Category Archives: Sports

Ray of Resolution

1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds.  Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)

June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted.  He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles.  As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.

Standing High Jump, Ray Ewry

Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.

I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often.  As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …”  Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”

Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence. 

Standing High Jump, Olympics,  Ray Ewry

He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal.  The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray.  But his life wasn’t even close to easy.


Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century.  These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product.  In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture.  (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc.  There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).

US Major Canals, circa 1853

Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring.  It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes  become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade.  That’s a status it enjoys to this day.

Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal.  This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River.  From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.

With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug.  The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage.  Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.

1904 Saint Louis.  The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair.  The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field).  Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits.  Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress.  Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010.  And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.

August 29.  Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit.  His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event.  He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals).  He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance.  Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters.  Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine.  When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one.  When he lands –  properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation.  Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.

Ray Ewry, Standing Long Jump, 1904 Olympics, Saint Louis

Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over several months; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days.  In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit.  Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3.  Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.

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Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult.  I found little.  He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger.  His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler.  Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.

Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century.  And little could be done for what was known.  Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further.  Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century.
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In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters.  Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds.  He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did.  No one really thought much of it.

2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief.  Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators.  Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.

These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene.  All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers.  Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%.  Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone.  [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.

The odd adult case has a most memorable example.  Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee.  About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles.  Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.

Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome.  After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether.  The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood.  Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.

There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten.  One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria.  Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious.  They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.

Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill.  But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed.  When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating.  Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints.  The result is Rheumatic Fever.  It is usually a life-long struggle.  It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.

It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.

1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens.  Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today.  Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.

Olympic Stadium, Athens, Olympiakó Stádio Athinon

Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump.  After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful.  A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.

June, 1881.  School is out.  Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system.  Catching a few frogs was not out of the question.  Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.

In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches.  His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair.  To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.

Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County.  Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy.  The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog.  Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run.  Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile.  You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.

Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs.  Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly.  It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.

Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race.  A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line.  Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun.  Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!

While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before.  Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow.  Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could.  No sense risking losing his frog now.  At full stride, the tingling returned.  It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.

With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path.  Had he stumbled?  Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race.  But Ray couldn’t get up.  His legs were completely paralyzed.  At 7-½years old.

1908, London.  The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair.  The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games…  especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.

The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games.  London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time.  [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry.  London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].

At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place.  Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards.  He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career.  Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.

1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden.  Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide.  There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition.  Ray is forever paralyzed.  But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help.  It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary.  No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.

Mary runs with this advice.  She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray.  Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn.  Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha.  As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.

By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways.  Ray was growing stronger – much stronger.  He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.

By the end of his senior year he was walking.  After 11 years of paralysis.  He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club.  He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.

In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue.  His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention.  Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.

Ray Ewry and the Athenian Olympic Stadium. At right his Olympic shirt bears the Winged Foot insignia of the New York Athletic Club

Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy.  As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing.  It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.

 

1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes.  Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker.  His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained.  It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.

It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.

In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury.  These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them.  Not this time. He just could not get through it this time.  After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).

After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure.  The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it.  Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.

Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis.  They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets.  Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost.  Her only son (I think, and thus Ray’s only grandson) Thomas Carson,  a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay. [2]

Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday.  One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health.  I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him  through most of his adult life.

In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium.  As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor.  For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades.  For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.

Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals.  He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008.  However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.

It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!

Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.

Joe Girard © 2021

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon.  The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

1900 World’s Fair. Athletic Field is the green space across the river. Arial Painting by Lucien Baylac, based on Balloon observations.  The Observation Wheel (Grande Roue) was about 354 feet tall, higher than the huge wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 Fair in Chicago, and also used at the 1904 Fair in Saint Louis.

 

Footnote [2] Thomas E Carson V, Ray Ewry’s grandson, wrote a biography about Ray, called “Unsung.”  It was the culmination of decades of work in which he interweaves Ray’s bio with his own nearly epic pursuit of the details of Ray’s life, as well as his medals.  There are many, many sources on Ray.  But, to the benefit of me as a writer and you readers, Mr Carson’s book provided much of the rich contextual detail about Ray that made his story much more “human.”  Thank you sir!

Carson is also a published fiction writer, and I believe you can find his works (including some serials based on a main character named Drum Bailey) on Amazon and elsewhere.

Mr Carson may not be Ray’s only grandson, but some genealogy searches turned up no others.

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Various sources, among so very, very many …

Before Leaping To 10 Golds, Athlete Beat Polio : NPR

Ray C. Ewry | American athlete | Britannica

Biography of Ray Ewry <small>(1873-1937)</small> – TheBiography.us

The Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – College of Engineering – Purdue University

Ewry begins Olympic career with 3 titles in 1 day in Paris – Washington Times

Shore Up

See the source image

Ernie Shore, circa 1917

I haven’t written about Major League Baseball (MLB) this year until now.  I’m still a bit discouraged by all the new rules for covid, and those that  have carried over.  The game drifts farther and farther from the one I learned and loved as a child.  Strikeouts are now matter-of-fact; those numbers continue to soar.  Batting averages sink.  There is a controversy about this being linked to many pitchers illegally applying various substances to the balls to improve their grip. Is it that, or that every swing seems to be a “home run” swing?

But it’s still America’s game.  America’s great past time.  Old games stay in our memories, and in the record books.  Just as new stars and events make their ways into the same places.

Consider the phenom playing for the Los Angeles Angels, the once-in-a-century supremely talented Shohei Ohtani.  The Japanese star hits for extraordinary power and is also a starting pitcher.  His home run rate rivals that of Babe Ruth, the other most-famous pitcher-and-hitter; and, depending on how one calculates, Ohtani hits HRs more frequently than the Babe.  Both over his career and especially this year.

Like the Babe in the earlier part of his career, Ohtani is also an exceptionally good pitcher.  Stuck with a mediocre team, his win-loss record doesn’t accurately reflect his talents.  He has one of the fastest fastballs, and regularly throws at, or over, 100 miles per hour.  With a full assortment of pitches and deliveries – cutters, sliders, splitters, curves – he’s dropped his ERA this year to 2.70 and strikes out one-third of batters he faces; both are among MLB leaders.

Ohtani will be at the All-Star Game in Denver next month.  Many fans are looking forward to his participation in the Home Run Derby.

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I’ve written about amazing pitching performances in MLB history a few times, for example Can’t Touch This and Last At Bat.  104 years ago today, on June 23, 1917, an amazing pitching performance occurred that is sorta-kinda one of the most amazing No-Hitters and Perfect Games that don’t get recorded as such.

The man was Ernie Shore, a teammate of Babe Ruth’s on the Boston Red Sox.  He is linked to the Babe in other ways besides this particular game against the (first) Washington Senators. Both were earlier sold by the Baltimore Oriole organization to the Boston Red Sox in the same transaction.

[Later, before the 1920 season, the “BoSox” would sell Ruth, known at the time as “The Bambino” to their rival Yankees – even though he had helped lead them to three World Series wins. He was just too expensive and demanding. This became known as “The Curse of the Bambino”, since the BoSox, who had won 5 of the first 15 World Series, did not win another until 86 years later.  Meanwhile, the Yankees won 26 championships, or so, in the same time period.  They had won zero before acquiring Ruth.]

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Ernie Shore was a farm boy from the foothills of North Carolina, near North Bend. He was the 2nd of five boys born to Henry and Martha Shore; Ernie arriving in 1891. (My essay about farm boys in MLB here]. Ernie compiled a very respectable record during his four years alongside Ruth on those Red Sox teams, going 58-33.  He also went 3-1 in four World Series starts, helping the Braves win back-to-back WS victories in 1915 and ’16.

[The Sox won another World Series in 1918, this time without Shore, as he had enlisted in the military to fight in World War 1. When Shore returned, he too, like Ruth, was dealt to the Yankees].

Fenway, pre-Green Monster

The day was June 23, 1917.  Exactly 104 years ago as I write this. World War 1 raged in Europe.  Bodies fell and blood flowed across Flanders.  Fenway Park, the now famous home of the Boston Red Sox, was barely 5 years old.  Its iconic “Green Monster” left field wall was in place, but that nickname came later.  Then, it was just “The Wall”, put up to keep fans and freeloaders off the field.  There were rows of fans in front of the wall.

The woeful Washington Senators were in town for a 5-game series against the Sox, which would include two double-headers.  Such long multi-game series and double-headers (especially on Saturdays) were more common back then, since travel was very  inconvenient.  One of those double-headers might have been a makeup from a weather-caused postponement earlier.

On this fine Saturday, Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox in the first game of a double-header.  The game’s first batter walked; he was the Senators’ Ray Morgan, a swift-footed second baseman.  Ruth thought both balls 3 and 4 should have been strikes, and he let the umpire know how he felt in no uncertain terms.  In fact, by many reports, the dispute came to blows. Ruth was ejected from the game. So was the Red Sox’s catcher, Pinch Thomas.

Without warmup or warning, Ernie Shore, who was likely scheduled to pitch the backend of the double-header, was called in to pitch.  Sam Agnew, a part-time catcher, substituted for Pinch Thomas.

The situation seemed rather frenetic, and thus opportunistic, to Morgan.  What with the dustup between Ruth and home plate umpire Brick Owens,  the sudden pitching change, and the sudden catcher change, this seemed like a good time to try and steal second base as soon as possible.

He did try.  The new catcher, Agnew, fired the ball across the diamond to second baseman Jack Barry, who then tagged out Morgan.  It was not a good opportunity.

Morgan was the last baserunner the Senators had the entire game.  Ernie Shore retired every batter; 26 up, 26 down.  The Red Sox went on to win, 4-0.   By the way, substitute catcher Agnew went 3 for 3, and knocked in two of the Red Sox’s runs.

This game used to be listed among MLB’s individual no-hitters and perfect games.  But the rules for such things were “shored up” (sorry, pun intended).  It’s now just an interesting game and one of those baseball oddities.  Maybe it wins you a few bar bets.  It is listed now as a “combined no-hitter.”  Babe Ruth steals the headline again.

After World War 1 Shore resumed his career, now with the Yankees.  However, during the winter of 1918-19 he caught a bad bug from his Navy roommate. Perhaps it was the Spanish Flu.  He was bedridden for weeks. It greatly weakened him.  He had a subpar 1919 season by his standards.  He rested and trained for 1920, but the arm strength just wasn’t there. He was sent to the minors in 1921.  He languished there a few seasons, then retired.  He then tried coaching for a while, but Shore didn’t have the body or the heart for baseball anymore.

He moved back to his native North Carolina.  He got married, raised a family, got involved in local youth sports and politics.  He was even sheriff of Forsythe County for 36 years.

Ernie, Thanks for the memories. We might forget you, but the history books will not.

Joe Girard © 2021

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Tony and Farm Boy Records

“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

Tony Lee was born to a farming family in rolling rural piedmont country, hidden away in North Carolina’s Lincoln County.  He grew up fast, tall, strong and lean, and went on to set a remarkable and little-known Major League Baseball record that will probably never be broken.

There are many a story of country boys making it big in baseball.  I’ll touch on three of the best known.

Mickey Mantle grew up in rural Oklahoma, along old Route 66. Who knows how many records Mickey Mantle would have set if he hadn’t taken to the bottle? Still, he hit 536 home runs in total – this during an era when baseball players, on average, hit homers only about 60 percent as often as today – and yet “The Mick” stands at #18 on the all-time home run list.  More than a few above him took steroids and should thus be disqualified.

