Ruth’s Mysterious Gambit: The Final Out of the 1926 World Series

The 1927 Yankees are forever cemented in baseball lore and ingrained in the minds of devotee’s as being the best of all time. But often overlooked is the fact they were pretty good the previous year, too. That team however, had a controversial end to it’s season when the St. Louis Cardinals bested the Bronx Bombers in the 1926 World Series. The dramatic final out has been a head scratcher for 90 years.

On October 10, 1926 at Yankee Stadium, the Cardinals were hanging on to a precious 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven. The lead was stunningly preserved two innings earlier when veteran drunkard Grover Cleveland “Old Pete” Alexander, one day removed from a dazzling complete game victory in Game Six, came on in relief to strike out future hall of famer Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded. A truly pivotal moment.

Alexander remained in the game, chugging along to the ninth with the top of the Yanks’ powerful order coming up and 38,000-plus at Yankee Stadium hoping for some heroics. Old Pete forced both Earle Combs and Mark Koenig into groundouts, bringing up Babe Ruth with two outs and nobody on. On a 3-2 pitch, Ruth walked, which sent slugger Bob Muesel to the plate with the great Lou Gehrig on deck and Lazzeri in the hole, the perfect combination to tie or win the game. Suddenly, Ruth broke for second in an attempted two-out delayed steal, where upon a laser-perfect throw from catcher Bob O’Farrell (NL MVP in 1926) to Rogers Hornsby, ‘ol Jidge was tagged out, ending the game and series. The questions that this attempted steal raise, aside from the why, are many:

Was Ruth just being aggressive? He did steal on O’Farrell the day before after all, but why this particular two-out gamble with the heart of your order up? Was it a hit-and-run? Some accounts say it was, though neither Ruth, Muesel, or manager Miller Huggins ever fully confirmed this. Did Ruth not have confidence in Muesel to knock one in the gap or out of the park? This is possible, since Bob was known to have dips in confidence. On top of that his two costly misplays in the fourth inning, including a dropped routine fly, directly led to all three Cardinals runs in the game. These things, combined with his struggles at the plate no doubt put great strain on him in that situation. Knowing this, perhaps Ruth wanted to put the pressure on himself? If so, it was a very selfless, yet risky, ploy. Or was it something else?

Rogers Hornsby tags out Babe Ruth at second base for the final out of the 1926 World Series
No accusations are being made here, but one more thing needs to be considered in order to properly frame this situation. Rumors were rampant in those days, so it should be no surprise that it has been suggested that Muesel (and perhaps even Ruth?) had been approached by, or accepted payoffs from gamblers prior to the series. If he was in on the take, this could lend some credence to his uncharacteristic, and timely, defensive gaffes in the game. In addition, famous betting ringleader Sport Sullivan, a key player in the fixing of the 1919 World Series was in attendance that day. His presence roused further suspicions, and he was later removed by AL President Ban Johnson.

Gambling was, of course, all the talk of baseball in those days. Just five years removed from the infamous eight members of the White Sox being banned from the game, and amid a flurry of fresh accusations that superstars Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood had fixed games back in September 1919, it’s not unrealistic to imagine players were approached about not playing this particular game on the level. The evidence against Cobb and Speaker became so damning in fact, that just weeks after the ’26 series ended, they both retired at the urging of Johnson before the story really broke and destroyed two hall of fame careers. The Cobb/Speaker ultimatum was the design of both Johnson and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As baseball itself was “on trial” for most of the 1920’s, it would’ve been crushing, perhaps even lethal for the game if two of it’s megastars were found to be fixing and betting on games. Landis knew this, and promptly backed off. Historian Glenn Stout compared Landis’ actions in this case to a seamstress pulling a single thread, only to discover she’s unraveling the whole garment. Both Cobb and Speaker would ultimately return the following year with the Athletics and Senators, respectively, in player-coach roles. They would be united in 1928 with the A’s before retiring permanently, but their presence for that one season helped shape a powerhouse team, as Connie Mack’s A’s would win the World Series in 1929 and 1930. 

