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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A Beautiful Dream

In 1943, flamboyant baseball owner Bill Veeck was on the verge of turning the Philadelphia Phillies into one of the greatest teams in Major League history.

Only, it never happened.

Depending on whose account is to be given credence, this tantalizing transformation failed to materialize either because the lords of baseball and their petty prejudices wouldn’t allow it or that it was merely another tall tale from Veeck’s sizable imagination.

Still, the premise for this transformation, even if only imagined by Veeck, is fascinating.  So much so, it has held the attention of baseball history aficionados for decades, largely for its delicious promise. As the story goes, Veeck, the freewheeling owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, wanted to purchase the floundering Philadelphia Phillies prior to the 1943 season. After securing finances to make the deal, he made a rather curious decision. As a courtesy, he told baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his plans for the team – he intended to fill Philadelphia’s roster with as many star players from the Negro Leagues as he could secure.

Of course, 1943 was four years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and fast talking, faster thinking Bill Veeck not only admitted his intention to bring down that barrier but his desire to smash it to pieces by bringing not just one but several black players into the league all at once. And he disclosed this salacious plan to one of the biggest crusaders against the integration of baseball. For decades, Landis made it no secret that black players would not be welcomed in the majors during his watch. So, Veeck’s decision to tell one of the most powerful men in baseball that he intended to break one of the policies Landis held most sacred at the earliest opportunity was curious, indeed.

Predictably, Landis, fueled by his notorious racism, stopped the deal in its tracks and made certain that the team would never be sold to anyone who had the unmitigated gall to bring black players into the league en masse. End of story.

Well, not quite.

The fascination over Veeck’s wildly noble scheme never really ebbed. If anything, the distance of decades seemed to magnify the nobility and ramifications of his plan had it ever been allowed to blossom. There was a problem, though.

Despite growing numbers of sources retelling the story of Veeck’s lost bid to shatter Major League Baseball’s segregation policy as unquestioned fact, others were beginning to discover serious credibility issues. Chief among those issues was the unsettling absence of anyone other than Veeck who could or would corroborate any of the key events. In fact, Veeck, himself, was somewhat questionable on a credibility basis.

After all, Bill Veeck was P. T. Barnum with a cigar in one hand and a scorecard in the other. He was baseball’s most ostentatious promoter whose considerable ability to publicize his teams was only exceeded by his even greater ability to promote himself. So, when the full story of the failed baseball revolution of 1943 was finally told, it should have come as no surprise that it was Veeck who did the telling in his 1962 autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck.”

And Veeck’s version of the events was riveting. Abe Saperstein, eventual founder of the Harlem Globetrotters and longtime Negro League agent, and Fay Young, sports editor for the Chicago Defender – one of the country’s leading black newspapers, were at the starting line with a list of desired players and briefcases full of contracts. They were waiting only for Veeck to fire the starter’s pistol and send them on their way on the wildest talent sprint in baseball history. Veeck was on a mad dash of his own. He needed as large a bag of cash as he could collect to present to strapped Phillies owner Gerry Nugent in exchange for the deed to the team. Negro League stars Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Satchel Paige continued to practice their glorious baseball magic on the diamond, unaware that they were on the precipice of being teammates and eternal pioneers. All the while, Landis and National League president Ford Frick stewed in smoke-filled rooms concocting their own nefarious scheme to stop the unwanted interlopers and preserve the porcelain hue of the game for good.

Without doubt, it was an exquisite narrative – told by Veeck, chiefly involved Veeck, and reminisced by Veeck. However, as intriguing as was the cast of characters and as compelling as was the plot, the singularity of the story’s voice began to raise more and more questions about what really did (or did not) happen in 1943.

Highly respected baseball researchers David Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John Rossi tackled this in 1998 when they jointly put together a rather detailed and painstakingly sourced paper refuting nearly all of Veeck’s claims. They focused once again on the utter lack of corroboration for Veeck’s version, particularly from contemporary sources at or near the time of the events in question. No one, it seems, ever spoke a word about what should have been a very public and speculation worthy topic except Veeck. Jordan, Gerlach, and Rossi also took a hard look at some of the details of Veeck’s story which, to them, defied logic and damaged the tale’s credibility even further.

