The Wrong Man

Is it possible to be innocent and guilty at the same time?

Iconic filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had a recurring theme in many of his most famous movies – an innocent man is accused of a terrible crime and then spends the remainder of his screen time trying to prove his innocence.  All the while, circumstantial evidence layers around him while the police and the actual guilty party close in.

Wrong

However, in Hitchcock’s world, no one was innocent.  Even the wrongly accused had scar tissue – typically, character blemishes that required varying degrees of salvation.  Beating the charge was one thing; a cleared name with a reformed persona quite another.

Under such a plot premise, Hitchcock would – cinematically – stuff his leading man into a burlap sack, toss him into a river, observe the inevitable struggle, and then use some spectacular backdrop to highlight his rescue.  Most famously, in “North by Northwest”, Hitchcock dangled Cary Grant from Mount Rushmore (or at least a studio mockup) after making him serpentine through 136 minutes of cornfields and crop dusters, staged murders, and international espionage before finally reeling him in – an innocent and changed man.

North

Thirty-four years before “North by Northwest” made its debut in 1958, there was, sadly, no one around to reel Jimmy O’Connell to safety.

O’Connell, a professional baseball player, didn’t need salvation, though.  His naïve identity was as smooth and unmarred as a frozen lake before the first skate.  He only needed to have his name cleared, to be found innocent of his crime.

OConnell

Unlike the movies, though, real-life exoneration isn’t as tidy or timely – if it comes at all – as a script that has been worked and re-worked by a creative team exclusively focused on making it tidy and timely.  No, O’Connell’s acquittal quest hadn’t an ounce of Hollywood magic in it.

A big part of O’Connell’s problem was that the only arbiter capable of clearing his name was an utterly ruthless sort, not equipped with either a sympathetic ear or compassionate heart.  He dealt entirely in absolutes and brandished the derived determinations viciously, unconcerned with the resulting damage – collateral or not.

Another not-so-minor obstacle stood in O’Connell’s way as well.  He was guilty.

Perhaps, “guilty” isn’t the correct term.  O’Connell had, indeed, done what they accused him of doing.  However, what he had done wasn’t really a crime – certainly, not in a legal sense, and probably not in an ethical sense, either.

Even decades later, the argument isn’t really over whether he committed the act – he had – it is whether or not the act itself merited any sort of punishment.

EXHIBIT A

As context to O’Connell’s case, consider Exhibit A – the “crime” itself.

In 1924, O’Connell was an eager, second-year player for the New York Giants, and, prior to a late-season game against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, he approached the opposing shortstop, John Sand, with a curious bargain.

Sand

O’Connell offered Sand $500 if the Philadelphia player agreed “not to bear down too hard” on the Giants that afternoon.  Sand refused and reported the incident to his manager, Art Fletcher.

The Giants won the game, anyway, 5-1.

Although O’Connell and Sand both started for their respective teams, neither did much of any value in the contest. O’Connell had a double in four at-bats but did not figure directly in any of New York’s five runs.  And, even with Sand “bearing down” in the ballgame, the Phillies’ shortstop failed to record a hit in four trips to the plate; although he did score Philadelphia’s only run.

The victory clinched the National League pennant for the Giants and punched their second straight ticket to the World Series.

1924 World Series

Meanwhile, the Phillies were fated to complete their seventh straight losing season.  Simply put, a really good team had beaten a really bad one, and that should have been that.

However, word of O’Connell’s bribe attempt swirled from the Phillies’ dugout to the locker room and then all the way the desk of the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Landis.

Landis

Landis was a humorless, pompous former federal judge from Chicago, who many believed made rulings from the bench as much to satisfy his own sensibilities as on the actual merits of the case.  He had been appointed the first Commissioner of Baseball following the scandalous 1919 World Series, in which several members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to lose games.

His appointment was designed, in large part, to deal with the public relations mess of the rigged World Series and, by extension, prevent another one from happening.

1919 News

One of his first official acts as commissioner was to ban the tainted White Sox players from baseball for life.  Although only seven Chicago players could be tied, directly or indirectly, to the illicit cash, Landis banned third baseman Buck Weaver as well – even though he hadn’t been paid or actively participated in the conspiracy – for keeping quiet about the plot as it was happening.

To Landis, ignorance slept in the same bed as instigation.  That is, what you didn’t do could be as damning as what you did.  Moreover, Landis refused to consider any gradients of accountability – there were only those involved and those who were not.  And when he affixed punishment, he used an equally rigid scale – the scarlet letters he handed out were all the same size.

scarletLetter

So, when it came time to take action on the fixed game that wasn’t fixed in 1924, he ruled on the notion of corruption rather than any resulting fraud.  Because of that, the scarlet letter he handed Jimmy O’Connell was precisely the same size as those he handed to the Chicago players who had deliberately disgraced baseball’s most cherished event five years earlier.

O’Connell was banned from organized baseball for life.

Despite the fact that no money was actually exchanged, the Giants-Phillies game itself seemed entirely unaffected, and the transgression was ultimately little more than a young player saying something foolish, Landis saw O’Connell’s brief liaison with duplicity as being just as damaging to the sport as the seven men who took pick axes to the World Series.

Unfortunately, there were no cooler heads around to prevail.  When Landis had been appointed commissioner, he had essentially been given tyrannical reign.  As part of the deal – made at a time when frightened team owners were desperate for order to be restored in baseball – Landis was made bulletproof.  He couldn’t be fired, his decisions couldn’t be reversed unless he nullified them himself, and he required no other counsel before passing judgement.

Landis2

He was a baseball despot.  And for a bombastic, self-important curmudgeon like Landis, that elevated status was intoxicating.  He drank up the autonomy like a stranded man in the Kalahari who had just been thrown a great, big canteen of glacier water.

