Sunday, January 31, 2010

#22 Edd Roush

Edd J Roush was born in 1893 in Oakland City, Indiana. His father William was a locally-reknown baseball player as well as a dairy farmer. Undoubtedly the work young Roush did on the farm lead to his strong hands that allowed him to yield a 48-ounce bat throughout his career.

At age 16, the youngster got his chance to play for the local Oakland City semi-pro club when the regular outfielder didn't show. He got a couple of hits, and the job was his. A natural lefty, Roush had learned to throw with his right hand out of a lack of righthanded gloves available to him growing up. Roush played some second base while with Henderson (Ky) in 1911, but gladly went back to the outfield when the chance arose. In 1912, he moved to the Evansville club in 1912, and was having a great season in 1913 when his contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox in August of the year. After a short stint with the Sox, he was farmed out to the minor leagues on September 11, 1913.

During the off-season, dissatisfied with his contract and his prospects with the White Sox, he jumped to the Federal League and signed with Indianapolis. It was a successful move, for he batted .325 in 79 games (and married that April, too). The Indianapolis franchise moved to Newark for the 1915 season, and Roush batted .298 in a full-time capacity. However, the Federal LEague disintegrated that winter, and Roush was sold to the New York Giants. Dissatisfied over his playing time and his hatred for manager John McGraw, Roush was excited when he was traded to the Reds in mid-season with Christy Mathewson. Roush played well for the Reds down the stretch, and he was on the cusp of a fantastic career as a Red.

He won the National League batting title in 1917, missed by two percentage points the following year, but won another one in 1919 when he lead the Reds to the World Championship over the Black Sox. Roush regularly hit over .300 through 1926, and was a spectacular fielder as well.

After the 1926 season, 33-year old Roush was dealt back to the Giants. He threatened retirement over playing for McGraw, but McGraw, who claimed he had been trying to get Roush back since 1917, assured him things would be different this time around. Roush reluctantly agreed, and he hit .304 for New York in 1927. Injuries began to take their toll. His knees were getting worse, and he also missed a lot of 1928 due to abdominal surgery. He sat out the entire 1930 season due to a salary dispute. He returned to the Reds for the 1931 season before calling it quits for good. He had almost 2400 career hits, and a .323 career batting average (.331 with the Reds.)
Roush coached for a year, for the Reds in 1938, but due to a knack for financial investments, Roush was able to enjoy his retirement, unlike so many teammates who had to find new careers. Roush was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962, and in 1969, was voted by the Cincinnati Red fans as the greatest Red player in the franchise's history. (But please note the year... the Big Red Machine was just being pieced together.)

Roush split his retirement time between Oakland City and Bradenton, Florida, where he spent his winters for 35 years. On March 21, 1988, Roush made his way to Bill McKechnie Field, where the Texas Rangers and the Pittsburgh Pirates were to play a Grapefruit League game. Roush was a fixture around the park for many years, chatting it up with players, umpires and fans alike. His visits to the clubhouse were always a treat for Roush, as well as the players. However, before the game began, Roush suffered a heart attack, and died at the field. He was 94 years old.

Roush is known as being an independent and hard-nosed player. He never reported to spring training, and was a regular contract hold-out, too. But at the bat, and in centerfield, his skills were better than anyone in the National League. He was also not afraid of a fight, often spiking infielders after their pitcher had thrown one inside too close... so much so that the infielders would demand their hurler not throw too close to Roush.

Roush was also vocal about the 1919 World Series, and insisted to his dying day that the Reds would have beaten the White Sox either way. He also said that everyone on the Reds knew something fishy was up during the series, and one gambler even approached Reds pitcher Hod Eller in an elevator with an offer to throw games. Roush was the last surviving participant of the Series, and in 1987, he even ventured up to Indianapolis where filmmaker John Sayles was directing a movie based on the 1919 Black Sox book, "Eight Men Out." On the set, Roush regaled the actors and crew with old baseball stories, as well as gave some advice on hitting to the actors. Great movie, you should check it out if you haven't seen it yet.

