19to21: March 13, 2008
On Billy Crystal, Eddie Kolb, Victory Faust and Other "Fantasy" Baseball Players
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many non-players have played major league baseball, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
It’s every baseball fan’s ultimate fantasy. (Or maybe ultimate nightmare.) Suiting up to play with a major league team. Just about anyone who follows the game, and who has any sense at all, has both dreamed about playing major league baseball, and dreaded it as well. A baseball traveling 90 miles an hour is a frightening thing, and this version of the game is as far removed from high school baseball, slow-pitch softball, wiffle ball and the like as Barack Obama is from Ronald Reagan (who is still dead.)
Nonetheless, the best story, by far, to come out of Spring Training 2008 is ultimate baseball fan Billy Crystal (who began his rise to fame as a transsexual on “Soap”) signing a one-day contract with the Yankees with the purpose of playing in an exhibition game against the Pirates the day before his 60th birthday. (Clearly the Yanks, not wishing to endanger such a noted rookie more than necessary, set this up so Crystal wouldn’t have to face another major league team.) Fulfilling his, and every other baseball fans’, ultimate fantasy. All of the rest of us can only wish Crystal well, while advising him to stay loose in the batter’s box (is he going to DH?) and stay away from Scott Boras.
Naturally, every deep thinker on baseball, besides being willing to give up (or at least rent out) his first born for a like opportunity, is wondering, has something like this ever happened before? That is, has a non-professional baseball player ever appeared between the lines of the real thing? Well, yes. It has happened a few times, under varying circumstances, depending on how you want to define “appearing in a game.” If we’re just talking about a non-professional baseball player appearing in a game, then it was actually fairly common in the 19th Century, when teams had very small rosters and would sometimes end up short-handed on short notice. Not having farm teams or rapid communications or transportation, they would have to resort to either pulling somebody out of the stands to play. One time, maybe the last time this happened in the 19th Century, a team pulled a kid out of a cigar stand to pitch.
The date was October 15, 1899. The place was Cincinnati. The Reds were playing the final game of the year against the worst team in major league history, bar none. The Cleveland Spiders, thanks to the machinations of their owners, the Robison Brothers, (who also owned the St. Louis Perfectos and who had transferred all their good players to the Mound City) came into their final game with a 20-133 record. Maybe as a joke, maybe because their ace, Coldwater Jim Hughey, was already 4-30, maybe because he volunteered, or maybe because they ran out of pitchers, the Spiders sent 19 year old Eddie Kolb to the mound. Kolb was the kid who worked the cigar stand in the Spiders’ Cincy hotel. He lost, 19-3 (though only nine of the runs were earned), giving up 18 hits and walking five (though with one strikeout, and he went one-for-four and scored one of the Spiders’ three runs), and the Spiders ended up 20-134.
If Kolb’s appearance in a Spiders uniform was a fluke (as is the case with the ‘08 Pirates, it’s hard to call the ’99 Spiders a major league team), then the presence of Charles “Victory” Faust” on a major league diamond for the New York Giants in 1911 was a flounder, if not a whale of a tale. Faust’s story is fairly well-known, thanks to Larry Ritter and “The Glory of Their Times” which brought the strange story of the Giants’ 1911-1913 good luck charm to light. Faust, who was neither an athlete nor all there mentally, was told by a fortune teller that he would pitch the New York Giants (who as a team had the same cachet at this time as the Yankees would have soon thereafter) to the pennant and would then marry a girl named Lulu and have a flock of kids. Well, Charlie took this seriously, and went to John McGraw in St. Louis (note the city… it’ll come up again, Charlie, by the way, was from Kansas) and reported for duty. McGraw soon found out that Faust couldn’t break a pane of glass with his fastball, but, being as superstitious as they come, the Little Napoleon gave Faust a uniform (maybe because the Giants won that day) and brought him along for the rest of the year. Every game, Charlie warmed up on the sidelines, convinced he was going in to pitch. And then, mirable dictu, after the Giants clinched the pennant, McGraw did put him in a game, despite the fact that he wasn’t under contract to the Giants. It was October 7, 1911 in the Polo Grounds, and the opponent was the Boston Braves, who apparently went along with the gag. And, five days later, McGraw did it again, against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last game of the regular season. Charlie’s pitching line for the two games? Two innings pitched, two hits and one run allowed. No strikeouts or walks. At bat, he was hit by a pitch, stole two bases (one suspects on what would now be called defensive indifference) and scored a run.