However, even skeptics have skeptics. In 2007, noted baseball historian Jules Tygiel fired back. While acknowledging some of the larger points of the trio’s findings, Tygiel suggested the difficulty in disproving something on the basis of what did not happen. That no one other than Veeck offered up any details of the events of 1943 did not, in itself, mean that Veeck was deceitful in his recollection. Further, Tygiel also cited acknowledgement by Saperstein and Young in support of Veeck’s plan, but neither mentioned any direct participation themselves. However, this acknowledgement does provide an important counter to the notion that Veeck, and Veeck alone, was the only one who knew of the plan. So, perhaps, he was not entirely alone in that quixotic tale of 1943, after all.

Ultimately, though, the exchange of munitions within baseball academia over whether Veeck actually attempted this historic notion or merely dreamt it up is secondary to the dream itself.

Consider the reality of the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies. Taking the field on Opening Day that season, they were as lily-white as half the keys on a piano and played just as poorly – discordant, aesthetically vacant, and absent the necessary balancing keys to supply harmony. They finished seventh in the National League with a 64-90 record, while the greatest black players on the planet were stubbornly left on the outside of the majors looking in.

However, had Veeck truly orchestrated and successfully completed his takeover of the Phillies that season, somehow avoiding the vindictive gavel of Landis, he and his lieutenants – Saperstein and Young – still wouldn’t have been home free. Certainly any influx of talent from the upper echelons of the Negro Leagues would not only have made the pedestrian play of the ’43 Phils that much better it would have given the team a style and electricity nowhere else to be found in the league.

1943 was a complicated year, though. War was raging at a terrifying rate all over the globe, and the impact of the conflict was felt everywhere, even in the seemingly safe haven of sports. American ballplayers in their baseball prime, Negro League and Major League players alike, were also of prime military service age. As such, most served dutifully and honorably but were, therefore, unavailable on the diamond that season and beyond.

This meant that the crown jewel of the Negro Leagues at the time, 24-year-old superstar Monte Irvin, was destined for basic training rather than spring training, and Veeck’s likely number one signing priority was unquestionably off the board. Irvin, whose dazzling combination of speed and slugging powered the Newark Eagles for nearly a decade, finally got his chance to showcase those abilities at the Major League level in 1949. However, he was 30 years old by then.  His talent was still unmistakable, but it no longer had the same radiance as it had six years earlier. Even so, Irvin summoned one more glorious season in 1951 to cement his place as one of the great players of his generation. At 32, he belted 24 homers, drove in a National League-leading 124 runs, and stole 12 bases.  He also mentored a rookie center fielder named Willie Mays for the pennant-winning New York Giants. Still, one can only imagine what sort of eye-popping big league numbers Irvin would have produced had he been given the opportunity in his prime.

Another exceptional athlete, Jackie Robinson, whose military service also made participation in the major leagues impossible in 1943 was thought to be more suited for greatness in track or on the gridiron than baseball. In fact, Robinson did not play baseball professionally until 1945. So, in 1943, he likely wasn’t on anyone’s baseball radar, available or not. Funny how quickly that would all change just four years later, though.

However, even with a diminished wish list, Veeck, Saperstein, and Young would have still have had plenty of tantalizing choices from which to choose in 1943.

Even though Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard were 37 and 35, respectively, both could still play and had long been considered two of the greatest players the Negro Leagues had ever produced.

Paige could deliver a seemingly endless variety of pitches with different speeds and breaks, many with uniquely corresponding arm angles and windups as well. Peers and fans alike thought him to be a magician with a baseball, making it contort and hiss in ways they’d never seen or heard before. And he was nearly as great a showman as he was a pitcher, naming each of his pitches and playing up to the crowd directly from the mound.