The Autograph: Roush was one of my favorite old-timers. A true gentleman and class act, he replied to every one of my letters, be it from Indiana or Florida. I can still remember my sadness upon hearing of his passing. I was hoping that he would make it another six weeks to his 95th birthday, so he could pass Elmer Flick as the oldest Hall of Famer ever. (Al Lopez later passed Flick in longevity). Roush was also the last surviving player to have played in the Federal League, the last challenge to the supremacy of the AL/NL.

Roush, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Bill McKechnie, HOF 1962

Monday, January 25, 2010

#21 Joe Sewell

Joe Sewell's baseball career blossomed from the game's worst tragedy, becoming the game's best contact hitter en route to the Hall of Fame.
Sewell was born in 1898, the first of three brothers to play in the Major Leagues. He honed his batting skills as a kid by hitting rocks with a broomstick, Sewell played at the University of Alabama along with Riggs Stephenson, and in 1920, he signed on to play with New Orleans in the Southern Association. He was hitting .289 when a tragedy in New York changed the direction of his life.
The Cleveland Indians were playing the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on August 16, 1920. A Carl Mays fastball came up and in on Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, striking him in the head. Chapman died the next day, becoming the only major league player to die from an on-the-field incident. According to witnesses, the ball bounced so far off of Chapman's head the the Yankee third baseman thought Chapman had laid down a bunt. The Indians, in a heated pennant race, pressed Harry Lunte in at shortstop. When Lunte got hurt a few weeks later, the Indians purchased Sewell contract and he made his debut on September 10. Sewell responded by hitting .329 that month, and the Indians won the World Series.
Sewell stayed with the Indians through 1930, and hit below .300 only twice (.299 in '22, .289 in '30). He was released by Cleveland in January of 1931, and was quickly signed by the Yankees. He played two more years there before retiring. After his career, he spent time as a scout, as well as working in public relations for a dairy. He coached the Univeristy of Alabama's baseball team from 1964-1970. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, and regularly attended the induction ceremonies. Sewell died in 1990 at the age of 91. His brother Luke had a long and distinguished career in the major leagues, and brother Tommy had a cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1927.

Sewell's accomplishments on the field are legendary. Standing only 5'6, he was one of the most amazing contact hitters in the games history. In over 7200 at bats, Sewell struck out only 114 times, including two seasons where he only struck out 3 times. More amazingly, Sewell used only one bat through his entire 14-year career, a 40 ounce bat modeled after Ty Cobb's bat. He still holds the record for most consecutive games without a strikeout at 115 games.

The Autograph: Sewell was one of the first players I ever wrote to, and it was always a great response. I read a lot about the 1920 Indians, and I was fortunate enough that so many of the stars of that team (Sewell, Bill Wambsganss, Joe Wood and Stan Coveleski) were still alive when I started collecting. Sewell was the last surviving player of Cleveland's first world champions.

Sewell in 1919 at Univ of Alabama

Joe and Luke Sewell in Titus, Alabama

Friday, January 22, 2010

#20 Wally Berger

Wally Berger was born the son of a Chicago saloon owner in 1905. In 1910, the family moved to San Francisco, where Berger and his brother Fred took to the game of baseball at an early age.
Berger toiled around the Bay Area semi-pro circuit for five years, working as a carpenter's assistant, before signing with the San Francisco Seals in 1925. After a back injury almost derailed his career, he stayed with the Seals until early 1927, when he headed off to a job in the copper mining industry in Butte, Montana. However, his journey was derailed as he visited with friends in Pocatello, Idaho. He signed with the local team instead of a "normal" job, and became the regular centerfielder for the club. He tore up the Utah-Idaho League, and by August, his contract was sold and he wound up back in the PCL, this time with Los Angeles. He hovered in the Cubs system for two years, and prior to the 1930 season, Berger was sold to the Boston Braves.
As the Braves leftfielder, Berger made his impact immediately. He hit 38 home runs that season, a National League record for a rookie that still stands today. (It was the major league mark until Mark McGwire's rookie total of 49 home runs in 1987.) He also knocked in 119 runs that year, which was a rookie record that lastest until Albert Pujols rookie season in 2001.
Berger was the sole bright spot of the Boston Braves of the 1930's. He played in four All-Star games (1933-36) and lead the NL in home runs and RBI in 1935. His 34 home runs in 1935 was by far the team's best; Babe Ruth, in his final season, hit 6 homers in 28 games, good for second on Boston.
In 1937, Berger was sent to the Giants, where he hit .291 in 59 games. Shortly into the 1938 season the Giants shipped him the Reds, By 1940, the 34-year old Berger found himself playing out the string in Philadelphia with the Philles. By July, his major league career was over.
Berger signed with Indianapolis in the American Association, but hurt his hand and returned home to California. He signed with Los Angeles in the PCL in 1941, but really had no interest in playing below the Major League level. Upon World War 2, Berger joined the Navy. After the war, he scouted for a few years before leaving baseball for good. He worked at the Northrop Institute of Technology until retirement.
Berger died in 1988 after suffering a stroke. He was 83 years old.

