By Glen Sparks
The Fighting 42nd marched into northeastern France in March of 1918. U.S. soldiers from the Rainbow Division settled into those terrible trenches. Hank Gowdy was among the doughboys.
Gowdy, born Aug. 24, 1889, in Columbus, Ohio, signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard on this date in 1917, the first Major Leaguer to do so. A catcher and first baseman with the Boston Braves, Gowdy already was in his eighth season and had been one of the heroes of the 1914 World Series against the Philadelphia A’s.
The right-handed batter went 6-11 in the Series as Boston swept Philly. He hit three doubles, a triple and a home run. He also drove in three runs and just missed hitting for the cycle in Game 1. (Gowdy hit his home run in Game 3. No one has ever hit for the cycle in a World Series game.)
Gowdy came up with the Giants in late 1910 as a 20-year-old and recorded three hits in 14 at-bats. Early in the 1911 season, the Giants traded him, along with Al Bridwell, to the Braves for Buck Herzog. Over the next few years, Gowdy split time between the minors and the big leagues, trying to improve his hitting as well as his catching skills.
In that pennant-winning season of 1914, Gowdy finally saw significant time with the big club. He only hit .243, but he got into 128 games for a Boston team that finished 94-59, 10 ½ games over the second-place Giants.
Following his big World Series, Gowdy settled in with the Braves as the team’s starting catcher for the next few years. He batted .247 in 1915 and .252 in 1916.
The Great War had broken out in the summer of 1914, shortly after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28. By the end of summer, just about every country in Europe had taken up arms. Later, the war spilled into Asia and Africa. Much of the world turned into a bloody mess.
The United States stood on the sidelines even after a German U-boat blasted a torpedo into the RMS Lusitania, a British liner, on May 7, 1915. The explosion killed nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. German U-boats continued to sink U.S. merchant ships, and Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.
Enemy cannon hit Gowdy and the Rainbow Division hard. Artillery shells pounded the soldiers. Inside the trenches, war was horrific. Besides enemy fire, the men battled dysentery, trench foot and other diseases. The Rainbow Division suffered thousands of casualties.
An article in baseball-almanec.com reports on Gowdy the ballplayer as well as the soldier. Col. B.W. Hough, commander of the 166th, said, “Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank. The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps ‘em forget about the terror of war.”
Gowdy missed much of the 1917 season and the entire 1918 campaign due to the war. He arrived back in the United States as a hero and went back to baseball. For the next few years, he continued to catch for the Braves, batting .317 in 1922.
The Giants re-acquired Gowdy in 1923. New York Manager John McGraw used his veteran player wisely as a part-timer. Gowdy hit 328 in ’23 (122 at-bats), .325 in 1924 (191 at-bats) and .325 in 1925 (114 at-bats).
Despite those high batting averages, the Giants released Gowdy, who promptly reported to the minors. Gowdy finally made it back to the big leagues as a player-coach for the Braves in 1929. He batted .438 (7-16). In 1930, as a 40-year-old, he went 5 for 25 (.200) and called it quits as a player, a .270 career hitter. Gowdy later coached for the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds.
The old soldier didn’t leave his Army days behind in the trenches of World War I, either. When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, Hank Gowdy declared himself fit for duty. The Army commissioned him as Maj. Gowdy. The former ballplayer served faithfully as chief athletic officer at Ft. Benning, Ga. Even today, soldiers can play baseball on Hank Gowdy Field at Ft. Benning.
(Gowdy died Aug. 1, 1966, age 76, in Ohio.)
By Glen Sparks
Look fast enough and you’ll notice an elephant figure stitched onto the left sleeve of the Oakland A’s uniform.
New York Giants Manager John McGraw set this design idea in motion more than a century ago. Philadelphia A’s skipper Connie Mack smiled and said “thank you very much”—or something like that.
The A’s elephant story goes back to 1901 and to the team’s first days in Philadelphia. McGraw wanted Baseball to stop skipper Mack and team owner Benjamin Shibe from buying up ballplayers fleeing the National League. The great hitter Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, for instance, jumped from the Philadelphia Phillies to the brand-new A’s following the 1900 campaign.
