By Glen Sparks
You can hear the crack of the bat and cheers of the crowd at Heine Meine fields in far south St. Louis County. Pitchers grunt as they hurl fastballs toward the hitter, while umpires bark out their calls. You can catch a game here throughout the cool spring days and warm summer nights in the Gateway City.
Baseball teams, including those from Hancock High School and St. Louis Community College-Meramec, play on the nine-acre, recently renovated property, located not far from the Mississippi River. Three fields comprise Heine Meine.
The complex was named long ago for Henry William “Heine” Meine, the so-called Count of Luxembourg, a former big-league pitcher and the owner of a popular tavern that once stood nearby. Heine also helped found the Lemay Baseball Association.
Heine Meine’s story is worth telling. The ballplayer’s spitball first drew the attention of scouts. Later, he came up with different ways to make his pitches move. He was, as baseball people liked to say, a “junkball” artist. Meine compiled a 66-50 won-loss mark in a major-league career that began in 1922, went on hiatus for several years and picked up again in 1929.
Born May 1, 1896 in St. Louis, to Henry and Louisa Meine, the children of German immigrants, young Henry grew up in the city’s Carondelet neighborhood. The boy grew up with the goal of making his living as a blacksmith, his dad’s profession.
World War II broke out in 1914. The United States entered the action in 1917. Henry Meine Jr. served 22 months in the U.S. Army’s mounted cavalry. He also showed off a special talent to his fellow soldiers. Henry Meine hurled a mean spitball.
Not long after the Great War ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Meine returned to St. Louis and began operating a local tavern. He also played semi-pro baseball. A scout for the St. Louis Browns signed him to a deal in 1921.
Meine didn’t exactly light things up in the minors. He went 8-16 with a 4.68 ERA for the Beaumont, Texas, Exporters, a Class A squad. The Browns promoted him to the big club, anyway.
To make things even tougher on the 26-year-old rookie, spitballs had been outlawed in the big leagues following the 1921 season. (Some pitchers were grandfathered in and allowed to keep throwing the pitch. Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitballer in the majors.) So, a guy with an 8-16 mark and an 4.68 ERA couldn’t—legally—throw his best pitch.
Appearing in just one game and pitching just four innings. Meine gave up five hits and three runs (two earned, a 4.50 ERA). Over the next several years, Meine toiled in the minors—for teams such as the Syracuse Stars and the Kansas City Blues—and worked on throwing good pitches…dry.
The Browns eventually traded Meine to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 5-foot-11-inch right-hander eventually made it back to the majors as a 33-year-old in 1929. He pitched in 108 innings (22 games, 13 starts), went 7-6 and posted another 4.50 ERA. The following year, Meine tossed 117 innings (20 games, 16 starts) and finished 6-8, this time with an inflated 6.14 ERA. Meine’s junkballs needed work.
His offseason leading into 1931 included a tonsillectomy. Meine’s first game that year was an unimpressive six-inning effort. He gave up eight hits and five walks. His second start was about the same. Then, something clicked. Meine used a curveball, change-up, good control and guile to put together by far his best year in the majors.
He led the National league with 19 wins (against 13 losses) and started a league-leading 35 games. Meine also topped all pitchers with 284 innings pitched, to go with a 2.98 ERA (fourth in the league). At one point, he tossed five straight complete games. If not for Meine, Pittsburgh 75-79 won-loss record (fifth place) would have been much worse. The pitcher went 4-2 against the eventual World Series winner St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 1.61 ERA in 56 innings.
Meine’s curveball had become a “sweeping, tantalizing thing,” St. Louis sportswriter Roy Stockton decided.
The irascible Meine wanted a raise for the 1932 campaign. The Pirates said “no,” leading to a holdout and suspension. Meine finally reported to the team in late May, but never got into a groove. He finished 12-9 but with a 3.86 ERA. The next year, he finished 15-8 and recorded a 3.65 ERA. Meine was 37 years old.
Influenza wiped out part of Meine’s 1934 season. He went just 7-6 and retired to St. Louis to run his tavern. The neighborhood was known as “Luxemburg.” Meine was the Count. Meine’s place was a popular joint before, during and after prohibition. A reporter for the Milwaukee Journal wrote that Meine can “juggle a stein of brew just as easily as he can throw a curve ball.”
Later, Meine opened a baseball school for teenage boys and hired former ballplayers to help out. He started the Lemay Baseball Association and ran that with his sons, Howard and Robert. Heine Meine died March 18, 1968, at age 71.
By Glen Sparks
Well, it wasn’t like Ross Stripling was pitching a perfect game.
