Pure serendipity is the only way I can explain how I came to be at Pawtucket’s McCoy stadium a few weeks ago to see the PawSox, Boston’s AAA team, take on the Syracuse Chiefs the farm team of the Washington Nationals. I had opened the morning paper and, only two hours away, lay a perfect game for my son and I to attend during his spring break. The weather was raw, windy, and generally inhospitable for viewing baseball –just like a game played in the same stadium 30 years ago.
On April 18th, 1981, starting at about 8pm, after a delay with the lights, and ending on Easter morning, April 19th, a little after 4am, the game between the PawSox and the Rochester Red Wings was still tied at 2-2 after 32 innings!
Because of MLB’s strike in 1981, and the void it created for true fans, there was a huge focus on the minor league game’s resumption on June 23rd with a sell-out crowd and over 150 journalists from many countries. The game ended after only 18 minutes with a walk-off single by Pawtucket’s Dave Koza (see photo below left) in the 33rd inning giving the Sox a 3-2 victory. In all, the game lasted over 8 hours and was the longest in Major or Minor league history.
Because of its length, some statistical oddities surfaced including Dallas Williams’ 0-13, Jim Umbarger’s 10 innings of shutout relief pitching, Russ Laribee striking out 7 times, and hardscrabble New Englander, PawSox manager Joe Morgan having to watch the game from a hole in the wall after being ejected in the 22nd inning. The game even has its own Wikipedia Page!
The game is merely a stage prop for Dan Barry’s sensational book — Bottom of the 33rd — Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game. Beyond the game, Barry’s narrative is more a human interest story about the people involved in the game, a couple of Hall-of-Famers-to-be (Cal Ripken, Jr and Wade Boggs) but mostly about ordinary people; players who will never make the big show, those who have already had their “cup of coffee”, about the few rapid fans who stayed the course, the clubhouse attendants, the owners, and about McCoy stadium and and city of Pawtucket.
Barry does wonderful research giving us the back story of fans, players, radio announcers and the personalities who came together in this wonderful confluence of circumstances that created the seemingly never-ending game–the umpires’ ground rule handbook that had the pages omitted allowing the umpires to stop the game earlier, the league commissioner ignoring calls at home from the game umpires because he had been badgered at home by fans, and the howling wind which reduced home runs to fly balls.
Bottom of the 33rd tells how the previously ramshackle McCoy stadium and the moribund Pawtucket team are saved by local businessman Ben Mondoor and how he built the PawSox into one of the premier minor league franchises in all of baseball. This is a wonderful book, part baseball, but mostly of the human condition, the good, the bad, and the ordinary. Like the game, you wish the book to go on and on and on….
BoB Rating Home Run (A baseball bookshelf classic in the Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, Lawrence Ritter style)
Amazon (4.6 stars), Goodreads (4.17 stars)
CBS Sunday Morning had a recent segment on the longest game
All across Major League Baseball, April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day–commenmorating the day in 1947 when Robinson first saw action as a Brooklyn Dodger. Most people think Jackie was the first African American to play in the majors, however, before Robinson, there was Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker first played for the Toledo Blue Sox of the American Association on May 1, 1884, nearly sixty-three years before Robinson’s first game for Brooklyn. Walker’s brother, Welday Wilberforce Walker joined him on the Toledo team in July 1884.
His Early Life
Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, the son of Dr. Moses W. Walker, the first African-American physician in Mount Pleasant, and Caroline, his white mother, a midwife by trade. During his childhood, his family moved from Mount Pleasant, to Steubenville. Walker was educated in the black schools, until the schools in Steubenville were integrated. Both Moses and his brother Welday attended Steubenville high school.
In 1877, Walker enrolled in Oberlin College, one of the first integrated colleges in the country. (see picture below: Walker sits to far left). The college’s African American enrollment was between 5 and 10 percent, a figure larger than many universities today and nearly unheard of in the 1870s. It had been a major stop on the Underground Railroad and had been admitting black students since 1834.
He was recruited by the University of Michigan and played varsity baseball for Michigan in 1882. On March 4, 1882, the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Chronicle, reported: “M.F. Walker, of the class of ’83 at Oberlin, arrived in town last week, and intends to enter the University. Mr. Walker caught for the Oberlin base-ball, and last year corresponded with the manager of the Bostons with a view to traveling with the latter nine during the summer, but at length concluded not to do so. Packard and Walker will form the battery for ’83′s nine this spring.
After college, Walker first played baseball for the Toledo Blue Sox of the Northwest League. In 60 games in 1883, Walker batted .251 in his initial season with Toledo. He helped lead the Blue Sox to the NWL title. A year later, Fleetwood played in 42 games in 1884 and hit .263; while his brother, Welday, played in six games. Toledo, now part of the American Association, was officially a major league in 1884.
Walker was considered a fine bare-handed catcher with a strong arm. He was also a fast and daring base runner. He was popular with the fans, but not necessarily with his teammates, largely because of racial prejudices.
… Moses Fleetwood Walker, of the semipro Toledo Mudhens, will forever be linked to Cap Anson (pictured below)
The date was August 10, 1883. At the time, it was a common practice for Major League teams to schedule exhibition games against semipro teams as a way of earning more money. An exhibition had been scheduled between the Toledo team and Anson’s White Stockings. It would prove to be a fateful encounter.
Toledo’s roster included the young, black scholar-athlete Moses Fleetwood Walker, the team’s regular catcher. By all accounts, Walker was a gentlemanly, educated player. On this day, Walker was injured (a common occurrence among catchers in the days before catcher’s mitts were invented) and was told to take the day off by his manager Charlie Morton.
Unaware of the injury but full of his own prejudices, Anson announced to Morton that his team would not play with Walker on the field. This attitude infuriated Morton, who responded by putting Walker into his lineup at centerfield. The game was delayed for over an hour as the two managers argued. Finally, Morton declared that if Anson forfeited the game, he would also forfeit the gate receipts. It seems Anson’s racism ran only as deep as his wallet, as this argument convinced him to play the game. The game was played with Walker and further incidence was avoided.
