed by the league’s Borger Gassers. One of the Gassers’ pitchers was old-timer Wilcy Moore, 19 game winner on the 1927 Yankees. Moore took Crues under his wing and taught him how to pitch instead of just throwing the ball. That summer his knuckle and curve had the West Texas-New Mexico League’s hitters dumbfounded and he went 20 and 5 for the year. The Boston Red Sox snapped up the young ace and assigned him to their Scranton farm team for 1941. The Red Sox scouts must have thought very highly of Crues’ arm, because Scranton was in the Class A Eastern League, quite a large jump from Class D. It was while playing in an exhibition game in Greenville, South Carolina, that the first part of Bob Crues’ baseball career came to an abrupt end.

Sitting in the dugout, a wild pitch smashed into the shoulder of his pitching arm. The impact left him in extreme pain whenever he tried to throw his famed knuckle and curve. As proof of how much the team thought of their young prospect, the Red Sox sent Crues to different specialists around the country, yet no matter what doctors did to treat him, every pitch he threw was met with excrutating pain. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Crues took a tour of Boston's farm clubs, from the top down, trying in vain to pitch his arm back to health. Late 1942 found him back in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico league where he started.

The thing that saved Crues from being just another washed up sore-armed pitcher was the war. With the majority of able-bodied men channeled into the service, minor leagues throughout the country folded, including the West Texas-New Mexico League. Crues, now 24, found work at the Pantex Ordinance Works where he met and fell in love with his assembly line co-worker Billie Lane. The two married and began raising a family. Then, Bob’s draft notice came.

That Crues was drafted doesn’t come as a shock, it was 1943 and the Allies were gearing up for the invasion of Europe and every warm body counted. The odd thing is that the army still took him with the top of his trigger finger missing! As it worked out, Crues never got close to a battlefield. Before he finished training he was stricken with severe pneumonia and spent several months in the hospital. When he recovered, the Army shipped him to a base back in Texas. It was there that Bob Crues re-started his baseball career for the second time.

With no chance to serve overseas and nothing much to do, Crues found himself playing for the base’s baseball team. While his injured arm kept him from pitching, Crues discovered that batting cause no pain in his shoulder. The pitcher taught himself how to play the outfield and worked on his hitting skills. By the time the war ended, Crues had perfected his swing and was ready to give pro ball a second try. Problem was, so were thousands of other men recently cut loose from the service.

Now 27 years old with a well-documented injured arm and no experience beyond the low minors, Bob Crues was the last guy a big league team would think of signing. Fortunately for Crues, the old West Texas-New Mexico League opened up shop again. He signed with the Lamesa Lobos and played second base and outfield as well as a few painful tries on the mound. A contract dispute earned him an unconditional release, but fortunately there was another team in the league who wanted to give him a shot.

The Amarillo Gold Sox were owned by former major leaguer “Suitcase Bob” Seeds. As you can gather from his moniker, Seeds had a rambling career, playing for four teams during his nine-year career in the bigs. By 1946 Seeds had returned to Amarillo where his career began, and owned a sporting goods store as well as the town’s franchise in the West Texas-New Mexico League. When Seeds found out Bob Crues had been cut loose by the Lobos, the old ballplayer put him in a Gold Sox uniform. Thus saved from baseball oblivion, Bob Crues restarted his career for the third and final time.

The post-war West Texas-New Mexico League has become known for being a hitter’s paradise. The ballparks were small compared to the larger cities in the north, and most were configured to take advantage of the region’s southerly winds. Because pitchers are always in high demand, a league as low as West Texas-New Mexico only received the most inexperienced or ineffective ones. That isn’t to say the league’s pitchers were tossing softballs in the years following World War II; inexperienced and ineffective also means that many hurlers lacked control over their pitches, making it hard for a batter to get ahold of a ball good enough to hit for distance. That’s one of the circumstances that played to Bob Crues’ advantage. Because he wasn’t formally coached as a hitter and he had played two years of service ball hitting against inexperienced pitchers, Crues had developed into a “bad ball hitter.” That meant that not only was Crues used to facing pitchers who threw the ball all over the place, but where other batters would lay off a bad pitch, Crues hunted them down and sent them flying. As Eddie Carnett, former major league pitcher and Borger's manager in 1948 exclaimed: "he hits everything from his shoe-tops to his cap-bill!"

That first summer in Amarillo Bob Crues hit .341 and sent 29 balls into the stands, including three in one brutal payback game against Lamesa. As stated earlier, the West Texas-New Mexico League was a hitter’s loop, so Crues’ 29 paled in comparison with Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman’s 48 home runs. The next season Crues came into his own, slugging 52 home runs with a .380 average. In that hitter’s league, it still wasn’t tops – future Chicago Cub Bill Serena hit 57 – but it did earn Crues a promotion to the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. After doing well in spring training, Crues abruptly left the Travelers before the 1948 season began.

When he reappeared in Amarillo, Crues told reporters that he was homesick for his Texas home. Truth be told, his wife Billie had convinced her husband that dragging young children around the lower rungs of organized baseball was no way to raise a family. That, and Crues’ “advanced” age of 30 made it more than a long shot that he’d ever rise above AA level ball. So, Bob Crues suited up again for the Amarillo Gold Sox.

Right from the start, Crues was on fire. He sent ball after ball over the outfield wall. As Crues averaged a homer every other game, the fans were whipped up in a home run frenzy. As was the custom in the low minors and semi-pro baseball, fans would poke money through the chicken wire fence to show their gratitude after a home run, and that summer Bob Crues made a nice bundle from happy customers. His bank balance got a boost in August when he given an extra $200 after being voted the team’s most popular player.

On Friday, August 28, it was “Bob Crues Night” at Gold Sox Park. The slugger had just hit his 60th home run, tying the great Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark. Plus, the night before had seen the birth of the Crues’ second child, a son. Before the game, fans and local businesses showered the popular slugger with piles of gifts and cash. Even his Gold Sox teammates dipped into their own meager salaries and passed Crues a wad of cash. For his special night, the Amarillo News-Globe newspaper offered Crues a special bounty for hits during the game: $25 for a single, $50 for a double, $75 for a triple and $100 for a homer.

That evening Crues hit number 61, which along with a single earned him $125 from the Globe-News bounty. The slugger then rushed from the ballpark to the hospital where he spent time with Billie and his newborn son.

Lost in the long ball excitement was the tremendous number of RBIs Crues was wracking up during the 1948 season. The old pro-baseball record was 222 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925. Lazzeri’s home ballpark in Salt Lake City was a notorious hitter’s paradise and the Pacific Coast League’s 200 game season played a part in the bloated RBI tally. On the other hand, while playing in cozy-sized parks with inexperienced pitching, the West Texas-New Mexico League played a modest 140 game schedule, a full 60 games less than Lazzeri had. Of course, a home run record is more respected than an RBI record. However, it is those runs batted in that win ball games, and it speaks highly of Crues’ hitting when it counted that made his performance in 1948 even more impressive. By the time Crues suited up for the final day of the season, he had completely obliterated Lazzeri’s record by more than 30 runs.

On Thursday, September 5, Crues hit home runs 68 and 69 off George Payte of the Pampa Sockers to tie Joe Hauser’s 1933 mark. That left only two games left to play, a Labor Day double header against the Lubbock Hubbers at home. Before the game, many thought that the record should already be recorded as being broken. Back in June, while on the road in Abilene, Crues smashed a ball that careened off the scoreboard mounted above the outfield wall and bounced back onto the field. Everyone, including the Abilene fans and players, saw that the ball had hit the scoreboard, which meant it was a home run. Everyone that is, except umpire Frank Secory who insisted it hit the wall below the scoreboard and ruled it a ground rule double. Since this was back in June when the home run record was still a distant dream, it is odd that the Abilene outfielders and the official scorer went out of their way after the game to convince Secory to change the ruling, which he did refused to do. Maybe it was just their sense of fair play that made the Abilene players try to give a home run to an opposing player, but in eerie hindsight, the ruling would have a huge effect on events that occurred more than two months later.