I felt sad when Berger lost his RBI record to Pujols. No disrespect to Pujols, but Berger's rookie records were the only thing keeping this fine player from vanishing to the dustbins of history. He really was an exemplary player, and if the Braves were still in Boston, they would think of him as fondly as the Tigers do Greenberg and the Phillies do Klein.

I used to get Berger confused with Wally Moses. I guess it's just the name Wally. You don't see many people named Wally anymore. In fact, there has not been a Wally in the Major Leagues since 2001 (Wally Joyner, for those of you keeping score). But hope springs eternal every year, and maybe 2010 will be the season we see the major league debut of Wally Backman Jr.

The Autograph: Berger always signed for me through the mail, and this card is no exception. An easy to find autograph, starting around 10 dollars.

Monday, January 18, 2010

#19 Phil Cavarretta

Chicago's own Phil Cavarretta joined the Cubs as a local hero, and spent 22 seasons playing in front of his home town, apearing in three World Series and being named the NL's Most Valuable Player.
Born in 1916, Cavarretta attracted the attention of major league scouts early. He signed with the Cubs before even finishing high school, and in his first game with the Peoria club in 1934, he hit for the cycle. He was called up to the Cubs in September of that year, and made his debut two months after of his 18th birthday. In 1935, at 18, he became the starting first baseman for the Cubs. He was the starter for the next three years, before losing his job to more established veterans. He began to split his time between first and the outfield, and became a full-time player in 1941.
With the advent of of World War 2, Cavarretta became a star, and in 1945, he won the National League batting title with a .355 average. He lead the Cubs into the World Series, and was elected the Most Valuable Player of the National League. Although he never hit that high again, he continued to be a dangerous hitter at the plate even as a lot of the stars of the league returned from the War. In 1950, he saw his playing time diminished, and took of the Cubs as player-manager in 1951, He never got the Cubs over .500, and was released/fired in spring training of 1954. He signed with the White Sox that May and played two more years before calling it a career. He finished his 22-year career with a lifetime .293 average, and 23 hits shy of 2000.

He then went to manage in the minors, with stops in Buffalo and Reno some of the cities on his itinerary. After managing Birmingham in 1971, he left to scout for the Detroit Tigers, and became a hitting instructor for the Mets. Cavarretta died in December of 2010 at 94 years of age. He was the last surviving player to have played against Babe Ruth.

Cavarretta is one of the most popular Cubs of all-time. I guess 20 years of playing will do that, especially if you are a home-town boy. He was a young man, quickly thrust into the world of men in the major leagues. Excited to be playing with his idols, he was known for occasionally over-indulging in raviolis in his rookie years, enough to give him stomach-aches that kept him out of the line-up.

The Autograph: Cavarretta's autograph is very common, especially considering he is still going strong at 93 years of age. I remember in the early 90's, when the autograph hobby really took off, more and more players began to charge for autographs through the mail. There was one company who signed on to represent players as an agency, and collect the money through them. They had a long list of people on their roster, like Cavarretta, Marty Marion, Dom Dimaggio, and so on. Then, when a lot of Hall of Famer's were getting popped on income tax evasion for failing to report income from autograph shows, a lot of players went back to signing for free.

Phil at 91

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#18 Charlie Grimm

Charlie Grimm, known as "Jolly Cholly", was a very popular player and manager, and his immense likeability was only slightly better than his play in the field.