Moses was an accomplished inventor and businessman. He had several patents, published a newspaper (a black-issues oriented newspaper called The Equator), and ran several business including a theatre that offered opera, live drama, and motion pictures. However, Walker’s life was a complicated one as he battled alcoholism and had several brushes with the law including robbery and 2nd degree murder charges–the latter situation, for which he was acquitted, arising from a racially-motivated mob that accosted Walker when he left a bar.
Moses’ racial experiences led him to become a supporter of Black nationalism and came to believe racial integration would fail in the United States. In 1908 he published a 47-page pamphlet titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In that pamphlet he recommended African Americans emigrate to Africa: “the only practical and permanent solution of the present and future race troubles in the United States is entire separation by emigration of the Negro from America.
Walker died on May 11, 1924 of pneumonia at the age of 67 and is buried in Stuebenville, OH in the family plot at Union Cemetery. In 1991, Walker was elected to the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.
People who love baseball and its rich history should learn more about Walker and about the important era, led most notably by Cap Anson, that ended up banning Blacks from the game for almost 60 more years. This knowledge should not, however, diminish our admiration for Jackie Robinson’s struggles. We should have a new found appreciation for April 15th and think about it as the struggle of many across many decades and not merely the tribulations of a single man.
To learn more, read David W. Zang’s biography of Walker, entitled Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart–The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer.
Book DescriptionMoses Fleetwood Walker was the first black American to play baseball in a major league. He achieved college baseball stardom at Oberlin College in the 1880s. Teammates as well as opponents harassed him; Cap Anson, the Chicago White Stockings star, is blamed for driving Walker and the few other blacks in the major leagues out of the game, but he could not have done so alone.A gifted athlete, inventor, civil rights activist, author, and entrepreneur, Walker lived precariously along America’s racial fault lines. He died in 1924, thwarted in ambition and talent and frustrated by both the American dream and the national pastime.
About the AuthorDavid W. Zang has taught sports studies and American studies at the University of Maryland, The Pennsylvania State University, and Towson University.
Other Related Books:
- Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson
- Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel
- Beyond the Shadow of the Senators by Brad Snyder
Last month, we used a cooking metaphor to describe the likelihood of each MLB team making, or in most cases, not making the post season. As we get closer to the end of the regular season, I thought a more apt metaphor was need, a medical condition classification.
”Code Blue” is used in medical parlance to indicate that a patient who has gone into cardiopulmonary arrest. The picture of the team pushing a crash cart to a coded patient’s room is a good indication that some teams have recently taken a turn for the worst and some others have have gone to the big ball diamond in the sky to answer a casting call for Field of Dreams II.
- Good (Green) Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
- Fair (Blue) Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable
- Critical (Red) Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
- Deceased / DNR – Dr. is looking at watch for ToD. Patient has sheet over head and wires are unplugged.
- Good: New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers.
- Fair: Minnesota
- Critical: White Sox
- Deceased: Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles, Toronto, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Seattle
- Good: Atlanta, Cincinnati
- Fair: Philadelphia
- Critical: SF Giants, San Diego Critical on Life Support*: Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals
- Deceased: Marlins, NY Mets, Nationals, Houston, Milwuakee, Cubs, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona
*A Priest was seen administering Last Rites.
Here is an actual computer simulation of each team’s post-season probabilities.
Books on Baseball likes a robust debate. Let’s hear what you have to say.
I have seen Presedential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin appear many times on TV political talk shows. I have also heard her speak on several occasions about her love for the Brooklyn Dodgers. You can imagine mydelight when I came across a copy of her 1997 book Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir at a used book sale. A favorite topic of mine–The Brooklyn Dodgers–by a favorite writer. This memoir recounts Doris’ childhood in the 40s and 50s in Brooklyn and later in Rockville Center, NY.
Goodwin uses the season-to-season rhythms of baseball to create the arch of her formative years. She uses this baseball canvass to weave several distinct plot lines, involving family, community, catholicism, and world events. The book is about baseball, but baseball is not its central theme, far from it.
Doris has nothing but wonderful memories of her parents; each somewhat flawed, her mother dying at the age of 51 and being sick for most of Doris’ early life. Her father had experienced the death of two siblings and both parents, the last from suicide as a boy and was shipped off to a foster home. Neither parents’ situations seemed to hurt Doris’ relationship with her parents. If anything, it helped broaden her appreciation of her parents; an unusual trait for a youngster.
Doris grew up the youngest of three sisters by a number of years which thrust her into adult-type conversations. This experience gave her the traits of inquisitiveness and precociousness. This familial experience also seemed to have left her with an indomitably positive person–a trait which comes across throughout her book.
Even during the apparent idyllic time of the 50s, many unsettling historical events took place, the polio epidemic, McCarthyism, Little Rock School integration, and nuclear air raid drills being among them.
Doris writes about both the Dodgers and the Giants leaving New York city for the West Coast and uses that incident to talk about how the old neighborhood had changed as well, many families moved out to further their careers and status in life as well as the demise of the corner drug store and local butcher shop–both closed down. It seems the end of her childhood perfectly coincided with this dramatic move of two of NYC’s historic treasures and the disappearance of her beloved neighborhood.
- How she and best friend Elaine shared a blanket during the Summer with dueling radios, Doris’ with Red Barber announcing for the Dodgers while Elaine’s radio was tuned to Mel Allen broadcasting for the arch enemies, the Yankees.
- Doris had a running friendly rivalry with a local butcher shop who owners were rabid fans of the Giants. After Bobby Thomson’s historic home run in 1951, Doris couldn’t get herself to visit the butcher shop until they sent her a bouquet of flowers.
How Doris was nervous during her first Catholic confession because she had to admit to the Priest that she wished ill of the opposing teams’ players.
