September 23, 1908 Merkle’s Boner

Bad as it was, Buckner’s Bungle at first had nothing on a Flub that will live for the Ages, Fred Merkle’s Screw-up at Second, a Blooper that would always be known as “Merkle’s Boner”.

For Boston sports fans, there is little to match for pure unhappiness of memory, with the 86-year World Series Championship drought known as the “Curse of the Bambino”.

Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on.  It was 86 years.  One of the longest World Series championship droughts in Major League Baseball history.

The third longest, actually, behind those of the Chicago White Sox (87 games) and the Chicago Cubs, (107 games).  Pity the long suffering baseball fans, of Chicago.

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It’s the worst moment in Boston baseball, unless you count the ball that lost the 1986 world series, the one that dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs at First Base and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in game six, against the New York Mets.

And that after defeating the Arch Nemesis New York Yankees by 5½ games, for the championship of the American League East.

An unfortunate joke emerged from that game, about Bill Buckner’s most regrettable moment.  A joke unbefitting the caliber of the man’s career in Major League Baseball.

Bad as it was though, Buckner’s Bungle at first had nothing on a Flub that will live for the Ages, Fred Merkle’s Screw-up at Second, a Blooper that will always be known, as “Merkle’s Boner”.

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Fred “Bonehead” Merkle

On this day in 1908, the New York Giants faced off with the Chicago Cubs in the last of a three-game series at the Polo Grounds, in upper Manhattan.

The Giants held a slim lead at this time for the National League pennant, but the Cubbies had managed to hold on to a 2-0 series lead. This game was going to be a Big Deal.

Fred Merkle was 19 years old that day, the youngest player in the National League.

In the bottom of the 9th, Merkle came to the plate with two outs, the score tied 1–1, and Harry “Moose” McCormick on first.

Merkle singled and McCormick advanced to third. Al Bridwell, followed with a single of his own and McCormick crossed the plate, with the winning run.

Except, that’s not the way it happened.

The fans poured onto the field, convinced that the game was over. Fans did that, in those days.

320px-Fred_Merkle_baseball_cardMerkle thought so too, and ran to the Giants’ clubhouse, never touching second base.

Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed and, after fielding the ball and touching second, appealed to umpire Hank O’Day to call the out.

The Ump called Merkle out on a force play. The run didn’t count.

With the winning run nullified, the Giants’ victory was erased and the score tied, 1-all. There was no hope of resuming play, with thousands of fans on the field.

The game was declared a tie, and the two teams finished regular season, tied for first.

The Cubs won the 1908 National League pennant with a 4-2 victory on the rematch, also played at the Polo Grounds, on October 8.

A game that never should have been played, but for a nineteen-year-olds screwup at second, for which Fred Merkle would always be known as “Bonehead”.

Oh.  The joke.  I almost forgot.  Question:  What do Bill Buckner and Michael Jackson, have in common?  Answer:  They both wear one glove, for no apparent reason.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

Lou Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name, Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbiaGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record. The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who had been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful, left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

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Lou Gehrig played Fullback for Columbia during the 1922 season

New York Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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“Gehrig with his parents, Christina and Heinrich, in 1938. The three lived together in the house until Gehrig got married in 1933”. Hat tip, New York Daily News

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr.

Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, and went into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

lou-gehrigThe team was in Detroit on May 2 when he told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

ny_50yankess_02Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939, his once mighty body now so weakened by the disease which would take his name, as to barely be able to stand.  Only two months earlier, manager Joe McCarthy had asked Babe Dahlgren to take the Iron Horse’s position.  Now he asked the 1st baseman, to look out for his dying teammate.  “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”

Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.

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As the ceremony drew to a close, Master of Ceremonies Sid Mercer asked for a few words.  Overwhelmed and struggling for control, Gehrig waved him off.  The New York Times later wrote, “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened to the ground”.  62,000 fans would have none of it.  The chant went up.  “We want Lou!” We want Lou!”

Eleanor Gehrig, a “tower of strength” throughout her husband’s ordeal, watched from a box seat.  New York Daily News reporter Rosaleen Doherty wrote that she did not cry, “although all around us, women and quite a few men, were openly sobbing.”