Atmospheric conditions in Amarillo were not ideal for Crues on the night of September 6. The local newspaper reported that a strong wind off the Texas prairie came from a northerly direction, blowing directly towards home plate. For his part, Bob Crues was confident in his chances that night. After an injury to his side slowed him down for three weeks after reaching number 61, he was on fire of late, especially after hammering two homers in the previous day’s game. So, with two games left in the season and fame just a swing away, Bob Crues was ready.

In his first time at the plate, he almost did it, the ball carrying all the way to the far corner of left field, only to hit the top of the fence and fall back in for a single. He then walked and hit another single in the 3-2 Gold Sox win. Crues was still in good shape, he had the nightcap left to hit one out of the park. As was common back then, the second game of the double header would be only seven innings. Going into the bottom of the 6th, Crues had managed nothing more than a single and several long balls that landed foul. With Lubbock up 3-1, the Hubbers decided to give Crues a final chance at the plate. Pitcher Red Ramsey walked a pair of Gold Sox before retiring the side. This made sure Crues would get a chance to bat in the final frame. In the bottom of the 7th, Crues was due up second. Lubbock put Don Moore on the mound and he walked the first batter. Now with Crues in the box, Moore had trouble getting the ball anywhere near the strike zone, and his control issues were even too much for a bad ball hitter like Crues. When he was finally able to get a handle on one, all it produced was a single. None-the-less, the single sparked a Gold Sox rally and Amarillo plated three runs to win 4-3.

By the time the game ended, Gold Sox Park had long emptied out. The Look Magazine crew packed up their equipment and the Wheaties man folded the unsigned contract and headed for the parking lot. Sure, 69 homers were something special, but Joe Hauser had already hit that number fifteen years earlier. Then there was the new RBI total, but RBIs are, well, RBIs, not home runs.

Bob Crues was Clarence Chamberlined.

There was, of course, the West Texas-New Mexico League Playoffs. Lost in the home run frenzy was the fact that the Gold Sox had finished first in the loop. In the ensuing four team “Shaughnessy” playoffs, Crues hit three more home runs, bringing his 1948 total to 73. But the playoffs were not regular season.

The headlines generated by Crues’ chase of the home run record led to his being drafted by the Jackson Senators, a Boston Braves farm team in the Southeastern League. However, the $250 a month being offered was unacceptable as Crues had a family to take care of. When the Braves didn’t didn’t improve their offer, he accepted a contract to play semi-pro ball for the Armour Chicken Processing Plant in Elk City, Oklahoma. When Armour didn’t honor their promised terms, Crues accepted a $500 contract to be player-manager of the Roswell Rockets of the Longhorn League. In his last solid season, the 30 year-old hit for a .365 average with 28 home runs. Crues’ playing skills deteriorated rapidly and he spent the next four summers bouncing from San Angelo to Lubbock, back to Amarillo and finally Borger, where he had his first good season in 1940.

By now the Crues family had grown to four boys. The old slugger did everything he could to bring home the best salary, jumping around from one promising job to another, mostly in the oil industry. For a time he and old Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman owned competing gas stations in Roswell, and the friendly competitors sometimes played catch together on the street. Then, just as before, something better came along and the Crues family moved on. This nomadic life chasing the best opportunity lasted until 1965 when Bob Crues suffered a stroke. He was only 47.
The stroke left the old ballplayer needing to use a cane to get around. His son Ronnie told Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest that his father fell apart after the stroke. He withdrew into his shell and considered himself a has-been. With his mobility cut down, Crues drank and smoked more heavily. The idle time on his hands pushed Crues into depression, troubled by his orphan heritage and convinced he hadn’t lived up to the potential he showed as a Red Sox prospect back before the war. In the years since 1948, the home run record he once shared with Joe Hauser had been not just equaled but eclipsed. No one remembered the RBI record.

Crues was rescued from the clutches of melancholy in 1975 when he was elected to the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. The old slugger was touched by being honored by the region in which he spent almost his entire life, and brought some renewed interest in his 1948 season.
Bob Crues retired in 1977 and returned to Amarillo, living out his final years in the town where he almost made history. He and Billie were watching TV on the night of December 26, 1986 when the 67 year-old ballplayer silently slumped forward in his easy chair and passed away.
Go ahead, take a minute and look it up. When you page past all the home run records you come to the Runs Batted In section. There, at the top of the list you can still find “Bob Crues, 254, Amarillo, 1948.”
For the record, this was one heck of a tough illustration to do! Even though Bob Crues made the record books back in '48, being second sure didn't ensure there would be any photographs for posterity. I was able to locate only one decent and clear photo, a shot basically one step better than a mugshot. If you look up the name "Bob Crues" on the internet, it will pop up multiple times. Being one whom always tries to be a bit different, I didn't want to just use that same over used photo. Going through 1946-1950 Texas sports pages, I was able to find a pair of semi-useable action shots that not only helped me get an idea of what Crues' batting stance and follow through looked like, but also aid me with the uniform details. In the photos I found it became obvious that the common mugshot photo made Crues look like he had a long, flat face. In the shots I found he actually had a well-shaped jaw and chin which you can't see in the usual headshot. Anyway, check back late next week and I'll bring out the final story of this Home Run Triptych.

Friday, November 3, 2017

234. Joe Hauser: Leave him alone, he's Our Joe!

For my next several posts, I thought I'd try something different. Ever since I began this blog back in 2010, I consciously made an effort to not have any rhyme or reason to the order in which I presented my stories. One week would bring the story of Negro League legend Leon Day and the next could be turn of the century Federal League player Guy Zinn or a 1930's Japanese baseball player. I like the freedom to present whomever I am interested in at the time, and I think those of you who keep checking back here, or have purchased my books, do as well.

However, while working on this most recent story, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of three (or, to draw on my fancy art school background: a "triptych"), focusing on the trio who held the professional baseball single-season record for most home runs before it was broken by the steroid-addled Barry Bonds in 2001. I wanted to go back to a time when home runs and their records actually meant something. When the numbers 60, 61, 714 and 755 evoked a sort of hushed reverence, a marker that was seemingly unattainable. In the years before the Major Leagues expanded exponentially, dozens of star-quality ballplayers were stranded in the high minors, trapped in second and third rate cities where they tallied seemingly impossible records for most wins, hits or home runs. Because they were achieved in the minor leagues, their names are mostly a footnote today, but if one looks under the blankets and in the deep recesses of baseball history, you'll find guys like Joe Hauser waiting to tell their story.

In the five and a half decades after he retired in 1942, Joe Hauser was the go-to man for "what if", "hard-luck" and "where is he now" baseball stories. Hauser's career stretched from the Deadball Era of Ty Cobb through the Roarin' Twenties of Babe Ruth and on into the hardscrabble Depression Era 1930's. That he lived to be 98 years old made him one of the most interviewed ballplayers and a direct and priceless link back to the game’s Golden Age.

Joe Hauser was born on January 12, 1899 to blacksmith Andreas Hauser and his wife Mary, also called “Mamie.” The couple had emigrated from Austria to Milwaukee’s German-speaking 19th Ward in the 1880’s, and Joe was the fourth of an eventual six children that made up the Hauser family. With a large amount of mouths to feed, Joe quit school at the age of 14 and began working in a mill that built cement mixers. Hauling the heavy machine parts strengthened his wrists and forearms, inadvertently giving Hauser the attributes that would later make him a power hitter. Like all kids in his Milwaukee neighborhood, Hauser grew up playing baseball on any available vacant lot. He eventually graduated from the sandlots to a semi-pro team in one of the city’s saloon leagues where he became a pitcher with a blazing fastball. Known for high strikeout games, Hauser became known as “Zep” or “Zip” for the velocity of his fastball. 

When he reached the age of 18, Hauser was recruited for a town team in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he played with and against men much older than him, many of which had previous minor league experience. When he began regularly striking out more than a dozen batters each game, he attracted the attention of Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack. Mack invited Hauser to the Athletics spring training in 1918, but the teenager proved to be too wild and raw to be any use for the Athletics. The kindly Mack paid for Hauser’s train ticket back to Milwaukee and $100 for his time, something that was rarely, if ever, done for failed prospects at the time.