“And what else my child?”
“I wished harm to Allie Reynolds.”
“The Yankee pitcher?” he asked, surprise and concern in his voice. “And how did you wish to harm him?”
“I wanted him to break his arm.”
“And were there others”
“Oh , yes,” I admitted. “I wished that Robin Roberts of the Philies would fall down the steps of his stoop, and that Richie Ashburn would break his hand.
“For your pennance, say two Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and, ” he added, with a chuckle, “say a special prayer for the Dodgers. Now say the Act of Contrition.”
Excerpted from pp 107-108 Wait Till Next Year 1997 Harcover edition.
Kearns Goodwin is a gifted storyteller. She brings coming to age in the 50s into vivid relief for us in Wait. The book is about baseball, but much more than baseball and that is a good thing.
BoB Rating Home Run (a wonderful memoir even if baseball wasn’t its central theme)
Amazon (4.5 stars), Barnes and Noble (4.3 stars), Goodreads (4.0 stars)
BoB’s own “Mythbuster” Bill Miller will be “investigating” some of the most talked about stories and lore from baseball’s historical past. This article focuses on Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World.
The recent death of former Giants star Bobby Thomson, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history on October 3, 1951, has rekindled controversy regarding What Bobby Knew and When Bobby Knew It. Specifically, did Bobby Thomson, who hit the game-winning home run that put the Giants in the World Series vs. the Yankees, know what pitch was coming before he hit it out?
Wall Street Journal writer Joshua Prager reported, back in 2001, that the Giants had utilized an elaborate system of sign-stealing during the latter half of the 1951 season in a desperate bid to try to catch the league-leading Brooklyn Dodgers in the standings. Prager’s work led to a book:The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World
Prager wrote that his investigation, which included interviews with many surviving Giants players including Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Bobby Thomson himself, had uncovered irrefutable eyewitness testimony that the Giants had, in fact, “stolen” pitches during the stretch run of the 1951 pennant chase.
See Prager’s original investigative report in the Wall Street Journal…
They had done so by setting up a powerful telescope in center field at the Polo Grounds focusing directly on the opposing team’s catcher. The signs for pitch selection that he signaled to his pitcher were also being dutifully noted by the Giants player with the telescope.
An electronic device (ironically set up by an electrician who was a die-hard Dodgers fan), then sent a buzz signal to the Giants bullpen to let them know what pitch would be delivered next. The players in the bullpen, using body language, which the batter could easily see – indicate what the next pitch would be. And so, despite a 13 ½ game deficit in the standings, the Giants won 16 games in a row to force a three-game playoff with the Dodgers to decide the National League pennant.
The idea was reportedly hatched by Giants manager Leo Durocher. Apparently, about half of the Giants players agreed to participate in this obviously sketchy activity, and about half wanted no part of it.
Of course, the ”$64,000 Question” regarding Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run is, “Was Bobby Thomson one of those players who agreed to receive stolen signs? Did he know before he hit that homerun over the left field wall in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 that Ralph Branca was about to throw a fastball to him?”
If he knew, then the sheen of the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff loses its luster. Bobby Thomson, inevitably, becomes just another in a long line of “short-cutters” inhabiting baseball history from its earliest days right up to our present-day steroids controversy.
Or does it?
When Thomson was asked point blank by Prager if, in fact, he knew what pitch was about to be delivered by Branca, he at first demurred, stating ambiguously, “I’d have to say no more than yes.” When pressed further by Prager, Thomson said, “I don’t like to think of something taking away from [it].” He added, “It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on that pitch. My answer is no. I was always proud of that swing.”
Thomson’s response remains baffling. Does he mean that he simply wants to believe he didn’t know what pitch was coming? Does he mean that he absolutely, positively denies possessing that fore-knowledge? Or, should we interpret Thomson’s answer to mean that he knew the Giants had been stealing signs, wasn’t proud of it, and he, like half his teammates, refused to participate in the scheme.
A couple of additional points also argue against such a quick and harsh revision to storied baseball history. First, sign stealing wasn’t offically illegal in 1951 and like other questionable tactics, was deemed to be ”part of the game.” Second, if the Giants’ batters were receiving stolen signals, they weren’t executing very well, according to a commenter to a PBS article on this topic:
While there is no way to prove that Thomson did not benefit from stealing signs, the evidence does not support the notion that stealing signs was responsible for the Giants comeback in 1951. They actually scored 0.5 runs fewer per game after stealing signs than before. Instead, the improvement is attributable to their pitching allow 1.4 fewer runs per game during the late season run.
Baseball mythology has always been what we who love baseball need it to be, namely, a vehicle by which we reach outside our simple lives for something that allows us to be a part of a narrative both bigger than ourselves, yet entirely dependent on our unquestioning faith and loyalty. Americans demand facts, but we need them to be couched in terms that do not shake our core belief in our country, our culture and ourselves. The subset of Americans who call themselves Baseball Fans are no different.
As purists, there is something within each of us that wants to know if Bobby Thomson was aware that a fastball was on its way. Likewise, we want to know what substances Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens put into their bodies to conquer their competitors. We want to know if Joe Jackson really did take that money after all. Nevertheless, we need baseball to remain the pure mythical, morality tale that we collectively believe it has always been since at least the days of our halcyon youth.
Which brings us back to Bobby Thomson. Did he know what pitch Ralph Branca was about to deliver in the single most important at-bat of either of their lives?
The clinical, unemotional answer is that it is plausible, but not certain that he did. This answer, if wholly unsatisfying, give us fans something to ponder. If you think Thomason did, in fact, receive stolen signs, you might be left with the spiritual and emotional vacuum. If you prefer to believe that he did not, then you choose to keep alive the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff forever memoralized by baseball announcer Russ Hodgers: “The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants win the Pennant!”