By the time Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Stripling from Friday’s game with one out in the eighth inning, the Los Angeles starter already had walked four San Francisco Giants hitters. But, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander did have a no-hitter going. Could he keep it up and toss a no-no in his first major-league game? That doesn’t happen every century.
Only one pitcher has thrown a no-hitter while making his debut. Charles “Bumpus” Jones did it when Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States, and Queen Victoria still ruled England.
Jones started at home for the Cincinnati Reds on Oct. 15, 1892, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 22-year-old right-hander was a local guy. He hailed from Xenia, less than 60 miles from Cincinnati.
The first batter walked. So, did the second batter. Jones, though, wiggled out of this early jam. A few innings later, he found himself in another one. Pittsburgh scored an unearned run in the fourth inning on a walk, a stolen base and a Bumpus error. It looked like Jones might get an early hook.
Then, he got into a groove. He still had not given up a hit, and he didn’t give one up over the final six innings. The Reds beat the Pirates 7-1. Bumpus walked four and struck out three.
Fast forward to May 6, 1953. Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman threw a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns with just 5.1 innings and a handful of relief appearances under his belt. Manager Marty Marion sent Holloman to pitch his first start, against the Philadelphia A’s.
Good defense helped Bobo. So, too, did the humid night in St. Louis. Several Philadelphia flyballs lost their fight to the thick Midwest air. One A’s hitter reached on a Holloman error. Bobo also walked five, including three in the ninth inning. The rookie held on, though. The Browns won 6-0.
Unfortunately, neither Holloman nor Jones fared well after their big games. Bumpus won just one more game in the major leagues, and it was quite an improbable win at that. He somehow got the “w” on June 18, 1893, despite walking six and giving up 12 runs. Fortunately, the Reds scored 30 times against the Louisville Colonels.
Cincinnati had taken a 14-0 third-inning lead. Bumpus was summoned from the bullpen to give starter Elton Chamberlain a rest. Chamberlain still had not pitched the minimum five innings to qualify for a win. Bumpus held the lead, but, really, no lead was safe with this wild-armed, one-game sensation.
Jones’ big-league career lasted two seasons. He split his 1893 campaign between Cincinnati and the New York Giants. Bumpus pitched a total of eight games in the majors, started seven and went 2-4 with a 7.99 ERA in 41.2 innings.
Holloman, meanwhile, did not even make it to a sophomore season in the majors. He finished 3-7 in 1953 and posted an ERA of 5.23. Bobo pitched 65.1 innings in the majors. Arm problems did him in.
Let’s hope Stripling enjoys a much longer career than either Bumpus or Bobo. The Dodgers drafted him in the fifth round out of Texas A&M in 2012. He is still building up arm strength following Tommy John surgery in 2014.
Following Friday’s game, Roberts and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Stripling had started to lose command in his final inning. His fastball also had lost some of its life. Hayes Stripling, Ross’s dad, agreed with Roberts’ call. (Stripling left the game with one runners on base and with the Dodgers ahead 2-0. Reliever Chris Hatcher promptly gave up a two-run home run. The Giants won 3-2 in 10 innings.)
Hayes, with tears in his eyes, thanked the skipper afterword for taking care of his son’s still-mending right elbow.
By Glen Sparks
The American League created an MVP award in 1922. George Sisler was ready.
Sisler, a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, put together the finest season of his Hall of Fame career in ’22. The timing worked out great.
Baseball had stopped giving out something called the Chalmers Award in 1914. Hugh Chalmers, the head of Detroit-based Chalmers Automobile, created that honor in 1910 as a way to gain publicity for his company. The Chalmers Award would go to the Major League player who finished with the highest batting average, then considered the game’s most important stat. Sounds simple, right? Well, nothing involving Ty Cobb is ever simple.
Cobb, the great outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, couldn’t shake Napoleon Lajoie, a second baseman for the Cleveland Indians, in 1910. On the final day of the season, Lajoie put down seven bunt hits and added a triple in a doubleheader against the Browns. He went 8-for-8 with a sacrifice.
The story goes that Jack O’Connor didn’t like the ill-tempered Cobb. That was why he stationed his third baseman, Red Corriden, several feet behind the bag in that game. Corriden had no chance to field a bunt and throw out the runner. Even so, A.L. President Ban Johnson declared Cobb the winner in the batting race by a margin of .000860. (Later research indicated that Cobb had incorrectly been awarded two extra hits during that season. Baseball-reference.com lists Lajoie with a .384 batting average in 1910 and Cobb with a .383 mark.)
Chalmers decided to award a car to both players anyway. Over the next four seasons, a Chalmers Award was given to one player in each league who by a vote of baseball writers was determined to be the “most important and useful player to the club and to the league.” The publicity did not match the cost of giving away a free car, however, and the award was dropped after the 1914 campaign.