When Joe got back to Milwaukee, his hometown Brewers signed him up. The Brewers played in the American Association, rated by organized baseball as an AA league, one level below the majors. Hauser was still too inexperienced for the AA level and he was optioned to the Providence Grays of the Eastern League. When he was unimpressive in his only outing on the mound, the Grays switched him to the outfield where he began hitting. After spending 1918 and 1919 in Providence where he batted .271 and .273 respectively, Hauser was recalled back to Milwaukee by the Brewers. While his average stayed well over .300, his fielding left much to be desired. At this time, Hauser acquired the curious nickname he’d have for the rest of his long life: “Unser Choe.” When fans at Milwaukee’s Borchert Field heckled or ridiculed Hauser’s play, the local German-American’s in the grandstand would yell back “leave him alone, das ist unser Choe!” “Unser Choe” was German for “Our Joe,” pronounced in the dialect particular to Milwaukee. 

Though his batting average was going up each season, his lackluster fielding threatened to keep him a bush league ballplayer for all eternity. Fortunately, Brewer’s manager Jack Egan came up with the brilliant idea to move the budding slugger to first base, and just like that, everything came together for Joe Hauser. When the Athletics came to Chicago to play the White Sox, Connie Mack traveled to Milwaukee to see Hauser play. Tipped off that the great man was in the stands, Unser Choe banged out four hits including a home run. The notoriously budget-conscious Mack shelled out a reported $50,000 and four players to obtain Hauser’s services for 1922. When his contract came in the mail early in 1922, Hauser sent it back to Mack, telling the Athletics owner he would have to boost the pay. It seems that the Brewers had promised a bonus to any player who hit a home run in Milwaukee, and Hauser wanted his money. Mack tried playing hardball with the brash rookie, telling him that his beef was with the Brewers and not the Athletics, but Unser Choe wouldn’t budge. Finally, with the Athletics headed to Fort Myers for spring training, Mack appealed to Henry Killilea, Brewers owner, to convince Hauser to sign. After fruitlessly chasing Hauser’s shadow all over Milwaukee, Killilea finally got the kid’s signature on a Philadelphia contract when he told him to either sign or be out of organized baseball. It worked, and Killilea bundled Hauser onto that evening’s train south to Florida.

Though he was untried at the big league level and lacked the polish of a veteran, Hauser had confidence in his talent. When he made mistakes, he listened intently to the advise of his teammates and Connie Mack, firm in his belief that he would never make the same mistake again. Won over by his positive attitude, the veterans on the Athletics took to the friendly Midwesterner, dubbing him “Dutch” for his German accented phrases.

Unser Choe played 111 games for the 1922 Athletics and hit big league pitching at a .323 clip. He recorded only 15 extra base hits, but 9 of them were home runs. When the Athletics came to Milwaukee to play an exhibition game, it was “Joe Hauser Day” at the Borchert Field, and the hometown hero was showered with gifts including a bowling ball and shoes to go with it. The next season his average dipped a bit, but he almost doubled his home run production, thus solidifying his place as the Athletics starting first baseman for the foreseeable future.

With baseball as his only profession, Hauser was careful to ensure that he was in top condition to practice his trade. He ate heartily - but in moderation, and kept himself to only a single beer when out with teammates - two when he really wanted to cut loose. He had also gotten married to Irene Kaye, lovingly called “Mama” by her husband. The couple set up house in Philadelphia where they lived in serene domesticity during the regular season. Mama would be by his side for the next 62 years as he traveled the country playing baseball. Back in Wisconsin during the off-season, Hauser played indoor baseball with Athletics teammate and fellow Milwaukeean Al Simmons to keep in shape. This strict regimen, plus his natural talent, combined to make 1924 Unser Choe’s breakout season.

Today, when one looks at the list of home run totals for 1924, Babe Ruth’s name appears at the number one spot, and just below him at number two is Joe Hauser. His 27 home runs that year was something of a feat, especially since the next highest total was 19. In fact, Unser Choe hit more home runs by himself that year than the entire Boston Braves (25) and Washington Senators (22) did collectively as a team. All those teenage years spent working in the cement mixer factory had made Hauser’s wrists into home run hitting machines. At just 25, Unser Choe looked like he had a long, successful big league career ahead of him, following in the wake of Babe Ruth as one of the game’s first power hitters.

Just before the 1925 season, the Athletics played their traditional “City Series” against the Phillies for the championship of Philadelphia. With no one on the bases, a Phillies batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop. As the fielder retrieved the ball, Hauser ran towards first to receive the throw and touch the base for the out. A simple, textbook play, one Hauser had executed hundreds of times – only this time something unexpected happened. For no apparent reason, Hauser’s right kneecap snapped in two pieces. Surgeons operated and managed to secure the two broken pieces with gold wire, then covered the whole leg with a cast to begin the long recovery process. With a long recuperation on the horizon and no guarantee he’d ever play ball again, Hauser was voluntarily retired from professional baseball and he and Irene returned to Milwaukee. When the cast was removed, Hauser tried to stay active, even appearing in exhibition games with the Athletics when they played close to Milwaukee. Mack sent him to farm team in Federalsburg, Maryland for a short time to work with young players. Hauser would draw on this brief experience many years later when he would become a minor league manager.

After sitting out the entire 1925 season, Hauser was pleased to report that by Christmas he was able to walk and move the knee with no perceivable side effects. That spring Hauser worked with Kid Gleason, former manager of the 1919 White Sox, now Connie Mack’s right hand man on the Athletics. Gleason had Hauser walk backwards, to strengthen the muscles. The walking evolved to running, and soon Gleason deemed Hauser ready for The Show again.

Unfortunately, the year off had played havoc with his batting eye, and Hauser was mentally not ready to subject his broken knee to rigors required of a big league first baseman. With his knee still stiff and bothered by the discomfort caused by the wires holding it together, Hauser batted a disappointing .192 after 91 games. For 1927, Mack sent him to the Kansas City Blues in exchange for their first baseman, Dud Branom. While in K.C., Unser Choe regained his home run swing and cemented his reputation as a long-ball prodigy. Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field was a home run hitter’s worst nightmare, with a right field wall some 400 feet from home plate, surmounted with a 30-foot fence. No one hit home runs out there – until Unser Choe came to play. When his blast cleared the wall, fans collected over $250 dollars to give to Hauser in recognition of his achievement. The next afternoon, Hauser repeated the feat, again raking in a couple hundred dollars from grateful fans.

That summer, Hauser really murdered the ball, bashing 49 doubles and 22 triples to go with his 20 home runs and gaudy .353 batting average. Dud Branom proved worthy of his nickname, Mack brought Hauser back to Philly in 1928, but by this time the Athletics were a much different ball club. With Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Boley, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, Mack had assembled what may have been the greatest dynasty in baseball history, winning three pennants and two World Championships from 1929 to 1931. The 1928 team featured the great Ty Cobb, now wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with Mack’s club. Hauser started the first month of the season hitting .375 with 7 homers, then he began to slump. Hauser later blamed his plummeting average on none other than Ty Cobb, who he claimed sabotaged his batting style with bad advice because he was jealous of being out-hit by Unser Choe. Cobb reportedly advised Hauser to crowd the plate, which just resulted in him fighting off pitches and robbing him of his greatest asset, those strong wrists and forearms. Why did Hauser listen to Cobb? Maybe because he was the greatest hitter ever to play the game and even at the age of 41 he would hit .323 that season.