Those A’s, McGraw said, they’re a bunch of “white elephants.” Or, as some sources say, McGraw told Mack that the A’s had “a white elephant on their hands.” A white elephant being, in this sense, something that costs more than it’s worth and is difficult to maintain. (The term originated long ago in Thailand, then called Siam. Kings there gave sacred white elephants to royalty in nearby countries. They were nice presents, but a bit impractical, elephants being so large and possessing enormous appetites.)
The A’s quickly adopted the white elephant figure as a mascot. In fact, before the start of the 1905 World Series between the A’s and Giants, Mack gave McGraw his very own stuffed elephant. McGraw, in the spirit of the occasion, accepted the gift.
In 1909, the A’s began wearing an elephant logo on their pre-game sweaters. Nine years later, the elephant made it onto the A’s actual game uniforms. Retired as a mascot in 1963, the pachyderm reappeared in 1988. Known in the mid-1980s as Harry Elephante (Get it?), the mascot now performs under the name of Stomper. And, yes, he works for peanuts.
(Doing research on the elephant and the A’s prompted me to look into the story behind the elephant mascot tradition at the University of Alabama. Here is the short-form version on that one: During at least one game in 1930, the Crimson Tide started their second team. At the beginning of the second quarter, Alabama Coach Wallace Wade ordered his first-team onto the field. Journalist Everett Strupper wrote that he could hear the rumble as the players bounded to their positions. A fan yelled, “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming.” Struper and others began referring to the team as “the Red Elephants.” The reference stuck. You often see elephants on Alabama gear. The name of the mascot is Big Al.)
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.
By Glen Sparks
(This post is dedicated to every fan who has a favorite player still needs a few more votes to make it into Cooperstown.)
Really, it seems amazing that it took so long for Johnny Mize to make it into the Hall of Fame.
Mize, born on this date in 1913, hit 359 home runs, drove in 1,337 runs and batted .312 over a 15-year career. He led the National League in home runs and slugging percentage four times each. The Big Cat, as they liked to call him, finished first in RBI three times and in batting average, triples and runs scored one time apiece. Mize walked enough to retire with a .397 on-base percentage.
He did all this while missing three prime seasons due to World War II. Mize remains the only player to hit more than 50 home runs (51 in 1947 for the New York Giants) and strike out fewer than 50 times (42) in one season.
The first baseman from rural Demorest, Ga., retired after the 1953 season. He stood at No. 6 on the all-time home run list when he left the game.
And then he waited.
He got a measly 16.7 percent of the Hall of Fame vote in his first year on the ballot, 1960. The following year, his vote dropped to 8.8 percent. He got 26.9 percent in 1962. Was he building momentum for that coveted plaque in Cooperstown? Nope. He dipped to 26.8 percent in 1963. (Hall of Famers need 75 percent.)
Mize, who was the first person to hit three home runs in a game six times, and whose 43 home runs was a Cardinal record for a single season until Mark McGwire blasted 70 n 1998, never could muster much support from the writers. His vote peaked at 43.6 percent in 1971. He went off the ballot after getting just 41.3 percent of the vote in 1973.
What was wrong? Mize made 10 All-Star teams; he finished as the MVP runner-up in 1939 and 1949 for the Cardinals.
Was it that nickname? The Big Cat? Does that explain anything?
The origin of the “Big Cat” moniker is shrouded in contradiction. Mize said Cardinal infielder Joe Orengo came up with the name after Mize dug some throws out of the dirt. Like, “Hey, you look like a Big Cat doing that.”
The problem with the story is that no one thought Mize was much of a defensive first baseman. The manager put Mize in there to hit. Bob Broeg, the late, legendary writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the name goes back to the way Mize would “stalk” around the first-base bag, like a cat. Apparently, not always reaching his prey, i.e., the baseball.