A year later, under much different circumstances, the Detroit Tigers fielded an entire team of non-professionals in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. This was May 18, 1912, the date of the famous Ty Cobb Strike game, wherein the entire Tiger team refused to play due to Cobb’s suspension for going into the stands in New York to beat the &^$*# out of heckler Claude Lueker. Since manager Hughie Jennings knew there was a chance his team might defy Ban Johnson’s ban, and since there was a $5000 fine for not showing up for a game, and since the A’s had a pretty good crowd in the house, eight Philadelphia amateur baseball players (most from the Fairmount Park Sparrows sandlot team) and a boxer suited up to play the defending World Series titlists. The baseball players were pitcher (and recruiter) Al Travers, Bill Leinhauser, Jim McGarr, Ed Irvin, Dan McGarvey, Vincent Maney, Hap Ward and Jack Smith. The boxer was Billy McHarg, who would later go on to take part in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Not surprisingly, the “Tigers” lost 24-2, and Travers’ pitching line wasn’t that much different from Eddie Kolb’s.
IP H R ER BB SO
Travers 8 26 24 14 7 1
Kolb 8 18 19 9 5 1
The closest major league baseball has ever come to repeating the Eddie Kolb fiasco was on June 10, 1944 when the Reds decided to return the favor to the Cardinals and sent a 15 year old high school sophomore (admittedly, a big high school sophomore who was terrifying kids his own age) to the mound to face Stan Musial, et al. If you think about it, Joe Nuxhall’s major league debut was not all that dissimilar to Eddie Kolb’s, except that Nuxhall had real talent and, when he returned to the majors in 1952, he would go on to win 135 games. In this one though, Nuxhall lasted two-thirds of an inning, gave up two hits, walked five, and had five of his runners score, for an ERA of 67.50.
Just as St. Louis was the place where all the good Spiders players went, thus giving Kolb his chance, and just as St. Louis is where Charles Victory Faust made his connection with John McGraw, and just as the Cardinals benefited from Joe Nuxhall’s painful learning experience, so too was the future home of the Golden Arches (or is that San Diego?) where Eddie Gaedel had his 15 minutes of fame. Certainly the most renown non-baseball player to appear in a major league game, Gaedel was the 3-8 midget that Bill Veeck sent up to bat for the last-place Browns (against the Tigers, yet) on August 19, 1951 as a promotional stunt in conjunction with the 50th birthday of his main radio sponsor, Falstaff Beer. That’s right, Veeck sent a real, live Brownie up to face Bill Swift to lead off the bottom of the first in the second game of a doubleheader. Naturally, as was the plan, Gaedel walked, and was replaced for a pinch hitter, and subsequently banned from baseball right after the game. But, he had a legitimate contract, and he’s in all the Encyclopedias, both hard copy and electronic.
Note that, with the exception of the 1912 Tigers, these cameo appearance tended to be with little or nothing on the line. The last game of the season, a game featuring a terrible team… or maybe both. The one notable exception to that took place during the 1974 and 1975 seasons when the defending World Series champion Athletics’ (now relocated to Oakland) eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, hired world-class sprinter Herb Washington as a pinch runner. Washington hadn’t played baseball since high school, and it showed, and Connie Mack was either rolling over in his grave, or secretly smiling, but Washington got into 92 games in 1974, and 13 more in 1975, going 0-0 (he never came to bat, nor appeared as a fielder), stealing 31 bases (and getting caught 17 times) and scoring 33 runs. He even appeared in the 1974 postseason, getting caught stealing twice and being picked off first by Mike Marshall of the Dodgers. So much for that experiment.
There have been several other cases that come to mind wherein celebrities have managed to get into either Spring Training or minor league games. The most obvious case of the latter is represented by the two years that Michael Jordan tried to make it as a baseball player in the White Sox’ chain. Bad idea, Michael. Spring Training appearances have also been made previously by actors and/or singers, notably Bruce Hornsby (without The Range), Tom Selleck, Charley Pride and Garth Brooks (who was 2-for-47 or .043 in spring games with the Padres, Mets and Royals). Even umpire Ron Luciano got to play third base for one play in Spring Training game.
So, if the Phillies (or maybe the Reading Phillies, that’s a little less intimidating) are looking for an opportunity for a promotion using a pinch runner for a game, my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve run a dozen marathons, how hard can 90 feet be?