By Glen Sparks
About 50 ballplayers, along with a handful of coaches, writers and 5,000 or so fans, were there at the start. They gathered at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on May 6, 1915, the day that a husky, hard-throwing pitcher named George “Babe” Ruth hit his first home run in the major leagues.
Surely no one then could have imagined then that this 20-year-old, former “incorrigible” kid from the tough waterfront streets of Baltimore, would wallop 713 more homers before retiring 20 years later as baseball’s fabled Sultan of Swat, the greatest home-run hitter of them all.
He didn’t even play every day. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles had signed Ruth as a pitcher in 1913. Young Ruth learned the game while living at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. George Sr. had told the local courts that his son was “incorrigible.” The boy was drinking too much beer at the family’s tavern, chewing too much tobacco and stealing money from the till.
Brother Matthias served as athletic director and head disciplinarian at St. Mary’s. He stood 6-feet-7-inches and was powerfully built, sort of the Frank Howard of his day. He hit flyballs that amazed Ruth and the other boys. Ruth duplicated Brother Matthias’ uppercut swing.
But, as mentioned, the Orioles liked Ruth as a pitcher. The left-hander even wowed some major-league squads during several exhibition games in South Carolina. Jack Dunn, the Orioles’ owner and manager, was short of cash. He sold Ruth to the Red Sox.
The skinny-legged, barrel-chested Ruth—one writer decided that the young player was “built like a bale of cotton”—made his major-league debut in late 1914. He went 2-for-10 with a single and a double at the plate. On the mound, he pitched 23 innings, compiled a 2-1 won-loss record and posted a 3.91 ERA. He walked seven and struck out three.
Ruth entered the action May 6 with a 1-0 record and a 5.02 ERA in two starts and three appearances. The Red Sox were playing the New York Yankees, Ruth’s future team and the franchise that he would establish as the game’s greatest. The New York Times already liked him. One reporter there had decided that “the big left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth, was all that a pitcher is supposed to be, and some more.” At the plate, Ruth was 2-for-7, batting .286.
The Red Sox came into the game with a 7-6 record, good for fourth place in the American League, four games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers (15-6). The Yankees (10-5) were in second place, two games behind Detroit. The Red Sox had finished 91-62 in 1914, in second place. The Philadelphia A’s won the American League pennant with a record of 99-53. The Yanks muddled though a 70-84 season, good for seventh place.
New York still had not won a pennant. Boston was trying to win its fourth, and its first since 1912. Ruth batted ninth in the order, the customary spot for pitchers. On the mound this historic day, he was matched against right-hander Jack Warhop. An eight-year veteran, Warhop came into the game with an 0-2 mark and a 6.19 ERA.
After two scoreless innings, Ruth led off the third inning for Boston. The pitcher slammed a Warhop pitch far into the right-field stands. The hit surely drew some “oohs” and “ah’s” from anyone who saw it. Players did not hit many home runs in the Deadball Era, and they didn’t crush them like Ruth just did. (Frank “Home Run” Baker of the A’s led the A.L. in home runs in 1914 with nine. A.L. teams hit just 160 total homers, or an average of just 20 per team.)
This was a tape-measure job slammed before that term was ever coined. Fans, players, coaches, and reporters just did not see this type of round-tripper. According to one reporter, Ruth lifted Warhop’s offering “with no apparent effort.” Ruth, for the record, said he connected on a “rise ball.”
The Red Sox and Ruth ended up losing 4-3 in 13 innings. The Babe went the whole way for Boston and pitched a solid game before tiring at the end. Luther “Doc” Cook knocked in the winning run. The magnificently named Edwin “Cy” Pieh of Waunakee, Wisconsin, got credit for the win.
Ruth hit three more home runs in 1915 in 92 at-bats and led the team. Dick Hobitzell (399 at-bats), Harry Hooper (566 at-bats) and Duffy Lewis (557 at-bats) tied for second with two apiece. Boston ended up winning the pennant with a 101-50 record. The Yankees finished 69-83, 32 ½ games out of first. The Red Sox beat the N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games to win the World Series.
Ruth’s power display did not knock him off the pitching mound for another couple of seasons. He did not begin playing every day until 1918. He topped with 11 homers in just 317 at-bats that year and led the circuit again in 1919 with 29. Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 campaign. Ten more home-run titles followed, including four seasons of more than 50.
Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hall of Fame raconteur, said this about Ruth: “No one hit home runs the way Babe (Ruth) did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings, then take off for the stands.”
The Babe Ruth story did not begin on May 6, 1915, of course. There were far too many interesting twists and turns in his oversized life before that one day at the Polo Grounds. What the game’s future Big Bam did in the top of the third inning, though, was to offer the audience an introduction to the long-ball heroics to come.
By Glen Sparks
This is a story about the day Mickey Owen of Nixa, Mo., dropped a baseball.
It was Oct. 5, 1941. Much of the world was at war. The United States would be, too, in just a few months. Now, though, at least in New York City and among all baseball fans, news about the World Series held sway.
The Yankees, 101-53 during the regular season, were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, 100-54. It was Game 4; New York held a 2-1 advantage in this best-of-seven match-up. Yankees starter Red Ruffing gave up six hits in a complete-game effort in Game 1. Second baseman Joe Gordon drove in two runs, and New York won 3-2.