Jerry Grillo wrote an article in 2011 about Mize. He includes speculation on Broeg’s part that Mize’s poor defense kept him out of the Hall of Fame for so long. But, Mize was a slugging first baseman. Did writers put that much emphasis on his glovework?
Maybe Mize didn’t put up enough “good” years to wrap around his “great” years. He hit at least 40 home runs three times, but he dropped off after that. (He did lead the N.L. with 28 dingers in 1939, and he topped the league in slugging percentage three times when he hit fewer than 30 homers.)
Mize probably lost at least 75 home runs due to World War II (maybe much more) and more than 300 RBI. He hit 26 home runs for the Giants in 1942, left for the Army, slammed 22 homers in 101 games in 1946 and then belted his career-high 51.
The Veterans Committee finally voted Mize into the Hall of Fame in 1981. Grillo includes this great Mize quote from induction day: “Years ago, the writers were telling me that I’d make the Hall Fame, so I kind of prepared a speech. But somewhere along in the 28 years, it got lost.”
It’s a shame that Mize didn’t get to give that speech sooner. He finished with 71 WAR points, more than, among others, Harmon Killebrew (60.3), who blasted 573 home runs, Willie McCovey (64.4), who hit 521 home runs, and Eddie Murray (68.3)), who knocked out 504. Murray and McCovey were first-ballot Hall of Famers; Killebrew was elected in his fourth year.
Bill James, author of the Historical Baseball Abstract, rated Mize as the sixth-best first baseman of all time in 2003, ahead of Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, McCovey and Tony Perez, all Hall of Famers. James also writes that Mize was “probably the best all-around player in the National League in 1940 and 1947, and the second-best in 1937, 1939 and 1948, third best in 1942.”
This might surprise some people:
Batting average: .302
On-base percentage: .384
Slugging percentage: .557
Batting average: .305
On-base percentage: .374
Slugging percentage: .555
Batting average: .312
On-base percentage: .397
Slugging percentage: .563
No, I am not making the argument that Mize was a better player than Mays or Aaron, two of the all-time all-timers. Mays and Aaron did much more on the baseball field than Mize, who had the advantage of playing ball during a great hitters’ era. The WAR points aren’t close. Mays finished with 156.2 and Aaron with 142.6, both totals more than double Mize’s.
It does seem clear, though, that the Big Cat, no matter how he got that name, is a worthy Hall of Famer.
By Glen Sparks
What Madison Bumgarner did for the Giants in the recent World Series happens every 90 years or so. An article in The Hardball Times compares Bumgarner’s five-inning save in Game 7 against the Royals to the Senators’ Walter Johnson’s four-inning save in 1924 against, yes, the Giants. The New York Giants.
Actually, as the article points out, Bumgarner outdid the Big Train in his Game 7 heroics. Besides throwing one more inning, Bum gave up one less hit. But, Johnson’s effort may have been more surprising. Bumgarner, after all, had been lights outs through the entire postseason. He beat Kansas City in his two starts in the Series, giving up just one run.
Johnson was tagged for 10 runs in his two starts. A New York Times reporter wrote this about the veteran Johnson, age 36, following his loss in Game 5: “It was a tragic affair and Johnson the most tragic figure that ever stalked through a world’s (sic) series.” (In truth, the reporter was being a bit harsh and melodramatic. Johnson enjoyed a big year for Washington in 1924, leading the American League in several categories.)
Hardball Times writer Fred Frommer does a good job at recapping Johnson’s game-saving effort, much of which happened in extra innings. Washington rallied in the 12th inning for its only championship. Oh, and you know how Bumgarner came into Game 7 on two days’ rest? Johnson entered his Game 7 with just a one-day break.
Bottom of the ninth, two out, his team down 1-0, Giants’ slugger Willie McCovey ripped a line drive in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson caught the rocket, lest it crash into his head. McCovey’s screeching out, with Willie Mays on third base and Matty Alou on second, ended the game, the Series, and the Giants’ October dream.