Interview with writer Joshua Prager regarding Thomson and the “Shot Heard Round the World”
JOSHUA PRAGER | It was sort of the perfect storm. It had every ingredient necessary to create a great moment on the field and off. First of all, it combined the greatest rivalry in sports then, the Dodgers and the Giants. It was what was then considered the greatest sport — baseball. It was in the center of the sports world which was New York at the time. It culminated the greatest comeback that had been seen in baseball; the Giants had been all these games behind the team they tied on the last day of the season. And then it was scripted like a movie where in the bottom of the 9th, Bobby Thomson hits a home run and they come back to win it.
Most important, it was the first nationally televised sporting event that was live. It was the most famous baseball call of all time, Russ Hodges saying “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” It had a magic name: “The Shot Heard `Round the World.” It was like a muse for some folks, everyone from Don DeLillo who used it in “Underworld” to Francis Coppola in “The Godfather” to Woody Allen remembering it. Everyone uses it to communicate a great moment. It was a life marker for everyone who remembered that day. It was a tragedy for Dodger fans but it was remembered as vividly as great tragedies. A whole generation of people remember where they when it happened.
Fill in the picture a bit about the kind of player Bobby Thomson was.
JOSHUA PRAGER| He had incredible gifts, he had blinding speed, he was one of the fastest men in all of baseball if not the fastest. And he also had great power. He would have made it to 300 home runs which was an enormous milestone at the time had he not gotten injured. What he didn’t have was the makeup of a stud athlete. He was way too meek and humble and self-deprecating and kind. It’s easier to be Pete Rose and succeed than to be Bobby Thomson and succeed. When he hit the home run, he felt very bad for Ralph Branca in the weeks and months after the game. He knew how hard life became for Ralph. Ralph was hounded by writers and fans for years to come. It is not easy to be reminded of your worst moment for the majority of days of your life. Bobby Thomson told me he did not want to succeed when he faced Ralph Branca in the months and years following this. And the record bears this out.
What was Bobby Thomson like off the field?
JOSHUA PRAGER| He was generous and funny. He was simple but smart. And he was a family man. He adored his family. He did not like the spotlight. He became a paper bag salesman for many years. He did not want to cash in on his name. He was a working stiff, as he put it. He lived in Watchung, N.J., for decades.
Your reporting found that the Giants were stealing signs at the time. How did they do that? How did that work?
JOSHUA PRAGER | Before every pitch, a catcher wiggles his fingers to tell the pitcher what kind of pitch to throw. Generally, the catcher will tell him to throw a fastball or a curve or a change-up. In theory, it helps the batter to know what is coming, though there is some debate about that. Now when the Giants were in the Polo Grounds, they had a clubhouse out in center field and manager Leo Durocher had an office there. The Giants cut a hole in the wire mesh of the window of the clubhouse and they put a telescope on the tripod behind that hole. They peered through at the catcher’s finger signals. Then, very quickly, they figured out a way to get that information to their batter. They did that through a two-step system. They pressed a button that rang a buzzer in bullpen in right field. The pitcher (in the bullpen for the Giants) relayed the signal to the batter.
The Giants started doing it July 20, 1951, through Oct. 3 of that year. They told me they did not do it in the World Series because they were worried they would be spotted during the Series because the clubhouse was so filled with reporters.
What did your reporting find about whether the giants were stealing signs during the playoff game and when Bobby Thompson was at the plate?
JOSHUA PRAGER | Thomson eventually acknowledged to me that they were stealing signs and he received them. Even on that day and in earlier innings. What he did not acknowledge was that he received signs for that last at-bat where he hit the home run. When I interviewed him about whether it happened during that at-bat, he said, “I’d like to say more ‘no’ than yes. I don’t like to think of something taking away from that home run.” He also said there was an injury at third base when he came to the plate, which was true, and he did not look out at right field. It has led to a great debate. Only Bobby Thomson and the baseball gods know for sure what happened.
This was rumored for 50 years, something nebulous that the Giants were stealing signs. So I went after every detail. I looked at the day they started using it, the telescope they used, I found the name of the late electrician that enabled them to set up a buzzer system.* By doing that, people had to confront this for the first time.
Was stealing signs officially forbidden in baseball?
JOSHUA PRAGER | Baseball had not officially outlawed it. It was considered horrible to do but it had not been outlawed yet. But when rumors of this came up in 1961, the commissioner of the league said if it was ever proved, I will forfeit the pennant. So it was considered to be a horrible thing to do. Commissioner Bud Selig has told me it is officially outlawed now.
How did it reverberate for these two men for the rest of their careers?
JOSHUA PRAGER| It wasn’t just for the rest of their careers. It was for the rest of their lives. For Thomson, he was the man who hit the most famous home run in baseball history. For Branca, he became the man who surrendered the most important home run. Thomson felt too much had been made of it. He was proud of it. He was proud of that moment. But what I reported colored the one great accomplishment he had. That said, even if you know what pitch is coming, you still have to hit it. And he did.
Bill Miller writes a blog called The On Deck Circle, which features commentary and analysis on baseball issues, players, and teams both past and present. It also includes memories of sandlot ball, and classic baseball videos.
A baseball fan since 1974 when he first set foot in Shea Stadium, he is an avid collector of baseball cards, and has been an activemember in the same fantasy baseball league since 1993. Bill is also a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA).
Born and raised in New England, Bill now calls Greenville, S.C. (home of Shoeless Joe Jackson) his home, along with his wife and two boys. Bill hopes that his seven-year old son develops better strike-zone judgment than Jeff Francoeur.
A few weeks ago, we posted Part I of our interview with a man named Bill Lee, who wrote The Baseball Necrology, a book profiling the lives of deceased pro baseball players, and concurrently runs The Baseball Necrology Live, an Internet update of the same premise.
