The Great Zim, Cocky Collins, and One Mad Dash For the Dish

October 15, 1917, the Polo Grounds. World Series Game 6: Chicago White Sox @ New York Giants.

The Series’ clincher for the Sox was not without some controversy, and 99 years later certain elements of one particular, pivotal play, remain in question. The play, of course being the botched rundown of Eddie Collins in the top of the fourth inning, which ended up being the winning run, and cemented Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman as the goat. But was that an unfair label?

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Heinie Zimmerman in 1917 at the Polo Grounds

Zimmerman, a stalwart, but maligned infielder in the back nine of his career in ’17, was no stranger to implication. Throughout his 13 years in the bigs, Zimmerman was often in questionable situations of all sorts, and he earned a reputation as a ballplayer who was never quite as good as he should have been. His subpar play in the 1917 Series only served to fuel such talk. In six games, he batted just .120 and committed three errors, the last of which was a costly throwing error that allowed Eddie Collins to reach first base in the crucial fourth inning of game six. Collins would subsequently score the winning run on the famous chase to the plate.

The Rundown

With Collins on first, Shoeless Joe Jackson lifted a flyball toward Giants right fielder Dave Robertson, who dropped the ball, advancing Collins to third and Jackson to second. Sox slugger Happy Felsch then rapped a grounder back to pitcher Rube Benton, who wheeled and threw to Zimmerman at third, having caught Collins breaking for home. The rundown started normally, until Collins slipped past catcher Bill Rariden who was caught too far up the line. Inexplicably, neither Benton or first baseman Walter Holke was covering the plate! Zimmerman was thus forced to chase Collins all the way home. Collins, the faster runner, beat Zimmerman to the dish, giving the Sox a lead they would keep. They would go on to win the game and the World Series.

Some sources have conflicting reports on what Rariden actually did. Most agree he took at least one throw from Zimmerman, threw it back, but by then he was too far up the line and Collins ran past him. Other reports make it seem that Rariden was hardly engaged in the rundown at all, having broke far up the line immediately, leaving Zimmerman nobody to throw to from the outset. With obviously no video of this play, these details may never be fully revealed.

The snafu’d rundown, along with his lackluster play in the first five games and the key throwing error on Collins’ grounder, made Zimmerman the fall guy in New York. He would long be mentioned in the same vein as other infamous Giant goats like Fred Merkle and Fred Snodgrass, having to vehemently deny accusations that he allowed Collins to score.

Where the hell was everybody?

In that rundown situation, with the catcher and and third baseman engaged with the runner, the question becomes why didn’t either Rube Benton or Walter Holke cover the plate? There should have been at least one, if not two backups for catcher Bill Rariden, regardless of how long he stayed in the rundown, yet there were none. Once Rariden was out of the play, Zimmerman had nobody to throw to. He famously asked after the game “Who the hell was I supposed to throw to, (umpire) Bill Klem?” And Zimmerman was right. Even skipper John McGraw placed the blame on Benton and Holke for not covering the plate, but the fans and media alike would continue to assault Zimmerman for the broken play, no doubt aided by his poor series, crucial error early in the inning, and a string of insinuation and questionable actions throughout his career.

The eyebrow-raising  would continue for Zimmerman the next two years, especially after first baseman and master game-fixer Hal Chase, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds, would join the Giants in 1919. McGraw, taking a gamble (no pun intended), on signing Chase in an effort to straighten him out would see the plan backfire as Chase and Zimmerman would form a potent betting duo. A grand jury was convened to investigate gambling in baseball in 1920, and McGraw and other Giants players would testify to Zimmerman and Chase’s agendas for fixing games in 1919. In the wake of the famous Black Sox scandal that season, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would ban both Zimmerman and Chase from the game.

The sad tale of Heinie Zimmerman remains an interesting piece of baseball history. For although his reputation of never fulfilling his great potential drew the ire of fans and reporters, and his sidekicking with Hal Chase surely sealed his fate, he should not be to blame for the ’17 Series. He made the only play he could’ve made. The extenuating circumstances surrounding him and that series unfortunately made him the goat.

Unfairly.

