by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Well, the World Series began a little while ago and, as I write this, the Boston Red Sox, who won 108 games this year and rolled through the American League playoffs have a 5-3 lead over the Dodgers in the bottom of the 6th. So, we’ll see whether the “boys in blue” can pull off a major upset against the red hot Red Sox.
Meantime, this seemed like an opportune time to put together a baseball-related post in the “Games People Play” series highlighting the October 1929 issue of Baseball Magazine from the Homestead’s collection. The cover and feature article highlights Burleigh Grimes, not a name mentioned much these days, but he was “The Spit Ball King,” which sounds like a strange thing to give attention to according to our modern thinking about baseball pitchers.
That’s because, although “spitters” (applying saliva, petroleum jelly, or other substances) were banned in 1920, there were seventeen major league hurlers who were granted exceptions and were “grandfathered”, meaning they could continue to throw spit balls until they retired. It turned out that Grimes was the last of the seventeen to retire, hanging up his glove in 1934.
The Hall of Famer pitched nineteen seasons in the majors for ten teams, with his longest stint being with the Brooklyn Robins, one of many nicknames used, sometimes several at a given time, by the Brooklyn Base Ball Club, from 1918 to 1926. The team, however, was informally known as the “Trolley Dodgers” over the years and officially adopted the name “Dodgers” in 1932. For the 1928 season, however, Grimes was in his second stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Wisconsin native won 270 games and lost 212 in his career and posted a 3.53 earned run average. In an era where pitchers could have up to 40 decisions in a season and routinely rack up well over 300 innings, Grimes had five seasons of 20 wins or more, but his best season was in 1928, featured in the article which was titled “The Ace of National League Hurlers.”
That season the 34-year old Grimes won 25 games and lost 14 for the fourth-place Pirates, who compiled a record of 85-67, and he sported an era of 2.99 over 330 innings. He pitched in a remarkable 48 contests during the year, including some relief appearances, and had an amazing 28 complete games. Yet, he well could have won 30 games or more except for a July injury to his pitching hand that rendered him far less effective in the last weeks of the season.
To show how much pitching has changed, this year’s highest number of innings pitched in the majors was 220 and the most complete games, shared by several hurlers, was only 2. Pitchers throw much harder and faster now, though, so they put in far fewer starts and innings than their counterparts, not just ninety years ago, but even than when I was a baseball fanatic in the 1970s and 1980s.
Another feature, by Ford Frick (later National League president and then baseball’s commissioner from 1951 to 1965) was about legendary Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics manager (and part-owner of the club) Connie Mack and his long wait for a pennant. Mack (born Cornelius McGillicuddy), a catcher for a decade between 1886 and 1896 and was a player-manager for the last few.
He then managed two teams before taking on the role of skipper, part-owner and treasurer of the A’s in 1901. He continued to manage the team for a staggering half-century, a record for American professional sports, finally retiring after the 1950 season just shy of his 88th birthday with a record of 3,731 wins and 3,948 losses.
The legendary manager, however, suffered a long pennant drought having won the American League pennant and guided his team to World Series appearances in 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914. The A’s lost the first series, won the middle three, and then were beaten in the last. The fifteen-year that followed, though, finally ended when his 1929 squad won 104 games and lost only 46, with the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees, winners of the pennant the previous two years trailing by 18 games.
The A’s were led by a four-man starting rotation of pitchers, including Lefty Grove, who was 20-6 with a 2.81 ERA and had 170 strikeouts. George Earnshaw, an obscure name, had his banner season, going 24-8, while Rube Walberg posted an 18-11 record. Jack Quinn was the weakest of the quartet going 11-9 with a 3.97 ERA and only 41 strikeouts. Eddie Rommel, later a long-time umpire, was a fine middle reliever, going 12-2 with a 2.85 ERA.