During the course of our interview with Bill, we learned that he lived on the West Coast when professional baseball out there was strictly a minor league outfit, and that he retained some crystal-clear memories of the low minors and the old Pacific Coast League. Not only that, but he’d stuck around for the cross-country relocation of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and the arrival of the expansion Los Angeles Angels, who at one time actually played their home games in Los Angeles.
Bill was gracious enough to give us extra time to share his memories of a unique bygone era of baseball history.
Jason Miller for Books On Baseball: When did you first become a baseball fan?
Bill Lee, the Baseball Undertaker: I was raised in Brawley, California in the Imperial Valley in the southeastern part of the state. From as far back as I can remember, in the late 1940s, I listened to baseball games on the radio, then watched them on television in the early 1950s, at every chance I could. Baseball was my number one sport. I really enjoyed it at the time.
JM: What teams did you follow?
BL: There were the El Centro Imperials, a team in the Class C Sunset League (later Southwest International League that included teams from El Paso TX and Phoenix AZ, plus some teams from Mexico). El Centro was a town about 30 miles from where I lived, and I got to go see the Imperials play once or twice a year. I listened to most of their games on the radio, which were broadcast live when the team was home and by delayed re-creation when they were on the road. The announcer was a young guy just home from the service, starting his career in broadcasting, by the name of Bob Blum. He went on to broadcast for the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco Giants, and since 1973 has been broadcasting sporting events for UNLV in Las Vegas. Blum was honored in 1998 at the All-American Football Foundation banquet as its recipient of the Lindsay Nelson Sportscaster Award honoring individuals for lifetime achievement in the field of sports broadcasting. In 2003 he was named Nevada Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and in 2000 was inducted into UNLV’s Athletic Hall of Fame. And to think that I listened to him way back when he was just beginning his career!
Then, once a year, on my dad’s vacation, I got to see big-time baseball in San Diego when saw the Padres from the “old” Pacific Coast League. That was always the highlight event of my young life.
JM: Did any of the minor-league players that you followed ever achieve Major League success?
BL: There was Minnie Minoso who went on to stardom with the Indians and White Sox;
Ed Bailey, a catcher for the Reds and Giants; and Sam Jones, a pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the Cubs and played for several teams including the Indians, Cardinals and Giants. There was also Harry Simpson and Luke Easter of the Cleveland Indians.
The Padres had a working agreement with the Indians – most of those players went up to Cleveland. A little bit later they had a working agreement with the Reds – Ed Bailey and Ray Jablonski went up to the Reds. The Pacific Coast League was the place players both started and finished their careers. Some of my favorites that were in the twilight of their careers were Max West, Bob Elliott, Jack Graham, Earl Rapp and Larry Jansen. At that time the pay difference between the major leagues and the Pacific Coast League was not that big, and many players preferred to play on the coast, close to home and where the weather was not that extreme. Because of the better weather the season was 200 games, which helped make up any pay difference.
Very few players from the Sunset League made it to the majors – either coming or going. Felipe Montemayor, an outfielder for the Mexicali Eagles had a couple of cups-of-coffee with the Pirates and played for several years in the higher minor leagues in the Pirate organization. He lives in Monterey Mexico now, and writes a sports column there. He was a supporter for major league baseball in Monterey when they were looking for a home for the Expos. Red Kress, who had a lengthy major league career as both a player and coach, managed the Imperials for a while. One of the Imperials, Frank Stinson, had some time in the Pacific Coast League, and World War II may have cost Pete Hughes a major league career. He was a prolific hitting outfielder who played in the lower minors for a number of years. Many of his minor league hitting records are still on the books. Most of the other Imperials were youngsters looking for that elusive dream of being a big-time baseball player, and they disappeared from the game after a year or two. One of those youngsters was Johnny Moore, the son of Johnny Moore, the major league player and scout. The young Johnny Moore had a couple of cups-of-coffee with Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, but left baseball a short time later.
The one big claim of greatness for the Sunset League was the umpire Emmett Ashford, the first black umpire in the American League.
On one of my infrequent trips to the ballpark in El Centro I had the opportunity to see him call a game. He was every bit as colorful and flamboyant then as he was later in the majors. He was worth the price of admission. While on the subject of umpires, Doug Harvey, the recent Hall of Fame inductee, officiated our high school football games when I played football at Brawley.
JM: What Major League teams did you follow at the time?
BL: I was a big Cleveland fan, maybe because of the Padres and their working agreement with Cleveland. I didn’t care much for the Yankees and still don’t. 1948 was a big battle, a three-way race for the pennant, the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees. The Indians and Red Sox ended up tied and the Indians won a single-game playoff.
JM: That was the game where Denny Galehouse started for Boston and gave up all those big hits to Lou Boudreau?
BL: Boudreau was a big hero of mine as were Joe Gordon, Ken Keltner, and pitchers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia. Joe Gordon was manager of the Seals in 1957. They won the PCL pennant that year. I was at the last game the Seals played in 1957, before the Giants were to move there the next year. It was announced that Joe Gordon would play in that last game and I went with high expectations of seeing him play. That was quite a disappointment. It was no more than an exhibition – a bunch of old guys clowning around. It was such a farce. They were just having a good time, but I was really let down.
JM: The biographical information on your website says you also used to listen to Gordon McLendon.
I think he’s best-remembered today, at least baseball-wise, as having the only surviving broadcast tape of the 1951 National League playoff finale — the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”. What was he like to listen to?
BL: His baseball broadcasts were only around a few years – late 1940s and early 1950s. He ran into difficulties with Major League Baseball over broadcasting rights or something of that sort. They was all re-creations. He recreated current games – a game every day. On off-days, travel days for the teams, he would go back to the 1920s and 1930s and recreate games of note from an earlier era, so he had a ballgame every day. He had the crowd noise, and the sound of the ball hitting the bat, and the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt. He even had the hawkers running around selling peanuts, cold beer, etc.
The conclusion of our series with the Baseball Undertaker will take us through the arrival of Major League Baseball on the West Coast. Stay tuned!