Brooklyn tied the Series with a 3-2 victory in Game 2. Whit Wyatt scattered nine hits over nine innings; Owen, Pee Wee Reese and Dolph Camili each drove in one run. The Dodgers overcame two errors by Reese at shortstop.
Yankee Stadium hosted the first two games. The World Series moved to Ebbets Field for Game 3 on Oct 4. Marius Russo started for New York, Freddie Fitzsimmons for Brooklyn. Each pitcher tossed shutout ball through the first seven innings.
Hugh Casey relieved Fitzsimmons in the eighth inning. The right-hander from Atlanta didn’t bring his good stuff. He only recorded one out and surrendered four hits. RBI hits by Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller gave the Yanks a 2-0 lead. Reese’s run-scoring hit in the bottom of the eighth wasn’t enough. New York won 2-1.
The following day, Ebbets Field hosted Game 4. The Yanks’ Atley Donald faced the Dodgers’ Kirby Higbe. “Swampy” Donald, a Louisiana guy, went 9-5 in 1941 with a 3.57 ERA in 159 innings. Higbe, from South Carolina, finished 22-9 and posted a 3.14 ERA. Interestingly, he struck out 121 batters in 298 innings and walked 132. Higbe led the National League in victories, walks, games pitched (48), starts (39), batters faced (1,266), earned runs (104) and wild pitches (nine). It was an odd year.
Neither “Swamp” nor Higbe pitched his “A” game in this one. Or, his “B” or “C” game. Donald went four innings and gave up four runs. Higbe, meanwhile, pitched 3.2 innings and allowed three runs. Each team’s bullpen did solid work, though; the Dodgers led 4-3 going into the ninth inning.
Casey, a 27-year-old right-hander with a decent curveball and a better spitball, went out to pitch the ninth. He had thrown 3.1 shutout innings up to that point in Game 4.
The first two Yankee batters grounded out. Right-fielder Tommy Heinrich stepped into the batter’s box. Owen got into his crouch behind home plate. The catcher was 25 years old. He grew up in Nixa, in southern Missouri. As a teen, he lived in southern California for a few years and graduated from Washington High School in south Los Angeles.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed Owen in 1935 and promoted him to the big club in 1937. Owen played four years for the Redbirds and hit .257 in 450 games. The Cardinals traded him to Brooklyn before the 1941 season began.
Owen made the N.L. All-Star team in ’41. He hit one home run on the season, drove in 44 and batted .231, actually an off-year for him. More importantly, he made 530 putouts and committed only thee errors.
Heinrich worked the count to 3-and-2. Casey’s next pitch moved down and in on Heinrich, a left-handed hitter. Heinrich swung and missed for strike three. Owen, though, couldn’t catch the ball. It glanced off his mitt and rolled far enough for Heinrich to reach first base. Instead of strike three and out No. 3, the Yankees had new life. Joe DiMaggio, in the year he hit in 56 straight games, followed with a single. Keller ripped a double to score both runners, and New York won 5-4.
The Bronx Bombers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series. They celebrated a championship after winning Game 5 by a 3-1 margin. It was the ninth World Series title for the Yankees and their fifth in six years. For Brooklyn, it was simply a disappointing end to a pennant-winning season. The Dodgers would not win a World Series until 1955.
Owen went on to play 13 seasons in the majors. He spent five years in Brooklyn and made four All-Star teams. He later played for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. He hit 14 career-home runs and batted .255 with a .318 on-base percentage. Despite that famous play in Game Four, Owen was known as a top-notch defensive catcher.
Later, he started a baseball camp near Springfield, Mo., and served four terms as Greene County sheriff. Arnold Malcolm “Mickey” Owen, born April 4, 1916, died July 13, 2005, at the age of 89.
He talked many times throughout his life about that dropped third strike, of course. He told Dave Anderson of the New York Times that the pitch was definitely a curveball and not one of Casey’s spitters.
“When we got to 3-and-2 on Tommy, I called for the curveball,” Owen said. “I was looking for the quick curve he had been throwing all along. But he threw the overhand curve, and it really broke big, in and down. Tommy missed it by six inches.”
Mickey missed it, too.
By Glen Sparks
The description “all-around athlete” gets bandied about by coaches, broadcasters and writers. Dave Winfield certainly fit that compliment. Four teams in three different sports drafted him out of the University of Minnesota.
The San Diego Padres selected Winfield in the first round—fourth overall—in the 1973 MLB draft. The Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA also drafted him. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings chose him in the 17th round of the NFL draft. Keep in mind that Winfield did not play football in either high school or college.
Winfield, born in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 3, 1951, decided to play pro baseball. He chose wisely, as his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., can attest. Over a 22-year career (1973-88, 90-95) with the Padres and five other teams, Winfield mashed 465 home runs and drove in 1,833. The 6-foot-6-inch right-handed hitter batted .283 lifetime with a .353 on-base percentage and a .475 slugging percentage (.827 OPS). He retired with 3,110 hits.
In addition, he collected 1,093 extra-base hits, 223 stolen bases and seven Gold Gloves. The graduate of Central High School in St. Paul made 12 All-Star teams and played on a Word Series winner.
Winfield, with that strong frame, looked menacing at the plate, wielding a quick bat that knocked even the best fastball into the seats, or, more menacingly, on a sharp line, rushing toward fielders at eye level.