Their situation, although having no direct involvement with the ’26 Series, is nonetheless important to consider because it was part of the baseball landscape of the time. If two of the game’s most heralded stars could be involved with betting activity, not to mention what happened with the Black Sox, then so could anyone, including Bob Muesel or even the great Babe Ruth.

Conclusions? There really are none that are concrete. Like so many great or tragic situations in baseball history, the further we delve into them the more questions arise. Was Ruth just trying to put the game on his shoulders?  Did Huggins employ a gutsy hit-and-run that failed? Was it just an unbeatable throw by O’Farrell? Were there outside factors that got to Muesel and possibly Ruth that affected the outcome of the game? We’ll sadly never fully know…

 

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy Gay, 2007

By The Numbers: Judging Babe Ruth’s Attempted Steal In The 1926 World Series

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192610100.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1928.shtml

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Ruth1926-3.jpg

Booze, Lightning and Death. The ’19-’20 Indians Redefine ‘Taking One For the Team’

Simply put, the Cleveland Indians of 1919-1920 had one of the most bizarre and both fortunate – and unfortunate – runs to a World Series championship in baseball history.

Led by the great player-manager Tris Speaker, the Indians benefited immediately from the Red Sox dismantling after the 1919 season, and later from the public unrest and inner turmoil from the 1919 World Series that plagued the White Sox down the stretch in the 1920 pennant race, before eight of their star players were suspended that September. After finishing a strong second in 1919, the Indians picked up in 1920 right where they left off. They captured the AL pennant, and then proceeded to beat the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers), to win their first World Series in franchise history.

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Along the way, however, were two incredible incidents in August 1919 and August 1920 that were never seen before, or have been since. The first of which was where the Indians caught lightning, literally, with the signing of a pitcher.

In a late-season deal in 1919, the Indians acquired pitcher Ray “Slim” Caldwell from the Yankees. A solid pitcher, but unfortunately known more as an underachiever caused by his drinking, carousing and penchant for buggery than his accomplishments on the hill. Caldwell was always regarded as a player with extraordinary talent, but who loved the bottle more than the game. Speaker, though, felt he could get through to the 31-year old veteran and help the Indians win the pennant. To do so, Speaker had to put a special (and rather ridiculous), clause in Caldwell’s contract. It read:

“After each game he pitches, Ray Caldwell must get drunk. He is not to report to the clubhouse the next day. The second day he is to report to Manager Speaker and run around the ball park as many times as Manager Speaker stipulates. The third day he is to pitch batting practice, and the fourth day he is to pitch in a championship game.”

After confirming that there were no errors in this absurd clause, Caldwell shrugged and signed. What happened next was both figuratively and literally a sign from above.

On August 24, Caldwell made his first start with the Indians, against the Philadelphia Athletics at League Park in Cleveland. Leading 2-1 with two outs in the top of the ninth, a thunderstorm suddenly rolled in, throwing bolts of lightning all around the ballpark. One such bolt struck Caldwell square in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious. One account has the bolt striking the metal button on the top of his cap, then exiting through the metal cleats in his shoes. After several minutes, Caldwell got back up and demanded he finish the game, which he did. Amazing. So amazing was it in fact, that years later he later appeared on the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not radio show.

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Ray “Slim” Caldwell

Speaker’s odd plan worked, as Caldwell won five of his six starts with the Indians, with a cool 1.71 ERA in that span. He would continue his strong, and focused, performance in 1920, going 20-10 and helping the Indians get their rings. Speaker’s plan, and a little electricity through the brain, apparently knocked something right for Caldwell.

One year later, almost to the day from Caldwell’s bout with the bolt, tragedy struck.

On August 16, 1920 in a key game against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds in New York, Cleveland’s star shortstop Ray Chapman came to bat in the fifth inning. Submarine-style Yankee pitcher Carl Mays uncorked a fastball that hit Chapman in the left temple, knocking him flat to the ground. He died 12 hours later in a New York hospital, becoming the first and only player to have died from an injury sustained in an MLB game.

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Ray Chapman, 1920.
Despite the terrifying ordeal, Speaker was able to rally his team down the stretch and slip past the collapsing White Sox by two games to take the pennant, and then the World Series 5-2 over Brooklyn.