With a more even-handed view, though, most undoubtedly see the staggering difference between O’Connell’s carelessness and the massive gambling conspiracy that swallowed the White Sox.  And with a closer look at some of the details and circumstances surrounding O’Connell’s incident, the chasm between his transgression and the dishonesty of the 1919 World Series widens even further, making his punishment seem all the more egregious.

EXHIBITS B & C

Consider, then, Exhibits B and C – motives and mitigating circumstances.

Why on earth would a 24-year old backup outfielder still trying to earn his professional stripes like O’Connell do something as outrageous as offering a bribe to a mediocre player on a floundering team, especially at a time when gambling was so widely condemned and scrutinized in the sport?

Granted, O’Connell’s team – the New York Giants – were in a hotly contested race with Brooklyn for first place in the National League that season.  Before the September 27 game with Philadelphia, New York held a narrow 1 ½ game lead over Brooklyn.

O’Connell, eager to prove himself, might have seen convincing an opposing shortstop to gift wrap an important win as a way to get that much coveted badge of approval.  As for the consequences – dire as they were at the time – history is peppered with an unending litany of young men in their twenties doing reckless things for validation.

reckless

Still, no matter how badly O’Connell wanted to win over his teammates the bribery scheme seems an odd and very impractical way to do it.

First, the Giants really didn’t need any conspiratorial aid in beating the Phillies. On September 27, they were 37 games ahead of Philadelphia in the standings.  Paying a player on such a pitiful team to lose to a juggernaut like New York would have been like rewarding a fly for an intentional defeat to the swatter.

The 1924 Giants were also the defending National League champs, so they understood the rigors of a championship run.  They were a powerfully built team, with five eventual Hall of Fame players in the starting lineup and one of the game’s greatest managers – John McGraw – leading them from the dugout.  They were abundantly capable of beating the best teams in the league, much less dispatching a leaky rowboat like the Phillies.

Rowboat

Also, there was a distinct hierarchy on teams of that time, mostly driven by talent and tenure. Befitting the customary attitude of the day, veteran players regarded their less experienced peers as clear subordinates.  And with such a talented roster, the Giants had a clear division of influence in the clubhouse.  Older star players had little patience for defiant young teammates.

McGraw, the team’s venerable manager and unquestioned leader, might have summed up the ballclub’s class structure best when he told one of his players, “Don’t ever speak to me.  I speak to you and you just shut up.”

Giants McGraw

That structure worked, though.  In his 23rd season with New York, McGraw had already guided the team to three World Series titles and had just captured his tenth National League pennant in 1924.

So, the idea that O’Connell would usurp all of the intimidating layers above him and approach John Sand on his own with the bribe scheme is as unlikely as the need to pay for such an easily attainable win in the first place.  No matter how eager he might have been to gain endorsement in the locker room, he surely must have known that independent and impulsive was entirely the wrong way to do it.

Indeed, when Landis called O’Connell in to give his version of events, he told the former judge that New York coach Albert “Cozy’ Dolan had instructed him to make the offer to Sand.  Not wanting to disobey a coach’s direct missive but also fearful of the gambling aspect of the errand, O’Connell asked three of the team’s leaders – second baseman Frankie Frisch, first baseman George Kelly, and outfielder Ross Youngs, all future Hall of Famers, by the way – for their guidance.

Frisch

O’Connell told Landis that the three star players all agreed that he should to do what Dolan had asked.

If true, O’Connell likely felt that he had little choice but to comply.  Refusal might bring reprisal and alienation, making big league success and acceptance that much more difficult.  Besides, the messenger couldn’t be more culpable than the sender, could he?

However, when Landis questioned the three players, they denied knowing anything.  When Dolan was interrogated, he strangely feigned amnesia – neither denying nor admitting guilt, only saying that he could not remember any details of September 27th.

It turns out, the messenger could, indeed, be blamed more than anyone else involved.

Messenger

Although Dolan was also banned from baseball – Landis didn’t accept memory loss as an acceptable plea – it is hard to equate the exile of a 41-year old coaching assistant who had already played out his big league career with the expulsion of a 24-year old hopeful who would never have the same chance.

In the end, the whole sorry episode was a simply case of testimonial weight – who said what and how much it was believed.  No hard evidence was considered, because none existed.

As such, Landis’ decision indicates that he believed O’Connell and Dolan acted in concert and that O’Connell was as responsible for the plot as the older coach.  Further, Landis believed that the three star players – Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs – had no involvement and that O’Connell had fabricated their inclusion in the plan.

However, this version of events raises many more questions than it answers.

First, if Landis believed O’Connell when he confessed to his own part in the incident and the involvement of Dolan, why did the judge think that O’Connell then lied about Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs telling him to proceed with the plan?  And why would a young player like O’Connell implicate his star teammates if he knew they were innocent?  Finally, if Dolan was the instigator, why wouldn’t Landis consider the possibility that O’Connell was coerced into participating, fearful of disobeying his coach’s order?

Dolan

Though, no matter which version of events is to be believed, the biggest question of all is why was the bribe plan created in the first place?

The likely answer to that is as simple as it is sad.

It was a joke.

Given the nature of ballplayers of the time and the accepted hierarchy of the day, veteran players were notorious for hazing young players as a penance to be paid for membership on the team.  As with most hazing, the degrees of the ritual ranged from harmless laughs at a rookie’s expense to physical, psychological torment of a newcomer.

As an example of the latter, the great Ty Cobb was hazed so mercilessly by his older Detroit teammates early in his career that he suffered a nervous breakdown and missed two months of the 1906 season.

Cobb

Mostly, though, hazing involved variants of the former – the long, arduous crawl of a baseball season practically demanded it. A well-crafted gag that involved a gullible neophyte went quite a way towards livening up an otherwise stale routine.

How else to explain why an impressionable young player like O’Connell would offer money to an opposing player on a bad team at the behest of his coach – and likely three of his veteran teammates?