He ran hard and slid hard. He also threw hard from his spot in right field (168 outfield assists). Once, while warming up before a game at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium in 1983, Winfield hurled a ball that killed a seagull. Police arrested him for animal cruelty. (Prosecutors latter dropped the charges. The birds were warned.)
Over his eight seasons for mostly losing San Diego teams, Winfield enjoyed several solid campaigns. He made four All-Star squads and posted his best numbers in 1979. The Padres finished 84-78 that year, the first time they ever ended with a .500 record. Winfield ripped 34 home runs, drove in a National League-high 118 and batted .308 (.395 on-base percentage and .558 slugging percentage). He also led the league in OPS+ (166) and total bases (333). He finished third in the N.L. MVP balloting.
The New York Yankees signed Winfield to a 10-year, $23 million free-agent contract following the 1980 season. (It was a big deal at the time.) Winfield’s tenure with the Yankees was tumultuous to say the least. On the plus side, he knocked 205 home runs and drove in 818. He set a single-season high in home runs in 1982 with 37 and established career marks in hits (193), runs scored (106), batting average (.340) and on-base percentage (.393) in 1984. Winfield drove in at least 100 runs six times.
On the minus side, the Bronx Bombers didn’t win a World Series with Winfield. In fact, they only went to the postseason one time, in 1981. That year, Winfield batted just .045 (1-for-22) in the World Series against the eventual winner, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He famously asked for the ball when he finally did get a knock. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was not amused. He referenced Reggie Jackson, his star from the 1977-78 World Series teams. Jackson was Mr. October. “Winfield is Mr. May,” the Boss said. Winfield was not amused.
The Steinbrenner-Winfield feud turned nasty. Steinbrenner was accused of hiring an organized crime figure to dig up dirt on Winfield and the player’s charitable foundation. MLB banned the Boss from baseball for life and then lifted the suspension after two years.
Winfield ended up playing nine seasons in the Bronx. (He missed the entire 1989 season due to a back injury.) The Yanks traded him to the California Angels during the 1990 season. He enjoyed a couple of solid years in southern California and hit 28 home runs in 1991.
In 1992, Winfield left for Toronto where he hit .290 and slammed 26 home runs with 108 RBI. He played on the World Series champion Blue Jay squad that year. Once again, Winfield struggled a bit in the playoffs. He hit just .250 in the ALCS against the Oakland A’s, but he did knock two home runs. In the World Series, he hit only .227. The personal numbers didn’t really matter, though. Winning a championship did.
“I’ve been thinking of this,” Winfield said to Sports Illustrated. “If my career had ended (before Toronto), I wouldn’t have been really happy with what baseball had dealt me. I would have had no fulfillment, no sense of equity, no fairness. I feel a whole lot better now about the way things have turned out.”
Winfield played the 1993 and ’94 seasons for his hometown Minnesota Twins and spent his final year in baseball with the Cleveland Indians in 1995.
The writers elected Winfield to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2001 with 84.5 percent of the vote. He and his wife, Tanya, live in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Winfield has hosted a radio show, served as a spokesman for the United Negro College Fund and other organizations and is in demand as a motivational speaker.
By Glen Sparks
The Minnesota Twins gave a 40-year-old, self-made ballplayer his first chance at managing in the majors in 1969.
What did the Twins expect from Billy Martin? He relied on modest tools and battled in every game as a player. The tough guy from Berkeley, Calif., hit .257 over 11 big-league seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees. He knocked 64 career home runs and drove in 75 runs in 1953. Martin played in five World Series while in the Bronx (batting .333, 33-for-99) and made a shoestring catch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the ’52 Series.
Once, he fought Red Sox shortstop Jimmy Piersall underneath the grandstand at Fenway Park. He also duked it out with catcher Clint Courtney of the St. Louis Browns. The word got around: Billy Martin, who did some boxing as a teenager, liked to brawl.
New York shipped Billy out of town midway through the 1957 campaign. Or, about a month after that famous incident at the Copacabana night club in Manhattan. It was Martin’s 29th birthday. He, along with teammate Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, decided to celebrate. The evening turned into a mess. Bauer, for instance, slugged a patron.
Yankee brass blamed Martin for being a bad influence. The team shipped him to the Kansas City A’s, a perennial loser. Over his final 4 ½ years in the majors, Martin played on six teams. He drank and fought and got fined and suspended.
Martin did some scouting and minor-league managing after his playing career ended in 1961. He served as skipper of the Twins’ Triple-A team in Denver before getting the major-league gig. Martin ended up managing five different squads and did five tours as the Yankees skipper. He won five division titles, two pennants and one World Series. Then, there was all that other stuff … Once, he battled it out with a marshmallow salesman.
This is a brief rundown of Billy Martin the manager, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere:
Minnesota Twins (1969): Martin’s squad compiled an admirable 97-65 mark in the skipper’s rookie season, 17 games better than in ’68. The Twins finished in first place after sinking to seventh the previous year. Hamon Killebrew pounded 49 home runs; Tony Oliva slugged 24. Rod Carew hit .332 and won the first of his seven batting titles. Jim Perry (20-6, 2.82 ERA) and Dave Boswell (20-12, 3.23) led the pitching staff.
The Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in three games in the playoffs. Martin started Bob Miller, 5-5 during the regular season, in the final game. Owner Calvin Griffith asked Martin why he would do such a thing. “Because I’m the manager,” Billy replied. Griffith fired him.