There was no mistaking the devastating quality of his stuff. As proof, when he was finally provided an opportunity in the majors – at the age of 42, no less – he became a key contributor on Cleveland’s 1948 championship pitching staff, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. Even after all of those pitches over all of those years, carrying the burden of and anger at exclusion all the while, he still had enough magic in his arm to vex hitters nearly a generation his junior. Like Monte Irvin, though, there’s little doubt that Paige would have been all the more brilliant in the majors had he pitched there sooner. By the way, the owner who extended the opportunity in Cleveland in 1948? None other than William Louis Veeck.

In contrast to Paige, Buck Leonard was a quiet personality. His bat, however, spoke loudly. In fact, it roared. Playing for the famed Homestead Grays, the soft-spoken first baseman with the loquacious bat helped to lead the Grays to nine consecutive championships. Teaming with one of the greatest home run threats in history – Josh Gibson, Leonard was part of a truly lethal offensive duo. Unfortunately, neither of them ever put on a Major League uniform and the league was and always will be poorer for it.

In 1943, Gibson was 31 and still possessed a ferocious home run swing. Though, age was creeping up on him as well, and the frustration of being denied the chance to showcase his talent for all to see began to wear on him even more. It must have been especially maddening to know that he was as skilled a power hitter as any in the game but was deliberately and stubbornly kept out of the big league spotlight. And many, if not all, who were familiar with his ability knew he was every bit that good – a historically great player left to shine at dusk while others were allowed to bathe in sunlight.

Every athlete knows their physical skills have an expiration date. With each day, week, and month that passes, they all know that those skills incrementally ebb. In Gibson’s case, the relentless ticking of the clock must have been ear-splitting. He knew he was running out of time to get to the Major Leagues, but he also knew that he just needed one chance, one door opened just a sliver, and he would do the rest. Though his prime years were gone – the glorious seasons during which he could have etched his name into Major League lore forever – he still had time to make them notice, but it would take something historic to bring him the opportunity.

And the 1943 Phillies could have been the vehicle to do that. Certainly, any team that could boast having Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson in the heart of the lineup and Satchel Paige as the staff ace, albeit in aging incarnations, would have been able to compete with anyone – and the entire baseball world would have been able to see it happen.

As a complement to the trio of aging greats, two intriguing but largely unproven neophytes would have also been available. In Newark, a 19-year-old second baseman began to show some dazzling ability. However, he was still as raw as an uncooked porterhouse, and Veeck’s reconstituted Philadelphia roster likely would have tilted heavily toward the known rather than the unknown, especially considering what was at stake. By 1947, he definitely caught Veeck’s eye and made history as the first African-American in the American League. His name, of course, was Larry Doby, and his stellar career with Veeck’s Cleveland ballclub eventually led to the Hall of Fame.

In Baltimore, a 21-year-old catcher of both Italian and African heritage most certainly had shown enough by 1943 to attract attention. A rising star for the Elite Giants, the powerful young slugger also displayed exceptional defensive ability behind the plate. If he had been given the chance to team up with Josh Gibson on the ’43 Phils, the two would have formed the most remarkable catching tandem ever. The young player’s name was Roy Campanella, and he, too, would embark on an eventual Hall of Fame career after joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.

Paige, Leonard, Gibson, Doby (had Veeck decided to take a chance on the youngster), and Campanella would have given the Phillies five Hall of Fame talents to lead the team. Still, as stunning as that transformation would have been in 1943, consider an even more spectacular scenario had an attempt at mass integration been made just a decade earlier. Of the thirty players currently in the Hall of Fame based on their accomplishments in the Negro Leagues, no fewer than sixteen of them would have been between the ages of 18 and 36 in 1933.

By comparison, the 1927 New York Yankees, widely considered the greatest team in Major League history, had six Hall of Fame players on the roster.

Besides Paige, Leonard, and Gibson – who would have been 27, 25, and 21, respectively, in 1933, the amount of talent that could have been transferred from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues that season was jaw dropping. James “Cool Papa” Bell – one of the fastest players ever to step on a baseball diamond, Oscar Charleston – an intense bundle of power, speed, and uncommon baseball savvy, and Biz Mackey – a power-hitting defensive genius and master strategist behind the plate were all Negro League royalty.