 

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bf/Heinie_Zimmerman.jpg/220px-Heinie_Zimmerman.jpg

Sources:

http://www.thisgreatgame.com/1917-baseball-history.html

Heinie Zimmerman Chases Eddie Collins Across the Plate in the 1917 World Series!

http://z.lee28.tripod.com/therest/heiniezimmerman.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NY1/NY1191710150.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e73e465a

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Walk(er)ing In a Wiffleball Wonderland

Baseball, as we know, can be played in many variations. Arguably the most popular of those, is Wiffleball. Through the decades, countless backyard get-togethers, sandlot pickup games, or even entire, official leagues have been created to enjoy this simplistic, joyous take on America’s pastime. One such legendary league, was the Walker Wiffleball League (1986-1994.)

While not as grandiose as Major League Baseball, nor as obscure as the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, the WWL more than held it’s own for many years on the dusty outskirts of Joliet, IL. Today we’re thrilled to have a visit with fellow baseball junkie and the founder, commissioner, and namesake of the WWL, Chris Walker. Join us on a hilarious and fascinating little journey back to the days of the WWL, and the grassy thrill of Hank Gathers Memorial Stadium.

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Q: Chris, thanks for joining us today!

A: My pleasure.

Q: Let’s jump right in: When and how did the WWL begin and end? What made you decide to start an official league?

A : It began in 1986 and ended in the fall of 1994. In the beginning we were always outside playing baseball, but sometimes we just didn’t have enough people to play so I wanted to create a way to play some form of baseball even if we only had a few kids. It was trial and error for the first two years and in 1988 we established rules and kept stats, but we still were ironing out kinks, trying to figure things out, etc. I think the final product ended up being rather impressive.

Q: You wrote a very thorough rule book, kept stats for each game and player, and compiled them into season and career-long variations. What effect did that level of depth have on the league?

A: I think it’s something that was truly original, especially when you add in that we even videotaped some games with the old huge VHS recorders and a couple times we broadcast game via CB even though we really had no one listening except someone else who was out there sitting in his car in the cul-de-sac. I can’t even imagine what the league would be like if I was a kid today with advanced technology, social media, youtube, and shit like that. I can’t imagine if I was born in 2002 rather than 1972 and was just getting started in doing such a thing. As amazing as I think my product was, and it truly was a product, we would’ve done some ridiculous things.

Q: Were the seasons made up of just one-off games or did you orchestrate a playoff structure of any kind?

A: It was pretty much guys showing up, picking teams and playing a bunch of games. We did schedule some tournaments where people picked their own teams, which was also a lot of fun. Some nights we’d have good matchups and play a best-of-3 series, which also was pretty cool to do.

Q: Did the WWL ever host any special events? All-Star games? Tournaments? Etc.

A: We’d have home run derbies, tournaments and some special events. We had Kautz Fest (after player Dan Kautz who was leaving to go into the military) where we decorated the park and it looked more like a used car dealership for a few days. I think one of the cooler things we did was play music during night games, and in the early 90s there were some great releases. I’m pretty sure that some people first heard of Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden while playing wiffleball with their buddies. You’re welcome.

Q: This was all long before the days of the internet and social media so where did the players come from? Was it just among local family and friends or did any players travel from further away?

A: It was primarily word of mouth. Obviously I had my friends in high school from ‘88-90 and then I went to Joliet Junior College so I met some guys there in ‘90-92 who got involved before I went away to Southern Illinois at Carbondale. I was also umpiring a lot of youth baseball so some fellow umpires also got into the action and I was playing rec softball a few nights a week so there were guys I met there as well.

Q: You built a custom field, complete with lights for night games. Tell us about the layout, dimensions, special features, and how the building process came about.

A: Our yard had a weird shape to it and the majority of the backyard was fenced in, but outside of it, we also had property, plus there was an open lot adjacent to it. Technically, part of the field, the home plate area, wasn’t even on our land. Dimensions were 110 down the lines and 100 to center, which is opposite of a traditional baseball field, but played into the game we created. With a pitcher and two fielders, a hitter might be inclined to try to hit it to center with the short fence, but you also had two fielders converging to deal with, as well as the pitcher. The first two years were a bit different, but we worked on adjusting the field to have it set up this way with the same distances, etc.., and then we did the wall like a MLB park and installed permanent lights, a backstop, wooden benches. Part of the fence is hanging in my garage now.

Q: How much, if any, documentation still exists from the WWL days? (video, statistics, photos, articles, etc.)