Detroit Tigers (1971-73): Detroit, fresh off a 79-83 campaign, hired Martin in the fall of 1971. The new skipper led his squad to 91 victories and to second place in the American League East. The next year, Detroit dropped to 86 wins but still won the division. Veterans like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich led Detroit on the field.
Once again, Martin lost in the playoffs. This team, the Oakland A’s beat him. In Game 2, Bert Campaneris, angry at being hit by a pitch, flung his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Martin practically came out his underwear trying to get to Campy.
Detroit fired Martin on Sept. 2, 1973. The team was 71-63, but Billy was wearing out his welcome, as he would so often do. He already had gotten himself arrested during a public disturbance at spring training. Later in the season, he told reporters that he wanted his pitchers to throw spitballs. He also ripped management, the commissioner and everyone else in the newspapers. Billy was great ink.
Texas Rangers (1973-75): Well, it didn’t take Billy long to find a job. The Rangers nabbed him before the season was up. Martin guided the team to a 9-14 mark in the closing weeks (Texas ended up 57-105 after going 54-100 in 72.). Even better, Texas improved to 84-76 in ’74, good for second place in the A.L. West. Young outfielder Jeff Burroughs hit 25 homers, drove in 118 and hit .301 to win the A.L. MVP award. Future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins won 25 games.
Expectations were high going into ’75. The Rangers, though, struggled. On July 20, with the team 44-51, team owner Brad Corbett fired Martin.
New York Yankees I (1975-78): Once again, Martin didn’t stay out of work for long. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Billy on Aug. 1. The skipper would be going back to his baseball roots. His team went 30-26 to close the season.
The Yankees won the pennant in 1976 and met the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Cincy swept the Yankees in four games. Billy didn’t even have to watch the final out from the dugout. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming tossed him out in the ninth inning after Martin threw a baseball at home-plate ump Bill Deegan.
New York signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent before the 1977 campaign, won 100 games in the regular season and knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Steinbrenner, a.k.a. The Boss, gave Billy a fat bonus and a new car. Everything looked good until midway through ’78. Martin uttered his famous quote on Jackson and George: “One’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other’s convicted (George, who pleaded guilty in 1974 to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign).” Martin resigned July 24. … (Billy kept a mustache for much of his managerial career. He looked a bit like cartoon villain Snidely Whiplash, famed nemesis of Dudley Do-Right.)
New York Yankees II (1979): Well, why stay mad? Steinbrenner hired Billy to right the ship after the Yanks got off to a slow start in ’79. Billy led the team to a 55-40 mark. New York finished 89-71 overall, good but not good enough to make the playoffs. Steinbrenner fired him at the end of the year. (This was the year that Billy clobbered the marshmallow salesman during a bar brawl. The guy, Joseph Cooper, required 15 stiches to close up his injury.)
Oakland A’s (1980-82): Billy, who grew up near Oakland, was going home. Charlie Finley, one of baseball’s most eccentric owners (orange baseballs, a mechanical rabbit that would pop up near home plate and deliver new baseballs to the umpire, etc.) hired him to lead a team filled with talented pitchers like Mike Norris, Brian Langford and Matt Keough. The three combined for 72 complete games in 1980; Oakland finished second at 83-79.
The next year, the split season of 1981, Oakland made the playoffs but got bounced out by the Yankees. Once again, the A’s starters threw a ton of complete games. Following a disappointing 1982 season (68-94, fifth place in the A.L. West), Billy got the boot. The biggest criticism? He burned out those starting pitchers.
New York Yankees III (1983): The third time is a charm, right? Well, sorta. The Yanks did manage to go 91-71. The problem was, that was only good for third place in the division. This was the year of the infamous pine-tar game, by the way. The Kansas City Royals’ George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium to give K.C. the lead. Or, so everyone though. Martin, a stickler for details, knew that Brett liked to lather up the bat with pine-tar, even more so than the rules allowed. The umps agreed, took the runs off the board, and Brett—as the video shows—went berserk. (Baseball later overruled the umps.) Anyway, Steinbrenner canned Martin about a week before Christmas this time.
New York Yankees IV (1985): This is when it got funny. George fired team icon Yogi Berra 16 games into the season and hired Billy. The Yanks got into a groove and went 91-54 under the new/old skipper. They were only 6-10 under Berra, though, and missed the playoffs. This time, Steinbrenner cut Martin loose on Oct. 27, a few days before Halloween. Things were getting scary.
New York Yankees V (1988): This is when it got farcical. Martin replaced Lou Piniella as skipper nearly 100 games into the season, went 40-28 and got fired. Most people didn’t care at this point. It was getting silly.
There was no Billy Martin VI. Martin died Dec. 25, 1989, in a one-vehicle accident in Fenton, N.Y. He was 61 years old. The man who once dubbed himself “the proudest Yankee of them all” is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., not far from the greatest Yankee of them all, Babe Ruth.
By Glen Sparks
Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth walked Washington Senators lead-off batter Ray Morgan on four pitches in the first game of a doubleheader on June 23, 1917, at Fenway Park. That’s how the brouhaha, and a spectacular pitching effort, began.
The fiery Ruth started barking at home plate umpire “Brick” Owens, a short-tempered guy just like the Babe. Ruth charged off the mound, still yelling, getting more and more steamed. Then what happened probably surprised everyone. The pitcher belted Owens in the neck.