Today’s a bit of a heart-warming day to be a baseball fan. Considering that the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff occurred nearly 60 years ago, and that the Polo Grounds has been a housing development for the past 45 years, it is gratifying to see the outpouring of Internet affection for Bobby Thompson and his dramatics from October 1951.
The New York Times obituary contains a typically solid overview of Thomson’s life both pre- and post-baseball, although they give short shrift to his post-1951 accomplishments, calling them (perhaps wrongly) an “anticlimax”.
Let’s bear in mind that, all together, Thomson had a pretty solid career, the parameters of which deserve some remembering.
- Thomson had 264 career home runs, which is just a shade below the career 275 amassed by Roger Maris;
- Thomson played for the Milwaukee Braves, where a spring-training injury helped open the door to a starting outfield job for a young man named Henry Aaron;
- In his final season, 1960, Thomson was teammates with Ted Williams (and Pumpsie Green) on the Boston Red Sox;
- Thomson’s final career home runcame off a very young Mudcat Grant;
- Regrettably, the Flying Scot and the Splendid Splinter never homered in the same game.
A nice piece on Big League Stew, the Yahoo! Sports blog, recalls the lighter side of the post-home run relationship between Thomson and Ralph Branca.
The two men became forever entwined, as this baseball shows:
But don’t forget that there was more to Bobby Thomson than just the one home run.
In memory of Bobby Thomson’s passing today, we are reposting two recent articles from Books on Baseball. The first article is a review of a recent book about “The shot heard round the world” while the second article is about the various broadcasters who had a part in this historical baseball moment.
Book Review: Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Brian Biegel
Better known as the Shot Heard Round the World. Bobby Thomson’s home run in early October of 1951 gave the New York Giants a dramatic ninth inning playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers and a berth in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
That much is well-known, but what happened to the baseball Thomson sent over the left field wall at the Polo Grounds?
The fans lucky enough to catch the balls Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire hit to gain their place in history made headlines, but 50 years earlier who had the ball from, arguably, the most dramatic home run in baseball history.
Therein lays the premise of Miracle Ball by author Brian Biegel.
However, the book is more than just the search for a baseball. It is tale of just how much baseball meant to Americans in 1951, particularly New Yorkers who had three teams to choose from. Biegel introduces the reader to several characters, including Bobby Thomson himself, along the way to a surprise ending. It is also a personal journey for the author and speaks to the strength of family.
For me, Miracle was one of those books you just couldn’t book down. I would try, but inevitably found myself returning to it a short time later to see where Biegel’s search would lead him next. Miracle hits a home run and is a book I would recommend, not only to baseball fans but anyone interested in the search for the truth.
Image to right is the famous picture of a despondent Ralph Branca, the losing pitcher.
Wayne’s Rating: Home Run
( Amazon: 4.15 / Goodreads 4.14 / B&N 4.00)
Listen to audio interview with author Brian Biegel
Read a Q&A with author Brian Biegel from ESPN.
Here is a great list from the New York Times about the game and its key players.
Almost every baseball fan is familiar with Russ Hodge’s famous home run call…
Hartung down the line at third, not taking any chances. Lockman without too big of a lead at second, but he’ll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one. Branca throws. There’s a long drive. It’s gonna be, I believe…The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! Oh-ho!
What most people don’t realize is that another famous announcer was also calling the game–Ernie Harwell. The video link below has Ernie talking about his experience of not being part of history…The video is part of a wonderful retrospective of the great baseball announcers of the past: Ball Talk: Baseball’s Voices of Summer.
The DVD was produced by one of our Books on Baseball friends Kevin Bender. It contains interviews and famous moments with Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse, Jack Buck, Curt Gowdy and, in the video below, Ernie Harwell and Red Barber. You should definitely make the DVD part of you home collection.
Hear Ernie Harwell talk about Russ Hodges and the derivation of the famous call
On August 16, 1920, in the late afternoon at the Polo Grounds, Ray Chapman stepped into the batter’s box for what would be the very last time. The 29 year old Cleveland Indians’ shortstop, known as “Chappie”, squared around to bunt off the Yankee’s Carl Mays. The submariner’s pitch was inside, Chapman was unable to duck and the pitch hit him on the temple. The ball struck so loud and with such a sound that Mays thought it had hit Chapman’s bat and threw the rolling ball to first for an out.
Chapman never regained consciousness and died at 4:30am the next day, August 17, 1920. Thankfully, Chapman remains the only MLB player to suffer fatal injuries during a game. (Minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh was struck on the head and killed while coaching a Tulsa Drillers game in July 2007).
The Indians won the tragic game 4-3, handing Mays the loss. As a dedication to Chapman, The Cleveland squad went on to win both the American League pennant as well as the 1920 World Series over the Brooklyn Robins 4 games to 3. This was the series where Indians’s Bill Wambsganss’ pulled off the only unassisted triple play in World Series history.
Chapman was born in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. He grew up in Herrin, Illinois. He broke into the Major Leagues in 1912 with the Cleveland team, then known as the Naps (for Napolean Lajoie)
Chapman led the American League in runs scored and walks in 1918. A top-notch bunter, Chapman is 6th on the all-time list for sacrifice hits and holds the single season record with 67 in 1917. Only Stuffy McInnis has more career sacrifices as a right-handed batter. Chapman was also an excellent shortstop who led the league in putouts three times and assists once. He batted .300 three times, and led the Indians in stolen bases four times. In 1917, he set a team record of 52 stolen bases, which stood until 1980. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored when he died.
The Tragic Aftermath
Chapman’s wife, Kathleen, was not at the hospital in New York when Ray died. She learned of the accident in Cleveland and was en route to New York when Ray succombed to his injuries. She was 3-months pregnant at the time and had a daughter–Rae–on February 27, 1921. After the injury, Ray’s wife never attended another game. In 1928 she committed suicide. In 1929 8-year old Rae died from measles.