The very idea of making a greenhorn like O’Connell offer to buy something the older players knew they could get for free would have been worth plenty of laughs.  Unfortunately, the premise of the joke involved gambling, and gambling was the great, big boogeyman in the sport.

Once Landis got involved and brought a stenographer into the room, it makes sense – ethics and decency, notwithstanding – why the architects of the joke would have wiped their fingerprints off the whole thing.  Whether it was just Dolan or any of the players O’Connell named who were responsible, they probably – and rightfully – figured that admitting participation, even as a joke, to the stone-faced Landis could have dire consequences.

So, Jimmy O’Connell took the fall and as did any hope of his personal baseball glory.

EXHIBIT D

Finally, consider Exhibit D – the punishment and its aftermath.

Ideally, penalties should be partly punitive and part deterrent with an eye towards reform and meted out mostly on the severity of the offense.

In O’Connell’s case, the punitive portion swallowed everything else.  He’d essentially been given the same sentence for shoplifting that others had received for armed robbery.

Granted, as a deterrents go, there could be few stronger than a lifetime ban for a minor infraction and first-time offense.  However, the impact of the deterrent wasn’t aimed at O’Connell – the punishment had wiped out any chance that he would ever repeat the infraction.  Landis wanted to send the message to the rest of the players in the game that gambling of any sort in baseball would not be tolerated.  So, he fed O’Connell to the wolves to punctuate the point.

And since part of Landis’ initial mission as commissioner was to ensure that there would not be another tainted World Series, he properly reasoned that fear had to be part of the reform.

However, as a reformer, Landis had his shortcomings in that role as well.

While he exiled a slew of individuals from the game for direct or tangential participation in gambling schemes, most were fringe players at the end of marginal careers.  The Black Sox scandal was different only because of the visibility of the mess. In order to put out that fire, Landis knew he would have to stomp on stars like Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte.

Jackson

It is curious, though, how few other notables Landis expelled after that initial purge.  Two years after he removed O’Connell, he certainly had the chance to prosecute two of the biggest names in baseball history.

In 1926, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were implicated in a betting scheme from 1919 when letters written to one of Cobb’s former teammates, including a letter from Cobb himself, became public.  The plan centered mostly around Cleveland, Speaker’s team, deliberately losing a meaningless late-season game to Detroit, Cobb’s team.  A group of players, including Speaker and Cobb, were going to pool their money and bet on the Tigers to win, since the outcome had already been agreed upon.

After the letters reached Landis, he made some inquiries and deliberated shortly before dropping the entire matter.  Detailed accounts of the arrangement in writing – one directly from the accused – were not enough to sway the great reformer into action.

Either an awful lot had changed in two years or – more likely – Landis had openly shown his preference to sacrifice lambs and spare lions.

There had even been whispers that John McGraw himself was involved in the O’Connell incident back in 1924, paranoid that the Phillies might stumble onto a win or two by accident while Brooklyn passed the Giants by dismantling the pitiful Boston Braves on that final weekend.  Even though the practical joke gone awry seems a much more plausible scenario, no one will ever know about the possibility of it actually being McGraw’s brainchild as a genuine bribe, because Landis never interrogated the New York manager.

And if Landis was truly interested in baseball reform, eliminating corruption was only part of it.  Integration also had to be a sizeable piece.  Of that possibility, he once said, “The colored ballplayers have their own league.  Let them stay in their own league.”

His obstinance on the matter – aside from being petty and hateful – played a critical role in keeping African-Americans out of Major League Baseball for decades.  Not coincidentally, it took the new baseball commissioner, Albert Chandler, less than two years to see what Landis could not in a quarter of a century, clearing the way for Jackie Robinson’s big league debut in 1947.

Robinson

As for Jimmy O’Connell, he played in an “outlaw” league in Arizona for a time, because it allowed players banished from organized baseball (Major and sanctioned minor leagues) to participate. Later, he returned to Central California, where he was born and raised, living a long and honorable life until he passed away at the age of 75.

However, it is in that space of time – from 1924 to 1976 – the fifty-two years after he was sacrificed by Kenesaw Landis that remains tinged with melancholy.

No one knows what kind of Major League career O’Connell would have had.  The odds of any player becoming a star at the big league level are remarkably slim.  Still, O’Connell had shown enough natural ability to attract the attention of John McGraw.  And McGraw had a solid record for spotting raw talent and refining it into productive Major League stock.

In fact, O’Connell had impressed McGraw enough to compel the veteran manager to get the Giants to purchase the young player’s minor league contract for $75,000, a record amount for such a procurement at the time.

Playing for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), O’Connell hit .337 with 17 home runs in 1921 as a 20-year old.  The following season, he had a nearly identical stellar year, hitting .335 with 13 homers.  And the PCL was a high-quality baseball league, often producing players who went on to star in the majors.

As proof, a decade after O’Connell’s graduation, the PCL showcased the talents of three future Hall of Famers – Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Ernie Lombardi.

DiMaggio

So, when Jimmy O’Connell arrived in New York, there was a basis for hope.  He had starred in a league known for producing Major League talent, impressed a legendary manager with a keen eye for playing ability, and was joining a perennial championship-caliber team where he would be surrounded by great players.

Although he struggled for playing time and success during his rookie season, O’Connell saw the field in 87 games, hit six homers, and drove in 39 runs as the Giants cruised to the 1923 National League title.

At the start of the ill-fated 1924 season, though, he languished on the bench, playing in only 21 games through the first four months of the year.  Even then, he participated mostly as an afterthought – often entering games as a pinch-hitter or late-game outfield substitute.  In fact, in 8 of the 21 games he played during that stretch, he didn’t even get to bat.

However, as injuries depleted the active roster, O’Connell started to play more.  In August, he started 11 games and responded to the expansion of his role by hitting .302 for the month.  In September, as the Giants raced to stay ahead of Brooklyn, O’Connell responded to the pressure by having his best month in the big leagues.  He batted .349 and hit both of the home runs he would tally for the year.  In one memorable series against Boston, he collected 9 hits in the four-game set, including a perfect 4-for-4 performance in a 10-2 win.