Ruth, the future home-run king, didn’t get arrested for his assault and battery. He did get tossed out of the game (and later fined $100 and suspended nine games). Boston player-manager Jack Barry brought in Ernie Shore, who was granted five warm-up pitches.
Shore, a 26-year-old right-hander, went on to enjoy the game of his life. He tossed a perfect game. Or, did he? The game remains muddled with some baseball-style controversy.
First off, Morgan tried to steal on Shore’s opening pitch. Red Sox catcher Sam Agnew, though, fired the pitch to second and nailed him for out No. 1. The next two Washington batters also made outs.
Shore, born March 24, 1891, in East Bend, N.C., retired the final 24 Senators in order. The Red Sox won the game 4-0.
Boston hailed Shore’s effort. The 6-foot-4 inch hurler (Some people called him “Long” Shore.) had enjoyed some success in the big league but nothing like this. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1912, got into one game, had a miserable time of it (one inning, eight hits, 10 runs, three earned, 27.00 ERA) and never made it into another one for impatient manager John McGraw.
The skipper sent the kid down to the minors. Shore told McGraw that it was a bad move, his own crummy performance notwithstanding. McGraw suspended Shore and let him go.
Shore pitched in 1913 for Greensboro of the North Carolina State League. He hoped for a second change at the majors. The Baltimore Orioles, a minor-league team then, acquired him for the 1914 season. The O’s quickly sold him, along with Ruth (yes, that Ruth) and Ben Egan to the Red Sox.
Boston sent Ruth to the minors and kept Shore. The big guy (220 pounds on that 6-4 frame) enjoyed a solid first season with the Red Sox. He went 10-5 with a 2.00 ERA (135 ERA+) in 139.2 innings. Naps Manager Joe Birmingham came away impressed. He said, “Shore’s fastball is just as fast as was (Walter) Johnson’s.” Whew. That was quite a compliment. As fast as the Big Train?
Well, it never worked out that way. But, Shore did put together a few solid seasons. He finished 19-8 and posted a 1.64 ERA (170 ERA+) in 1915. Shore went a combined 29-10 in 1916 and 1917 with ERAs of 2.63 (105 ERA+) and 2.22 (116 ERA+), respectively.
The Great War, a.k.a., World War I, ended Shore’s 1918 campaign. As a member of the Naval Reserves, he pitched for a team based at the Charleston, S.C., Naval Yard. The Yankees traded for him for 1919. A bad case of the mumps ruined his first season in pinstripes. He posted a 5-8 mark and didn’t get any better in 1920. He went 2-2 and quit with a lifetime mark of 65-43 and 2.47 ERA (114 ERA+ in the Deadball era).
Shore retired to his North Carolina home. He worked in various businesses and later served as sheriff of Forsyth County. He was a popular guy.
But the arguments kept going. Did Shore, in fact, pitch the third perfect game of the 20th century? Opinions were split. (Red Sox legend Cy Young tossed the first perfect game of the 1900s, on May 5, 1904, against the Philadelphia A’s at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston. Cleveland’s Addie Joss hurled the second. He beat the Chicago White Sox 1-0 on Oct. 2, 1908, at the Naps’ League Park.)
In a sense, American League Secretary (basically, the league president) William Harridge had put a quick end to any debate about perfecto/not a perfecto. Soon after the final out, Harridge declared the game to be simply a no-hitter. But, not every baseball person, or even every baseball record book, agreed with this pronouncement.
Was it a perfect game or not? Not surprisingly, Shore voted on the side of perfection. “No other pitcher retired a single batter,” he reasoned, according to an article on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) web site.
An eight-member committee of baseball experts (Commissioner Fay Vincent and others) voted down Shore in 1991, 11 years after the pitcher’s death on Sept. 24, 1980. The group said Shore had, in fact, tossed a combined no-hitter with Ruth.
Not perfect? Well, maybe not. Just about perfect? Certainly.
By Glen Sparks
He stood just 5-feet-4. No wonder they called him “Wee” Willie Keeler.
He could hit, too. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native had a plan when he stepped into the box. It was always the same plan.
“Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” Keeler advised.
The son of Irish immigrants, born on this date in 1872, did just that. He bunted for base hits, chopped balls down the line, squirted pitches past infielders and lofted offerings into the outfield. Keeler evaded fielders’ gloves like a smart cat evades the family dog.
Keeler batted .341 lifetime and hit at least .362 every season from 1894 through 1900. He led the league in 1897 (.424) and 1898 (.385) as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. (This was the Orioles team that played in the American Association from 1882-91 and in the National League from 1892 through 1899. League owners contracted the team out of the N.L. before the start of the 1900 campaign.)
Over a 19-year career, Keeler collected 2,932 hits, most of them singles. Only 15 percent of the outfielder’s hits went for extra bases. He notched 206 one-baggers in ’98 (out of his 216-hit total), a single-season record number for more than a century. Ichiro Suzuki, a “Wee” Willie of modern times (along with Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn), rapped 225 singles in 2004 for the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro also broke Keeler’s record of eight-straight 200-hit seasons in 2009.
Keeler hit in 44 straight games to start the 1897 season, a record that stood until Joe DiMaggio broke it with his 56-game streak in 1941.
The tiny man wielded a tiny bat, just 30 inches long. Plus, he choked up on the thing. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, a top player from the day, couldn’t believe it. “He only used half his bat,” Crawford said.