Bob Feller grew up a farming country boy in Iowa.  Playing his entire career with the Indians, and coaching for them until his death at 92, he probably had the fastest fastball in the Majors during the 1940s. He led the league in strike outs seven times (twice in the 1930s as a teenager!). Over a stellar career, Feller amassed 266 victories.  He surely would’ve reached the magical 300 milestone had he not served 3-1/2 years in World War 2 in the prime of his career.  Or, if the Indians had had a slightly better team; they compiled mostly mediocre records in those years, but did manage to win the World Series in 1948. For the five full years of his career that sandwiched his military service he averaged 24 wins a season.  Projecting a bit, that would put him around 350 wins for his career. 

And finally, perhaps the most famous to baseball fans, is pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young.  He grew up working his family’s farm in rural Ohio.  His frame took on great strength and his mind a determined, stern discipline. When baseball found him, he could throw the ball so hard he was nicknamed “Cyclone”; or “Cy” for short.  With a career of just over two decades that spanned the turn of the 20th century, Young won an astounding 511 games at the Major League level – a record that will never be broken.  Since 1956 the Award for the Best Pitcher in each league has been named after him.

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In this time of Covid, I’m not following sports much. Heck, until recently there wasn’t much to follow. But even with this rump of a baseball season coming to its tinny crescendo I have been unable to avert my eyes from box scores and standings completely. 

It’s a lifelong habit and I guess I owe it to my dad.  I can remember him taking me to watch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field during the summer of 1961.  Billy Williams hit a home run.  I could barely follow the game – long periods of sun-drenched boredom with brief moments of athletic excitement where the players and ball moved so quickly that I had little idea what was going on.  All I knew before this was dad tossing whiffle balls to me – as I tried to make contact with a plastic bat – and a cheezy glove that he tossed balls into.  Me, thinking I could catch, or hit! Ha. God Bless him. God blessed me with him.

Within a few years he taught me how to track a game.  How to keep score.  Tricks to playing each position (‘ twas clear from early on I’d never be a pitcher) and what to anticipate what could happen on each at-bat, on each pitch.  I guess he thought I had “Mickey Mantle” potential, as he had me swing from both sides.  Eventually I took to swinging only lefty – even though I am right-handed and right-eyed – which was fine with me.  Billy Williams – who won Rookie of the Year in 1961, later won a batting title, and had become my favorite player – swung the same way, lefty, despite also being right-handed.

Back to 2020. So, I’m tracking some baseball stats this odd year-of-covid, like I always do. This, despite the fact that I’m inclined to believe that nothing about this year should even count.  But, I can’t help myself.  Reasons it shouldn’t count?  Doubleheader games are only 7 innings;  extra innings start off with a runner on second;  and the biggest reason is that even the NL is using the Designated Hitter (DH), which means that – except in the most unusual of circumstances – pitchers don’t have to bat.  Guess I’m just a traditionalist.

One thing I noticed through most of this weird 2020 season is that hitting and run production seem down.  Until a few weeks ago batting averages across both leagues were at historic lows.  And pitchers don’t even have to bat! Run production (scoring) was down only slightly, because players are still hitting home runs at nearly historically high rates.

There was a blip for a few weeks recently when scoring and hitting went way up. Teams started putting up double-digit tallies. In one single day (Sept 9) during that stretch the Brewers scored 19 runs in a game. And the Braves scored 29! In one game. During that Braves explosion, Adam Duvall hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and knocked in 9 runs.  This statistic, 9 RBIs, tied a Braves franchise record. Plus a grand slam. [RBI is Run Batted in].

And my mind drifted back to 1966……

Baseball recruiting started to get aggressive in the late 1950s.  For example, Tony Lee Cloninger, a lanky farm boy from North Carolina, was signed to a professional contract by the Milwaukee Braves in early 1958.  For that, he received a signing bonus of $100,000.  That was a lot of money. He had not yet graduated from high school.

Milwaukee. I lived just outside that Midwest city from Christmas week 1962 until the summer of 1974.  Even though my first love was the Cubs, I could not help but follow the local Braves, as news of them was always in the newspapers. And of course, my sports-minded friends all followed them.  So, I certainly knew of Tony Cloninger.

In fact, several superstars, future Hall of Famers, played for the Milwaukee Braves back then – Aaron, Matthews, Torre, Spahn – and I remember watching them all play at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Cloninger set several team records.  He recorded the modern-day era for most wins in a season by a Brave – 24 wins in 1965 – which matched the count put up by Johnny Sain in 1948 (when the team was in Boston), and years later by John Smoltz in 1996.  Not even the great Brave and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn ever won so many in a season.

Cloninger also threw one of MLB’s few Immaculate Innings (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) in 1963, a feat that had only been achieved 13 times before.  (As an indicator of how the game has changed – so many more home runs and more strikeouts – it’s been done 87 times since).

1965 was a strange year for the Milwaukee Braves.  The ownership was trying to move the team to Atlanta.  Fans still loved the Braves, but there definitely were some hard feelings.  The case even went to the courts, as the city tried to keep them.  Despite a good record and performance by stars – not just Cloninger’s 24 wins; three Braves ranked in the league’s top ten for home runs: “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthew and Mack Jones – attendance dwindled to a dismal 555,000, lowest in the entire major leagues.  I can’t blame the fans for not supporting a team that doesn’t love its home city.

Cloninger was a bit of free-spirit, at least on the pitcher’s mound, I would guess, and his career numbers support that theory.  In his great 1965 year (and the next year too), Cloninger led the league in Wild Pitches and Walks issued. During 3-1/2 seasons in the minors he steadily averaged about 7 walks per nine innings: a horrendous ratio at almost any level, especially as a professional. But he also showed a ton of potential and promise. He was promoted to the major league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the middle of the ’61 season, just shy of 21 years old. He was probably an early poster-child for the term “effectively-wild.”

1966.  Now the Atlanta Braves were hopeful for their prospects, based on a new location, their promising second half of 1965, and a roster full of stars, including Tony Cloninger as their #1 pitcher.  Unexpectedly, both Tony and the Braves got off to a cool start and were definitely under-performing.  For the July 4th weekend, they traveled to San Francisco, to play the first place Giants – they were also loaded with future Hall of Famers.  Prospects didn’t look good.

On a Sunday afternoon, July 3, Tony Cloninger – a much better than average hitting pitcher – pitched for the Braves.  Back then, we Milwaukee-ites all still followed the Braves rather closely – as there was no professional baseball team in Milwaukee to replace them yet (the Brewers arrived in 1970), and we still knew all the Braves’ players, and most (except me) disliked the rival Cubs in nearby Chicago. But we didn’t get a newspaper delivered on Independence Day, July 4th. What happened on July 3rd?

It was not until July 5th that I read what Tony Cloninger had accomplished.  The details were scarce, since the sports section had to cram two days’ worth of news into a single Tuesday edition, typically a publication day of diminutive size.

I first scanned the July 4th results (for some cruel scheduling reason the Braves had to fly all the way to Houston to play an afternoon game the very next day in the new Astrodome against the lowly Astros) and noted that the they had eked out a win.

Then, …  some numbers from the previous day’s box score literally jumped off the pages.  Holy cow! The Braves beat the first place Giants by a score of 17-3.  Tony Cloninger pitched a complete game for the win, and he hit not one, but two, grand slams.  I could not believe my eyes.  A late game single brought his RBI total to 9 for the game.  These are astonishing batting feats for any player, almost unbelievable!! But for a pitcher?  Typically, the lightest hitting player in any lineup.

Tony Cloninger, mid-1960s

Not sure if it was that day or the next, but I remember the Milwaukee Journal showing a grainy photo of Giants’ great Willie Mays looking up helplessly, as a ball Cloninger had clobbered soared over his head, near the fence in Candlestick’s center field. Gosh, I wish I had started saving newsworthy magazines and newspapers a bit earlier.  I’d love to have that now.

This was the first time in National League history that a player had ever hit two grand slams in one game.  And, I’ll repeat myself: by a pitcher no less.   [It has only happened only twice since, with Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning(!), in 1999.  It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League.] This has never been accomplished by a pitcher.  Never.  Before or since.  And it never will be done again, especially with the NL contemplating permanent use of the Designated Hitter – which means pitchers practically never, ever get to bat.

The Braves 1966 season improved thereafter, partly due to changing managers (from Bobby Bragan – loved that name – to Billy Hitchcock).  On the flip side: The Giants’ season sort of collapsed.  And the Dodgers (again, sigh) raced on to the National League pennant, with one of the better pitching  staffs in baseball history, led by Sandy Koufax (who promptly retired, aged only 30, when he was at the top of his game, after the Dodgers surprisingly lost the World Series to Baltimore, swept 4-0, at season’s end).

Tony “the farm boy” Cloninger had been experiencing some shoulder and elbow problems. He was a power pitcher, with a great fastball and nasty slider; both can be very tough on the body. 1966 was still a reasonably good season for him (he finished 14-11) and he was still the Braves #1 pitcher.  But that was the beginning of the end.  Even at age 25 his rugged farm-hardened body could not stand up to the rigors of tossing so many innings.  He pitched for several more years, posting only fair results, at best, and he was traded around a couple times.

With his bonus money and salary, Cloninger had been buying up farmland in his native Lincoln County.  He battled on for a few years, then struggled mightily through the first half of the 1972 season, whereupon he promptly retired mid-season, just before his 32nd birthday. Tony returned to his beloved rural homeland; he began settling in at his farm and its bucolic setting in the North Carolina Piedmont.

Cloninger compiled a career MLB record of 113-97. He once made the league top 10 in strike outs. Good, but not nearly good enough for the Hall of Fame.  He’s also regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time.  Still not good enough to technically be in the Hall of Fame as an individual. But, photographs of him made that day in 1966 are there in the Hall.  As is the bat he borrowed from teammate Denis Menke, the one he used to hit the two grand slams.  They should be: it is a record which will never be broken by any player. Nor will even be tied, by a pitcher.

Cloninger couldn’t stay away from the game forever.  In 1988 he took up an invitation from the New York Yankees to join their coaching staff…starting in the minors and ending up with the major league team. Later he switched over to the player development staff with the Boston Red Sox.  I believe he was still with the BoSox when he passed away, just a couple years ago, in the summer of 2018, aged 77.

Tony, thanks for the memories.  You’re a good old farm boy who did well in the world.

Thanks for reading.  Cheers.

Joe Girard © 2020

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Heroes: from Kerr to “The Man”

It’s the middle of the 2019 World Series, and things are getting very interesting.  So, as I’ve done at this time of year before, it’s time to weave a rambling essay of baseball lore – this one with lesser known threads connecting heroes, villains and an indelible splotch on baseball’s reputation – recalling that this is the 100th Anniversary of the notorious “Black Sox”.

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I had the great fortune getting an opportunity to earn an engineering graduate degree at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Among the countless benefits that sprouted from those two years (1978-80) were some that came from a forward looking realization: I might not have the chance to work a fun job that involved playing golf for many more decades. I’ve always liked golf, because, like baseball, it’s a sport that a skinny, short guy like me can achieve some success at.

So, in April 1979, I donned my most attractive, contemporary golf attire (which were a bit frayed and cheap looking) and rode my bicycle to a nearby exclusive golf and country club.  How nice was it?  The following summer it hosted the 1980 Women’s US Open.

