Baseball and America

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By Jim Halloran

Part III: America at War: Bad Times are Coming…

As the country approached the nineteen twenties there was feeling of apprehension. The fragile alliance of European nations was unraveling and there was increasing social tensions between races in the USA spurred primarily by the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. The original Klan was organized in 1860 but died out shortly after the civil war. However in 1915 William Joseph Simmons of Stone Mountain, reorganized the white supremacy hate group. It grew into a powerful and influential group of conservative white Protestants under the premise of protecting America from the danger of African Americans and the immigration of Europeans, primarily Catholics. Its greatest representation was in the Midwest, particularly Indiana, and the southern states. Its membership would grow to 6,000,000 citizens over the next 15 years before starting to decline.

Baseball and its cast of characters served as a diversion from the national concerns.  Honus Wagner was finishing a career covering 15 years in which he played in 2785 games and batted .327 while playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He is well known today for the value of his original baseball card that was taken out of print on his declaration that because of his disapproval of smoking, he would not allow his name to be associated with the American Tobacco Company that printed the card. The card today is valued at over $1,000,000.

Christy Mathewson became a glamour boy pitching for the New York Giants. He was a good looking college educated player who won 373 games including three consecutive years of winning 30 games. In 1905 he pitched in the second World Series  and won three games all shutouts as the N.Y. Giants won the series four games to one over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

George Edward “Rube” Waddell was a giant for his time. He stood 6 ft 3 inches tall and threw hard. Connie Mack was his manager which was no easy task as Rube was considered a man-child known for childish behavior including one time when he left the pitching mound to chase after a fire engine that was running by the stadium. Rube pitched for 13 seasons, won 191 games and had an incredible lifetime ERA of 2.16. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.

The Chicago Cubs featured Mordecai “Three Finger “ Brown. Mordecai had lost two fingers on his pitching hand in a farm accident. At one time he beat Mathewson nine straight times, “Three Fingers was the ace of a Cubs team that won the World Series four out of five years. That team also featured a well known double play combination of Tinker (shortstop) to Evers (second base) to Chance (first base).

The Detroit Tigers rose to prominence in the American League largely on the feats of the infamous Ty Cobb. Cobb won the first of his 12 batting titles in 1907. He batted over .400 three times and accumulated 4191 hits, a record that would stand until Pete Rose retired in 1986 with 4256 hits. His statistics include a .367 lifetime batting average, the highest on record, and 829 stolen bases over 24 years. He was known for his tough brand of baseball and using anyway possible to score including his cleats up approach to stealing bases. He was the epitome of the tough players of his era. A Georgia boy he became known as the Georgia Peach. Ty became a successful business man after baseball and made a good size fortune from his early purchase of Coca Cola stock.

Walter ”Big Train” Johnson of the Washington Senators was the era’s hardest throwing pitcher. In describing Johnson, Ty Cobb said “ You can’t hit what you can’t see.” In one series versus the New York Highlanders (later to be the Yankees) the Train shut them out on Friday, Saturday and again on Monday. In 21 seasons he set 15 American League records including 413 wins, 113 shutouts and 5925 innings pitched. At one time he threw 56 consecutive shutout innings. He was likened to the giant steam locomotives of the era.

As They Played the Game:

In 1908 there was a play in baseball that became known as the Merkle incident. It was September 22, Giants versus the Cubs, both teams fighting for the pennant. The score was 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th and Giants Fred Merkle was at bat with a runner on first with one out. Merkle lined a hard single to centerfield with the runner galloping to third. The next batter singled over second base causing the second base umpire to hit the ground to prevent from getting hit. The runner on third scored the winning run and the fans mobbed the field. Meanwhile Merkel in the excitement took off for the dugout without touching second base. Second baseman Evers asked the outfielder to throw him the ball to touch second base but dropped the relay throw. A Giants player, aware of what Evans was planning, ran out of the dugout, picked up the loose baseball and threw it into the stands. Evans than retrieved a new baseball from the umpire and tagged second base and insisted Merkle be called out claiming he would have been out before the runner scored. Since the second base umpire had ducked, the head umpire ruled for the Cubs and declared the game a tie since the fans had taken over the field. The tie ruling remained since it would not matter unless the season ended with the Giants and the Cubs tied for first which of course it did. The game was replayed on October 7 to determine the pennant winner. Over 80,000 fans showed up for the game in New York although the stadium could only seat 35,000. Fans were everywhere, on tops of buildings, perched on lamp posts and on each other’s shoulders. The pitchers were Christy Mathewson versus “Three Finger” Brown The Cubs won in a comeback victory and Fred Merkle  openly wept due to his error two weeks earlier that mandated playing the game. For many years thereafter when someone would make a mistake it might be referred to as a “Merkle.”