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At last, Lou Gehrig shuffled to the microphone, and began to speak. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.”  As if the neurodegenerative disease destroying his body, was merely a “bad break.” He looked down and paused, as if trying to remember what to say.  And then he delivered the most memorable line, of his life.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and I thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games, since 1997.

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I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees. But seriously.  They’re a class act..

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 19, 1879 Last of the Bare Knuckle Boxers

Nineteenth century prizefighting rules were nothing like the modern “sweet science” of boxing.

In 1858, the overly crowded tenements of Roxbury Massachusetts teemed with newly arrived Irish immigrants, looked down upon as “unmannered bogtrotters” and given wide berth by the self-appointed elites, of Boston. 5-foot 2-inch Michael Sullivan, newly arrived from County Kerry, worked as “hod carrier” for bricklayers and masons, dug ditches, and did any other job, that was available.

Like many first-generation immigrants, Michael and Catherine Sullivan did whatever they had to do, always hoping for something better, for their children.

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John L. Sullivan

That was the year the couple’s first-born son came into the world. From the beginning, baby John Lawrence was something different. “Strong as a bear” even as an infant, one family legend described little “Sully” clocking a visiting aunt before the age of one, leaving the woman with a black eye.

Sully excelled in sports as a boy and got into plenty of fights, which he easily won. He left high school as a young teenager and made a few bucks in semi-professional baseball, while working as a tinsmith, plumber and mason.

Prize fighting was illegal in those days, looked down upon by the middle classes as “butchery for profit”. The working classes had no such qualms, reveling in the sport in the saloons and music halls of most American cities.

Nineteenth century prizefighting rules were nothing like the modern “sweet science” of boxing. The earliest recognizable form of the sport, as opposed to mere brawling, came about after a 1744 bout in which British boxer George Stevenson was fatally injured, following a fight with Jack Broughton.

Broughton’s “seven rules of boxing” were printed and framed, and posted that August at his London amphitheater.

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Jack Broughton

Frank Lewis Dowling wrote in Fistiana; or The Oracle of the Ring:…Results of prize battles from 1700 to December 1867, that Broughton’s rules brought about “that spirit of fair play which off ers so wide a contrast to the practices of barbarous ages…[when] It is to be lamented that, even in modern times, the inhuman practices of uncivilised periods have subsisted to a disgraceful extent, and hence we have heard of gouging, that is to say forcing out the eye of an antagonist with the thumb or finger…kicking a man with nailed shoes as he lies on the ground, striking him in vital parts below the waistband, seizing him when on his knees, and administering punishment till life be extinct…”

In 1838, William “Brighton Bill” Phelps died following a particularly savage match with the British bare-knuckle prize fighter, Owen Swift. Phelps, who had himself killed a man in the ring, died after an 85-round, ninety-five minute fight for which Swift was tried and convicted, of manslaughter. Robert Rodriguez, author of The Regulation of Boxing: A History and Comparative Analysis of Policies Among American States writes that the “London Prize Ring Rules” of that year and amended in 1853 “introduced measures that remain in effect for professional boxing to this day, such as outlawing butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, hitting a man while down, holding the ropes, and using resin, stones or hard objects in the hands, and biting.”

The London prize ring rules specified the size and shape of the ring,  and that of the spikes in the fighter’s shoes, as well as the role for each fighter’s “second”.  Nothing is said of the length or number, of rounds.  Each round ended when a fighter was knocked (or thrown) to the ground.  There followed a thirty-second break when the umpire would cry “Time!”, and an eight-second interval when each combatant was to step up to the “scratch line”.  Failure to come “up to scratch” or incapacity put an end to the match, but 70+-round fights, were commonplace.

72086-004-DDFAAC8EThis was the world of bare knuckle boxing in the age of John L. Sullivan.  He thrived in that world. The urban prize ring was his “temple of manhood”.  He intended to be its Crown Prince.