A powerhouse offense was led by Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, who hit 33 home runs, knocked in 118 runs, and hit .354 and Al Simmons, who hit .365, blasted 34 home runs, and led the AL with 157 runs batted in. Another Hall of Famer was Mickey Cochrane, later a star with Detroit, who hit .331 and had 95 RBIs, while Simmons’ outfield colleagues, Bing Miller (.331 average and 93 RBIs) and Mule Haas (.313, 16 homers and 82 runs batted in) had fine seasons, as well.
On 8 October 1929, the A’s met the Chicago Cubs in the first game of the World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, but shocked the home team by taking the contest 3-1 and dealt a crippling blow by winning game 2 at Wrigley, 9-3. While the Cubs rebounded by winning game 3 at Shibe Park in Philly, 3-1, the A’s roared back to win the next two games at home, 10-8 and 3-2, to take the crown.
In 1930, the A’s won 102 games, captured the pennant, and then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in 6 games to win their second straight World Series title. In 1931, despite winning 107 games, the team lost a rematch to the Cardinals, falling in seven games.
Another article of interest was from Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, known as “The Big Train,” whose 21-year career with the Washington Senators from 1907-1927 featured 417 wins, a staggering 2.17 career ERA, an all-time record of 110 shutouts (likely to stand given modern pitching standards), and over 3,500 strikeouts, a record that stood until 1974 when Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals passed him.
Johnson, a native of Kansas, moved west when 14 and his family settled in the oil community of Olinda in modern Brea. His prowess became evident while living there and he once struck out 27 batters in 15 innings in a Fullerton High game against Santa Ana High. After living briefly in Idaho, where a talent scout signed him and he made history from there.
Johnson was hired to manage the Senators with his first season being 1929. His team finished fifth in the American League and Johnson continued to manage the team through the 1932 campaign. He then managed the Cleveland Indians for three seasons before retiring. He worked a year in 1939 as a radio announcer for the Senators and ran a failed campaign for Congress the following year. He died in 1946 of brain cancer at age 59.
Johnson’s article was titled “The Greatest Players I Ever Saw,” and he named Dazzy Vance, another longtime pitcher for the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers), as an excellent master of the mound. Rube Waddell, who pitched in Johnson’s early days, including for the Athletics, “had more sheer pitching ability than any man I ever saw,” though that didn’t mean “he was the greatest pitcher.” He also spoke very highly of such greats as Christy Mathewson and Grover Alexander, and gave a slight edge to the latter over the former when it came to overall ability.
As to hitters, Johnson pointed to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson as the best natural batter he’d ever seen, though the 1919 scandal involving him and his Chicago White Sox teammates ended his promising career, especially because “the lively ball” that led to a quick upturn in home runs came just afterward. With regard to “long ball hitters,” Johnson stated that Babe Ruth was the greatest slugger of them all, but that he was not the best hitter. Lou Gehrig, Ruth’s Yankees teammate among the “Bronx bombers,” was second in slugging ability.
Early hitters that stood out included Sam Crawford, who achieved stardom with the Cincinnati Red Stockings (Reds), and then expanded on it with the Detroit Tigers. Johnson stated that, in 1924, he pitched in an exhibition game and Ruth pounded one of his pitches for a long homer. Then, Crawford, who’d been long retired and was much older, came up later and belted a Johnson pitch to about the same distance as the Babe’s long shot.
A Crawford teammate and yet also a rival with the Tigers was the legendary Ty Cobb, whose 4,191 hits was a major league record until broken by Pete Rose, but who also had records for most games played, runs scored, at-bats, stolen bases, batting titles and batting average, among others. Johnson held up Jackson as a better hitter, but stated that “Ty was the smartest player I ever saw by so great a margin that I won’t even bother to think who was second best.” The article concluded with Johnson observing, “I’ll say of Ty, as I would say of Babe, he was unique.”
Other articles featured comparisons of Rogers Hornsby with the young Babe Herman of the Robins/Dodgers, highlighted Lefty Grove and his substantial $100,600 signing bonus paid by Connie Mack, Babe Ruth’s 500th career homer hit at an August game at Cleveland against the Indians, and many others.
For any fan of baseball history, browsing through a resource like Baseball Magazine is a trip back in time or maybe that should be a “round tripper” back in time!