It’s a strange, eerie, and sad game. For the two seasons of 1919 and 1920, the Indians experienced as much, or more, of all of that than anyone in baseball. Credit must be given to the great Tris Speaker here too. Regardless of certain gambling accusations that would later tarnish his Hall of Fame career, Speaker did an incredible job not just playing (he only hit .388 in 1920), but managing his club in the wake of strangeness and tragedy, and utilizing a then-new platoon system for most of the season which was key in keeping his players fresh. ‘Ol Spoke and the boys got it done.

 

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy M. Gay, The Lyons Press, 2007.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CLE/1920.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8311d756

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/caldwra02.shtml

Photo Creditshttp://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/pan/6a29000/6a29200/6a29272r.jpg

http://www.baseballroundtable.com/ray-caldwell-not-even-a-lightning-bolt-drive-him-from-the-mound/

http://www.letsgotribe.com/top-100-indians/2013/12/6/5180424/top-100-cleveland-indians-history-ray-chapman

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Game, Perfected?

To date, there have been just 23 perfect games thrown in over 210,000 Major League Baseball games played. The feat is equally as rare as it is incredible. But has there ever been such a thing as a perfect perfect game? Cleveland’s Addie Joss may have given us the answer 108 years ago.

Some historians consider the 1908 season one of, if not the greatest in the history of baseball for it’s two tightly contested, down-to-the-wire pennant races in both leagues, the famous Merkle Game becoming the most controversial in baseball history, and on a sad note, even a couple riots and deaths. Packed in the midst of all that stretch run craziness was a key October game between the Cleveland Naps (Indians) and the Chicago White Sox, who were both neck and neck with the Detroit Tigers for the American League pennant. It was a must-win contest for both teams and the fans at League Park in Cleveland expected to see a good game between Hall of Fame hurlers Addie Joss and Ed Walsh. What they got however, was maybe the greatest pitching duel of all time.

“So grandly contested were both pennant races, so great the excitement, so tense the interest, that in the last month of the season the entire nation became absorbed in the thrilling and nerve-racking struggle, and even the Presidential campaign was almost completely overshadowed”

Sporting Life, October 17, 1908.

“Big Ed” Walsh was on that day for the Sox. In fact he was utterly brilliant, going the distance and allowing just one unearned run on only four hits while striking out 15. And he lost.

Addie Joss, an extremely likable fellow by all accounts was just a tick better than Walsh that day. His unique corkscrew-style windup and blazing fastball cut down the pale-hosed hitters, and it wasn’t until after the sixth inning that fans began to realize that no Sox player had reached base. Joss’ teammates on the Naps (as they were nicknamed then in honor of their star player-manager Napoleon Lajoie), began to avoid him in the dugout between innings, a tradition that carries on to this day during any no-hitter in progress. The throng at League Park followed suit, and the final innings were viewed in silence, a scene that must have been quite eerie to behold.

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Down 1-0 in the top of the ninth and desperate to score a run, the White Sox turned to their bench. The first two batters went down quickly. With two outs, veteran “Honest John” Anderson, a strong lifetime .290 hitter stepped to the plate and if League Park could have been quieter than silence at that moment, it was. “A mouse working his way along the grandstand floor would have sounded like a shovel scraping over concrete,” wrote one reporter. With the count 0-2, Anderson rapped a grounder to third, where Bill Bradley, almost too casually, tossed to George Stovall at first. Stovall dug the low throw from the dirt in a nice play, but the ball popped out of his mitt. Fortunately, he was able to grab the ball in time for the 27th and final out of the game. It was then that League Park, lips sealed in a reverent, church-like fashion for the past couple innings, finally erupted. On a huge day where a win kept the Naps in the pennant race and virtually eliminated the Sox, one of the best pitching contests of all time ensued. Joss rose to a new height that day, throwing the second perfect game in big league history and maybe the most perfect game of all time. Not only was the stage huge, but Joss’ efficiency has never been matched.

He only threw 74 pitches.

With the AL pennant in sight, the Naps would race the Tigers to the very end, with Detroit squeaking past by just a half game. The Tigers would face the mighty Cubs in the World Series, losing four games to one.