In 1879, Sullivan trounced the veteran brawler Mike Donovan in an exhibition match. The older fighter was the more skilled and experienced, but the 21-year-old made up for it with speed and power. Afterward, Donovan knew that he had “just fought the coming champion of the prize ring.”

A month later, Sullivan challenged “any man breathing” to fight for prizes ranging between $1,000 to $10,000. Sometimes, matches were fought with bare knuckles, other times, with padded gloves and timed rounds.  Over 450 fights, Sullivan seemed unbeatable. “The Hercules of the Ring.”  Gamblers and other backers were making a fortune.

The media eagerly promoted the fighter as an “urban Paul Bunyan”. Stories were told and retold, each becoming more outlandish, as Sullivan “battled wild animals with his bare hands, drank rivers of liquor, had his way with regiments of women. . . .”

The epic drunkenness and domestic violence of the man’s real life at home, went largely unreported.

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Sullivan was a Rockstar, the “Boston Strongboy”, the first professional athlete to make a million dollars. He performed in vaudeville, and hung out with some of the most iconic figures of the ‘gilded age’, from Presidents and Kings to wild west gunslingers. Sullivan made countless public appearances and even considered a run for the United States Senate. A famous song of the era invited listeners to “shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.”

On this day in 1887, thousands of adoring fans crowded the ways to Nantasket Beach in Hull, to glimpse the Heavyweight Champion of the World with his diamond-studded, gold-plated belt.

Depending on who you read, Sullivan was first considered world heavyweight champion either in 1888 when he fought Charley Mitchell in France, or in 1889 when he knocked out Jake Kilrain in round 75 of a scheduled 80-round bout.

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Souvenir poster, 1888

The modern sport of Boxing was born in 1867, with the twelve rules drawn up by John Graham Chambers, member of the British Amateur Athletic Club under the sponsorship of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry.  Timed rounds and gloves remained optional until the night of July 8, 1889, a scheduled 80-round bare knuckle bout between the undefeated champion John L Sullivan, and Jake Kilrain, the last professional fight to be held under the old London Prize Ring rules.

Whiskey had taken its toll on Sullivan by this time.  It looked like he was done when he threw up in the 42nd round, but Sullivan got his second wind.  Kilrain’s second threw in the towel in round 75, afraid that his principle was about to be killed.

John-L.-Sullivan-vs.-Jake-KilrainSullivan’s unbeaten record over 44 professional fights came to an end on July 9, 1892, when “Gentleman Jim” Corbett  unloaded a smashing left in the 21st round that put the champion down, for good.  Sullivan would later say that his opponent only “gave the finishing touches to what whiskey had already done to me.”

Sullivan retired to his home in Abington Massachusetts. In his later years, the last bare knuckle champ in history became a sports reporter, celebrity baseball umpire and tavern owner. He gave up his life-long addiction to alcohol taking his last drink in 1905. Sullivan took to the temperance lecture circuit, but the prizefighting years and those “Rivers of Whiskey” had taken their toll.

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John Lawrence Sullivan earned over a million dollars over his career, and died with an estate valued at $3,675, and ten dollars in his pocket.  He was fifty-nine. Sullivan constantly warned young men to avoid the perils of alcohol. “John L. Sullivan, champion of the world, could not lick whiskey.  What gives any one of them the notion that he can?”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 18, 1921 Say it ain’t so, Joe

The reputation of professional baseball had suffered a major blow.  Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history, to help straighten out the mess.  He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

From the World Cup to the Superbowl, the world of professional sports has little to compare with the race for the Pinnacle Trophy. The contest for Championship, in which entire economies slow to a crawl and even casual sports fans are caught up in the spectacle.

For professional baseball, the “Fall Classic” began in 1903, a best-of-nine “World Series” played out between the Boston Braves and the Pittsburg Pirates. (Boston won, in eight).

Excepting the boycott year of 1904 when there was no series at all, most World Series have been ‘best-of-seven”. That changed in 1919, when league owners agreed to play a nine-game series, to generate more revenue and increase the popularity of the sport.