White baseball became very aware of the emergency of the popularity of the Negro Leagues and the excitement generated by their fans. Although some continued to question the ability of the players, exhibition games between the white and black teams proved that the talent was pretty evenly matched. John McGraw, manager of the American League Baltimore Orioles, attempted to play Charles Grant, a light skinned African American second baseman, by passing him off as a Native American named Chief Tokahoma Grant. His ploy was exposed by owner Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox and the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues was upheld. Up to this point black professional baseball was owned and controlled by wealthy white men. That started to change with the emergence of a pitcher Rube Foster. The 300 pound Foster, along with “Homerun” Johnson became the first well known black superstars and drew attention wherever they appeared. Foster’s ability and personality provided him with a growing power base that lead him to managing and eventually owning the Chicago Giants which later became the American Giants. In 1920, largely due to Rube Foster’s efforts, the eight team Negro National League officially commenced and lasted for the next 30 years.

World War I

In 1917 America joined forces with the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia against the Centrist powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The war broke out in 1915 when the Germans sunk a British cruise liner killing 1198 passengers and crew members. During the next three years the war spread into the Middle East, Africa and China. It became known as the Great War. The USA under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson held unto its original neutral position until Germany believing that the American cargo ships were carrying weapons and supplies to the Allied Powers used submarines, known as U Boats, to attack them without warning. In May of 1918 American troops joined France and Allied Forces outside of Paris to force the Germans into a full retreat by September of the same year. WWI saw the introduction of air warfare. American Eddie Rickenbacher became famous for his flying victories and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Americans also heard a lot about a German flying hero known as “The Red Baron” who shot down over 80 enemy aircraft. Today’s generations know the Red Baron from his cartoon encounters in Charles Schultz’s beloved comic strip “Peanuts”. On the ground Sergeant Alvin York was regarded as a hero for his ferocious ground combat role against the Germans. He also received the Medal of Honor. Over a million US troops helped break the German defense and brought the war to an end. The Treaty of Versailles to end the war was signed on June 28, 1919. The total US involvement was over two million troops, 53,000 dead and 213,000 wounded. Overall eight million troops from both sides lost their lives.

Baseball was not spared from the war. Most minor league teams suspended operations and the major leagues shortened their seasons in 1917 from 154 games to 140 in order for players to report to duty before Labor Day. 772 professional baseball players served in the armed forces, as many as 15 players from a particular team. Eight major league and eight Negro League players sacrificed their lives in the war effort. Many notable Hall of Fame players served in the armed forces. These included Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Casey Stengel and Tris Speaker. Mathewson was never able to return to his prewar dominance after becoming a victim of a gas attack when training for combat against the Germans.

The era ended with a black eye for baseball due to the 1919 World Series scandal. The underdog Cincinnati Reds were taking on the highly favored Chicago White Sox. The Sox had it all – great pitching, and great hitting, lead by the incomparable “Shoeless Joe Jackson”.  Joe and seven other players, who despised the misery of owner Charles Comiskey, agreed to fix the series with a known gambler Arnold Rothstein. Although the deal became unhinged half way through the series, the damage done in the early games allowed the Reds to upset the Sox. The eight players went on trial in 1920 and although acquitted in court due to lack of evidence, they were banned from baseball for life by then baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. The media had a frenzy with the story. The supposedly said statement “ Say it ain’t so Joe” from a 12-year-old fan of Joe Jackson epitomized the agony and disappointment of the fans. The story has become baseball legend. The book Eight Men Out in 2005 became a hit movie and “Shoeless Joe” was a featured character in the award winning movie Field of Dreams in 1989.

Baseball would need a monumental event to recover from the Black Sox scandal. That event turned out to be the personality of a very special ball player George Herman “Babe” Ruth. As America entered the Roaring Twenties the post war country opened their hearts to this young orphaned ballplayer from Baltimore.

Next week Part IV:  The Roaring Twenties, Babe Ruth and the Great Depression.

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