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Joss would finish the 1908 season with a strong 24-11 mark and a blistering ERA of 1.16. He would win 14 more games the following season and only make a handful of starts in 1910 while battling injuries. One of those starts was another no-hitter against the White Sox, also by a score of 1-0. The following year, Joss fell ill during spring training. By the time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease had set on too rapidly and reached his brain. Joss died April 14, 1911 at the age of 31. For his all-too-short nine year career, young Addie racked up 160 wins, 234 complete games, 45 shutouts, two no-hitters including a perfect game, and a lifetime ERA of just 1.89 which is second only to, ironically, Ed Walsh. His career WHIP of 0.96 is the lowest in MLB history.

In a short, but stellar career, Addie Joss earned much respect from teammates, fans and competitors alike. On this one day in October 1908, he not only delivered at a time his team needed it most, but in doing so he turned in perhaps the most perfectly efficient perfect game that baseball will ever see.

 

Sources: “Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year In Baseball History”, Cait Murphy, HarperCollins.

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/boxscore/10021908.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jossad01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/walshed01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/earned_run_avg_career.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/whip_career.shtml

 

Photo Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/13/Addie_Joss_five_frames,_1911.jpg/800px-Addie_Joss_five_frames,_1911.jpg

http://fromdeeprightfield.com/addie-joss-standard-excellence/

 

 

 

Mathewson’s Monumental Marvel

The New York Giants sure had a swell season in 1905.

Actually, it was tremendous. And the way it ended was ridiculous. Many modern glory stories are made of the Madison Bumgarners, Clayton Kershaws and Corey Klubers of the baseball world who throw key postseason innings on short rest. Rightfully so, of course. But what happened at the end of this particular season of a bygone era, if you frame it by today’s standards, is truly amazing.

The feisty John McGraw led his club to a staggering 105-48 mark on the ’05 season, including an all-too-brief but now-famous appearance in a June 29 game in Brooklyn by a young outfielder named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. The Giants’ season ended, of course, by capturing the National League pennant and then drubbing Connie Mack’s powerful Philadelphia A’s four games to one in the second ever World Series. But what makes this series so interesting 111 years later is it featured the single most incredible performance by a starting pitcher we may ever see. His name was Christy Mathewson.

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The great Christy Mathewson, 1905

Pitching was the name of the game in the deadball era, and 1905 saw a slew of it, especially on the Giants. This was a starting rotation so strong that the number five hurler, lefty Hooks Wiltse, compiled a 15-6 record with a 2.47 ERA in 197 innings, with 18 complete games and a WHIP of just over 1. Today, such numbers would put a pitcher squarely in the Cy Young Award conversation. Back then, it was considered no more than “pretty good.” Of course, Wiltse’s season numbers paled in comparison to Mathewson’s who went 31-9 with a 1.28 ERA, and tossed a mammoth 338 innings while completing 32 of 37 games started. And that’s not even the ridiculous part. That would come in the World Series.

“Mathewson pitched against Cincinnati yesterday. Another way of putting it is that Cincinnati lost a game of baseball. The first statement means the same as the second.”

– Writer Damon Runyan

Mathewson was completely untouchable in Games 1 and 3 of the Fall Classic, blanking the Athletics 3-0 and 9-0 with just three days separating the two shutouts, and he wasn’t done there. With the A’s on the verge of defeat, Mathewson took the bump again in Game 5 on two days’ rest and slung another shutout, goose-egging Mack’s men 2-0 at the Polo Grounds and sending New York into a championship frenzy.

For the series, Mathewson’s totals were astonishing: 27 innings, 0 runs, 13 hits, 1 walk and 18 strikeouts. He did all this in just five days.

In any era of baseball, there has never been anything like what Mathewson did in the 1905 World Series. It was a hell of an exclamation point on an already stellar season and it’s the type of feat, especially only taking a few days to accomplish, that we’ll never see again.

 

Photo Credit: https://radbournsrevenantdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/c65ea-spchristymathewsonportrait2.jpg

Sources: http://baseballhall.org/discover/inside-pitch/christy-mathewson-throws-third-shutout

http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1905_WS.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/grahamo01.shtml

 

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

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.

Image result for cubs world series
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