Wednesday, June 8, 2016

BASEBALL'S DYNASTIES AND THE PLAYERS WHO BUILT THEM Omitted Bios (Chapter 7 New York Yankees 1926-1928)

Today's post deals with the so-called "Murderer's Row" Yankee squads of the late-twenties. Only three clubs collected more wins than the '27 Yankees (in a 154-game schedule). Of those three, none came close to matching the number of Hall of Famers produced by the Bombers. In that era, manager Miller Huggins had enough talented players sitting on his bench to give any team in the majors a run for the money. Statistics from the '27 season are mind boggling. At one point, the Yankees were 66 games above .500. They shut out opponents eleven times and won 43 games by five or more runs. They finished eighteen and a half games ahead of their closest competitors and held onto first place from opening to closing day. Talk about complete domination!    
The problem with this chapter of my book was that it was a bit too long. As I said before, my original premise was to focus on the lesser known players who made significant contributions to their clubs. When my publisher asked me to concentrate on Hall of Famers as well, I was left with over a dozen thumbnail bios for this chapter. Four of those bios didn't make the final cut. All of them are worth reading (at least in my opinion)--especially Urban Shocker, a pitcher who might have ended up in the Hall of Fame if not for a congenital heart defect.  

Number of Pennants: 3
Number of Championships: 2 
Best Record: 110-44 (1927)
Hall of Famers: Miller Huggins (Mgr), Lou Gehrig (1B), Tony Lazzeri (2B), Babe Ruth (OF), Earle Combs (OF), Herb Pennock (P), Waite Hoyt (P), Leo Durocher (Utility) 


Urban Shocker
            Shocker began his career as a catcher at the semi-pro level. He logged his minor league experience in Ontario with teams from Windsor, Ottawa and Toronto. Between 1913 and 1916, he assembled a 60-28 record on the mound. The Yankees acquired him in September of 1915 then sent him to the minors to prove himself the following year. He did exactly that, going 15-3 while stringing together 54 consecutive scoreless innings.
            Shocker was used sparingly in his first two major league seasons. He showed promise with a 12-8 record and 2.61 ERA in thirty-eight games. Before the 1918 slate, he was traded to the Browns with four players and cash for Eddie Plank and Del Pratt. Plank, a Hall of Famer, was forty-one years old and past his prime. He didn’t even play that season. Pratt, an infielder, had three excellent years in New York while Shocker became one of the most successful hurlers in the majors.
            Shocker was among seventeen pitchers allowed to throw the spitball after it was banned in 1920. Before every offering, he would put his glove up to his face to give the appearance that he was moistening the ball. As batters anticipated the “wet one,” he would sneak fastballs by them. He employed the spitter mostly as an out-pitch when he was in a jam.
From 1920-1924, the slender right-hander collected more wins than any pitcher in baseball (107). He peaked at 27 victories in 1921. After an off year in ’24, he was dealt to the Yankees for three players, among them fading mound star Bullet Joe Bush.
            Shocker had a congenital heart valve defect. According to multiple sources, his condition was so severe, he had to sleep sitting or standing up. Even as his health began to fail, he pitched brilliantly, developing a reputation as one of the craftiest hurlers of the era. In The Yankee Encyclopedia, researcher Mark Gallagher remarked that Shocker was “quite possibly the most courageous man in sports history. Urban bravely fought in his last few years to play baseball and indeed for life itself.”
            In 1926, Shocker won 19 games for the Yankees and recorded a 3.38 ERA. The long season took a toll on him as he was only moderately effective in the World Series, making two appearances and getting saddled with a Game 2 loss. He began to show the effects of his illness more dramatically in 1927. Though he notched an outstanding 18-6 record with a 2.84 earned run average, he made just four appearances in June and later became too ill to pitch in the World Series.
            Before the 1928 campaign, he expressed displeasure with his contract and announced he would retire to work in the radio business. He changed his mind, but ended up making just one appearance before leaving the club. After his departure, he pitched in a Denver exhibition tournament. It was a rocky outing. He later caught pneumonia and was hospitalized. According to his wife, he was asking for a newspaper to find out who was pitching for the Yankees just minutes before his death. He was only thirty-seven when he passed away.