With Hauser’s average sliding backwards and Jimmie Foxx moving from catcher to first baseman, Mack sold Unser Choe to the Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately, with future batting crown winner Lew Fonseca already ensconced at first base, Cleveland had no use for Hauser besides as an occasional pinch hitter. When all he could manage was .250 off the bench, Cleveland sold the now 30 year-old to the Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore played in the International League, one of the three AA leagues that, like the American Association, were right below the majors. While many ballplayers would have been discouraged by the demotion, Unser Choe resigned himself to a minor league career. Part of his contentedness might have been that because of his major league contract, he was still drawing his big league paycheck. As the country slipped deeper into the Great Depression, the $6,500 salary took the sting out of being back in the minors. When he arrived in Charm City, Hauser took the advice of the team’s shortstop, Heine Sand, and switched to a slightly lighter bat. The lightened stick enabled Hauser to get around quicker on the ball, bringing to bear all the power of his wrists. That summer Unser Choe pounded home run after home run as he chased the professional baseball single-season home run record. While Babe Ruth set the major league record with 60 in 1927, several minor leaguers surpassed that total, the most recent being 62, set in 1926 by Moose Clabaugh. Aided a little by some of the league’s short fences, Hauser closed in on the magic number and bested it by a single round tripper, setting the bar at 63.

The next year when the Orioles were in New Orleans for a spring training exhibition game, a local radio station invited the new home run king to come into the studio and give a little talk over the airwaves. Since Joe was a school dropout at 14, he felt more comfortable having his wife Irene write a 16 sentence speech for him to read. More concerned with baseball than broadcasting, Unser Choe read the entire 16 sentences without pausing for any comma or period, finishing the speech in one mad dash. When asked about his breakneck reading after it aired, Unser Choe simply replied that it “wasn’t any use to stop and tag all the bases during the exhibition season.” It’s peculiar eccentricities like this that makes it a shame that Unser Choe wasn’t more of a success in the big leagues. With a vocabulary punctuated with phases like “gin!” and “yaaaaah!” when excited and “grab me?” to ask if one understood what he was trying to say, Hauser really was a sports writer’s dream come true.

Hauser finished the 1931 season again at the top of the home run leader’s list, though this time with a more human 31 homers. Troubled by a nagging groin injury, his average also buckled to a low .259. With his age now at the elderly 32 mark, Baltimore figured Unser Choe was on the downside of his career and put him up for sale. The Minneapolis Millers of the American Association snapped him up, a move that quickly paid off when he hit 49 home runs and brought his average back up to .303. His bat helped win the Millers win the 1932 pennant, where they faced the Newark Bears in the Junior World Series. In the 6-game loss to Newark, Hauser managed only 5 hits, but three of those were home runs.

1933 began with a crushing disappointment when Hauser received his new contract. Instead of the $6,500 salary his former big league contract ensured him, Unser Choe was now required to accept a standard minor league contract. The $2,400 number was quite a comedown, but with the country engulfed by unemployment, Hauser had no choice but to sign.

Perhaps smarting from the pay cut, Hauser began 1933 in a tough slump. No home run came off his bat in the team’s first nine games, all played on the road. In the Millers’ home opener, Unser Choe finally connected for a long-awaited home run, a three-run shot over the left field wall. The next afternoon Hauser pounded out three homers, including a grand slam, and never looked back. In June he had more than 30 to his credit; in July he homered in seven straight games and in early August broke the old American Association home run record of 54 - and the home runs kept coming. On August 20 he hit number 60, becoming the only man in the history of the game to record two seasons of sixty or more home runs. He ended the season with 69, the new single-season record for home runs. He also set the league record for total bases with 439 and led the league with 182 RBIs.

Now the Home Run King of the Minor Leagues, great things were expected from Joe Hauser in 1934, and from the start, he delivered. He hammered 17 home runs in the month of April, then injured his left knee - his good one, and sat out three weeks. Still, Hauser came roaring back and with 33 homers going into the last week of July, looked to be on a pace to eclipse his own record. Then, havoc struck. Rounding third and headed for home trying to score, Hauser collapsed in a heap, his left kneecap shattered into three pieces.

Unser Choe’s baseball career was effectively over.

When the knee healed enough to think about resuming some kind of baseball career, Unser Choe was in his late 30’s, ancient by baseball standards. His name and reputation was still potent enough that several low-level minor league teams offered him contracts, but the money was a far cry from his Minneapolis salary and not enough to support he and Irene. Then, the semi-pro Sheboygan Chairmakers offered Hauser a $300 a month contract to be their player/manager in 1938. The team soon joined the Wisconsin State League, and Hauser piloted the team to back-to-back pennants in 1940 and 1941. The war shut down the league and Hauser went to work outside baseball for the first time since he was a teen. After the war, Sheboygan became part of the Dodgers organization and Unser Choe managed his team to pennants in 1947, 48 and 51. By this time, another player had matched Unser Choe’s magic number of 69, and in 1954 his hallowed record would be broken. After a short stint with another Brooklyn farm club, Unser Choe and Irene returned to Sheboygan and opened up the Joe Hauser Sports Shop.

The Home Run King retired in 1984, and his beloved Irene passed away in 1986. The couple had made the decision early on not to have children because they did not want to subject them to the transient life of a ballplayer, so Hauser spent his twilight years more or less alone, with baseball fans and historians as his only company. And that seemed to be alright with Unser Choe, spending the last decade of his long life as one of the most entertaining bards of the old game, never tiring of telling the story of his unique place in baseball history to anyone who sought him out. 

Like most old time ballplayers, Unser Choe was both bemused and disgusted by the modern player. He never understood how players from opposing teams engaged in friendly interaction during games. In his time, when one had the other uniform on, you were the enemy. He found it silly when young fans asked him about Babe Ruth, implying that he must have been on great terms with the Yankees slugger. Hauser always insisted that that wasn’t the case. Sure, he said hello to the Bambino when he ended up at first base, but that was the extent of it. The Babe played for the Yankees and Unser Choe was an Athletic. It was as simple as that. Watching the prolonged curtain calls, fist-pumps and backslapping that now went on after every single major league home run, Hauser reflected on how in his time, there was none of that. One just ran around the bases and returned to the dugout, waiting and hoping to do it again.

This story was partially built from several very good interviews Unser Choe gave during the last few decades of his life, in particular the one included in Tony Salin’s terrific book Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: One Fan’s Search for the Game’s Most Interesting Overlooked Players. Also, Norman Macht’s Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915-1931 contains some great material on Joe Hauser and how well respected he was by the Athletics’ manager. Both those books are must have’s for any baseball library. Of course, the life’s blood of any great baseball history story are the original newspaper articles written during the time the events took place. Since Joe Hauser and his minor league home runs were such great news back in the 1930’s there are many detail-packed feature stories on the ball player to be found in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Minneapolis papers.

Stop back late next week when I bring you the second of this three part feature on the single-season home run kings of yesteryear…

Friday, September 22, 2017

Jackie Robinson: A Baseball Career is Born in Kentucky

I've been on a bit of a break lately - well, not really a break. You see, I kind of got bogged down with some research-heavy stories and I keep getting sucked further and further into them. I don't want to spoil anything, but one is a big Joe DiMaggio story about a period in his career that no one has really written about in any depth before. I want to do as thorough a job as I can, and that means exhausting all possible leads, and in this case it actually involves a cross-country to the west coast to explore an untapped archive. This story is so involved, with all kinds of sidebars, so I'll probably make it the cover story of the next issue of '21' (you should SEE the illustration I did for it - it's one of my best so far!). I'm also traveling for business, and although I brought two giant folders of other research with me, I haven't finished anything yet. 

Usually the hard part is finding time to do the drawings, but in this case I have at least 10 new drawings ready to go, just waiting for a story to go with it. In the meantime, I thought I'd toss out an oldie but a goodie. I'm currently writing for a major auction house and I've had some pretty major Jackie Robinson memorabilia cross my desk this week. So, in honor of the man himself, I re-give you Jackie Robinson and the very beginning of his pro baseball career...

In the summer of 1944 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself at Camp Breckinridge, an infantry replacement training depot in the hills of western Kentucky. The war had been rough for Robinson - not on the battlefields of France or a nameless island in the Pacific, but at home in a racial war whose injuries were not physical but mental.

Before the war Jackie Robinson was a well-known collegiate athlete. His exploits as a track star at UCLA set numerous records and his skills on the gridiron made the sports page from coast to coast. If he had been white, Jackie Robinson would have had to fight off offers from National Football League teams upon graduation. Instead Robinson took a position with a government-run athletic program which quickly folded. Looking for employment, Robinson took the most lucrative sports job he could find - semi-pro football in Hawaii. After a successful 1941 season, Robinson booked passage on a steamship back to Los Angeles. On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 he was contemplating his next move when the Japanese decided it for him. 

