June 26, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Digging It Out

March 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

IN DEFENSE OF LEFTY

Over the past six-plus years, I have from time to time turned advocate, defending Cicotte, Jackson, Weaver, and even Chick Gandil. But I haven’t tried defending Lefty Williams. Lefty has seemed to me to be the hardest to defend, with those three L’s hanging around his neck.

In his depositions for the 1924 trial, Lefty was all over the place. Put together with his grand jury statement, it is hard to believe anything he said. Somewhere between “pitched to win” and “pitched to lose” is where he came down. He said he could have pitched harder in Game Two — but did not say that he let up on purpose. He said he could not have pitched harder in Game Five. And he pitched hard in the last game, when he didn’t last the first inning.

By dutifully passing on an envelope of $5,000 to his friend Joe Jackson — just following Gandil’s orders, he said — he made Jackson’s case a much steeper uphill climb. Lefty helped out some when he said he represented Jackson to the gamblers and to the other Sox involved, without Jackson’s knowledge or permission — but was that just a friend trying to do a friend a favor? Lefty gets some sympathy because (thanks to Eight Men Out), everyone thinks he was threatened before Game Eight, and pitched poorly in order to spare his wife and himself a bullet. The evidence for that is thin, but I tend to believe Hugh Fullerton when Hughie asserted, after the scandal broke, that the whole Sox team was under the gun — that Kid Gleason had threatened to use his “iron” on anyone who was tossing. That could make a guy nervous.

Known for his good control, Lefty was thought to have tilted Game Two to the Reds by walking six — three of those runners came around to score, in the 4-2 loss. Lefty threw 53 balls and 30 strikes, among his 121 pitches (I’m using Victor Luhrs’ book for this). Of the six walks, two were drawn by Edd Roush, the NL batting champ; they both led off innings, and only the second one cost him, when Roush was bunted up and singled home with two out. An 8th inning walk to Heinie Groh, another tough out, was harmless.

So what bears further examination are the three fourth-inning walks. They all scored, with the key hit being a two-run triple by Kopf. OK, here’s what happened.

Bottom of the fourth inning, no score. Little Morrie Rath, the Reds’ leadoff batter, immortalized because he was plunked by Cicotte the day before, walked on a 3-2 pitch. Rath never swung his bat, both strikes were called. The count went 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2. At this point, you might want to flash back to last issue, for home plate umpire Billy Evans’ take on Lefty’s control in this game: Of the four men walked, Williams didn’t throw one ball that would have been classified as a real bad pitch. Every ball delivered was at the waistline, and not one of them was over six inches inside or outside, and most of them [were] much less than that.

Daubert sacrificed Rath to second. (Bunting runners up was just the way the game was played then, and even the 3-4-5 hitters were expected to do this.) With Rath leading off second, maybe trying to steal Schalk’s signals, Heinie Groh drew a walk. The count went to 3-2 again. Asinof, in 8MO, has ball four high, other accounts very outside. But in defense of Lefty — he had Groh struck out, Schalk couldn’t hold the foul tip. (If you know the mitts catchers used in that era, it’s a surprise they caught much of anything!) Groh was taking, took the first three pitches and was in a hole, 1-2. Then a ball, then the foul tip. Then two more balls, and runners were on first and second.

Now Roush was up, and he singled up the middle, on a 3-2 pitch, scoring Rath to make it 1-0, and sending Groh to third. Up steps Pat Duncan, who turned out to be one of the batting stars of the series. Lefty got the first pitch over and Duncan swung and missed. The second pitch put Duncan in a hole, 0-2. Schalk thinks Roush is running, so he called for a pitchout, 1-2. Then ball two. Schalk then calls for another pitchout, and it works, they nail Roush trying to steal, Groh holds third. This would have been the third out, if Schalk had held onto that foul tip. Say, you don’t suppose the Cracker was — nah.

Anyway, Williams walks Duncan on the next pitch, but keep in mind, two of the four balls were pitchouts, just what Schalk called for. So it appears that two of these three fatal fourth-inning walks were not really all Lefty’s fault. (In 8MO, Asinof has Roush getting tossed out, then “Williams walked Duncan on two more pitches” — suggesting that Duncan fouled off a pitch, but I think it is more likely that Asinof just lost track of the count.)

Largely because of the testimony of Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, Games One and Two (and Eight) were the ones most suspected of being thrown. Burns wiped out betting on Game Three, won by the Sox, and we really do not know if the Fix was ever put back on after that, with money from St Louis and Des Moines and maybe a few bucks from New York and Boston … OK, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, too. Or Detroit, Phila — you get the idea. Anyway, many think Lefty was wild again in Game Five — but he wasn’t. He walked the leadoff batter of the game, Rath, after having him 2-2. His only other walk was in the sixth inning, and it looks to me like it was intentional — that is, there was a runner on second, first base open, one out, Groh, a tough right-handed batter up, a lefty on deck, so Groh gets passed on four straight balls.

Maybe Grantland Rice should get credit for the impression passed on by Eight Men Out (and many other sources) that Lefty was “wilder today than Tarzan of the Apes” — that’s how Rice described Lefty’s Game Two performance.

What killed Lefty is the play that followed, Felsch muffing Roush’s fly — it could have been scored an error, but they gave Roush a two-run triple instead. Again, Lefty had got his man, sort of. But those “extra” runs were not necessary after all, Hod Eller pitched a shutout. 5-0 or 1-0, either way the Sox lose.

Well, that’s all I can do in defense of Lefty. He seemed to be the most underpaid of all the Sox — he was getting $500 a month (about $2,600 for the 1919 season), with a whopping bonus of $375 if he won 15 — he went 23-11, and was regarded as one of the top southpaws in the league, and maybe a tougher hurler than Cicotte. Does anybody think Lefty got a penny more than $375 for his 23 wins? Lefty’s crummy wages stunned Judge McDonald, when Lefty made his appearance before the grand jury in 1920. (He was boosted ‘way up to $6,000 for 1920.) The defense lawyers made much of Lefty’s salary in the 1921 trial, trying for sympathy, but I don’t think his low salary makes him at all sympathetic, and that is one thing I’d never bring up in his defense. I think Lefty got into “the trouble” (his word for it) because Gandil nagged him and said that Cicotte was in it. None of these guys could have imagined the consequences that followed.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #482 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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