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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An All-Star Game without All of the Stars

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1933, which was about 15 years too late.

Granted, that All-Star debut didn’t lack spectacle or star power – seven of the nine starters for the American League were eventual Hall of Famers, while four National League starters later earned Cooperstown entry.

Even the managers carried legend with them.  John McGraw and Connie Mack led their respective teams for 86 years between them, collectively winning 19 pennants and 8 World Series titles.  Both earned Hall of Fame honors and are still considered two of the greatest managers in the history of the sport.

So, as debuts go, the 1933 All-Star Game was, indeed, gold plated and diamond encrusted.

1933 All Star

Still, if the All-Star tradition had started a decade or two earlier, the 1933 edition would have still been played in all of its magnificence, it just would have been the latest in a string of great games leading up to it.  Earlier contests would have also allowed a whole slate of star players the chance to shine in such an elite showcase – a chance not afforded in 1933 because they had already left the game.

Consider 1919 – yes, the year of the Black Sox and the eternal tarnishing of baseball’s soul.  However, if there was an All-Star game that year, the American League could have matched the 1933 roster with seven Hall of Famers in the starting nine. And that magnificent seven would have included top-tier talents like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson – all of whom had retired by 1933.

For good measure, the American Leaguers could boast about having Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, on the team and having the version of him before he decided to corrupt himself and his sport in the World Series that fall.  Harry Heilmann would also be available to them – the only big league player to crest .400, win four batting titles, be selected for the Hall of Fame, and yet remain shamefully invisible in the public’s collective memory.

Harry Heilmann Detroit Slugger

And if the game was close and the team needed an immediate offensive dividend, they could use a 24- year old outfielder from the Boston Red Sox named George Ruth, who was on the cusp of changing the sport forever by tethering the age of power hitting to his booming bat and sling-shotting it forward.

Ruth1918

In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs, 17 more than anyone else in the majors.  He also won nine games on the mound with an ERA under 3.00.  So, if the American League needed it, Ruth was capable of launching a homer to grab the lead and then pitching an inning or two to protect it.

As for the National League, they weren’t exactly sacrificial mutton, either.  They could roll out five Hall of Fame starters themselves, including second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a two-time Triple Crown winner, and pitcher Grover Alexander, whose 90 career shutouts are still the second most All-time after Walter Johnson.

Alexander

Coincidentally, the managers for the hypothetical 1919 game likely would have been the same ones who oversaw the actual 1933 contest, John McGraw and Connie Mack – except they would have been 14 years younger and strategically devoted to the more nuanced “dead ball” aspects of play at that time.

Since the “Dead Ball” era (circa, 1900-1920 and so named because of the lack of carry of the ball) emphasized pitching and base running above all else, the 1919 version would have been more stealing than slugging, more spitballs than fastballs, and much more bunting than anyone has ever seen since.  That is, such strategy would permeate until Mack decided to play his trump card, Ruth, and then the big fellow would try to put a hole in the outfield grandstands with one swing of the bat.

That mythical 1919 All-Star Game would have been an extraordinary thing to behold, for sure.  There would be a few things missing, though – namely, diversity and equality, along with some truly remarkable players.

If the times were more enlightened and the people who ran the majors – as well as the fans who watched – in 1919 had been more accepting and progressive in their thinking, this hypothetical All-Star game would have surpassed the actual 1933 debut in most ways imaginable.

Had star players from the Negro Leagues been allowed to play in the majors in 1919 the infusion of talent and innovation would have been enormous and transformed the sport in ways that might well still be felt today. Such integration would have also allowed two full generations of players to shape big league identities, preserving their baseball legacies in ways only Major League notoriety seems able to do – fair or not – and cast them forward.

But integration didn’t happen in 1919 or 1929 or 1939, it took Major League baseball until 1947 to finally tear down the invisible fence it had built on ignorance and stupidity and fear.  And that fence had deprived the big leagues of decades’ worth of historical impact and memorable matchups – not to mention the utterly unnecessary insult and vitriol it directed at hundreds, if not thousands, of faultless players.

The failure to integrate baseball in 1919 is especially galling, because America was only a year removed from its participation in World War I.  Among the soldiers sent to fight for flag and country were 40,000 African-American troops.  They served honorably, fought with tenacity, and died courageously.

Soldiers

When the fighting stopped and the soldiers returned, African-Americans collectively hoped that the battle sacrifices of black troops abroad merited social progress at home. Sadly, that did not happen.  Not much changed – in the factories or political arenas or on baseball fields.

Black men could take a bullet in France fighting a faraway war but could not take the field alongside white players in America.

It was a great shame, not just from a social equality perspective but from a sporting standpoint, too, because many of the best players in the world at that time were black.

To underscore this, if the American League could have fielded seven Hall of Fame players with their best starting lineup in 1919 – a rather impressive number – the African-American community of the time could have done even better.  Comprised of black players playing in their own professional leagues that year, an African-American All-Star team would have included eight Hall of Famers.