Today, top players are paid the GDP of developing nations, but that wasn’t always the case. One-hundred years ago, much of that revenue failed to find its way to the players.  Even the best, held second jobs.

Around that time, Chicago White Sox owner Chuck Comiskey built the most powerful organizations in professional baseball, despite a stingy reputation.

BlackSox-Lg_400x400The scandal of the 1919 “Black Sox” series began when Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman with ties to Chicago gangsters, convinced his buddy and professional gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, that he could throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. New York gangster Arnold Rothstein supplied the money through his right-hand man, former featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell.

Pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams were principally involved with throwing the series, along with outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg.  Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver attended a meeting where the fix was discussed, but decided not to participate. Weaver handed in some of his best statistics of the year during the 1919 post-season.

Star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may have been a participant, though his involvement has been disputed. It seems that other players may have used his name in order to give themselves credibility. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was not involved in the planning, but he threatened to report the others unless they cut him in on the payoff.

The more “straight arrow” players on the club knew nothing about the fix. Second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber had nothing to do with it, though the conspiracy received an unexpected boost, when Faber came down with the flu.

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Official Program

Rumors were flying as the series started on October 2. So much money was bet on Cincinnati, that the odds were flat.  Gamblers complained that nothing was left on the table.  Cicotte, who had shrewdly collected his $10,000 the night before, struck leadoff hitter Morrie Rath with his second pitch, a prearranged signal that “the fix was in”.

The plot began to unravel, that first night.   Attell withheld the next installment of $20,000, to bet on the following game.

Game 2 starting pitcher Lefty Williams was still willing to go through with the fix, even though he hadn’t been paid.   He’d go on to lose his three games in the best-of nine series, but by game 8, he wanted out.

The wheels came off in game three.  Former Tigers pitcher and Rothstein intermediary Bill “Sleepy” Burns bet everything he had on Cincinnati, knowing the outcome in advance.  Except, Rookie pitcher Dickie Kerr wasn’t in on the fix.  He pitched a masterful game in game three, shutting Cincinnati out 3-0, and leaving Burns flat broke.

Cicotte became angry in game 7, thinking that gamblers were trying to renege on their deal.  The knuckle baller bore down to a White Sox win and the series stood, 4-3.

Williams was back on the mound in game 8.  By this time he wanted out of the deal, but gangsters threatened to hurt him and his family if he didn’t lose the game. Williams threw nothing but mediocre fastballs, allowing four hits and three runs in the first.  The White Sox went on to lose that Game 10-5, ending the series in a 3 – 5 Cincinnati win.

Rumors of the fix began immediately, and dogged the team throughout the 1920 season.  Chicago Herald and Examiner baseball writer Hugh Fullerton, wrote that there should never be another World Series.   A grand jury was convened that September.  Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, testified on September 28, both confessing to participating in the scheme. Despite a virtual tie for first place at that time, Comiskey pulled the seven players then in the majors.  Gandil was back in the minors, at the time.

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“Shoeless” Joe Jackson

The reputation of professional baseball had suffered a major blow.  Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history, to help straighten out the mess.  He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The Black Sox trial began this day in 1921, in the Criminal Court in Cook County.  Key evidence went missing before the trial, including both Cicotte’s and Jackson’s signed confessions. Both recanted and, in the end, all players were acquitted. The missing confessions reappeared several years later,Black Sox Headline in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. It’s funny how that works.

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”. There was no response.

The Commissioner was unforgiving, irrespective of the verdict. The day after the acquittal, Landis issued a statement: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball”.

Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Williams, Risberg, and McMullin are long dead now, but every one remains Banned from Baseball.

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Ironically, the 1919 scandal lead the way to the “Curse of the Black Sox”, a World Series championship drought lasting 88 years and ending only in 2005, with a White Sox sweep of the Houston Astros.  Exactly one year after the Boston Red Sox ended their own 86-year drought, the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper published a poem back on opening day for the 1919 series. They would probably have taken it back, if only they could.