As if to punctuate his rise as a player on a pennant-winning team, O’Connell had three hits and a home run in the final game of the regular season and, as it turned out, the last game he would ever play in the majors.

New York went on to lose the World Series to the Washington Senators in a tightly contested seven game set.  In fact, Game 7 went 12 innings before the Senators finally pushed across the winning run on a bad-hop single.

Senators

By then, O’Connell had already been removed from the team and was not allowed to play in the Series.  While there is no way of knowing, it is compelling to wonder if having a player who hit nearly .350 in the final weeks of a tight pennant race would have helped swing the results of such a close championship series towards the New Yorkers.

Sadly, like the rest of Jimmy O’Connell’s big league baseball life after September 28, 1924, there are only hypotheticals instead of concrete accomplishments.  If there was any real crime committed in 1924, it didn’t involve a rejected bribe; it was the theft of a young man’s future.

OConnell2

They got the wrong man, and Alfred Hitchcock was nowhere to be found to reel him in to safety.

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The Second Pioneer

All they ever wanted was the opportunity, simply the chance to showcase their abilities.

However, for sixty-three years, Major League Baseball stubbornly refused. So, African-American players – many among the greatest to ever play the sport – were forced to participate outside of the game’s brightest spotlight. And they had to collectively endure this ignominy knowing that their rightful notoriety, the records they would have set and the glory they would have earned, was given to others for decades.

When the moment finally came for integration, two men faced the monumental task of proving the worthiness of those denied the opportunity and of confirming the promise of those who would get the chance if the duo succeeded. And the two pioneers essentially led parallel baseball lives – their courage tested by unprecedented pressure and resistance over the same nerve-wracking season. However, only one of them is universally recognized for the achievement.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson leapt into the abyss.

He was the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues since Fleetwood Walker appeared in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. When Robinson stepped on the field that spring afternoon as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had no way of knowing what would be waiting for him. So, he just laced up his spikes and went out and played – a black man on a green field and as alone in those spikes as any player ever on any baseball diamond in history. One small step for baseball, and one giant leap for social justice.

Some make the claim that 1947 marked the year that Major League Baseball opened its doors to African-American players. However, be very clear on this. No one ever opened any door for Jackie Robinson. At best, that door was grudgingly left unlocked. And even that action required some measure of chance.

Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey had to risk his professional standing and reputation, which he had spent decades building, to unlatch the game’s segregation deadbolt before anyone could stop him. It was up to Robinson to kick that door open and walk through. And the ugliness and vitriol he found on the other side was stifling. Jackie Robinson played baseball in a furnace that season.

He was jeered relentlessly by opposing players and fans, and the words had barbs – jagged racial claws designed to penetrate the psyche. The worst of it came in Philadelphia. In an early season game against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman unleashed a torrent of vile epitaphs at Robinson all afternoon. And he did so with such fervor it was as if he had lost his mind – which, in a way, he had. After all, unfettered racism requires at least a touch of insanity.

However, Chapman’s vulgarity stunned even Robinson’s Brooklyn teammates, some of whom had circulated a petition before the season started urging management not to allow a black man to be part of the team – friendly fire that hadn’t an ounce of friendliness in it. Now, though, they became incensed at the insults blaring from the Philadelphia dugout. Perhaps hearing such intolerance in the extreme finally brought clarity to what Robinson was truly up against.

Although he eventually earned the acceptance of his teammates from that ugly afternoon onward, Robinson was still principally alone. Meals and lodging could be denied with a shoulder shrug but no remorse. Venomous letters snaked their way through the mail system, threatening violence and death but lacking the senders’ identities – the anonymity confirming the cowardice of the authors.

Robinson braved it all knowing that the world was watching everything he did. Judgements would be passed and futures would be built based on how he carried himself on and off the field. As it turned it out, his pioneering moments in baseball weren’t really about the game at all. The diamond was just a proving ground for a much larger audition – the role of a social and professional equal. And he was the only one who truly understood what pressures and obstacles challenged him every moment of every day he underwent that relentless scrutiny. The utter sense of isolation must have been overwhelming.

However, on July 5, there was another player who walked through Major League Baseball’s most unforgiving doorway and also somehow found the strength to keep playing.

Lawrence Eugene Doby made his Major League debut precisely 82 days after Jackie Robinson made his. Signed by the Cleveland Indians, Doby became the first black player in the American League, while Robinson remained the lone African-American in the National League.

And like Branch Rickey in Brooklyn, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck had to be willing to accept whatever personal and professional consequences came his way by signing Doby.  Still, it was entirely up to Doby to withstand the inevitable storm once he put on a big league jersey.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. While Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking efforts are justifiably lauded for the courage and strength he showed the world during that simmering summer of 1947, Larry Doby has inexplicably faded from view despite going through a similar trial.

After all, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for things to have been made substantially easier for Doby than Robinson in the space of those 82 days. The ugly racial anger did not stop at Jackie Robinson’s feet. So, when Larry Doby stepped onto the field as a Major League player for the first time, he also wasn’t immune from the glares and humiliating insults. Nor was he readily accepted in his own locker room. When he extended his hand to introduce himself to his new teammates, some of them refused to return such a simple courtesy.

The abuse and anger must have hurt just as much in a Cleveland uniform as they did in Brooklyn flannels.

But Doby just kept playing baseball. Like Robinson, he did so with such resolve and dignity that his detractors appeared all the more bitter and small-minded for belittling him. And both men knew that their accomplishments on the field would not only inspire others to follow them but also definitively put to rest the notion that their race was in any way an intrinsic hindrance to their abilities. So, the pressure to succeed was enormous, because the consequences of failure would have been devastating.