Centerfielder Oscar Charleston could do it all – a power-hitting, defensive wizard with speed.  And he did it with the kind of competitive edge that bordered on rage but stayed just controlled enough to be considered productive fury.  In 1919, he was 22 and hit a whisper under .400, while belting eight home runs in just under 180 at bats.

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PDCharleston’s outfield mates would have included Pete Hill – a lean base stealer with a slashing, line drive-making swing, and Cristobel Torriente – a stocky Cuban power hitter with surprising stealth.  Defensively, the trio’s superb athletic range would have swallowed would-be hits like few others ever could.

As for defense, few players had better reputations for glove work than third baseman William “Judy” Johnson and shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.  Johnson had remarkable defensive reflexes.  His ability to charge and field bunts became a trademark of his Hall of Fame skills.

Even though he was 35 years old in 1919, Pop Lloyd could still play.  In fact, Lloyd played another 13 seasons after 1919.  Like Oscar Charleston, Lloyd had all-around brilliance to his game.  On defense, he earned the nickname “El Cuchara” when he played in Cuba for his ability to dig out tough grounders, scooping them to nab base runners as though served up on a tablespoon.  At the plate, his tremendous hands allowed him to place the ball all over the diamond and, when needed, he could lengthen the bat and send a booming drive for extra bases.

Lloyd

First baseman Ben Taylor was a gentleman first and ballplayer second.  That he had Hall of Fame baseball talent speaks as much or more to his grace and integrity off the field than his magnificent skills on it.  As a player, he was a smart hitter with a penchant for getting big hits and a nimble defender recognized for his agility around the bag.  As a mentor and teacher, he guided young players for decades after his playing days.  His most famous protégé, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, credited Taylor with not only teaching him how to play first base but also how to be a professional.

Behind the plate, William “Biz” Mackey was everything a great catcher is supposed to be – tough, smart, fearless, and strong armed.  When he called a game, pitchers followed him, because he knew the psychology of hitters as well as he knew the physics of pitching.  It was a lethal combination.  Add to that, a .300 bat and a towering but classy presence, and the result is one of the great catching careers in baseball history.

Mackey Biz 1052.86_FL_PD

On the mound, Joe Williams – appropriately nicknamed “Smokey Joe” – had a fastball that rivaled any of the time for sheer speed and intimidation.  From Seguin, Texas, Williams had the classic look of a power pitcher – tall, broad shouldered, and deadly serious with a baseball in his hand.  Soft spoken off the field, Williams let his searing fastball tell the story.  And when it did, that story included a 27-strikeout, 12-inning shutout, a string of 20 straight wins early in Williams’ career, and a poll naming the tall Texan the greatest pitcher in Negro League history.

Williams

Like their Major League counterparts, a 1919 Negro League All-Star team could also supply a Hall of Fame manager.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive mélange of confidence, defiance, and ambition.  As one of baseball’s greatest managers, Foster also had an impressive range of vision.  He saw things as they might happen, how they should happen, and how best to narrow the distance between the two.

Foster

Above all else, Foster’s vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obedience because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by Pop Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

During one brilliant stretch, Foster’s teams won 12 championships in 13 seasons (1910-1922).  So, in 1919, Foster was still at the apex of his managerial genius.

After he left the dugout, Foster organized the Negro National League and became one of the most visible African-American entrepreneurs in the country.  When he was finished, Foster built some of the greatest black baseball teams in history, built the first black baseball league, and, finally, built a legacy which is still regarded as one of the most innovative and successful in the game.

So, if in some parallel universe, the powers that be organized an All-Star game in 1919 and were impartial and decent enough to allow all players of all races to participate, it would have been one hell of a show.

Consider some of the unforgettable showdowns.

Ty Cobb, sharpened spikes and all, racing into second on a steal attempt, in a virtual dead heat with Biz Mackey’s rifle-armed throw to the bag. Walter Johnson trying to sling his legendary fastball past Oscar Charleston, whose lightning fast reflexes rivaled those of any hitter that Johnson had ever seen. 

Johnson

George Sisler belting a ball deep into one of the outfield gaps then waiting to see if Pete Hill could run it down before it hit the turf.  And Joe Williams, with his cap pulled down taut, staring down brawny Babe Ruth with the game on the line. All the while, Rube Foster would match strategic wits with John McGraw or Connie Mack – three of the sharpest baseball minds in history.

As icing, all of this could have happened at the rollicking and rowdy Polo Grounds, right on the edge of Harlem in New York City.  It was the longtime home of the New York Giants and, with its enigmatic but fascinating oblong dimensions, would have been the perfect cathedral to house this perfect jewel of a game.

Polo Grounds

The fully integrated 1919 All-Star contest was the greatest game that never happened.

