electric october

Electric October

by Kevin Cook

September 6, 2017


Young Old Burt

Burton Edwin Shotton was born in 1884. Professional baseball was only fifteen years old. Mark Twain, who finished writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that year, described baseball as America’s “very symbol of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century!” Like Huck Finn, young Burt imagined a wider world than the small-town Midwest of his youth. The son of a sailor who manned the freighters plying Lake Erie, he grew up in Bacon’s Corners, Ohio, just west of Cleveland. As a teenager, Burt loaded iron ore onto those freighters. On weekends he earned extra nickels as a substitute barber. Free hours he played sandlot ball. Most turn-of-the-century Americans were more like Theodore Roosevelt—more bullish on boxing and college football—but dockworker Burt Shotton daydreamed about baseball, about slashing doubles and stealing bases like Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace of the major-league Cleveland Spiders.

Soon Burt was fighting his way up through baseball’s bush leagues. Turns out he had speed to burn, enough speed to beat out infield singles and lead minor-league teams in stolen bases. He slowed down just long enough to marry a fan of one of those teams, the Steubenville (Ohio) Stubs. Mary Daly, a plump, bubbly brunette as old-fashioned as he, became Mrs. Burt Shotton in 1909. They would spend more than half a century together.

Burt made his big-league debut that season, then bounced back to the minors for a season before joining the St. Louis Browns to stay in 1911. That last-place Browns club was skippered by his old Spiders hero Bobby Wallace, a Hall of Fame player who proved to be a fretful washout as a manager, winning 57 games and losing 134 before he was replaced early in the 1912 season. Two years later, Browns owner Robert Lee Hedges hired another young manager, Branch Rickey. Shotton starred for Rickey, stealing more than forty bases four years in a row, with batting averages from .269 to .297. He played shallow in center, making shoe-top catches that turned bloops into outs, racing back to snag long fly balls. Like every speedster he got nicknamed “Barney” after Barney Oldfield, the first one-hundred-mile-an-hour race car driver. A 1915 poll of big-league players chose three All-Star outfielders: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Burt Shotton.

Like most big-league stars, Shotton resisted overtures to jump to the upstart Federal League, which placed a team in St. Louis, the Terriers, to vie with the major-league Browns and Cardinals. But some players made the leap. Future Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Three-Finger Brown, and Bill McKechnie joined Federal League clubs. Aging shortstop Joe Tinker of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame jumped to the outlaw league’s Chicago Whales, whose owner built a new ballpark that would later become known as Wrigley Field. After the Federal League folded in 1915, the owners of the Baltimore Terrapins franchise brought an antitrust lawsuit against the National and American leagues. That suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that because baseball was a sport, not a business, it was immune to federal antitrust laws. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote that “personal effort … is not a subject of commerce.” In effect, the court granted major-league owners monopoly power over their players, an ownership right that lasted until the players’ union finally beat them in court half a century later.

After the Federal League collapsed, St. Louis Terriers owner Philip De Catesby Ball, a wealthy ice maker, bought the Browns and brought manager Fielder Jones with him, to replace Branch Rickey. But Ball kept Rickey on the payroll, bumping him to the front office. One of Rickey’s first moves as the Browns’ business manager was to give his favorite speedster a raise to $3,500, worth about $80,000 today. Shotton still spent the winter working in Ohio, cutting hair at a combined cigar store and barbershop. But his knees had begun to ache, and sciatica sapped his speed. His last decent season was a sixteen-steal campaign in 1919, the year the major leagues faced a new threat to their survival.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox, underpaid and angry at owner Charles Comiskey, conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Baseball owners reacted to the “Black Sox” scandal by naming Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first commissioner of baseball, giving him nearly unlimited power to restore public faith in the game. Landis had already pleased the owners by siding with them in the Federal League case. Now he banned eight of the “Black Sox” for life. Among those excommunicated was Shoeless Joe Jackson, who’d batted .375 in the 1919 Series and was one of the game’s biggest stars. To Judge Landis, a man with the charm of a grumpy iguana, baseball’s reputation mattered more than any man’s career.

In the twenties a livelier ball and the rise of home-run hero Babe Ruth helped make baseball America’s true national pastime. By then, Shotton looked older than his years. He’d begun going gray when he was a rookie—too much thinking, teammates said. Yet as his speed faded, Shotton’s quick mind set him apart. By 1922 he was a squinting, thirty-seven-year-old pinch hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals. The following year Branch Rickey, who was now the Cardinals’ skipper, made Barney Shotton his right-hand man.

Rickey’s name may evoke images of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s, but in 1923 he was not yet the grand Mahatma of later legend. In fact, Shotton was among the first to see genius in his forty-one-year-old boss. He spent hours following Rickey around. “Burt, try this,” the manager told him. “Watch this.” “Burt, you must never forget this.”

An Ohioan like Shotton, Rickey started out as a flop. Serving as a backup catcher for the 1907 New York Highlanders, he set a record that still stands. One sunny Friday, thirteen Washington Senators tried to steal a base on him. Branch Rickey threw none of them out. In 109 seasons since then, more than 160,000 big-league games, no catcher has ever allowed so many stolen bases.

The Highlanders released him. Rickey paid his way through law school and discovered that he was better suited to running and promoting a ball club than playing for one. While other teams took the field in blank flannels, he put a picture on his Cardinals’ jerseys, a pair of redbirds perched on either end of a bat, the original version of the logo the team still wears.

Rickey’s quirky, questing intellect led him to doubt every tradition, to seek every edge. It was Rickey who outfoxed richer clubs by inventing the farm system and using it to stockpile talented prospects in places like Houston, Syracuse, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was Rickey who hired the game’s first statistician, Rickey who transformed spring training from lazy weeks of long toss and jumping jacks to a modern program featuring batting tees, sliding pits, and pitching machines, Rickey who touted each innovation in his Sunday-go-to-meeting baritone. Shotton felt lucky to earn a little of his favor.