I got a job with the pro, whose name was also Joe, after a very short interview. I worked there much of the next two summers doing a variety of golf-related tasks: in the pro-shop, selling golf paraphernalia and running the till; making deposits at the bank; running the driving range; cleaning clubs and carts; even working with the grounds crew to lay sod and build bridges.

Not a great job, at least with respect to pay (I think at $2.92/hr), but the main thing was the fringe benefits.  I was at a top-notch golf facility, where I was privileged to play at least 9-holes of golf every single day and also spend hours practicing every sort of shot.  By the end of the first summer I was a pretty fair bet to break 80 on a US open caliber course – and “from the tips”, as golfers say.  (Oh!, to be able to do that again).

Another benefit was getting tickets to high end golf related events.  For example, I attended the 1980 Music City Celebrity golf tournament at another high-end golf club for free.  This was a splashy fund-raiser for local charities.  I clearly recall following along two celebs for a several holes. 

The first celeb I followed was former President Gerald Ford.  He definitely struck me as athletic, but in a “football player” sort-of-way.  A very mechanical and muscle-bound swing.  Slight fade.  Never gonna be a great golfer, but played with the stoic, almost grim, emotionless face that you’d expect from a conservative.  He did hole a green-side bunker shot on number 9, which brought a huge roar of appreciation from the crowd. 

The other was Stan Musial.  Known to true-blue Saint Louis baseball fans as “Stan the Man”,  Musial’s marvelous baseball playing career came to an end about 17 years before … just as I was becoming a serious fan of the game.  It now occurs to me that I might have seen him once or even twice before, as my father started taking me to Wrigley Field to see Cubs games in 1961.

Stan Musial: late in MLB career

Musial was certainly one of the very, very best hitters of the 20th century, and among the best 2 or 3 left-handed hitters ever, ranking with Ted Williams and Ty Cobb.  Musial is arguably above Cobb, who never put up power numbers like Stan, and it’s tough to compare with Williams, whose overall career numbers (especially hits and home runs) are unfairly well down the list, since he lost three of the best years of his baseball career to military service, serving as a fighter pilot during World War II. 

I said that Musial’s playing career ended some 17 years before I saw him in Nashville, at the Music City Celeb.  But it nearly ended before he even made it to the majors. 

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100 years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine that the Chicago White Sox team of 1919 could lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The star-studded Sox were prohibitive betting favorites.  It’s only imaginable in retrospect, knowing that their best players intentionally played well below their skill level – pitchers tossing easy-to-hit pitches, fielders kicking ground balls and dropping flyballs. 

Books and movies have been made about that team, and what happened thereafter.  The short version is that players thought they were severely underpaid (they probably were). Owner Charles Comiskey was a man of “deep pockets and short arms” – especially stingy with his money, and player salaries.  The sports-betting community connected the dots: prohibitive betting odds and disgruntled players provided the possibility of a gigantic gambling bonanza by giving a miniscule fraction of the winning proceeds to players who cooperated.

In the end, eight players were banned from baseball for life.  There is absolutely no doubt that many players cooperated, although it’s easy to make a case for Joe Jackson’s defense.  Jackson was an illiterate simple country boy from South Carolina, famously went by the nickname “Shoeless Joe” and had the prettiest lefthanded swing that any baseball expert had ever seen.  For the series, Joe hit for a .375 average, with a .956 OPS.  Hard to say he wasn’t trying, and easy to say he didn’t know what he was signing up for.

It’s also hard to imagine that there was a hero for the Sox in that Series.  A genuine hero on a team that intentionally tried to lose. But there most certainly was: the diminutive Dickey Kerr. Mostly forgotten now, Kerr was by no means the best pitcher on the 1919 Sox.  Considered a second-tier pitcher, behind the likes of Eddie Cicotte (“Chick”), who won 29 games that season with a 1.82 ERA.  During the series, Chick picked two games to throw poorly at critical moments.

Tiny Dickey Kerr, 1919

Kerr was a rookie that year.  He stood barely 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighed 150 lbs “soaking wet”. Yet Kerr won two games in that series, going 2-0 with a dodgy defense behind him, and with a 1.42 ERA.  In one game he went 10 innings to get the win; silly (now obvious) errors led to a critical unearned run.

So lowly regarded was Kerr, that Sox players who collaborated with gamblers never even considered including him in the plot.  Even though he was unscathed by the scandal, his career soon also ended after the 1921 season (all eight collaborators finished the 1920 season) – although he made a brief comeback attempt in 1925.

Kerr’s missing of the 1922-24 seasons was also tied directly to Comiskey the Cheapskate.  Feeling like he was owed more money for his performance (he did go on to win an impressive 40 games over the ’20 and ’21 seasons), Kerr sat out and played some exhibition games (for pay) with other teams.  For that, he was harshly banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (yes, that was his name … Kenesaw Mountain … his name has direct links to a major Civil War battle … at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia).

Kerr had a good head for baseball and leadership, making his way into the coaching and manager ranks.  It was later, in 1940, while managing the minor league D-Level Daytona Beach Islanders in the lowest levels of the Saint Louis Cardinals organization, that Kerr encountered a promising young athlete.

Born in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was the fifth of six children born to Polish immigrants. He impressed scouts and was signed to a minor league contract in 1938 with the Saint Louis Cardinals, at the tender age of 18, mostly based on his potential as a pitcher.

By 1940 he was learning the game at the professional level, and playing in the outfield when not pitching, since he showed hitting promise as well.  But all considered him a pitcher first, especially Stan, himself.

Musial’s vision for his future clouded when he suffered a severe injury to his left shoulder while playing outfield for Kerr’s Islanders in 1940.  As Musial was left-handed his future as a professional pitcher seemed unlikely.

Discouraged, depressed, and now with the responsibilities of supporting a wife and a child on the way, Musial wanted to quit baseball and go find a job in a different career. 

To relieve financial and professional pressure, Kerr invited the young Musial family to live with him and his wife.  And Kerr took the opportunity to encourage Musial to focus on his athletic skills besides pitching.

Re-energized and taking Kerr’s mentorship to heart, Musial took to the 1941 season with gusto. He progressed at a startling, almost unbelievable, rate.  Beginning the spring at C-Level (Springfield, WA) based solely on his hitting and raw athletic potential, he was promoted to AA Level just after mid-season.  He did well enough that he earned a brief 12-game call to the Cardinal’s major league team, where he wowed everyone, hitting .426.

Stan “the Man” Musial played his entire 22 season Major League career with the Cardinals. His career numbers – like Williams’ – could have been even better, had he not been called to serve the cause of FFF (Freedom from Fascism); he lost what surely would have been one of the best years of his career (1945) to World War II.  This is easily inferred: in ’44 Musial batted .346, second best in all major leagues; in ’46 he won the batting title at .365. 

More about Musial’s stats, life and career achievement are easily found on the internet.  It’s not just that all of these are so very impressive, it’s also that he is the most beloved, revered and honored Saint Louis Cardinal of all time. 

When I watched Stan Musial play golf in the heat of that humid Tennessee afternoon, I was kind of surprised by what I observed. 

Yes, he played left-handed just like he batted and threw, and – even at nearly 60 years old – displayed a sort of graceful flair and fluidity.  He still had large, strong shoulders and arms.  And a thick muscular neck. Clearly, he was an athlete.  He was not nearly as tall as I expected, perhaps touching six feet; but he had been a giant in my boyhood imagination.  Although he had a bit of a paunch, he insisted on walking. His shirt was mottled with sweat.  He wore no cap, allowing all to see that he still had a full – if somewhat unmanageable – head of dark hair.  He never smiled, and frequently – unconsciously – swept swaths of hair and sweat off his brow. He did not interact much with fans.

It seemed this crazy game of golf was getting to him.  Here he was, a sports Hall of Fame member, struggling with performance in front of fans, in a silly sport; fans who adored him and anticipated success with nearly every shot. 

I felt sorry for Musial. Even though he was famous, highly accomplished, and had records that would last many generations, he was not having fun.  I guess that’s what surprised me most.  He was not having fun. That’s sad.

Maybe if he’d quit baseball and gotten a job a golf country club, he’d have played better that day.  😉

Probably not.  Even I, at roughly the same age, usually mutter to myself throughout a round of golf. 

Until at least next October, that’s a wrap for World Series and Baseball History.

Wishing you all have a wonderful fall and hoping that you all have some fun every day, even if you’re playing golf.

Peace

Joe  Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

Of Disruptors and Keyholes

Recently the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, suspended parliament at a moment in history that portends a possible keyhole event: a “Hard Brexit” is about to occur.  Technically the term is prorogue.  That is to say: “Johnson has prorogued Parliament.”  He simply sent them home for a few weeks.  Although not all that uncommon for a new government – it comes shortly after his placement as PM – the timing has made many Brits uncomfortable, to say the least.

One supposes that my writing has been sort of prorogued of late – not much publishing anyhow.  I don’t think many readers are uncomfortable about that. 

You can look back through a keyhole, but you can’t go back through one

I have a pair of terms for events that are so transformational that things can never return to the way they were; not even ways of thinking can return: Wormholes and Keyholes. Either way, when we pass through them – either as individuals, families, communities, cultures, countries or the entire world – a new reality emerges.

A possible alternative to keyhole and wormhole is “Rubicon”; or the full phrase “crossing the Rubicon.”  Way back in 49 BCE, a Roman general named Gaius (of the patrician clan “Julia”) took his powerful and famously successful army across the River Rubicon. When he did, he also created a keyhole through which he, his army, and Roman culture passed and could never return.

Rubicon: Reality was irreversibly changed.  A civil war ensued.  At its conclusion, there was no more Roman Republic, although it had endured nearly 500 years with a slight flavor of democracy.  It was replaced with the Roman Empire, to be led by a sovereign head of state named “Caesar” (the first one being the aforementioned general).

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a term that means total commitment, and no turning back. You’ve gone through the keyhole. Although, for Julius Caesar, there was an strong element of personal choice in the matter. That’s not always the case.

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Using the theme of keyholes, I will touch upon many a quaint and curious story of forgotten lore [1], including brief biographical glances at the lives of three individuals.

These are but three people among countless.  Passing through the same keyhole in history.  An entire nation of millions was transformed by that keyhole, through which nothing – no person and no part of American culture – could return to their previous state … forever transformed. These three people made history because of their transformations – and society’s – brought about by a major disruption to American national culture.

  1. Hattie had a sweet personality and an even sweeter voice.  And she had a quality of magnetic personality mixed with pizzazz, or panache.  Today the name “Hattie” is rather obscure – in fact, it almost completely disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s.  It was not an uncommon name at all across American cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Hattie Caraway (ARK) was the 1st woman elected to the US Senate, in 1932. Our Hattie was born in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who had been slaves.  Although the name Hattie would later virtually disappear, her own name would not.
  2. Born and raised of pure German descent, Henry hailed from the German neighborhoods on the southside of the great beer-making city of St Louis.  But he usually went by the nickname “Heinie” (or “Heine”), since it was German and rhymed with his last name: Meine.  Of course, it was Americanized to “High-nee My-nee”; you can’t get a much more memorable name.  Nonetheless, he’s virtually forgotten, although Heinie came through the keyhole and left his name in the record books. 
  3. A first generation Italian-American, he preferred to go by “Al” rather than his given “Alphonse.”  Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d make his name in Chicago. Known for many things – including feeding over 100,000 Chicagoans each day during the Great Depression’s early years –  Al was not known for being very faithful to his wife. That’s too bad, because she was extraordinarily faithful and loyal to him.  At least he was loyal: he treated her well and never spoke poorly of her. That, and his Depression-era food lines, are among the few good qualities we can credit to him.
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On a geological scale, the biggest disruptor to life on earth was almost certainly when the 12-mile diameter Chicxulub Asteroid slammed into the earth at 40,000 kilometers per hour, near the Yucatan peninsula (modern day Mexico) about 66 million years ago.  Scientific estimates of the energy released approached one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.