But if it had, it would have had a tremendous ripple effect by the time the American and National Leagues squared off in 1933.

Assuming integration continued – and thrived – the 1933 All-Star Game would not only have included big league greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Carl Hubbell, no fewer than 16 Negro League stars and eventual Hall of Fame players would have been available as well.

Catcher Josh Gibson, widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro League history, and outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, similarly regarded as the fastest man to play in the league, would have provided remarkably dangerous levels of muscle and quickness to whichever side was fortunate enough to have them.

Gibson hit so many home runs and hit them with such force that the sheer volume – both in number and decibel level – seems overwhelming.  Some sources credit him with over 900 homers in his 17-year career, including one launched completely out of Yankee Stadium.  While debate may linger on the exact number of home runs he hit, few squabble over the devastating kinetics of his swing.

Gibson

Bell’s speed could not be reduced solely to the art of the steal – using the number of bases he took over his career as the only metric to evaluate his historic quickness.  He learned how to weaponize his speed, turning into as much psychological dagger as strategic windfall.  He often beat out routine grounders for hits and would sometimes score from second on a sacrifice fly.  And that consistent ability to take an extra 90 feet not available to ordinary players made Bell especially worrisome to opponents, because – as the cliché goes – speed never slumps.

Bell2

Pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige named his pitches, called out hitters, and then backed up all of that bluster the moment the ball left his hand.  Paige pitched for 25 seasons, hopping from teams and leagues like a symmetric stone skipping across a lake.  Everywhere he went, though, he entertained and impressed.  In exhibition games against white Major Leaguers, Paige garnered respect for his considerable abilities from a string of big league stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Babe Herman.  They all knew he could play at an elite level; it was only his circumstance that determined where.

Paige

To prove the point, when integration finally came, Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and became an important part of the team’s championship season. Even at the age of 42, he still had enough left in his arsenal to go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

In 1933, though, Paige was 27 and still in the prime of his career.  Had he played in the All-Star Game that year, he would have undoubtedly pushed Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell for the starting pitching nod.

Speaking of Hubbell, his extraordinary run of five consecutive strikeouts against five Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game remains one of the most impressive moments in baseball history. 

Hubbell C 1498.68 = 68 NBLIt is fascinating to ponder whether or not he would have been able to accomplish the same extraordinary feat if Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (even at 37 years old) had been swapped in as part of that fearsome sequence.

As for fearsome clusters of hitters, the Home Run Derby did not become a staple of All-Star festivities until 1985, five decades after the inaugural All-Star contest.  However, since hypotheticals are ruling the day (or at least this blog post), imagine an integrated Home Run Derby in 1933.

The American League quartet of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Al Simmons – Hall of Famers, all – combined to hit over 2,000 career homers in the big leagues.  Even today, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx remain in the top 30 on the All-time home run list.  Foxx, in particular, was so physically intimidating at the plate that pitcher Lefty Gomez once mused, “He wasn’t scouted; he was trapped,” coinciding neatly with his nickname, “The Beast”.

Foxx

National League representation wouldn’t have quite the same pedigree, but the foursome of Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, and Wally Berger includes three Hall of Fame hitters and an aggregate career home run total of more than 1,200.  And Ott’s distinctive swing, which featured a prolonged and high-altitude leg kick, would have added a little panache to the proceedings.

Ott

Not to be outdone, the African-American contingent would have been comprised entirely of Hall Famers – Gibson, Charleston, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.  Despite a relatively ordinary baseball frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Stearnes won seven home run titles in the Negro Leagues and once led his league in stolen bases, for good measure. Wilson was barrel-chested and massively strong.  Despite only being 5-foot-8, many considered him one of the hardest hitters in the history of black baseball.  His nickname, Boojum, was derived from the sound his crushing drives made when they struck outfield walls.

Wilson

The modern day Home Run Derby is – as most modern entertainment pieces are – a glossy, overblown thing designed to fascinate momentarily before being forgotten entirely.  It’s laden with product placement and players who bask in the flash and worship of the moment.

Derby

Mind you, there’s not wrong with it – as fun, fluffy events go.  In fact, most notably, participants are as varied as the international amalgam of the game itself in the 21st century.  In that respect, maybe, the derby isn’t all that fluffy and inconsequential, after all.

Still, a home run contest involving the Bambino, the Beast, Boojum, and a power-hitting “Turkey” would have been far more compelling.  In it, twelve sluggers – all but one in the Hall of Fame – would unleash their celebrated torque, sending an endless stream of great, big soaring drives out of Comiskey Park in Chicago with the wind howling.

No sips of Gatorade or glitzy scoreboard odometer readings.  Just twelve guys in wool uniforms knocking the holy living hell out of baseballs. 

Gehrig Derby

And if it came down to Babe Ruth squaring off against Josh Gibson to see who claimed the home run crown, it would have settled an awful lot of arguments that are now forever in dispute.