The 23 year-old Robinson received his draft notice in early 1942. After basic training with a cavalry regiment he and several other black soldiers requested a transfer to officer's candidate school. Robinson's natural leadership qualities and UCLA education made him ideal officer material but his skin color worked against him. His transfer was put on the back-burner until boxer Joe Lewis stepped in to help open the gate allowing black soldiers to attend officer's school. By January 1943 the former college star was 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson,U.S. Army.

Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood Texas. Known as the "Black Panthers", the 761st would go on to earn a distinguished combat record serving under General Patton in Europe. For two reasons Lt. Robinson wasn't one of them.

Years of strenuous athletic activity had left Robinson with an old ankle injury that required testing to guarantee he was combat-ready. On afternoon while awaiting the results of the test, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus and took a seat near the front. When the driver told Robinson to sit in the back he flatly refused. The driver reported the incident to the Military Police who took the insolent lieutenant in custody. The commander of the 761st flatly refused to prosecute his young officer but the matter was taken out of his hands when Robinson was transferred to another battalion. His new commanding officer happily signed off on court-martial proceedings before the ink was dry on his transfer papers.

After a humiliating trial in which he was acquitted of all charges, Robinson found himself a soldier without an army. His unit had deployed to Europe during his court martial and medical tests found his ankle was tender enough to keep him out of combat. The trial had made news and his superiors at Ft. Hood didn't want him around so he was transferred to another black unit, the 372nd Infantry Regiment.

The 372nd had a brilliant battle record from the first world war. The units shoulder patch was a red hand on a white disk trimmed in blue and red. This striking insignia was bestowed on the regiment by the French Army of Africa with which the unit had fought with in 1918. By the time Lt. Robinson caught up with the regiment at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky it was being used as a feeder unit that trained replacement infantry troops. As a distinguished college athlete, Robinson was named the regiment's athletic director.

It was only a temporary assignment. Robinson's fight against the bogus court marshal gained him a reputation as a hard case, and with a bum ankle he wasn't any good for combat. The army decided to discharge him. In the meantime, Robinson waited for the slow moving paperwork to wind its way through Army bureaucracy by keeping the recruits occupied with baseball.

One afternoon Robinson happened upon a soldier throwing big league curve balls on the baseball field. The soldier was Ted Alexander, a former pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Robinson had had a brush with Negro League baseball back before the war when a traveling blackball team had played a pickup team which Robinson was a part of. When the game ended the team took off without giving Robinson his agreed upon money for the exhibition. The whole experience left Robinson with a bad taste in his mouth and a lingering distrust of black baseball operations. When Robinson told Alexander of his concerns about post-army employment, the pitcher revealed the the Monarchs were always hiring good talent. The war had hit black baseball as hard as the white version with many of its good players in the service. However with many blacks now employed in high paying war industry jobs, blackball was the most popular diversion for their new-found disposable income. The Negro Leagues were experiencing their most profitable period in their history.

The former Monarchs pitcher surely related all this to Robinson and before the two men parted ways Alexander had given the Lieutenant Kansas City Monarchs' owner Tom Baird's contact information. When he received his honorable discharge in November of 1944, Robinson wrote to the Monarchs inquiring about a position. In the meantime he took a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. When spring rolled around the Monarchs sent Robinson a $400 a month contract and instructed him to report for spring training. 

Jackie Robinson's baseball career had begun.

If you're anything like me, you probably think that cap Jackie is wearing is pretty darn cool, right? Will Arlt at the Ideal Cap Co. thought the same thing, too, and decided to reproduce these little babies. You can check them out HERE

Thursday, August 24, 2017

233. Jerry Lewis: Hey, who's the clown on first base?

Whether you think his movies are hysterical (like I do) or dopey (then I pity you), one thing's for sure: you know who Jerry Lewis was. I saw "was", because the comedian passed away this week at the age of 91. Very few performers could boast a career arc as broad as Lewis' seven decades of work. From nightclubs to radio to movies, as part of a comedy team and as a solo act, the name Jerry Lewis is synonymous with American comedy. For over 40 years his Labor Day fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association helped raise millions of dollars for a disease that was unknown and unpronounceable before he brought attention to it. Millions, maybe billions, of people found comfort in the laughter he created over the years. Even actors and comedians who take cheap shots at his being perceived by the French as a "genius" all owe at least a small amount of credit for their careers to this comedic trailblazer. One can go on for eternity cataloging Jerry Lewis' life in show business, but that's not what this story is going to be about. This post will reveal a little-known side of this giant of American comedy, for beyond the movies and fame, Jerry Lewis was a baseball fan.

Jerome (some say it was Joseph) Levitch was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926. At a young age Lewis was exposed to the entertainment business - his father was a vaudevillian and his mother was a professional piano player. Much of Jerry's early life was spent being passed off to relatives and family friends while his parents traveled the vaudeville circuit. This transient lifestyle made the only child feel rootless and vulnerable much of the time. It's not recorded where Jerry Lewis first got his appreciation for baseball, but it is not out of line to opine that the lonely boy found solace in being able to follow one team through newspaper box scores and radio, no matter where he was temporarily living. 

When they were able to, the Lewis' took their son with them when they had a lengthy engagement at a club in the Catskills or Jersey shore. As early as age 5, Lewis began appearing on stage with his parents. One of his earliest original comedy bit was to exaggerating lip-sync to a phonograph record - a routine Andy Kaufman appropriated and make his own some forty years later. Lewis knew he was destined for a life in showbiz, and dropped out of high school when he was 15 to pursue his dream. During World War II Lewis was rejected for military service due to a heart murmur, and he spent the war years honing his comedy chops working Manhattan's nightclub circuit. At the Glass Hat Club in 1945, Lewis shared the bill with a slick looking Bing Crosby sound-alike named Dean Martin. The two hit it off and quickly formed a comedy team, Martin and Lewis. With Dean as the suave straight man and Lewis as the zany sidekick, the unscripted act was unlike any other that came before. By 1947 they had reached the pinnacle of New York nightclub acts when they headlined the Copacabana. The following year the duo appeared on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" TV show. The Sullivan appearance combined with their own NBC radio show quickly made Martin and Lewis the country's most popular comedy act. 

Because of their celebrity, the two comedians were soon making the acquaintance of all categories of celebrity. While Dean gravitated towards the Sinatra crowd, Jerry palled around with ballplayers. One of the first big names Lewis formed friendships with was New York Giants manager Leo Durocher. Leo was a fixture of Manhattan's swankier nightclubs and its only natural that he would have caught Martin and Lewis' act on numerous occasions. Durocher piloted the Giants to the pennant in 1951 and after the World Series returned to his home in Los Angeles. In late October the Giants manager and his opponent in the World Series, Casey Stengel, were asked to manage teams in a charity ballgame. It was only natural that Leo reached out to his pal Jerry Lewis who was in Hollywood with Dean at the time. The comedy duo appeared in the late innings of the game, sharing the field with All-Stars such Warren Spahn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon and Hank Sauer. 

By this time, Martin and Lewis had transitioned their nightclub and radio act into a full-blown comedy movie franchise. In the years since their first movie in 1949, Martin and Lewis had made over 12 films before 1954. 

Lewis' baseball connection to Durocher and his Giants continued through the years. Both Martin and Lewis appeared at the Giants spring training camp in Phoenix in 1954 where the two each managed their own team in an inter squad game. Martin, wearing uniform number "00" played third base while his partner donned a jersey with "?" on the back and played first base for his team. Martin managed a triple when the Lewis' outfielders unwisely played him too shallow. Lewis had a single to his credit and his Giants beat his partner 5-3 before 5,000 fans at Phoenix' Municipal Stadium.

Just after their Giants game, both men's love of the game led to the team optioning an original screenplay for a musical called "Safe at Home". The story revolved around two New York Giants players who desert the team to play ball in Mexico. The two get mixed up with a crooked bullfighter and, you guessed it, hilarity ensues. There was even talk of who would play Durocher in the picture (considering Leo's later penchant of TV and movie cameos, it's only natural go imagine the Giants manager playing himself). Unfortunately for both cinephiles and baseball fans, "Safe at Home" was never produced.