A: It’s a mix. Sadly, no one really ever took photos. I fortunately have a dozen or so photos that I took of the field itself, mostly toward the end in 1994. If we played today, can you imagine the number of photos we’d have with cell phones? It also would’ve made it easier to set up games. I’m guessing there are about 25-30 games that I have on video as that was sporadic, but it’s better to have some rather than none. I still need to take the time and total up career stats, which is something if I ever get some free time, I’d love to do. I wouldn’t mind putting up a website documenting the league and its history. Of course, there’s no better way to relive the history than the Game Summaries. I kept one for every game played from 1988 through 1994. I have several enormous binders from every season with the box scores and details of what happened that night. It’s diary-like. Luckily, I like to write and Jason Switzer, who was heavily involved in the league in the 90s also did, so there’s great stuff there and it’s hard not to smile and laugh when you pop one of those binders open and read for awhile.

Q: Tons of Wiffleball leagues exist now, yet you seemed to do it on an official scale before everyone else did. Do you feel you helped pioneer a beloved variation of baseball in any way?

A: I don’t think there’s anything like what we did. Since most of us were still playing regular baseball we couldn’t play traditional wiffleball. Throwing that plastic ball as hard as you could would’ve destroyed our arms and if our coaches found out they would’ve kicked our asses for being so stupid. That’s why I tailored the league to be more defense-oriented, except when the wind was howling out! We also used a special ball made by Cosom which was softball-size and had circle holes on it. I think the people who played the most would even argue that they enjoyed playing defense as much, if not more than, hitting. I don’t know if anyone who would tailor a league in that way.

Q: Who, in your opinion, were the Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Walter Johnson of the WWL?

A: I don’t think anyone was really. I always had the biggest offensive numbers, but I also played all the time. I think I’ve been more impressed with the long list of people who have played the game and who they’ve become. I tend to forget that we were just teens and then guys in their early 20s and we were just hanging out and having a good time. I often reminisce and wish I could back to those simpler times, especially when I reflect and realize some of those guys are now gone, like Mark Russ and John Simpson. We had another kid, a Providence alum a few years younger than me who became Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro. He was nearly killed by an IED explosion in Afghanistan and became the first 100 percent disabled veteran to reenlist in the Air Force. He was severely burned more on more than 80 percent of his body, is now one of the most inspiring people in the world, but back when he was a just a teen he came out and had fun with us playing an innocent game. I guess I find myself reflecting more on who these guys were and what they’ve become then who they played or performed like.

Q: Your funniest, weirdest, or most interesting story about the league, or any individual game/player…

A: There are so many. Just from the top of my head….my Uncle Rick once drove his truck onto the field in the middle of the game scaring the pitcher (John Simpson) shitless while blaring “Burning Down The House” by the Talking Heads. My senior year in high school we played in the middle of a thunderstorm and we added a rule where everyone had to play barefoot. Real smart. There was a night where we played games all night until the sun started to rise. There was another where my friend Dave Stolarek’s car blew up. I’m serious. His car blew up while sitting parked. While hundreds of miles away in college, I had a player bring his girlfriend and they hung out, drinking beer and making out on the bench, or so I was told. And the cast of characters who either played once or twice or became regulars, and even the nicknames we came up with. We had Billy “Buttpick” Davis who got the nickname because he often picked his ass in the middle of games. He also enjoyed eating raw hot dogs. He’d just walk over with them and sit there nibbling on them. And even Jimmy “Shoeless” Chaplin who usually played barefoot, hence the perfect nickname. When the league first started we had a 4th of July family game with me and two of my cousins playing against three of our uncles. The entire game was filmed with my dad impersonating Jimi Hendrix doing the national anthem on guitar, one of my uncles serving as a boisterous umpire and my late grandfather recreating the infamous Bob Uecker “front row Miller Lite” commercials. The fact that we have video of this entire day makes it one of my most prized possessions and favorite memories and the funny thing is that this was in 1989, back before I really made the stadium awesome. I could go on and on.

That’s fantastic. As a former part-time player in the WWL, although I was admittedly too young to do much offensive damage, it was a romp to the say the least. Many great memories with friends and family and another example of how the game of baseball and it’s variants, even indirectly, can connect us in ways we often take for granted.

Thank you Chris for that fantastic retrospective on a hell of a fun era!

 

Photo Credit: http://road2gameday.com/baseball/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Wiffle_xuicm8b8_g6pwn1s6.jpg

 

 

 

It Takes a Great Game 7 To End the Greatest Drought

Of course it just had to happen this way.

There they were, in the 5th inning of Game 7 in one of the best World Series of all time, with a fairly comfortable 5-1 lead and things were looking rather bright for the Cubs.

Then terror struck.