Carl Mays was a very accomplished major league pitcher. Over a 15-year career, that included stints with Boston and New York of the American League and Cincinnati and New York of the National League, Mays was 208-126 with a 2.92 ERA. Despite these accomplishments, Mays was never able to shake the fatal pitch. By trying to blame the ball or the conditions, he didn’t endear himself to fans. His life had other tragedies as well. Mays lost his life savings in the 1929 stock market crash and his wife died at the age of 36 from an eye infection leaving him with two young children. Mays used to say that “Nobody ever remembered me for anything except that one pitch.” The New York Times obituary headline when he died in 1971 tells it all: Carl Mays, Yankee Whose Pitch Killed Batter in 1920, Is Dead
Among several books on Chapman, there are two notable ones, one for everyone, one geared toward kids.
The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell – A gripping account of one of Baseball’s watershed seasons, this book unaccountably sat on my shelf for aboutthree years; I only dusted it off after reading HEART OF THE GAME, a book about another Baseball fatality. Like the later book, this book traces the paths taken by the main protagonists, Carl Mays, the man who threw the fatal pitch, and Ray Chapman, the man whose career was cut so drastically short: further, it puts the event into the context of what has to be one of Baseball’s most eventful seasons. Before the season, the owners had determined that, in order to promote hitting, which in turn would increase attendance, “trick pitches” would be outlawed from all but 32 pitchers, and that new balls would be frequently put into play as old ones became scuffed and discolored. Also before the season, the biggest name in the Game, Babe Ruth, was sold to the Yankees, where he joined his ex-Bosox teammate, Carl Mays, who had forced a trade from Boston the previous year. Despite the Babe’s early season slump (he didn’t hit the first of his record-shattering 54 homers until May 1), offense rocketed throughout the Game, leading to allegations of a “rabbit ball”. The American League pennant race evolved into a tight, three team struggle amongst the defending champion White Sox, the Ruth-led Yankees, and Tris Speaker’s Indians. The first speed bump was Chapman’s beaning and subsequent death; the next was the breaking of the Black Sox scandal, with the suspensions of the seven current Sox who had conspired to throw the 1919 Series. Even the Yankees faced adversity down the stretch: Ruth sat out several games with a “chigger bite” on his arm, and Mays, their most effective hurler, skipped several turns in the rotation following Chapman’s death.
Sowell does an excellent job recounting this hectic season, and makes clever use of the lexicon of the time to give one the flavor of the events as they are taking place, including this description of Mays on the fatal day: “Before leaving, he had taken a chicken neck out of the icebox and stuck it in his pocket. As was his custom, he would chew it during the game to keep his mouth moist. [Source: Goodreads reader review]
Ray and Me by Dan Gutman - Part of the wonderfully successful Baseball Card stories for young readers. The Baseball Card Adventures is anovel series is written by Dan Gutman. So far there are 10 books in the series. The 10th book, Roberto & Me, came out in March 2010. The books feature a boy, Joe Stoshack, who can travel through time when he touches old baseball cards. When he holds a baseball card, he is transported to the year that card was made and somewhere near the ballplayer on the card. Later he discovers that this power also works on very old photographs. He tries to use this power wisely, and he changes history several times, but it is always something different than his original goal.
Ray and Me — After Joe is hit in the head by a baseball and wakes up after two weeks in a coma, he learns about another baseball player who wasn’t so lucky – Ray Chapman. When Joe recovers from his accident, he goes back to 1920 and attempts to save Chapman from an event that changed baseball history forever.
Statistics do not tell the whole story of any ballplayer’s life. In the case of Toni Stone, arguably the greatest woman ever to play professional baseball in any league, a complete story could never be woven out of stats and game summaries, because there was a time not so very long ago when games played by some groups of individuals were not considered worthy of a printed record.
Judy Johnson shares her wonderful writing with Books on Baseball as a guest book reviewer. Your Turn is a regular feature of Books on Baseball that spotlights our BoB friends as guest book reviewers. Judy’s work can be found on her website — Watching the Game.
Where baseball numbers are lacking, memory, imagery, and conversation take their place. Fortunately for our sake, various interviews with the late Toni Stone survive. Anecdotes, eyewitness accounts, news clippings, numbers, reminiscences, and multiple stories combine to form a rich and elegant narrative that commemorates one deeply impressive human life.
Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann: What an important and beautiful story this is; what a lovely, near-perfect book (though many examples of vile human behavior fill its pages). This is an engaging read for any lover of baseball, male or female. Readers from various walks of life are likely to find in Toni Stone something of a soul mate, particularly as she passionately seeks ways of accessing the game she loves.
Hear Martha Ackmann talk about Toni Stone on NPR’s Only a Game (starts at 26:00)
Baseball takes place on the field, off the field, and in the mind. So it was for Toni Stone, and so it is that Ackmann deftly balances these three components in telling the ballplayer’s story, giving equal attention to her heroine’s physical achievements, personal challenges and adversities, and the equally compelling longings of a unique soul.
It’s an understatement to say that young “Tomboy” Stone faced formidable odds in defying the double prejudice that characterized a nation’s pastime, even as the industry enjoyed significant progress in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Intensity, determination, grit, and love drove Tomboy at every step of the way. It is no mistake that a teacher – Martha Ackmann, Professor of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College and Emily Dickinson scholar – celebrates the life of a heroine who did not perform well in school. The young girl was never fired up by physics, grammar, or geometry; her intellectual curiosity lay elsewhere.
The yearning to play baseball is not just a physical desire. It’s an intellectual passion, and curiosity is at the root of all learning: ”She felt more comfortable listening to old men discussing balls and strikes than she did hearing girls her own age chattering” (18). Those men had “an easy way about them.”