The asteroid event is probably the biggest reason, among many, that between 99.9% and 99.999% of the all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Dinosaurs had ruled the earth; they had for some 250 million years through advanced evolution which tracked the earth’s warming climate. (Consider how far humans have evolved from advanced apes in less than 1/1000th the time).  For most of those many millions of ”dinosaur” years, the earth was generally a very warm, even rather tropical, CO2 rich environment.  Literally, in a very few years (perhaps a handful) all had changed.  The world, relatively speaking, became a frigidly cold “ice box.” 

The asteroid, as agent of disruption, had altered reality so suddenly, and so irreversibly, that the world and its reality was forever immediately changed.  We should be thankful.  That stupendously, mind-boggling cataclysmic event permitted the survival and prominence of tiny mammals – and eventually to us: we humans and our many friends like horses, dogs, cats – over dozens of millions of years.

I should hesitate to even suggest candidates for “disruptors” in the human era – especially in our post-industrial age era.  But, eventually we must get to our three protagonists:  Hattie, Heinie and Alphonse.  Therefore, I submit some examples, starting with —ta da – the internet.  It has spawned on-line commerce and “the sharing  economy.”

The “sharing economy” starts with the simple idea that we, as humans in a free-market economy, have assets that are lying dormant. In economists’ terms: non-performing assets.  Our houses. Our cars. Our time.  The sharing economy idea suggests we can put those assets to work. Over just a very few years, this simple idea has disrupted how we consume, travel, commute and vacation.  Many of us now think of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, CrowdFunding as powerful and preferred alternatives to “traditional business models.”  The value of Taxi Cab medallions in New York City has fallen by some 85% since their peak value of $1.3 Million in 2013. Entire industries must now behave differently – or die.

The sharing economy has been co-joined on the internet with our lust for connectivity and ease. Amazon has put booksellers out of business. Thanks to the internet, we often now shop in the comfort of our homes, in front of our computers – often clad only in our underwear (if we are dressed at all – sorry for the visual).

Merchandise is delivered to our front door, sometimes within hours – while many old and drab strip malls slowly, silently go vacant and “turn-over”, their dull slots replaced by the equivalent of pre-human mammals that are mostly just cheap “creature comforts”: nail salons, micro-liquor stores, tattoo and/or piercing parlors, micro-breweries, tobacco-friendly stores, massage parlors, pot shops (where legal), second-hand and antique shops, etc. And that’s if the vacant spaces are filled at all.  There is no telling which will survive to coming generations, if at all: evolution, disruption and their effects have their ways of being unpredictable… that is their very nature. [2]

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In American culture, looking back over the past 125 years, or so, I cannot think of any more forceful disruptor – outside of the Internet, the Depression, and the Great Wars – than Prohibition.

Prohibition. The 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act. The culmination of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement, the Women’s Movement, and Cultural Conservatives. 

I’m sort of a fan of Prohibition. Why? It was, in effect, a vast significant social scientific experiment.   It made being anti-government-control very cool.  It made counter-culture cool. It made “shoving it in The-Man’s-face” cool.   For many cultural icons and movements – from the obvious, like craft beer brewing and craft alcohol distilling, to the Beatniks, to Elvis, to The Stones, to Jay-Zee, to tattoos, to piercings, to sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, sexual licentiousness, the prevalence of Sugar Daddies, and even NASCAR, (America’s most popular spectator sport) – Prohibition helped paved the way.

To me, on balance, those are good things. But every die comes with many sides: it also gave more profit and respectability to the mafia and the underworld. 

Our protagonists: In order of how famous they are today:

#1. In 1913, Young Al dropped out of school at 14, after slugging his teacher.  He then worked odd jobs while falling in with various young gangs of hoodlums.  Eventually, he got connected to the local mobs, and began working his way up the mob ladder – getting a nasty razor gash across a cheek in one episode – before finally getting in so much trouble that he was sent off to a different “branch of the business” in Chicago, along with his wife (the one he was not quite “totally committed” to) and young son.

Propitious timing: Prohibition was about to start.  Chicago is where Alphonse – Al Capone and Scarface to us – made it big. Really big.  Prohibition provided almost unlimited opportunity to make money … either through booze itself or through protection schemes.  Capone inherited the top position of a major Chicago crime syndicate, at age 26, when boss Johnny Torino retired and went home to Sicily.

After various deals and “take outs”, like the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang ruled supreme in Chicago and Cook County. 

Al Capone, king of Chicago ~1926-1931

“Scarface” (a nickname he hated) escaped criminal conviction many times.  But Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness and the government finally got him on income tax evasion; his lifestyle and braggadocio were just too conspicuous during a time such as the Great Depression.  Yes, he daily fed many thousands in the early years of the Depression.  But everything ended on October 17, 1931, when Capone was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.

While in prison – eventually at Alcatraz – Capone’s old cronies in the Chicago mob did quite well.  But he didn’t fair so well himself, even though he was released for “good behavior” after serving only about 7 years of his term.  It turns out his good behavior was probably because he developed advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Evidently it had been attacking his nervous system since his teens – considering that his only son, Alphonse Jr, was born with congenital syphilis.

Capone’s wife, Mae, remained loyal, and took great care of him until his demise, in 1947, only one week after his 48th birthday.  He was probably not aware of that or much else, as he was given to talking to inanimate things and people not present.  Their son Al Jr, an only child – who lived quite deaf since infancy on account of surgery for syphilis-caused infections – changed his name to “Albert Brown” in 1966, to distance himself from the infamy of his father. “Brown” was an alias his father had sometimes used.

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2) In 1895 came Hattie McDaniel into this world. She was the 13th and last child born to Susan and Henry McDaniel, both former slaves. Her father was a freed slave, who fought in the Civil War and suffered the rest of his life from war injuries.

Originally from Wichita, Kansas, the family moved to Ft Collins, then Denver, Colorado seeking opportunity – as Henry had a difficult time with manual labor on account of his war injury – about the time young Hattie was 5 or 6.  There, in school and in church, her phenomenal musical skills were discovered. 

By age 14 she had a professional singing and dancing career … and she also dropped out of Denver East High School.  As feature vocalists for various bands, mostly Blues, Hattie had made something of a name for herself.

In 1930 she found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of a traveling theatre troupe on the Show Boat production. Then, disaster:  The Depression struck. The show and tour were abruptly canceled, leaving Hattie and the rest of the cast abandoned … and nowhere near home.

Hattie found employment as a restroom attendant at Club Madrid, a not-so-secret speakeasy run by Chicago gangster Sam Pick, just outside Milwaukee’s city limits, and just across the county line. Why there? Because that jurisdiction was largely rural and had virtually no police force. Prohibition was still in effect. 

Club Madrid was famous for great entertainment, as well as a great stash of alcohols.  It was a place to visit and be seen for politicians, high rolling businessmen and other wealthy gangsters.

Word had gotten around Club Madrid that Hattie was extremely talented; but Madrid was a “whites only” establishment. They kept her in the restroom.  Until one night when an act didn’t show.  Desperate to keep the lubricated and influential guests engaged, Sam brought out Hattie.  She brought the house down … and did so for over a year.  Her income and notoriety soared.

Whereupon her skills as a performer were noticed by Hollywood.  She’d go on to a rich film career of over a decade, most notably as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.  In perfect Hattie pose and poise, she was virtually “playing herself” as the only truly likeable and reasonable person in the entire saga. 

Hattie McDaniel was honored by the US Post Office with her image on a stamp, 2005

For that performance she was justly awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Hattie McDaniel was the first Black to receive an academy nomination, and the first to win an Oscar.  Bravo Hattie.

She remained popular, and used that popularity to serve in World War II, entertaining troops and performing at War Bond rallies. 

At the end of the war the role of blacks in America was about to dramatically change. Truman integrated the military with a stroke of his pen.  There was a loud popular cry to end the stereotyping of black characters as obsequious, simple-minded submissives in movies. The cry was heard.  Unfortunately for Hattie, she had already been well typecast into such roles, and her Hollywood career faded.

Not so for radio, and Hattie signed on to play a maid on the nationally popular regular radio show Beulah.  Another first: she was the first black to have a weekly appearance on any media. [3] Her years were running out, however.  Too young and too late she was discovered to have breast cancer, and she succumbed in 1952, aged only 57.

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And #3. Henry “Heinie” Meine is surely the least famous of the three who actually achieved a significant level of fame.  Born in Saint Louis in 1896, he was a sports enthusiast who took to baseball well.  He played a lot of local sand-lot and then semi-pro ball as a young man, mostly as a spit balling pitcher.

By 1920 word got around that he was pretty good – especially with his favorite pitch: the spitter. He’d been noticed by legendary scout Charles “Charley” Francis Barrett, and he was signed to a minor league contract with the St Louis Browns of the American League.  In 1922 he was called up briefly to his hometown Browns and pitched in one single game — a mop up effort in a late season blow out.  Unfortunately for Heinie, the spitball had been outlawed as an unfair pitch; and was now being enforced. His major league career seemed over.

He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, gaining a reputation for a “rubber arm”; he was kind of an energizer bunny, as he regularly pitched 250-300 innings a season during those years in the minors. Finally, Meine just gave up, retiring at the end of the 1926 season after learning he’d be demoted to the Single-A level for the 1927 season.  It seemed he had no path to the majors, especially without his spitball. There were other options: he intended to make money in his beer-happy hometown of Saint Louis running a Speakeasy. Prohibition provided opportunity.

Like Pick’s Club Madrid,  Meine’s “soda bar” was located just outside the city limits, in a German neighborhood that was known for some reason as Luxemburg. His drinking establishment was so popular, he got the nickname “Duke of Luxemburg.”

When other major league teams came to Saint Louis (the city had two teams then, so it was often), Luxemburg was a frequent stop for refreshment.  After a few drinks the players often teased him about being a good minor league pitcher, but not being good enough to make it in the majors.

This was motivation. He’d show them! After a layoff of nearly two years, Meine returned to baseball. He was determined to make it as a “control pitcher”, one who could make the ball move any direction, who could constantly change speeds and hit any spot on the edge of the strike zone.  He became an early effective “junk” pitcher. He didn’t strike out many batters; they just hit soft grounders and popups. After a couple minor league seasons, he was eventually acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

As a 33 year-old rookie, Heinie Meine made his major league debut in 1929.  Unheard of even in those days.  After two moderately successful and contentious seasons with the Pirates (including missing much time with a bad case of tonsillitis) he set the baseball world on fire in 1931, leading the league in wins and innings pitched. A phenomenal record for a Pirate team that managed only 75 wins against 79 losses that year.

Henry “Heinie” Meine

Meine was a holdout for the 1932 season – one of the first to successfully do so – demanding more money.  Starting the season over a month late, after a contract renegotiation, he still managed 12 wins and nearly 200 innings.