However, each dealt with that unenviable burden in vastly different ways. Robinson channeled his understandable rage directly into his game, playing with a fury and fearlessness that hadn’t been seen in the big leagues before – and, perhaps, hasn’t been seen since. He used his speed to intimidate defenses, daring them to try to throw him out on the base paths. Stealing home is widely considered the riskiest base running move in the game, and Robinson achieved the feat 19 times in his 10-year career. In fact, his steal of home in the opening game of the 1955 World Series remains one of the iconic images of the sport.

Conversely, Doby took a steadier approach, fluid and patient at the plate. However, when the moment was right, he could flash his considerable power. He led the American League in home runs twice and drove in over 100 runs five times in his 13-year career.

And it was there for everyone to see – power and speed, thunder and lightning on a baseball field. Both players thrived when it was imperative that they succeed. Robinson finished his brilliant career as a six-time All-star, a National League MVP, and a two-time batting champion. For his part, Doby was named to seven All-star teams and hit 253 home runs. And both men were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame, recognition that they were each among the very best to ever play the game.

More than that, they helped to change the way America treated its differences. For those who think sports are superfluous – and, admittedly, they often are – there are moments when they transcend the playing field and create lasting impact, like the summer two men demonstrated how grace and honor could trump selfishness and hate. It was that rare instance when sports heroes truly did something heroic.

For that, they should be inexorably linked to one another – a pair of solid gold cufflinks on baseball’s most elegant tuxedo.

However, one has, unfortunately, been separated from the other along the way. And the meager space between their big league debuts hardly explains how differently each man has been regarded by history. While there is an undeniable tendency to place a premium on the first to accomplish anything, it remains a mystery why, in this case, that premium has all but erased the historical memory of the next in succession.

Perhaps, geography played a part in the disparity of recognition. Fair or not, headlines in New York tend to overshadow headlines from just about anywhere else in the country. Maybe the electrifying style of Robinson’s game, his irresistible energy on the diamond, captivated social stenographers to such an extent that Doby’s more understated persona was steamrolled by the time the story of 1947 was ready to be committed to record. Or it truly could be as simple as celebrating who was first and casting the rest into the shadows.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, save 82 days, the two men counted on to legitimize the principle of equality on a baseball field – and the whole of American society, for that matter – did so at the same time and under virtually the same hostile circumstances. And the way they are collectively remembered should reflect that symmetry and not the imbalance of lionizing one but ignoring the other.

The honored spotlight given to Jackie Robinson need not be dimmed in any way, just widened enough to include the strong and steady power hitter from Cleveland who co-authored one of America’s most important chapters. Certainly, Larry Doby is owed at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/robinja02.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/1997-04-03/local/me-44858_1_jackie-robinson

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dobyla01.shtml

http://www.jockbio.com/Classic/Doby/Doby.html

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/recbooks/rb_stbah.shtml

Photos:

http://images1.variety.com/graphics/photos/_storypics/jackie_robinson_batting.jpg

http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/23/21bbc4a7-7175-44c0-8bf0-f7f14260f39e_lg.jpeg

http://courageouscharacterofjr.org/myPictures/jackie_robinson_hate_mail.jpg

http://www.mlbclubhouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/jackie-robinson-history-mlbclubhouse.jpg

http://governors.rutgers.edu/njgov/byrne/images/JackieRobinson_LarryDoby.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/Larry_Doby_1953.jpg/200px-Larry_Doby_1953.jpg

http://www.baseballsblackheritage.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Jackie-Robinson2.jpg

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/1104/sports-greatest-moments/images/jackie-robinson-m.kauffman.jpg

http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/photos/qkzTzVp2.jpg

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XY-XshGhMU

Head Games – The Tragic Consequences of Pitches that Got Away

Home plate on a baseball diamond measures precisely seventeen inches in width, and pitchers and hitters have been fighting over every single speck of it for more than a century. It is the eternal struggle in baseball and the most direct confrontation in all of sports. And it all happens in a fraction of a second.

Hitters have only the instant from the time the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it arrives at the plate to do a myriad of things. Balance, speed, the proper timing of the hands, the correct angle of the bat, knowing a pitcher and what pitches he throws at what speed and with what degree of movement, considering the count and game situation and how that might effect pitch selection – a hitter needs all of that all at once, all in the time it takes to blink.

Although pitchers can be more deliberate – working with catchers via hand signals and other physical cues – to determine pitch type and location, their key contribution to the game action, the pitch itself, is just a flash. However, pitchers know the inner and outer sections of the plate provide the most difficult angles for hitters to squarely drive a ball. In order to maximize life on the edges, pitchers also know that each edge has a symmetrical relationship to the other. That is, even for a pitch to one side of the plate, the other side remains important, because pitchers necessarily need to convince hitters that any pitch in any batting sequence can be thrown to either edge.

So, while pitchers seek to create pitching angles, hitters naturally look to cut them down, to flatten them out as much as possible. And the closer a batter sets up to the plate the clearer the intent to try to block the inner corner, push pitch selection out toward the middle and opposite edge of the strike zone, and improve his reach to outside pitches.

In its most basic form, the pitcher-hitter showdown is territorial. However, such a standoff is more than just a simple property dispute. This simultaneous claim of ownership – with the very public success or failure of heated rivals at stake – brims with emotion. Add a dense leather sphere traveling at potentially lethal velocity into the equation, and the conflict over who holds the deed to the most valuable foot-and-a-half in the sport can turn deathly serious in an instant. In the time it takes one pitch thrown with angry intent to reach a hitter, a career can be jeopardized – or worse.

Fortunately, most encounters between pitchers and hitters do not remotely involve such dire circumstances. While there is commonly the uneasy hum of competitive tension bubbling beneath the surface on nearly every pitch, most throws that do go astray, by design or accident, result in little more than frayed tempers or dull pain and nasty bruises. However, improbability does not diminish the depth of consequence when something awful does occur.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to minimize the risk of potential calamities at the plate by siding with hitters and regulating the intent of pitchers throwing too far inside. A system of warnings and ejections for perceived willful throws directly at batters is designed to blunt the motivation for such deliberate miscues.