While third baseman Judy Johnson and shortstop Willie Wells were not quite on that same regal level, they were exceptional defenders and marvelous hitters in their own right. Norman “Turkey” Stearnes and George “Mule” Suttles were two of the most dangerous power hitters in Negro League history. And Bill Foster and Martin Dihigo were brilliant pitchers, with Dihigo also having the added dimension of being an outstanding hitter. All of them, of course, were eventual Hall of Famers.

Unfortunately, Major League baseball did not integrate in 1933 or 1943. The idea meandered – logistically, circumstantially, and socially – until 1947. Even then, the introduction of black players into the majors was a trickle and not Veeck’s grand vision of a deluge. In fact, of the potential “Dream Team” of 1933, only Satchel Paige – well past his prime – would ever play Major League baseball.

Truthfully, integration should have happened from the very advent of the game, because there was no earthly explanation for such exclusion in the first place. And if only that wisdom – the simple practice of compassion and of valuing the dignity of others – had prevailed, the baseball world would have been so much richer for it. Sadly, those who should have embraced their stewardship of the Major Leagues with honor – the commissioner, team owners, and league presidents – never allowed such nobility to penetrate the myopic and self-serving circle in which they operated and protected with the ferocity of lions.

So, legions of Negro League stars who were deprived of even belated opportunities to play in the majors reside only in the direct memories of the select few who saw them play in person, solidly obscured by the walls of segregation. They haven’t even been afforded the privilege of allowing numbers – baseball’s bedrock for preserving greatness – to carry their legacies forward.

The considerable economic challenges facing most Negro League teams had a domino effect on virtually every area of these franchises. Compiling and maintaining consistent, detailed individual player statistics certainly fell under that umbrella.  Understandably, such record keeping was considered a far lesser priority than the more critical logistics of running a baseball league.

On the other hand, Major League stats – even those from over a century ago – were kept because the league always had the economic resources or strong enough media connections to do so.  And such stats are still being used to assess the ability and accomplishments of players from that era. The exclusion of Negro League players by the majors not only deprived those players of the chance to compete on the game’s biggest stage it also deprived them of statistical identities.

In a sport that demands quantitative metrics to determine greatness (a decidedly qualitative distinction, by the way), these unfortunate star players have been left to drift, statistically, without that anchor to moor them to baseball history. Although the Hall of Fame has done a wonderful job in helping to recognize the greatness of the best Negro League players by inducting dozens of them, the lack of a statistical base for these players has rendered any detailed celebration of their stellar careers moot and made any comparative conversion of their play in Major League terms impossible. However, for at least a few of them – like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard – any attempt at integration prior to 1947 could turned those vagaries into the detailed records of their greatness they deserved.

So, perhaps what did or didn’t happen to the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies wasn’t really about Bill Veeck after all. Rather the true meaning of what might have been that season belongs to the players who could have shown the league what it had been missing all of those years and spoken for those who were never given the chance.

Though many would do precisely that, slowly but surely, over the decades starting in 1947, imagine the magnification of that statement if it had been allowed to happen all at once in 1943. It would have been a beautiful thing, indeed. Short of that, it still remains a beautiful dream, one of the most beautiful in baseball history – whether or not Bill Veeck actually tried to make it happen.

Sources:

Bill Veeck with Ed Linn (1962). Veeck as in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Jordan, David M., Larry R. Gerlach and John P. Rossi, “The Truth About Bill Veeck and the ’43 Phillies,” SABR’s The National Pastime, No. 18, 1998.

Tygiel, Jules, “Revisiting Bill Veeck and the 1943 Phillies,” SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 35, 2007.

http://www.nlbpa.com/irvin__monte.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/irvinmo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/paigesa01.shtml

http://www.nlbpa.com/leonard__buck.html

http://www.coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/doby.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/NYY/1927.shtml

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