But Meine was now approaching 37 years old.  His rubber arm was wearing out.  Still, he managed 15 wins and 207 innings in 1933, impressive totals for any age in any era. All the league’s pitchers with more wins than Meine were aged 31, or younger.

The next year, 1934, would be his last, as Meine was getting past his prime.  He still put up a winning record, at 7-6, but he knew the end of his career had come. If he’d stayed for just a small part of the next season, he’d have seen a national superstar who was well past his prime have one last unlikely and very dramatically successful day at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. A very wobbly 40-year old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game in late May … the last three he’d ever hit. Then promptly retired a few days later.

But by then Meine had already retired to run his saloon business full time.  With Prohibition over and his reputation for Gemütlichkeit, Meine’s career as saloon keeper was safe for years to come. And with some thanks to Prohibition and the customers who teased him, he had made his place in baseball’s record books.

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Well dear readers, that was quite a ramble. Perhaps even a Keyhole for you.

I was long overdue for an essay and had a lot of thoughts in my head to somehow string together.

I hope you feel fulfilled and inspired, or at least changed for the better. 

Peace

Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

[1] With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe fans.  Lifted almost verbatim from verse #1 of “The Raven.”

[2] Strip Malls have a rather interesting history in the US (and Canada).  Briefly: The preponderance of Strip Malls exploded in the 1950s in North America, along with the expanding post-war economy and our love affair with cars.  Ubiquitous on the edges of urban areas, and within the new suburban areas, they were a “strip” of available business spaces in a single building with parking in front.  Sometimes “L-shaped”, they lined major and semi-major roads, near residential areas, but seldom near central business districts.

They provided convenient, if not “drab”, space for respectable businesses like pharmacies, butcher shops, barbers, and sellers of fresh produce and groceries … where everyone seemed to know everyone else and friendly chit-chat was interwoven with business. In an America that no longer exists.

But cars got bigger and ever more plentiful.  Available parking for strip malls was too small. So then came the “Big Box” strip malls, with huge parking lots anchored by one or two major retailers, like Walmart, or Home Depot.  The small strip malls lost business, tenants and most public interest.  Also came the super malls … and strip malls were just so-o-o 1950s and ‘60s.

If not already scraped away, strip malls still exist, but ever more with spaces that are vacant, or populated by the likes of businesses I listed above. Always drab.  Always an eyesore.

[3] At about this time, only about 10% of US homes had televisions. Nearly 100% had radios, and people built their daily schedules around radio shows. By 1960, this had reversed: nearly 90% had TVs, and Americans lives revolved around their favorite shows, on only 3 networks.

Regarding Strip Mall history: One of the better sources I found was here.

Other stuff:

Heine Meine Biography: https://everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/Heine_Meine/

Popularity of name “Hattie”: https://www.behindthename.com/name/hattie/top/united-states

Young Champ

Guest essay, by John Sarkis

July 7, 1962 – 56 years-ago today, Karen Hantze Susman, a teenaged bride from St. Louis, won the Women’s Singles Championship at Wimbledon. She had also won the doubles title at that year’s Wimbledon, along with her partner, 17-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt. A year earlier, they had become the youngest team to ever win the women’s doubles championship. Moffitt would (of course) become better known by her married name, Billy Jean King.

Karen Susman in July 1962, after winning Wimbledon; and six years ago, at her home, on the 50th anniversary of her victory.

Karen Hantze, a native of San Diego and just eighteen years-old, moved to St Louis, the hometown of her husband, Rod, who had attended Ladue’s Horton Watkins High School before becoming a professional tennis player. Marrying against the advice of her family and friends, she and Rod just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary at their home in suburban San Diego.

Karen would win three Grand Slam Doubles titles in her short career, but gave up playing competitively because there wasn’t enough money in women’s tennis to earn a living at that time.

Wimbledon didn’t award prize money until 1968. The winner of this year’s Wimbledon Women’s Championship, which is currently underway, will take home 2.25 Million British Pounds, the equivalent of just under $3 Million. Each of the Doubles Tournament winners this year will win 450,000 Pounds, or about $600,000.

[editor’s note: gently edited essay by John Sarkis, a Saint Louis native and retiree, who posts and writes regularly as a hobby about St Louis history]

 

Last At Bat, Good Sport

Three remarkable young women
+ Two unlikely events
+ One selfless decision
=
One unforgettable moment in sports history
Plus two great life lessons

“Being nice matters and I think sometimes our society forgets that.” – Mallory Holtman-Fletcher

Central Washington University is a medium-sized state university of some 10,000 students.  It is a solid school, providing a breadth of education to students for about 150 different majors. It provides fantastic value; it was recently rated by The Economist magazine as providing the most positive economic impact on its students of all colleges and universities in the state of Washington. It offers 17 NCAA sports, usually competing at the Division-II level. You don’t hear a lot of noise from or about CWU; they just go about their job, doing it well and moving along just fine, thank you.

Central Washington University’s Historic Barge Hall

Students and alumni of other Washington state schools often disparagingly refer to CWU as “Car Wash State.”  But CWU, staff, students and grads don’t mind much.  And they don’t retaliate.  It is a respectable school.

Ellensburg, Washington – located just over 100 miles east of Seattle, across the Cascade Range, where the mountains blend into the drier Kittitas Valley, and then to the even drier and flatter semi-desert of eastern Washington – is the host city to CWU.  Ellensburg is a small, functional and well-located town of under 20,000 hearty souls.  Ellensburg is a lot like CWU to me: there is no chest-thumping, no braggadocio, no flash.  Just simple efficiency.  Folks from Seattle and other towns west of the Cascades often like to knock it – sometimes as they breeze past on Interstate-90 – as a nothing, sleepy town.  As the equivalent of fly-over country for road trips.

Due to a fleeting, shiny fleck of personal history, both CWU and Ellensburg will forever occupy a tiny, but special, place in my heart.  A soft spot.  Let’s call that soft spot a piece of cake.

Due to one of the most unlikely series of events (and sportsmanship) in all of NCAA history – if not all of sports history – that Ellensburg/CWU piece of cake now has a nice crown of icing.  Very tasty.

There are a lot of sports that I don’t pay much attention to, except maybe into and through the playoffs when the best teams are playing, and they have something important to play for. NCAA Women’s Softball is one of those sports.  I’ll catch a glimpse when in a sports bar, or channel flipping. Then I’m like a moth around a late-night light: I just can’t help myself. My attention is drawn to the pure athleticism and grace of the players under pressure; the pace of the game; the strategies and the drama.  Perhaps their reflexes are the most impressive.  Pitchers can throw the ball – underhand mind you – at speeds that approach major league pitch speeds.  But the pitching rubber is some 14 feet closer than the majors! What a softball pitcher can make that ball do as it speeds along that distance of 46 feet at 80+ mph is astonishing! The pitches rise; they dip; they slip, and they slide. How do batters even touch the ball?

One thing that always amazes me is the size and physique of so many of the young women.  I’ve always thought that most of the better players could swap uniforms with their school’s football players and you could use them as actors in making a realistic movie about linebackers.

I knew of the following story, and at least one other somewhat similar.  Somehow, I forgot almost completely about it.  But sportsmanship in competitive dramatic moments came up in a conversation with my wife recently, and my non-linear brain pulled up this story and quite a few details.  At first, I contorted my brain to try and recall much more. Well the internet is an astounding resource.  After finding many more details there, including some school records, I was overcome with the urge to write it down.

__________________________________________________________________________

When the Western Oregon University women’s softball team traveled to Ellensburg to play a double-header against Central Washington University on April 26, 2008, the teams were neck-and-neck for the season conference title, which would end in about a week.  It was a special day at CWU: Senior Day.  Their seniors were being honored as they would be playing the final home games of their career.

Playing first base for CWU that day was senior Mallory Holtman.  During those last few weeks of the season she was playing through terrific pain.  She really needed two knee surgeries. Those would have to wait; she did not want to let herself or her team down.  She wanted one last chance for a conference championship. She was certainly one of the stars of the team – in fact the entire Great Northwestern Athletic Conference.  At the time she was the conference’s all-time home run and RBI leader; she is still the all-time conference leader in those statistics. At season’s end she was chosen the GNAC Player of the Year, leading it in home runs and batting nearly .400.

Across the infield was friend Liz Wallace, another senior and team leader – also hoping to help lead CWU to the league championship and playoffs. Liz stood second to Mallory at almost every offensive statistic, and she held down the very important defensive position of shortstop.  She had played in almost every single CWU game over her four years there.  The day and the games meant a lot to these young women.

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In 2008, Western Oregon was having one of their best seasons in years.  In fact, their best season ever. They had momentum and they could feel it.  And on that last Saturday in April they had just rolled into town from Idaho, having taken both ends of a double-header from Northwest Nazarene, in Nampa.

Petite and plucky Sara Tucholsky was a senior on that 2008 Western Oregon squad.  She had been through the WOU bad times with good cheer.  [The previous three years the team’s won-loss records were 14-33, 17-32, and a promising 26-25].  And, although she had only briefly been a full-time player –  during part of her sophomore year – she was certainly enjoying being part of this team.  It was a team of extraordinarily deep talent and chemistry. When she got a chance to play, she gave it her all – athletically, energetically and enthusiastically.

At only 5-foot 2-inches tall Sara stood nearly a head shorter than most other players.  Add to that her rather slight frame and she would never be confused for a linebacker, no matter what she was wearing.  This season, as during most of the previous three, Sara played only sparingly, sometimes against a non-conference foe, or – like today – in a double-header during a long stretch of games so that some players could rest.

Western Oregon took game one easily by a score of 8-1, behind star pitcher, team MVP and conference all-star Katie Fleer. (Fleer won 25 games that year).

For game two, Sara was inserted into the 8th batting position and right field.

Her career batting statistics until this day raised no eyebrows.  They were fodder for little conversation.  Her college batting average was a humble .149, and she had but one lonely extra base hit in those four years – a double that fell in way back in her freshman year.  Not only did she not have a single college home run, she had never hit a home run – ever.  Not in high school, not in youth sports.

When Sara’s first turn to bat came up in that second game of a double-header, April 26, 2008, in the top of the second inning, her batting average for that 2008 season was an unimposing .088 – a mere three singles in 34 at bats.  Yet she battled on.

She had diligently taken her turn at regular batting practice; taken advice from coaches; worked on drills.  She exhibited a commitment to improvement when many others would have given up.

With one out and two runners on base Sara now made her way to home plate.  A few jeers and giggles came from the crowd when her lack of height and brawn became evident during her stroll. She gave herself a little pep talk: ignore them, be brave, be focused, don’t give in, do your best, Sara – whatever that may bring.

She dug in to the right-handed batter’s box.  The first pitch was a rising fast ball, about letter high.  A borderline pitch. Sara let it go.  Strike one!

Well, whatever happened next, she told herself, she wasn’t going to let that happen again.

She doesn’t remember where the next pitch was.  Sara simply remembers swinging.

And that’s when the first unlikely event happened.  Sara made solid contact.  Very solid contact. Contact like she had never made before.  Right on the sweet spot.

The batted ball soared out to centerfield and kept going … and going.  The two base runners paused so they could tag up when the ball was caught– Sara certainly couldn’t hit the ball over the fence.  Could she?

She did.  That ball cleared the fence.