Predictably, there has been resistance to the new process. Many purists of the game – and nearly all pitchers, of course – have taken umbrage at the idea of artificially policing what has seemingly been an organic part of the game, especially when that policing heavily favors one primary group of players over the rest. To such opposition, limiting a pitcher’s ability to fully protect the plate unnecessarily restrains a crucial part of the core activity in baseball. For decades, the tug of war between pitchers and hitters over creating and shutting off pitching angles to the plate has involved an uninterrupted procession of hissing inside pitches, hit batsmen, defiant hitters, and glowering pitchers, with little more than psychological warfare and thankfully few physical casualties as by products.

Perhaps, the mastery of the inside pitch as the ultimate tool of intimidation without the wreckage of shattered careers or serious injury was best embodied by a pair of extraordinary pitchers who ruled the mound in the 1960’s with the authority of despots.

St. Louis Cardinal ace Bob Gibson’s ferocity on the mound was only matched by his unshakeable resolve. In his eyes, every inch of the plate belonged to him. Gibson considered hitters who encroached on the inner edge – or even hinted at it – as trespassers. And he dealt with the unwanted intruders swiftly and severely. Whether the ball actually struck a batter or sent him sprawling in retreat, the missive was the same – back down or get down. It made little difference to him which, so long as he was free to operate on both sides of the plate. That hitters were made uneasy by the tactic was just an added bonus. And because his pitch command was so precise, he could send such messages without a hint of ambiguity.

Like Gibson, Don Drysdale had a mean streak. There was menace behind his pitching, and he had no qualms about directing that venom toward the men standing at the plate to protect his stake in it. As proof, the long time Los Angeles Dodger stalwart led the National League in hit batsmen five times and finished his 14-year big league career with 154 of them. His fearless, and ruthless, demeanor earned him a reputation as an enforcer, as willing to hit opposing players if his teammates had been thrown at as he was to spin the enemy off the plate for crowding it. When Drysdale was on the mound, hitters knew he could turn the stitches on a ball into teeth and had little trouble sending it howling at them ready to take a bite.

So, it’s no surprise that Gibson and Drysdale have typically been the first names brought up in defending the strong armed tactics of pitchers chasing hitters off the plate. However, those pining for the “good old days” of self-policing, unfettered intimidation, and everything else that came with the distorted form of frontier justice practiced by the pitchers of yesteryear may do well to remember the destructive force a baseball carries when traveling the 20 yards from mound to plate at the velocity generated by a major league pitcher. They may also do well to remember that Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were both Hall of Fame talents with the rare ability to place a pitch precisely where they wanted.

However, most pitchers do not have that exquisite level of control, and the chaos of a pitched ball gone amok is frighteningly indiscriminate. Any batter who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can have his baseball world turned upside down in a heartbeat – great, not so great, grass green rookies – it doesn’t matter. Once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and veers wildly off course, fate bows to the law of physics. A fast moving projectile will be halted by a solid mass. That such an abrupt and violent collision can happen by accident only underscores the risk of deliberately throwing a pitch astray even without the intent to harm in any way.

An eventual Hall of Famer, a superstar in waiting, and a rookie stepping into a big league batter’s box for the first time all experienced those hellish consequences first hand.

Mickey Cochrane was a natural leader. His white-hot temperament and insatiable hunger for success simply wouldn’t allow any other way. As a catcher on Connie Mack’s great Philadelphia Athletics of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the granite foundation for the burgeoning dynasty. Although Philadelphia’s rosters were loaded with stars during that span – including Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove (Hall of Famers, all), Cochrane deferred to none of them. His combativeness and commitment demanded attention and simultaneously ignited and challenged the competitive fire of his teammates. That Mack entrusted his catcher to prod, cajole, and browbeat his own hand-picked roster into a winning mindset spoke volumes about Cochrane’s leadership effect on a team.

However, Mack’s Philadelphia franchise was in perpetual financial difficulty due to lagging attendance. So, he was often forced to trade his star players to avoid hefty salary demands and garner additional cash in return. Cochrane’s turn came in 1934 when he was sent to Detroit.

However, no sooner had he arrived in Michigan than he was named skipper of the club and became one of the youngest player-managers in league history at the age of 31. Leading the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and 1935, Cochrane cemented his reputation as a star on the field and in the dugout. In fact, as icing, he capped that magnificent 1935 season by scoring the winning run to bring Detroit its first World Series title. By 1937, Cochrane had entrenched himself as a local sports icon in the Motor City and was still considered one of the best catchers in the game. Through late May of that year, he was hitting .306 with nearly half of his hits going for extra bases and appeared to be headed for another stellar year at and behind the plate. In a game against the Yankees on May 25, he hit a third inning home run and looked to follow that up with another damaging blow to the New Yorkers in the fifth. He ran the count to 3-1 and, without warning, the walls of his great career caved in.

The pitcher, Irving “Bump” Hadley, threw a fastball that momentarily seemed to be swallowed by the late afternoon sun and then just as suddenly came roaring from the glare, careening out of control and directly toward Cochrane’s head. The one device that would have spared him, the batting helmet, was still 15 years away from regular use. So, when the ball struck him in the head, he had only his wool ball cap between his skull and the horrific impact.

Teammate Charlie Gehringer was on deck and later said Cochrane looked like he’d been struck by an axe as he toppled helplessly to the ground. For the next 48 hours, Cochrane’s life was still in jeopardy as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, Hadley was clearly jarred – adamant that the pitch unintentionally went off course and troubled by the considerable damage it had done to Detroit’s great leader.

