November 27, 2014

19 to 21…Howard Ehmke

June 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

19 to 21…

Volume 9, #13

Howard Ehmke

There are a lot of interesting aspects to Howard Ehmke’s career. Sure, everyone knows he set the World Series strikeout record on October 8, 1929, when he fanned 13 Cubs at Wrigley Field. But, there’s a lot more to the Ehmke File. Having brought him up in light of the recent ugly no-hitter by Francisco Liriano, it seems only fair to say more about Ehmke than to just note that he had a very odd no-hitter.

For instance, although it’s pretty well-known that Ehmke starting that first game of the 1929 Series was, to put it mildly, a surprise (Al Simmons is supposed to have said something to Connie Mack like, “you’re not going to start him, are you?”), there was method to Mack’s madness. The way the story is usually told, Ehmke went into Mack’s office sometime in September, and told Mack he’d always wanted to pitch in a World Series, and that he thought there was one more good game left in his arm. Mack then agreed to start him. A nice story, but Mack wasn’t that sentimental when it came to the World Series.

First, although Ehmke had only pitched 55 innings (11 games, eight starts) for the A’s in 1929, he had pitched very well, going 7-2 with a 130 ERA+. And, he wasn’t exactly ancient, he was only 35 at the time. Second, while he had only struck out 20 batters in those 55 innings, Mack also knew something about the Cubs team the A’s were going to face – they were almost exclusively right-handed hitters (Charlie Grimm was the only left-handed hitting regular), and Ehmke’s right-handed sidearm delivery would be very difficult to pick up against all the white shirts in Wrigley Field’s center field bleachers. (This was before they closed off that section to fans.) Supposedly, when the A’s went out on their next road trip, Mack told Ehmke to stay in Philly and scout the Cubs when they played at Baker Bowl. Only, that probably didn’t happen. The last time the Cubs played in Philadelphia in 1929 was August 24, and even though both the A’s and the Cubs had big leads at that point in the season, it seems unlikely that Mack was already thinking about the Series.

Still, pitching Ehmke in the Series wasn’t a whim. He had, for that matter, already pitched and won two games in September, beating the Yankees 6-5 in the second game of a September 2 doubleheader, and then stopping the White Sox 6-2 on September13. So, it wasn’t as if Mack was solely going on a hunch, even if Ehmke hadn’t scouted the Cubs beforehand.

A couple of other tidbits in regard to the Series game; it wasn’t the last game Ehmke pitched. In fact, it wasn’t even the last time he pitched in that Series. He also started the fifth and final game at Shibe Park, but Mack lifted him after he’d given up six hits, two walks and two runs in three-and-two-thirds innings. And, he didn’t strike out anyone, either. He also pitched in three games in 1930, his final effort coming on May 22. One final story regarding the strikeout record – maybe true, maybe not – when Carl Erskine was breaking Ehmke’s record in the 1953 Series by striking out 14 Yankees, Ehmke was listening to the game on his car radio. Entranced by the drama, he stopped his car and listened to the conclusion of the game… only to find out that listening to the radio with the engine off had drained his battery. Bummer…

As notable as Ehmke’s strikeout record was, he would have been even more famous if official scorer Fred Lieb had ruled differently on September 11, 1923. This was the game immediately after Ehmke’s very strange no-hitter, wherein A’s pitcher Slim Harris lined a ball off the Shibe Park right field wall, but was called out for not touching first base, thus erasing a double that would have been the only hit in the game. That was September 7, 1923. Four days later, facing the Yankees, Ehmke, then with the Red Sox, took the mound to face Whitey Witt as the Bombers leadoff hitter. Witt chopped a ball to third base, where it took an odd hop against the chest of Howard Shanks, the Sox third baseman who actually played the outfield more than third base during his career. By the time Shanks got a handle on the ball Witt, one of the fastest men in the American League, was on first, and Lieb gave him a hit on the play. Well, that was the only hit all day for the Yanks, and, except for a walk and an error by Ehmke, that was also the only baserunner the Babe and Company had all day. Although there was a lot of pressure both during the game and after the game for Lieb to change his scoring decision, he held firm, on the theory that official scorers, like umpires, don’t change their rulings. Of course, it could also be said that, like many of us, they are most adamant when defending their mistakes.

The September 11 game against the Yankees also had a follow-up, this one coming to light after the recent monumental beating the Royals Vin Mazzaro took at the hands of the Indians, giving up 14 runs in two-and-a-third innings. A search of all-time poundings turned up what might have been an even worse beat down, this one coming just 17 days after Ehmke had almost no-hit the Yankees. On September 28, 1923, the Sox again sent him out to face the pennant-winning Yankees, who must have been highly indignant that this guy had dared to almost no-hit them. Although Ehmke was the Sox’ ace that year, winning 20 with a bad team, he was cruelly treated by the Yankees this day, losing 24-4 less than two weeks after the almost no-hitter. How’s this for a pitching line?

IP H R ER BB SO HR
6 21 17 16 4 6 2

In case you’re wondering, that’s a game score of -34… a number that’s almost impossible to reach.

Even after his major league career, Ehmke was an interesting figure. When he got out of baseball, he went into business for himself, starting a firm that originally made tarps to cover the field, in Shibe Park and elsewhere. Here’s what the website, http://www.ehmkemanufacturing.com/howard-ehmke/ has to say…

“A year later, Ehmke retired from baseball. He went to see his old manager with another idea. Perhaps remembering the wisdom of his earlier decision, Mack once again bought Ehmke’s idea – a large canvas tarpaulin that could be spread over the infield when it rained to keep water of the baseball diamond. Thus was born Ehmke Manufacturing Company, Inc.”

Ehmke Manufacturing Company, Inc., is still around, located in northwest Philadelphia, near LaSalle University. Having branched out from tarps, they now make technical fabric products, primarily for the U.S. armed forces. And, even though no one in management is an Ehmke, they’re keeping the old pitcher’s name going, even if he did throw an ugly no-hitter.

If you’d like to subscribe to future issues of “19 to 21″—a subscription for the rest of the 2011 baseball season is $20 (only $1 per issue)—please e-mail me at JohnShiffert@mail.clayton.edu.

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