“Still, it really doesn’t matter, After all, who wins the flag.
Good clean sport is what we’re after, And we aim to make our brag.
To each near or distant nation, Whereon shines the sporting sun.
That of all our games gymnastic, Base ball is the cleanest one!”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 12, 1928 The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech high school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbia-universityGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. Gehrig played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for the New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season. In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”, the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

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He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On this day in 1928, Gehrig hit 2 triples and a pair of home runs, leading the Yankees in a 15-7 victory over the Chicago White Sox.  At Comiskey Park, no less.

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He was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

lou-gehrig-5Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends Streak

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939. He was awarded trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them. Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

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I thought about Lou Gehrig, and how the man compares with some of these guys today.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself.  I think I’m required by state law, to hate the Yankees.  But, all kidding aside.  The man and the club.  They’re a pair of Class Acts.

Gehrig

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 24, 1935 Under the Lights

The first minor league game played under the lights drew 12,000 spectators, at a time when the host club was averaging only 600 per game. As the Great Depression dragged on, minor league owners were finding night games a key to staying in business. Even then, the Poobahs of Major League Baseball were slow to catch on.

The-lamplighterIn 18th century London, it was a bad idea to go out at night. Not without a lantern in one hand, and a club in the other.

The city introduced its first gas-lit street in 1807 on the Central London Pall Mall, between St. James’s Street & Trafalgar Square. Before long, hundreds of “Lamp Lighters” could be seen with their ladders, gas lights bathing the city in a soft, green glow.

The Westminster Review newspaper opined that gas lamps had done more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets, than any number of church sermons.

The United States followed nine years later, when the city of Baltimore lit up in 1816.

Thomas Edison patented the first carbon-thread incandescent lamp in 1879.  The first baseball game played “under the lights” took place the following year near Nantasket Beach, in the ‘south shore’ town of Hull, Massachusetts.

It was September 2, 1880 when two teams, sponsored by the RH White & Co. and Jordan Marsh department stores of Boston, played a full nine innings to a 16-all tie.  The era of the night game had arrived, and the lamp lighters of London, can be seen to this day.

Except, no, it didn’t work out that way.  The lamp lighter part is true enough.  Today, five gas engineers keep the Victorian era alive, winding and checking the mechanisms, polishing the glass and replacing the mantles of some 1,500 – 2,000 gas lamps.

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Modern-day “Lamp Lighter” H/T UK Guardian

Across the pond, organized baseball would take another fifty years to give the arc light another try.

Evidence exists of other 19th-century night games, but these were little more than novelties. Holyoke Massachusetts inventor George F. Cahill, creator of the pitching machine, devised a portable lighting system in 1909. With the blessing of Garry Herrmann, President of the Cincinnati Reds, Cahill staged an exhibition game on the night of June 19, between the Elk Lodges of Cincinnati and Newport, Kentucky.

The crowd of 3,000  had little trouble following the ball and Cahill was an enthusiastic salesman for his invention, but the man was doomed to frustration and disappointment.  Night-time exhibition games were regularly met with great enthusiasm, yet Organized Baseball was slow to catch on.

The Class B New England league played a night exhibition game on June 24, 1927 before a crowd of 5,000, sponsored by the General Electric Employees’ Athletic Association. The Washington Senators were in town at that time to play the Boston Red Sox.  Delegations from both clubs were on-hand to watch Lynn defeat Salem in a seven-inning game, 7-2. Washington manager Bucky Harris and Boston manager Bill Carrigan, were impressed. Senator’s star outfielder Goose Goslin expressed a desire to play a night game. Claude Johnson, President of the New England League, predicted that all leagues would have night baseball within five years, including the majors.

Lighting_Baseball2When the Great Depression descended across the land, minor league clubs folded by the bushel. Small town owners were desperate to innovate. The first-ever night game in professional baseball was played on May 2, 1930, when Des Moines, Iowa hosted Wichita for a Western League game.

The game drew 12,000 spectators at a time when Des Moines was averaging just 600 per game.  Soon, minor league owners were finding night games a key to staying in business.

Even then, the Poobahs of Major League Baseball were slow to catch on.  Five years later, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the first-ever big league game played under the lights.