Beginning with Joe Maddon pulling starter Kyle Hendricks with two outs in the fifth at only 63 pitches and after Hendricks assumed cruising status, the domino effect rippled through Progressive Field in Cleveland. Almost immediately, the tides began to turn. A rare throwing error from David Ross and a wild pitch from Jon Lester plated two and we have a ballgame. Ross then lit up the scoreboard in the top of the 6th with a solo home run to make the game 6-3 and a little sigh of relief for the Cubs. Lester would settle in and toss three solid innings in relief before giving way to Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the 8th.

Then terror struck again.

Chapman, already depleted from overuse the previous two games was tasked with getting the final four outs. A single by Jose Ramirez and a double by Brandon Guyer brought the score to 6-4. The next batter, Rajai Davis, drilled a strong 2-2 fastball into the left field bleachers. Game tied at 6. Oh my. Lead gone, new ballgame, and several innings of extremely questionable moves by heretofore headstrong skipper Joe Maddon. The collective angst from Cubs fans was palpable. “Is this really happening? And now of all times?”

After both teams were blanked in the ninth, it was another “but of course!” moment, and only fitting that this game go to extra innings. Right then, it was time for perhaps a little divine intervention: A rain delay. A short one that only lasted 17 minutes, but it provided enough time for the Cubs to be ushered into a small weightroom near their clubhouse and given a rousing lecture by, of all people, Jason Heyward. For anyone questioning his worth on the team, at least for the amount he is being paid, and if his defense and baserunning weren’t enough, he justified it right then and there. It turned out to be exactly what the club needed to hear and at precisely the right moment. A leadoff single by Kyle Schwarber led to a brilliant tag up by pinch runner Albert Almora, Jr. on a deep Kris Bryant flyball, a hustle play that is up to Dave Roberts’ stolen base levels of importance. Cleveland intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist doubled home Almora Jr. to reclaim the lead. Another intentional walk to Addison Russell brought up pinch hitter hero Miguel Montero who promptly singled home Rizzo to extend the lead to 8-6. The Cubs had retaken control of the game even quicker than they’d lost it, something that fans got used to seeing all season long, leading to the team mantra, “We Never Quit.”

But you guessed it, this was far from over.

Reliever Carl Edwards, Jr got the first two quick outs in the bottom of the 10th but then walked Brandon Guyer to bring up Rajai Davis again, who singled Guyer home to cut the lead to 8-7. With two outs and a man on  first, Mike Montgomery entered the game to get the final out. He did, on a Michael Martinez chopper to Kris Bryant, who, smiling the whole time, gunned the ball to Anthony Rizzo for the final out, taking 108 years worth of championship drought with it. Thank you, boys.

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FINALLY!

The whole spectacle was just fitting in typical Cubs’ fashion, having to scare the crap out of the fans one last time before making history. But it makes sense to do it this way. With a four run lead entering the late innings, the game could’ve gone somewhat vanilla. But instead, some headscratching strategic decisions led to a dramatic game-tying homer, followed by a rain delay, extra innings, an offensive explosion, lead change, another two-out rally and then lastly the historic final out. Why not? The end result was what many are calling the greatest baseball game ever played. Again, fitting to end it this way.

This was three nights ago. The victory parade and rally was yesterday, drawing an estimated 5.5 million people to the streets of Chicago in a glorious celebration over a century in the making. For Cubs fans, it’s not only a euphoric feeling of a championship long overdue, it’s vindication. It’s more than a feelgood win. It’s an F-U win. Countless generations have had to endure the ridicule, jabs (many unfriendly), and ridiculous counterarguments from people who’s only rationale was “just because.” Or, “It’s the Cubs, you just have to hate them.” Whatever. I even had one person proclaim, with honesty, that “rooting for the Cubs to lose is part of the American pastime. It’s hilarious when they choke.” Really dude? Well you can now take the Commissioner’s Trophy and stick it up your ass. All of you. 1908 is a historical fact. So is 1945, and that’s fine. But things like the goat, the black cat, Bartman, curses, choking, “when’s the last time you guys won the Series?” which always prompted the tiresome prophecies from Cubs fans of “wait til next year,” blah, blah blah, are all things that Cubs fans will never have to hear again. The haters have gone silent.

And that silence is very pleasantly deafening.

 

 

Photo Credit: http://images.eonline.com/eol_images/Entire_Site/2016103/rs_1024x759-161103053205-1024.Chicago-Cubs-World-Series-Win-JR-110316.jpg