One More Trip ‘Round the Bags: Cravath’s Cunning in New York

1920 was a fascinating year in baseball.

The deadball era was over, and before season’s end the world would see some extraordinary happenings: Eight members of the Chicago White Sox suspended by their owner just before capturing their second consecutive pennant, sluggers like Babe Ruth redefining power numbers and the first and only death to occur from an injury in a major league game.

The roaring twenties got off to a raucous start.

The official beginning of the live ball era also promised to bring about a lot of change. It had to for the good of the game, particularly in the wake of rumors that the 1919 World Series was tainted. The owners had to ensure that the public’s trust in the integrity of the game would keep going – along with the turnstiles at the ballparks.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Including some timely strategy by managers – or more specifically, player-managers like Clifford Carlton “Gavvy” Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Before Babe Ruth, there was Gavvy Cravath | Escondido Grapevine
Gavvy Cravath, circa 1920

Cravath was a solid player. The 11-year veteran amassed a career slash of .287/.380/.478 and was in the final year of his career in 1920 where he also assumed managerial duties of the hapless Phillies. His career as a skipper wasn’t much to gloat about though, having taken over for Jack Coombs in 1919 and continuing through 1920 where the Phillies finished in last place both years.

But early on in the ’20 season, there was a spark of promise from the Baker Bowl dwellers. After splitting the season-opening series in Brooklyn, the Phils traveled to the Polo Grounds for three games against the powerful John McGraw-led New York Giants. After dropping the first game 2-1, Philadelphia sent future hall of famer Eppa Rixey to the bump in game two to face the Giants’ Rube Benton, coming off one of the better seasons of his career in ’19.

A terrific duel ensued on a frigid April 20, with Rixey and Benton blanking each other’s batsmen through seven frames.

Singles by Dots Miller and Ralph Miller sparked the Phillies to begin their half of the eighth. With two men on, the 39-year old Cravath, in a surprise move not unlike the (fictional) Indians’ Jake Taylor’s genius use of general manager Roger Dorn 70 years later, inserted himself as a pinch hitter for Rixey. The strategy was bold, given that the Giants had only touched the cunning lefty for one hit.

Cravath, by this time in his career no stranger to tense situations, had other options on his bench. But something struck a chord of confidence in him in this circumstance. The gamble worked, as he unloaded on a regrettable Benton pitch and deposited it deep into the left field bleachers, giving his club a 3-0 lead they would not relinquish. It was the final round-tripper that Cravath would hit, the 119th of his career. George Smith emerged from the Phillies’ bullpen to record the two inning save and seal the heroic deed for the road team.

The tightly contested game took just one hour and twenty-five minutes.

Cravath’s cronies would win the next day as well, to snag two out of three against the Giants, who fell to a bewildering 1-4. The Phillies then followed that up with a win in their home opener against the Dodgers to sit at 4-2 and the Philly nationals were enjoying some signs of early life. But that’s where the turbulence began in earnest. A streaky season ensued, resulting in a 62-91 last-place finish and the end of Cravath’s big league career.

The Giants had a much more successful campaign at 86-68, finishing in second place, seven games behind the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHI/1920.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/cravaga01.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NY1/NY1192004200.shtml

Photo credits: https://escondidograpevine.com/2019/10/03/before-babe-ruth-there-was-escondidos-gavvy-cravath/

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.

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.” (1).

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 (2).

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.

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:

(1) 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

(2) http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8311d756

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

Image result for heinie zimmerman 1917
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 (1). 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 (2).

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

http://www.baseballhistorycomesalive.com/heinie-zimmerman-chases-eddie-collins-across-the-plate-in-the-1917-world-series/

(2) http://z.lee28.tripod.com/therest/heiniezimmerman.html

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

(1) http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e73e465a

Hickman’s Heroics Make Stengel Smile

On this day in 1963, a few rare things happened. First, the Mets won a game. Second, Mets third baseman Jim Hickman would become the first player in franchise history to hit for the cycle. Rarer still, he accomplished the feat in natural order.

In a 7-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at the Polo Grounds, Hickman was the star. Normally an outfielder but getting a start at the hot corner that day, he would lead off the game with a single, rip a double in the second, a triple in the fourth, and finally cap it off with a home run in the sixth frame. The sparse crowd of 9,977 at the historic old ballpark roared their appreciation for the fantastic accomplishment.

Cardinals starter Ernie Broglio would fall to 12-8 with the loss, lasting just 3.2 innings while Mets hurler Tracy Stallard (5-10) would go the distance for the win, striking out four for Casey Stengel’s hapless ballclub.

There’s a first time for everything, as the saying goes, but there isn’t a more impressive way to become your franchise’s first player to hit for the cycle than doing it the way Hickman did 53 years ago today.

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN196308070.shtml