Juan Marichal, the great Giants pitcher, says the 6-foot-4-inch McCovey absolutely scalded that pitch off Ralph Terry. “If Willie had hit that ball in the air,” Marichal said to a reporter, “it would have ended up in the ocean.”
If McCovey had smashed his shot just inches to the left or right of Richardson, Mays and Alou probably would have scored, and the Giants would have won. If McCovey had dinked a blooper down the right-field line, Mays and Alou probably would have scored, and the Giants would have won. Darn the luck; McCovey hit a missile that found a Yankee.
“Wee” Willie Keeler, a foot shorter than “Stretch” McCovey,” famously said, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.” McCovey did not heed that advice. As if a man swinging a piece of lumber as violently as McCovey did could possibly direct a ball to a vacant spot on the grass.
Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, calls the playoffs “a crapshoot.” He is referring to the flukiness that goes along with a short series. Sometimes, a weak hitter turns into a temporary slugger. Sometimes, a mediocre pitcher throws the game of his life. And sometimes, a future Hall of Famer like Willie McCovey hits the ball as hard he can hit it, and he still makes an out.
This is a great paragraph from an article written by Michael Baumann at grantland.com. Baumann sums up the quirks of postseason baseball.
Playoff baseball is the process of a team slowly tying its own noose, one strand at a time, over the course of a week or more. The tiniest decisions, bounces, lapses in concentration, umpire’s decisions, and changes in barometric pressure can determine who makes the World Series, and we won’t know how or why it happened until it’s all over. And sometimes not even then.
On Oct. 19, 1962, Willie McCovey did something to keep the Giants from winning the World Series. He hit a screaming line drive right at the second baseman.
By Glen Sparks
You’ll get that rare chance to glimpse “Muddy” Ruel in action if you click on some of these highlights from the 1924 World Series between the Washington Senators and the New York Giants.
You also can see pitching great Walter Johnson rev it up and fire his sidearm fastball to home plate. Plus, watch the crowd go wild and storm the field, in jacket and tie. Some of the footage put up by mlb.com is set to Rascal Flats’ cover version of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart.” Freaky.
The Senators beat the Giants 4 games to 3 to take the Series. Herold Dominic “Muddy” Ruel, a St. Louis native, hit just .095 in the seven games. He rebounded and batted .316 in the ’25 Series in a losing effort. Ruel played 19 seasons for six teams, including his hometown Browns. The catcher hit .275 lifetime.
By Glen Sparks
The fabled Polo Grounds hosted its last baseball game on this date in 1962. A puny crowd of 1,752 people attended the match-up, a 5-1 victory for the visiting Phillies against the Mets. Jim Hickman, the Mets’ first baseman, hit the final home run at the park.
The Polo Grounds, located in the Harlem neighborhood of upper Manhattan, opened in 1911. It was the last of three ballparks built in the area. The Giants played their home games there until leaving for San Francisco after the 1957 season. The Yankees played home games at the Polo Grounds from 1911-57 and the Mets in 1962 and 1963.
More than anything, the Polo Grounds was famous for its funky configuration. The right-field wall was just 257 feet from home plate, and the left-field wall was just a little farther away, 279 feet. But centerfield? That was way far away at 482 feet. It was a place where towering home runs went to die.
One of the most famous plays in World Series history happened on the Ground’s center-field sprawl. Willie Mays went back, back, back and caught up with Vic Wertz’s long drive in Game One against the Cleveland Indians in 1954. To make the play even more spectacular, Mays, his cap flying onto the grass, whirled around after making the over-the-shoulder grab, fired a seed into the infield and kept base runner Larry Doby from advancing home on the tag.
Some people know the Polo Grounds by its other name, Coogan’s Bluff. The bluff stood over parts of the ballpark, and fans sometimes climbed up to enjoy a free view. They were all cheering after the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff in 1951. Bobby Thomson hit the Miracle home run, a.k.a., the Shot Heard “Round the World, on a 1-1 pitch off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca. Broadcaster Russ Hodges screamed it to everyone: “The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant.”