While the other runners jogged around the bases to home, Sara – a very jubilant lass – jumped and skipped as she ran to – and past – first base.  In her excitement she initially missed the base.  Every player and fan knows that a ball hit over the fence is not a home run until the batter touches all the bases, in order.  Even though she had never hit a ball over an outfield fence before, Sara of course quickly realized she had missed the base. She stopped. Then she turned around – maybe a bit too quickly in the excitement. She had to return to, and touch, first base.

And that’s when the second unlikely event happened.  Sara let out a short yelp – and crumpled to the dirt. Something was terribly wrong with her right knee.  As it turned out, she had torn her ACL.  She crawled back to first base, practically in tears.

And now the dilemma.  Sara could not be expected to crawl around the bases like that, let alone walk or trot.  The rules of baseball and softball do not permit physical assistance by a player’s teammates or coaches. If so, she would be declared out, and her home run would not be counted. If she were replaced by a pinch runner, it would be a dead ball substitution: The replacement runner would begin the next play at first base, Sara would only be credited with a single, and her run would not count.

After a few minutes of discussion – frustrating discussion between WOU coaches and umpires – there occurred the third surprise event: the unselfish act.  Perhaps not quite as unlikely as the long hit and the sudden crippling injury, but one of the most wonderful decisions and events in sports EVER.

Just as Western Oregon’s coach was about to put a replacement runner at first base for Sara, Central Washington’s star first baseman, Mallory Holtman, asked if she and her teammates could help Sara around the bases.  They conferred with the umpires, who concurred that this would be within the rules. Holtman, joined by teammate Liz Wallace, carried lame Sara the rest of the way around the diamond, pausing a moment at each base and gently lowering Sara so that her left foot could tap second, then third base … and then home plate.  Whereupon Sara was handed over to her teammates.

Three great young women [photo credit: NCAA.ORG and Blake Wolf]

It was now official! Sara had hit a three-run home run!  Those were her only three RBIs (Runs Batted In) for the entire season.  It was, of course, her last at bat in college.  Her improbable hit – and CWU’s extraordinary act of sportsmanship – were the unlikely difference in what turned out to be a 4-2 victory for Western Oregon.

________________________________________

The idea of carrying Sara around originally occurred to Holtman.  And she had the gumption to approach the umpires and WOU coaches on her own. But she has always brushed off the praise.  She’s always insisted that it’s something anyone could have thought of; and almost everyone would have done.

The event was highly documented and discussed at the time.[1]  The three young women won an ESPY for “Best Sports Moment” of the year that summer.[2]  They all would go on to a few years of notoriety, giving motivational speeches, usually Sara and Mallory, who formed a lasting friendship as a result. The video of their performance is still burned into their memory and that of many sports fans.[3] 

2008 ESPY Winners: Best Moment in Sports

Western Oregon indeed went on to win the conference championship.  It was the school’s first conference championship – in any sport.[4] They were eliminated from the Division II sectionals a few weeks later by another conference rival, Humboldt State (from California).

All three young women soon graduated.  That was ten years ago. They are all now married and, near as I can tell, still live in the Northwest or West.

Mallory Holtman went to graduate school at CWU, became the school’s assistant softball coach, and just over two years later, became the head coach, beating out nearly 50 other applicants for the position, aged only 25.  She recently retired from the demands of that position to spend more time with her family.

Liz Wallace is very involved in youth softball, helping to develop the coming generations of good athletes, and good sports. She also works as a human resources administrator. She’s living the life of a military spouse, so locating her at any time can be difficult. 

Sara works as Area Manager of recruiters and representatives for various therapy services: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, etc.  She still gives motivational talks.  She volunteers for various agencies, including Ronald McDonald House.

Sara and Mallory remain friends, although they live about four hours apart.

The two CWU young women [5] — Mallory and Liz — gave us all something to cherish and remember –  whether or not we are sports enthusiasts.  It’s this lesson: We must consider our fellow humans as part of the same team – before we can consider them competitors.

The second life lesson is thanks to Sara: no matter how down you are, no matter how bleak the outlook, you are never defeated if you don’t give up.

To this day Central Washington, Ellensburg and those three very special women don’t brag about it.  That’s class. Actions speak for themselves.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2018

 

Acknowledgement to my good friend Marcy, who helped with proof reading and editorial suggestions. She is a delight. It turns out she rather enjoyed the story for personal reasons as well: her cousin attends CWU. I apologize, Marcy, if any typos, errors, or uneven reading have crept through into the final draft. Your effort, as always and in all regards, is greatly appreciated.

 

Notes:

1)     The umpires were in fact wrong.  NCAA rules did permit a substitute runner in such a rare event to continue running the bases in a dead ball situation such as this. It’s an understandable error, and the sports world is better off for it. The rules have been amended to make this clearer.

2)     ESPY = Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly

3)     Watch a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jocw-oD2pgo

4)     However, as a club sport, the WOU men’s lacrosse team won the non-NCAA sanctioned PNCLL conference that year, 2008.

5)     I almost used “Young Ladies” here and throughout.  It was sort of a title, as in “Lord and Lady”, or “M’Lady” – as they had certainly earned a title.  Upon reflection I was led to conclude the term could be considered disparaging, so used “Young Women” instead.

6)     Box score for the game: http://www.wouwolves.com/custompages/Softball/SCStats/2008/wou41.htm

7) Yes I know that I named an earlier essay Last At Bat, but I couldn’t help myself. So this essay got an appropriate subtitle: Good Sport

 

Some resources:
NCAA: Where are they now?

Sara Tucholsky – An Inspiring Softball Story

Western Oregon Softball historical stats:    http://www.wouwolves.com/sports/2018/1/15/SB_0113093741.aspx?path=softball

 

Baseball: Reflecting on some April History

I guess every baseball fan knows that this past weekend, on April 15, the sport “celebrated” Jackie Robinson Day — the day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in a major league baseball game.

I put “celebrated” in quotes, because it is also a muted acknowledgement that baseball’s major leagues shut blacks out of participation for some 80 years until then … much to both their great loss and their fans’ loss.

Last summer my wife and I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.  I knew many of the names, but seeing them displayed Hall of Fame-style was very powerful.  Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, the two “Bucks”, Buck Leonard and Buck O’Neil, Josh Gibson.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum entry

Josh Gibson, oh my gosh Josh.  Gibson hit so many home runs, about 800, that fans and sportwriters who had seen them both play often referred to Babe Ruth as “The White Josh Gibson.”  And he accomplished that while playing catcher, without a doubt the most physically demanding defensive position. And quite likely the most mentally demanding, as well. It was with a bit of a heavy heart that Robinson, and those blacks who soon followed, broke into the majors in those years.  Josh Gibson got a brain tumor and eventually died quite young, aged only 35, of a stroke from complications in January, 1947 … just months before Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  As the tumor started affecting him several years before — well …. there’s no telling how many more home runs he could have hit.  Or if he’d even made it to the Major Leagues, too.  <Sigh.>

As the current baseball season is already some three weeks old, modern baseball fans might wonder what took the Dodgers so long to play Robinson. Well, April 15th was Opening Day back then.  And anyone watching the weather throughout the Midwest and Northeast this spring will understand why.  Baseball is a summer game and it is pretty stupid to be playing all those games with temperatures in the 20s and 30s and snow flying around — in nearly empty stadiums.  Not to mention making for dangerous travel (lots of team buses back then).

Even with a “later” mid-April start, they pretty much had the entire season wrapped up — World Series and all — by the close of the first week in October; when the weather was usually still quite pleasant.  Compare that to today when the threat of snow and freezing weather is almost as bad at the close of the season (often the first week of November) as it is at the season’s opening.

Baseball is a summer game. How did they do it? Back then they only played 154 games a season (162 now) and had scheduled double-headers throughout the season. Most teams played as many as 25% of their games as double-headers well into the late 1950s. And playoffs weren’t the four or five week elimination ordeal they are now, with nearly one-third of teams making it to the playoffs instead of only two.

I well remember the joy of double-headers as a boy, two games in the hot sun with dad, lots of hot dogs and peanuts, yelling and screaming.  Trying to keep a score card. Watching scores from other games around the country on the outfield scoreboard. Game one in the early afternoon — noonish — and game two only 30 or 40 minutes after the last out of game one, barely long enough to re-chalk and drag the infield — in the late afternoon.  Falling asleep on the way home…. memories.

Well, speaking of history, April 17, 1945 is quite a famous day in baseball history, especially for St Louis Cardinal fans.  I’ve borrowed the following from a post by John Sarkis, who has given me permission to “lift” his work. He writes regularly regarding St Louis regional history.

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April 17, 1945, Albert “Red” Schoendienst played his first game in a Cardinal uniform. The Hall of Fame second-baseman from nearby Germantown, IL would play for the Redbirds for 15 seasons, the New York Giants for two years, and the Milwaukee Braves for four seasons before returning to the Cardinals for three years of limited action. As a player, coach, or manager he wore a major league uniform more than 70 consecutive years, and is currently the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On that same day native St. Louisan Harry Carabina, who became known as Harry Caray, made his debut as a Cardinal broadcaster. With the Cardinals and Browns sharing Sportsmans Park, the schedule provided that one of the teams would always be home, which allowed Harry to broadcast both Cardinals and Browns home games that season. He became a full-time Cardinals broadcaster in 1947. After being fired by Cardinal owner Gussie Busch, Caray spent 1970 calling Oakland Athletics games, then joined the Chicago White Sox in 1971. After 11 seasons on Chicago’s Southside, he moved to Wrigley Field in 1982. Harry suffered a stroke on Valentine’s Day, 1998, and passed away two days later.

Also on that day, the Brown’s legendary one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, made his major league debut, getting one single in four at-bats off Les Mueller of the Detroit Tigers. As the MVP in the Southern League, Gray’s contract was purchased for $20,000 from the Memphis Chicks and he was called up as many of the regular major-leaguers were serving in the war. He had his best day in the majors on May 19, playing in Yankee Stadium and collecting five hits and two RBI as the Browns swept the Yankees. He was sent back to the minors when regular players began returning from overseas. Playing left and center field for the Browns, he appeared in 77 games, batting .218 with a .958 fielding percentage. Pete Gray, the only one-armed person to ever play in the major leagues, died on June 30, 2002. His glove is in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

(Thanks John!)

[Editor notes.

There have been a very few other players who were similar to Gray, but having most of an arm yet no hand.  Most notably I remember one-handed Jim Abbott throwing a No-Hitter!!

Checking the almanac, the Browns played that game at home.  So Harry Caray called the game. ]

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Joe Girard © 2018

Olympischer Nationalismus

It’s Olympic time again.  The athleticism and elegance have been, so far, most extraordinary.  Most memorable.

Her name is Aliona Savchenko, and I suppose it’s possible to forget her name.  Even her story.

His name is Bruno Massot, and I suppose the same goes for him.  Sigh.

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The modern Olympic games were founded mostly on the energy and vision of Pierre de Coubertin. He sought to improve international relations and harmony through the (supposedly) non-political path of sports competition. It was certainly a beautiful vision; but I’m not sure he’d be quite so happy with how things have turned out.

I’m also not sure how or when the Olympics became so nationalistic.  I personally find all the nationalistic shouting a bit embarrassing and – considering Baron de Courberin’s vision – a bit shameful. It pains me to hear of nations’ medal counts, and the focus on athletes’ nationalities.

In the first few modern Olympics – 1896, 1900 and ’04 – athletes competed only for themselves, and perhaps their local sports clubs. Like “The Milwaukee Swimming Club.” There was clearly no nationalism.

