October 09, 2015

In Honor of the Playoffs, Uncle Harry, Diamond Star

I got all caught up in the drama of researching and writing up the three major league games of my great uncle Harry.  It's amazing there's statistics available for a regular season game from 1927 to this level of detail.  I read about the parks he played in (Braves Field in Boston and the Baker Bowl in Philly), the managers, the pitchers he faced, the player he replaced and the one who replaced him.  Jolly interesting fun.  He's my Moonlight Graham.  And what's the fun of a blog if you can't be self-indulgent once in awhile? 

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It all started with Dayton native Howard Freigau going 0 for 4, on the heels of having gone 1 for his last  9. 

He'd had decent production since coming to the Cubs in 1925, hitting .307 that year and .270 in '26.   But he was struggling at the plate and in '27 would hit only .233 in thirty games. The next season he was traded to Brooklyn where saw little playing time and was soon sent to the minors. In 1932 he was playing for the Knoxville Smokies and "after a long hot day he decided to take a late night swim. It was a decision that would cost him his life, as he unknowingly dove into the shallow end of a pool head first and broke his neck and drowned. He was only 29 at the time, " writes Wade Forrester.  "The way is life ended is unfortunate...but it is much more important to remember how a person lived their life, rather than how their life came to a close."  (Like Thomas Merton?) 

On May 11, 1927,  Friegau and his Cubs lost to the lowly Phillies, a team that would go on to lose over 100 games.  Perhaps this was enough for McCarthy to want to shake up the lineup by giving young phenom Harry Wilke a chance. 

May 12th dawned with overcast skies and by afternoon the game time temp was in the mid-60s in Philadelphia.  Wrigley Field was a mere 12 years old while the often disparaged Baker Bowl in Philly was entering its fourth decade.  Rodeos were occasionally held there in order to raise additional revenue and during Phillies road trips "to avoid buying lawn mowers sheep were left to graze on the field." Two days hence,  "parts of two sections of the lower deck extension along the right-field line collapsed due to rotted shoring timbers...Miraculously, no one died during the collapse but fifty were injured." 

Managing the Cubbies was future Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy.  McCarthy would later lead them to a pennant and would skipper the Yankees to six championships from the Gehrig and Ruth era through the DiMaggio years. 

On the mound for the Phillies was 35-year old Jack Scott, a decent pitcher in his day but now on his way to 9-21 season with a gaudy 5.25 ERA.  He would be facing my Uncle Harry Wilke, who was making his first major league start, hitting eighth and playing third.  

In the second inning, the great Hack Wilson led off with a double to right, and Stephenson singled to left scoring Wilson.  Charlie Grimm singled, and future Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett reached on a fielder's choice.  The home plate umpire ejected Phillies' catcher Jimmie Wilson after the play. 

Up stepped Harry Wilke in his first major league at bat, with Grimm on second and Hartnett on first.  He did his job and sacrifice bunted, forcing Grimm to third, Hartnett to second. 

Wilke later opened the Cubs fourth, but popped up to the shortstop.  In the sixth he grounded out to the second basemen.   And in the eighth, with a man on and one man out he was called out on strikes.  Still, the Cubs won 4-1. 

The next day they did it again at the Baker Bowl.  Wilke played third and hit eighth.  A struggling 26-year old lefty, Hub Pruett, was on the mound for the Phillies.
 
In the second inning, Wilke came up with a man on and two out and hit a drive to center that landed safely in the outfielder's hands.  He led off the fifth and again flied out to the centerfielder. Then in the 7th, game tied at 1, both Grimm and Hartnett struck out.   However mediocre Hub Pruett seemed to be on paper, today he was having a field day with the Cubs hitters, striking out 10 and on his way to throwing a 3-hitter.  Wilke stepped up and prevented Pruett from striking out the side by flying out. 

After first game jitters, and running into a buzzsaw in Pruett on day two, Saturday the 14th turned out to be Harry's final big league game.  The team traveled to Boston to Braves Field, a mile west of Fenway, where Harry Wilke's chances of hitting a home run seemed close to nil.  

"The stands were almost entirely in foul territory, leaving little in the outfield to which players could hit a home run into - with the fences over 400 feet away down the lines and nearly 500 feet to dead center, hitting the ball over the outer fences was all but impossible during the dead-ball era. A stiff breeze coming in from center field across the Charles River further lessened any chances of seeing home runs fly out of the park...Ty Cobb once visited and commented, 'Nobody will ever hit a ball out of this park.'"(via Wiki entry).  

The Braves starter was Charlie Robertson, the easiest opponent for Wilke yet, sporting a lifetime record of 49-80 with a 4.44 era.   Harry came up in the second and flied to center, and then grounded out to the pitcher in the 5th. But none of the Cubs batters were having much success against Robertson. 

In the 7th, with the game knotted at 1, Stephenson walked; Grimm sacrified him to second on a bunt and Hartnett walked.  Harry was due up with two men on but McCarthy pulled him!  He pinch-hit Cliff Heathcote, a veteran centerfielder with a lifetime .275 batting average hit, who promptly grounded into a double play.  Had Wilke been allowed to hit and drive in the winning run, perhaps he would've gone on to a Hall of Fame career. 

Instead the game went on....and on...and on.  In the top of the 18th, the Cubs finally busted loose for five runs to end the 3-hour 42-minute extravangza (now nearly the average length of a 9-inning game, ha). 

Clyde Beck, who was a rookie infielder like Harry, replaced him at third in the 8th.  He failed to reach base until singling to start that big 18th inning. 

The following two days the Cubs didn't play, but on Tuesday the 17th they'd again be involved in an extra inning game, this time an unbelievable 22 innings. It would go down in history as the 10th longest game of all time (the record being 26 innings). 

Whatever McCarthy saw in Beck, maybe the base knock that helped end the 18-inning marathon, he liked enough to start him over Harry for the 22-inning affair.  Beck went 1 for 9 with a walk  and would later go on to a six year MLB career with an average of .232.  

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