Born in 1898 in St Louis, Missouri, Grimm debuted with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1916 at the age of 17, the team for whom he was a batboy as a child. The signing by Connie Mack was the beginning of a playing career that lasted 21 seasons and saw him finish with 2299 hits and a .290 lifetime average.

After short stays in Philly and St Louis, he joined the Pirates in 1920. He played first base for the Pirates for five years, peaking with a .345 average and 99 RBI in 1923, both totals would be his career high. He was traded to the Cubs after the 1924 season, and it was here that he made his mark. He was the club's first bagger for 8 years, and was one of the most recognizable and well-liked players on the club. He was even given the job as manager in 1932, a job he held until 1938, two years after the closing of his playing career. He batted .364 in two World Series.

Grimm went into business with Bill Veeck in 1941, buying the Milwaukee club of the American Association. He managed the club, and also entertained the fans by playing the banjo for them on occasion. Grimm returned to manage the Cubs in 1944, and managed the Braves from 1952-56. He had one last stint as manager for the Cubs in 1960, and one ended like to other managerial helm had before. Shortly into the 1960 season, Grimm and Cubs Broadcaster a former shortstop Lou Boudreau traded jobs, with Grimm going to the radio booth. After finishing out the season, he returned back to the Cubs playing field as a coach, and soon moved into the front office. He stayed on staff for the Cubs for the rest of his life, his last position being as special assistant to manager Dallas Green.

Grimm died in November of 1983 of cancer in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Grimm is one of those guys where everyone who knew him had a story about his good nature and generosity. There is one tale when Grimm was coaching third on a particularly lackluster afternoon. Marvin Rickert belted a drive to right, and was easily headed to third with a stand up triple. Grimm frantically waved Rickert around and motioned for him to hit the dirt at third base. As Rickert slid into the bag, he was greeted by Grimm, who was sliding into the bag from the other direction.

The Autograph: Grimm autographs can be found for 10 dollars and up. He regularly signed through the mail and at Wrigley Field, as well as Spring Training.

Grimm on Parade, 1953

Monday, January 4, 2010

#17 Bucky Walters

William "Bucky" Walters was born in 1909 in Philadelphia. His father, an avid baseball player for his company team, had his then six-year old son become the batboy and mascot, and it was there that his love for the game was born. He played through adolescence, but after his sophomore year of high school, he dropped out to become an electrician. A scout from Montgomery (AL) spotted him playing in a sandlot game, and quickly offered him a contract. Walters jumped at the chance, and said goodbye to electrical work.
Working his way through the minor leagues as a shortstop and third baseman, Walters was an excellent hitter and a great fielder. He was signed by the Boston Braves in 1929, and joined the club in 1931. He played sparingly with Boston over the next few years, and spent most of his time in the Braves system. He was sold to San Francisco in the PCL and hit .376 in the last 91 games of the 1933 season. At this time, he also played professional basketball in the Eastern League. He was then to return to Boston, but this time the Boston Red Sox. A broken thumb kept him from being effective, and he was dealt to the Phillies part-way into the 1934 season.
Walters was constantly being pressured to convert to pitching. He had an incredibly strong and accurate arm, but Walters loved the game so much that he wanted to play every day, not every fourth day. He began the 1935 season at third base, platooning with Johnny Vergez, but finally, after more pressure from manager Jimmy Wilson and coach Hans Lobert, he finally agreed to the switch. He started 22 games in the second half of the season, and won 9 games.
The next two years were rough for Walters, as the Phillies home park, the Baker Bowl, was a notoriously small stadium that catered to hitters aroung the league. As Walters once described the Baker Bowl, "Visiting pitchers used to get sore arms the minute the train pulled into Philly, and all the crippled hitters got better and ran over each other to get into the lineup."
Walters lost 21 games in 1936, but did throw four shutouts and was easily the best pitcher the Phillies had. After another rough season in Philly, he was dealt to Cincinnati, and that is where he came into his own.
His first full season in Cincy, 1939, saw him win the pitching triple crown, topping the NL with 27 wins, 137 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA. The Reds won the pennant, and Walters won the league's MVP award. He followed that year up with a 22-win season, and once again helped the Reds to World Series, this time victoriously. He threw two complete games in the 1940 fall classic, leading the Reds over the Detroit Tigers. He followed those years with 19, 15 and 15 win seasons. In 1944, at age 35, he regained his old form and won 23 games. His career dwindled down after that, and he threw his last major league pitch in 1950. His final major league win was a 2-0 shutout on Bucky Walters day in Cincinnati. He was also the manager of the Reds in 1948 and 1949.
He bounced around coaching and scouting gigs in the 50's, and in 1960 he took a sales job at Ferco Machine Screw Company in Philadelphia. He loved working there, and also took up golf and became quite good at that sport, too. In the late 70's, he lost a leg to arteriosclerosis. His kidneys failed, and his health declined throughout the 80's. He finally died in April of 1991, one day after his 82nd birthday.