After ten agonizing days in the hospital, Cochrane steadily improved but his Hall of Fame career was over. In 13 seasons, he hit .320, won two MVP awards, and played on three World Championship teams. However, his final official big league at-bat illustrated how devastating a single baseball can be under the darkest of circumstances.

While few players have had to endure the anguish of a lone at-bat bringing an immediate end to their careers, an unfortunate handful have had their athletic promise irrevocably damaged in a single moment. Perhaps, that lost potential is even more heartbreaking than the abrupt end of a realized career because of the unanswered questions left in its wake. Crueler still are instances where enough promise is taken away to scuttle greatness but the remaining residue fuels false hope.

Tony Conigliaro was ready to take his place among the pantheon of great Boston sports heroes. Williams. Russell. Cousy. Yaz. They were all going to have to move a little closer together to make room for a young slugger who was bunching up home runs with impressive density at Fenway Park. His name was already written in pencil on the pages of legend, waiting only for his inevitable accomplishments to fill those letters in with permanent ink. But in one instant on one perfectly placid summer afternoon in 1967, it ended. In the time it takes to blink, his name simply vanished from the pages of history.

On one pitch in one game of the long baseball season, Tony Conigliaro’s magical run with the Boston Red Sox ended. California’s Jack Hamilton threw a fastball that sailed high and tight, and Conigliaro never had a chance. The ball struck him nearly flush on the left eye, scrambling his flawless eyesight like a beaten egg. Though he would eventually recover from the beaning, his eyesight would never be the same and his chances at baseball immortality went with it.

And so it was. Tony C, the local kid from Revere, Massachusetts who made good, the right-handed hitting phenom who hit 24 homers in 1964 at the age of 19, and the All-Star right fielder who was supposed to bookend with Carl Yastrzemski for the next decade and give the Sox the most feared lefty-righty punch in the league was essentially done before his 23rd birthday.

He did make it back to the big leagues in 1969 and hit 20 homers. He followed that up with 36 more the following season, a true triumph considering the toll it must have taken on his psyche to step back into the batter’s box and face his greatest demon – the pitched ball. However, the baseball gods simply wouldn’t give him a break, his eyesight, which had cleared enough to allow him back into the big leagues, went for good in 1971. Another comeback in 1975 ended disastrously and at 30 years old, the game had dispatched Tony C for good.

Sometimes, a baseball doesn’t even wait for a player’s big league clock to really start ticking.

A hitter’s first Major League at-bat is the Holy Grail of his professional career. After all, scores of hopefuls seek it, few find it, and fewer still build longevity and legend from it. However, those who do reach that apex never forget it, because that first official big league moment is the culmination of arduous labor and a lifelong love, the joyful intersection of toil and talent. Imagine, though, the cruelty of having that anticipation, built on years of dreams and evolution, evaporate in a noisy, dizzying moment of bedlam.

Adam Greenberg understood, above all else, the value of maximizing his resources. There were more naturally gifted prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in 2005. However, few of them gave more effort or utilized their baseball strengths as constructively as the 24-year-old outfielder.

On July 9, the stars guiding Greenberg’s baseball future rose over Miami. He had been promoted from Double-A West Tennessee a day earlier and was in the Chicago dugout that evening wearing a crisp new big league uniform, awaiting a chance – the moment he’d been preparing for his entire life – to step onto a Major League diamond and etch his name into baseball’s most exclusive roll call. As befitting the pomp of a commencement, Greenberg’s family had flown in to attend the game.

In the ninth inning against Florida with the Cubs leading 4-2, Adam Greenberg graduated. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter and surveyed the scene – one out, flame throwing lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound, and home plate beckoning dreamlike but as real as the crackling dirt under his cleats. As he sunk his feet into the batter’s box – a Major League batter’s box, the thought must have surely entered his mind that his chance to do something great with that first big league pitch was nearly at hand.

It probably seemed like an optical illusion at first. The ball appeared to be chasing him. Rather than focusing on the natural litany of items to hit a baseball, Greenberg had to convert aggression to evasion in an instant. And it was like trying to outrun a runaway train – everywhere and overwhelming to the senses, all at once – giving way to the horrible realization that a collision was inevitable. As the blur of white leather and red stitching ominously zeroed in on him, Greenberg managed to turn his head at the last moment and the ball glanced off of the back of his helmet and struck him fiercely on the neck.

He later recalled gripping his head as tightly as possible, because he thought it was about to split open.

The force of the blow knocked his helmet – the piece of material salvation unavailable to Mickey Cochrane seventy years earlier – off, and the rookie wilted to the soil. A horrible stillness settled into the venue. The pitcher, Santos, was mortified. He had no desire or reason to knock down the young hitter, let alone cause serious injury. Greenberg’s family was inconsolable, their moment of shared happiness turned so profoundly ugly. And Greenberg, himself, was trying to quiet the thunder clap rippling through his central nervous system and summon the courage to get back on his feet.

Fortunately, the pain was temporary. However, dizziness and headaches lingered, unwelcome souvenirs of his sour debut. Within a couple of weeks, though, he was back on the ball field again. In West Tennessee.

To date, he has yet to play in another Major League game. So, his lone experience as a big leaguer is an uneasy dichotomy of the best and worst things to ever happen to him in the game and a constant reminder of the chasm between what might have been and what was.

However, the blackest day in baseball history occurred in 1920 when a perfect storm formed over the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and the plate at the Polo Grounds in New York. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the eye of that maelstrom.

Chapman was a genial sort, well-liked by his peers, beloved by his teammates, and respected by all for his hard nosed play and his devotion to his team. He was also a productive player, batting .300 or better in two of the three years leading up to the 1920 campaign and, at 29, had several more useful seasons ahead of him. His ballclub, the Cleveland Indians, were one of the better collectives in the American League, finishing second in 1919 and again vying for the pennant in 1920.

