In 1924, players, managers and umps were under attack
By Glenn Guzzo
We can’t know for sure if a mid-season death would have interrupted the baseball schedule in 1924, as Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart’s death did in 2009 or Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile’s death did in 2002. That’s because the sudden deaths to players and managers occurred just before and just after the ’24 season.
But we do know that, before batting helmets, padded outfield walls and modern medicine, the Major Leagues’ players, managers and umpires were under constant attack. One result was disability unheard of today. The other was courage and toughness almost unheard of today.
The baseball re-created in Strat-O-Matic’s latest historic season is rich in pennant drama, statistical milestones and a spectacular rookie class that produced five Hall of Fame players. Appreciate it more by knowing that the era was just as dramatic off the field.
The tragedy began in spring training when Boston Braves third baseman Tony Boeckel was killed when a train struck his motor car. The 30-year-old had led the Braves in home runs (7), while hitting .298 in 1923.
Three weeks later, Cincinnati Manager Pat Moran, who had guided the Redlegs to a world championship in his first year as skipper in 1919 and second-place finishes in 1922 and 1923, died suddenly of Bright’s disease.
The White Sox lost their manager in spring training, too. Frank Chance, the famed Cubs first baseman of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame, and a future member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, took mysteriously ill and could not pilot the team. Johnny Evers took over instead and was in charge of the White Sox that finished in the American League cellar for the first time in franchise history. Then in mid-September, Chance died suddenly without managing a game for the Sox.
The Phillies narrowly avoided disaster in a train wreck. On Aug. 21, the engine and the mail car of the train the Phils were riding in left the track. The engineer was crushed to death. No Phils were hurt, but apparently they were shaken. By the time they made it to Cincinnati, the game started 45 minutes late, and the Redlegs won, 11-0.
Cincinnati, devastated by injury worse than any other 1924 team, was not done suffering.
Reds captain Jake Daubert, who was talented, gentlemanly, popular and regarded by many at the time as the best-fielding first baseman ever (even better than Hal Chase), missed 51 games. In mid-June, The Sporting News reported Daubert had been knocked out by eight beanings. On June 3, Daubert tried to play after one of those knockouts, but was too dizzy to see the pitches. After he and the Redlegs literally limped to a disappointing fourth-place finish, 10 games behind the pennant-winning Giants, Daubert died suddenly on Oct. 9, from complications following an appendectomy.
Is There a Doctor in the House?
Appendicitis was a constant threat in 1924. Four Braves went down with the condition. Cleveland third baseman Rube Lutzke missed 47 games because of painful, strength-draining, infected teeth. At least five players missed time because of problems with their tonsils. They included slugging first basemen Joe Harris of the Red Sox and Jim Bottomley of the Cardinals, as well as Washington outfielder Leon “Goose” Goslin.
Goslin missed only two games. It took a lot to keep the Goose down. On the way to one game in mid-August, Sporting News correspondent Paul W. Eaton reported, Goslin’s car was hit by a truck “and was completely upset, pinning the Goose under it, but causing no hurt except a slight cut on the left ear. Had not Leon’s powerful ear held the car off him, there might have been a big crimp in Washington’s pennant hopes.”
As Boeckel’s tragedy and Goslin’s incident demonstrated, motoring was still adventurous enough in 1924 that some in baseball suggested that players not be allowed to drive autos during the season – or perhaps not at any time until their ball playing careers were over.
Goslin was not the only tough character during these Roaring ‘20s.
Braves Player-Manager Dave Bancroft did not take ether, only local anesthetic, for his appendectomy, a surgery that requires cutting abdominal muscle and about a month of recovery just to walk normally. The Red Sox’ Harris took no anesthetic at all for the tonsillectomy that cost him some of the 24 games he missed in ’24.
Talk about tough times. Far from describing such toughness as heroic, the baseball press seemed to expect players to earn their hero status on the field. When Red Sox pitcher Bill Piercy broke his skull on a line drive off the bat of the Tigers’ Leslie Burke on June 18 in Detroit, the writer reported, “It was just a crack, not a real break.”
White Sox catcher Ray Schalk played several games with a broken finger until an X-Ray in early September revealed the damage.