That brings us to 1922. Hoping to increase fan interest, A.L. executives announced they would hand out an MVP award at season’s end. It would go to “the baseball player who is of the greatest all-around service to his club.”
The smart money had to be on Babe Ruth. The Bambino was coming off an epic year. He crushed 59 home runs in 1921 and drove in 168 with a .378 batting average. Cobb also was a good candidate. He hit .389 in 1921 with 101 RBI. (Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were still to come.)
But, Sisler had to be on everyone’s short list. He batted .371 in ’21 and led the league in triples in (18) and stolen bases (35). In 1920, Sisler batted .407, tops in the A.L. He recorded a league-high 257 hits, drove in 122 runs and stole 42 bases. A writer from the day once informed readers that Sisler possessed “dazzling ability of the Cobbesque type.”
Sisler, he wrote, “is just as fast, showy, and sensational, very nearly if not quite as good as a natural hitter, as fast in speed of foot, an even better fielder, and gifted with a versatility Cobb himself might envy.”
The Ohio-born product played football, basketball and baseball as a kid. A good student, he left Akron High School and went to the University of Michigan to study engineering. And, as it turns out, to mash fastballs (He batted .445 as a sophomore with the Wolverines and .451 as a junior.)
Sisler signed with the Browns as a pitcher. He joined the big club in 1915 and compiled a 2.83 ERA in 70 innings. He even beat Walter Johnson 2-1 in a pitching duel Aug. 29.
The lefty only pitched 41 more innings in his career. The Browns decided he could menace the opposition more as a hitter. He hit .285 in at-bats in 1915 and .305 the following year, his first full season. Then, his career he really took off. He hit .353, .341 and .342 in each of the next three years. He stole a total of 154 bases in his first five seasons.
Those years led up to his huge seasons in 1920 and ’21. But, he saved his best year for 1922. Sisler led the league in batting average (.420), hits (246), runs (134), triples (18) and stolen bases (51). He also added eight homers, 42 doubles and 105 RBI.
On this date in 1922, baseball writers voted Sisler as the league’s first MVP. Ruth had muddled through an offseason (31 HR, 96 RBI, .315), made worse by a suspension for playing in illegal offseason exhibition games, and Cobb didn’t beat Sisler in any of the major batting categories (Once a great base stealer, the 35-year-old Georgia Peach finished with just nine thefts.)
Really, Sisler’s toughest competition for MVP probably came from a fellow St. Louis Brown, Ken Williams. The left-fielder led the A.L. in homers (39) and RBI (155) and finished sixth in batting average (.332) in what was by far the best year of his career. He also led the league in total bases (367, 19 more than Sisler) and was second in steals (37). Using more modern stats, Sisler beat Williams in WAR (8.7 to 7.9) and runs created (163 to 146), in large part because of Sisler’s .88 point lead in batting average. The writers made the correct choice.
Sisler missed the 1923 season due to a sinus infection that damaged an optic nerve. He was never the same ballplayer again. He wouldn’t have been eligible for the MVP again, anyway. According to the rules, a player could not win the award twice. Babe Ruth, back in full swing, was the A.L. MVP of 1923.
The National League did not institute an MVP until 1924. Dazzy Vance, ace of the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers), was the first winner. The modern MVP did not get going until 1931.
Sisler retired following the 1930 season. He left the game with a .340 lifetime batting average. Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, Sisler remains the greatest Brown of all.
By Glen Sparks
The old Milwaukee Brewers began play in the Western League in the late 19th century. In 1901, they joined the newly formed American League. The following season, the team moved to St. Louis and changed its name to the Browns, the original moniker of the National League’s St. Louis Cardinals.
More often than not, the Browns battled it out for last place in the A.L. “St Louis-first in booze, first in shoes, last in the American League.” The Browns made it to one World Series, in 1944, against the Cardinals. The Cards won the Streetcar Series in six games.
The Browns nearly moved to Los Angeles in 1942, but World War II intervened. They almost moved back to Milwaukee and finally left for Baltimore in 1954. Rechristened the Orioles, the franchise has won six pennants and World Series in 1966, 1970 and 1983.
Good luck with the quiz!
- Which Browns outfielder hit above .300 every season from 1919 through 1925, including a .355 mark in 1920 and .352 in 1921?
- Which Browns first baseman batted better than .400 twice and won the MVP award in 1922?
- Which Browns pitcher threw a no-hitter in his first start, May 6, 1953?
- Which Browns pitcher made his debut with the team at the age of 44 and compiled an 18-23 won-loss record over three seasons?