So, yes, the debut of the All-Star Game came a few years too late, while the integration of baseball came decades too late.  And all of the remarkable moments that would have come with better timing of both are left in the regrettable place that all other hypothetical triumph resides.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heilmha01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1919-batting-leaders.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=charle001osc
http://baseballhall.org/hof/hill-pete
http://baseballhall.org/hof/torriente-cristobal
http://baseballhall.org/hof/johnson-judy
http://baseballhall.org/hof/lloyd-pop
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=lloyd-001pop
http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/john-henry-lloyd-0
http://baseballhall.org/hof/taylor-ben
http://baseballhall.org/hof/mackey-biz
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/williamsj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/fostera.html
http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-world-war-i.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/gibsonj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/bell.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/paige.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html

Photos:

http://jolietlibrary.org/sites/default/files/1930sa/All-Star%205%20-%203.jpg
http://f.tqn.com/y/detroittigers/1/L/K/0/-/-/Harry-Heilmann.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Ruth1918.jpg
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000053/53381a_lg.jpeg
https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/46/9b/09/469b097580af2e7985f14bf230aefd1a.jpg
http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/styles/fullscreen_image_popup/public/externals/cb1e797507872e6cf1c0285af52acaa0.jpeg?itok=xdSXRkZk
http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/pressofatlanticcity.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/6e/46e9288a-982e-5ac6-93c2-55ddc174c077/571407ecd8204.image.jpg?resize=300%2C331
http://s.hswstatic.com/gif/biz-mackey-1.jpg
http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/smokey_joe_williams.jpg
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000017/0280fb46-4019-4e2a-b3e3-191424bea192_lg.jpeg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/Game1_1912_World_Series_Polo_Grounds.jpg
http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/20150807-2-johnson.jpg
http://baseballguru.com/jholway/image001.jpg
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000017/3a3faefe-9517-4b59-8aa6-73972eab482e_lg.jpeg
http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/cool-5.jpg
http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/20150707-6-satchel.jpg
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/9VxWiHonhkM/hqdefault.jpg
http://stuffnobodycaresabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Mel-Ott-swing-sequence-1.jpg
https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-VznPJDAh68g/TWxuim1_4jI/AAAAAAAAAPg/gl1u07TPI0w/s1600/db_Jud_Wilson_20071.jpg
http://mediadownloads.mlb.com/mlbam/2014/07/16/images/mlbf_34578115_th_45.jpg
http://s.hswstatic.com/gif/lou-gehrig-hof.jpg
http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/styles/fullscreen_image_popup/public/externals/357864d997ad4349df3881618d01e92b.jpeg?itok=EJ5JhkpR

The Pride of Lions

He couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd, but he could feel it.

And it was enough. It had to be, because it was all he was ever going to have.

Curtis Pride played baseball with power and speed, crackling with competitive fire. He also played it in utter silence. When Pride made his big league debut in 1993 for the Montreal Expos, he was the first deaf player to reach the majors in nearly fifty years.

pride-expos

A perinatal case of rubella siphoned his hearing. From birth, he never had the rich texture of sound in his life. Instead, he had to rely primarily on sight and touch to replace audio cues.

For an outfielder like Pride, the game was made even more difficult, because he could not rely on calls from teammates to prevent collisions on fly balls. Nor could he pick up fair or foul calls from umpires. He had to see it happening – all at once – perpetually dividing his vision. He needed to visually process so much more than other players it was a wonder that he could keep it all from dooming his play to distraction.

Reaching the major leagues – one of sport’s most exclusive fraternities – is difficult enough using all of one’s senses stretched taut. However, to arrive at such a coveted spot missing one such perceptive instrument is a stunning achievement.

So, when Pride made it to the big leagues in 1993, he had conquered what few others in the history of the sport ever had. And he had done so while squashing his own doubting whispers – the only sound ever available to him.

As a reward for his remarkable journey, he received a standing ovation after his first major league hit, a double lashed all the way to the left center field wall in Montreal. Even though he never heard the cheers, he saw the enthusiastic faces and felt the vibration of the applause. Perhaps, it was an even more profound way to receive such adulation, because he felt it in his bones.

However, the struggle to reach the big leagues is only surpassed by the more daunting task of staying there. Although he had proven himself at each minor league level – at times even performing brilliantly enough to suggest future stardom in the majors – Pride had difficulty with the staying part of the Major League equation.

He wandered through six different big league clubhouses in 11 seasons and played sparingly, only once appearing in more than 90 games in a major league season and often bounced between the minors and majors in the same year. His lone shining moment in the big leagues – aside from that thrilling ovation in Quebec – came in 1996. That season, he achieved career highs in home runs (10), doubles (17), RBI’s (31), and steals (11) with Detroit. He also hit an even .300, the revered hallmark of batting success.