In mid-August, Cubs outfielder Denver Grigsby ran into the screen chasing a fly to the left-field wall, “and when they picked him up his face looked as though it had peered into the barrel of an active shotgun.” Grigsby missed five games. The second day after his return he made the play of the game, racing to the same wall to rob Hack Wilson of a game-tying extra-base hit in Chicago’s 2-1 victory.
Sympathy was as hard to come by as victories for the Braves, who won but 53 for baseball’s worst record in 1924.
John Morrill, who managed Boston’s champions in 1883, disdained a Braves’ pitching staff on its way to a mere 66 complete games – or any pitcher who did not finish what he started. Morrill, who had only a two-man pitching staff in his day, declared that no team should be allowed to use more than 12 players in a game.
“How can a young pitcher get the needed experience if he isn’t allowed to face the music?” Morrill wondered. “Let the pitchers take their medicine, no matter how hard they are batted. That is the kind of grilling that does them the most good. The longer and more frequent a pitcher works, the more effective he becomes. That is a truth which was proven many years ago.”
That quote is proof that is has been many years ago once again. But the author of that article on Morrill, New York writer Joe Vila, added his opinion that allowing pitchers to depart an incomplete game tempted corruption.
“Under existing circumstances, unscrupulous or lazy pitchers know that they will be taken out if the enemy begins to slough them. Instead of redoubling their efforts, many of the over-paid slackers deliberately quit, knowing that they will receive their salaries just the same.”
The hazardous, pitiless conditions of the day applied to umpires, too. They worked three to a game then, and despite that disadvantage, absorbed abuse from players, coaches, managers, writers and fans.
Umpire Bob Hart charged that Pittsburgh outfield star Max Carey deliberately threw his bat at the ump’s shins on the way to first base.
Celebrating a 15-11 victory over Cleveland, thousands of Washington fans poured onto the field and some surrounded umpire Ducky Holmes. “While one fan shook his finger at the umpire and struck him in the face, knocking him against a wall, Umpire (George) Moriarty, players and police came to the rescue.” Later, the fan pled guilty in court. He was fined $25 (about $312 in inflated-adjusted dollars today). Holmes did not manage in the majors after that season.
If the umps got little respect from the fans and court, they got less from the writers and managers.
In the season’s final month, Pittsburgh writer Ralph S. Davis declared he had “seen some umpiring in the National League this year that would not pass muster in any sandlot circuit. It looks as if President Heydler, instead of assigning three umpires to his games, should let it go at two, and send the extra man to a baseball school to gain some knowledge of the rules and their interpretation.”
Good thing Davis identified himself as “never one to wantonly criticize the indicator handlers.”
When Phillies Manager Art Fletcher came to blows with plate umpire Cy Pfirmann after arguing balls and strikes on Aug. 11, Fletcher was fined $100 and was suspended indefinitely. Phillies correspondent James C. Isaminger reported there had been “extenuating circumstances in Art Fletcher’s favor” – a seven-game losing streak.
With such little cause for generosity, at least one ump was considerate of the writers. Legendary ump Bill Klem banished a Phillies coach for yelling derisive comments at a Boston writer who criticized his coaching. The coach’s comments were neither polite, nor intelligent, Klem ruled. That brought Fletcher bounding out of the dugout.
“Who’s to decide if his remarks are intelligent?” Fletcher challenged Klem. “Surely you’re not capable of that?”
“That will be enough for you,” Klem thundered. “Take the afternoon off.”
With such incidents for examples, the umpire baiting trickled to the minor leagues.
In September, Western League umpires Jerrald W. Hayes and Edward P. Gaffney sued for $5,000, alleging damage to their reputations for what they described as a false and defamatory article published in the Oklahoma City Times and the Daily Oklahoman, referring to them as “Harry Star” Hayes and “Jesse James” Gaffney. (No report on the outcome of the lawsuit.)
In this environment, perhaps a writer’s use of the word “murderer” should not surprise after all.
If you thought the term “Murderer’s Row” applied first to the 1927 New York Yankees, you would be mistaken. Vila used it to describe the ’24 Yanks after they hit 18 home runs in four games against the White Sox. And he implied the term wasn’t new even then.
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary says the term was first used by a baseball writer in 1858 and was later used to describe the 1919 Yankees lineup.
Sources for this article: Baseball – the Biographical Encyclopedia; Dickson Baseball Dictionary; Retrosheet.org; The Sporting News; the Sports Encyclopedia – Baseball; the STATS Inc. All-Time Baseball Sourcebook.