- Which Browns first baseman led his team with a .438 batting average in the 1944 World Series (minimum 10 at-bats)?
- Which Browns outfielder was the first player in MLB history to reach the 30-30 mark (30 homers, 30 steals) in one season?
- Which Browns shortstop, nicknamed “Little Slug,” led the A.L. in RBI (109) in 1944 and home runs (24) in 1945?
- Which Orioles outfielder, described by his former team as “an old 30,” won the MVP and Triple Crown for Baltimore in 1967?
- Which Orioles pitcher beat the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax 6-0 in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series at the age of 20?
- Which Orioles pitcher, with a 78-79 lifetime record, put together a Cy Young season in his next-to-last campaign?
- “Baby Doll” Jacobson. Supposedly, they called William Chester Jacobson “Baby Doll” because when he came up to bat once in the minors in 1912, the ballpark band was playing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Jacobson promptly hit a home run and a lady fan shouted, “You must be that beautiful doll they were talking about.” He spent most of his career with the Browns and hit .311 over an 11-year career (.317 with the Browns.)
- George Sisler. He was the greatest Brownie of them all, no question. He played 12 of his 15 seasons in St. Louis, enjoying a .407 season in 1920 and .420 in 1922. Sisler also led the league in stolen bases three times. The Hall of Famer hit .340 lifetime.
- Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman. Holloman only went 3-7 in the major leagues, all of that in 1953. He made four relief appearances and kept bugging Browns manager Marty Marion to give him a start. Marion finally gave in, and Holloman no-hit the Philadelphia A’s on a rainy afternoon in front of about 2,500 fans. He never came close to repeating that effort and was out of the majors for good by July 19, never to return.
- Satchel Paige. He established himself as a legend in the Negro leagues. Baseball policy kept him out of the big leagues for much of his career. Finally, in 1948, at the age of 41, Paige made it to the Majors with the Indians. He spent three years in St. Louis and made two All-Star teams.
- George McQuinn. Several fine players put on the Browns uniform through the years. McQuinn, from Virginia, was another standout. He hit .283 in eight seasons with St. Louis. McQuinn recorded seven hits in 16 at-bats against the Cardinals in the 1944 Series. He hit just .130 (3-for-29) for the Yankees in the 1947 Series against the Dodgers.
- Ken Williams. The lefty batter belted 196 home runs in his career and swiped 154 bases. He was never better than he was in 1922. Williams hit .332 and drove in a league-high 155 runs. He also led the league with 39 homers and stole 37 bases.
- Vern Stephens. The shortstop broke in with the Browns in 1941 and played his first seven seasons in St. Louis. He made three All-Star teams during that time. Later, with the Red Sox, he played on four more All-Star teams and led the league in RBI in 1949 (1959) and 1950 (144). Stephens slugged 247 homers in his career.
- Frank Robinson. A six-time All-Star with the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson was dealt to the Orioles before the 1966 campaign. In his first year in Baltimore, he led the league in home runs (49), RBI (122) and batting average (.316). Robinson slammed 586 homers in his career and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
- Jim Palmer. The future Hall of Famer was in his second season in the majors and just 20 years, 11 months when he beat Koufax. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in the best-of-seven Series.
- Steve Stone. The stocky right-hander had a career losing record before going 25-7 and winning the 1980 Cy Young. He retired after a 4-7 campaign in 1981, with a lifetime record 107-93.
By Glen Sparks
Eddie Gaedel, all 43 inches of him, stepped into the batter’s box on Aug. 19, 1951, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He wore uniform No. “1/8” for the Browns, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.
Gaedel, 26 years old, weighed all of 65 pounds, or as much as Ted Kluszewski’s left forearm. He did his best to strike a pose reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio and batted from the right side, as if that mattered. Detroit Tigers pitcher Bob Cain couldn’t help but laugh. “Keep it low,” Detroit catcher Bob Swift instructed.
Browns owner Bill Veeck had to be busting a gut. He came up with the prank. Later, he wrote, “(Gaedel) was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball. He was also the only one.”
Supposedly, a short story written in 1941 by humorist James Thurber, about a tiny baseball player, inspired Veeck. Always a showman, Veeck hired his p.r. guy to find just the right diminutive man. Veeck added, make sure he looks good in a baseball uniform.
Gaedel, born June 8, 1925, in Chicago, fit the description. He was a performer, a card-carrying member of the American Guild of Variety Artists. He did promotional work for Mercury Records.
The Browns’ traveling secretary, Bill Durney, went to Chicago to pick up Gaedel. Durney wrapped the “prospect” in blankets and smuggled him into the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Gaedel put on a uniform belonging to Browns batboy Bill DeWitt Jr., whose dad was a team executive. (DeWitt went on to bigger and better things. He now owns the St. Louis Cardinals.) First, though, Veeck had DeWitt’s No. 6 switched to No. 1/8, just to make things even funnier.