Lewis and his wife Patti lived in Pacific Palisades, a neighborhood on LA's westside. The Lewis family consisted of two boys, Gary and Ronnie, and father passed his love of baseball down to his sons. To encourage the boys, Lewis purchased the vacant lot next to the family's home and constructed their own private ball field. Lewis also added his star power and sponsorship to a local kids ball club named the "Jerry Lewis Stars".

In the spring of 1956, Martin and Lewis again combined their love of baseball with their comedy when the two appeared in a charity game at LA's Wrigley Field. The game pitted a team of major leaguers against a squad of PCL League stars. This time Lewis and Martin appeared on the same team, Lewis at first and Martin at third. The duo acquitted themselves well, with newspaper accounts complimenting their teamwork in the infield and Lewis' errorless play at first. Lewis went 0 for 4, but Martin got himself a single in four at bats. ten years to the day of their debut performance in 1946, Martin and Lewis split up. Dean went on to be a leading man in more serious movies like "Rio Bravo" and "Some Came Running", and teaming up with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. as the core of the uber-cool "Rat Pack". Jerry forged ahead as a solo act, establishing himself as more than just a sidekick to Dean Martin. Besides his Vegas act, Lewis branched out and recorded a successful album of standards for Capitol Records that shot to number 3 on the charts. A succession of hit movies followed, making Jerry Lewis one of the most bankable performers in the country. 

When the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, Jerry Lewis was reported to be one of the first season ticket holders. With a real big league team in the city, Lewis quickly befriended many of the Dodgers players, Gil Hodges in particular. Hodges was one of the teams most popular players and a perennial All-Star. Hodges was also, like Lewis, a first baseman.

In 1959 Lewis was back again at LA's Wrigley Field for a charity game. This time Lewis was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers as they faced a Major League All-Star team piloted by Gene Mauch. Wearing number "55", Lewis took the field alongside Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Roseboro and Charley Neal. Roseboro's two home runs powered the Dodgers over Mauch's All-Stars, 9-7. Lewis went 0 for 4 against the big league pitching and was credited with three errors of a comedic nature. 

Ever since the movie industry moved from New York and New Jersey to Southern California in the 1920's, both studios and prominent actors formed baseball teams. Fatty Arbuckle, one of Hollywood's earliest and popular comedic actors, even owned the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. Tom Mix had a team and Paramount hired Black Sox outcast Fred McMullin as a ringer for their team. Later in the 1940's, Frank Sinatra formed his own team called the Swooners who's rotating roster boasted everyone from Nat King Cole to Robert Wagner and Anthony Quinn. With Jerry Lewis' baseball interest it was only natural that he would do the same, and the "Jerry Lewis Clowns" were formed.

By the early 1960's these celebrity pickup teams had evolved into the Hollywood Entertainment League. Besides the Clowns there was "Garner Gems" led by James Garner, singer Bobby Darin's "Darin's Demons", and Pat Boone's "Boones". Even Lewis' old partner had his own team, "Dean Martin's Dino's". Lewis outfitted his Clowns with home white flannels supplied by Rawlings with "Clowns" in red script across the front. The left sleeve sported a large caricature portrait of Lewis which would become his trademark. Red stirrups with white stripes and a red cap with a white "JL" monogram topped off the uniform. 

Besides owning his own team and appearing as a ringer at first base for the Dodgers, Lewis' baseball interest was acknowledged by the game's writers when he was tapped to be the master of ceremonies for the Baseball Writers Awards in January, 1966. The gig was especially personal to Lewis as the event would also honor his beloved Dodgers, that years' World Series champions. 

With the advent of television and the popularity of football and basketball, baseball's popularity began a steady decline throughout the 1960's. The Hollywood Entertainers League folded by the end of the decade, yet the game still held some popularity among the stars. The Dodgers and Angels hosted "Hollywood Stars" benefit games fairly regularly, and Lewis would suit up with fellow baseball fans like James Garner, Mickey Rooney, Ricky Nelson and Walter Matthau.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Jerry Lewis' baseball career came on July 19, 1973. The Houston Astros were hosting a rare in-season exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. Lewis' old pal, Leo Durocher, was now skipper of the Astros, and he had a great time writing "Jerry Lewis" batting lead off and playing first base in his line up card. Lewis wore number "9" and hit a single off Detroit's Mike Strahler. Later the Tigers sent their pitching coach, Art Fowler, to the mound, off whom Lewis drew a walk. Tigers first baseman Norm Cash acknowledged that the comedian looked pretty good in his 4 innings of work, noting that he played errorless ball and didn't drop a single throw. 

Jerry Lewis' last big brush with baseball came at the tail end of his long career. Having conquered nightclubs, radio, TV, and film, only Broadway remained unchecked on his list of successes. That changed when he took over the roll of the Devil in the revival of "Damn Yankees". For those of you who don't know the play, the story is about a long-suffering Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the Devil to become a star baseball player and finally defeat the Yankees. Lewis drew great reviews, then began a semi-retirement with select guest spots in movies and TV shows. 

Jerry Lewis passed away on August 20, 2017 after a long illness. I had wanted to do a card and story on him ever since I found a photo of his Clowns baseball team several years ago. When I was writing my book, The League of Outsider Baseball, I had Jerry penciled in for the "People's Game" chapter which had stories and illustrations of people who you wouldn't think were baseball fans or players. But, unfortunately, Jerry got cut during the outline phase. His baseball interest was a little more dynamic than most, and I wanted more than a page or two in order to give his story a proper telling. Unfortunately, it wasn't until he passed away last week that I revived my story and pulled together all the newspaper clippings I had accumulated and sat down to write. For all the joy his movies gave me ever since I was a kid, and all the good he did with his Muscular Dystrophy telethons, I hope he'd get a kick out of his very own baseball card.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

232. Cy Malis: The best friend we dope fiends have

When I first started this blog back in 2010, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails, I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather an ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. Early on I had illustrated cards and written stories on the site of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players who shared the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write - players with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. The modest research I did culminated in the Test Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" which featured 12 profiles of Jewish ballplayers. This prototype became the model in which I based the current incarnation of "21".

I was never happy with that original product, and eventually I plan to do a more elaborate "21" dedicated to Jewish ballplayers. In the years since the original, I have been steadily adding to my Jewish ballplayers file, one the characters in there being Cy Malis. 

Cy's single game for the 1934 Phillies earned him place in all the books on Jewish ballplayers, but it is the rest of his story that makes him so much more interesting. Plus, digging into Cy's career was for me a researchers delight, as I found that the extent of his pro career that can be found in record books and online is quite incomplete. Old box scores and creative searching enabled me to fill out Cy's minor league career quite a bit more than any other source that I've been able to find. And then, from an artistic point of view, the uniforms worn by one of Cy's semi-pro teams were so visually stunning that I couldn't wait to depict Cy in full color. 

So, with that teaser, I'll get right into Cy's story...

Cy Malis was born in Philadelphia, the second son of Frank and Anna (called "Ray") Malis. Both Frank's parents were from Russia while Ray's father immigrated from Jerusalem and her mother from Russia. Frank worked an an inspector for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company and Ray kept house in the family's apartment on 10th Street. Ray and Frank were married around 1905 and their son Charles was born shortly afterward. The Malis' second son, Cyrus came along on February 26, 1907. Both boys played baseball, working their way up the sandlot ranks. Charles was an infielder while Cyrus - who was now going by "Cy" - was, appropriately enough, a pitcher. While Charles played for Central High, Cy starred for Brown Prep School, lettering in basketball and football as well as baseball. In his sophomore season with Brown, Cy posted a 15-4 record and struck out 22 in a game against Villanova Prep. It appears that Cy left school after his second year, joining the vibrant semi-pro baseball circuit around Philadelphia. 