Ben Paschal
Outfield/ Pinch-Hitter
            Very stern-looking in photos, Paschal originally came up through the Indians’ organization. In his first major league appearance during the 1915 slate, he broke up a no-hitter with a pinch-hit single. It was Cleveland’s only hit of the afternoon against Tigers’ right-hander Bernie Boland. Paschal ended up in the Carolina State League in 1916 and the Central Association the following year. When the latter circuit folded, he returned to his farm and was out of baseball for two full seasons.
            Joining the Charlotte Hornets in 1920, he got another call to the majors—this time with the Red Sox. Despite hitting .357 in nine September games, he was sent back to Charlotte. Between 1921 and 1923, he was the Hornets’ most fearsome slugger, peaking in ’23 with a .351 batting average and 84 extra-base hits. Transferred to the Atlanta Crackers the following year, the Reds made him a generous offer. Had he accepted, he almost certainly would have gotten a chance to play full time. But in the end, the Yankees lured him to New York with a more lucrative bid. Paschal logged twelve at-bats for the Bombers in 1924 and would stay with the club for five more seasons.
            With Ruth, Combs and Muesel patrolling the Yankee outfield, Paschal watched a lot of games from the bench. When Babe Ruth went down with a stomach ailment before opening day of the ’25 campaign, Paschal got his first big break. In the season opener against the Senators, he hit a 2-run homer in a 5-1 Yankee win. Listening to the game on the radio, Ruth allegedly sat up in his hospital bed and said: “They don’t miss me much.” Paschal was removed from the lineup when Ruth returned on the first of June. The Yankees fared poorly that year, finishing in seventh place, but it was hardly Paschal’s fault. He hit .360 in eighty-nine games, including a pair of multi-homer performances.
            In 1926, Bob Muesel broke a bone in his foot and Paschal got another opportunity. He started thirty-four straight games from July 9 through August 11. He hit .324 in July before cooling off a bit in August. After finishing the regular season at .287, he appeared as a sub in five World Series games. His pinch-hit RBI single in the ninth inning of the fifth contest tied the score in a game the Yankees won in extra innings. Had the New Yorkers not squandered their 3-2 Series edge, Paschal’s clutch hit would have held more relevance.
            Paschal was little more than an afterthought in ’27. With Ruth’s 60 homers and Gehrig’s 175 RBIs, his presence went virtually unnoticed. But he made the most of his limited playing time, hitting .317 in fifty games. With so many talented players on the squad, his services were not required in the World Series that year.
            By 1928, it had become glaringly obvious that Paschal was never going to break through as a full time player. His name was used as potential trade bait more than once. In the end, the Yankees hung onto him through the ’29 slate, when his average slipped to .208. He continued in the minors until 1934.
            After his retirement, Paschal left baseball almost completely behind. He worked as a salesman in Charlotte, North Carolina and was reportedly very accommodating to those who recognized him. He died in 1974 at the age of seventy-nine.