Veeck gave Gaedel a contract worth $15,400, or $100 per day. Then, Veeck told Gaedel to follow the plan. Don’t swing at anything, he said. Don’t think about even lifting that bat off your shoulder, he ordered. And, stand in the box with a deep crouch. (Veeck figured that Gaedel in a crouch had a strike zone of about an inch and a half.)
The Browns didn’t waste any time milking the joke. Manager Zack Taylor brought Gaedel into the game in the bottom of the first inning as a pinch hitter for outfielder Frank Saucier. Umpire Ed Hurley couldn’t believe it. What the heck was going on?! Hurley ordered Taylor to home plate. Taylor ran out, Gaedel’s big-league contract in hand. (Veeck had filed the contract with major league baseball on late Friday. He knew that no one would look at it until Monday morning. The doubleheader was on Sunday.)
An official big leaguer, Gaedel opened his stance Dimaggio-like and looked like he might swing. Pitcher Cain, though, couldn’t get anything close to Gaedel’s still-tiny strike zone. He walked the batter on four pitches. Taylor immediately ordered Jim Delsing to pinch-run for Gaedel, who left the field to a standing ovation.
Veeck’s stunt didn’t amuse American League president Will Harridge. This was some sort of mockery of the game, Harridge insisted. The prez immediately voided Gaedel’s contract. Baseball even kept Gaedel’s official appearance out of the record books for a time.
Fans loved Eddie Gaedel. The former ballplayer went on to make about $17,000 in personal appearance fees. He even worked awhile in the Ringling Brothers circus. Hollywood directors beckoned, but Eddie refused to go.
Ultimately, Gaedel settled back in Chicago. He got a job at a bar and drank too much of the merchandise. That led to plenty of fights and arguments. Gaedel was a spicy drunk.
He got liquored up for a final time on June 18, 1961. Some rough guys followed him home from a bowling alley and beat him up bad. Gaedel’s mom found her son lying in bed, bruised and dead. Eddie Gaedel was just 36 years old. Bob Cain–yes, the pitcher from what is known now and forever as “the Gaedel game”–attended the funeral service, the lone representative from baseball.
Various Eddie Gaedel societies celebrate the memory of the famous pinch-hitter and the shortest player of all-time. The Los Angles chapter, for instance, offers a toast to Eddie every Aug. 19.
Gaedel’s Browns uniform is on display at the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, located across the street from Busch Stadium.
By Glen Sparks
On this date in baseball history, May 20, 1945, Pete Gray enjoyed his greatest day as a baseball player. He collected five hits and two RBI as the St. Louis Browns swept the Yankees in a doubleheader.
Pete Gray lost his right arm in a boyhood accident. Not that he quit playing baseball over that.
Gray, born Peter James Wyshner on March 6, 1915, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, grew up in the mining town of Naticoke, Pa. Doctors amputated young Pete’s arm when he was six years old. One story is that he tumbled off a wagon and caught his arm in the spokes.
The youngster didn’t feel sorry for himself. A natural right-hander, he just switched to being a lefty. Anyway, that put him one step closer to first base when he was batting.
He was a tough kid. One time, as a 13-year-old, he barreled into the catcher during a sandlot game. Following the collision, the catcher threatened to beat up Pete. “If only you had two arms,” the catcher said. That would make it a fair fight. Young Pete fought him anyway.
Pete Wyshner changed his name to “Gray” at the start of his semi-pro career. Ethnic prejudice was a still a big deal at the time. Pete didn’t need his last name amounting to one more challenge for him to overcome.
Not surprisingly, Gray never found his way onto any team’s fast track to the major leagues. Finally, though, in 1943, the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association signed him to a deal. He was 28 years old. In his second year down south, Gray was named the Association’s Player of the Year. He batted .333 and stole 63 bases.
The world was at war, of course. Great ballplayers like Ted Williams and Bob Feller, and many more, were off fighting the Japanese and the Germans. The big leagues needed ballplayers. And, Pete Gray ended up with the unlikeliest of defending pennant winners, the St. Louis Browns of 1945
Fans remember the Browns for being one of baseball’s perennial cellar dwellers – “St. Louis … first in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League.” But, for one glorious season, the Browns were better than everyone else in the A.L., even the mighty New York Yankees.
In 1944, the Browns met the crosstown Cardinals in the Fall Classic. The Redbirds won the Streetcar Series, but the Browns gained a measure of respectability, at least for a time. The Browns bought Gray’s contract from the Chicks for $20,000 and paid Gray $4,000.