Fans today lament “the lost art of the bunt.” Keeler perfected that art. He could bunt just about any pitch. “Keeler could bunt any time he chode,” Honus Wagner once said.
Keeler tapped the ball to a vacant spot and sprinted down the line. “Wee” Willie could run despite those short legs. The left-handed batter (and thrower) not only bunted for hits, he also slammed 145 triples and stole 495 bases, including a career-high of 67 in 1898. He swiped at least 40 bags in a season five times.
Not surprisingly, Keeler didn’t hit many home runs. He retired with only 33 round-trippers. Of course, he did play in the Deadball era. Most players struggled to mash those soft, beat-up baseballs, blackened by dirt and chewing tobacco stains by game’s end.
Keeler did produce runs, though. He drove in 810 in his career and brought in 94 in 1894. More impressively, he scored 1,719 times and made it across home plate at least 100 times in eight campaigns.
This is another impressive “Wee” Willie stat: He struck out just 136 times in 8,591 at-bats. By comparison, Joc Pederson fanned 170 times in 480 at-bats in his rookie season last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Keeler came to bat, he was under control.
Keeler played for a host of teams in his career. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1892 and left for his hometown Brooklyn Grooms (forerunner of the Dodgers) the following season. The Grooms sent him to the Orioles in 1894. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (the former Grooms) picked him up in 1899, and the New York Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) traded for him in 1903. Keeler played seven seasons there (his longest stint with one team) and finished back with the Giants in 1910.
Heart problems plagued Keeler in the final years of his life. He died New Year’s Day in 1923 at the age of 50. “Wee” Willie, one of the most talented batsmen in the game’s history, was voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
By Glen Sparks
They called him “No Neck”, and it stuck.
Walt Williams liked the nickname, or he hated it. That depends on what article you read. Williams, 72, died Jan. 23 in Brownwood, Texas.
No Neck played 10 seasons in the majors (1964, 1967-75). He put on the uniform for the Houston Colt .45’s, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. He hit 33 home runs and drove in 173 runs. Modest numbers. Mostly, fans remember him for being No Neck.
This is the story behind that unique nickname: Born Dec. 19, 1943, in Brownwood, Williams entered the world just as a major flood hit central Texas. Local doctors decided to inoculate residents against typhus, as legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray explained in an article about Williams.
Even as a baby, the muscles on little Walt bulged. The doctors looked for a good vein to issue a shot. Only the neck would do.
Well, Walt Williams didn’t get typhus. But, he did get a serious crick in that neck. His head titled sideways, Murray wrote, “like a guy listening at a crack in the door.” Eventually, the stiff neck began to shrink. And shrink.
Williams grew to a compact 5-feet-6. He sported a muscular chest and, yes, no neck. Or, well, a very, very short neck.
Still, he did what every young boy dreams to do. Houston signed him as an amateur free agent in 1963. He debuted with the Colt .45’s on April 21, 1964. Williams played just 10 games for Houston before being let go. The St. Louis Cardinals picked him up, sent him to the minors and traded him to the White Sox on Dec. 14, 1966.
No Neck enjoyed his best season in 1969. He set career highs in games (135) at-bats (471), runs (59), hits (143), doubles (22) and batting average (.304) for Chicago. And, he always hustled. Fans loved No Neck.
In 1971, Williams belted a career-high eight homers and batted .294 in 397 at-bats. He didn’t walk a bunch, that year or any other. (Just 24 times. He topped out at 26 bases on balls in ’69. No Neck was up there to hit.)
But, he didn’t strike out much, either. Pitchers fanned Williams only 27 times in 1971. He struck out only 211 times in 2,373 career at-bats.
Following a six-year run on the south side of Chicago, Williams headed to the Indians in 1973. He stayed just one year and then went to the Yankees. No Neck only got into 43 games in 1974. He played 82 in ’75, averaging .281 and smacking five homers.
New York released Williams in January 1976. No Neck played a few seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan and in Mexico. He served as White Sox first-base coach in 1988 and managed in the minors for a few years.
Williams, who went to high school in San Francisco, returned to Brownwood following his playing days. The Brownwood Bulletin newspaper reported that he enjoyed working with local youth. He taught kids how to play baseball, basketball and other sports.
“He was instrumental to this community,” said Draco Miller, one of Williams’ good friends and a Brownwood City Council member. “He was a mentor.”
Services for the former ballplayer will be Saturday at Victory Life Church in Brownwood. RIP, Walt “No Neck” Williams.
By Glen Sparks
Harry Frazee needed some cash; Babe Ruth was worth a lot of it.
Frazee, a theater owner and theatrical producer, owned the Boston Red Sox. He led a three-man group that bought the team from Joe Lannin on Nov. 1, 1916, for approximately $675,000. Frazee was 36 years old at the time.
The Peoria, Ill., native liked to wheel and deal. Early on in his tenure as the Red Sox’ boss, he tried unsuccessfully to buy the great Walter Johnson from the Washington Senators for $60,000. He also tried, again unsuccessfully, to woo former Red Sox skipper Bill Carrigan out of retirement.
But, Frazee was not entirely without money problems. Lannin still held the new owner’s notes for much of the team’s purchase price. He wanted payment in 1919; Frazee, though, lacked the requested $125,000.
What was Babe Ruth worth?
Ruth broke in with the Red Sox in 1914 as a left-handed pitcher. He fashioned a 23-12 won-loss record in 1916 and led the American League with a 1.75 ERA. He followed that up with a 24-13 record in 1917 and a 2.01 ERA.