Toni’s able body took her mind to places where she yearned to be, to venues in which she knew she deep down she could thrive both physically and mentally: “Tomboy pushed down the kickstand of her Silver King and walked through the open gates of the still-empty Lexington Park. She wanted to get a closer look at what was going on” (22). What boy or girl or tomboy among us, what lover of baseball, hasn’t felt the pull of the game in this way? What fan hasn’t pushed down the kickstand and wandered closer to the field?
She craved baseball conversation at an early age, because talk meant instruction. “Baseball was like a drug” for her. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping I’d go crazy” (1), she once said, describing a sensation many of us can understand.
Toni Stone was fortunate to learn the game in a formal way during a critical period in her youth, thanks to consistent playing time on several squads: a Catholic boys’ league in Minnesota, a team of Meat Packers in Saint Paul, a year or so of girls’ softball in high school, and American Legion ball. Gabby Street’s baseball school for white boys was her unlikely but significant launching point.
Young Toni (nee “Marcenia”) never would have broken into the world of baseball had it not been for a succession of mentors and advocates, including a Roman Catholic priest, a handful of compassionate teachers who believed in her talent, a former major-league manager, team owner Syd Pollack, and her parents, who gradually accepted the fact that Marcenia’s dreams took her to a place far different from what they’d envisioned for their daughter. Those who succeed in baseball cannot do it alone; it takes the egos and pocketbooks of others, as well as basic human kindness, a constellation of believers and mixed motives, to drive the process forward.
Facing almost insurmountable odds both on and off the field, Toni Stone played baseball legitimately from 1932 until 1954. Barnstorming the country from North Dakota to Louisiana, Minneapolis to California with busloads full of men, she proved herself worthy of professional contracts with the San Francisco Sea Lions, New Orleans Creoles, Indianapolis Clowns, and Kansas City Monarchs. Playing in 78 games at the height of her career in 1949, while surviving and even thriving in a world peopled almost exclusively by men, Toni maintained a remarkable .326 average.
Throughout the years, she held her own and maintained her dignity in a male world, and for the most part her teammates felt comfortable having her around. Seeking baseball opportunities just as they did, she faced adversity and bitter racism at many steps along the way. “Nothing serious,” a county sheriff was heard saying in a breakdown lane outside St. Augustine. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” (178). Deep into the woods Toni would disappear on road trips, alone, while her male teammates paused together at the side of the road to relieve themselves in the middle of the night. Surviving in a gritty world full of discomfort and uncertainty, she endured the further humiliation of being promoted as something of a circus attraction that promised larger crowds and higher revenues at the ballpark.
One of the lowest points in her career came in the form of a cruel remark from an unlikely source – Buck O’Neill, whose surprisingly hurtful behavior inflicted an unexpected and lasting form of pain (189). Buck’s demeaning wisecrack and subsequent aloofness came at a time when Toni’s performance on the field had already taken a turn for the worse, as various forces including middle age conspired to drive her out of the game.
How ironic that Toni came to be distanced and discarded from the baseball world, even as the industry took significant steps forward. In 1954 she was not selected by fans to play in the East-West Negro League All-Star game, and this devastating news virtually “broke her spirit” (187). As a few of her fellow players began to transition into the big leagues, Toni felt a peculiar sense of alienation from the game she had always loved. The inevitable dissolution of the Negro Leagues and the opening of baseball’s gates to more players of color ironically meant fewer opportunities for women. Gender proved to be a tricky and complicated issue, as influential figures including sportswriters began to craft shrill arguments in an effort to keep women out of professional baseball.
For some twenty years Toni Stone had proved that she could hold her own with the men and boys, but they no longer thought to let her in. “I just got real angry.” Other gifted female players had already fallen by the wayside, unable to persevere during those years when Toni gutted it out and proved herself worthy. “I could of just died,” she lamented as her career drew to an end in 1954.
The story of Toni Stone is on balance an uplifting tale, but it’s a very sad story too. “She had to find a way to let go of baseball and not let it ache so much” (194). “Not playing baseball hurt so damn much,” Toni explained years later, “I almost had a heart attack.” Parting with the game is a difficult experience for most ballplayers, and hanging up the cleats was especially difficult for Toni. Together with her glove, the well-worn shoes had truly become her salvation (15).
The climax of Martha Ackmann’s story comes not with a walk-off double, game-winning home run, or dazzling play at second. The climax doesn’t happen on any field. Long after her retirement from the game, after a lonely hiatus that felt like death, all the stories of Stone’s career finally “exploded like a grenade,” and the words began to flow.
Toni’s triumphant visit to the offices of the The Oakland Tribune marked her rebirth into the world of the game. Pondering the book she would never have time to write herself, yet eager to tell her story, Toni came loaded with clippings, jerseys, memorabilia and with “words cascading out of her mouth of a torrent” (207).
The game of baseball ultimately becomes story for all of us – for player and fan alike, for every historian, biographer, and lonely dreamer. Whether it be an elegant narrative crafted by a scholar or a coarse anecdote shared at a bar or up in the grandstands, a tale spun out on the front porch or at the corner deli, story is what baseball ultimately becomes. Story levels the playing field when all is said and done.
Those who have not played the game can honor it with words. Our stories often celebrate the more elusive human elements that can’t be measured in stats and charts. Curveball succeeds admirably in voicing the truth of one life. Like all good baseball narratives, it’s part love story. Toni Stone’s career played out in a way that resembled the experience of Gabby Street, the skeptical coach who gave her that first lucky break: “[he] thought he was finished with baseball forever . . . but his love for the game would not let him go. ‘I’ve got baseball in my blood, I guess, I can’t leave it alone’” (25).
Martha Ackmann has filled an empty space in history with an elegant story about a truly inspiring woman. It’s our responsibility and our joy to know stories such as these. Tomboy Stone was much more than a “girl sensation.” She was a heroine, a complicated individual, a gifted and accomplished player who made a significant contribution to the game we love, a human being worth knowing.