Gray got into 77 games for the Browns. He collected 51 hits in 234 at-bats for a .218 batting average. He didn’t hit a home run, but he did slap six doubles and two triples. The outfielder stole five bases, but opposing catchers nailed him six times.
The problem was that Gray couldn’t hit breaking balls. Without the use of one arm, he couldn’t check his swing in order to adjust his timing. Pitchers being ruthless sorts, they pounded Gray with curveballs. (Gray held the bat with his arm about six in inches up from the handle. He usually pulled the ball.)
The so-called “One-armed Wonder” fielded like this: Gray wore a baseball without padding. He caught fly balls with his glove directly in front of him at about shoulder height. When the ball hit the glove, he would roll the ball and glove across his chest. On ground balls, he let the ball bounce off his glove in front of him at about knee height. He’d flip off his glove and grab the ball in the air. It worked OK. Gray threw out runners but made seven errors.
World War II officially ended Aug. 15, 1945 (Aug. 14 in the U.S.), V-J Day. That signing of the peace treaty aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in effect ended Gray’s major league career. The boys, including the ballplayers, were coming home.
Gray continued to play exhibition ball. Unfortunately, he drank heavily at times, wondering if he was simply a war-time sideshow, signed to put fans into the ballpark. (”He didn’t belong in the major leagues, and he knew he was being exploited,” Browns Manager Luke Sewell said in Even the Browns by William B. Mead. Sewell also said, “He shows us something every day. You really don’t believe some of the things he does.”) Pete Gray died June 30, 2002, at the age of 87.
By Glen Sparks
Mel Almada hated the inside pitch. He knew, just knew, that every fastball fired at his hands, hurled near his shoulders, and, yes, sometimes whipped close to his head, was a pitch thrown with hateful intent.
“They’re throwing at me because I’m Mexican!” Almada insisted, according to a SABR biographical article written by Bill Nowlin.
Baldomero Almada Jr., also known as “Melo,” or just “Mel,” was born in Sonora, Mexico, on Feb. 7, 1913. He was the first Mexican-born player to make it to the majors. Over seven seasons, from 1933-39, with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Dodgers, Almada hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .342. He knocked 15 home runs in 646 games (2,736 at-bats) and drove in 197 runs. The centerfielder stole 56 bases, including 20 in 1935 for Boston.
Melo left his homeland while still a baby. In 1914, Baldomero Sr., a successful businessman, took his family away from the political problems and violence of post-Revolutionary Mexico. The Almadas settled in Los Angeles. Mel and his older brother, Jose Luis (later Americanized to “Louie”), began playing baseball as little boys.
Luis established himself as a star with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1932, Melo went up the coast to join his brother. He batted .311 in his rookie season in the PCL. By 1933, The Sporting News, the famous Bible of baseball, had labeled Mel Almada as maybe “the best young outfield prospect” in the league. That summer, the Red Sox signed him to a contract.
Mel’s big-league career amounted to a mixed bag. He could certainly run and play defense. He hit for a decent average, but he never showed much power. In 1935, for instance, he batted .295 but with a slugging percentage of just .379 (OPS+ 84).
Almada hit .295 in 1937 with the Red Sox and Senators, but again, with a weak slugging percentage (.394). The following year, he started off at just .244 for Washington, but batted .342 in 436 at-bats following a trade to St. Louis. In 1939, Mel hit only .228 in 246 at-bats with the Browns and the Dodgers. His major league career was over.
Alamada left the big leagues but kept playing ball, both in Los Angeles and in Mexico. He died Aug. 13, 1988, at the age of 75.
Older brother Luis Almada never made it to the majors. The New York Giants placed him on their major league roster in 1927, but Luis got hurt while on a barnstorming trip with the team and never made it back. He died in 2005 at the age of 98. Luis had a theory as to why his talented younger brother quit playing in the majors at the age of 26. It was that inside pitching, Luis said. Mel hated it, and opposing pitching knew it. But, the pitchers weren’t throwing at Mel because he was Mexican.
“No, Melo,” Luis once said to his sibling, according to the SABR article. “They’re throwing at you because you’re a batter.”
Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman put it all together on this date in 1953. They were the best nine innings of his 65.1 inning major league career.
Holloman, a right-hander for the St. Louis Browns, no-hit the Philadelphia A’s at Sportsman’s Park. He did it on a rainy night with 2,473 fans taking in the action.
St. Louis Manager Marty Marion ordered Holloman to the mound after the rookie had thrown four times in relief for the Browns. Nothing that Bobo had done before inspired any confidence. Over 5.1 innings, he had given up five runs on 10 hits and three walks.
