By Glen Sparks
Harry Howell, you were all wet.
Howell threw one of the soggiest spitballs of all-time. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Every pitch Howell tossed, no matter how soaked, was perfectly legal.
Born on this date in 1876, Howell grew up playing baseball in Brooklyn. He debuted in 1898 with the hometown Bridegrooms (the forerunner of the Dodgers). The stocky right-hander bounced around a bit in his early days, going back and forth from Brooklyn to Baltimore and finally to the Yankees. New York teammate Jack Chesbro taught Howell the spitball.
On March 5, 1904, the Yanks traded Howell to the St. Louis Browns. The pitcher enjoyed a solid, and wet, five-year run in St. Louis from 1904-08. He only went 77-90, but his ERA ranged from a tiny 2.19 to a teeny-tiny 1.89. Howell finished in the top 10 in ERA four times in the run-suppressed Dead Ball Era. He also led the American League in complete games in 1905 with 35. Supposedly, Howell threw one spitter after another.
Who exactly invented the spitter is still up for debate. Some say it was Elmer Stricklett, some say Frank Corrigan. Ed Walsh, a Hall of Famer for the Chicago White Sox, relied on spitballs. “Dutch” Leonard, “Urban” Shocker and Burleigh Grimes also threw lots of wet pitches.
The idea behind the spitball was that gunk put on one side of the ball–spittle or something else—made the pitch do some loopy things. Also, owing again to the gunk, pitchers could make the ball sort of slip out of their hands with little or no movement. Hence, the pitch looked like a fastball with some crazy knuckleball action.
The problem with the spitball wasn’t simply that batters had a hard time hitting it. A tailing fastball and sweeping curveball were hard to hit, too.
Another problem was that batters couldn’t see it. Pitchers loaded up the ball with tobacco, licorice and other dark substances. Howell liked to chew the soft bark from slippery elm trees, mix it with spittle and rub up the ball. Batters lost track of the pitch in dim light.
On Aug. 16, 1920, Yankee pitcher Carl Mays hit Cleveland’s Ray Chapman in the head with a spitball on a dark, cloudy afternoon. Chapman probably never saw the pitch. Tragically, he died 12 hours later.
Baseball outlawed the spitball following the 1920 season. Spitballers needed to eat, too, though. Any remaining “wet” pitchers could keeping loading up.
Burleigh Grimes threw the last legal spitball, probably at some point in his final game, Sept. 20, 1934, for the Pirates. Lew Burdette, Gaylord Perry and several others supposedly threw plenty of illegal ones.
As for Howell, he retired after the 1910 season with a 131-146 career record and a 2.74 ERA. He is 82nd on the career ERA list, 87th in complete games (244) and 68th in hits batsman (97).
Howell left the baseball world to work as a steamfitter in the Seattle shipyards. He later migrated to Spokane where he took jobs as a hotel manager, bowling alley manger and more. Howell also worked with the Spokane minor league baseball team for several years. He died May 22, 1956, at age 79.
The “Red’ Reilly Sports Report
“Good afternoon, sports fans. Or, rather, good evening, from that bustling city by the Mississippi River, St. Louis, Missouri. This is Red Reilly, your roving correspondent with the American Radio Sports Network, reporting to you live from Sportsman’s Park, just a short trolley ride away from downtown St. Lou. Today, the St. Louis Cardinals, that National League powerhouse, defeated the perennial underdog St. Louis Browns, the American League champs, in the sixth and deciding game of the 1944 World Series. The Cardinals behind starter Max Lanier beat the Brownies and Nels Potter 3-1. This marks the second time in three seasons that the Cardinals can celebrate a World Series championship. And you can hear plenty of honking horns and see many smiling faces as you look up and down busy Grand Avenue.
It was a chilly day here in St. Louis, more indicative of the autumn sport of football than baseball. The bats were cold, too. The Browns scored their lone run in the third inning. Chet Laabs belted a triple and came home on a single from George McQuinn. The Redbirds plated all their runs in the fourth inning. Walker Cooper took four balls and scored on an error. Billy Verban and pitcher Lanier, helping his own cause, contributed the big hits in the inning. Both players drove in single runs.
The Mort Cooper tale doesn’t go the way you want. The story never takes that turn toward recovery.
Still, you pull for a happy ending. You hope he can quit the booze. You cheer for one of his business deals to finally go right. You pray he saves that last dollar and doesn’t spend it on something else dumb. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go that way. Mort Cooper keeps heading in the wrong direction.
Except, that is, on the field for three seasons in St. Louis. Cooper, a talented right-hander with a balky elbow and a blazing fastball, led the Cardinal pitching staff during the World War II era. He started two games in the 1944 Streetcar Series. After losing 2-1 in the opener, he shut out the Browns 2-0 in Game 5. Cooper, who struck out 12 and scattered seven hits, ended the game in dramatic fashion by striking out the side.
The teams were knotted up 0-0 going into the sixth inning. Ray Sanders, the Cardinals’ first baseman, ended the scoreless game with a solo home run. Outfielder Danny Litwhiler added another solo home run for the Cardinals in the eighth. The victory gave the National League pennant winners a 3-2 Series lead.