Walters was one of the best pitchers of his era. He won 198 games despite a late move to the mound. His 1939 season is one of the best a pitcher has ever had, and he is easily the greatest pitcher the Reds have ever had. He was a very popular and likable among teammates, opponents and fans. A true gentleman and epitome of class and athleticism, Walters name is mentioned a lot for Hall of Fame consideration, but chances are it will not happen. Had he starting pitching earlier, perhaps he would already be there.

The Autograph: Bucky Walters loved his fans, and his fans loved him. He always had time for them, young or old. I got this card signed through the mail along with a few others.

Walters and Joe DiMaggio

Sunday, January 3, 2010

#16 Riggs Stephenson

Jackson Riggs Stephenson was born in 1898 in Akron, Alabama. An excellent and natural athlete, Stephenson wound up at the University of Alabama. It was there that he excelled, not only at baseball, but football as well. One of the first two-sport collegiate stars, Stephenson was fortunate enough to play on a baseball team that boasted three others who would make the major leagues: Ike Boone, Joe Sewell and Joe's brother Luke. A shoulder injury ended his football career, and changed his baseball career. As an outfielder, he had a strong arm before the injury, but wound up having to shift over to second base. He mainly played second during his early years with Indians, having joined them in 1921. He went to the Chicago Cubs in 1926, and moved to leftfield, the safest place in the outfield for a weak arm. But despite his shoulder injury, Stephenson never lost the ability to hit. In Chicago, he joined Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson to form one of the greatest outfields ever. In 1929, all three outfielders knocked in over 100 runs, the only time in baseball history an entire outfield accomplished that feat. In his first 4 years in Chicago, he hit .344, .324, .362 and .367. He also batted .378 over two World Series appearances in 1929 and 1932. He was released by the Cubs following the 1934 season, accumulating 1515 hits and a .336 lifetime average.

Following his playing days, Stephenson managed in the Southern minor leagues. After World War 2, he ran a very successful car dealership in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He died in 1985 at the age of 87.

Stephenson is an interesting player. There is no doubt that he was an excellent hitter, probably one of the top players in the NL. It is not uncommon to hear pundits claim that he deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. However compelling his case may be, his reasons for exclusion are too big to ignore. He played in an era where the ball was much more lively than prior years. The entire NL hit .303 in 1930, and the numbers off all batters were up league wide. Of course, it should be noted that over his career, he did bat 40 points higher than the league average. The second reason of his non-candidacy is he just did not get enough at bats. His total of 4508 career at-bats barely puts him into the top 900 players all time.

Although information in 1985 was nowhere near as abundant as it is now, when Stephenson died, I did not know about it until two months later, when Baseball Digest had their annual issue looking back at the last calendar year. As a kid, I believed he belonged in the Hall of Fame, and hoped he would get in before he died. I guess if he gets in now, I'd be happy for him, but posthumous Hall of Fame inductions are rather dubious. So many players should have been able to enjoy the honor while alive. I never understood why the Veterans Committee would ignore Piper Davis and Buck O'Neil while alive, but insisted upon inducting people long dead like Turkey Stearnes and Bid McPhee. Not that I think Stearnes and McPhee do not belong, but whats the harm in letting the living move up the list? Let them enjoy the recognition they deserve, instead of honoring their memory after they are no longer among the living.

The Autograph: Riggs willingly signed throughout his life, and his autograph is in abundance. He always signed anything I sent him.

Riggs uses his fingers to tee one up for Hack Wilson as Woody English wonders 'WTF'