But, Holloman had started in the minors, and he wanted to start in the majors. During the 1952 season, with the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League, Bobo compiled an impressive 16-7 won-loss record with a 2.51 ERA.
And, he was already 29-year-old ballplayer. Bob missed time while serving in the Navy during World War II. Back home in 1946, he signed with the Macon Peaches, a Class A team, and began making slow progress toward the majors.
On May 6, 1953, Marion started Bobo against the A’s because they were “the softest competition,” out there, according to Browns owner Bill Veeck in his best-seller Veeck as in Wreck. And, he didn’t exactly fool too many Philly batters. Wee Willie Keeler told batters that a secret to successful batting was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Well, Bobo made ‘em hit it where they were. Or, at least it happened that way.
“Everything he threw up was belted,” Veeck wrote. “And everywhere the ball went, there was a Brownie there to catch it.”
Good defense helped Bobo. So, too, did the humid night in St. Louis that held up Philadelphia flyballs. One A’s hitter reached on a Holloman error. Bobo also walked five, including three in the ninth inning. The rookie held on, though, as the Browns won 6-0.
A few months later, Bobo was out of baseball. He never threw another no-hitter, of course. He didn’t throw another shutout or even another complete game, either. Holloman retired with a 3-7 mark as a big leaguer with a 5.23 ERA (81 ERA+). He pitched his last game July 19 and was out of baseball for good, following a stint in the winter leagues and in the minors, by the close of the 1954 season.
Bobo battled the bottle, opened an advertising business and died May 1, 1987, at the age of 64. For one night in the big leagues, he was both lucky and good.
By Glen Sparks
Pitcher Johnny Allen featured a fastball, a curveball and a temper. New York Yankees trainer Earle “Doc” Painter once said, “He expects to win every time he pitches, and if he doesn’t win, he may turn on anybody.”
Fortunately, Allen did a lot of winning, especially early in his 13-year career. He put up some snazzy won-loss marks. In his rookie season of 1932, the right-hander went 17-4 (.810 winning percentage) for the Yanks. The following year, he finished 15-7 (.682).
Allen put together a 20-10 season (.667) for the Cleveland Indians in 1936 and a 15-1 campaign (.938) in 1937 for the Tribe. Through his first seven seasons, he was 99-38. The native of Thomasville, N.C., retired with a 142-75 (.654) career mark.
Now, the hurler did get some help. His New York teammates included the original bash brothers, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Allen didn’t worry about losing 1-0 or 2-1. He could give up some runs and still win.
In fact, after recording a solid ERA of 3.70 in his rookie campaign (ERA+ 110), he posted a tepid 4.39 number in his sophomore year (ERA+ 89). Of course, Allen fans can point out that the pitcher finished with a 3.44 ERA in ’36 (149 ERA+, second in the American League) and a 2.55 ERA in 37 (176 ERA+, third in the A.L.). So, yes, Johnny Allen could pitch.
He could also throw a fit. Allen’s “sour attitude” led the Yanks to trade him following the 1935 season despite going 50-19 in four seasons with the Bronx Bombers. He didn’t work and play with others.
Allen was at his most stubborn on June 7, 1938, pitching against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. Boston’s Jimmie Foxx ripped a two-run home run in the first inning, one of 534 dingers that “Double X” would hit in his great career.
When the inning ended, Boston’s player/manager Joe Cronin walked out to umpire-in-chief Bill McGowan. Those tattered sleeves on the sweatshirt Allen is wearing underneath his jersey are a distraction to the batter, Cronin said. (Apparently, they didn’t bother Foxx.) McGowan agreed; he told Allen to get rid of the sweatshirt.
Allen left the mound and headed to the clubhouse. But, he didn’t go in there to change. He went in there to simmer. He had no intention of changing. Indians Manager Ossie Vitt fined Allen $250 and put in Bill Zuber to pitch.
Later, Allen said Cronin only complained as a gag. He also said McGowan was out to get him. “Whenever McGowan works a game I pitch, there’s always been a lot of petty, sniveling stuff going on.” McGowan, for his part, said he read the rulebook word-for-word to Allen. No tattered sleeves allowed.
The following season, during the 1938 All-Star break, Allen suffered an arm injury. He was 12-1 at the time, but he went just 2-7 the rest of the way with an ugly 6.29 ERA. In the final six years of his career, Allen pitched for Cleveland, the St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. He went a combined 43-37 and once attacked an umpire on May 27, 1943, in Forbes Field. Of all the loose cannons in the baseball world, Johnny Allen was among the loosest.