Pride Detroit

The following year, though, his average plummeted to .210, and the vagabond’s road through the majors beckoned. Although he never hit higher than .252 or played in more than 70 games in a big league season after 1996, he did draw a Major League salary until he was 37 years old.

But he also spent time in Norfolk, Pawtucket, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. In all, he played parts of 23 seasons in the minors and independent leagues, a testament to how difficult it is to fully escape the shadows of the lower floors once the penthouse has been reached.

Salt Lake

More difficult still, of course, was that Pride had to try to maintain his hold on the big leagues as a deaf player – something that only two others had ever done more successfully.

William Hoy and Luther Taylor claimed that they were never bothered by a common troublesome nickname. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were not particularly progressive or enlightened times. So, calling a deaf player “Dummy” seemed strangely normal for the age.

However, neither man lacked the smarts, ability, or courage to play the game – and play it well – amidst the myopic thinking of the day.

Hoy made his big league debut in 1888 for the Washington Nationals, who played their home games at the splendidly named Swampoodle Grounds. Although the Nationals finished last, Hoy was one of the team’s few bright spots. He led the league in steals with 82 and finished the year with a team-high .274 batting average.

Hoy

And he played the outfield with aggressive panache. From center field, he directed his teammates – as a deaf man – on pop ups and fly balls. If the play was his, he would bellow as loudly as he could to signal his bead on the ball. If he couldn’t reach it, he would simply remain silent, tacitly commanding one of his peers to make the play. And he wasn’t timid about his preference for this arrangement.

His teammates respected the dynamic, because Hoy was exceptionally skilled and they all knew it. In 14 Major League seasons, he collected over 2,000 hits, stole 596 bases, and scored nearly 1,500 runs. He was fast and smart and could hit, In fact, he was talented enough to almost make them forget he couldn’t hear.

But there was that nickname.

In time, though, it became a badge of honor, a constant reminder of everything he had to overcome to find success and respect at the game’s highest level.

Just as Hoy was finishing his big league career, a young pitcher in New York was just about to earn a badge of his own.

Luther Taylor played most of his career for the New York Giants and John McGraw, one of the least sentimental managers in the history of the game. So, if Taylor wanted any special dispensation for his deafness, he certainly wasn’t going to get any from McGraw. Not that Taylor ever needed any, though; he was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth and had an undeniable toughness.

Perhaps, it was that tenacity and his intelligence from the mound that won McGraw over. While the pragmatic skipper lacked pathos, he brimmed with loyalty. Once a player proved his competency and combativeness on the diamond, McGraw willingly became a mentor and protector.

In nine seasons with the Giants, Taylor won 115 games with a 2.77 ERA – including a career high 21 wins in 1904, a pennant–winning year for the New Yorkers.

Taylor

Although Hoy and Taylor shared scant overlap in their big league tenures, they did have one collective moment of history. In 1902 – Taylor’s rookie year and Hoy’s final season in the majors – the two squared off in game between the Giants and Reds.

In that instant, the two men transcended their insulting nicknames and shattered perceived limitations. If two deaf men could rise to enough athletic fame to meet on a Major League baseball diamond, the alibis of others for lesser dreams and self-limiting expectation seemed all the more hollow.

Thirty-seven years after Taylor threw his last big league pitch in 1908, outfielder Dick Sipek reached the majors with Cincinnati just four years after graduating from the Illinois School for the Deaf. His Illinois coach, Luther Taylor, couldn’t have been prouder.

And no one called Sipek “Dummy” when he stepped on the field.

Sipek

Although Sipek only played that one season – 1945 – in the majors, he, too, left his mark on the game.

When Curtis Pride made his big league debut forty-eight years later, no one called him “Dummy,” either. By then, perception of a deaf player had progressed to the point where it was merit – and merit alone – that shaped opinions of his play and potential.

Had Taylor and Hoy been alive to witness the thunderous ovation in Montreal a deaf man received for his first big league hit, it would have been that much sweeter to feel the reward for their collective struggle in their bones.

Sources:

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/college/baseball/2010-04-27-gallaudet-curtis-pride_N.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pridecu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=pride-001cur

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/14fca2f4

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/763405ef

Photos:

http://z.lee28.tripod.com//sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/pride-expos2.jpg

http://blog.detroitathletic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/curtis-pride-detroit-tigers-deaf-baseball-player.jpg

http://blogbeckett.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/heardofme10.jpg

http://cincinnati.com/blogs/tv/files/2012/03/Dummy-Hoy-baseball-card.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/DummyTaylorLOC.jpg/200px-DummyTaylorLOC.jpg

http://www.infobarrel.com/media/image/14357_featured.jpg

The Beautiful Madness of Victory Faust

They called him “Victory,” because he brought wins with him – as if pulling them out of his customary derby bowler like some sort of sportsman’s magician.