Stan Musial, Cardinal baseball immortal, retired at the age of 42. He played his last World Series game at age 25.
Musial—Stan the Man to you and me—played in four Series, all in his first four full seasons in St. Louis. The left-fielder who collected 1,815 career hits at home and that same number on the road, hit a pedestrian .256 in 86 October at-bats. (Musial batted .331 in his career with a single-season high of .376 in 1948.) He slammed his only World Series home run in Game 4 of the 1944 Classic.
Musial’s first-inning two-run dinger off Browns starter Sig Jakucki helped the Cardinals to a 5-1 victory that tied the Series at two games apiece. Musial also started the Cardinals’ two-run rally in the third inning, again off Jakucki. He singled, and Walker Cooper followed with an RBI base hit. Walker scored when Browns’ second baseman Don Gutteridge booted a groundball hit by Ray Sanders.
Al Hollingsworth, in relief of Jakucki, gave up the Cardinals’ final run. Sanders knocked a single and scored on a double by Marty Marion. Cardinal starter Harry Brecheen scattered nine hits in a complete-game effort. He gave up just a lone run, in the eighth inning.
George McQuinn failed his Army physical and still batted .438 in the 1944 World Series.
His back hurt like the devil, and Uncle Sam wrote him off as 4-F—unfit for service. He still made the ’44 American League All-Star team in the only year the Browns won the pennant.
McQuinn, who would earn a spot on six All-Star teams in his 12-year career, belted a two-run home run in Game 1 to give his team the Series lead against the Cardinals. Following a Red Bird victory in Game 2, McQuinn went 3-3 with two RBI in Game 3 as the Browns beat the Cardinals 6-2. St. Louis’ underdog A.L. team took a 2-1 Series lead against its mighty National League foe.
Game 3 began on a sizzling Oct. 6 afternoon in St. Louis. The high temperature settled in the mid-90s. Ted Wilks started for the Cardinals, Jack Kramer for the Browns. The Cardinals broke out on top. Johnny Hopp ripped a ball that Browns shortstop Vern Stephens promptly booted. Hopp ran to second and scored on Walker Cooper’s two-out single.
Sylvester Urban Donnelly went by “Blix.” His dad gave him the name; no one seems to know the backstory. But, Blix it was.
The relief pitcher from Olivia, Minn., enjoyed two outstanding games for the Cardinals in the 1944 World Series. After throwing two perfect innings in Game 1, the 30-year-old rookie tossed four scoreless frames in Game 2 and got the win. The Cardinals beat the Browns 3-2 in 11 innings, knotting the Streetcar Series 1-1.
Max Lanier started Game 2 for the Cardinals. He lasted seven innings and gave up two runs, both in his final frame. Nels Porter started for the Browns and went six innings. He gave up single runs in the third and fourth innings.
The baseball season in St. Louis usually begins on a gray, blustery day. Winter remains an easy memory in early April. You still recall how much snow pelted the city and if the New Year’s Eve party was any good. You wonder if your team has enough pitching and hitting. You hope the players stay healthy. Could this be the year?
The chill of early spring breaks as your interest piques. May and June offer plenty of warm, but not yet hot, days. You go to as many games as you can, settling into a bleacher seat or a favorite spot down the first-base line. You think your team may go places. The pitching is good, the hitting is timely, and the fielding is crisp. The skipper sounds confident. He is saying the right stuff to the reporters. Could this be the year?
The summer air seems thick enough to punch. But it might punch you back. The pennant race heats up, too. We need to win these close games. Why can’t this guy pitch better against that team? Why is our fielding so sloppy? Why did our manager just say that dumb thing to the reporters? When will we start hitting again? … We’re OK. We’re still in first place. We should stop worrying. … Haven’t the last few days been a little cooler? Could this be the year?
World War II broke out, and that was just what the St. Louis Browns needed. They built a team of aging ballplayers, eccentric pitchers and 4-F infielders. The strategy worked in 1944, setting up the all-St. Louis Streetcar World Series.
The Browns, something of a laughingstock (St. Louis: “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League” the ditty went.), won their only A.L. pennant in that last full year of the war. They started fast and finished the season 89-65, just one game ahead of a charging Detroit Tigers club.
According to the St. Louis Browns Historical Society web site, the 1944 team was “a patched-together fabric of those ineligible for military service, virtual misfits, alcoholics and retreads who somehow managed to win games.”
The war depleted baseball of some great talent. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was away from 1943-45. Bob Feller, ace of the Cleveland Indians, missed 1942-44. The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (1943-45) also missed time. There were many others. Teams had to make-do.
The Browns needed all they could get from, among others, Sig Jakucki, he of the great name and the improbable story. Jakucki, out of Camden, N.J., went 0-3 with an 8.71 ERA for the 1935 Browns. He didn’t pitch again in the majors until the Browns re-signed him before the ’44 campaign. The right-hander proceeded to go 13-9 with a 3.55 ERA. His final start, a 5-2 victory against the New York Yankees, clinched the A.L. pennant.