So, how did it start? Perhaps the first inkling came at the 1908 London Olympics.  The Games had first been awarded to Rome.  But Italy was struggling and in recovery from a massive eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906.  The games were reassigned to England.  It was the third consecutive time that history had contrived to put the Olympics in the same city as the World’s Fair.  In those days the World’s Fair was a much bigger deal than it is now; much bigger than the Olympics.  They almost didn’t survive.

In those early years, when the Olympics were held alongside the World’s Fair (1900 in Paris; 1904 in St Louis), it was often not clear to spectators and competitors what sort of event it was. An Olympic event, an Olympic demonstration, or even a World’s Fair competition? Decades afterward, Margaret Abbott went to her grave never knowing that she had won an Olympic Championship in 1900, as discussed here: Olympic Lyon and Abbott.

That’s when the first “Parade of Nations” in an Opening Ceremony occurred. It seems to have been a pageantry and marketing ploy to make the Olympics standout against everything else going on around.

In that “parade”, the American flagbearer Ralph Rose – a shot putter and giant of a man at over 6’-5” and 250 pounds – refused to “dip the flag” as the American contingent passed before King Edward VII. Throughout the games the British judges and referees were perceived by many to be more than a bit biased against the American athletes.  So petty.

I suppose some flames of healthy patriotism will naturally spill over into blatant nationalism.  Consider the Cold War, and the heavy, boot heeled Soviet oppression behind the Iron Curtain, and especially upon the states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia – the brutal suppression of pleas for freedom there in 1956 and ’68. Or anti-colonialism, as teams from around the world competed against, say, the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, thumping of chests over medal counts, and hoping for a victory by someone – an otherwise nameless and faceless person – who wears the colors of your country, or the country of your ancestors, strikes me as out of bounds.  Strikes me as unsportsmanlike and well outside of what Baron de Courberin envisioned for all of us.

And worse, shouts of “U-S-A!! U-S-A!!”, accompanied by fanatic flag waving, bring, for me, visions of 100,000 Germans singing “Deutschland über Alles” in Berlin, 1936, under countless Nazi flags, their right hands extended in salute to their Führer. All this as German athletes – whether they ascribed to the Nazi political philosophy or not; and many did not – racked up victory after victory.

Even with Jesse Owens and “The Boys in the Boat” participating, a united pre-war Germany overwhelmingly “won” the medal count at the Summer Games in ’36. There were plenty of opportunities for nationalistic and enthusiastic German sports fans to throw out their right hand, show off their Nazi tolerance – if not complete sympathy and allegiance – and shout “Deutschland!!!!”

(Of course, Norway easily “won” the medal count in the ’36 Winter Games, hosted also in Germany, in beautiful Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria. For some reason the IOC allowed the same country to host the winter and summer Olympics in 3 of the first 4 Winter Olympics.  The only exception was 1928, when Amsterdam hosted the Summer Games; clearly The Netherlands was an inappropriate Winter Games host. The games were held in St Moritz, Switzerland.  Then, both Olympics were suspended for ’40 and ’44 for WWII. After that, each has been hosted in separate countries. Since 1994 they are not even in the same years)

The games are for the athletes and their performances are for us to admire.  Period. The end. Unless you are from very, very tiny Liechtenstein, I don’t see any need for particular pride for a country’s medals.  [Per capita, Liechtenstein has certainly won the most medals in Olympic history.  At a population of under 40,000 they have gained a total of ten winter games medals, two of them gold, over the years.  Astounding. If the US had won at the same rate, they’d have about 90,000 medals, all time. “We” have fewer than 300 Winter medals; and only 28,000 if you tally Summer Games – which are heavy on track and water events and in which Liechtenstein has never seriously competed.)

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Aliona Savchenko is a world-class figure skater.  At age 35, she is “ancient” compared to many of her competitors. As her name suggests, Aliona Savchenko is Ukrainian, competing for that nation in the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics, as well as the Goodwill Games.  Before that she won the pairs competition Nebelhorn Trophy “for the Ukraine” in 1999.

A new coach and a new partner led Savchenko to move to Chemnitz, Germany.  After initial struggles, they soared to German and European prominence.  She earned German citizenship and won bronze medals at the 2010 and ’14 Olympics (in Vancouver and Sochi).

Again, she changed partners and coaches, hoping to beat the “biological clock”, and perhaps give gold one last shot. 2018 would be her 5th Olympics. Her new partner was a Frenchman, from Normandy, Bruno Massot.

Yet again, after initial struggles with a new partner and coach, the team blossomed, earning the German championship and gaininig world recognition.  However, their participation on the great world stage was hindered: As nationals from two different countries, they could not be a team, unless the native’s country would permit it.

Of course, France would not simply let Massot skate for Germany; they eventually made him pay 30,000 euros for a release.  Blatant blackmail if you ask me. The French say they let him off easy: they first asked for 100,000. But the Olympics would be something different.  How much would that extortion cost? So, Massot applied for German citizenship. It was approved just last November.

So here we have Germany – who will long be remembered for their ancestors’ hateful attitude and treatment toward outsiders – long be remembered for their horrible occupations of France and Ukraine – long be remembered for Nazi atrocities – today accepting over one million Middle Eastern Refugees.  And now accepting a mixed French-Ukrainian figure skating team as their own.

Massot is a strong, powerful and graceful skater.  Six feet tall and solid muscle.  Savchenko is a bit of a “doll” at a full foot shorter.  But all five feet of her is dynamite.

Savchenko & Massot: Beauty, elegance, grace and athleticism

Of course, they won: a Ukrainian and a Frenchie ironically competing under the German flag. Sorry to repeat: It was Savchenko’s Olympic fifth try — with two different countries and three different partners. That’s persistence.

When the final scores for the Russian team went up (the last team to skate), and it was clear Savchenko and Massot had won, the bronze-winning Canadian team – led by the adorable and ebullient Meagan Duhamel – rushed over to congratulate and hug them. Yes, there were tears of joy all around – they don’t call it “kiss and cry” for nothing – and for a moment I felt like joining them in a “tissue moment.”

Yes!! This! This is what the Olympics should be about.  We don’t care which countries win the events; or the most medals.

The athletes are showing us what it is about.  Breaking down barriers.  Ignoring international boundaries.  Ignoring politics.  And simply admiring the human spirit… in ourselves and in each other. And demonstrating what that spirit can lead athletes – what the human spirit can lead all of us – to accomplish. Isn’t that why we loved and remember Nadia Comaneci?

Tomorrow the women’s teams from Canada and the US will compete for the gold medal in hockey.  Personally, I win (and lose) either way; I have allegiances both ways.  And, yet, I’m sure that after a very hard-fought re-match they will sincerely hug and congratulate each other.  And many will probably cry.

And that will be in keeping with the hope, spirit and intent of Baron de Courberin. Or, in other words: something we can all aspire to.

As to the French? Well, we will be in Caen — Bruno Massot’s home town in Normandy — later this spring. My guess is they will have a plaque or a sign up, trying to steal away a little of Bruno’s glory. And M. De Courberin will toss in his grave.

Thanks for reading

 

Joe Girard © 2018

 

 

 

 

Last At Bat

Situation:
Archrivals in a World Series game; two outs in the 9th inning. The score is close. Tensions very high. Emotions bare.

A wily veteran strides confidently to the plate. His steely eyes are focused. All of his life and long professional All Star career have prepared him for this moment, which is most certainly destined — one way or another — to go down in shining unforgettable sports history.

He is seemingly unaware of much of the situation, which includes a screaming over-capacity crowd in the major leagues’ most famous stadium: often called “The House that Ruth built.” Most of the 64,519 attendees want him to fail, screaming their desire.

He steps into the left-handed batters box to go up against a pitcher who is otherwise little-known. A pitcher who seems destined to not be long remembered. A pitcher who is at the end of a moderately successful year, yet in the midst of a mediocre career. A pitcher whose last appearance on a baseball mound, just a few days ago in this same World Series, was an unmitigated disaster, rather than as pitcher for baseball’s proudest team in one of their most important games.

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First Pitch:

The right-handed pitcher, a career starter, does not even use a windup. He gets his sign, nods, takes a single long stride and throws his cut fastball, falling awkwardly toward first base after delivery.

It fades outside.  The veteran holds his swing.  BALL ONE.

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The Batter

This moment, this kind of circumstance, was exactly the situation for which Dale Mitchell was now standing at home plate.  He’d been acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers on July 31 — just over two months ago — to add experienced hitting savvy to their pennant run, and to their possible World Series roster.

Mitchell’s professional career was outstanding, if not also a bit unlikely. Except for these last 10 weeks, he’d spent all his Major League career with the Cleveland Indians.

If any statistic stands out over his career, it is the near impossibility of striking him out.  In 4,358 plate appearances over 11 years Mitchell struck out only 119 times, and astounding 2.7% rate, and placing him in 7th place all time in most unlikely to strike out.  Ranked against all batters with over career 100 plate appearances, Mitchell was approximately in the 99.9th percentile for least likely to strike out.

But Mitchell’s career was far better than simply not striking out.

He broke in with the Indians in September 1946 – after three years’ service in the Army in WW2 in Europe – and put up a .432 average in the season’s final 11 games.  For the next 7 years, as a full-time player, he batted over .300 … and was a 3-time American League All Star.

A few stats that should get any baseball fan’s attention.

  1. For the years 1946-1960 only two players had better career batting averages than Mitchell: Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
  2. In 1949 Mitchell put up more than twice as many triples (23) as strikeouts (11) … that’s a scant 11 K’s in 685 plate appearances!!

World Series experience?

Dale Mitchell, career .312 hitter.

In 1948 Mitchell was among several stars – including Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau – who led the Indians to a Series victory over Boston (Braves) … after defeating the other Boston team (Red Sox) in a one game playoff to break the AL pennant tie.

In 1954 the Indians won an astounding 111 games (out of only 154 games in a season back then) for a winning percentage that might be the best forever – a prodigious .721! They lost the series to the New York Giants.

However, at the start of that 1954 season Mitchell was moved to the bench as part of an Indian youth movement; he got mostly only pinch appearances.  Still, he hit .283 and struck out only one time in 69 plate appearances; half his already extremely low strike out rate.

Loren Dale Mitchell was born in the west central plains of Oklahoma to tenant farmers in 1921. With farms spread far and wide, he had no one to play baseball with – except occasional toss with his dad, who bought a used lefthanded first baseman’s glove for his son to practice with.

At age 10 he survived being struck by a car while walking home from school on a country road, breaking his collar bone and suffering deep gashes on his face – and a severe concussion.

Through these years his family endured the Great Depression and the worst of the Dust Bowl.  They were among the toughest Okies; they stayed.

Besides his dad and 15-year older brother, Dale had few others to learn and play sports with. This changed when he went to Cloud Chief High School, where a mere 160 students came from a huge agricultural Dust Bowl-swept school district.  Here his athletic prowess stood out. He earned 12 letters in three sports over four years: in baseball, basketball, track. Not just a local star, Mitchell set the state record in the 100-yard dash at a state meet, a fleet footed 9.8 seconds, a record that stood for many years.

Mitchell’s accomplishments caught the attention of the University of Oklahoma.  So off he went to study and refine his baseball skills, at OU. There Mitchell developed his proficient hitting style – focus on contact and line drives, spraying the ball to all fields. After his sophomore season, when he hit a very impressive .420, he was drafted into the Army Air Force.  The next three years were spent in Europe – where he served as quartermaster, helping the allies free Europe from fascism.