The real trick, of course, was how he carried all of that winning inside such a modest piece haberdashery. However, the secret behind such sleight of hand resided in only one place – inside the head of the man who wore that magical hat. And a good magician never reveals his secrets.

So, when Charles Victor Faust wandered onto Robison Field in St. Louis seeking the manager of the visiting New York Giants – the legendary and perpetually grumpy John McGraw – he was the only one who knew the furtive key to the team’s inevitable championship success. It was him, only him – Charley Faust, pitcher extraordinaire.

Call it manifest destiny or galactic alignment or whatever term best describes that mysterious mix of fate and symmetrical circumstance, but Faust was certain of its power and his conductive usefulness in bringing McGraw and his underlings baseball glory.

After all, his ironclad belief in such preordained triumph was confirmed by a travelling fortune teller who told him so. And the seer’s vision hadn’t an ounce of vagary – Faust was destined to lead the New York Giants to the 1911 World Series title as one of the greatest pitchers the game had ever seen. Besides, Faust knew that such an agent of the mystic arts couldn’t be mistaken.

There was only one small problem – Faust had no discernible pitching talent. Zero. Nada. Th-th-that’s all, folks.

In fact, Faust’s overall baseball ability was thinner than the lightest dusting of powdered sugar on a stingy helping of french toast. And what McGraw needed for his skilled but floundering ball club during that troubled season was a great, big bag of pure cane sweetener.

The instant the newcomer went into his cartoonish pitching motion and let fly his first lagging throw McGraw felt his stomach churn. Were it possible for a baseball to ooze through the air, that was precisely how slowly the ball crept forward. Ever the pragmatist, the terse New York leader demonstrated his displeasure – and verdict – by dispensing his glove and catching most of Faust’s audition bare-handed.

McGraw hoped that would be that. A little humiliation went a long way with most people. However, Faust was certainly not like most people.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Consider his trek to St. Louis in the first place.

Before that fortune teller conjured up his diamond destiny, Faust led an invisible life. For thirty years, the heat, dust, and hardship of Marion, Kansas had swallowed him up. If anything seemed preordained, it was that Faust – who was born on the family farm in Marion – would die there, too.

And had he a greater level of self-awareness, he likely would have resigned himself to that fate. However, Faust was oblivious to the harsh intersection of social expectancy and personal limitation. Actually, most considered him a simpleton, a dim-witted outcast without a trace of potential.

He was the only one who thought differently. With a childlike naiveté, he latched onto fantastic stories – no matter the unlikeliness of the yarn. So, when he was finally told one with himself as the protagonist, he held onto it with unshakeable resolve – determined to maintain his grip on the tail of that particular frenzied tiger wherever it took him. That it bolted from everything and everyone he knew in Marion solely on the words of a carnival prophet didn’t faze him for an instant.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As John McGraw was to find out, a little bare-handed catch proved no match for Faust’s runaway Bengal that afternoon in St. Louis. The lanky, self-appointed savior simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In an effort to embarrass the prodigal imposter into submission, the Giants’ skipper made him take batting practice.

Still dressed in his street clothes and customary bowler, Faust flailed helplessly at the plate until he finally managed to stub the slowest offering. As the ball sputtered a few precious feet away, McGraw urged him to race around the bases.

As with his pitching, Faust’s base running was uncommonly slow. By the time he ambled to second, McGraw implored him to slide. Since he didn’t know how, he mostly just fell – as if he was on fire and was trying to put himself out. The painful tumble repeated itself at third and finally – mercifully – at home.

All the while, the Giants players and most of the pregame crowd howled with laughter. McGraw, himself, couldn’t help a chuckle. Faust – as always – remained oblivious. Now that he had shown New York’s famous manager his pitching and batting prowess, he was ready to assume his rightful place on the team.

To his surprise, McGraw cheerfully but firmly sent him on his way, and the Giants lost the subsequent game to the Cardinals that afternoon.

Undeterred, Faust showed up at the park the next day to continue to plead his case. This time, he was intercepted by New York players who gave him a spare uniform and – as bullies as always do – made him the focus of their ridicule. For sheer sadistic amusement, they urged him to repeat his wild romp around the bases. What they didn’t realize was that Faust felt none of their intended humiliation. He not only basked in the attention, he felt that such an effort put him ever closer to reaching his destiny.

Sensing the team’s lightened mood, McGraw even allowed Faust to stay on the bench – in uniform – to watch the game and provide levity for his players.

The Giants beat the Cardinals handily – ironically, by running the bases flawlessly and relentlessly.

In fact, New York won the next day and the day after that, as well – all with Faust watching anxiously from the bench.