Like other large eastern cities, Philly boasted many top-rank semi-pro clubs. Youngsters began playing for their local neighborhood athletic clubs, then, if they were good enough, were either hired by a large company who sponsored a team or was invited to join one of the semi-pro traveling clubs who were just a step below the minor leagues. 

Cy Malis' first stop was with the Waco Athletic Club. His brother Charles may have preceded him on the team, for both their names frequently appear in box scores at this time. Waco played other medium-level teams in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Then, in mid-August, Cy began pitching for the formidable Hebrews club. 

The Hebrews, also known as the Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), were one of the better semi-pro clubs in the Philly-Trenton area. The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association began sponsoring athletic teams around World War I, and by the early 1920's had become known not only for baseball, but for their basketball team as well. In fact, the basketball team actually turned pro, first joining the Eastern League in 1929, then the American Basketball League in 1933. When the NBA was formed after World War II, the Sphas best players splintered off to form the nucleus of the Philadelphia Warriors.

With the baseball Sphas, Cy not only had a first rate ball club backing him up, but he also had good press coverage with would help further his career. His competition was also of a higher class, playing against the various traveling teams that criss-crossed the country before World War II, such as Jim Thorpe's Indians and various Negro League clubs.

Cy's half season with the Sphas earned him an invitation to spring training with the minor league Wilkes-Barre Barons in 1925. The April 24 edition of the Scranton Republican said the Malis "has shown plenty of form in the preliminary workouts", but just two days later he was back in Philly pitching for the Waco A..A. and later the Sphas again. Still only a teenager, Cy had plenty of time to develop into professional material.

Malis' second chance at organized ball came along the following spring when he was signed by Petersburg Broncos of the Virginia League. In his professional debut on April 14, 1927, Malis was sent in to relieve Petersburg starter Lefty Fowlkes, pitching an inning and third, allowing a hit and two walks plus a balk. Richmond scored a run, but it was charged as an error since the outfielder dropped the ball. Soon both Cy and Lefty Fowlkes were shipped to the Northampton Red Sox of the Eastern Shore League. Malis started off the season well, winning five consecutive games, but overuse took a toll on his arm. When Cy asked management for some time off to rest his tired flinger, the Red Sox handed their ace pitcher his release. 1920's baseball was a cruel and impersonal sport, and back then a pitcher, especially a young one, was expected to pitch a complete game every time he took the mound. With minor league rosters consisting of only 15-18 players, clubs couldn't afford to carry too many pitchers, so the ones they had were used as often as possible. When Cy raised an issue about over use, it was only natural that the club would choose to jettison their ace instead of working with him, the reason probably being that if his arm is feeling fatigue now at this low level, how could he make it all the way to the majors? Minor league teams back then made their payroll by selling off their good players to higher level clubs - thus, a sore arm pitcher was of no monetary value to them. Sound front office reasoning in 1927. Fortunately for Cy, one other team in the league, the Cambridge Canners, were willing to take a chance with him. Working out of the bullpen, he finished out 1927 with a 5-6 record. 

Despite a mediocre record, a team quite a bit higher up the food chain than the Cambridge Canners became interested in Cy - his hometown Philadelphia Phillies.  

Like most big league teams, the Phillies were always on the look out for home grown talent, a native son that could blossom into a star that would in turn put more fans in the stands. As the Phils were perennially mired in last place, it would take something or someone interesting to get fans to shell out the money to watch a lousy team. With his well publicized mound exploits with Brown Prep and the Sphas, Cy Malis was a perfect candidate to be that someone interesting. The Phils signed him for 1928 and shipped him off to their Lynn Papooses farm team in the New England League. From the skeleton of statistics it looks like control was Cy's biggest obstacle - for instance in the June 1, 1928 game against Salem, Cy pitched the first 3 2/3 innings, giving up 4 bases on balls and a hit batter, taking the loss. On June 12 Cy lasted 5  1/3 inning against Brockton, issuing five free passes and 12 hits for another loss. By mid-June his record was no wins and four losses in 12 innings pitched. The Papooses released him, and Cy went back to the Philly semi-pro circuit.

Every source I found on Cy Malis has no professional record for him in 1929, but I dug up some newspaper articles that say otherwise. A small article written about Cy a year after his death in 1971 states that he had played in the Philadelphia A's farm system. I thought that perhaps this was a misprint, mistaking the Philadelphia Phillies for the Philadelphia A's. Or, I thought it might have been Cy or a relative of his doing a little creative remembering, switching out the last place Phillies for the 1929 World Champion A's. Much to my relief (I don't relish debunking little white myths held dearly by old ball players and their descendents), the article actually held up to my research.

Seems that Cy had attracted the eye of his hometown's other big league team, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. The A's were right at the beginning of what would be an incredible three pennants and two World Championships, a team thought to be the greatest ever assembled in Major League history. The A's signed Cy to a minor league contract, sending him to their Martinsville White Elephants team in the Blue Ridge League. I found several box scores that record his record with Martinsville. On April 25, 1929, Cy pitched 4 innings, giving up 6 hits, 2 walks and striking out 2 against Hagerstown. On May 11 he gave up 5 hits in 5 1/3 innings of relief, walking no one and picking up the win over Chambersburg. Cy pitched one more game before he was released, his final 1929 record set at 13 hits, 6 runs, 13 walks, 3 strike outs and a wild pitch in 16 innings.

Once again Cy returned to the Philadelphia scene where he was now a much sought after arm for hire. Besides his regular gig with the mighty Sphas, box scores show Cy appearing for several other teams in the area. The Jersey Shore was a particularly lucrative spot for semi-pro ball, as all the beach communities competed against one another to field the best ball team. Not content to hire just a few ringers to supplement their team, some town hired complete semi-pro outfits to represent them. Cy was with the Trenton Club when they were rented out to represent the town of Bradley Beach.

In 1933 Cy was hired by the Berlin, Maryland team to help them beat rival Dagsboro in the five-game Eastern Shore Championship Series. Malis pitched Game 2, shutting out Dagsboro on six hits. The "Quaker City speedball artist" was tabbed to pitch the deciding Game 5, but served up three home runs early on which gave Dagsboro the game and championship.

In 1934 he was back with the Sphas. On July 29, Malis pitched and won a 14 inning marathon at Paterson, N.J., then came back to Philly where the next night he pitched a one-hitter for the Bartram club. Cy's continued good press inevitably was noticed by the moribund Phillies. For the second time, Philadelphia signed Cy Malis to a contract, but where as back in 1927 he was farmed out to the sticks, this time he was issued a uniform with number 49 on the back and sent to join the big club.

On Friday, August 17, 1934 Cy Malis made his major league debut against the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. The Gas House Gang Cardinals were on their way to a World Championship with a line up that featured future Hall of Famers Joe Medwick, Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin and sluggers Ernie Orsatti and Ripper Collins. Their mound corps was led by the Dean Brothers, Dizzy and Paul, who would collectively win 49 games that summer. In the bottom of the 5th, the Cards were up 7-2 with Phillies reliever Reggie Grabowski on the mound. Burgess Whitehead led off with a single and with one out, advanced to second when Frankie Frisch got a base on balls. Joe Medwick smashed a long single to center, scoring Whitehead and moving Frisch to third. Medwick then stole second, sending Grabowski to the showers.

Phillies manager Jimmy Wilson waved Cy Malis in from the bullpen. With men on second and third, Malis faced Ripper Collins who quickly hit a double to riht field, scoring Frisch and Medwick. Cy got Bill Delancey to fly out to center field but then lost Chick Fullis to a base on balls. Now with two on and two away, Leo Durocher stepped in and hit a flyball to right which was caught to end the inning. Wilson left Malis in to pitch the 6th, during which he gave up a single to lead off hitter Paul Dean, then got two quick pop outs. Frankie Frisch reached base on an error but Malis got Medwick to fly out to left, ending the 6th. Cy Malis' spot was first up in the top of the 7th and he reached base when he was drilled by a Paul Dean pitch. Malis watched Dean expertly dispose of the next three Phillie batters and was left standing on second base when the inning ended. In the bottom of the 7th Malis gave a lead off walk to Ripper Collins who was then caught stealing second. A fly ball out and a strike out ended the seventh. The Phils failed to score in the top of the 8th and the score remained 10-2. In the Cards half, Mailis gave up a single to Durocher, followed by a Paul Dean fly out. Burgess Whitehead ripped a triple to left-center, scoring Durocher. Whitehead scored on a long fly out to right field but an infield pop fly by Pat Crawford ended the inning. All the Phillies could manage in their last frame was a harmless single as St. Louis clobbered Philadelphia 12-2. Paul Dean picked up his 13th win of the year and Phillies starter Cy Moore took the loss. 