Shotton watched his mentor squat behind the plate at the team’s spring camp, nearly busting the seams of his business suit, tying yellow twine to poles he planted at the corners of home plate. Rickey had invented a sort of virtual strike zone like the ones seen on TV today.

“Throw to the strings!” he told his pitchers.

Pitchers who laughed at the thought of throwing to a twine zone got traded or released. Branch Rickey had no time for unbelievers.

* * *

A keen judge of talent on and off the field, Rickey sent Shotton to oversee the Cardinals’ minor-league camp in 1923, hoping the aging outfielder would “show me something.” Shotton promptly memorized the names, positions, strengths, and flaws of all 122 players in camp.

Rickey was a farmer’s son who’d promised his fervently Methodist mother he would never set foot in a ballpark on a Sunday. Through the years he chose several players to sub for him as “Sunday manager,” and Shotton was his favorite. Rickey would tell him which pitcher and lineup to use but let Burt run the show once the game began, and the plan worked. Shotton proved himself a strategist on the field and a diplomat off it. When the Cardinals’ winning percentage improved on Sundays, he kept that fact to himself.

At thirty-eight he looked forty-eight, his long face as severe as Judge Landis’s except for the smile lines by his eyes. Reporters called him “good old Burt,” a modest man who was good for a quote that took the edge off the thunder they heard every day from Rickey. One day he told the writers that he, Sunday manager Burt Shotton, had discovered the secret to managing a winning team: “Have good players.”

A year later he retired as a player and joined Rickey’s coaching staff. Good old Burt tutored outfielders and base runners, and coached third during games. There was something grandfatherly about him even then, the gray-haired, kindly-voiced gent clapping his hands and calling “Let’s go” from the third-base coach’s box.

In March 1924 the Cardinals made a bumpy hour-long bus trip from their training camp in Bradentown, Florida, to Tampa for a spring-training game against the Washington Senators. Four-time batting champ Rogers Hornsby led the Cards off their bus at Tampa’s Plant Field, where the baseball diamond overlapped a horse-racing oval on the Florida State Fairgrounds. This is the day when the threads that lead to the 1947 World Series would cross for the first time. Spring training in Florida was only a dozen years old. It was in Bradentown—not yet shortened to Bradenton—that Rickey built the first batting cages to train hitters for preseason games in what had become known as the Grapefruit League.

Why not the Orange League or the Seashell League? The spring circuit owes its name to a stunt by Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson in 1915. Robinson, egged on by his players, boasted that he could catch a ball thrown from an aeroplane. The players put down their bets and talked pioneer aviator Ruth Law, “Florida’s Fabulous Feminine Flyer,” into tossing a ball from five hundred feet over the field. But Law left the baseball in her hotel room that day. At the last minute, a member of her ground crew gave her a grapefruit instead. Soon Robinson was circling under the missile, backpedaling and calling, “I got it!” The impact drove him to the ground in a gush of pulp and juice. Thinking a baseball had pierced his chest, Robinson squirmed and cried, “Oh God, it’s killed me!” Once his players finished laughing and collecting on their bets, they told everyone they knew, and Florida’s spring schedule became the Grapefruit League.

Several hundred fans turned out to see the Senators’ star pitcher Walter Johnson take the mound against a Cardinals club led by Rogers Hornsby on March 22, 1924. That afternoon’s duel of immortals was also a clash of longtime losers. Of the sixteen major-league ball clubs only the Senators, Cardinals, and Browns had never won a pennant. But while the Cardinals were coming off three straight winning seasons (thanks to Hornsby and Rickey), the Washington Senators, also known as the Nationals, Americans, Federals, Capitals, Woefuls, and Awfuls, hadn’t finished better than third in the eight-team American League in more than a decade. Their best weapon, Johnson’s legendary speedball, had been losing steam for years. The Big Train, as Johnson was called, was now thirty-six years old and hadn’t won twenty games since 1919. Newspapermen joked that Washington was forever “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Both clubs’ fans applauded Rogers Hornsby as he stepped to the plate in the first inning, his jug ears poking out under his short-billed cap. The regal Rajah didn’t drink or smoke or chew tobacco, but he chewed gum so hard that you could hear his jaw working five paces away. Burt Shotton shouted encouragement from the third-base coach’s box, but Hornsby ignored him. To Hornsby, Shotton was “Rickey’s boy,” despite the fact that leathery old Burt was almost forty.

Hornsby disdained Rickey’s newfangled ideas. Batting cages? Strike zones made of twine? It was all horseshit to him, a term newsmen rendered as “hooey” or “folderol.” He swore he could top his Triple Crown stats of 1922, when he’d hit .401 with forty-two homers and 152 RBIs, with no help from fenced-in hitting cages or a picture of a bird on his shirt.

That afternoon, Hornsby grounded out to Senators second baseman Bucky Harris. He tipped his cap to the pitcher. Johnson gave him a nod. Just a couple of matinee idols at an out-of-town rehearsal. Hornsby jogged to the visitors’ dugout, found a seat on the bench, and spent the rest of the inning watching Harris, the “boy wonder” player-manager everyone in baseball was talking about.

The kid was boyish all right. How wonderful remained to be seen. Hornsby suspected that the boy wonder angle, like most baseball stories, was horseshit.

Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Cook

electric october


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KEVIN COOK is the author of the award-winning Tommy’s Honor (the basis for the feature film), Titanic Thompson, Kitty Genovese, and The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons and Baseball Families. He is a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Men’s Journal, GQ, Playboy, Smithsonian, Details, and many other publications. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.