Allen left baseball to get into the real estate business in Florida. He also became a part-time minor-league umpire, much to the shock and delight of some sportswriters. One guy wrote that Allen in an ump’s uniform looked “about as much at home as a camel in a camel’s-hair coat.”
The temperamental pitcher/umpire died March 29, 1959, at the age of 54. His famous sweatshirt, tattered indeed, is part of the permanent collection at Cooperstown. Allen sold it to Higbee’s, a Cleveland department store, for something between $50 and $600. The store wanted to put the quickly famous garment on display in a window. “This is the shirt that cost Johnny Allen $250,” a sign read. Higbee’s donated the sweatshirt to the Hall of Fame in the offseason.
McGowan, elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992, said he fined Allen $250, that in addition to the club fine. The umpire said later that Allen sold the sweatshirt for $600, on the high end of the estimates. “So,” McGowan concluded, “he made $100 on the deal.”
This is the first of a two-part follow-up to my three-part series on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. (Yep, the math gets crazy sometimes.) You can read parts I, II and III here. This post reports on the franchise shuffling in major league baseball that followed Boston’s departure to Milwaukee. My next post will cover the Seattle Pilots-Milwaukee Brewers drama/fiasco.
By Glen Sparks
Next stop …
The Boston Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 ushered in a round of franchise relocations that lasted more than a decade. Suddenly, owners were looking at U.S. maps, trying to swap problem markets for shiny, new ones. The following is a rundown on the relocations that followed the Boston-to-Milwaukee move, the first one in major league baseball since the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York in 1903 and became the Hilltoppers, (later, the Yankees).
The St. Louis Browns. Oft-forgotten in a city with the powerful Cardinals and usually buried in the standings, St. Louis’s American League franchise called in the moving vans in 1954. In this case, a bit against the prevailing grain, those vans headed east rather than south or west. The rechristened Baltimore Orioles played to great success following some early struggles.
The Philadelphia A’s. The team had fallen on hard times after winning five championships under legendary manager Connie Mack. Following a 107-45 campaign in 1931 and a 94-60 one in 1932, the A’s suffered through six 100-loss seasons (plus six with at least 95) over the next 20-plus seasons. They moved to Kansas City in 1955. The Midwest’s version of the A’s never had a .500 season and lost at least 100 games four times in 13 years.
Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants. You could write an entire book on this, and many people have. The bottom line is this: Major League baseball was going to be in Los Angeles at some point. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley negotiated with New York City officials—faithfully or not—and couldn’t come to an agreement. L.A. officials opened their arms and offered O’Malley some premium property on a hill north of downtown. The Dodgers needed another team out west and invited the Giants, who were playing in the dilapidated Polo Grounds. The teams began play in L.A. and San Francisco in 1958. Each franchise draws more than three million fans every year. That’s the very, very short version. Roger Kahn can give you the long version. Be careful, though. He had a dog in this race.
Washington Senators. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” That’s what many people said about Washington, D.C., and Senators baseball. The team that once boasted the great pitcher Walter Johnson, that won back-to-back World Series in 1924-25 and that took the pennant in 1933 (losing to the Giants in the Series) crashed hard. Plenty of losing seasons were wrapped around a few winning ones in the years following the ’33 campaign. Owner Calvin Griffith moved his club to Minneapolis-St. Paul before the 1961 season and changed the team name to the Twins.
Milwaukee Braves. The fun didn’t last forever. Before long, the team fell both in the standings and in the stands. The team left for Atlanta in 1966. Read more about it more in Part II.
Kansas City A’s. Like the Braves, the A’s played in their new home city for 13 seasons. The A’s, though, didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as the Braves did. Attendance in Kansas City topped out at nearly 1.4 million, in the team’s inaugural season of 1955, and began on a gradual slope downward after that. Eccentric owner Charles O. Finley took his team to Oakland in 1968. The result: 16 division titles, six A.L. pennants, five World Series titles and an organization synonymous with Moneyball.
Seattle Pilots. It didn’t work out. (More about this in my next post.)
Washington Senators II. The nation’s capital got a new team as soon as the old one left. From 1961-71, the latest version of the Senators lost an average of 90 games every season. Two cool things: Frank Howard, all 6-feet-7 of him, hit some monstrous home runs. The so-called “Capital Punisher” won two home run titles. Also, former Red Sox great Ted Williams managed the club for a few years. His tenure including an 86-76 (.531) campaign in 1969. The team still finished fourth, but it was the best year for a Washington Senators Part II squad. Before the 1972 campaign, the team left for Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas and became the Rangers.
Since then, just one baseball team has left its home city. The Expos departed Montreal for Washington, D.C., in 2005 to become the Nationals, the third team since 1900 to make a go of it in the District.