Even so, the Babe was restless. He didn’t like sitting on the bench between starts, watching the action. He wanted to play every day. He wanted to hit. (Through 1917, Ruth had smacked nine homers in 361 career at-bats.)
In 1918, the future Sultan of Swat put on quite a show. He pitched in 20 games (19 as a starter) and went 13-7 with 18 complete games and a 2.22 ERA. He also began seeing regular action in the outfield. (The Babe’s first appeared in a game at a position other than pitcher on May 6, 1918, according to Robert Creamer’s book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.) Ruth went to bat just 317 times that season. He still led the league with 11 home runs.
Ruth put that mark to shame in 1919. He blasted 29 round-trippers, more than anyone in baseball history. Edward Nagle “Ned” Williamson, playing for the Chicago Colts in 1884, held the previous record with 27. (Williamson took advantage of a right-field fence at the Congress Street Grounds that stood a scant 215 feet from home plate.)
Baseball fans loved Ruth. They stared in awe as he belted 500-foot, 550-foot … 600-foot (?!) clouts. Ruth swung big. He also lived life big. Too big, maybe. Ruth already had gained a reputation for his late-night carousing.
He and Manager Ed Barrow clashed more than once, sometimes in the early-morning hours as the Babe tried sneaking back into his hotel room after curfew. Barrow even assigned a coach, Dan Howley, to keep a watch on Ruth. No one, though–not Howley, not anyone–could keep up with Babe Ruth.
To Frazee’s dismay, Ruth also understood his own value to the team, as well as to the box office. He wanted a raise following that big 1919 campaign. A salary of $10,000 a season just wasn’t good enough, the Babe said. He wanted $20,000 in 1920, or he might just sit out. Frazee gulped. The Babe wanted a lot of money. Lannin wanted even more money.
Frazee did what he thought he had to do. He called the perennial also-ran New York Yankees. Owners Jacob Ruppert and the fancily named Tillinghast L’Homedieu Huston were in the market for players. What did they want for Ruth?
The Yankees and Red Sox agreed to a deal that would alter the course of baseball history. Lannin would get $100,000, according to the Creamer book, more than double the amount ever paid for a baseball player. Plus, Rupert agreed to loan Frazee $350,000. The deal was signed Dec. 26, 1919.
Rupert dispatched his manager, Miller Huggins, to inform the Babe. Huggins headed out to southern California and met Ruth on a golf course at Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 1920. Ruth quickly spotted the fiery 5-foot-2 Huggins.
“Have I been traded?” Ruth asked, according to the Leigh Montville book The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth.
Huggins told Ruth about the sale. Well, I don’t know, the Babe said. “I’m happy with the Red Sox,” Ruth decided, according to the Creamer book.
Ruth signed the deal the next day. He’d get $20,000 a year for the next years, plus a $20,000 bonus. The New York papers loved their new player. Boston newspapers were divided. Yes, Ruth was a great player, but, according to a Boston Post columnist, Ruth’s “faults overshadow his good qualities.”
Ruth, from California, called Frazee a “cheapskate.” Frazee, in turn, called Ruth “the greatest hitter the game has ever seen.” He also called him “selfish and inconsiderate.”
The Bambino proceeded to slam 54 home runs in 1920, 35 more than runner-up George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns. He hit 659 homers in 15 glorious, often controversial, years with the Yankees. He led the team to seven pennants and four World Series titles. And, Red Sox fans never let Harry Frazee forget about it. (Frazee would sell the Red Sox in 1923 for $1.15 million.)
The guy sold the greatest player ever to finance his production of No, No, Nanette, the Boston critics howled. Or, did he? No, No Nanette, the musical version of My Lady Friends, did not premiere until Sept, 16, 1925, nearly five years after the Ruth sale. What did the play have to with anything? But, as Montville points out, Frazee used the money from the Ruth sale to finance his theatrical productions. That included No, No, Nanette.
The Red Sox finished in fifth place in 1920 (72-81), actually somewhat better than in 1919 (66-71, sixth place), Ruth last season with the club. They also finished fifth in 1921 (75-79). Then, the bottom dropped out. From 1922-33, the Sox ended up in last place nine times. Twice, they finished next to last. Once, (in 1931) they ended the year in sixth place. Had the curse of the Bambino been cast?
By Glen Sparks
Bill “Moose” Skowron swung the bat five times during his major league tryout at Comiskey Park in Chicago. He knocked at least a few pitches into the upper deck.
“I guess maybe that’s why (the New York Yankees) signed me,” Skowron said, according to a biographical article written by Joseph Wancho for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Moose ended up playing 14 seasons in the majors (1954-67), nine for the Yankees. He belted 211 home runs and drove in 888. The six-time All-Star played on five World Series championship squads. Skowron knocked eight Series homers in 39 games. (He hit three home runs in Game 7s, including a grand-slam in 1956 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
“There weren’t many better guys than Moose,” long-time Yankee teammate and legend Yogi Berra said. “A darn good ballplayer, too.”
Born Dec. 18, 1930, in Chicago, Skowron grew up on the city’s northwest side. His dad worked for the Sanitation Department, his mom for Zenith Radio. (Supposedly, the Moose nickname goes back to Skowron’s childhood. His grandfather gave him a haircut. The kids thought it made young Bill look like Benito Mussolini, the Italian Facist dictator. Later, the name was shortened to “Moose.” Tough neighborhood.)