A crowd of 25,000 spectators waited on this day in 1935, as President Roosevelt symbolically turned on the lights from Washington DC.  The Reds played a night game that year against every National League opponent and, despite a losing record of 68-85, enjoyed an increase in paid attendance of 117%.

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The first night game in Major League Baseball was played on this day in 1935, when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1

Thoughought the ’30s and ’40s, teams upgraded facilities to include lights and, before long, most of Major League Baseball had night games on the schedule. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs and the second-oldest MLB stadium after Fenway Park, was the last to begin hosting night games. To this day, the Cubbies remain the only major league team to host the majority of its games, during the day.

Wrigley’s first officially recorded night game ended in a 6-4 win over the New York Mets on August 8, 1988.

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March 12, 1901 A Two-Team Town

1901 saw no series at all, as the startup American League fought the National League for control of the business. The following year, the top two major league baseball teams switched sports, opting instead to compete in a football championship.

The first all-professional team in baseball history was established in 1869:  ten salaried  teammates, playing to a perfect 65-0 record as the Cincinnati Red Stockings.  To date, it’s the only perfect season in major league baseball history.  The club voted to dissolve after the 1870 season, when player-manager Harry Wright went to Boston, at the invitation of Ashburnham businessman and Boston Red Stockings founder, Ivers Whitney Adams.

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Boston Beaneater Pitcher Charles Gardner “Old Hoss” Radbourn, standing, far left, giving the cameraman “the finger” in 1886, the earliest known photograph of the gesture.

Eight previously amateur clubs went pro for the 1871 season, including the Cubs organization, playing at that time as the “Chicago White stockings”, and not to be confused with the later American League franchise, Chicago White Sox.  Today, these are the only two left of the original nine, though the Red Stockings and successor organizations are the oldest continuously playing professional team in American sports, since the Cubbies missed two years, following the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Club names were more fluid in the 19th century than today, and teams were likely to be known by nicknames.  When the new Cincinnati Red Stockings formed in 1876, the Boston club was sometimes called the “Red Caps” and later, the “Beaneaters”.

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“Squad: A team photo of the now defunct Boston Reds. In its one and only year in the Players’ National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs the Reds won the 1890 title after accruing 81 wins fending off competition from the New York Giants. The Reds didn’t join the newly formed National League at the end of the season after the Boston Braves, soon to become the famous Atlanta Braves, were ushered into the new league and officials didn’t want the two Boston teams to face each other” H/T DailyMail.com

In those days, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and its National League successor represented the pinnacle of professional baseball.  There was no post-season, championships were awarded based on the best record at the end of regular season.

Precursors to the modern World Series began with the formation of a second league in 1882, the American Association, but the series themselves were haphazard.  Terms of post-season play were negotiated between club owners, with as few as three games in 1884 when the Providence Grays defeated the New York Metropolitans 3-0, and as many as fifteen, when the Detroit Wolverines defeated the St. Louis Browns, 10 to 5.

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Boston Americans, 1902

With the collapse of the American Association in 1891, major league baseball entered an eight-year single-league “monopoly”, where half-season winners squared off in a championship series called the Temple Cup.

1901 saw no series at all, as the startup American League fought the National League for business supremacy.  The two top teams in baseball changed sports in 1902, opting instead to compete in a football championship.

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Boston Americans logo, 1901-1907

The Red Caps/Beaneaters roster was decimated in 1901, with the formation of Boston’s American League franchise, the “Americans”.  Many stars jumped ship to the new AL club, which was offering contracts that it’s NL competitor couldn’t hope to match.

On this day in 1901, ground was broken for Boston’s 1st American League ballpark, the Huntington Avenue Grounds.  The stadium was the site of the first modern World Series in 1903, when the Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in a best-of-nine series, five to three. The stadium saw the first perfect game of the modern era, thrown by Cy Young on May 5, 1904.

The playing field was built on what used to be a circus lot and was large by current standards: 530′ to center field, later expanded to 635′ in 1908. It had many quirks not seen in modern baseball stadia, including patches of sand in the outfield where grass wouldn’t grow, and a tool shed in play in deep center field.