Cleveland was an efficient team, they hummed with solidarity. Befitting their leader, Tris Speaker – one of the greatest combinations of speed, batting, and defense to ever take the field – they all understood the importance of outsmarting and outplaying their opponents. And, perhaps none of them grasped the concept better than the Indians’ versatile shortstop. Bunting is one of the least glamorous activities in the sport, but Cleveland’s game plan required it, lots of it. In 1920, they would go on to lead the majors in runs scored, chiefly because they also led the big leagues in sacrifices and walks. Put runners on, move them over, and allow the heart of the order to drive them home. It is a simple, time-honored philosophy but few have the patience and will to execute it.

So, Chapman, the reigning American League leader in sacrifices and the pace setter for the 1920 season, was the point man for arranging Cleveland’s chess pieces on the board to their liking. He was one of the most skilled bunters in the game and could place them virtually anywhere on the field that he wished, moving runners along or bunting for hits himself with impressive ease.

However, Chapman’s vocation also carried risk. He liked to practically hover over the plate during his at-bats to see the ball better and give him the best bunting angle possible. So, he had to rely heavily on his wits and reflexes to avoid danger at the plate because of that batting stance.

In mid-August, the Indians traveled to New York to open a crucial three-game series against the Yankees. Cleveland was tied for first with the White Sox and both held a precarious half-game lead over the third place Yankees. The three teams were separated by an eyelash and, on any given day, that eyelash could rest gently with one club only to have flit mercurially to another the next.

On August 16, the Yankees sent their best pitcher, Carl Mays, to the mound for the series opener. Mays, who was on his way to 26 wins in 1920, was something of an enigma. Where Ray Chapman was always ready with a smile and a warm handshake, Mays was taciturn and distant. He could also be prone to fits of rage on the mound if things went poorly and had little patience with teammates who did not measure up to his standards. However, there was no questioning his pitching ability. He had developed a devastating side armed delivery and practically brushed his pitching hand on the ground just prior to releasing the ball. The unusual arm angle also created an unpredictable break on the ball as it snapped toward the plate.

The miserly ways of baseball owners of the time, however, were sadly predictable. Baseballs cost money, umpires had the discretion to determine whether or not to keep them in play, and umpires were employed by the league. With impressive economic pragmatism, owners wasted little time in stringing the three elements together. Umpires were, therefore, instructed to remove as few baseballs as possible from play. Discoloration and/or blemished surfaces were not sufficient reasons for retirement. That such imperfections made the ball harder to see and more difficult to track were trumped by its manufacturing cost.

While clouds began to gather over the Polo Grounds, no one realized what awful fury they carried inside.

The Indians wasted little time in pressuring Mays and his teammates, scoring in the second and again in the fourth to open a 3-0 lead. Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box and likely didn’t notice how thick the air was with bad omens.

It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a horrible, horrible thing to behold – a hitter standing on top of the plate, a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery and a brooding demeanor, and a darkening ball in the fading afternoon light all amid a heated pennant race with its soupy tension simmering to a slow boil.

Like Cochrane after him, Chapman failed to pick up the flight of the ball and, because of the times, had no protective headgear to deflect the imminent blow. The horrific impact was so great that the ball deflected all the way back to Mays, who fielded it and threw to first, assuming that the pitch had struck Chapman’s bat rather than his head.

Chapman steadied himself for a moment before sinking to the ground like an untethered marionette. While the injured player lay prone in the batter’s box, Mays opted to confront the umpire by brazenly offering the fielded ball as evidence that it been roughened, the scuffed cover causing the errant arc of the pitch. The cause had clearly superseded the unnerving effect for the New York pitcher.

And the effect was dire. Chapman never recovered and became the first and only player in Major League history to die as a result of being hit by a pitch. For his part, Mays always insisted it was an accident, but the label stuck with him – the man who threw the only fatal pitch in the big leagues.

Cleveland somehow carried on, despite the heartbreak and anger. They went on to outlast both Chicago and the Yankees for the pennant and completed their mission by taking the World Series. However, the unimaginable cost of their beloved comrade forever marred the triumph. The struggle of sport paled to the hard truth of mortality.

Yet, even after these cautionary tales – Cochrane, Conigliaro, Greenberg, and especially the awful episode that took Chapman’s life – hitters and pitchers still skirmish over that prized pentagon with the intensity of a blood feud. Unfortunately, blood has been spilt and, because the key active element in the exchange – a baseball traveling at high-speed – will always carry destructive kinetic energy, that terrible potential still exists.

However, the pitcher-hitter dynamic is a complicated one. Because pitchers have such a finite area in which to ply their trade, it is understandable that they absolutely refuse to concede any amount of that precious space to the group that is in direct competitive confrontation with them. And it is equally justifiable that hitters, in turn, cannot tacitly accept a practice, regardless of intent, that carries the possibility of ending careers – or lives – merely in the name of sport. So, it remains a standoff with little chance of a resolution that would keep the delicate balance of the game intact.

One can only hope that the participants fully understand and respect the danger within the confines of this standoff and that the vagaries of chance do not happen upon another perfect storm on the diamond. More than anything, the forces of competition should never obscure the importance of valuing people over the games they play. Ray Chapman’s memory and the lesson of that tragic August afternoon deserve at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gibsobo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/drysddo01.shtml

Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cochrmi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/conigto01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/moment010818-conigliaro-beaned.html

http:www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/sports/baseball/22adam.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chapmra01.shtml

Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1920.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192008160.shtml

Photos:

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/images/eps-gif/HomePlate_800.gif

http://img.wikinut.com/img/zf.e.-v9860efpf_/jpeg/724×5000/Bob-Gibson.jpeg

http://www.life.com/image/72386457

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http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2005/08/22/sports/22adam.1844.jpg

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http://nimg.sulekha.com/sports/original700/carl-mays-2009-8-14-13-44-1.jpg

http://legendsrevealed.com/sports/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ray_chapman.jpg

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