When they left St. Louis, McGraw decided to abandon his eccentric rabbit’s foot. Accordingly, the Giants resumed their pre-Faust struggles, losing four of six games before returning home – solidly in third place.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball is filled with superstition. For many players and managers – and even fans – winning and losing isn’t just a matter of skill or lack thereof or of random portions of good and bad luck. Historic losing streaks have been attributed to – among other things – a haunted trade, a cursed billy goat, and a fixed World Series.

Individual success is sometimes traced to wearing the same unwashed garments or eating the same pregame meal or letting facial hair grow to impressive tangles. When that winning karma wears off, the next fortune-inducing ritual is deployed in its place.

For a sport that prides itself on painstaking technique and probability-driven game strategy, it is odd that such irrational tendencies coexist with the otherwise overwhelming logic and precision of baseball – it’s akin to going to the Mayo clinic and getting treated by a witch doctor.

So, when Charley Faust reappeared in New York to greet the stumbling third-place Giants, it should have come as no surprise that the team welcomed back its lanky talisman with open arms.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Within a month of having Marion’s luckiest farmer riding shotgun, McGraw’s ball club won 19 of 26 games and surged into first. And it was about this time that Charley morphed into “Victory” Faust – the magical source of the Giants’ winning ways, just as the fortune teller had predicted.

By then, the press had picked up on the story and – realizing what a gold mine of anecdotes and zany adventures they had on their hands – simply let Faust be Faust and raked in the windfall as it tumbled into their laps.

Among the endlessly entertaining things the wide-eyed rural-ite did while unleashed on the unsuspecting city was to secure an inexplicable vaudeville engagement. His “act” was merely to be himself, as he reenacted his base running exploits and his elaborate pitching delivery on stage while audiences hooted with delight.

He was also among the most quotable members of McGraw’s squad. Without hesitation, Faust continued to opine publicly on his confusion as to why he hadn’t been allowed to display his fearsome pitching prowess.

Although he adored all of the attention he received, Faust was troubled by how New York won all of those games – without his direct help. While the impressive string of victories satisfied a part of the vision that guided him to the Giants, it lacked the most important element – as far as he was concerned – him, in the middle of the action.

After all, what good was it to be so close to the field – his toes were practically inside the foul lines – without the chance to lead his team to glory? No, Faust knew he had to convince McGraw to put him in a live game in order to fulfill his destiny.

And when he finally did, the baseball universe would never be the same.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

The Giants clinched the National League pennant on October 5. However, New York still had a full week’s worth of meaningless games to survive before the start of the World Series.

So, on October 7 – the first of such contests – McGraw considered his options; gave a long, hard look at the very end of his bench; and decided to let all hell break loose.

Trailing 4-2 to the dreadful Boston Rustlers, he summoned Faust – the epicenter of ridicule, the very heart of derision – to pitch the ninth inning of this otherwise empty contest.

And from the very moment he stepped onto the field, Faust lived up to every bit of the spectacle. To acknowledge the stunned but lusty applause of the home crowd, he not only took a bow, he performed a luxuriously sweeping genuflection – melting nearly prostrate to the ground in appreciation.

Once on the mound, he went into his dramatic windup – leaning backwards as if pushed by a violent gale, pulling his arms behind his head as far as they would go, and then sweeping his throwing arm forward in big windmill-like fashion. For all of that smoke and fury, the results were just as they were that very first day he stepped on the field in St. Louis – pitches that practically defied all laws of physics by remaining airborne while crawling forward.

Perhaps, Boston’s Bill Rariden – Faust’s first-ever batting opponent – was so mesmerized by the sight of the odd contortions from the mound or that New York’s unofficial mascot was actually in an official Major League game that he couldn’t bring himself to swing at the first two offerings. Nonetheless, both were strikes – slow as hourglass sand but strikes, all the same.

Fearing the utter humiliation of striking out under such circumstances, Rariden came out of his trance just long enough to belt the next pitch deep into left field for a double.

Undaunted, Faust kept going into his manic windup and kept throwing his utterly hittable lobs. Inexplicably, the next three batters made outs. Although Rariden did eventually score on a sacrifice fly, Faust had not only realized his goal of appearing in a live game he performed surprisingly well, pitching a full inning while only allowing a single run.

As if the day couldn’t get any stranger, the game still had another half-inning to go and it did, indeed, get more bizarre.

Needing three runs to tie the score, the Giants were down to their final out when catcher Grover Hartley stepped up to the plate. However, few fans likely noticed Hartley because all eyes were fixed on the player standing on deck, the Kansas phenom himself – Victory Faust.

Although Hartley couldn’t extend the game and made the final out, Faust simply refused to leave. With a juvenile’s insistence to make reality conform to his desires, Faust walked into the batter’s box, anyway.

Sensing an opportunity to enliven an otherwise awful year, Boston players went along for the ride. Allowing the enthusiastic but woefully unskilled hitter to tap a ball into play, the Rustlers bungled throws and tags while Faust furiously circled the bases.