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1903 World Series photograph, believed to be taken from the roof of a nearby warehouse

During the 1907 season, manager Fred Tenney removed the last bit of red from Red Caps/Beaneaters uniforms, believing that red dyes could cause injuries to become infected.  The all-white uniforms gave rise to the unfortunate sobriquet – “Doves”, while Americans’ owner John Taylor was quick to cash in with a name change of his own, a reference to the uniform hose worn by his franchise, since the beginning.  The Boston Red Sox, were born.

Fred-snodgrassIn 1912, the Doves adopted an official name of their own. National League franchise owner James Gaffney was a member of Tammany Hall, the political machine that ruled New York, between 1789 and 1967.  Tammany Hall’s symbol was an Indian chief, its headquarters called a “wigwam”. So it was that, the oldest franchise in major league baseball, came to be called “the Braves”.

The Boston Red Sox moved to their new stadium home that same year, ending the season in a dramatic victory over the New York Giants, four games to three.  Frederick “Snow” Snodgrass, one of the best outfielders of his day, dropped a routine fly ball in the 10th inning of the deciding game, allowing the winning run to stay on base, much to the dismay of generations of Giants fans.

Fred Snodgrass went on to become a successful banker, elected city councilman, and a popular mayor and rancher in Oxnard CA, but “Snodgrass’s Muff” would follow him, for the rest of his days. When the man died in April, 1974, the New York Times obituary was headlined “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.” Move over, Billy Buckner.

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A Boston team won five out of six consecutive World Series championships between 1912-’18, with the NL franchise advancing from dead last to World Champions in 1914, and the Red Sox winning in 1912, ,15, ’16 and ’18.

It was the Golden Era of Boston baseball, and it all came to a halt in 1919.  On December 26, theater enthusiast and Red Sox franchise owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the arch-rival New York Yankees, to open a play called My Lady Friends, opening on Broadway that same month. Years later, My Lady Friends would become a musical, called No, No, Nanette.  The musical wouldn’t open until five years after Frazee’s infamous trade, but indeed, the forerunner was financed by the Ruth sale, to the Yankees.

1914 Miracle Braves

There ensued one of the longest championship droughts in baseball history, an 86-year period called the “Curse of the Bambino” before the Red Sox’ sixth Championship, in 2004.

With Braves Field under construction in 1914, the Miracle Braves played in the Red Sox’ home field at Fenway Park.  The Braves returned the favor the next two years, as Braves Field was the larger of the two.

il_340x270.893955742_3w451915 ushered in a 20-year losing streak for the Braves.  Ironically, it was Babe Ruth who was expected to pull it all together, when Braves President Emil Fuchs brought the Bambino back to Boston in 1935.

Things were looking up that opening day, with a 4-2 win over the Giants, and Ruth had something to do with all four runs.  Later that month, Ruth hit three home runs in a single game but, no one could know those were the last of his career.   Years of high living had done their work.  The Bambino’s best years were behind him.  The man couldn’t run, and his fielding was so bad that three Braves pitchers threatened to strike, if he remained in the lineup.  Babe Ruth retired on June 1, a short six days after one of the finest performances, of his career.

1948 almost saw an all-Boston World Series, but for a single game playoff loss to the Indians.

Boston remained a two-team town until March 13, 1953, when the Braves left, for good. The longest-running franchise in MLB history went to Milwaukee for a time before moving to Atlanta.  Brave’s Field was sold to Boston University.

The old Huntington Grounds were demolished in 1912, later replaced with the Cabot Center, an indoor athletic venue belonging to Northeastern University. A plaque and a statue of Cy Young were erected on the campus in 1993, where the pitchers mound and home plate used to be. A plaque on the side of the Cabot building marks the former location of the left field foul pole, about ¼ mile from Matthews Arena, the oldest multi-purpose athletic building still in use in the world, and the original home to the Boston Bruins.  But that must be a story, for another day.

Feature image, top of page: Fenway Park, October 12, 1914, third game of the 1914 World Series

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