All told, Cy's big league debut wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't lights out either: 3 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and a strikeout. Remember, he was facing the eventual World Champions with a lineup overflowing with powerful bats. Still, that single game was to be the extent of Cy Malis' major league career. The Phillies released him shortly afterward.

Now a free agent, Malis was invited to spring training with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Despite reporting to camp overweight, Malis worked hard and lost twenty pounds in three weeks. Sportswriters were impressed with the hard work he put in, as were the Angels, especially after he held the team's veterans to a measly three hits in an intramural game. At this time the Angels were the top farm club of the Chicago Cubs and usually finished at, or near the top of the PCL each season. The Angels pitching staff boasted future Brooklyn Dodgers ace Hugh Casey, 28 game winner Fay Thomas, 20 game winner Mike Meola and future journeyman major leaguer Newt Kimball, but Cy's hard work gained him a spot as a reliever when the 1935 season started. 

On March 28, Malis relieved Hugh Casey in the sixth inning when the Padres jumped on him for 6 runs.  and pitched three innings, giving up three runs on three hits. In the April 3 game against Oakland, Malis was thrown in to stop an Oaks rally, but quickly got knocked off the mound himself as Oakland bulldozed two other Angels pitchers on the way to a 12-3 win. Malis then came down with the flu, which sidelined him for a few games. He pitched 1 1/3 inning of relief on April 12, giving up a hit and two walks. Two days later threw three innings against Portland, relinquishing 5 hits and 2 runs in the 10-4 loss. On April 16, the Angels handed Malis his walking papers. As he had back in Philly, Malis fell back on the semi-pro scene to make a living. In Los Angeles, Cy was eagerly picked up by Twentieth Century-Fox, which played in a league made up of all the major Hollywood movie studios.

Being recruited by a film studio not only let Cy keep a foot in baseball, but also opened up the door to his second career - acting. Malis made his celluloid debut in the MGM boxing picture "The Crowd Roars", as an uncredited extra. At this time dozens of studios were filming in the Los Angeles area and Cy found plenty of work. By 1940, he was married to an Alabama native named Jane, and the couple were living in a residential enclave of movie people on North Argyle Street in LA. Cy listed his occupation as "actor" and was recorded in the 1940 census and pulling in the nice yearly salary of $1500, a nice bump above the average worker at that time.

In 1942, a 35 year-old Cy enlisted in the Navy. It was during his short stint in the service that his life took an unexpected, and what could have been a tragic, turn. While undergoing gunnery training, one of the massive gun turrets swung around and slammed into Cy, breaking his neck and back. The accident landed him in the hospital for what would be a long, painful recovery period. From the start, the pain was so intense that Cy was unable to help loudly thrashing around in his bed and gnashing his teeth. To save both Cy's teeth and let the other patients get an undisturbed night's sleep, doctors prescribed morphine, the highly addictive opiate commonly used at the time for pain management. In small doses, under strict observance and over a short period of time, morphine was perfect for the job. However, in a crowded Naval hospital in wartime, Cy's use of morphine went unchecked.

Months later, when he finally was able to get his broken body out of bed, Cy came to the realization he could not function without morphine. He was hooked. Like shell shock (now called PTSD), morphine addiction was one of those little-talked about side effects of war. Thousands of wounded soldiers were treated and released back to their civilian lives with a dependence on the morphine that was supposed to heal them. Addiction to drugs and alcohol was something not fully understood during this time, yet Cy somehow recognized that his dependence was something he needed to get control of. With no program or treatment readily available to him, Cy began the difficult process of weening himself off the drug. However, behind Cy's morphine dependence was the still crushing pain of his injured neck and back. To make this constant pain manageable, the old ballplayer turned to alcohol. Looking back from the 21st century, we know that this was just substituting one evil for another, but in 1943 being alcohol dependent was much more acceptable than being a junkie. In the spring of 1943 the Navy gave Cy his discharge and he returned to civilian life. While his back and neck gradually healed, Cy went to work ratcheting down his intake of alcohol as a pain killer. It must have been unbelievably hard work, taking almost superhuman inner strength, but somehow he managed to do it.

With his part in the war through and his addiction under control, Cy threw himself back into Hollywood. He quickly became an often used extra, working with famed directors John Ford, William Wellman and Robert Wise. The list of actors he shared the screen with reads like a who's who of Hollywood's Golden Age: Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall (Designing Woman), Lucille Ball (The Fuller Brush Girl), Cary Grant and John Garfield (Destination Tokyo), John Wayne and Richard Widmark (The Alamo), even Shirley Temple (The Story of Seabiscuit). Malis is even credited with being a stand in in for two different Stooges, Larry and Shemp. Besides his work in front of the camera, Cy was able to leverage his pro baseball experience into a couple technical advisor rolls on the baseball pictures "It Happened in Flatbush" and "Flashing Spikes".

Through all this Hollywood work, Cy still had to deal with his morphine and alcohol withdrawal. In 1953, a forward thinking LA Sheriff's narcotics detective approached an Alcoholic Anonymous member with the idea that a similar organization focusing on drugs might help the growing number of heroin and speed addicts in his city. In mid-July, the very first meeting of what would become Narcotics Anonymous was held in a church in the Moore Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Among the handful of people present was Cy Malis and Jimmy Kinnon. The small group hashed out the pillars of the budding organization and in a few weeks Kinnon would be elected Narcotics Annonymous' first leader and accepted "founder".

Despite being present at the very beginning and taking part in its initial program, Cy charted his own course separate from NA. In his spare time he appeared before groups telling the story of his own addiction and the long, painful route he traveled in order to kick it. In the 1950's this was a very brave thing to do as drug addicts were considered the lowest of the low, and to admit to being one took an awful lot of guts. By the late 1950's Cy realized that while groups such as Narcotics Anonymous helped people out on the streets, nothing was being done for addicts behind bars. It was in the prison system that Cy Malis found his calling.

Cy Malis now became the main driving force behind helping convicts overcome their addiction and subsequent withdrawal. So successful was Cy that when the assistant warden of San Quentin was being interviewed about drug addiction problems in his prison, the jailer responded "they have improved vastly since Mr. Malis started his program. But perhaps the greatest compliment came from a former inmate and admitted addict who, when introduced to Cy called him "the best friend we dope fiends have". This wasn't a hollow compliment - back in the 1960's when this took place, dope addicts were an ignored and disparaged part of society, one for which good people did not consort with, let alone try to help. In this hostile atmosphere, Cy Malis bravely stepped forward to offer a hand to those who needed it, and he in turn was revered for it.

In between acting and technical advising in Hollywood and offering a lifeline to thousands of addicts behind bars, Cy also found time to coach Little League. The old ballplayer even managed his club to the league championship in his first summer as skipper. A kick by a horse on the set of a movie injured Cy to the point that it effectively ended his movie career and his health deteriorated. Cy's brother told a sports writer that shortly before Cy's death in 1971, the two brothers were visiting New York when a friend showed Cy a copy of the 1970 Philadelphia Phillies yearbook. Inside was a list of all the players who appeared in a Phillies uniform over the course of the team's history. There, under M's was Cy Malis. Charles told the sports writer that his brother was quite pleased at the remembrance of his one day as big leaguer.

Cy passed away on January 12, 1971, just 63 years old. 

Cy Malis' big league career might have lasted but a single afternoon and takes up no more than a single line of statistics, yet his life can not be measured in stats or amount of space in a record book. Cy's personal experience of taking a tragic turn of events and making it mean something helped thousands of people. With them, Cy Malis' winning percentage was 1.000, no matter what the record book shows.