Returning home to Oklahoma – to meet a 2-1/2 year old son he’d never seen – he completed his education and college baseball career in a phenomenal season – he set the University’s single season Batting Average at an astounding .507 … A record that still stands today.

Jobless, in need of money with a wife and young son, Mitchell sought out the AA minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, in Oklahoma City.  They signed him.  Soon, his performance caught the attention of the mothership, and in September 1946 Mitchell was called up to the majors.

L Dale Mitchell: War veteran, survivor of the depression and dust bowl, survivor of getting plowed into by a car as a child pedestrian … and a long major league career of frustrating pitchers with his bat control, great eye and superb eye-hand coordination.

Yes, he was uniquely qualified to be at the plate at this golden moment in baseball history.

Second Pitch:

Working quickly, the pitcher gets a sign for a curve ball.  He nods, steps and slips a nasty pitch at the bottom of the zone.  Again, Mitchell does not swing.  The umpire puts up his right hand. STRIKE ONE.

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The Pitcher

Of all the pitchers, in all of major league baseball, over all of time … the man standing on the pitcher’s mound this sunny October afternoon was surely one of the least likely to be in this moment.

His name was Don Larsen.  Today, until now, in Game 5 of the World Series, he had faced 26 batters.  None of them made it to first base. Only Dale Mitchell remained between him and baseball immortality … a Perfect Game.   Not just a Perfect Game – 27 up, 27 down – but a Perfect Game in a World Series game.

Maybe if it were Whitey Ford or Don Newcombe this moment could be at least a little bit believable.  But Don Larsen??!!

Don Larsen. Off balance delivery. First pitch, game 5, 1956 World Series. Copyright Time-Life/Getty Images

Larsen’s career was far from impressive.  It was mediocre, and it was pretty much otherwise unnoticed.  His career stats are nearly feeble.  His lifetime win-loss record was 81-91 (and this included several seasons with the powerhouse Yankees).  Heck, as recently as 1954 he lost 21 games in one single season.

He walked an average of 4.4 batters per game, and struck out only 4.9 per game. [1] Not only are these rates fair to poor for any era of the game, the ratio of 1.1 strikeouts per walk is among the very poorest of any pitcher with a resume of over a few seasons.

And yet … 1956 had been a relatively successful year for Larsen. Bouncing in-and-out of the starting rotation, he managed a 11-5 record … going 4-0 in four starts in September.

The sweet taste of this past September was severely soured by his performance in Game 2 of the series, three days ago, across town in Brooklyn. He didn’t make it out of the 2nd inning, walking four, striking out zero, and giving up 4 runs.

With the series tied at two games apiece this was a critical home game.  One the Yankees could not afford to lose. Now, just three days after pitching horribly, Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengal called on Larsen to pitch game 5. Fans and sports writers were amazed.  What was Stengal thinking?

He had a hunch about Larsen.

Don Larsen. He’d had faint glimpses of success.  But never, ever greatness.

Now he was looking at immortality.

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Third Pitch:

Still working quickly – staying in rhythm – the sign is for a fastball.  The one that Larsen’s been getting to fade away all game.  He nods, steps and fires.

The wily veteran Mitchell takes a swing, trying to poke it to left field.  He whiffs!  STRIKE TWO.

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The Umpire

“Babe” Pinelli certainly knew baseball.  He knew its ins and outs; he knew every angle; he knew every rule; he knew its history.  He was at the end of a respected 21-year umpiring career.

Before that he had an on-and-off 10 year career in the Major Leagues, up and down on the roster, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  For four years (1922-25) he was their regular third basemen, and compiled a very respectable .293 average over those seasons.

Perusing his statistics, it’s easy to surmise that he did – perhaps – think rather too much of his abilities.  He was caught stealing 80 times out of 151 attempts.  During his prime (’22-’25) he was caught 72 times out of 130 attempts.  This is a very, very poor success rate.

Born Rinaldo Angelo Paolinelli, Babe grew up hanging around the wharfs in San Francisco. “Babe” was well respected among players.  He was regarded as fair (he had the gumption to call strikes on the more famous “Babe” – Babe Ruth – when Ruth was at the end of his career and attracting thousands of fans to stadiums wherever he went, and Pinelli was at the beginning of his umpiring career).  And players regarded him as pleasant; was generally considered one of the least likely to throw a player out of a game, regardless of how loudly they protested.

And yet, he was fully aware of the situation, the potential for history, and his place in that history.  This is, of course, hearsay, but Pinelli confided later to players that if he had a chance to make this a Perfect Game, he was going to take it.

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The Catcher.

Behind the plate, in front of Pinelli, is the Yankees’ catcher, Larsen’s catcher. He is one of the most well-known and famous names and people of all time – inside or outside of baseball.  He is Lawrence Peter Berra, affectionately known for all time as simply “Yogi.”

Certainly, one of best all-around catchers and athletes of all time, Yogi knew the game.  Yogi knew hitters. Yogi knew pitchers. Yogi knew how to call a game.  If anyone, besides providence or the almighty, oversaw this game, it was Yogi. He knew exactly how to help a pitcher “work” a batter.

Of his countless famous quips, Yogi said: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  This game was not over, yet. Yogi studied the batter, Mitchell, closely.  He knew Mitchell well from his 10 years with the Indians in the American League. He knew how to “work” Mitchell.  Now, … if only Larsen could deliver.

Fourth Pitch:

With the count one ball and two strikes, Larsen suddenly breaks his routine for the first time all afternoon, finally showing some stress.  He removes his hat.  He wipes his brow.  He paces around the mound, pausing to gaze at the outfielders, and the fans beyond. Yogi shouts some encouragement.

Larsen stops pacing, and climbs the mound. Deep breath. Toeing the rubber, he looks in to Yogi.  Switching speed again.  Another curve.  A nasty one.  But Mitchell is tough, and he fouls it off. Still ONE BALL and TWO STRIKES.

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The Batters Eye.

Have you ever been to, or watched, a baseball game and wondered why there are no seats in straight-away centerfield?  Or, if there are seats, they are covered with a dark tarpaulin?

It’s been a well-accepted fact since the 1890s that batters can see a pitched ball better, and sooner, if the background behind the pitcher is a flat, consistent, simple dark color.  Today, post about 1960, all ball parks have the “batters eye.”

But this was not always the case. Nor was it so in Yankees Stadium on this day, October 8, 1956.

Game 5, 1956 World Series. No Batters Eye in Center Field. Lots of white shirts. Copyright Frank Hurley.

I’ve reviewed old pictures, and it appears that it was customary to remove the batters eye when there were large crowds, and uncover the centerfield seats.

It’s well known that enough fans in the batters eye would don white shirts when the visitors were batting, and dark shirts when the home team was batting, to give the latter an unfair advantage.

Photos show that, across town, in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Dodgers used the same tactic during the Series.  One wonders why there weren’t more no hitters – and Perfect Games – in those days.

Fifth Pitch (the Final Pitch):

As Larsen waited for a new ball (the previous pitch was fouled off), the outfielders moved a few steps to their right, toward left field. A pretty good indication a fast ball is coming.

Mitchell is wise, catches the small shift, and suspects the fade fastball — the one that runs away from him is coming.  He is correct.  It is the fade fastball.

At this point history diverges.  There are many different assessments as to what truly happened.

According to Mitchell – and several of Larsen’s Yankee teammates in the field – the pitch was higher and probably more outside than any other pitch called a strike that day.

Video shows that Mitchell started to swing, but checked up, stopping short of committing.

Umpire Babe Pinelli was working his last game ever behind the plate at the end of a 21-year major league career.  What a way to go out – as the umpire who called a perfect game in the World Series.

He was not going to miss this opportunity.

Up went his right hand.  Out came some words that sounded like “Strike Three! YER OUT!!”

Some say Mitchell did not check his swing. Other say it was a poor strike three call. Others, that it was a good call.  The record books say it was a called strike three.

Catcher Berra, who, from the only surviving video, was likely already halfway up out of his crouch to catch the high pitch, jumped up and ran to hug Larsen.

Yogi Berra jumps into Don Larsen’s arms moments after the Perfect Game

Mitchell turned to protest the call, but Pinelli was already gone!

Larsen, Mitchell and Pinelli are all answers to famous baseball trivia questions.  Larsen is the unlikely hero.  Mitchell (and many say Pinelli too) is the goat.

I’ve watched the video a few times and it’s just too grainy.  And the film frame rate is wrong, so it seems to be going too fast.  Also it’s from an unfamiliar angle: from up high and not quite directly behind home plate.

But I’m going with what some Yankees on the field said, as well as Mr “Contact-Hitter-Who-Almost-Never Strikes-Out” Mitchell said himself. That pitch should probably have been called a ball. He should have been able to see at least one more pitch.

From experience I can say that (1) yes, umpires make mistakes; and (2) sometimes they can also get caught up in the moment.

The umpire is always right.  So … on October 8, 1956 Don Larson threw the only No-Hitter – and Perfect Game – in World Series history.

Box Score, Game 5, 1956 World Series — the Perfect Game

Larsen and Mitchell afterward.

Don Larsen enjoyed his life of celebrity … even as his career faded into less than mediocrity.  He’d always been known as sort of a funny and fun-loving guy, willing to tip a glass and break team curfew. He even ended up pitching with the Chicago Cubs in one of their truly horrible years.

Larsen was also a military veteran, giving up two years in the prime of life, to serve in the Army during the Korean War.

Later in life he tried his hand at several careers, from liquor to paper peddling. Evidence and stories suggest he was not very successful.

Of all coincidences, Larsen was in attendance at David Cohn’s Perfect Game for the Yankees, in 1999, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to – of all people – Yogi Berra.

Still among the living, Larsen recently sold his Perfect Game uniform to help pay for his grandchildren’s college educations.

——–

Mitchell invested almost all his playoff and bonus earnings during his professional baseball career into Oklahoma real estate near his home town.  After his ball career he developed these holdings into a successful oil and gas business.

His success drew the attention of Martin-Marietta, and he was recruited to be VP and run their concrete division.  He retired from there in 1985 to live in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The University of Oklahoma opened a new baseball park in 1982, named for Mitchell: the L. Dale Mitchell Baseball Park.

He remains the all-time batting average champion for the University of Oklahoma, and was enshrined in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

He maintained his “innocence” on that final pitch until his death.  He refused all interviews and media orchestrated “truce” reunions with Larsen for years afterward. “I ain’t going to talk about a fake strike out.”

Mitchell passed away in January, 1987 – aged only 65 – of a heart attack.

Baseball is America’s Game, and I wish it could bring us together again.

Joe Girard © 2017

[Feel free to comment below or Email Joe.]

[1] actually these strikeouts and walk rates are per nine innings pitched

Other stuff

  • Although this was the last At Bat in Game 5, Mitchell had one more at bat in the deciding Game 7.  He made an out and the Yankees also won that game. Mitchell retired after the 1956 season.
  • Pinelli umpired two more games — games 6 and 7 of the Series — but not behind home plate.  He then retired.
  • October 8 is also the day the Great Chicago Fire started (1871), as well as many other horrific fires across the Midwest.  In Peshtigo, Wisconsin up to 2,500 died.
  • Let’s give Larsen his due respect.  On that Dodgers team was Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campenella, Jim Gilliam.  A great line up … and all had a good year in 1956.
  • Jackie Robinson also retired after the 1956 season.