As he rounded third and anticipated scoring, Faust couldn’t help himself and went into a frantic and awkward slide. Unfortunately, he was tagged out – more than ten feet short of home plate.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

If it had ended there, it would have been a remarkable thing. Faust had appeared in a Major League game and would forever be part of baseball’s official record. He had dreamed of being a big league player and – thanks to one inning of cosmic serendipity – he was.

However, it didn’t end there.

On the last day of the 1911 season, the Giants played an arduous and unenviable doubleheader against Brooklyn. And with the light of the long year fading at last, McGraw called on his eager right-hander one more time.

In the ninth inning of New York’s final regular season game, Faust took the mound with the Giants trailing 5-1 and proceeded to retire the side without giving up a run. Although nothing had changed in terms of his pitching ability – or lack thereof – he accomplished what many pitchers of legitimate skill fail to do, hold a big league lineup scoreless for an inning.

As it turned out, his encore surpassed his debut in every imaginable way.

After dispatching Brooklyn without denting the scoreboard, he lead off New York’s half of the ninth – finally securing a much coveted Major League at-bat, the earlier farce against Boston notwithstanding.

Whether the Brooklyn players felt sorry for the enthusiastic but hapless Faust or if they had ultimately been charmed by his unabashed earnestness, they made sure his trip to the plate was a success. Of course, given a hitter of Faust’s “unique” talents, such an undertaking wasn’t as it easy as it sounded.

If he made contact, he would undoubtedly race around the bases without stopping – or thinking – and Brooklyn would be forced to kick the ball around in an actual Major League game until he eventually barrel-rolled into home. The only plausible way to prevent that was to get him to first base without the complications of having the ball put in play.

So, Brooklyn pitcher Eddie Dent hit him.

Once he was on base, Faust had a bit of a quandary. He had been so used to racing around the bases directly from the batter’s box that he wasn’t quite sure what to do from first. So, he improvised, and stole second base.

Sensing how easy stealing bases was – never mind that the catcher hadn’t bothered to throw until after the fact – Faust pilfered third as well. And when New York third baseman Buck Herzog grounded out, the Giants’ most celebrated rookie came lumbering home.

Although the final box score read – Brooklyn 5, New York 2; it just as easily could have read – Victory Faust 1, Probability 0.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Faust’s long, dizzying fall from grace was probably inevitable, but there was an undeniable heartbreak to it.

His fortunes as the Giants’ good luck charm – the only real value he had in John McGraw’s eyes – turned sour when the team needed him most. New York lost the 1911 World Series to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, four games to two.

Although the players, who had come to befriend Faust rather than disparage him, never blamed the affable innocent for the Series defeat, they couldn’t save him, either. McGraw was the king of the castle, and he had no use for his jester once he failed to amuse – and help them win.

So, he turned his back on Faust – refusing correspondence and personal pleas – leaving the simple-minded Kansan to wonder why the greatest pitcher on Earth was no longer welcome on a team he had lifted to such heights.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

It could be argued that giving a deluded fellow like Charles Faust fuel for his delusion only made things exponentially worse. After all, hope to a man like that necessarily provided his mirage with structure and strength. And, ultimately, it gave his fantasy the hunger it needed to devour what little sense of reality remained around him.

Once professional baseball moved on without him, he went to pieces. He found the idea of being a pitching ace – with Major League experience, no less – without a team to save appalling. A glorious and deserved return to the big leagues became an all-encompassing obsession.

However, financial troubles forced him from the East Coast. back to Kansas, and then out West, where he finally settled in Seattle – near one of his brothers. All the while, he insisted that once his money issues were settled he would make it back to New York in time to help his old team win another pennant. As a final, twisted chapter of his rampaging fixation, he was found wandering the streets insisting that he was walking to New York to resume his baseball career.

On December 1, 1914, Faust was committed to the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane in Steilacoom, just outside of Tacoma. He died there six months later of tuberculosis – no doubt wondering why John McGraw hadn’t invited him back to the Giants to fulfill his inevitable athletic glory.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Over time, the strange tale of Victory Faust has become more fable than fact – the central character somehow more loveable cartoon than flawed man. Still, if Charles Faust – not Victory – is owed anything by history, it is that he was genuine in his desires and – for a pair of remarkable days – lived every bit of them while people cheered.

And that is the sort of magic trick worthy of the very best of magicians.

Sources:

Schechter, Gabriel, “Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants.” Charles April Publications, Los Gatos, CA, 2000.

Photos:

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/001/238/572/faustcharliethumb_medium_display_image.jpg?1314756038

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Charlie_Faust.jpg/165px-Charlie_Faust.jpg

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http://www.baseball-birthdays.com/archives/October/09/images/Charlie%20Faust.png

A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.

Sources:

Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/granted01.shtml
http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/history/upton/lost.htm
http://www.baseballreliquary.org/EddieGrantPlaque.htm

Photos:
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