George Pipgras
            Pipgras got his start with Madison of the Class-D Dakota League in 1921. He earned a promotion to the higher ranks the following year, fashioning a 19-9 record with Charleston of the South Atlantic League. He was property of the Red Sox in ’23 until a January trade sent him to the Yankees along with first baseman Harvey Hendrick. Hendrick would have his best seasons in Brooklyn. Pipgras would benefit from the big bats in the Bronx.
            There was no room for the right-hander on a star-studded Yankee staff when he arrived. Pipgras made just 17 appearances in ‘23/’24 then was sent back down to the minors to work on control issues. Miller Huggins refused to give up on him and, in 1927, he was called up again. Making twenty-one starts and eight relief appearances, Pipgras posted a 10-3 record. He faced the Pirates in Game 2 of the World Series that year, going the distance in a 6-2 Yankee win. There were some formidable hitters in the Pittsburgh lineup that day, including the Waner brothers and third baseman Pie Traynor. By the time it came around to Pipgras’s spot in the rotation again, the Yankees had swept the Series.
            1928 was Pipgras’s finest season. He led the league with 24 wins and 300.2 innings pitched. He also posted the lowest ERA of his career at 3.38. In the World Series, Huggins handed him the ball in Game 2 once again. He yielded just 4 hits and struck out 8 in a 9-3 win. On his way to victory, he held Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley and Rabbit Maranville to a combined 3-for-14 showing at the plate.
            Over the next four seasons, Pipgras would win 56 games for the Yanks. He appeared in the ’32 Series against the Cubs, getting a tough Game 3 win. He coughed up 5 runs in 8 frames, but the Bombers spotted him 7 runs thanks to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who belted two homers apiece. That was the infamous “called shot” game. Pipgras retired with a 3-0 record and 2.77 ERA in postseason play.
            In his heyday, Pipgras had one of the liveliest fastballs in the league, but he couldn’t always spot it. He struggled with wildness throughout his career, averaging nearly four walks per nine innings. He was among the leaders in hit batsmen and wild pitches several times. With a 4.09 lifetime ERA, it’s doubtful he would have been as successful on a non-contending club.
            Traded to Boston in ’33, he broke his arm in a freak accident. While delivering a curveball, he felt a bone snap. He began a rapid descent to the minors after that. Pipgras later embarked on an umpiring career. He reportedly had a hot temper and could be rather hasty with his ejections. In one game between the Browns and White Sox, he ejected a total of seventeen players. One biographer noted that he had a narrow strike zone, which made him a “batter’s umpire.” He definitely enjoyed the job, commenting to a reporter in 1938: “I’ve had my share of thrills during my years with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but I get just as much kick out of baseball in the umpiring ranks. You don’t get any newspaper headlines, but it’s great work nevertheless.”
            After quitting umpiring, he worked as a scout. He passed away in Florida at the age of eighty-six.

Pat Collins
            Between 1917 and 1929, Collins had five stints in the minors. He played for the Browns on and off from 1919 through 1924, serving as back-up to the capable Hank Severeid, who was among the best all around catchers in the majors during that span. In August of 1925, Collins was dealt by St. Paul of the American Association to the Yankees.
            When first-stringer Benny Bengough developed a sore arm in 1926, Collins assumed the bulk of the catching responsibilities. He was up to the task, placing among the league leaders in assists and runners caught stealing. He was pretty reliable with a bat as well, hitting .286 in 102 games. Demonstrating patience at the plate, Collins drew 73 walks during the ’26 slate for a dazzling .433 on-base percentage. By late season, however, he had come down with a sore arm of his own, prompting the Yankees to acquire his former teammate, Hank Severeid. Severeid played in all seven World Series games, leaving Collins to serve as a substitute in three contests.
            With Severeid’s release at seasons’ end, Collins returned as the Yankees’ top catcher in ’27. He appeared in 92 games and hit .275 with 36 RBIs. He continued to wear out opposing pitchers, accruing a .handsome .407 on-base percentage. In the ’27 Fall Classic, Miller Huggins employed a rotating three-man catching platoon that featured Collins, Bengough and Johnny Grabowski in that order. Collins was the only member of the group to hit safely, going 3-for-5 with a double in Game 4.
            Huggins maintained the platoon system during the regular season in ’28. Bengough went down for a spell with a hand injury and the younger Grabowski saw a bit more playing time than Collins. In a diminished role, Collins fared somewhat poorly at the plate, hitting just .221. Bengough started all four games of the ’28 Series and Collins didn’t see any action until the late innings of Game 4. He doubled in his only at-bat, finishing his career with a .500 batting average in postseason duty.
            When Bill Dickey came up in 1929, Collins was deemed expendable. He was traded to the Braves that year and eventually demoted to the minors. His made his last professional appearance with the Kansas City Blues during the 1932 slate. He developed a heart condition in later years and died in his Kansas City apartment after attending an A’s game. He was sixty-three years old.   

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