Skowron mulled over becoming a priest for a while during his youth. Later, his attention turned more to sports. Purdue University offered him a scholarship. Moose played varsity basketball, baseball and football his sophomore year for the Boilermakers.
The following summer, a Yankee scout saw Skowron ripping baseballs around semi-pro ball fields. He invited the burly young ballplayer to a tryout at Comiskey. As mentioned earlier, Skowron did quite well with his handful of cuts.
Originally a third baseman, Skowron learned how to play the outfield in the minor leagues. He hit .334 with 18 home runs and 76 RBI in his first pro season, 1951, for Norfolk of the Class B Piedmont League. For that, he took a league MVP trophy back home to Chicago.
The Yanks called up Moose in 1954. Manager Casey Stengel decided that first base, not the outfield, suited Skowron. That decision prompted Moose to sign up for dance lessons at the Arthur Murray Studio to improve his footwork.
Skowron put together a series of solid seasons for the Yanks. He knocked 23 home runs, drove in 90 and hit .308 in 1956 and followed that up with a similar campaign in ’57 (17-88-.304). Stengel platooned the right-handed hitting Skowron with the lefty Joe Collins at first base.
Moose took over the job fulltime in 1960. He hit behind Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the Yankee batting order for a few seasons. Skowron cracked 26 homers in 1960, 28 in ’61 and 23 in ’62. In his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract, author Bill James argues that playing half his game games at Yankee Stadium cost Moose plenty of home runs. In 1961, for instance, James writes that Skowron hit only 7 homers at home. In 1956, he hit six at home, 17 on the road.
The Yankees, in search of pitching, traded Skowron to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Nov. 26, 1962, for reliever Stan Williams. Moose hit just four home runs and .203 in 237 at-bats for the Dodgers in 1963. He did, however, hit one round-tripper and batted .385 (5-for-13) in the ’63 Series as L.A. beat Skowron’s former club, the Yankees. It was the fifth and final championship for Moose. (Playing ball in Hollywood offered another reward for Moose. He appeared in a 1963 episode of Mr. Ed, the t.v. show about a taking horse. The episode it titled “Leo Durocher Meets Mr. Ed.”)
Skowron played another four seasons in the majors. He even made another All-Star team, as a member of his hometown Chicago White Sox team in 1965.
Following his retirement from baseball, Skowron worked for several years in the White Sox’ community relations department. Inducted into the National Polish-American Hall of Fame in 1980, Skowron died April 27, 2012, at the age of 81.
“He was a great man,” long-time White Sox player and current manager Robin Ventura said. “He was a friend to everyone.”
By Glen Sparks
Lou Gehrig felt tired mid-way through the 1938 season.
Surely, no one knew exactly what that meant at the time. Gehrig had played every game for the New York Yankees since June 1, 1925.
So, Gehrig felt tired in the summer of ’38. So, what? He kept playing; he always did. He played through several fractures over the years and an attack of lumbago, i.e., back pain.
Every season, Gehrig put up incredible numbers. The Big Apple native blasted more than 40 home runs five times. He drove in at least 140 runs nine times and also hit better than .330 nine times. Once (in 1927), he drove in 173 runs. Then (in 1930), he did it again. Then (in 1931), Gehrig set his career mark for RBI in one season. He brought home 185. 185? Incredible.
In 1938, Gehrig hit 29 homers, drove in 114 runs and hit .295. Just about any first baseman might take those numbers and run happily home with them. But, not Lou Gehrig. The year before, the first baseman hit 37 home runs and drove in 158. He batted a healthy .351, leading the American League in on-base percentage (.474) and OPS (1.116).
Gehrig felt tired in the summer of 1938. And nothing was ever the same after that.
“I don’t know why,” Gehrig said, regarding his fatigue. “I just couldn’t get going again.”
Thirty-five years old, Gehrig reported to spring training in 1939. He didn’t hit a single home run in any game. One time, he collapsed at the Yanks’ spring training home, Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg.
Gehrig went north with the team. He played eight games and batted .143 (4-for-28). He didn’t hit a home run; he didn’t even knock an extra-base hit.
The Iron Horse played in his 2,130th consecutive game on April 30. No one had ever done that. Everett Scott held the previous record. He played in 1,307 straight games (June 20, 1916 through May 5, 1925) for the Boston Red Sox and Yankees.
Gehrig walked up to Yankees skipper Joe McCarthy on May 2. “I’m benching myself, Joe,” Gehrig said. The visiting fans at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium gave Gehrig a standing ovation. Gehrig shed some tears in the dugout. He never played in another game.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told Gehrig that he had something called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The prognosis: paralysis, difficulty in breathing, difficulty in swallowing. Mentally, he would be fine.
Gehrig played parts of 17 seasons. He retired with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBI and a .340 batting average, with a .447 on-base percentage and .632 slugging percentage.
On July 4, 1939, Gehrig, speaking in his thick New York accent, told fans at Yankee Stadium, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The fans gave their dying hero a two-minute standing ovation. Babe Ruth gave his former Murderers’ Row teammate a big hug.
The Baseball Writers of America voted Gehrig into the Hall of Fame on Dec. 7, 1939, skipping the usual five-year waiting period following retirement.
Gehrig died at 10:10 p.m. on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37. It was 16 years, plus one day, after his consecutive games streak had started.